The Truth Will Set You Free

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.

George Orwell

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. Martin Luther King, JR.

If you want proof that telling what one is convinced is the truth can cost one his/her job in the US State Department, then a public reference to events that happened 91 years ago is as good as any. The latter, it appears, has sealed the fate of John Evans, the (soon-to-be former) U.S. ambassador to Armenia. A career diplomat, Evans had taken up that post, his first ambassadorial appointment, in August 2004. A few months later, during a tour which took him to some of the most vibrant Armenian-American communities throughout the United States, he uttered the following words at a public gathering hosted by the Armenian Studies Program at University of California, Berkeley: “I will today call it the Armenian genocide.” He was describing the deportation and mass annihilation of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. An estimated one million and a half Armenians fell victim to this state-sponsored decimation, which is now recognized as genocide by most Holocaust and genocide scholars,[1] many parliaments around the world, and even 39 of the 50 states in America.

Sanctioning Denial

People at the highest level of the U.S. government were unhappy with the term used by Evans because the Turkish government, a staunch Washington ally, denies to this day that genocide was committed against the Armenians. Ankara’s official stand maintains that the Armenians were not subjected to a state sponsored annihilation process. The Armenians were, the Turkish official viewpoint argues, only relocated to areas away from the war zone; any Armenian deaths that occurred during this ‘relocation’ fell victims to ethnic strife, war conditions or starvation, similar to the fate many Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire suffered during WWI. Moreover, according to the official historiography in Turkey, the number of the Armenians that died due to these “unfortunate events” is exaggerated. The number preferred by the Turkish government and Turkish historians following Ankara’s line is 300 thousand, but some go as far as giving a ludicrously low figure of around only 40 to 50 thousand deaths.

Successive U.S. administrations are on record of having consistently tried to appease Ankara, from the early 1970s at least, by refusing to use the g-word, despite growing pressure from an increasing number of members of the U.S. Congress and international organizations, which demand proper acknowledgement of the suffering of the Armenians during World War I. Instead, it has become a tradition since 1994 that every year, around April 24, on the eve of the commemoration of this genocide by Armenians around the world, a U.S. presidential statement is released commemorating “the forced exile and mass killings of as many as 1.5 million Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire” [2] but falling short of calling it “genocide,” [3] although, as it is often pointed out, these statements sometimes constitute a textbook definition of genocide.

The issue of the US recognition of the Armenian genocide has been debated more than once in both houses of the Congress. During one such debate in late 2000, Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the House of Representatives, withdrew a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide on the very eve of the vote, after a personal request by President Bill Clinton. Hastert’s press release noted that, “because the President has raised grave national security concerns, he has requested that the House not consider H.Res.596, Affirmation of the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide Resolution. I have acceded to this request.” Acknowledging that the bipartisan resolution “would have enjoyed support among the majority of the House,” Hastert noted that, according to the President, “the passage of this resolution may adversely impact the situation in the Middle East and risk the lives of Americans.” These were the first few weeks of the second Palestinian Intifada.

A few years later, in 2005, FBI translator turned whistleblower Sibel Edmonds accused the FBI of covering up improper financial dealings between Hastert’s office and certain Turkish circles. She accused Hastert of accepting Turkish bribes to withdraw the above mentioned resolution. Investigative reporter David Rose told Democracy Now!, a daily radio and TV news program broadcast over 400 U.S. stations, that “Dennis Hastert was not known, as one of the authors of Clinton’s impeachment, for deferring to his judgment on many occasions, but on this occasion, he apparently did… It is said that in the wiretaps that were translated by Sibel Edmonds, reference was made to this very controversial question of the House vote. One of the Turkish targets of these wiretaps claimed that the price for getting Dennis Hastert to withdraw the resolution would be $500,000.” [4]

Punishing Dissent

U.S. diplomatic representatives across the world have dutifully followed the lead of the White House and the State Department. By calling what happened to the Armenians in 1915 with its proper name, Ambassador Evans parted ways with official U.S. policy. Turkish officials immediately filed complaints to the State Department and, as a result, Evans was soon forced to issue the following “clarification”: “Although I told my audiences that the United States policy on the Armenian genocide has not changed, I used the term ‘genocide’ speaking in what I characterized as my personal capacity. This was inappropriate.” This “clarification” did not satisfy the Turkish government, which noted that the phrase “Armenian genocide” continued to appear in Evans’ statement. The ambassador now released a “Clarification of Clarification”, where the phrase “Armenian genocide” was replaced by the wording “Armenian tragedy.” This obviously set the record straight as far as the Turkish government was concerned. After all, while genocide connotes the intent to destroy an ethnic group and is a rare occurrence in world history, the death of only one person is often enough to make an event a tragedy.

The issuing of the two clarifications changed little from the fact that Ambassador Evans had dared to tell the truth rather than stick to the State Department’s courting policy vis-à-vis the Turkish governments. The statements were not enough to save him, and in the next few months, he paid a heavy price for his audacity. First, the American Foreign Service Association was pressurized in June 2005 to rescind the “Constructive Dissent” award that it had decided to grant Evans for speaking up on the issue of the Armenian genocide. Thereafter, news began circulating in early March this year that Ambassador Evans will be recalled. Although these rumors were neither confirmed nor denied by top State Department officials and by Evans himself, the latest developments show that they were true.

On May 23, 2006, the White House formally announced that President Bush will ask Congress to endorse his nomination of Richard Hoagland as the new ambassador to Armenia. There was no longer doubt that, once again, denial and lies had become victorious, at least in the short term. Ankara will obviously be pleased. And as the modern Turkish state, built partly on the bones of a million and a half Armenians, will celebrate a rare victory along its persistent policy of denial, the U.S. State Department is sending at the same time a strong and clear message to those in its ranks who dare dissent: the truth will set you free, but only from your responsibilities in the State Department.

Khatchig Mouradian is a Lebanese-Armenian writer, translator, and journalist. He is an editor of the daily newspaper Aztag, published in Beirut. He can be contacted at [email protected]

[1] A statement by 126 Holocaust Scholars, Holders of Academic Chairs, and Directors of Holocaust Research and Studies Centers affirming the “incontestable fact of the Armenian genocide” is available at: http://www.armenian-genocide.org/Affirmation.21/current_category.3/affirmation_detail.html

The statement of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, as well as those by a number of other international organizations, affirming the Armenian genocide are also available at: http://www.armenian-genocide.org/current_category.5/affirmation_list.html

[2] Quote from President Bush’s statement on April 24, 2005. For a complete list of presidential statements on Armenian Remembrance day, see: http://www.armenian-genocide.org/current_category.4/affirmation_list.html

[3] The only U.S. president to have acknowledged the Armenian genocide is Ronald Reagan. In a proclamation on April 22, 1981, Reagan stated, “Like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians which followed it — and like too many other such persecutions of too many other peoples — the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.” It should be noted that Reagan was previously governor of California, which many Armenian immigrants have made their home in the past few decades. This was his first year as President. However, in later years, he also avoided the use of the term “genocide.”

[4] http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=05/08/10/1346254

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