Ambassador Henry Morgenthau: A Voice that Cried Out in the Desert

Marking the Armenian Remembrance Day in 2016, then-President Barack Obama called it the “first mass atrocity of the 20th century.” A prominent personality did not agree with such lukewarm characterization: “Moral leadership is impossible when crimes against humanity are met with euphemisms.” The man who said that was Robert Morgenthau, grandson of the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, Henry Morgenthau Sr.

One hundred years ago to the month, on October 1918, Ambassador Morgenthau published Secrets of the Bosphorus, a book that called out the Turks´ treatment of their Armenian minority. The ambassador pioneered the effort to expose the Ottoman Empire´s evil deeds and sought to shake the world into action on behalf of the Armenians. He wrote about “wholesale butcheries of defenseless men and women which the Turks had always found so congenial.” He described how the extermination process ensued. First, the Turks killed as many able-bodied Armenian men as possible by firing squads, hangings or marching them through the desert, were Kurdish and Turkish tribesmen would pour down on these starved, exhausted and unarmed men, to murder them “in order that they might gain merit in Allah´s eyes that comes from killing a Christian.” Morgenthau tells about instances in which Turkish torturers nailed horseshoes to the feet of their Armenian victims and nailed their hands and feet to pieces of wood, in a cruel imitation of the crucifixion. “Now let your Christ come and help you!” they were told. The American ambassador confides that a Turkish official told him that they even delved into the records of the Spanish Inquisition to obtain ideas for torture.

Once most men were dealt with, the remaining Armenian elderly, women and children were thus rendered an easy prey. They were forced to cross desolate, sun-scorching deserts in the harshest conditions. “From thousands of Armenian cities and villages these despairing caravans now seth forth; they filled all the roads leading south; everywhere, as they moved on, they raised a huge dust, and abandoned debris, chairs, blankets, bedclothes, household utensils, and other impediments marked the course of the processions.” Young girls were especially exposed to ill-treatment. Turkish and Kurdish tribesmen fell upon them and took them to their villages as sex slaves. Some of them died from these experiences, others survived only to remain “ravingly insane.” Morgenthau tells about mothers who would rather abandon their babies behind a bush, left to die in peace, to keep them from the savagery of their Muslim enemies. “I have by no means told the most horrible details”, writes Morgenthau, “for a complete narration of the sadistic orgies of which these Armenian men and women were the victims can never be printed in an American publication.”

Morgenthau ascribed religious fanaticism to the Kurdish and Turkish rabble that “slew Armenians as a service to Allah,” but he pointed out that the Turkish leaders that carried out this barbarism were mostly atheists “with no more respect for Mohammedanism than for Christianity.” For them, it was a matter of “cold-blooded, calculating state policy,” he concludes.

At one point, Interior Minister Talaat Pasha asked him: “Why are you so interested in the Armenians anyway? You are a Jew; these people are Christians. . . . Why can’t you let us do with these Christians as we please?” In a 2015 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Gordon Crovitz educates as about Morgenthau´s reply: “I am not here as a Jew, but as American ambassador. My country contains something like 97 million Christians and something less than three million Jews. So, at least in my ambassadorial capacity, I am 97% Christian. But after all, that is not the point. I do not appeal to you in the name of any race or religion, but merely as a human being.” And he added: “Our people will never forget these massacres. They will always resent the wholesale destruction of Christians in Turkey.” When the Turks threatened to pressure Washington to recall him, Morgenthau said: “I could think of no greater honor than to be recalled because I, a Jew, have done everything in my power to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Christians.”

In 1915, Morgenthau was already recruiting American philanthropists to form the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, which distributed posters with the tagline “Give or We Perish” and solicited donations from across the U.S. Crovitz informs us that Americans contributed $100 million, equivalent to almost $2.5 billion today.

On October 1918, Secrets of the Bosphorus issued a desperate call to humanity´s conscience. A century later, it is worth remembering the brave man whose voice cried out from Constantinople to the entire world.

About the Author
Julian Schvindlerman is an Argentine writer and journalist specializing in Middle East affairs. He is a columnist for Infobae (Argentina) and Libertad Digital (Spain) and publishes regularly in the Latin American media. He is the author of The Hidden Letter: A History of an Arab-Jewish Family, Triangle of Infamy: Richard Wagner, the Nazis and Israel; Rome and Jerusalem: Vatican policy toward the Jewish state; and Land for Peace, Land for War.