The Most Horrible Crime in Human History
Order ID# 45178248544XXTG457 Plagiarism Level: 0-0.5% Writer Classification: PhD competent Style: APA/MLA/Harvard/Chicago Delivery: Minimum 3 Hours Revision: Permitted Sources: 4-6 Course Level: Masters/University College Guarantee Status: 96-99%
The Most Horrible Crime in Human History
SPECTATORS OF CATASTROPHE
“HISTORY,” WROTE THE NOVELIST PHILIP ROTH, IS “WHERE everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable.” Few observers in the summer of 1914 anticipated that Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia would spark an ineluctable chain reaction in which Russia dashed to Serbia’s defense and Germany ran to Austria’s, or that France would rally to its Russian allies while Britain sided with the French. Fewer still predicted that Turkey would fail in its efforts to stay clear of the fracas and be driven into an alliance with Germany and Austro-Hungary—the Central Powers—against the Triple Entente of Russia, Britain, and France. The shockingly unexpected, however, happened. World War I, the cataclysm that would last four unspeakable years, bring about the fall of empires and irrevocably transform the Middle East, had started. “The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides,” Roth concluded, “turning a disaster into an epic.”
Americans watched this inadvertent slide into war with a rapt, but ultimately detached, fascination. They, too, had been surprised by the unforeseen chain of events leading to catastrophe, but, in contrast to the Europeans and the Turks, Americans bore none of the consequences for their shortsightedness. Evoking America’s traditional disdain for foreign entanglements, President Woodrow Wilson vowed to maintain absolute neutrality between the combatants and to preserve proper, if not cordial, relations with each.
Maintaining amicability with Turkey would prove complicated, however, because ties between the United States and the Porte had long been frayed. The perennial source of friction was the oppression of Armenian Christians. Though a band of modernizing Young Turks, many of them graduates of Roberts College, had achieved power in Istanbul in 1908 and promised equal rights for all of the empire’s citizens, barely a year passed before the slaughter of Armenians resumed. Some thirty thousand of them were butchered by Turkish troops in south-central Anatolia. “The only difference between Young and Old Turks is that the Young Turks are more energetic and thorough in their massacring,” Helen Davenport Gibbons, the wife of the New York Herald correspondent in Tarsus, commented. Soon even the semblance of republican rule in Turkey collapsed and in 1911 the government was seized by a military junta. The United States responded with abhorrence to these events and, to register its protest, sent the battleships Montana and North Carolina to demonstrate near the Turkish coast. 1
Outrage over the Armenian massacres might have caused a rupture in America’s relations with Turkey but for the substantive rise in Turco-American trade. Economic cooperation between the United States and the Ottoman Empire had expanded vigorously since the turn of the century and by 1914 America accounted for 23 percent of all Turkish exports. Along with tobacco, figs, and licorice (some fifty thousand tons of it annually, for use in making candy and chewing gum), Americans were procuring a new Middle Eastern commodity: oil. Though the United States remained a major producer of petroleum—and an exporter of its derivatives to the Middle East—domestic wells could no longer satisfy the fuel demands of American industry, automobile owners, and the military. Acting on evidence of sizable Middle Eastern deposits, the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey started prospecting in Mesopotamia in 1910. Three years later, Standard of New York acquired rights to drill in Syria, Palestine, and parts of Asia Minor. Infrastructure for the oil rigs had already been constructed and drilling had begun when the global conflagration erupted.
Oil eventually became an obsession in America’s policymaking toward the Middle East, but on the eve of World War I the country’s principal interest in the region remained philanthropic. The number of American missionary institutions had multiplied prodigiously throughout the prewar period and now included world-class hospitals and colleges and well over four hundred schools. These establishments were deeply integrated into Ottoman society, serving not only local Christian populations but also the Turkish elite. “I am much gratified to learn of arrangements made for education of the [Turkish] war minister’s brother and sons at Robert College,” wrote Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to his ambassador in Istanbul in October 1914. “It is an excellent sign.” By receiving an American education, Bryan hoped, Turks might also learn to tolerate Armenians and other Middle Eastern minorities and restore their country to its former democratic course.2
The outbreak of war, however, only strengthened the military’s primacy in Istanbul and threatened the safety of American institutions. The Wilson administration, acting “in the interest of humanity and from no political consideration,” accordingly urged Turkey to declare its neutrality in the conflict. The Turks, American diplomats warned, were no match for the Allies, who dominated the Mediterranean and could swiftly capture its coastal cities, from Smyrna to Jaffa. But this advice went unheeded. No sooner had Turkey enlisted in the Central Powers than it initiated a campaign to expel all French and British citizens from the empire. The capitulations that for centuries provided extraterritorial privileges to Westerners in the Ottoman Empire were rescinded and English was outlawed as an “enemy language.” Already precarious, the situation of Americans in the Middle East grew imperiled when the Turkish government proclaimed a holy war—jihad—against all Allied Christians.3
Panicked by the specter of frenzied Muslim pogroms, the missionaries implored Washington for help. The Syrian Protestant College president Daniel Bliss impressed on Secretary of State Bryan the “grave immediate necessity for the protection of American life and property” and urged him to send American warships to Beirut and Smyrna at once. Similar appeals came from Jaffa and from Jerusalem, which reported a mass seizure of supplies by Turkish troops and a “reign of military terrorism.” In reply, Wilson dispatched the USS North Carolina and the Tennessee to deliver vital foodstuffs and money to the missionaries. America’s fears were then heightened when Turkish shells, fired from Smyrna, whistled over the Tennessee’s prow. On December 12, Wilson approved a measure advising all Americans to leave the Middle East “wherever…it would be unsafe for them to remain.”
Friction, meanwhile, intensified on the diplomatic level, in progressively acrimonious exchanges between the two governments. “Should organized massacres occur, the Turkish government would lose the good opinion of the United States,” Washington cautioned, and further warned that “any loss of life or property of missionaries” would elicit a stern American response. Djemal Pasha, the notorious military governor of Syria, in turn swore, “For each Mussulman killed by the bombardment of an open town we will shoot three British or French subjects,” and disavowed responsibility “if the bombardment…provokes a massacre of the Christians.” The American press replied with furious attacks against Turkey and calls for an Anglo-French takeover of the Middle East. In a volcanic letter to the Washington Star, Ambassador Ahmet Rustem Bey accused the United States of hypocrisy for condemning Turkey while condoning the Russians, “who gave the world not one but twenty pogroms against an innocent [Jewish] race,” the French, “who smoke to death in caverns the Algerians fighting for independence,” and the British, “whose punishment of the ‘rebels’ in the Indian mutiny was to blow them off with guns.” Rustem also reminded Americans of the “daily” lynching of blacks in their own country and the torture of Filipino insurgents. Rustem was consequently declared persona non grata and forced to leave the country.
Turco-American relations were close to rupturing in the fall of 1914, when suddenly and markedly they improved. Afraid to alienate an important noncombatant Western state, senior officials in Istanbul insisted that they “never doubted America’s sincere friendship for Turkey” and that the United States remained “the only great power with no ulterior motive toward them.” They reaffirmed the privileged status of American businessmen and apologized for any unpleasantness toward the missionaries. Though English was still outlawed, citizens of the United States were henceforth permitted to correspond in the “American” language. Washington, for its part, canceled plans for evacuating the Middle East and instead offered to send thirteen mobile Red Cross hospitals to care for Turkey’s sick and wounded. The forty-eight U.S. consuls serving in Turkey stayed in their posts, as did the Turkish representatives stationed in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and New York. As the year ended and the Allies prepared to launch their mass landing on Turkey’s Gallipoli Peninsula—a fiasco that would cost them a quarter of a million dead and prolong the Middle Eastern fighting for years—Americans seemed content to remain on the sidelines, uninvolved.4
Americans could not remain detached, however, indefinitely. War-stirred turmoil in the Middle East would soon engulf the United States and compel it to act on a multiplicity of levels—diplomatic, humanitarian, and even military. Religious and strategic considerations would once again vie for dominance in the making of America’s policies toward the region, while popular illusions about the Middle East, obscured by massacres and famine, would vanish.
The Most Horrible Crime in Human History
The first reports, from December 1914, told of anti-Christian pogroms in Bitlis, in eastern Turkey, and the hanging of hundreds of Armenians in the streets of Erzerum. Armenian men between the ages of twenty and sixty were being conscripted into forced-labor battalions, building roads, and hauling supplies for the Turkish army. The following month, after their defeat by Russian forces in the Caucasus, Turkish troops salved their humiliation by pillaging Armenian towns and executing their Armenian laborers. In the early spring, Turkish soldiers laid siege to the Armenian city of Van, in eastern Anatolia, and began the first of innumerable mass deportations. The slaughter then raged westward to Istanbul, where, on April 24, security forces arrested and hanged some 250 Armenian leaders and torched Armenian neighborhoods. Interior Minister Talaat Pasha informed the Armenian patriach that “there was no room for Christians in Turkey” and advised him and his parishioners “to clear out of the country.”5
The threat was anything but empty, as confirmed by eyewitness American accounts. “The Mohammedans in their fanaticism seemed determined not only to exterminate the Christian population but to remove all traces of their religion and…civilization,” attested Leslie Davis, a Cornell-educated consul in Harput, eastern Anatolia, early in 1915. Davis’s counterpart in Aleppo, Syria, Jesse B. Jackson, described a seemingly endless procession of railway cars crammed with Armenian deportees and estimated that no more than 15 percent were liable to survive the journey. Another American witness of these trains, Anna Harlowe Birge, remembered seeing “old men and old women, young mothers with tiny babies…and children, all huddled together like so many sheep or pigs—human beings treated worse than cattle.” In Urmia, the Presbyterian missionary William Shedd described the execution of 800 villagers, mostly old people and young women, by the governor, Jevdet Bey, who purportedly delighted in nailing horseshoes to his victims’ feet. The third-generation missionary Henry Riggs cataloged the tortures—“beating and starvation, extraction of teeth, branding with hot irons, stabbing in the face with sharp irons, burning of hair and beard”—to which the Armenians of southwestern Turkey were subjected. Reporting from the Caucasus, Dr. Richard Hill saw “children…dying by the hundreds” whose “frenzied mothers would…fling them…into the fields, so as not to see the[ir] dying agonies.”
Turkey’s leaders at the time insisted—and their present-day successors still do—that the suffering of Armenians was a by-product of the brutality that prevailed along all First World War fronts. They also claim that the Armenians were actively sympathetic to the Allies and collaborated with the invading Russians. The bulk of the massacres in fact occurred nowhere near the fighting, while the overwhelming majority of Armenians remained loyal to the Turkish state. Most contemporary observers agree that the massacres were scarcely connected to the war, but rather represented a systematically planned and executed program to eliminate an entire people. Indeed, foreshadowing the Nazi genocide of the Jews twenty-five years later, Turkish soldiers herded entire Armenian villages into freezing rivers, incinerated them in burning churches, or simply marched them into the deserts and abandoned them to die of thirst. “The Government…has decided to destroy completely all the indicated [Armenian] persons living in Turkey,” Talaat Pasha wrote in a September 1915 dispatch. “An end must be put to their existence…and no regard must be paid to either age or sex, or to conscientious scruples.” By the end of summer, an estimated 800,000 Armenians had been killed and countless others forcibly converted to Islam.6
In contrast to earlier atrocities committed in Ottoman lands, the details of which had been slow in emerging, information about the ethnic cleansing of Armenians was now relayed by telegraph and telephone lines and rapidly reached the West. Descriptions of Turkish brutality, together with photographs of its victims, were published widely. Compelled by these revelations, Britain, France, and Russia released a joint statement on May 24 pledging to hold Turkish leaders, as well as their collaborators, “personally responsible for such massacres.” But with their forces bogged down in static warfare and their citizens banished from the Middle East, the Allies were powerless to intervene either militarily or philanthropically. Not even an appeal from Pope Benedict XV, sent directly to Sultan Muhammad V, managed to evoke mercy for the Armenians.
Among the few Westerners still capable of responding to the catastrophe were the Americans who had long been ministering to Armenia. In Harput, the missionary couple Tack and Henry Akinson emulated earlier American abolitionists by running an underground railway that smuggled Armenians into Kurdistan. At the same time, in Van, Dr. Clarence and Elizabeth Ussher and the nurses Grisell McLareen and Myrtle O. Shane worked indefatigably to care for the hundreds of gravely wounded and disease-stricken patients who overwhelmed their clinics and for the many Armenians who fled, “weary, starving, wailing like lost and hungry children,” into Russia. Elizabeth Ussher died of typhus and her husband nearly succumbed to the epidemic as well. He managed to send off a desperate message to the State Department warning that “American lives [were] in danger” and urging immediate action by the United States.
The United States, however, had no intention of interposing between Turks and Armenians. Though the American press gave front-page coverage to the massacres—“State Department Shows Quarter of a Million Women Violated,” a typical headline exclaimed—and while anti-Turkish rallies were staged in New York, the government reacted guardedly to the massacres. The Wilson administration assumed that overt criticism of Turkey was liable to provoke reprisals against American citizens and establishments throughout the Middle East, destroying a century of determined work. There was also the fear that the public, agitated by reports of atrocities, might press for a more active American role in the war. Secretary of State Bryan quietly asked the German government to help protect “non-combatants [and] non-Moslem foreigners” from “an outburst of fanaticism among the Moslems,” but refrained from protesting formally to the Porte.7
The danger of being dragged into the war indirectly, through the rear door of the Middle East, now had to be weighed against the moral hazards of passively witnessing genocide. The value of American missionary schools and clinics had to be compared with that of the lives of the very people those institutions aspired to benefit.