The long march to Biden recognizing the Armenian genocide

In 1915, much of the world was focused on World War I rather than the Armenian persecution.

At the time, the word “genocide” did not exist. It wasn’t until 1943 that Polish-born lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who lost dozens of family members in the Holocaust, coined the term for the killing of a large number of people with the aim of destroying a religious or ethnic group.

Some Armenians began public commemorations of the genocide as early as 1919, but the deaths were not well known for many decades.

Beginning in the 1960s, with the 50th anniversary of the killings, Armenians around the world began speaking out about the slaughter. Commemorating what they called Meds Yeghern — the great calamity — and convincing governments to call it a genocide became a central pillar of Armenian identity.

Demonstrators in Los Angeles mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide on April 24, 2015.

(Genaro Molina / Fontana News Room)

The Republic of Turkey, which arose from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, steadfastly opposed efforts. While acknowledging atrocities occurred, the Turkish government objected to the use of the word “genocide,” contending that the Ottoman leadership had not directed the killings and did not have an official policy to exterminate Armenians.

The U.S. and other Western nations long avoided the term for fear of angering Turkish allies. In 1985, despite protests and pressure from then-California Gov. George Deukmejian — an Armenian American — President Reagan refused to make April 24 an official day of remembrance for the genocide, citing U.S. ties with Turkey.

The U.S. hesitancy continued through the Obama and Trump administrations. On April 24, 2021, President Biden finally recognized the Armenian genocide, saying in a statement, “We honor the victims of the Meds Yeghern so that the horrors of what happened are never lost to history.”

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