History matters. It is time the United States calls the systematic murder of Armenians from 1915-23 a genocide. Doing so confirms the historical record and reaffirms the United States' commitment to those suffering from mass atrocities. April 24, the upcoming day remembering victims, provides President Joe Biden the right moment to set the historical record straight.
The history is sound. Based in present-day Turkey, the Ottoman Empire undertook a mass campaign of murder against Armenians, as well as Assyrians and Greeks, starting on April 24, 1915, running for eight years. Historians estimate 1.5 million Armenians died. It was no secret either. The New York Times wrote 145 articles in 1915 alone about the massacres.
The U.S. government knew as well. U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau documented the brutal violence he witnessed when traveling the Ottoman Empire's countryside. Morgenthau's memoirs described the plans of Turkish authorities as "giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact."
International law buttressed these claims. The U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines the term genocide as any "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group" through killing, serious bodily harm and other means—1.5 million Armenians killed meets this threshold.
There is no historical question of whether these atrocities happened. There is no legal question about what to call them. But there is a political question about what to say.
Not since President Ronald Reagan has the White House referred to the events of 1915 as the Armenian genocide, although both houses of Congress did vote overwhelmingly to pass the Armenian Genocide Resolution in 2019. As a senator, Biden vigorously supported recognition throughout his more than three decades in office. As a presidential candidate, he pledged to recognize the Armenian genocide, stating that "failing to remember ... only paves the way for future mass atrocities."
In the past, geo-strategic concerns trumped facts. While committed by an extinct empire, modern Turkey is adamantly opposed to the calling it a genocide. Turkey is a NATO ally, sitting at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Its borders touch the former Soviet Union, Iran, Iraq and Syria. It sits opposite Russia across the Black Sea and neighbors the European Union. We gave them a veto.
When I served at the State Department during both the Obama and Trump administrations, I participated in internal deliberations about whether to call ISIS atrocities against Yezidis, Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac Christians and other minorities as genocide. We repeatedly encountered tremendous bureaucratic resistance. Then-Secretaries John Kerry and Rex Tillerson overruled voices raising endless concerns to place the United States firmly on the record. Those same hesitant voices have stymied a similar decision on Myanmar's military atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims.
Regarding the Armenian genocide, President Biden is presented with a unique confluence of events allowing him to set the historical record straight. He leads a new administration while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan implements increasingly problematic policies. With this window of opportunity, now is the time to call a genocide a genocide. Waiting will only make things more complicated for the administration.
International politics aside, it is the right thing to do. A genocide happened. Using the "G" word describes the facts. Sure, some Turks won't like it and Erdogan will huff and puff, but many will agree it is true. The United States should not muzzle itself for short-term, ephemeral gains with an unsteady ally. We should prioritize enduring truth over worthless concessions. As then-candidate Biden said, "silence is complicity."
The Armenian genocide happened. Candidate Biden recognized this and I hope President Biden will say the same on April 24.
Knox Thames served as the State Department special advisor for religious minorities under both the Obama and Trump administrations. He is writing a book on 21st century strategies to combat religious persecution. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.
The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.