It was a tough moment for Rep. Adam Schiff — long before his leading role in the impeachment of a president.
And it still had to do with a sitting president — Barack Obama.
It was April 24, 2015, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, and Schiff and hundreds of thousands of Southern California Armenians just wanted to hear it. The word — straight from the free world’s leader. C’mon! Just say it. … But even as close as Obama got, after years of battling, an American president would once again shy away from that word while remembering the day: Genocide.
A “tragedy”? Yes. It should never happen again? Right. A mass atrocity? Yes. But a “genocide”? Nope. Not this year. And not in all the years before it. For Schiff, whose Pasadena-to-Glendale-to-LA congressional district includes a city with the highest concentration of people of Armenian ancestry outside of Armenia, it was a disappointment — especially after Obama had campaigned using the word — vowing, in fact, to recognize those atrocities as genocide.
For Armenian-American leaders — so many of them from Southern California — who’d been calling for an American president’s acknowledgment for decades, it was yet another example of the U.S.’s craven stance toward Turkey.
“If not this president, who spoke so eloquently and passionately about recognition in the past, whom?” said an indignant Schiff in a statement at the time, referring to the U.S.’s inability to “confront Turkey with the truth about the murderous past of the Ottoman Empire. “If not after 100 years, when?”
Four years later, Schiff, a Democrat who’d been pushing for recognition for 19 years as a congressman, still remembers the moment.
“It was a bitter disappointment for me personally and for the community,” said Schiff, four years later. But as he said it, he was returning to his disrict from a fractious Washington D.C., where from the smoke of impeachment hearings there was a breakthrough, of all things, on Thursday on the genocide resolution.
The U.S. Senate had just joined unanimously joined the House with identical but independent resolutions that affirmed that a) the genocide occurred, and b) Turkey (then ruled by the Ottoman-Turks) was responsible for what happened. And because they were independent resolutions, they weren’t subject to a president’s veto pen.
The Turkish government is not happy. Its foreign ministry reportedly said the joint resolutions are “disgraceful examples of politicization of history.”
(Turkey disputes the description of the genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and those killed were victims of a civil war. Instead of a resolution affirming the genocide, Turkey has called for a joint committee of historians to investigate the slayings.)
But somehow, after so much sweat and tears, ups and downs, legislative hits and misses, in a flash, the U.S. Congress for the first time in a 100 years, united on the issue. In Southern California, people are still in a bit of shock, Schiff said.
Local Armenian-Armenians are mindful of the shifting political winds that led to the resolutions being approved in both houses of Congress. But setting aside the politics, the moves were seen locally as a huge step forward in a generations-long movement to get the U.S. government to recognize that part of a nation’s history.
It took decades of pushing. Decades of remembrances that have spanned those generations, and rallies and demonstrations — so many in Southern California, where from Montebello to Glendale, LA’s Grand Park to the Turkish Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard. The effort to get the U.S. to acknowledge the genocide — buffered by the growth of the diaspora in L.A. — as a matter of policy became an annual part of the region’s cultural and political fabric.
“The importance of this resolution for Armenians and specifically in LA is hugely significant from a symbolic perspective,” said Fernando Guerra, political science professor and founder director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “Southern California is where the largest number of Armenians outside of Armenia live, and they’ve been pushing for this for a long time.”
In a sense, that push is rooted in the very years when the killings were happening. Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed around World War I, and many scholars see it as the 20th century’s first genocide.
In 1915, U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Henry Morgenthau Sr. wrote as much when he told his superiors in Washington that Armenians were being slaughtered by the thousands, beginning on April 24, 1915, when the Young Turk government arrested and began executing Armenian intellectuals.
Salpi Ghazarian, director of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies, said the government in Turkish region had even begun holding inquiries into what happened, but after early efforts and Turkish independence, that nation’s narrative had changed, and the effort fell by the wayside, she said.
Also in the years afterward, the Armenian National Committee, which had been calling for Armenian independence, began pushing for a formal recognition of the deaths.
But it would be years before the real movement for recognition would take hold in earnest.
“For my grandmother’s generation, all they could do was to keep body and soul together,” said Ghazarian as she reflected on the stories her grandmother would tell about the separation from her mother — Ghazarian’s great-grandmother — who the family would never hear from again.
It wasn’t until Ghazarian’s mother’s generation when the genocide would begin gaining traction as a topic of more formal study. Ghazarian’s generation began to embrace it as full-on scholarship and advocate for recognition of the genocide as a historical fact, she said.
But in the midst of the evolving movement in the U.S., there was a lot of sweat and tears, moments of triumph and disappointment.
In the early 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in a memorandum, referred to the event as a genocide, according to Armenian National Committee officials. President Ronald Reagan would also call it a genocide. Many states, including California, would come to acknowledge it — the first genocide of the 20th century. Historians acknowledge it. Many countries, including Argentina, France, Canada have acknowledged it.
As part of the push for U.S. recognition, the Jewish community — itself subjected to the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis — has been a big supporter of recognition, Guerra said.
And in the ensuring years, the massacre has been documented by official records, Ottoman tribunal records, and eyewitness accounts from missionaries and diplomats, in addition to oral histories of survivors and scholars’ research.
All the while, the Armenian population in places like Glendale and Los Angeles has grown. Events memorializing the genocide are held across the area. In one of the biggest annual events, the community marches to the Turkish Consulate of Los Angeles to demand recognition of the genocide.
And still, the official act formalizing that recognition by the U.S. government had yet to come, bolstered by a strong Turkish lobby in the the U.S.
In 2007, as the war in Iraq raged on, President George W. Bush strongly urged lawmakers to reject a resolution in Congress to recognized the genocide.
Turkey was a key ally in the region —and a vital stop on the U.S. supply route to forces in Iraq. What was a resolution that many lawmakers supported became an “agonizing” choice that ultimately failed.
From the U.S. perspective, Turkey was on its way to embracing democracy and didn’t want to be put in a position where it had to deal with the events of 1915 in a diplomatic fashion. The U.S. conceded.
And then President Donald Trump was elected, prompting a closer bond with Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump even hosted Erdogan at the White House in November after Turkey’s invasion of Syria.
And given the political dynamics, at least until Thursday, Trump’s Senate allies were willing to repeatedly block the genocide bill. That despite the House’s overwhelming approval of an identical measure in October as anger blanketed D.C. over Turkey’s attack on the Kurds — who are U.S. allies — in Syria.
Then — amid an impeachment process that has further divided Washington — came some bipartisan spirit. After being blocked three times at the request of the White House, the bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, won unanimous approval Thursday, prompting Menendez to break down in tears.
Schiff suggested that the images of Turkey invading Syria, and its toll on the Kurds, may have hastened, and strengthened, the bi-partisan spirit.
“What this does really is physically, emotionally affirm that our country, the United states, really does reinforce the values that we all believe in,” said Ghazarian said, noting that despite political expediency of the moment, it was significant.
But don’t expect the annual marches to end — and don’t expect pressure on Turkey — or on American presidents — to end. Ghazarian said Turkey — like all nations — has to have a “reckoning” with its history, especially what she called a legacy of violence.
Whether that bi-partisan spirit finds its way to the White House is another story, too. Schiff suggested that with Congress on board, it might actually make it politically easier for an American president to acknowledge the genocide. Then again, Schiff also wondered if Trump could, given Trump’s close relationship with Erdogan, and a Trump Towers property in Instanbul.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks it will be an easy lift,” he said, noting that future resolutions, to ensure continue government recognition, will continue.
And a new generation of advocates will continue the push, Ghazarian said.
“For them, it’s almost a theoretical issue of values of rights and justice,” she said. “You don’t do this — as a government — to your citizens.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Source: Orange County Register