Returning and Redemption
“Armenian holocaust,” cried a New York Times headline in September 1895, employing the word that would later become synonymous with genocide. The American press was virtually unanimous in calling for urgent action to save the Armenians and to remove, “if not by political action than by resort to the knife,” the “fever spot of the Turkish Empire.” Clergymen, too, stood united in their concern for Armenians, even though most of them followed Eastern Orthodox rites. “Not all the perfume of Arabia can wash the hand of Turkey clean enough to be suffered any longer to hold the reins of power over one inch of Christian territory,” fumed the Catholic World, while the Reverend De Witt Talmage urged “the warships of the western powers [to] ride up as close as possible to the palaces of Constantinople and blow that accursed government to atoms.” The ecumenical furor, meanwhile, was matched by bipartisan outrage in Congress. Newton Blanchard, a Democratic senator from Louisiana, demanded American intervention to erase this “blot upon civilization of the age.” His Republican colleague from Illinois, Shelby Cullom, declared, “The demon of damnable and fanatical hate has spread ruin, desolation, and death.” In his presidential platform for 1896, William McKinley listed saving the Armenians, along with annexing Hawaii and securing Cuba’s independence from Spain, as his foreign affairs priority.

The American reaction to the Armenian massacres-the first of many such atrocities soon to blot the Middle East-had multiple sources. There was the deeply entrenched aversion that Americans felt toward Islam and their no less rooted empathy for the Christians straining under Muslim rule. Popular opinion in the United States also tended to identify with the hardworking and family-oriented Armenians and to see them as “the Yankees of the Orient.” Finally, the Armenians were linked in the American mind with the mission schools from which many of them had graduated and which were seen as extensions of the United States. Some of these institutions had been extensively damaged in the pogroms, spurring demands for restitution not only for the Armenians but equally for the evangelists who served them.

“The policy of the United States Government in this world crisis has been one of impotence as far as the cause of humanity is concerned, contemptible from the standpoint of national honor, and suicidal as regards American interests,” exclaimed the veteran evangelist Frederick Davis Greene in his popular monograph, Armenian Massacres; or, The Sword of Mohammed. To remedy these failings, the missionaries exploited their privileged access to the Congress and the McKinley White House. The president of Robert College, George Washburn, petitioned Secretary of State John Hay, his cousin, to confront the Turks openly. At the same time, James B. Angell, a headstrong Congregationalist who served as America’s ambassador to the Porte, urged the legislature to approve military action against Turkey. A fleet of gunboats must be dispatched at once, Angell argued, to “rattle the Sultan’s windows.”

Pressure from Washburn and Angell proved persuasive, and in December 1900 the USS Kentucky steamed toward Turkey. Exactly one hundred years after the George Washington exemplified America’s impotence in the Middle East by conveying Algerian tribute to Istanbul, the newly christened Kentucky arrived in Smyrna bristling with more than fifty guns. The Kentucky’s captain, the ruddy-faced “Red Bill” Kirkland, bluntly warned Smyrna’s governor, “If these massacres continue I’ll be swuzzled if I won’t someday forget my orders. . . and find some pretext to hammer a few Turkish towns. . . . I’d keel-haul every blithering mother’s son of a Turk that wears hair.” Though softened by the translator and conveyed with a smile, Kirkland’s message penetrated. The sultan paid $83,000 in compensation to the missionaries and even placed an order for an American made destroyer.

p. 293-294