r e c o m m e n d e d  r e a d i n g



Henry Morgenthau, newly appointed United States ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, sailed through the Golden Horn, where East meets West, to take up residence in the embassy at Constantinople in the fall of 1913. On the city’s crowding hills rose the Byzantine palaces, the mosques and churches, the splendid monuments, the gilded domes and soaring minarets of the centuries-old capital. After two event-making years, Morgenthau would return to the United States as the man who alerted his country, indeed the world, to the barbaric crime committed by Turkey against the Armenian people in their midst.

When President Woodrow Wilson, newly elected, first proposed the Turkish post to Morgenthau, the finance chairman of the successful Democratic campaign, he had declined it. He preferred a policy-making place, perhaps at Treasury or Commerce, in the new administration. The present ambassador in Constantinople, Oscar S. Straus, whose Jewish father had emigrated to the United States from Germany, as Morgenthau himself had done, had served in the post for so long, under so many administrations, that it assumed the character of a Jewish fiefdom in the United States government, as if it were, said Morgenthau, “the only diplomatic post to which a Jew can aspire.”1 Wilson, in fact, wanted a Jew at that station because of the paramount importance of Palestine and its Jewish colonists in the Ottoman Empire. American interests in the Near East still centered on the protection of Christian missionaries and affiliated schools, colleges, seminaries, and hospitals. But on the eve of the European war the empire was in turmoil from the Adriatic to the Caucasus and from the Euphrates to the Nile. In 1908 a party of “Young Turks,” organized as the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), deposed the autocratic sultan Abdul Hamid II and introduced parliamentary government under a reactivated constitution. “Turkey for the Turks” became the rallying cry of the nationalist revolution that rose up in succession to the dying multinational empire of the Sublime Porte. Many European Jews, meanwhile, inspired by Zionist aspirations for a national homeland, migrated to Palestine. Germany joined the race of the European powers to control the economic development of the Near East, and Emperor William II courted the favor of the CUP. In these circumstances, the State Department instructed Ambassador Straus to transfer his efforts from the protection of missionary endeavors and institutions to matters of economic development: railroad and oil concessions and advancement of commerce.2

Traveling in Europe in the summer of 1913, the fifty-seven-year-old Morgenthau, whose most striking feature was a trim Van Dyke beard, remained eager for a career in public service after making a fortune as a New York lawyer, banker, and real estate investor. In Paris he met with Ambassador Myron Herrick, who warmly advised him to take the Turkish post, and also with Stephen S. Wise, the charismatic rabbi of the Free Synagogue in New York, to which Morgenthau belonged. Wise was returning from a tour of Palestine, and he emphasized the service a man of Morgenthau’s talents might render the Jews there from the only American seat of importance in the Near East. He was persuasive.

Upon returning home Morgenthau advised the president of his change of mind. The nomination went forward to the Senate and Morgenthau was quickly confirmed. During a leisurely Atlantic crossing in the fall, he became acquainted with a group of Protestant missionaries returning from leave to their duties in the Near East. “I had hitherto had a hazy notion that missionaries were sort of over-zealous advance agents of sectarian religion and that their principal activity was the proselytizing of believers in other faiths,” the New Yorker later wrote of this encounter. “To my surprise and gratification, these men gave me a very different picture. They were, I discovered, in reality advance agents of civilization.”3 That proved a useful lesson for the new ambassador.

After presenting his credentials to the Porte and meeting Sultan Muhammad V, Abdul Hamid’s younger brother and nominal successor, the new ambassador made acquaintance with the power behind the throne, the cabinet ministers Talaat, Enver, and Djemal, the oligarchic triumvirate of the CUP. Talaat, with the title of minister of the interior, was the ablest and the most powerful of the trio, Morgenthau would conclude. Enver, minister of war, formerly military attaché in Berlin, affected the dashing style of the German officer corps. He and Morgenthau often rode horseback together. On the walls of his office Enver hung portraits of Napoleon and Frederick the Great. Djemal, minister of marine, was the mildest of the triumvirs. Morgenthau could not help seeing these men in his own mind as political bosses on the model of Tammany Hall.4

While thus getting acquainted with the Young Turks, he introduced himself as well to the American community in Constantinople, especially the missionary-educators William W. Peet, the representative of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions; Dr. Caleb Frank Gates, president of Robert College; and Dr. Mary Mills Patrick, president of the Woman’s College. The ambassador was struck by the anomalies of his position: “Here was I, a Jew, representing the greatest Christian nation of the world at the capital of the chief Mohammedan nation.” In a speech before the Chamber of Commerce of Constantinople he left no doubt about his true mission. It was not about sewing machines, petroleum, and tobacco, though business could not be neglected. It was rather to make his embassy a salient of American civilization in the Near East. It was, he declared, “to foster the permanent civilizing work of the Christian missions, which so gloriously exemplified the American spirit at its best.”5

The coming of the European war presented new challenges to the ambassador. German designs envisioned Turkey as a vassal state. “Deutschland über Allah” was the way an embassy aide put it.6 The Germans quickly closed the Dardanelles, thus bottling up the Russian enemy, though not before Germany had sneaked two of its cruisers into the Black Sea. The Ottomans then abrogated the “capitulations,” which were the treaty arrangements that protected foreigners and their enterprises by placing them under the jurisdiction of their own countries’ legal systems and exempting them from Ottoman laws. The churches and colleges and other American institutions were thus placed in jeopardy. Then, in November, Turkey entered the war on the side of the Central Powers. Given its strategic position, it at once became the Reich’s most valuable ally. Morgenthau began to see a good deal of the German ambassador, Hans von Wangenheim, an imposing cigar-smoking Prussian. The Turkish military establishment had been reorganized along German lines. Morgenthau was mistaken, however, in supposing that it was controlled by Berlin.7 War broke out between the eastern empires in October. The sultan then proclaimed a jihad, a holy war against the infidel; and Morgenthau thought he saw Germany’s hand in this appeal to religious hatred. Fortunately, although the proclamation reverberated in the mosques, it fizzled ingloriously. Yet, Morgenthau later wrote, “it started passions aflame that afterward spent themselves in the massacres of the Armenian and other subject peoples.” Early in 1915 the Allied fleets attempted to force the straits at the Dardanelles and capture Constantinople. The campaign, with every promise of success, failed in March, however, and the subsequent attack on the Gallipoli peninsula met the same fate. Morgenthau wrote mournfully, “Had the Allied fleets once passed the defenses at the straits, the administration of the Young Turks would have come to a bloody end.” The embassy aide Lewis Einstein added that “the main sufferers” of the defeat would be the Armenians.8

The Armenians, numbering over 2.5 million, were scattered throughout Asia Minor. Perhaps half lived in Russian Armenia, lodged in the Caucasus in the shadow of Mount Ararat, where Noah’s Ark was said to have come to rest. A million inhabited the six “homeland” vilayets (provinces) on the tablelands of eastern Anatolia; others belonged to so-called Little Armenia, in ancient Cilicia, between the Taurus Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea; and a substantial colony of Armenians transacted most of the business of the great metropolis, Constantinople. The Armenians were Christians; Armenia, in fact, was the first nation, in 301 A.D., to adopt Christianity. They had been persecuted through the ages, yet they survived; and in the nineteenth century, responding to currents of modernity and availing themselves of the education offered by Christian missionaries, mainly from America, they became forerunners of Westernization in the Near East. The Armenian massacres, as they were commonly called, had their startling beginning in 1894-95, during the reign of Abdul Hamid II, the Red Sultan, and went on sporadically for years, before and after the Young Turk revolution, which the Armenians had greeted with high hopes, only to see them utterly crushed in 1915.

Early in that year, Djevdet Bey, brother-in-law of Enver Pasha, the war minister, came to the eastern walled city of Van with a commission to annihilate the Armenians. They made up three-fifths of the inhabitants. Van was a pretty city on a lake and the home of a well-staffed Protestant mission with schools, a college, and a hospital. Feelings were tense because of the war. The Armenians were naturally drawn to the Russians, an Allied power, nearby in the Caucasus, while the Turks demanded their loyalty and their service. Hostilities broke out in April, after the withdrawal of Russian troops. The Armenians, behind the walls of the old city, came under fiery siege by the Turkish army. When the siege was lifted after twenty-seven days, most of the Armenians were dead. Van had become a Golgotha. The Russians returned with nothing to do but to clean up the place. According to Dr. Clarence Ussher, director of the hospital, they cremated 55,000 bodies.9

Comparatively few Armenians—a respectable few—died in battle during the war. Most were victims of a brutal system of murder known as “deportation,” for which the war was a smoke screen. Typically, in one village after another, the gendarmes would go from house to house, confiscate any arms, and take off the men, allegedly for work details, then instruct the women and children to prepare for a journey on foot to some unnamed destination. The men, of course, never returned. They were beaten to death or hideously dispatched in more barbaric fashion. The women and children formed long caravans pointed in the general direction of the Syrian desert or the Mesopotamian valley. Across the ambassador’s desk in Constantinople came reports from United States consuls, missionaries, and other eyewitnesses. (Morgenthau’s Armenian dragoman, Arshag K. Schmavonian, translated those written in his own language.) As Morgenthau later described it:

From thousands of Armenian cities and villages these despairing caravans now set forth; they filled all the roads leading southward; everywhere, as they moved on, they raised a huge dust, and abandoned debris, chairs, blankets, bedclothes, household utensils, and other impedimenta marked the course of the procession. When the caravans first started, the individuals bore some semblance to human beings; in a few days, however, the dust of the road plastered their faces and clothes, the mud caked their lower members, and the slowly advancing mobs, frequently bent with fatigue and crazed by the brutality of the “protectors,” resembled some new and strange animal species. Yet for the better part of six months, from April to October, 1915, practically all the highways in Asia Minor were crowded with these unearthly bands of exiles. . . . In these six months, as far as can be ascertained, about 200,000 people started on this journey.10

In June, Leslie Davis, consul at Harpoot, a city of 30,000 perched on a hill above the broad plain, wrote distressingly, “Another method has been found to destroy the Armenian race. This is no less than the deportation of the entire Armenian population . . . from all six vilayets. A massacre would be humane in comparison with it. In a massacre many escape, but a wholesale deportation of this kind in this country means a lingering and perhaps more dreadful death for nearly everyone.”11

During the summer and fall shocking accounts of the massacres surfaced in American newspapers and magazines. “Armenian Horrors Grow” and “Tell of Horrors Done in Armenia” were among the headlines in the New York Times. Readers already emotionally drained by Belgian atrocities were scarcely prepared for something ten times worse. For some the stories smelled of Allied propaganda. But after James Bryce, the English author and statesman, former ambassador to the United States, made a dramatic and solidly based report in the House of Lords, Americans sat up and took notice. Bryce’s authority was unimpeachable. Forty years earlier he had ascended Mount Ararat, then published a travel journal, Transcaucasia and Ararat, that practically introduced the Western mind to Armenia. In 1915 Bryce joined with a rising young historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, in compiling a pamphlet, Armenian Atrocities. The following year, at the request of the Foreign Office, he collaborated on a massive blue book, TREATMENT OF THE ARMENIANS IN THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE, for civic enlightenment. In both Great Britain and the United States Armenian relief funds sprang up almost overnight.

Morgenthau, meanwhile, confronted the Young Turks with the evidence in his bulging Armenian file. They had, he believed with German prodding, revived Abdul Hamid’s satanic enterprise of resolving the Armenian Question by exterminating the Armenians. In one of his interviews, Talaat freely conceded the point. The plan embodied in the deportations had been approved by the CUP after prolonged and careful consideration. “We have our objections to the Armenians on three distinct grounds,” he told Morgenthau. “In the first place, they have enriched themselves at the expense of the Turks. In the second place, they are determined to domineer over us and to establish a separate state. In the third place, they have openly encouraged our enemies.” The latter charge was based mainly on instances of aid to the Russians in the Caucasus, which Morgenthau had already dismissed as of small importance. “Why are you so interested in the Armenians anyway?” Talaat asked on another occasion. “You are a Jew; these people are Christians.” Morgenthau replied, “You don’t seem to realize that I am not here as a Jew but as the American Ambassador. My country contains something more than 97,000,000 Christians and something less than 3,000,000 Jews. So, at least in my ambassadorial capacity, I am 97 per cent Christian.” Talaat objected to Americans’ spending money for the relief of Armenians. Why don’t you give it to us? he pleaded. One day he astonished the ambassador with a particularly callous request. He asked that American life insurance companies that had written policies for the Armenians be directed to make the Ottoman government their beneficiary. “They are practically all dead now and have left no heirs to collect the money. It of course all escheats to the State.” Morgenthau was left speechless.12

The ambassador opened a back channel through the German embassy to exert pressure on the Turkish ally to stop the massacres, apparently without success. As Lewis Einstein observed, “The Germans, to their eternal disgrace, will not lift a finger to save the Armenians.” Their responsibility, it seems, was not in instigating and abetting the crime, as Morgenthau inclined to believe, but in doing nothing to arrest it. Wangenheim, in poor health, categorically refused to intervene; and after a heated encounter with Morgenthau in October 1915, he retired to home and bed and suffered a fatal stroke. Morgenthau found a strong mind and a sympathetic ear in Dr. Johannes Lepsius, a representative of German missionary interests and long a friend of Armenia. Lepsius, having been given free range in Morgenthau’s file, diligently pursued his search for evidence, and upon his return to Berlin launched a campaign implicating the German Reich in the Armenian massacres. His published indictment deeply embarrassed the Wilhemstrasse. While Germany stood by, half the Armenian nation was annihilated. “Our conscience demands the rescue of the other half.” With that Lepsius prudently chose to cross the border into Holland.13

Morgenthau was in regular communication with the State Department about the Armenian catastrophe from April 27,1915. At first, of course, it was not clear that it was a catastrophe. The CUP leaders seemed to be responding to revolutionary elements among the Armenians; and Morgenthau conjectured that that campaign would be followed by action against Zionist Jews. By July, however, an annihilative assault on the Armenian people was clear. “Reports from widely scattered districts,” he cabled, “indicate systematic attempt to uproot peaceful Armenian population and through arbitrary arrests, terrible torture, wholesale expulsions and deportation from one end of the Empire to the other, accompanied by frequent instances of rape, pillage, and murder, turning into massacre, to bring destruction and destitution on them.” The movement was wholly under civil authority. It was not in response to popular or fanatical demand; nor could it be justified in the name of wartime security and defense, despite the lame excuse of treachery on the Russian border. The ambassador explained the protests he had lodged with the ministers and the grand vizier, and asked for guidance on drawing the line between expressions of humanitarian concern and interference in internal affairs. He was growing frustrated by the failure of the United States government to respond in a positive way to the crisis. “I earnestly beg the Department to give this matter urgent and exhaustive consideration.” What was at stake was the survival of a people almost as old as human history. Could not a weighty protest be lodged? And could not every facility be given to aid and rescue the sufferers?14

In a cable dated September 3, 1915, Morgenthau made an unusual request to the secretary of state. “Will you,” he asked, “suggest to Cleveland Dodge, Charles Crane, John R. Mott, Stephen Wise, and others to form committees to raise funds and provide means to save some of the Armenians and assist the poorer ones to emigrate?”15 The message was forwarded to James L. Barton, secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, in Boston. Barton himself had once been a missionary in the Near East. He was one of the group Morgenthau had met on his voyage to Europe two years before. Seizing the critical moment, Barton sent out calls for a meeting, September 16, in the office of the New York businessman-philanthropist Cleveland H. Dodge. The meeting led to the formation of the Armenian Relief Committee under Barton’s chairmanship. Several members of the board of trustees, among them Dodge, a mining company executive, were personal friends of President Wilson. Nearly all had long experience in American educational and religious efforts in the Near East. Dodge’s children were conspicuous in this regard. Before it adjourned the organization set an emergency goal of $ 100. This amount, half of it the gift of the Rockefeller Foundation, was promptly dispatched to Ambassador Morgenthau—a down payment on the millions the organization would eventually raise.16

A front-page story in the New York Times on October4 described the Armenian atrocities in heartbreaking detail. Uprooted mothers abandoned their infants in the desert or tossed them into the Euphrates to drown; girls were ravished or sold to become Muslims; men were tortured with the bastinado and other brutalities in the course of massacre; all were starving to death.17 Two weeks later a great rally took place in the Century Theatre, on Central Park West, addressed by Barton, Hamilton Holt, editor of the Independent, Rabbi Wise, and the stem-winder W. Bourke Cochran, among others. Relief committees earlier formed joined forces with this impressive new organization. It evolved through several changes of name to become known finally and definitively as Near East Relief, 70 Fifth Avenue, New York.

In February 1916 Morgenthau returned to the United States, technically on leave; but his tour of duty in Constantinople was over. He said that Turkey had become “a place of horror” for him, and he could no longer bear dealing with the men who “were still reeking with the blood of nearly a million human beings.” He wished also to work for the reelection of President Wilson. Nothing in international politics was more important than that, he believed. In a departing interview with Talaat, the ambassador made a final appeal on behalf of the Armenians. “What’s the use of speaking about them?” Talaat retorted. “We are through with them. That’s all over.” The only hope for them, Morgenthau had come to believe, was “the moral power of the United States.”18 Wilson was necessary to that project. So was the mobilization of American aid and opinion under the leadership of Barton and Dodge and their associates. “City Rises to Honor Henry Morgenthau,” read the Times headline on his arrival in New York Harbor. His book MORGENTHAU’S STORY appeared two years later.



by Merrill D. Peterson, copyright 2004.
Reproduced by permission of the University of Virginia Press.


[1] Henry Morgenthau, ALL IN A LIFE-TIME (Garden City, N.Y., 1922), 160.


[3] Morgenthau, ALL IN A LIFE-TIME, 176.

[4] Henry Morgenthau, AMBASSADOR MORGENTHAU’S STORY (Garden City, N.Y., 1918), chap. 2; Lewis Einstein, INSIDE CONSTANTINOPLE A Diplomatist’s Diary during the Dardanelles Expedition (London, 1917), 1.

[5] Morgenthau, ALL IN A LIFE-TIME, 209, 203.


[7] See Ulrich Trumpener, GERMANY AND THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE, 1914-1918(Princeton, 1968), 13 and passim.

[8] Morgenthau,AMBASSADOR MORGENTHAU’S STORY, 161-70, 195; Einstein, INSIDE CONSTANTINOPLE, vii.

[9] Clarence D. Ussher, AN AMERICAN PHYSICIAN IN TURKEY (Boston, 1917), 280; Morgenthau, AMBASSADOR MORGENTHAU’S STORY, 299.

[10] Morgenthau, AMBASSADOR MORGENTHAU’S STORY, 313-14.

[11] Leslie Davis to Henry Morgenthau, June 30, 1915, quoted in Armen Hairopetian, “Race Problems and the Armenian Genocide: The State Department File,” Armenian Review 37 (Spring 1984): 48.

[12] Morgenthau, AMBASSADOR MORGENTHAU’S STORY, 290, 333-34, 337, 339.


[14] Morgenthau to Secretary of State, Apr. 27, July 20, and Aug. 11, 1915, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1915 supp. (Washington, D.C.,1928), 980, 982-83, 986, 988.

[15] Ibid., 988.

[16] James L. Barton, THE STORY OF NEAR EAST RELIEF (New York, 1930), 4-9.

[17] NYT, Oct. 4, 1915.

[18] Barton, STORY OF NEAR EAST RELIEF, 385, 391-92, 328.



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