excerpted from the book
The Splendid Blond Beast
by Christopher Simpson
Common Courage Press, 1995
...The concept of a crime against humanity was not well defined
at this point, even by its advocates. But the definition had at
least two important elements that set it apart from earlier understandings
of war crimes, which were limited to acts that a government might
take against the population or troops of a foreign power.
First, crimes against humanity included atrocities that were
criminal not only under civil law but also under the most elementary
morality, yet were not technically war crimes. The new definition
included domestic campaigns to exterminate a particular ethnic
or religious group as well as institutionalized slavery, even
though neither of these was considered a war crime under the Hague
of Geneva covenants.
Second, many atrocities committed by a government against
its own people were defined as crimes against humanity.
It was the Turkish government's attempted genocide of that
country's large Armenian population that had led to the demand
for a clear international ban on crimes against humanity. Turkey
was the center of the Ottoman Empire, and the Armenians were a
large minority group whose ancestral home clustered around Mount
Ararat in eastern Turkey. During the last decades of the nineteenth
century, Turkish religious extremists and security forces seeking
racial and religious purity in Turkey had repeatedly instigated
pogroms, murdering tens of thousands Armenians. One result was
that militant Armenians took up arms and began pressing for political
Shortly before World War I, a secretive and disciplined cabal
of young Turkish military officers known as the Ittihad took power
in Turkey and brought the country into an alliance with Germany.
These were the original "Young Turks," and their capacity
for cruelty and violence still reverberates in that phrase today.
In the first months of World War I the Young Turks instigated
a national effort to exterminate the Armenian population under
the guise of modernization, suppressing domestic dissent, and
securing Turkey's borders. The Ittihad bent the power of the Turkish
state to their purpose. Beginning in late 1914 and accelerating
over the next three years, the Turkish government rounded up Armenian
men for forced labor, worked many to death building a trans-Turkish
railway for German business interests, then shot the survivors.
The government then secretly ordered mass executions of Armenian
intellectuals and political leaders in the spring of 1915. The
state also uprooted Armenian women and children from their homes
and drove them into vast resettlement camps that were barren of
supplies or shelter. When the camps became full, the Turks expelled
the people into the deserts of what is today Syria and Iraq. Hundreds
of thousands of Armenians died from shootings, starvation, exposure,
The state declared that all the property of deported Armenian
families had been "abandoned," then confiscated it and
used it to reward Ittihad party activists and others who participated
in the extermination process. Many Turks prospered by liquidating
Armenians' businesses, stealing their stocks, and seizing Armenian
farms and real estate.
The genocide was particularly cruel to Armenian women and
girls, who became the objects of a pervasive, tacitly sanctioned
campaign of rape. Turkish police encouraged gangs of thugs to
prey upon the deportees as a means of humiliating and destroying
these women. Meanwhile, some Armenian girls were able to escape
deportation by announcing a religious conversion to Islam, and
in this way some Turkish men secured Armenian concubines and house
Surviving Turkish, German, and U.S. documents establish that
the Ittihad expected to strike quickly, to keep the deportations
and massacres secret, and to exterminate the Armenians as a race
before the outside world learned of the atrocities. The Ittihad
also persecuted substantial numbers of Greeks, Jews, and other
minority groups, in some cases deporting them along with the Armenians.
The Turkish government made a careful effort to explain away leaks
that appeared in the press as nothing more than exaggerated accounts
of the usual casualties of war.
But the Ittihad miscalculated. Their empire was primarily
Islamic, and the Armenians were largely Christians. When the genocide
began, a number of Western diplomats and Christian missionaries
in Turkey (including a German, Pastor Johannes Lepsius) made determined
efforts to record the massacres and deportations and to mobilize
world opinion against Turkish actions. The U.S. ambassador to
Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, and several U.S. consuls publicly protested
the deportations and began to aid refugees-an unusually courageous
gesture by diplomats, who ordinarily make a point of washing their
hands of such matters. These efforts struck a responsive chord
in the countries of the Western Alliance and, to a lesser degree,
inside Germany as well. Publicity against the atrocities became
particularly strong in countries where the news media remained
hungry for wartime atrocity stories involving Germans and their
clients and were willing to give full play to deeply rooted Christian
prejudices against Muslims.
Tragically, Armenia could supply an almost unlimited number
of such accounts. Unlike some war propaganda, most of the stories
were true. In the end, however, the Armenians and their supporters
failed to mobilize enough international support to halt the mass
killings and deportations, although they did succeed in placing
the crime of genocide clearly on the public agenda for the first
time in modern history.
At the height of the pogroms in 1915, the governments of France,
Great Britain, and czarist Russia issued a joint declaration denouncing
the mass killings of Armenians as "crimes against humanity
and civilization" and warning the leaders of the Turkish
government that they would be held "personally responsible."
But too often there was little of substance behind the indignant
rhetoric. At the height of the genocide, a factional split among
the Young Turks opened the possibility that Turkey might put an
end to the massacres in exchange for an agreement from the Associated
Powers to abandon their claims on Turkey and the Ottoman Empire.
Djemal Pasha, a member of the triumvirate that ruled Turkey, had
settled into Damascus and exercised local control over much of
what is today Syria, Jordan, and Israel. In late 1915, while Turkish
efforts to exterminate Armenians were at their height, Djemal
sought out an Armenian emissary and convinced him to carry an
offer to the governments of the Associated Powers. If czarist
Russia, France, and Britain would back him, Djemal promised, he
would undertake a coup d'etat against his Young Turk rivals, end
the massacres, and take Turkey out of the war. Djemal himself
would then emerge as sultan.
The price for the plan was that the European powers would
abandon imperial claims to what is today Iraq and Syria and provide
reconstruction assistance to Djemal's government after the war.
Djemal, for his part, was willing to concede control of Constantinople
and the Dardanelles to Russia.
"Djemal appears to have acted on the mistaken assumption
that saving the Armenians-as distinct from merely exploiting their
plight for propaganda purposes-was an important Allied objective,"
writes David Fromkin, a historian specializing in Ottoman affairs.
The Russians favored Djemal's plan and for a time assured him
that the other Associated Powers would cooperate. But in early
1916, France rejected Djemal's offer and claimed southern Turkey,
Syria, and parts of Iraq. Great Britain followed suit, claiming
Iraq on behalf of a local "Iraqi" government created
by London. "In their passion for booty," Fromkin writes,
"the Allied governments lost sight of the condition upon
which future gains were predicated: winning the war.... Djemal's
offer afforded the Allies their one great opportunity to subvert
the Ottoman Empire from within"-and to save innocent lives-"and
they let it go." Nor did the Allies exploit Djemal's attempted
betrayal of his colleagues for propaganda or intelligence purposes.
As far as can be determined, the other Young Turks never learned
of Djemal's secret correspondence with the enemy, and he remained
part of the ruling triumvirate for the remainder of the war.
The pro-Armenian publicity may not have changed the West's
basic policy toward Turkey, but it did have a significant impact
on public opinion in the Associated Powers. By the time the Paris
Peace Conference began, there was widespread sentiment among the
victorious nations that justice required some form of trial and
punishment for those who had perpetrated atrocities in Turkey.
The Ittihad dictatorship crumbled as the war drew to a close,
and a new, Western-backed Turkish government signed an armistice
with the Associated Powers in late October 1918. Two days later,
most of the senior Ittihad leaders fled their country for Germany,
which granted them asylum. They left behind many who had collaborated
in the genocide, however, including state and local administrators,
party activists, Turkish businessmen and farmers who had seized
Armenian property, policemen, and a variety of specialists in
mass violence. The new Turkish government arrested several hundred
former party leaders who were suspected of direct roles in the
mass deportations and killings, and began to prepare cases against
them for murder, treason, theft, and similar offenses under Turkish
The new Turkish authorities carried out a series of such trials
during 1919 and 1920, placing on the public record an important
collection of confessions by former Ittihad leaders, secret state
and party papers concerning the tactics of deportation and mass
murder, and an evidentiary outline against several hundred Ittihad
leaders who had been instrumental in the crime. Much of this evidence
was published in the official Turkish parliamentary gazette, TakyImi
The trials were strongly opposed by a rising Turkish nationalist
movement, however, which regarded the prosecutions as a symbol
of foreign efforts to dismember Turkey. Led by military strongman
Mustapha Kemal (later known as Ataturk), the new movement welcomed
Ittihadists to its ranks and placed some party veterans in leading
posts. Kemal's movement enjoyed great influence in the postwar
Turkish military, interior ministry, and particularly the police.
Kemalist sympathizers systematically delayed and obstructed Turkey's
criminal prosecutions, destroyed evidence, organized escapes,
and sparked large demonstrations and public protests against the
Importantly, Britain, France, and the United States were at
that time vying with one another to divide up the vast oil and
mineral wealth of Turkey's Ottoman Empire. Kemal skillfully played
the three powers against each other and insisted on amnesty for
the Ittihadists as part of the price for his support in the division
of the defunct empire.
Though often overlooked today, the Ottoman holdings were of
extraordinary value, perhaps the richest imperial treasure since
the European seizure of the New World four centuries earlier.
The empire had been eroding for decades, but by the time of the
Turkish defeat in World War I, it still included most of what
is today Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan,
and the oil sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. The European governments
sensed that the time had come to seize this rich prize.
The British had been the dominant foreign power in the Middle
East prior to World War I. Their Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later
known as British Petroleum, or BP) and the Turkish Petroleum Company
effectively controlled most of the oil reserves in the region.
But the French acquired an important mandate in the area during
the war, and by 1919 they were seeking substantial concessions
from the British. Both countries preferred to keep the U.S.-backed
Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (today known as Exxon) out
of the area. The U.S. government meanwhile opposed many aspects
of the European colonial rule in the Middle East, preferring instead
what it termed "open-door" policies-those that facilitated
U.S. penetration of new markets and acquisition of new sources
Senior officials of all three Western powers became preoccupied
with oil politics in the Middle East. It even led to an awkward
new term, "oleaginous diplomacy," that was used for
years to refer to government initiatives on behalf of oil companies.
"Oil," said French Premier Georges Clemenceau, "is
as necessary as blood.''
For a short time after the war, the three allies pressed the
new Turkish government on two fronts: First, they supported tough
punishment for Ittihadist criminals, payment of damages to Armenians
and Greeks for the lives and property lost during the massacres,
establishment of an independent Armenian republic in northeastern
Turkey, and transfer to Greece of the port city of Smyrna. Second,
they demanded that the Turks surrender all claims to the resources
of the former Ottoman territories outside of Turkey proper, particularly
the Mosul oil fields in what is today northern Iraq. Although
many Turks saw these terms as humiliatingly onerous, the first
postwar Turkish government agreed to them in the Treaty of Sevres,
signed in August 1920. That agreement was hailed at the time as
the formal conclusion of World War I.
But the Associated Powers could not agree among themselves
on the terms of the division of the Mosul oil fields, and new
fighting broke out between the Armenian nationalists, who sought
to establish the republic they believed they had been guaranteed
at Sevres, and the Turkish Kemalists, who still regarded Armenia
as a part of Turkey. Kemal's embrace of the Ittihadists contributed
to an escalating cycle of revenge killings and renewed massacres
By the end of 1920, the Kemalists were clearly in the ascendance,
having established a rival government at Ankara, in the center
of the country. The increasingly shaky Turkish government at Istanbul,
under intense Kemalist pressure to abrogate the Treaty of Sevres,
abruptly shut down the criminal trials of Ittihadists. The Western
allies then stepped up their jockeying for influence in the Kemalist
The U.S. High Commissioner to Turkey was Admiral Mark L. Bristol,
a man with a reputation as a bigot and a determined advocate of
U.S. alliance with Mustafa Kemal. "The Armenians," Bristol
wrote, "are a race like the Jews-they have little or no national
spirit and poor moral character." It was better for the United
States, he contended, to jettison support for the Armenian republic
as soon as possible, stabilize U.S. relations with the emerging
Turkish government, and to enlist Kemal's support in gaining access
to the oil fields of the former Ottoman Empire. Bristol's argument
found a receptive audience in the new Harding administration in
Washington, whose affinity for oil interests eventually blossomed
into the famous Teapot Dome bribery scandal.
As High Commissioner to Turkey, Bristol had considerably more
power than might be enjoyed by any conventional ambassador. As
the civil war unfolded inside Turkey, Bristol barred newspaper
reporters from access to areas where renewed massacres of Armenians
were taking place, purportedly to avoid inciting further atrocities
His correspondent at the State Department in Washington was
Allen Dulles. After the Paris conference, Dulles had served briefly
as chief of staff to Bristol, then moved on to Washington to become
chief of the State Department's Near East desk just as "oleaginous
diplomacy" was reaching its heyday.
Dulles supported Bristol's initiatives. "Confidentially
the State Department is in a bind. Our task would be simple if
the reports of the atrocities could be declared untrue or even
exaggerated but the evidence, alas, is irrefutable," Dulles
wrote in reply to Bristol's requests for State Department intervention
with U.S. publishers to shift the tone of news reports still dribbling
out of Turkey and Armenia. ' [T]he Secretary of State wants to
avoid giving the impression that while the United States is willing
to intervene actively to protect its commercial interests, it
is not willing to move on behalf of the Christian minorities."
Dulles went on to complain about the agitation in the U.S. on
behalf of Armenians, Greeks, and Palestinian Jews. "I've
been kept busy trying to ward off congressional resolutions of
sympathy for these groups.''
The change in the U.S. government's response to the Armenian
massacres presents an acute example of the conflicts that often
shape U.S. foreign policy. From 1914 to 1919, the U.S. government
and public opinion sharply condemned the Turkish massacres. Ambassador
Henry Morgenthau repeatedly intervened with the Turkish government
to protest the killings, raised funds for refugee relief, and
mobilized opposition to the genocide. A close review of the declassified
State Department archives of the period shows that much of the
government's internal reporting on Turkey was strongly sympathetic
to the Armenians throughout the war and the first months after
The Western press, too, was overwhelmingly favorable to the
Armenians and hostile to the Turkish government. One recent study
by Marjorie Housepian Dobkin found that between April and December
of 1915, the New York Times published more than 100 articles concerning
the massacres when the killings were at their height. All of the
Times coverage was sympathetic to the Armenians, and most of the
news stories appeared on the front page or the first three pages
of the newspaper. A roughly similar pattern can be found in publications
such as the New York Herald Tribune, Boston Herald, and Atlantic
Monthly and in the journals of various Christian missionary societies.
The volume of news coverage rose and fell with events over the
next five years, but on the whole it remained strongly sympathetic
to the Armenians.
Yet a remarkable shift in U.S. media content and government
behavior took place as the new Harding administration established
itself in 1921. "Those who underestimate the power of commerce
in the history of the Middle East cannot have studied the postwar
situation in Turkey between 1918 and 1923," Dobkin writes.
"There were, of course, other political factors that proved
disastrous for the Armenians . . . but the systematic effort (chiefly
by the Harding administration) to turn U.S. public opinion towards
Turkey was purely and simply motivated by the desire to beat the
[rival Associated] Powers to what were thought of as the vast,
untapped resources of that country, and chiefly the oil."
"It was not possible to bring about the desired change
in public opinion without denigrating what the Armenians had suffered,"
she continues. Retired U.S. Admiral William Colby Chester joined
Admiral Mark Bristol as a leading public spokesman for reconciliation
with Turkey. Chester was not a disinterested party. The Turkish
government had granted him an oil concession in Iraq that was
potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Writing in
the influential journal Current History, Chester contended that
the Armenians had been deported not to deserts, but to "the
most delightful and fertile parts of Syria ... at great expense
of money and effort"-a claim that went well beyond even what
the Kemal government was willing to argue. Dobkin reports that
missionary leaders such as Cleveland Dodge and George Plimpton,
who had once been instrumental in documenting the genocide, began
to lend their names to publicity insisting that the reported Turkish
excesses had been "greatly exaggerated." By mid-1923,
the complex and interlocking challenges created by the demands
for justice in the wake of the Armenian Genocide, on the one hand,
and U.S. political and commercial interests in Turkey, on the
other, had been settled in favor of a de facto U.S. alliance with
the new Kemalist government. The day-to-day details of the U.S.
diplomatic shift in favor of Kemal were handled by Ambassador
Joseph Grew (who will reappear later in this narrative as acting
secretary of state during a pivotal moment in World War II) and
the chief of the Near East desk at State, Allen Dulles. The U.S.,
which had been the principal international supporter of the nascent
Armenian Republic, withdrew its promises of aid and protection.
Mustafa Kemal soon succeeded through force of arms in suppressing
Armenia and in establishing a new Turkish government at Ankara.
In July 1923, the Turks and the European allies signed a new agreement,
replacing the aborted Treaty of Sevres with the Treaty of Lausanne.
Western governments agreed to new Turkish borders, officially
recognized Kemal's government, abandoned any claim on behalf of
an Armenian republic, and specifically agreed to an amnesty for
all Ittihadists who had been convicted in the earlier trials.
As things turned out, many of the top Ittihadists who fled
Turkey in 1918 were assassinated by Armenian commandos. Talaat,
the minister of internal affairs and grand vizier of the Ittihad
state, was shot in Berlin on March 15,1921. Behaeddin Sakir (Chakir),
a senior member of the "Commission of Supply," which
had coordinated much of the extermination campaign, and Djemal
Azmy, military governor during the height of the killings in Trebizond,
were killed in Berlin on April 17, 1922. Enver, the former minister
of war, is said to have been killed by the Soviet army in Bukhara
in 1922, though many of the details of his death remain uncertain.
Djemal, who with Talaat and Enver had constituted the ruling triumvirate
of the Ittihad state, was gunned down in July 1922 in Tiflis.
He was on his way to a trade conference in Berlin, where he was
to buy weapons for the Afghan army.
Armenians lost a great deal under the terms of the Lausanne
treaty while Western commercial interests prospered. The new Turkish
leader Kemal agreed to relinquish all claims on the territories
of the old Ottoman Empire outside Turkish borders, thus formally
opening the door to the Anglo-American control of Middle East
oil that was to continue with minimal change for the next fifty
years. This was not a simple quid pro quo, of course. The agreement
also involved other important elements, notably a settlement of
most reparation claims against Turkey and an agreement between
Greece and Turkey to repatriate thousands of ethnic Greeks and
Turks to their respective countries of origin. There were to be
several more years of squabbles before the U.S.-European disputes
over the Mosul oil fields were finally settled.
The point was nonetheless clear. Western governments had discarded
wartime promises of action against the Ittihadists who had murdered
about a million people in order to help their political maneuvering
over oil concessions in the Middle East. The dominant faction
in Turkish society never accepted Armenian claims as legitimate,
despite the strong evidence of genocide established by Turkey's
own courts. In fact, the Turkish government even today continues
to refuse to acknowledge Ittihadist responsibility for the Armenian
massacres, and has instead in recent years financed a large and
sophisticated publicity campaign aimed at rewriting the history
of the war years.