Saturday’s announcement by President Biden is both a welcome change from past administrations—and a sign of how obstinate the United States has been on this issue until now.
On Saturday, President Biden took the long overdue step of recognizing the Armenian genocide. Between 1915 and 1923, 1.5 million Armenians were systematically murdered by the Ottoman government in modern-day Turkey. That the President of the United States finally used the word ‘genocide’ is a critical and historic step.
It is also cold comfort. America has been on the wrong side of history for over a century. Imagine if the British government denied the Holocaust for 106 years in order to normalize relations with Germany? It would mean Jews would still have to wait to 2051 to hear a British Prime Minister find the courage to say the word ‘The Holocaust.’
Saturday’s announcement by President Biden is thus both a welcome change from past administrations—and a sign of how obstinate the United States has been on this issue until now.
Does the word genocide matter? Yes. In 2004, I attended the Stockholm Forum on the Prevention of Genocide as an advisor to Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson. Attended by 1,000 delegates from forty-five national governments, the forum was in many ways a success. Among other concrete measures, the conference prompted then-Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Anan to announce a new permanent position of Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide.
But as I left, I found a young woman in tears. She told me through her sobs that she was deeply upset that every single delegate had studiously avoided applying the word “genocide” to what her Armenian ancestors had suffered. It was ninety years after the genocide at that point. She looked at me and said, ‘What about me?’
Many in the Armenian community are relieved and encouraged by the Biden administration’s declaration. But I am not celebrating. I am calling to account multiple administrations for the pain they caused, for political integrity traded for political expediency, for collaborating with the deniers of history, for allowing American Armenians who survived the genocide to go to their deaths with no justice, no recognition.
There may be no justice for a single Armenian child, and it is unlikely there will be restitution of a single home, but recognition does rehumanize those who were dehumanized.
Historical memory of genocides matters, as the trauma and pain carry forward for generations.
In January 2015, I was in Yerevan, Armenia for the centennial of the genocide. I watched as ten-year-old descendants of genocide victims stood in their school dresses, read poems, and lit candles. As I was leaving, descendants of that genocide walked up the hill. They weren’t coming to lay wreaths. They were coming to ‘be’—to live with the memory of their ancestors who had been murdered for no reason except that they were Armenian.
President Obama did not attend the event, but there was much anticipation that he would at last call the Armenian genocide by its name. But like so many U.S. presidents before him, he declined to name the genocide. I sat listening to System of Down, the rock band that has told the story of the genocide though their music. Like the young woman I had met a decade earlier in Sweden, I began to cry.
Here’s what the word genocide means to the woman at the 2004 conference, to the Yerevan memorial visitors, to the Armenian diaspora: It means that the loss of lives, family, property, home, churches, identity, and dignity has finally been defined. What happened to the Armenians 106 years ago was genocide. There may be no justice for a single Armenian child, and it is unlikely there will be restitution of a single home, but recognition does rehumanize those who were dehumanized. It tells the world that they were the victims of senseless, systemic hatred, and that while their families perished in a hateful action, their descendants can live with purpose.
I believe the U.S. government owes the Armenian community a museum equal to the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
President Biden had the decency to do the right thing. But let us hope that his statement is a first step. Importantly, there has been remarkably muted media coverage of his words; at our institute, which houses 1,900 testimonies of Armenian genocide survivors, we have not had a single call from news outlets asking to use the testimony of those that lived through the Genocide. To give the word a voice. That’s because, after a century of denial and ugly geopolitics, the Armenians who perished are all but forgotten. I believe the U.S. government owes the Armenian community a museum equal to the U.S. Holocaust Museum—and it owes a commitment to tell and retell the story of what happened, so that it may never happen again.
Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation. The first episode of “The Memory Generation” was released on April 15, 2021, and can be found here: https://www.memorygenerationpodcast.com/episodes