During the Armenian genocide, where more than 1 million Armenians were massacred, a majority of the world stood and watched. Although bystanderism and neutrality related to the Armenian genocide were the worst in the United States, other countries also failed to do what they could to protect the Armenian people. Both Britain and France publicized the atrocities because, at the time, they were at war with the Ottoman empire. Despite this, few believed that these atrocities were actually so severe. Many of the European nations thought that the best solution to the Armenian genocide was to defeat the German-Austrian-Turkish alliance, and they, therefore, declared that the Turkish government would be held “personally responsible” for the massacres. These, however, were failed efforts that came because European countries were too busy, preoccupied with other worries and responsibilities regarding the war that related more directly to them.
In the United States, this lack of acknowledgment, care, or action towards the Armenian genocide was even worse. A major factor in genocide means the hiding, denial, justification, and euphemisms provided by the perpetrators, who in this case were the Turkish government. Some living outside of Turkey thought that information regarding the Armenian genocide was based on rumors, and there was great uncertainty about the facts. Even the idea of genocide was unfamiliar. As Raphael Lemkin explained, the world was “in the presence of a crime without a name.” Genocide wasn’t a term that existed or that people knew about. Despite this intentional covering up of the massacre of Armenians, the outside world still knew what was going on. Therefore, using their lack of knowledge is a weak excuse in attempting to justify the United States’ lacking effort to help the Armenians. Talaat Pasha, one of the leading perpetrators in the Armenian genocide, made it clear that Turkey was going to target its Christian subjects. The New York Times even published 145 stories in the year 1915 alone about the genocide, using headlines like “800,000 Armenians Counted Destroyed” and “Million Armenians Killed or in Exile.” Therefore, it was clear amongst other countries, particularly the United States, that hundreds of thousands of innocent Armenian people were being murdered, yet, “the ‘international community,’ such as it was, did little to contest the Turkish horrors” (Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell).
The United States was a country that stands out because of its desire to maintain its neutrality throughout World War I. Staying neutral also meant that they couldn’t get involved in the matter between Turks and Armenians. When many European countries created the Allied declaration, holding the Turkish government accountable for their actions, the United States refused to join. President Woodrow Wilson chose not to pressure those that backed Turks or Germans because he didn’t want to draw attention to the matter. He feared that increased public opinion could lead to a demand for US involvement. After all, the American sentiment was that since the Armenian genocide wasn’t violating or affecting American rights, they didn’t need to care. US ambassador Henry Morgenthau, who was a great advocate for Armenians, explained, “Turkish authorities have definitely informed me that I have no right to interfere with their internal affairs.” Similarly, there was no US military intervention either, even though the United States had the power to help the Armenians. The United States government failed to help the Armenians simply because the matter didn’t concern them, and this is exactly what a bystander does. It is a selfish decision, in which the US government only cares about itself, while it is ok simply watching more than a million Armenians get murdered before them. Being a bystander means you didn’t take action, which is almost just as bad as being the perpetrator.
During the Armenian and Namibian genocides, the knowledge that other nations had of what was happening differed. Knowledge of the Armenian genocide was much more known and widespread compared to the Namibian genocides. Countries during the Armenian genocide understood what was going on. Nevertheless, during both genocides, other countries failed to help out and do what they could to stop the genocide. In both cases, there also continued to be a failed recognition of the genocide amongst countries throughout the globe.
Rather than being bystanders, the United States should have helped and stood up for the Armenians during the war. Rather than valuing themselves and nothing else, they should have seen the matter as something they could fix and something that they should therefore be concerned about. Even today, there are still ways that the United States can do things differently. The US government needs to do a better job of recognizing the genocide and holding Turkey accountable. Even though the Armenian genocide took place in the early 1900s, it wasn’t until Biden’s inauguration in January of 2021 that the United States president recognized the Armenian genocide. Once again, this is because of the fear of the ramifications or consequences it could have on the United States. Power points out, “The United States would offer humanitarian aid to the survivors of ‘race murder’ but would leave those committing it alone” (Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell). Our country needs to stop caring so much about ourselves and our successes and instead look towards helping others.
Raphael Lemkin posed a good point, which was, “If women, children, and old people would be murdered a hundred miles from here, wouldn’t you run to help? Then why do you stop this decision of your heart when the distance is 3,000 miles instead of a hundred?” Taking a stand during genocide means recognizing that even if it isn’t perfectly convenient or easy to help, you must– because that is what being an ally is all about. We need people like Morgenthau who, despite being in a country that discouraged standing up for Armenians, continued to stand up, using his voice even if it meant he would have to face the consequences. The Armenian genocide is one of the many problems that the United States has when it comes to bystanderism. As Power explains, “America’s nonresponse to the Turkish horrors established patterns that would be repeated” (Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell). Everything that happens in history is connected, and unless we do something to address these problems, history will continue to repeat itself.