Humanitarian Intervention or Humanitarian Imperialism? America and the Armenian Genocide


Editor’s note: The following is an adapted excerpt from Sharing the Burden: The Armenian Question, Humanitarian Intervention, and Anglo-American Visions of Global Order by Charlie Laderman, published by Oxford University Press in 2019.

Last December, in what already seems like another era, the U.S. Senate joined the House of Representatives in voting overwhelmingly to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Few issues have brought about any sort of bipartisan consensus in Congress recently, but this was one. In passing this resolution, Congress urged “education and public understanding of the facts of the Armenian Genocide, including the American role in the humanitarian relief effort, and the relevance of the Armenian Genocide to modern-day crimes against humanity.” This article takes up that challenge. Specifically, what it tries to explain is why the struggle for survival of one of the world’s smallest nations became so entangled in the foreign policies of the two most powerful nations — the United States and the British Empire — before, during, and after World War I.

In doing so, it explores the possibilities, limitations, and continued dilemmas of humanitarian intervention today. Since the 1990s, scholars have been drawn back to studying the international response to one of the 20th century’s first genocides in an attempt to uncover historical precedents for dealing with humanitarian atrocities. Most notable was Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which begins with the slaughter of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Power argues that Woodrow Wilson’s indifference to the massacres inaugurated a century of U.S. presidents adopting a “consistent policy of nonintervention in the face of genocide.”



Power is correct that Wilson followed a policy of noninterference during the war but the emphasis on American inaction fails to acknowledge the genuine attempts that the president made to address the Armenian problem once World War I ended. Furthermore, focusing too narrowly on the genocide itself and not considering America’s response in relation to Britain’s misses the richness of the debate that America’s duty to Armenia provoked. Rather than initiating an American diplomatic tradition of turning a blind eye to genocide, the search for a solution to the Armenian Question represented the first time that U.S. politicians were forced to seriously grapple with the moral dilemmas that come when confronting atrocities on this scale.

That is not to say that the debates over intervention for the Armenians and our contemporary ones are directly analogous. To quote L.P. Hartley, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” America’s global interests and security fears were certainly not exactly the same then as those that it faces today. But some of the dilemmas that statesmen faced then are comparable and enduring.

It was especially apt that Congress took the lead in recognizing the Armenian Genocide and calling for the United States to help prevent “modern-day crimes against humanity.” For it was around 120 years ago that another joint congressional resolution regarding the Armenians confirmed a fundamental departure in U.S. foreign policy, signaling that the United States was becoming a great power with global responsibilities and its government would no longer remain aloof from events beyond its hemisphere. This earlier resolution occurred in the wake of the first large-scale Armenian massacres, which ultimately claimed the lives of roughly 100,000 Armenians between 1894 and 1896 and served as a precursor to the even greater crimes of 1915.

The persecution of the Ottoman Armenians was a humanitarian cause celebre at the turn of the 20th century. Winston Churchill would recall that the Armenians’ plight “stirred the ire” of people across the English-speaking world, while Herbert Hoover declared that the “name Armenia was at the front of the American mind.” Most contemporary readers are unlikely to be so familiar with the issue, so let us first start by exploring the background to “the Armenian Question” — the diplomatic term that arose from the insecurity of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

Although the Armenians as a Christian minority were regarded as second-class citizens, they lived relatively peacefully in their historical home while the empire thrived. By the 19th century, however, the crumbling empire had become the “sick man” of Europe. It suffered numerous outside interventions by European powers, many in support of uprisings by the empire’s Christian minority subjects. As these nations gained independence, the empire shrunk. Despite attempts at reform, by the late 19th century the empire was increasingly despotic under Sultan Abdul Hamid. Persecution against the remaining Christians, especially the Armenians whose homeland was at the state’s strategic crossroads, increased as the government perceived them as potential fifth columns for European intervention and a barrier to the establishment of a more consolidated, Islamic empire. This oppression would culminate in the massacres between 1894 and 1896, otherwise known as the Hamidian massacres.

When reports of these atrocities filtered into the United States, American humanitarianism initially followed a conventional 19th-century practice. Private charities and churches took the lead in marshaling relief efforts. They were led by the American missionary movement, which had been proselytizing in the Ottoman Empire since the early 19th century and had established the largest mission field of any nation, with Armenians as their principal wards. Conversely, the federal government declined to involve itself diplomatically in the crisis or to concern itself with addressing its causes. Yet as public outrage grew, petitions poured into Congress appealing for American action to aid the Armenians. Aware that their nation was rapidly emerging as the world’s leading industrial nation, and that Congress had recently appropriated funds for new, modern warships that would transform the U.S. Navy, many Americans now urged their representatives to use this power to address the greatest humanitarian atrocity of the age. In early 1896 Congress passed a resolution calling for President Grover Cleveland to intervene to help “stay the hand of fanaticism and lawless violence” in the Ottoman Empire. This was unprecedented, the first time that a branch of the federal government had outlined a political solution to a humanitarian problem occurring outside the Western Hemisphere.

Ultimately, congressional agitation did not lead to executive action, beyond sending a couple of those new warships to the Eastern Mediterranean to protect the rights of American missionaries caught up in the cataclysm. But the resolutions revealed that a bold new humanitarian spirit was now infusing American diplomacy. One of the most ardent advocates of “action” for the Armenians was Theodore Roosevelt. After assuming the presidency in 1901, Roosevelt articulated a set of principles outlining America’s responsibility to intervene in response to “crimes against civilization.” The Armenian massacres between 1894 and 1896, and the failure of any power to prevent them, profoundly impacted his thinking. He frequently invoked Armenian suffering as a symbol of man’s inhumanity and the clearest justification for righteous wars. He referenced the Armenians when advocating intervention over Spanish oppression in Cuba, protesting anti-Jewish pogroms in Eastern Europe and in intervening diplomatically, alongside Britain, to remove King Leopold’s regime in the Congo.

Most Americans shared Roosevelt’s horror at these atrocities but many disagreed with his response. In the case of Roosevelt’s protest against anti-Semitic pogroms, former Secretary of State Richard Olney led Democratic accusations that Roosevelt’s actions were merely a ruse to secure Jewish votes for re-election. Olney condemned Roosevelt for “lecturing a foreign state upon the management of its internal affairs.”

In his 1904 Address to Congress, Roosevelt justified his conduct and outlined a set of principles governing humanitarian intervention. He proclaimed that Americans should prioritize dealing with their own “sins,” most critically “violent race prejudice” at home, over protesting against “wrongdoing elsewhere.” Yet despite America’s own “very obvious shortcomings,” Roosevelt believed it had a duty to censure international wrongdoing because it had, on the whole, demonstrated its commitment to “principles of civil and religious liberty and of orderly freedom.” What’s more, there were “occasional crimes committed on so vast a scale and of such peculiar horror [that] in extreme cases action may be justifiable.” While Roosevelt believed “the cases in which we could interfere by force of arms” as the U.S. had interfered in Cuba were necessarily few, it was inevitable that the country should desire eagerly to give “expression to its horror … when it witnesses such systematic and long extended cruelty and oppression of which the Armenians have been victims.”

This set of principles on intervention didn’t make much of an impression at home but it certainly did abroad, where there was uproar about the possibility of further American intervention in Europe. Henri Hauser, the French author, would characterize this as “humanitarian imperialism” and warn Europeans that the governance of the world was no longer a matter for them alone.

Roosevelt’s message raised hopes among Armenians, Jews, and their supporters that he would interfere more vigorously on their behalf. After reports of renewed Armenian massacres in 1904, Roosevelt was urged to intervene. Yet the muted American response to his message chilled his ardor. He told an adviser that he was “entirely satisfied to head a crusade for the Armenians but the country has not the remotest intention of fighting on such an issue.” He had tried to rouse Americans but accepted they had no desire “to back up words by deeds.” While often eager to protest abuses by other nations, Americans were reluctant to develop the instruments of power that Roosevelt recognized were essential to make such protests effective. For the rest of his presidency Roosevelt was more cautious. In response to appeals, he invoked a dictum that he had learned as a rancher: “Never draw unless you mean to shoot.”

Even while pursuing this more cautious approach, however, Roosevelt remained convinced that, if the opportunity arose, then the United States should intervene for the Armenians. And so a decade later in 1915 amid the turmoil of World War I when reports reached America, then neutral in the conflict, that the Ottomans were perpetrating new atrocities against their Armenian subjects, the now-former president was the most outspoken proponent of U.S. intervention. To Roosevelt’s disgust, America’s official response was restrained. The American public did respond with an impassioned expression of philanthropy to save the survivors, contributing vast sums to one of the largest private philanthropic operations in the nation’s history. But President Woodrow Wilson was concerned that public condemnation of one of Germany’s principal allies would compromise American neutrality in a conflict that he and most Americans wished to stay out of.

Even after American entry into the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1917, Wilson avoided declaring war on their Ottoman ally. This approach appalled Roosevelt. He publicly declared: “The Armenian massacre was the greatest crime of the war, and failure to act against Turkey is to condone it.” Roosevelt believed the United States was fighting in a common cause with Britain and France, and not declaring war on all the Central Powers was a show of “bad faith towards our allies.” Above all, he was adamant that if America failed to vindicate the Armenians by punishing the Ottomans it would reveal “all talk of guaranteeing the future peace of the world” was “mischievous nonsense and insincere claptrap.”

Roosevelt was motivated by a rival internationalism, and a rival humanitarianism, to that espoused by Wilson. He believed the United States was engaged with “all the allies in [a] great war for liberty and justice.” True, Roosevelt was out of office and free to advocate policies without any obligation to consider the practicalities. Nevertheless, his position reflected a consistent conviction, expressed in and out of office, that nations must uphold their most cherished values, by force if necessary, when they were challenged. America’s unwillingness to make these sacrifices on behalf of the Armenians compromised any claim it had to be the guardian of the highest civilized ideals. Conversely, Wilson did not conceive of a military solution, and certainly not during the war. The failure of the Allied assault on Gallipoli had already underlined the difficulties in invading Turkey. Wilson’s prime concern was the defeat of Germany, and unlike Roosevelt he did not believe it was America’s duty to vindicate the Armenians by declaring war on their oppressors.

Missionaries remained the principal domestic constituency with interests in the Near East. By contrast, America’s economic interests in the region were minimal at this time. While administering humanitarian aid to the Armenians, missionaries were insistent that America refrain from declaring war on the Ottomans. They were fearful that the preeminent position they had developed in the empire over the past century would be jeopardized. Military intervention would threaten American interests and risked worsening the Armenian situation by impeding relief efforts. The missionary determination to remain on friendly terms with the Ottomans dovetailed nicely with Wilson’s larger foreign policy goals: first, to stay out of the war and then, once in, to keep his eye on the larger picture. The Ottoman Empire was relevant only as an ally of Germany. In Wilson’s and the missionaries’ minds, it was not Deutschland über Alles, but, as one critic at the time pointed out, Deutschland über Allah. Once Germany was defeated, the threat to world peace would vanish and the Ottoman Empire would collapse.

Above all, and contrary to Roosevelt, Wilson distrusted Allied imperialism and did not want the United States involved in a war for control of the Near East. This was the principal reason he denoted the United States as an associate, rather than an ally, during the conflict and refused to declare war on the Ottoman Empire. Yet Wilson’s apparent inaction in the face of the massacres belies the outsized role that the Armenian Question would come to play in his own vision of reforming global politics. At the end of the war, Wilson wanted Americans to take the lead in establishing a reformed international system, in which the Ottoman Empire would be dismembered and the security of its subject peoples guaranteed. And in this new order the United States would have a special role to play in Armenia. In addition to urging U.S. membership in the new League of Nations he had outlined, Wilson hoped that it would help the surviving Armenians to establish their own state. For Wilson, an American mandate for the nascent Armenian republic, through the League, would be a manifestation of this new order.

But it was not only Wilson who saw an American mandate in the Near East as pivotal to a reformed international system. It was also a central tenet of Britain’s strategy for the postwar world. The Armenian cause enjoyed widespread popular sympathy in Britain. Beyond the humanitarian motives, and more weightily for David Lloyd George’s government, a mandate also served its strategic interests, checking France’s regional influence and guarding against potential Soviet or pan-Islamic threats to British India. The prime motive was summarized by Colonial Secretary Lord Alfred Milner: “The future of the world [depends] upon a good understanding” between Britain and the United States. An American mandate was not “a mere cloak of annexation, but a bond of union.” The idea of an Anglo-American “colonial alliance,” based on U.S. assumption of the mandate, is one of the most interesting of the forgotten ideals of the World War I period. It was a primary British objective at the Paris Peace Conference.

Wilson’s own commitment to the mandate, however, was not motivated by a desire to establish an Anglo-American “colonial alliance” but by a determination for the United States to lead in establishing a different form of world order. For Wilson, it would provide an American alternative to European imperialism and, more importantly, ensure that the United States assumed a position of global leadership.

But as opposition to the League of Nations grew, Wilson was forced to subordinate his commitment to Armenian security to winning Senate approval for ratification of the Versailles Treaty and the league. Like Wilson, his Senate opponents associated an American protectorate for the Armenians with league membership. Whereas Wilson perceived it as a symbol of American selflessness and moral power, his opponents interpreted it as evidence of the unrewarding and open-ended commitments the league would impose.

Wilson’s growing commitment to the Armenian cause was met by increasing American hostility to international commitments of any kind. For Republican leader Henry Cabot Lodge and the rest of Wilson’s opponents, the United States was being burdened with the world’s “poorhouse,” while Britain and France seized more lucrative territories. Wilson’s critics claimed it was unconstitutional to tax Americans for altruistic service to other peoples or to send American troops to this remote, war-torn region. They summoned up George Washington’s “Farewell Address” and the Monroe Doctrine as evidence America should preserve its policy of non-entanglement in the affairs of the Old World. Most significantly, they feared Wilson was merely using the mandate as America’s backdoor to the League of Nations. The Republican senator Warren Harding, who succeeded Wilson as president in 1920, summed up the Republican position when he declared: “I am not insensible to the sufferings of Armenia … but I am thinking of America first. Safety, as well as charity, begins at home.” Harding would make this “America First” message a principal theme of his presidential campaign and Wilson’s request for an Armenian mandate was a regular point of attack.

The debates in Congress reflected those in the country. Appeals to America’s historical world role mingled with a desire to limit international responsibilities and refrain from burdensome overseas commitments. The question of America’s duty to Armenia stimulated a public debate over the very character of the American nation. As Walter Lippmann and his fellow New Republic editors declared, “If we fail at this juncture to vindicate Armenia’s right to freedom we shall never again persuade the world that our moral sentiments are anything but empty rhetoric playing over a gulf of selfishness and sloth.” Yet for others there was a fundamental difference between private expressions of charity and a political commitment to Armenian security. The Republican election platform in 1920 argued “no more striking illustration can be found of President Wilson’s disregard for the lives of American boys or American interests” than his request for an Armenian mandate. Americans should not confuse “the humanitarian and material aid [they] should extend and the political control they ought to avoid.” Ultimately, Wilson was unable to convince Americans to join the league and his request to assume a mandate was also rejected. Deprived of protection, Armenian independence was short-lived, crushed between Bolshevik expansion and Turkish nationalism.

Although the United States was unable to prevent the wartime atrocities or secure Armenia’s independence in the aftermath, this should not detract from the importance of the issue during a pivotal period in American history. As American power expanded at the turn of the 20th century, so did the sense that the nation could use this strength to aid oppressed minorities and persecuted peoples, such as the Armenians. Events that would have been lamentable but unresolvable earlier in the 19th century, occurring in regions beyond American reach, now provoked intense debate over whether the United States should respond and, if so, how. The humanitarianism was certainly selective and the subjects of interest were overwhelmingly religiously based, drawing principally on cultural tropes of “civilization” and “barbarism.” And American concern ultimately did not lead to a political commitment, with the official response to the Armenian plight largely limited to relief and rhetoric. Yet in attempting to convince their fellow countrymen of their responsibility to the Armenians, both Roosevelt and Wilson extended the parameters of debate on the purpose of American power and the nature of the national interest. Their search for a solution to the Armenian Question encapsulated the nation’s internal conflict over its world role.

The debate also demonstrated five dilemmas that would continue to bedevil American policymakers in the decades to come. Firstly, there was the problem of ensuring that presidential rhetoric did not become detached from political realities, demonstrated most clearly by Roosevelt’s dictum, “Never draw unless you mean to shoot.” That maxim offers an abiding lesson for statecraft, if one often ignored. Yet even while pursuing this cautious approach, Roosevelt remained convinced that, if the opportunity arose, then the United States should intervene for the Armenians. This illustrated a second, competing dilemma of how far a leader should go to reconcile his personal ideals with the electorate’s conception of the nation’s interests. During his presidency, Roosevelt publicly promoted the Armenian cause as far as he felt possible but accepted that, despite their sympathies, few Americans believed that action for the Armenians was compatible with U.S. interests. Wilson faced this predicament even more acutely in his attempts to secure a mandate, with his opponents pointing to it as evidence that the president’s internationalism was utterly divorced from the national interest and designed to benefit other nations at America’s expense. The backlash against Wilson’s idealism, and the reluctance to assume broader international commitments, reflected a pattern that would repeat itself on other occasions where policy seemed to be guided by excessive utopian thinking. Yet in responding to the Armenian crisis, Wilson was forced to wrestle with a third dilemma that every would-be intervener faces in the wake of a humanitarian atrocity: “Either to assume the burden of administering the territory, or force the oppressor to mend his ways.” Moreover, having decided that the United States should “assume the burden,” Wilson faced a related, fourth dilemma over the legitimate basis for an intervention, whether it required the mandate of an international organization, as he proposed, or should be pursued either unilaterally or with a coalition of willing partners, as Roosevelt insisted. Ultimately, however, all those who worked to resolve the Armenian Question for over three decades were confronted with the cruellest dilemma of all — that, sometimes, it is simply not possible to achieve a good solution.

Wilson made sure that he never forgot the Armenian tragedy. In November 1917, a delegation of Armenians had visited the White House and presented the president with a portrait of a young Armenian girl in traditional dress. The girl’s haunted expression symbolized the destruction of her nation. In her hand, however, she clasped a mountain snowdrop, a flower whose appearance Armenians regarded as a sign that winter was over and spring was on its way. The Armenians’ faith that better days were ahead was captured by the painting’s inscription: “L’Esperance” (hope). The portrait was displayed in the White House for the remainder of Wilson’s term. After leaving office, the former president brought the painting to his new home in Washington, where it continues to hang over the fireplace in the drawing room to this day, a constant reminder of the tragic question that neither he nor any other American was able to resolve.



Charlie Laderman is a lecturer (assistant professor) in international history in the War Studies Department, King’s College, London. He is the author of Sharing the Burden: The Armenian Question, Humanitarian Intervention and Anglo-American Visions of Global Order (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Image: Photo by Armin T. Wegner, German soldier and medic in World War I, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons