What was even more interesting was that the story made headlines around the world. From the Washington Post to the BBC and the New York Times, there were few outlets that did not showcase Biden’s Armenian Genocide statement.
But what does it mean going forward? Why now?
Several influential people in the Armenian world offered their own ideas.
Richard Hovannisian, the holder of the Modern Armenian History Chair at the University of California, Los Angeles, for whom the chair was renamed after his retirement, as well as the author of several books on Armenian history, offered a long view of the Genocide as well as its denial. As probably the foremost senior living Armenian historian of the modern period, he was interested in what might happen next.
“It’s been a very long struggle and many of us for years have been advocating in different ways. We have suffered a tremendous loss that is probably irreparable. The denial of the crime has only left the wounds open and exposed,” he said in an interview on April 25. “It is important that the leader of the largest and most powerful country acknowledge it.”
Esrailian heads the Promise Institute for Human Rights at the UCLA School of Law, created through a $20-million gift from the estate of the late Kirk Kerkorian, and is the producer of the film “The Promise” on the Armenian Genocide. He is also Chief of the Vatche and Tamar Manoukian Division of Digestive Diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Hovannisian pondered the possible reaction of Turkish leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Mr. Erdogan is apparently considering this [a response]. It is not terribly surprising,” he said.
“Congress for its own reasons recognized the Genocide” in 2019, Hovannisian noted. “There was a groundswell of vocal support at least for recognition.”
Hovannisian said he expected the reaction of Turkey to be milder than the one to the resolutions in Congress.
Hovannisian cautioned against treating either Presidents Ronald Reagan or Biden as the first ones to remark on the Armenian Genocide. In fact, he said, “go back to Woodrow Wilson. The word wasn’t there,” he explained, when Wilson referred “to the murder of a nation.” Even President Calvin Coolidge referred to the mass murder of the Armenians and for his efforts received a rug from Armenian orphans.
Prof. Bedross Der Matossian, the president of the Society for Armenian Studies, in a statement said, “The Society for Armenian Studies (SAS) hails President Joseph Biden for recognizing the Armenian Genocide in his April 24 address. Despite taking place far from the United States, the Armenian Genocide is part of United States history. The US archival record is testimony to that fact, as many US diplomats and missionaries who witnessed the process of the Genocide have intensively reported the events and raised their voice condemning the acts of atrocities. The most prominent of these figures was Henry Morgenthau, US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (1913-1916), who wrote and lobbied his government to intervene on behalf of the Armenians. Amb. Morgenthau had access to detailed accounts of the condition of the Armenians in the provinces and the atrocities that were perpetrated against them during the War. He commented on the Armenian deportations and their destruction saying: ‘When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact’.”
Rouben Adalian, director of the Armenian National Institute, in Washington noted, “President Biden’s Armenian Remembrance Day not only positively affirms the Armenian Genocide, it also clearly contextualizes the need for remembrance and affirmation within the framework of US foreign policy that holds human rights as one of its central pillars. Armenian Americans who have aspired to see their government clarify its position on the Armenian Genocide have also been doing so as advocates of genocide prevention. President Biden’s statement registers a major advance in that direction. It also follows upon the resolutions adopted by the House and Senate in 2019 that also affirmed the Armenian Genocide and at the same time called for the encouragement of human rights education. Armenian Americans should follow through on the legislation and take up the responsibility of promoting human rights education and do their part in raising awareness of the importance of genocide prevention.”
For Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian in Massachusetts, the statement was personal. “The historic failure to recognize the Armenian Genocide stood as a blemish on America’s moral leadership and a painful erasure of what our families suffered. The violence perpetrated in Artsakh just months ago was a chilling reminder that this all could happen again. Yet it never deterred us. Every April, for 106 years, we gathered in commemorations around the world – the living embodiments of William Saroyan’s words. We remembered our dead. We prayed and read aloud the names of family members who were separated, tortured and brutally murdered. We spoke about the survivors who scattered across the globe and built incredible communities with thriving civic, cultural, commercial, and spiritual life. Brave souls like my grandparents who fled Marash during the Genocide. They spent years apart in Syria and France before reuniting in Massachusetts with the help of the American Red Cross. They had the indomitable souls of Armenians and the patriotic pride of new Americans. Like many of you, I have spent decades advocating for this cause because of them. I wanted their pain, their struggle, and their success to be validated through formal recognition of the Genocide. Sometimes it was hard not to get disheartened. Yet in the past year – difficult in so many of its own ways – I saw hope in our cause.”
Hovannisian differentiated the statement by Biden from that of Reagan in 1981, noting that the latter referred to the Armenian Genocide in passing and that “it was not a focal point” of the statement. Ronald Reagan referred the Armenian genocide in passing in a statement on the Holocaust in 1981, but it was not followed by a formal recognition.
Barack Obama promised Armenian Americans he would take that step but reneged once in office, unwilling to upset an ally. In 2019, both chambers of Congress declared their own recognition, despite Donald Trump’s efforts to stop them.
Hovannisian gave a lot of credit to Biden for standing up to the pressures of the office. “Barack Obama buckled under the economic and political and international pressure,” Hovannisian said. The “Cold War kind of atmosphere” stopped him from keeping his promise to use the word genocide.
Perhaps that giving in was another motive for Biden, Hovannisian conjectured. “Joseph Biden didn’t want to be an Obama man. He would strike out on his own, besides following his conscience” and perhaps regretting that “he was vice president for eight years and could not bring his executive to use the world.”
“It is a kind of repentance,” Hovannisian said.
He put Samantha Power into the same category, noting that the former Obama foreign policy advisor and later United Nations ambassador, regretted that the administration did not recognize the Genocide.
Of course helping the Armenian cause are the fraying Turkish-American relations. “Turkey is a frequent critic of the US and Israel,” Hovannisian said. “It has a leader that has not endeared himself to most of the rest of the world.”
He also pondered whether it is strictly necessary to pursue gathering evidence and seeking recognition from other countries at this point in our history.
“[Prof.] Henry Theriault started to act on the assumption that the Armenian Genocide has already been recognized and we now should be working on restitution,” he noted.
For Turkey, he said, it was restitution — the “what are you to going to do about it” — that comes after the global recognition of genocide. As examples Hovannisian recalled the issue of the ethnic Japanese-American citizens that were put in concentration camps in the US during World War II, as well as the issue of African-Americans who suffered as a result of generations of slavery.
The Biden statement might be important because “you get a major power to persuade Turkey that it should take some reparative action.” For example, he said, what is happening with all the Armenian monuments in Turkey?
“We should teach them to face history and to put the record straight and take palliative steps,” Hovannisian continued.
Of course, now it is hard to think about any Armenian issue without noting the immense damage done to Armenia and especially Artsakh from September to October 2020 by the combined forces of Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Hovannisian recalled that at the beginning of the war, some suggested that this was a continuation of the Armenian Genocide but he thought, instead, it was more akin to the events of Kosovo, which had suffered from ethnic cleansing, meaning that the primary goal was taking the land, and the murders were secondary.
Now, he said, he has changed his mind. “The violence that went on and the celebration of the killings and the monument with the helmets of all the killed Armenian soldiers” shows a “bloodthirst” that harkens back to the Genocide.
“They [the Azerbaijani leaders] are boasting that we are going to come after you. They have done it with the approval and support of Turkey, Mr. Erdogan and his team,” he added.
“The threat of genocide is alive all over again,” he noted. “You think the worst has come and gone and it’s time for repairs. After World War I, we believe so many promises and pledges.” Sadly, he said, Armenia has little to give others.
There is another bright spot for Biden recognizing the Genocide and that is with regard to its legal applications in the US.
“One of the good points about it is that when we are going into legal battles in California, the opposition has argued that this goes against US policy,” Hovannisian said. Now, he added, that argument that California courts can’t recognize the Genocide because the US doesn’t recognize it is one that may become moot.
“It is one immediate positive side effect,” he added.
Los Angeles attorney Brian Kabateck, who has represented several descendants of Armenian Genocide survivors in US courts, agreed.
“President Biden recognizing the Genocide is not just important to me as a grandson of survivors, but because it may mean that we can renew our quest for civil justice. Our team of lawyers brought lawsuits starting in 1999 to recover unpaid life insurance benefits, stolen bank accounts and seized land all resulting from the Genocide. Some of these lawsuits were against insurance companies and banks and some against Turkey directly and indirectly. After recovering almost $40M, the Ninth Circuit invalidated the law based on the then President’s refusal to acknowledge the Genocide. Because the statute that paved the way to those suits included a direct, unabashed reference to the Genocide, the statue was ruled unconstitutional solely because the president had never recognized the Genocide and the statute invaded his providence to do so. That ruling was later upheld but the United States Supreme Court when it denied review but only after the Obama Administration weighed in asking that it be ruled unconstitutional. In a batch of emails authored by Hillary Clinton and disclosed during the 2016 election, we found emails between her and the Turkish foreign minister specifically discussing our lawsuits and addressing a Turkish government request to stop them. Shame on all the Presidents who came before, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative. They all bowed to Turkish pressure – until now,” said Kabateck.
(Aram Arkun contributed to this report.)