MIT Conference Speaks to US Policies’ Shortfall Regarding Armenians


By Andy Turpin
Mirror-Spectator Staff

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On March 13, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Faculty of History, the Center for International Studies, the Office of Religious Affairs and the Program on Human Rights and Justice presented a one-day conference on “America’s Response to the Armenian Genocide: From Woodrow Wilson to Barrack Obama.”

Bedross Der Matossian of the History Faculty at MIT and the conference’s chief organizer, gave the event’s opening remarks. Der Matossian cited that nine days ago the US House of Representatives had passed House Res. 252 regarding the acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide.

“The passage was done under immense pressure from the government of Turkey and last minute intervention by the Obama administration (in opposition to the resolution’s passing in the House),” Der Matossian said.

He explained, “The aim of today’s conference is to examine America’s evolving policy regarding the Armenian Genocide from the administration of President Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama.”

MIT’s Christopher Capozzola presented a paper titled “Woodrow Wilson Views the World — The World Views Woodrow Wilson.”

Capozzola noted that, “It is important to begin with Wilson himself. Too many scholars have worked backwards from ‘A’ instead of looking at how Woodrow Wilson viewed the world.” He characterized Wilson throughout his administration as “having less power than he wanted, but also standing as a symbol of democratic principles.”

Of the American fascination with Armenians and their welfare at the turn of the 20th century, Capozzola said, “Particularly in 1915 many US charitable groups concerned themselves with the welfare of Armenians, drawing support from a wide swathe of the US middle class.”

He explained that, “Christianity (and the fact that Armenians were regarded as Christians and white) was a large draw to Americans and especially to Wilson as a devout Presbyterian.”

Capozzola also gave context to the various opposition views that existed to Wilson politically during his campaign and administration, his most prominent political opponent being Theordore “Teddy” Roosevelt.
Roosevelt sought to take Wilson to task for his perceived support of Armenians but unwillingness to send in troops to prevent actual killings. Roosevelt was also an ardent Germanophile and spoke out prominently against Wilson’s Anglophile foreign policy as fundamentally anti-American as a nation founded in opposition to the British Empire.

Capozzola said of Roosevelt that while he supported the cause of the Armenians personally, he was doubtful of Wilson’s willingness to militarily intervene on the Armenians’ behalf.

Capozzola stressed, however, that Wilson’s non-commitment of US troops to help Armenians or declare war on Ottoman Turkey was not a pacifist stand but a political calculation to tread lightly on approval ratings and preserve congressional support for his League of Nations proposal.

Capozzola said, “In 1916 the US occupied the Dominican Republic and crossed over into Mexico (to repel Poncho Villa’s insurgency) and throughout his term Wilson also oversaw military interventions into Russia and the occupation of Puerto Rico. He was hardly against military intervention.”

However, rather than personify Wilson as overtly duplicitous towards the Armenians, Capozzola cited that, “some blame must also be put on those politicians that made Armenia a political pawn and squandered two decades of [American public] goodwill.”

Regarding Armenia and her ethnic representative standing at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, Capozzola ended that, “Armenia stood at the margins of the Paris conference, but was not alone with the ‘suitors and suppliants of the world’ as one of Wilson’s advisors commented.”

“The learned truth is that Wilsonianism is too important in principles, even for Woodrow Wilson,” he concluded.
Suzanne Moranian, scholar and former president of the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) presented her paper, titled “America’s Foreign Policy and the Armenian Genocide: 1915-1927.”

She began by stating fundamentally that the self-interest that impelled the US to intervene on behalf of the Armenians from a charitable aid and Christian missionary perspective is the same self-interest that impelled Americans and the Wilson administration to abandon Armenians later in the name of political expediency.

Moranian noted that, “The first wave of [American] imperialism began with the 19th-century Protestant Evangelical missionaries in the Middle East.” But regarding the US government’s presence in the region she contrasted that, “Until the 1930s there was no official US policy in the Middle East.”

In the pre-Genocide period in Anatolia, Moranian said that, “The Protestant missionaries used their international influence abroad in charitable organizations to increase their influence and [political] power at home” in the US.
However during the Genocide and its aftermath, Moranian explained, “The missionaries chose to side with the Kemalists, but the Kemalists would not allow their continued presence in Turkey without the missionaries cutting their bonds with the Armenian Protestant communities they created.”

The impetus for these decisions on the part of the American missionary communities in Anatolia was according to Moranian to maintain bases of operations in Turkey to proselytize and gain Turkish Christian converts from Islam. Though Kemalist law was especially hard-line in its impositions against such proselytizing.

In the halls of the US government, a quote from Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing cited by Moranian best summed up the Department of State’s chosen post-war policy towards Armenians: “It would be most unwise at this point of the proposal of the League of Nations (1919) …to take up the mandate of Armenia.”
Gregory Aftandilian, an independent scholar, addressed “Sympathy But Lack of Political Will: The Wilson Administration’s Response to the Armenian Genocide and Its Aftermath.”

Aftandilian began by stating that, “No US administration was as sympathetic to the Armenian Genocide as the Wilson one and no administration chronicled the events of the Armenian Genocide like the Wilson one. In fact, many diplomats were witness to the Genocide itself.”

But, Aftandilian continued, “What did the US administration actually do to stop the killings? Beyond Morgenthau’s [personal] intervention the US didn’t do much else.”

He cited that, “When the Entente [the United Kingdom, France and the Russian Empire] issued a statement stating that they knew of the Armenian Genocide’s events and would hold the Ottoman officials responsible, the US, as a non-belligerent nation [in WWI], did not sign the statement.”

Aftandilian also spoke to the perceptions of those in the US Congress and in the US government that were opposed to American support for the Armenians and their cause for statehood. Again Lansing’s remarks were often the most pronounced in opposition to all things Armenian and he took an especially dim view of Point 12 of Wilson’s Fourteen Points that recognized the self-determination of “other nations.”

Though Wilson had the Armenians in mind when he shaped the clause, he was persuaded by his legal advisors to keep the language intentionally vague. Regardless, Lansing expressed in his personal correspondence, “What effect will this have upon the Irish, the Indians, the various nations of the Moors? This is a statement loaded with dynamite.”

In conclusion of Wilson himself, Aftandilian stated that, “I believe Woodrow Wilson genuinely wished to help the Armenians but bungled the political process.”

He ended by noting of Wilson’s political foibles regarding the Armenians that, “he expressed many sentiments sympathetic to the Armenians but though he expressed sympathy, he refused to be nailed down on any specifics.”