Setting an Example

Historian Ann Marie Wilson talks with Brian about the call for intervention in Armenia during the early 1890s, and how arguments about the lack of European action there helped push the case for US action in Cuba.

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BRIAN: In the mid 1890s, US newspapers began to fill with stories about a crisis in the Ottoman Empire. The Armenians, a Christian minority group within the empire, were being massacred by Ottoman troops. It had started with a harsh crackdown on a tax revolt, but the violence escalated quickly. Between 1894 in 1896, some 200,000 Armenians were killed.

PETER: American missionaries had lived and worked in the Ottoman Empire for decades, and many encountered the anti-Armenian massacres first hand. Their horrified accounts soon turned up in American newspapers, along with fervent denunciations of the barbaric Turk.

ANN MARIE WILSON: This was presented to American readers, literally through headlines, as a crusade of the crescent against the cross.

BRIAN: This is Ann Marie Wilson, a historian at Leiden University College in the Hague.

ANN MARIE WILSON: Headlines became increasingly sensational. This was a time of yellow journalism, and headlines that would say things like, defense of the home against the harem. These were good ways of getting readers interested and paying attention. And this then, in turn, sparked quite a lot of middle class outrage in the United States.

BRIAN: And was this outrage organized? How did the public respond generally?

ANN MARIE WILSON: Well first, there were mass meetings in American cities, especially in the east coast and in Chicago, where there were large Armenian communities. And resolutions would be passed, and then these would be sent to local, state, and national government to call for some kind of action. And these petitions of not only to American officials, but also to heads of state abroad. So there was a cablegram sent to Queen Victoria, calling on her to redeem the honor of British church and state by doing something to stop the slaughter of helpless Armenians.

BRIAN: Now what these folks were up against, I would imagine, is a very long history of no entangling alliances, if you will.

ANN MARIE WILSON: Yeah, absolutely. There had been a long tradition of avoiding the political intrigues of Europe, that United States was safe in its own domain in the Western hemisphere. The Armenian population was technically overseen by the European powers by the terms of 1870 Treaty of Berlin that closed the Russo-Turkish War. The United States was not a signatory to that treaty.

And on the one hand, some argued that that made the Americans even more morally pure in this case, because they didn’t have a dog in that fight. On the other hand, people said, well, this is really none of our business. And that’s the conversation that took place in Congress after thousands of Americans were signing petitions to government to say, please, we need to do something to step in, to protect so-called Christian civilization.

BRIAN: So tell me about that debate in Congress.

ANN MARIE WILSON: For people in Congress who were skeptical of this whole enterprise, there was language about, should the United States constitute itself as the universal guardian of mankind? Is that the proper role for America?


ANN MARIE WILSON: On the other hand, you had Senators and Congressmen speaking about the American defense of Christian civilization against intolerance, bigotry, cruelty, and crime of every character. So the Democratic Senator from Florida, Wilkinson Call, introduced a joint resolution calling on the United States to join what he termed civilized governments to end the violence in Armenia, to provide the Armenians with a government of their own people either by peaceful means or, if necessary, by force.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee thought this was a bit too strongly worded. A somewhat tamer resolution came to the floor that simply promised President Grover Cleveland that Congress would support any, quote, vigorous action he might take. It passed quite easily in the Senate.

When it went to the House, it ended up passing the House with about 143 to 26. And most of the people in favor of it thought that the resolution didn’t go far enough. They want there to be some kind of a threat of possible military action even.

BRIAN: So the resolution passes, and then what?

ANN MARIE WILSON: Well, Grover Cleveland didn’t really want to deal with this. It was not clear the legality of what the United States could do in such a situation. And he was worried about his re-nomination for the Democratic ticket in 1896. So this was sort of adding more problems to his desk than he wanted to deal with.

BRIAN: And did anybody call him on that? Were their protests?

ANN MARIE WILSON: Well, there were certainly denunciations of American inaction. I would say that in early 1896, the attention really shifted towards relief. So this was also the first time that the American Red Cross went on a mission abroad. Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, actually went to Turkey to deliver aid.

BRIAN: Now to my 20th century ears, this sounds very much like a 19th century ending. We turn to missionaries and Christian-based organizations, and the voluntary sector for, in essence, private aid. Yet the whole episode seems to foreshadow American humanitarian intervention, which is much more frequent, of course, in the 20th century. Is there a bridge to the 20th century here?

ANN MARIE WILSON: Yeah. I would say that the beginnings of the 20th century happen around the Armenia case. The controversy over what to do in Armenia is happening at the same time that there’s discussion over what is to be done with the resistance movements against Spanish rule in Cuba, where there’s also a lot of violence coming up. Reformers are calling for intervention in both places.

In fact, the same Democratic Senator from Florida, Wilkinson Call, who had introduced the original, very warlike resolution calling for US intervention in the Ottoman Empire, he calls for gunboats to go to Cuba, as well. And in fact, Cuba was referred to as American’s Armenia. The Spanish were referred to as the Turks of the West. William McKinley, the President at the time, said that we did not go to war in Cuba because we wanted to, but because we had to defend humanity. So the language of humanity runs right through this discussion the same it did through Armenia.

BRIAN: Ann Marie Wilson is a historian at Leiden University College in the Hague.