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Rebel With a Cause — Struggling with the Armenian Genocide

2015 marks the 100th anniversary of what a number of international organizations, countries, and even some U.S. states formally recognize as the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the Ottoman government’s planned extermination of minority Armenians inside present-day Turkey. Historians estimate that the Armenian Genocide resulted in 800,000 to 1.5 million deaths, as well as thousands of cases of rape, robbery, deprivation, and forced deportation. However, despite what many call a preponderance of evidence, the U.S. government has consciously avoided using the term genocide so as to not harm its strategic — and sometimes delicate — relationship with NATO ally Turkey.

At times, this has meant that some top State Department officials have had to walk a fine line between publicly supporting their country’s policy and adhering to their own moral code, none more so than Ambassador to Armenia John Evans. Evans did considerable research on the events in 1915 before and during his ambassadorial appointment in 2004 and came to the conclusion that they could be described as “genocide.” At that time, the European Union had begun negotiations toward Turkey’s full membership in the EU, further complicating discussion about Armenian Genocide.

While recognition from Turkey and the U.S. would be a powerful statement for the families and descendants of the victims, “genocide” — a word defined by lawyer Raphael Lemkin and adopted in by the U.N. during the 1948 Genocide Convention — also holds potential legal implications and would represent a horrendous stain on Turkey’s history. Despite this, Evans, who described himself as “rebellious,” eventually chose to side with his conscience and publicly recognized the killings of 1915 as a genocide during speeches to Armenian-American communities in the U.S. Though his statements were nuanced and despite his overall performance as ambassador, the State Department eventually ended his career with a forced early retirement.

In the following excerpts, John Evans talks about his research on the 1915 Genocide, the State Department’s position, and the dilemma he faced trying to reconcile the two sides. Evans describes the consequences to his career and a letter of support from a certain Senator Obama (who later reversed himself as President). He also notes the appreciation of those who, generations later, had waited for someone to speak of the horrors faced by their families and community. He was interviewed by Charles Kennedy Stuart beginning in 2010.

You can read about Prudence Bushnell’s disagreement with the Department over U.S. policy on Rwanda, Ann Wright’s resignation over disagreements on Iraq, Ambassador William White’s resignation over policy in El Salvador, and Archer Blood’s telegram criticizing Kissinger and Nixon on U.S. policy in East Pakistan. You can also read about Harry Gilmore’s efforts to get heating oil to Armenia in its first years after independence.


“It’s a matter of policy, not fact”

EVANS: Since I knew very little about Armenia, I started reading as much as I could as fast as I could… [M]y old friend Eric Edelman, who had succeeded me as DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] in Prague, was then Ambassador in Turkey, and in a very casual encounter we had in the lobby of the State Department he said “John, don’t forget our position on the Genocide is that it was the chaos and fog of war.”

It was, first of all, taboo. It was not something we were to discuss. We just learned that; we weren’t told it precisely. I knew from my previous study of Ottoman history that there was a problem around this question. I didn’t know much about the facts of it and I didn’t know much about the definition of genocide, either.

But I did start reading about it in the weeks leading up to my departure for Yerevan [capital of Armenia] and I read more about it when I got to Yerevan. I also, before leaving, made a point of calling on the expert in our Legal Advisor’s office, who has the unenviable job of thinking about genocide full time, and I asked him point blank, “Had it been the case that the Genocide Convention of 1948 was in effect in 1915, would not the events of 1915 have been characterized as genocide?”

And he said, “Yes, of course. It’s a matter of policy, not fact. It’s a matter of policy that we do not refer to it as genocide.”

I was never given a point-by-point rationale for why we did not refer to it as genocide. What I clearly understood, and I think most other people understood, was that it was Turkish official policy to deny that there had been a genocide. Turkey was our good ally, our faithful ally in NATO, had fought with us side by side in the Korean War and so on and so forth. We had big — enormous — strategic interests in Turkey and therefore in deference to Turkish policy we simply did not talk about those times or events.

I did not discuss it with very many people but I did discuss the question with a couple. One was a State Department employee of the Historian’s Office, a man of Armenian background….

He told me about Rafael Lemkin, the Polish legal scholar who lost 49 members of his own family in World War II in the Holocaust but who had been led to the study of atrocities and mass crimes by his hearing of the Armenian massacres in his law school days in Krakow and who had asked his professor at that time why was it that if a man commits murder, he is sent to jail whereas if a government murders a million men, women, and children there’s no retribution? And his law professor had no answer and so Rafael Lemkin went out to try to find a way to make a crime of these things.

“No time was a good time to bring up this issue”

The other person I spoke to before going was, of course, Elizabeth (Beth) Jones, the Assistant Secretary [for European and Eurasian Affairs, EUR]….

I had noticed that the Background Notes that the State Department furnishes for the use of mostly schools about each country that we have diplomatic relations with said nothing whatsoever about the events of 1915 or massacres of Armenians or anything of the sort, not to mention using the “g” word, but there was absolutely no mention of that period of history, no mention of the fact that millions of Armenians had — or at least some number of Armenians had — fled Ottoman territory and ended up in what was then Russian Armenia.

There was no mention of it, whereas our President, several presidents, had made veiled and euphemistic mentions that went quite far. President Bush had talked about “massacres,” “forced deportations.”…There was even… the word “murder” had been used in a presidential statement. But the State Department’s Background Notes glossed over it entirely.

And I pointed this out to Beth Jones, who’s a very smart and sensible person, and I said “Don’t you think that we ought to revise the Background Notes so they at least convey as much knowledge and sympathy as the White House statements that have been made to?”

And she said, “Yes, I think any issue that’s of interest to our clients” — meaning the people who read the Background Notes — “ought to be addressed.” At that point the telephone rang and we weren’t able to continue our discussion….

[T]he issue of the genocide was not at the top of my list by any means when I arrived and in fact I did not go out there with any intention of addressing it in any special way. What I did do somewhere in the middle of the fall was to refer to the conversation with Beth Jones in a telephone call to the desk officer and I said, “Isn’t it about time we see if we can revise the Background Notes so that they reflect some sense of our understanding that something happened back in 1915?”

Now, I should say that up until that time the Director of the Office for the Caucasus in Central Asia had been answering inquiries about this issue from Armenian-Americans by saying that there was “no space on the Internet to address every issue.” Armenian-Americans had shot back by saying “in your background notes on Fiji there’s room to talk about the marshland grasses that grow in the shallow water,” or something like that. But we were saying that…our explanation of why we didn’t mention 1915 was that there was no room or no space on our website.

So I did suggest that we make a careful revision of the Background Notes. The answer came back that “now was not the time” because Turkey…was in negotiations with the European Union over setting a date for the accession talks and that was to happen in December of 2004 so this was no time to monkey with the Armenia Background Notes….

Well, the date came and went and the date for starting accession talks was fixed and after a decent interval I reverted to the question again and I was told “Oh, it’s too soon after the fixing of the accession talks” and so the clear impression I got…was that no time was a good time to bring up this issue.

I am fully aware of the dilemma that this issue poses….The dilemma is between the truth of the issue, which is now virtually unassailable when you look at what has been done in the last 20 years by historians and not all of them Armenian-American or Armenian. There are some very distinguished historians, such as Donald Bloxham in the UK (United Kingdom) and others who have made it clear that yes, what happened in 1915 did fit the definition of genocide….It was done against the background of World War I, yes, there had been rebellions by some Armenian armed groups, yes, but if you look at that definition, the shoe fits. The dilemma for us is…we have a loyal NATO ally, a good ally…the dilemma here is between historical truth, which is still disputed by Turkey but by no one else, and our diplomatic equities….

The U.N. Genocide Convention of 1948

Now I should say a word about the Genocide Convention because it was during this time that I became better educated on what the Genocide Convention really says. And what I discovered is that most of us Foreign Service officers are woefully ignorant about what the Genocide Convention says is genocide.

There are basically four conditions that have to be met. First of all, “one or more persons” needs to have been killed. Now, that’s not very many: “one or more.” The group must be a “national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” It says nothing about political groups. There must be “intent” on the part of the perpetrators to do away with the group “as such,” to eliminate the group “in whole or in part”; that’s the terminology: “in whole or in part.” And the fourth condition is that these actions must take place in the context of a “manifest pattern of such actions in the past,” of discrimination against the group in the past.

So all those conditions need to be met for it to be considered genocide and what had seemed to be missing was the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part” members of the group.

Now, we have never found, and probably nobody ever will find, a firman [royal mandate or decree] signed by the sultan or orders in cabinet saying, “Destroy the Armenians.” In the case of the Holocaust we still have no written order by Hitler to destroy the Jews and we probably never will find that, although we do have Hitler’s signature on the Nuremburg Laws. That’s not the way these things happen. The word gets out there what’s to be done but …there’s no good paper trail because in the case of such a crime one would be a fool to leave such a paper trail.

But in 2003 and 2004, under the leadership of Marc Grossman, who had been Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs [the third-ranking official in the Department], there was organized something called the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission, and that group was an independent, track-two kind of group composed of some well-known Turks and Armenians and it was called the TARC.

David Phillips was the executive director of it and this Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission looked at the events of 1915, looked at the Genocide Convention, and came to the conclusion that at least some of the perpetrators of those events did know that their actions would lead to the destruction of the Armenians of Anatolia and therefore to refer to those events as genocide was fully justified, and that journalists and historians and others would be fully justified to continue to use that term.

But, at the same time, the Genocide Convention could not be invoked ex post facto to — in a legal sense — bring anyone to justice. So, in short, what this Commission basically decided was that historically it was a genocide but in legal terms to press that claim against the government of Turkey would be unsuccessful.

And I think that was a fairly wise way of splitting the difference. All the perpetrators of those events are now, by definition, gone, most of the victims are gone. There are fewer than a hundred very old people now who were small children in 1915 and so it seems to me that’s a fair way of splitting the difference, to let the Armenians call it genocide in a historical sense but not to try to pin that crime on the Turkish state or the Turkish people today….

“I felt that someone needed to take a stand on this issue”

[I]t was around this time that I was asked to make a speaking tour through the United States, particularly to communities where there was a dense population of Armenian-Americans. So I was scheduled to make a tour, a speaking tour, in February 2005, starting in New York, moving up to Boston and then going to the West Coast to Los Angeles, which is the biggest concentration of Armenians in the United States, and then to San Francisco….

As the date for beginning my speaking tour in America came closer and closer, I realized that I was facing a huge dilemma here. I knew that I was expected to repeat the tired old message that we didn’t take a position on the genocide, that we questioned whether there had been “intent” and so on, and yet I had read enough by this time to realize that the great preponderance of historical opinion was that indeed, there was no question about it, yes, there was a genocide of the Armenians that took place 1915 through ’18. So I set off for the United States not knowing how I was in the end going to respond to questions about the Armenian Genocide.

There’s something else I ought to add… and that is that our Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who I had huge admiration for, had in September of 2004, after a State Department study of the matter, Colin Powell had come out and said that he thought that what was happening in Darfur in the Sudan did constitute genocide. That was a very brave thing for him to have done.

I agreed with him from what I knew of that situation and his action emboldened me to endeavor not simply to be a bystander on a question of genocide but to stand up and say something about it. Even though it was 90 years in the past I felt that someone needed to take a stand on this issue and call it what it was.

I knew that this would cause difficulty for me, I knew that it was contrary to the policy of the State Department and yet I felt that I was caught in a terrible dilemma between knowingly distorting the facts of history or coming clean and trying to deal with the facts while explaining the reasons for our policy, and that was the trap that I …faced. And I must say that I really didn’t know when I set out on that speaking trip which course I would take….

Yes, I do believe that your people suffered a genocide”

So the trip began in New York; it involved meeting with, most notably, the Archbishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and parishioners. The other Archbishop of the Armenian Prelacy, which is basically the Church in exile, and a visit to the Hovnanian School in northern New Jersey, which is a very advanced school for Armenian-Americans….The question of the Genocide did not come up in New York or New Jersey….

But the next stop was Boston and in particular Watertown outside Boston, which is an old center of Armenian settlement. The first Armenians to come to these shores in modern times went to Massachusetts, either Worcester or Watertown…to work in various mills.

Most of the survivors of the Genocide in 1915 through ’18 had to march through the deserts and ended up in Aleppo [in present-day Syria], which was then part of the Ottoman Empire but it was an outpost in the desert, and from Aleppo they made their way to Lebanon to various other places, France, the United States.

But in Watertown, at the corner of Church and Main, there is a very fine small museum, the Armenian Library and Museum, and one of the activities that had been scheduled was a visit to the museum, which has a beautiful collection of illustrated manuscripts, chalices, other church regalia and artifacts of hundreds of years of Armenian history. A very impressive small museum. At the very end, almost as a codicil, or even afterthought, there is a small exhibit of children’s shoes and an explanation of the Genocide.

Q: Somewhat akin to the collection at the Holocaust Museum.

EVANS: That’s right. And I toured the museum and was very much, I must say, touched by that. I then went into a community discussion and the question did come up and it was there in Watertown that I first said, “Yes, I do believe that your people suffered a genocide.”

And I went on to try to explain U.S. policy and to say that this event took place 90 years ago, the United States has broad and deep interests in the Middle East. Turkey is a nation of some 70 million, of enormous strategic importance, economic importance, political weight and particularly now, after 9/11, when our relations with the Muslim world are fractured.

And so I was honest about my conviction that this event had taken place but I clearly had stepped over a policy line:  the State Department did not use the word “genocide” although President Reagan had used it in 1981, for example. And, as I later found out, in 1951, in a formal filing at The Hague, the United States had referred to the Armenian massacres as a prime example of the crime of genocide. So there the line was crossed in Watertown….

And we also stopped at California State University in Fresno and had a very good discussion there, which also included the issue of the genocide. And that evening, I was giving my normal talk about conditions in Armenia and a young man in the back stood up and he said, “Mr. Ambassador, are you going to give us that same cock-and-bull story that the State Department always gives us about how there was no genocide?”

And somebody was taping this, which I hadn’t realized. My wife, apparently, had noticed this, but the tape has since been recovered and so I know exactly what I said at that time. To paraphrase it, I said “I accept your challenge to talk about this, and let me say what I think. I do believe it was a case of genocide.” And then I went on in the same vein and talked about U.S. equities, why U.S. policy was so attentive to Turkish public opinion and so on and so forth. But again, I had crossed over that line.

In none of these cases up to now had anything been reported in the news media but that wasn’t to be the case in San Francisco, which was our next stop….And there again,…after talking about the assistance and the economic challenges, I was asked about history and once again I said the same thing, that I believe that there had been a genocide and I tried to put that in the context of modern diplomatic challenges.

That got reported by a young reporter in the audience and I don’t know how quickly it got back to the East Coast but it was definitely by this time on the public record.

“If we really wanted to kill them all we would have used bullets”

The next day, with Robin Phillips and my wife, I flew back to Washington and the next morning I went directly into the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, to the Deputy Assistant Secretary, Laura Kennedy, and I said, “Laura, you won’t be happy to hear this but I have breached the taboo on the word ’genocide’.”

Laura was quite upset and said “I wish you’d told me first,” but then invited me to take part in a meeting with…something equivalent to a State Secretary from Ankara, a high-ranking Turkish official, to talk about U.S.-Turkish relations and about the Caucasus, and I was instructed not to say anything about the genocide. And I agreed to that.


was about a half a day of discussions with this Turkish official….Unexpectedly, towards the end of the session, Ambassador Akinci said, “By the way, I just want to tell you all that there never was any such thing as the Armenian Genocide. You know, people make up the history they need and the Armenians need the Genocide to be Armenians. And besides, if we had really wanted to kill them all we would have used bullets and so this is hogwash” and on and on in that vein.

The American side of the table was dumbstruck; I certainly was dumbstruck. This was a rant on the part of the Turkish official and it contained, within itself, such questionable assertions that, if anything, it only redoubled my conviction that this was an active process of denial….

On returning from California, I suggested a way for the State Department to handle this, which would have been to say “Ambassador Evans was using the term in a purely historical sense, not in any legal sense,” and I do believe that you can use a term in an historical sense without having a verdict of a court. You can say that “the little princes were murdered in the Tower” without having a conviction of Richard III. You can say that Peter the Great murdered his son without taking Peter the Great to trial and so on. And we can now say that Keats died of tuberculosis when earlier that wasn’t known. Or various other things.

And I made it clear, in talking to the Armenian-American groups, that I did not believe that the 1948 Convention could be retroactively applied or used against Turkey, that the people of Turkey…First of all, it was another regime, a regime that no longer exists, and it was 90 years ago and none of the perpetrators are alive any longer.

I came within inches of resigning over this issue

I left Washington … and then got back to Yerevan, where I found on my desk two telegrams, one of which was a dictated apology for my words, written by the State Department, which I was instructed to post on the website of the embassy; in fact, it was already being put on the website by the time I got there.

The other telegram was a fierce, very harsh excoriation of me for my actions written by Beth Jones, the Assistant Secretary, instructing me to respond on my first day in office, to explain my actions and to apologize personally to her for what she termed my “willful behavior.” And so I did respond and I apologized for having upset her but I did not retreat on the substance and I pointed out that Ronald Reagan had used the term as President…I basically apologized for my breach of my diplomatic duty to her but I did not apologize on the substance and I did not recant on the substance.

There followed a little hiccup in the placing of the apology on the website. In the process of transcribing the dictated apology, which used the term “events of 1915,” the transcribers putting it on the website, who were Armenian, substituted the term “Armenian genocide.” And so when it went up on the website the term “genocide” was there and apparently the Turkish ambassador or some member of his staff, in checking the Web, found that, called the State Department and said, “Your ambassador is still using the term “genocide.”

As bad luck would have it, our power went off and…I couldn’t get an e-mail back to the State Department to explain what had happened and I didn’t really know what had happened. I called in my Public Affairs Officer and said, “How did this happen?” And he claimed that in the Armenian language version of the apology, it had correctly used the euphemism but that in the American — the English — version it had used the term “Armenian Genocide,” and that it was an inadvertent mistake.

It certainly wasn’t I at that point who wanted to compound this difficulty but it happened and the fact that the e-mail was down meant that everybody in Washington was absolutely livid until they could get my e-mail. They were still mad but at least they saw that it was a screw-up and not me again.

So this made life very difficult. For the rest of that week I contemplated — this was the beginning of March now of 2005 — I talked to a number of people on my staff and I came within inches of resigning over this issue.

And then I got a call from my wife, who had stayed back in the United States and she said, “Look, you haven’t told a lie, you haven’t said anything that the world doesn’t believe. The State Department is wrong about this; just stay there and do a good job.” And she had been talking to a lot of people too, and I said, “I think that’s what I’m going to do.” So I did not resign.

Now, this was the Bush Administration, where almost nobody ever resigned for doing things much worse than what I had done. So I decided to just stay there, see what would happen….I was rebellious, frankly. I was faced with this dilemma of whether to honor what I was intellectually convinced was the historical truth of the matter; the dilemma was to honor the truth or to go along with stated policy….

Early Retirement

After my apology had been published on the website in the correct version, not using the term Armenian genocide but the euphemism, I of course did not return to that subject as ambassador in Armenia.

The next thing that happened was we were in the midst of a visit by a senator and a cable came in summoning me immediately to Washington. And I said I’ve got to finish this Congressional visit but I can be there such and such a day, so I came back to Washington on that day, arriving late in the day at Dulles; I was immediately asked to go see Dan Fried, the new Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs.

When I got there, it was clear this was a hanging court. A representative of the Director of Personnel was there, somebody from the European Management Bureau and Assistant Secretary Fried excoriated me in the harshest possible terms.

What I particularly remember is he said, “How dare you jam the President on this!” And my answer was I had no intention of “jamming the President;” I simply was not going to continue in this misleading of American citizens.

The other thing that came out of my meeting with Assistant Secretary Fried who, by the way, previously had worked for me on the Soviet desk, he said “You’re going to have to leave.”

And I said “It’ll take you a year to get another ambassador out there. Why don’t you at least let me finish up. I’m doing a great job.” And nobody disagreed that my work there in Armenia was fine. And he sort of mumbled and grumbled and I went back to Yerevan. We were just about to celebrate July 4th and I got a cell phone call in which Dan said, “Your job will be listed as a vacancy in this cycle and you will be leaving a year early.”

I said, “OK.” But now, nobody else on my staff knew that; I was the only one who knew that I was to be replaced a year early.

So I continued doing my work and, if anything,…I was hyperactive, probably. I traveled all around, I did everything I could and packed a lot into that final year and then, sure enough, in the spring of 2006 it was announced that the President intended to nominate Richard Hoagland to be my successor. And I conveyed that to President Kocharian [President of Armenia, 1998-2008] and obtained the agrément [formal the approval of a diplomatic representative by the state to which he or she is to be accredited] of the Armenian government.

What I didn’t know at the time was that one of the senators on the committee wrote a very strong letter to Secretary [Condoleezza] Rice saying that when U.S. policy compels an ambassador to distort the truth or at the very least to engage in convoluted reasoning it’s time to think about changing the policy.

That senator was Barack Obama….[See a Jake Tapper/CNN editorial on how President Obama repeatedly refused to use the word “genocide” when referring to the 1915 events.]

When Dick [Hoagland] was not confirmed [for U.S. Ambassador to Armenia], I asked the State Department if they wanted me to stay and they said no, come home, and then of course it was clear that I had to retire.

So I came home in September 2006 and retired, even though I still had time, theoretically, on my clock and the post was vacant for another year until a new nominee was put forward, Masha Yovanovitch, who handled the question rather more adroitly.

I think also the State Department had learned something by then. Dan Fried had gone so far in testimony in March of 2007 as to term the events of 1915 “ethnic cleansing.” Ethnic cleansing is a euphemism for genocide. It is what the perpetrators call genocide but it is considered in international law to be a crime. So the State Department had moved a long way and it was felt that it was time for there to be another American ambassador there. I also think that Masha conveyed a sense of sympathy, a sincerity about the tragedy that befell the Armenians, which helped her be confirmed….

[The Department] had to deal with me because I was still ambassador but I discovered that a lot of questions were going to my DCM, they were coming in by e-mails that I didn’t get and it was as if the system was trying to isolate me. Whether they viewed me as no longer reliable or whether it was just a natural reaction, I don’t know….

“What we will remember is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends”

On April 24 of 2006 now, when it was clear that I was going to be replaced and everyone understood the reason by this point or they guessed at the reason, I went to the commemoration, the annual commemoration of the Genocide, to lay a wreath, as the American ambassador has done since Harry Gilmore first did it without instructions, our first Ambassador to Armenia.

And when I got there, first of all there was an enormous display of yellow ribbons that had been put up by Armenians during the night. There was a long string of wires to which thousands of Armenians who go to the top of the hill to pay their respects, there’s an eternal flame there…The Armenians, children, old people and so on, had put them on this enormous yellow wall in support of me and against my being recalled.

I had been instructed to say absolutely nothing at the commemoration event. When we were filing up towards the eternal flame with our wreaths, I had my defense attachés with me and the rest of the embassy staff; in fact, there was a small group of Armenian students with bells wearing yellow tee shirts, tolling their bells, and they had a big poster of some sort, quoting Martin Luther King: “In the end what we will remember is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” And that was in both Armenian and English.

So I couldn’t say anything, but I noted this group of young people. And then I laid my wreath. My wife was with me and the staff. And then as we exited there was a huge group of television cameramen and reporters and the way it works is you emerge from a kind of a staircase and there was this phalanx of reporters but I had instructions to say nothing. But there were about 10 microphones in my face and I said “God bless you all” and then went to my car.

I’m told that people cried, viewers of the television that day broke into tears at that point.

I have to say that, despite this revolt on my part, the State Department, in handling my retirement and so on, treated me with full courtesy and in a very proper way. I was not treated as a pariah. And a lot of people quietly told me they were glad I’d done what I did. And although they said they might not have done it themselves they were glad somebody had stood up on this issue. I got a lot of sort of furtive handshakes, particularly from younger people.