John M. Evans: The diplomat who called the “Events of 1915” a genocide, and was canned for it

Posted: 6:20 pm EDT
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When Henry Morgenthau, Sr. resigned in 1916 as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, his reasons included his “failure to stop the destruction of the Armenians.”  Ambassador Morgenthau’s story is available to read online here.   It was not until the Second World War when we had a term for the intentional destruction of an entire people.

In 1943 Raphael Lemkin coined the word “genocide” to characterize the intentional mass murder of a whole people, basing the concept on the Nazi extermination of Jews and the Ottoman massacres of Armenians. He worked tirelessly to achieve the United Nations Convention against Genocide and was among the representatives of four states who ratified the Genocide Convention.  Raphael Lemkin is cited by the Oxford English Dictionary for coining the term “genocide” by combining Greek genos(γένος), “race, people” and Latin cīdere “to kill” in his work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944) (via).

via WWI Document Archive

This is a follow-up post to 1915 Armenian Genocide — The “G” Word as a Huge Landmine, and Diplomatic Equities.  In February 2005, Ambassador John M. Evans who was appointed to Armenia the previous year, went on a speaking tour in the United States.  During the tour, he used the word “genocide” to refer to the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 and lost his job for it.  His oral history interview is an interesting window into the bureaucracy, about “not rocking the boat, about dictated apologies (he didn’t write his), and how to apologize but not on substance.  His story also includes how the local Armenian employees at Embassy Yerevan mistranslated  the “events of 1915” into “Armenian genocide” on the embassy’s website. Then, there was a senator who strongly complained that when “a 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.” Can you guess who is this senator?

Ambassador Evan’s trip started in New York with meeting the Archbishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and parishioners, a visit to the Hovnanian School in northern New Jersey, and a stop in Watertown outside Boston, which, apparently is an old center of Armenian settlement and where there is a small Armenian Library and Museum.

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.

I next flew from Boston…Oh, I should say that the reaction of the crowd was subdued. First of all, I wasn’t telling them anything they themselves didn’t already know. We continued our discussion over dinner, a very intelligent crowd in Boston, as you could expect, very well informed. And the next day I flew to Los Angeles.

I expected that perhaps the word of my transgression would have reached Los Angeles but it hadn’t and I continued with my program, which involved a very large student/faculty group at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) where the issue came up again, and again I repeated the same thing, basically, that yes, I did believe that there had been a genocide in the terms of the Genocide Convention of 1948, and then I proceeded to explain the equities involved in U.S. policy, why we needed the cooperation of Turkey. And so there was some debate and discussion about that.
[…]

EVANS: And I remember being impressed by the fact that in one two-hour period one afternoon we visited four different Armenian churches of different, what do you call them, different denominations, Protestant, Armenian, Gregorian and so on and so forth.[…] 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. We got to San Francisco and there was a big dinner. First of all, we visited a school, an Armenian school, where the question of Nagorno-Karabakh came up and I was asked if the United States wasn’t prepared to sell out the Armenians in Karabakh. And I said that’s nonsense, we are mediating between…along with Russia and France we are mediating between Armenia and Azerbaijan to find a peaceful and lasting settlement to that conflict. I mention this because later on I was accused of having violated U.S. policy on that question too. But the main event was the big dinner and…I’m sorry, it wasn’t a dinner, it was at Berkeley and it was again a student and faculty meeting. And there again, in addition to…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.

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, said “I wish you’d told me first,” but then invited me to take part in a meeting with the State…what was he? Something equivalent to a State Secretary from Ankara, a Turkish, 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 agree to that. So we…it was about a half a day of discussions with this Turkish official, his name was Akinci and I should get his title. 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 dumb-struck; 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. I parted with the Turkish ambassador by saying that the best thing that could happen…that we in Yerevan would love to see a Turkish ambassador accredited to Yerevan. Now this was my way of saying, really, you’ve got to establish diplomatic relations.

Anyway, just to finish up this story, 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 and I don’t remember the exact…I basically apologized for my breach of my diplomatic duty to her but I did not apologize on the substance or 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.” Well, as bad luck would have it, our power went off and I couldn’t get any…or the e-mail went down, more properly speaking. 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. Well, 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 I could…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, what would you say, 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 well, 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.

[…]

EVANS: They’re there. And indeed, in our last session I described to you my frustration at not being able to get the European Bureau to align its own Background Notes with the President’s much more forward-leaning statements on the Armenian Genocide. The President had referred to those events as “massacres,” as “murder,” as “forced deportations;” that is virtually using the definition of genocide without using the word genocide, whereas the State Department lagged behind the White House. The Background Notes suggested that the…said nothing about the year 1915 and suggested that the skies were blue and there was nary a cloud in the sky. And it was indeed the Turkish Mafia in the State Department, which is strong. We have a big contingent at all times in Turkey; we have consulates, we have people assigned there and coming back to the Turkish desk and, quite frankly, Laura Kennedy, the deputy assistant secretary, an old friend, had served in Turkey, and it was she who basically said “no, we’re not going to rock the boat at all.” And so when I did this it was out of frustration that we could not put our best foot forward on this issue as the White House had done; we the State Department were behind the White House.
[…]
This was a time of change in the State Department. I had made my remarks right at the cusp when Secretary Powell had left and Secretary Rice was just coming in and Beth Jones was ending her tenure. In fact, the Monday on which I sent my apology, my cable response to her was her last day at work. The new team that came in with Secretary Rice was composed of people who had been at the White House, and they apparently came in with a mandate to straighten out the State Department after the Powell days when they thought that the State Department was soft on Bush Administration positions. And I believe I got, to some extent, caught up in that.

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. But then the award came through, the Christian Herter Award nomination, and I was asked would I come back in June to receive the award and I thought no, better not do that but I will send a statement. And in the statement that I composed I said “in all fairness this award should be given posthumously to President Ronald Reagan, who was the first American official to correctly term the events of 1915 a genocide, and not to me.” And then I said that the monetary award should be given to the AFSA scholarship fund.

Well, 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. And he said, “well, what are you doing about the Christian Herter Award? Did you reject it?” And I said “no, I didn’t.” And he said, “well, you had better arrange that they don’t give it to you.” It turned out the following week the Turkish prime minister was to be in town and had meetings at the White House.

So I called my friends at AFSA and I said “look, I very much appreciate this award, it’s very kind of you to think of me. I know you probably felt you were throwing me a lifeline but maybe you ought to rethink it.” So the AFSA people went back and scratched their heads and came up with a technicality and rescinded the award, which they’d never done before. So that year, 2005, the Christian Herter Award was not awarded to anyone.

And 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 “well, you’re going to have to leave.” And I said “well, 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 4 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, “okay.” 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 I, if anything, knowing that I only had another year, 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 and obtained the agrément of the Armenian government.

But what happened back here in Washington was that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when it came time to confirm Dick Hoagland, who’s an old friend, as my successor, picked up on some things he said about the, I think it was that he said the “alleged Armenian Genocide” or the “alleged genocide,” and the committee did not confirm him. It was split not along party lines; there were Democrats and Republicans on both sides. What I didn’t know at the time was that one of the senators on the committee wrote a very strong letter to Secretary 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. I had, however, to comply with the…Well, when Dick was not confirmed 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 was better in her…she conveyed a sense of sympathy, a sincerity about the tragedy that befell the Armenians, which helped her be confirmed.

Q: Were you getting any reflections of your statements and all in the United States in Yerevan, from the government, from other people because was this played up or was there- Well anyway, was there recognition?

EVANS: Yes, it did become controversial in Yerevan although I continued not to discuss the issue publicly. I was mute on the issue publicly with one exception. After the AFSA award was given to me, my wife organized a birthday party for me in the middle of May, 2005. And to my surprise she got up at to make a toast and she told the guests at the dinner…there were about 18 people there and I guess some of them were Armenian officials, the deputy foreign minister was there and there were some ambassadors and my own deputy, Anthony Godfrey, and she read the citation for the Herter Award and said she was so proud of me for having won this, and I had to respond and I said, I made a kind of joke of it, I said “you know, having spent so many years in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union now I know what it feels like to be a dissident.” Now somehow that remark got back to the State Department and they were not happy. But there was controversy in the Armenian press; I mean, they were very complimentary of me for having said what I said but there were also conspiracy theories that you tend to get in that part of the world. Some of them may have been Iranian, instigated from Iran, I don’t know, but there was quite a swirl of controversy, and of course the Armenian-American newspapers were full of this news as well.

Now, perhaps…There were two things that happened. Because it was 2005 — the ninetieth anniversary of the genocide — there was a major international conference that took place in Yerevan and the foreign minister invited all ambassadors to attend it. I was told by my staff that I had better ask the State Department. I requested permission to attend and permission was denied — but my wife went.

And the other thing was that on April 24 of 2005…I’m sorry; it was 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, there had been some American Armenians, “repatriates” as we called them, had gotten these yellow ribbons and they had…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 event, 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 saying, quoting Martin Luther King, saying “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.

Ambassador Evan’s full oral history interview via ADST is available here (pdf). Also the LA Times has a recent piece on Ambassador Evans in  The diplomat who cracked.

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