When most consider the term “genocide” in the context of the twentieth century, the Jewish Holocaust is of ten the first event to spring to mind. However, the first genocide of the last century left vast numbers of villages and cities in ruins, lives in rural and urban areas destroyed, and devastated a country that had so often been the target of attack and outside aggression.
Statistics regarding the death toll from the Armenian Genocide vary widely and are often the subjects of debate as, due to the destruction of land and infrastructure, thousands died indirectly from starvation, disease, and other maladies related to the attacks. In attempting to form a synthesis of these several estimates based on those directly killed with “a low figure of 50,000 dead and a high figure of 300,000 dead, [it is projected] between 2 percent and 12 percent of the Armenian population was killed during the massacres” (Melson 47). Other accounts that attempt to quantify mortality based on direct and indirect effects in the year following the massacres often range from one to 1.5 million.
While it would be absurd to suggest that the United States could have put an absolute end to the brutal conflict that had been brewing for decades between the Ottoman Empire and their Armenian subjects, their lack of a meaningful or forceful military and political response in the face of what was clearly mass murder should be (and has been) criticized. However, it should be noted that the most beneficial of any United States responses to the genocide were the American volunteer, Christian missionary, and other human aid groups who collected significant amount of monetary and food aid. These groups successfully, although at great peril, were able to provide some relief to the devastated nation. Nonetheless, when considering the overall picture of the United States’ response to the Armenian Genocide, the phrase that comes to mind is “too little, too late” as the crucial potential to halt the genocide lay in the hands of the American military and political leaders.
Due to its strategic physical location and position as a dual-continental gateway between Russian and the West, Armenia has historically been the site of powerful empires, enormous social, ethnic, and religious conflicts, as well as multiple territorial and ideological struggles. From its ancient establishment to its modern incarnation as a developing democracy and officially secular state that possesses membership in numerous multilateral Western and Eastern organizations, Armenia has battled the pressures brought about by a strong of invasions and conquests and emerging victorious in its quest for more autonomy.
With a cultural and ethnic background that has been formed by relatively current and ancient influences, including Greek, Persian, Mongolian, Assyrian, Russian, and others who have entered the country, Armenia is finally able to benefit from its strategic location and to develop more market and political structures rather than suffer the consequences that came with their distinction as a gateway between historically hostile nations. Despite recent stability and expressions of greater autonomy and security, at the turn of the twentieth century, Armenia was embroiled in conflict that eventually led to a genocidal mission across part of the country, which is known as the Armenian genocide and that had to, on account of the extraordinary level of tragedy, involve appeals to Western nations for aid, one of which was the Untied States. Before entering into a developed discussion of the foreign response to the crisis, however, it is important to establish the background of the events leading up to the Armenian Genocide.
Prior to the event of the Armenian Genocide which is serving as the basis of this analysis, it is important to recognize that a great deal of violence, so great in fact, that it too can be considered a genocidal act, occurred just before the turn of the century, thus creating the pervasive hostility that added fuel to the flames around the time of WWI. For many years, Armenia had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and although this was generally an acceptable occupation since Turkish governments had little concern for strictly dominating the lives of everyday Armenians, a notable struggle began to develop as the officially Muslim Turks began to exert more influence over the religious lives of Armenians, the majority of whom were Christians. In addition to this religious discrimination, there was also a significant sense that Armenians were treated as second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire, particularly due to their mixed and varied ethnic groups, which counted those of Jewish heritage among the ranks. Aside from being a merely religious drive, there were ethnic elements to this treatment of Armenians (Balakian 26) and as a result, their rights were slowly diminished.