If there’s one thing we can say for sure about the governments of the U.S. and Europe, it’s that they sound upset about Russia’s brutalization of Ukraine. President Joe Biden recently called it “genocide.” A spokesperson for his National Security Council said that it’s working to “identify any Russians responsible for the atrocities and war crimes that have been committed.” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared that the civilian killings in the city of Bucha “are war crimes we will not accept … those who did this must be held accountable.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson proclaimed, “We will not rest until justice is done.”
However, history suggests that this is the emptiest of rhetoric. It’s difficult to find any examples of governments sacrificing their goals for the well-being of people in other countries. Instead, governments see the very real suffering of foreigners as useful for propaganda purposes — to motivate their own citizens and make their enemies look bad — but otherwise as totally irrelevant.
A chilling story from 100 years ago illustrates this truth in the starkest possible terms. And precisely because it’s so unflattering to the powerful, it is now almost completely unknown.
When World War I broke out in July 1914, the antagonists were the Allies on one side (most importantly the French, British, and Russian empires) and the Central Powers (the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires) on the other.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire — which once stretched across southeastern Europe and northern Africa — had contracted to present-day Turkey plus most of what is today Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. And thanks to the discovery of oil in the Middle East, other empires, the French and British in particular, were keenly interested in carving off more Ottoman territory for themselves.
A triumvirate called the Three Pashas took control of the Ottoman Empire following a coup in 1913, just before World War I. In 1915, when the war was raging, they launched one of history’s greatest crimes: the Armenian genocide.
The Ottoman Armenians were a minority of about 2 million Christians in what was officially a Muslim sultanate. More significantly, the Three Pashas feared that the Armenians might attempt to break off and form their own independent country. In the words of one of the triumvirate, Talaat Pasha, the Ottoman Empire was “taking advantage of the war in order to thoroughly liquidate its internal foes.” Armenians were massacred en masse with bullets or driven into the Syrian desert to perish. By the time it was over, approximately 1 million people were dead. A U.S. diplomat in Turkey who witnessed the genocide firsthand wrote that he was “confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this.” Adolf Hitler would later cite it as precedent for his own exploits.
None of this was secret as it was happening. On the contrary, as soon as the genocide commenced, the British, French, and Russian governments stated jointly: “In view of those new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization, the Allied governments announce … that they will hold personally responsible [for] these crimes all members of the Ottoman government.” A prominent member of the British House of Lords conducted an investigation and in 1915 wrote that “there is no case in history, certainly not since the time of Tamerlane, in which any crime so hideous and upon so large a scale has been recorded.” British and French newspapers were filled with denunciations of the vicious Turks and celebrations of the valiant Armenian people.
But here’s what was going on behind the scenes:
In December 1915, another of the Three Pashas, Djemal Pasha, sent an emissary to the Allied side of the war with an extraordinary offer. He told them that he hoped to stage a coup to push the other two out and seize all power for himself. If France, the U.K., and Russia would support his scheme and provide financial support for the Ottoman Empire, he would withdraw from the war and halt the Armenian genocide.
His only other condition was that France and the U.K. give up any claims to the Ottoman Empire’s territories in the Middle East.
This was his key mistake. As historian David Fromkin writes in his celebrated book “A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East”: “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.”
While Russia was initially interested, France said no and reiterated its claims to Syria. The British foreign minister also turned down the offer.
As the British and French governments beat their breasts in public about the massacre of Armenians, in secret they happily allowed the genocide to continue.
In other words, as the British and French governments rent their garments and beat their breasts in public about the massacre of Armenians, in secret they happily allowed the genocide to continue. And yet somehow they outdid even that grotesque cynicism. As Fromkin points out, the offer from Djemal Pasha arrived right at the moment of the famed Allied evacuation from the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey and the abandonment of their campaign there. Yet British and French lust for imperial boodle after the war was so great that they ignored an opportunity to take the Ottoman Empire out of the conflict, thereby prolonging the war — and condemning an unknowable number of their own soldiers to death.
The U.S. role in these incredibly sordid proceedings was less significant but still ugly. The American press and politicians had also cried out in lamentation about the Armenian genocide during the war, which the U.S. joined in 1917. “The whole heart of America has been engaged for Armenia,” said President Woodrow Wilson. Americans, he believed, “know more about Armenia and its sufferings than they know about any other European area.”
But the U.S. then jumped into the post-war maneuvering for a slice of the region and its oil. The Three Pashas had fallen from power, but their replacement, Kemal Atatürk, vehemently opposed any accountability for the perpetrators of the genocide. Suddenly everything looked different. Meanwhile, pogroms against Armenians resumed.
Allen Dulles, who would eventually head the CIA, was then a young State Department official. He wrote at the time that “the 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.” But in fact, as Dulles continued, that was exactly the case: “I’ve been kept busy trying to ward off congressional resolutions of sympathy.”
It soon became time to look forward, not backward. And after all, had what happened to the Armenians been so bad? One retired U.S. admiral wrote a prominent article claiming that the missing Armenians had been deported not into the desert, but to “the most delightful and fertile part of Syria … at great expense of money and effort.” He did not mention that the Turkish government had given him a lucrative oil concession in Iraq.
The lesson here regarding Ukraine is grim, but it should be faced honestly. All of the heartfelt declarations from politicians should be ignored, here as in every case. It is possible that the U.S. will act in ways that benefit Ukrainians. But if so, that will be mere happenstance. Certainly no Ukrainians should be counting on it, and no Americans should believe that’s the goal that’s motivating our government. Powerful countries have far-reaching strategies that they are determined to carry through, and human suffering is not part of the equation.