The first reports of massacres reached the US embassy in Istanbul in December 1914. Hundreds of Armenians, a Christian people with ancient roots in Anatolia, had been murdered by rioters in the Bitlis region of eastern Turkey and hanged in the streets of Erzurum. Countless others had died from exposure and exhaustion while laboring as human mule-trains for the Turkish army. By the spring of 1915, much of the country’s Armenian population had—so it was claimed by Armenian spokesmen and American missionaries and diplomats—been subjected to mass deportations, wholesale pillage, and rape.
The US ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, initially questioned the veracity of these accounts. Morgenthau was the latest of a series of American Jews appointed to that post on the assumption that Jews formed a natural link between the Muslim Middle East and Christian America. He had come to admire the Armenians as a people much like his own, with a similar ethnic pride and cultural vigor. He knew that their position in the Ottoman Empire had grown increasingly tenuous since the outbreak of war with Russia. He said he was well aware of the Ottoman penchant for savagery. And yet Morgenthau still doubted whether the Turks, for all their cruelty, could have carried out the atrocities ascribed to them. Only when survivors of the horrors began to stagger into his office, haunted and physically maimed, and the nightmarish dispatches mounted on his desktop, did the ambassador finally acknowledge reality. The Turkish government, he informed Washington, had embarked on a policy of “race extermination” of the Armenians by means of “terrible tortures, expulsions and…massacres.”
Much like the American officials who, twenty-five years later, were reluctant to respond to evidence of the Nazi massacres of Jews, Morgenthau was at first blinded by the enormity of the crime. Who could believe that, in the twentieth century, political leaders could launch a meticulously planned and exactingly executed program to annihilate more than a million of their defenseless neighbors? But unlike his successors at the outset of World War II, none of whom had clear evidence of what the Germans planned to do to the Jews, Morgenthau and other diplomats of his generation had recent proof of the mass killing of Armenians by the Turks. Between 1894 and 1896, Turkish troops rampaged through Armenian villages, ransacking an estimated one million houses and killing as many 200,000. “All the Armenians in sight were killed and their houses and stores robbed,” one American diplomat wrote. “Another Armenian Holocaust!” exclaimed a New York Times headline in what may have been the first use of the word to denote genocide.
Allied leaders in the early stages of World War I also had access to firsthand information on the massacres, a source largely denied to their counterparts in World War II. Missionaries, many of them American, had been active throughout the Ottoman Empire for nearly a century, building Western-style schools and hospitals. An extensive consular service had been established to mediate between these …