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Dr. Merguerian on “The Armenian Question” in US Foreign Policy

Chris Tozlian
Staff Writer

On Tuesday, November 12th, Dr. Barbara Merguerian delivered her second in a series of three lectures on “The Armenian Question in United States Foreign Policy” for the Armenian Studies Program Fall 2002 Lecture Series. Dr. Merguerian, the third Kazan Visiting Professor in Armenian Studies, spoke on “The Witness of the American Consulates” in Armenia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This topic, along with her preceding and forthcoming lecture topics, are discussed in her class, “Armenian Studies 120T: The United States and the Armenians, 1800 to Present.”

L to R: Barlow Der Mugrdechian, Dr. Barbra Merguerian, Dr. Robert Hewsen, Dr. Ara Hairabedian
L to R: Barlow Der Mugrdechian, Dr. Barbra Merguerian, Dr. Robert Hewsen, Dr. Ara Hairabedian

In Dr. Merguerian’s first lecture on October 22nd, she spoke of the effect of the American missionaries on the Armenian people during the 19th century. She began by explaining that her interest in the American missionaries is rooted in her discovery that her grandmother was living in Kharpert, where a large number of American missionaries resided in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wondering if her grandmother possibly had contact with these missionaries, Dr. Merguerian began to further research a subject on which there has been both limited discussion and mixed feelings.

From the onset of the talk, Dr. Merguerian pointed out that the subject of the American missionaries in Armenia “has been largely neglected by writers and scholars, both Armenian and American,” due to the difficulty of classifying the American missionaries as either beneficial or troublesome to the Armenian people. Many have argued that the missionaries were divisive for the Armenians, that they brought a potentially destructive western culture, and that they were simply witnesses to genocide, with any of their efforts to stop the genocide being unsuccessful. Conversely, others have pointed to the benefits that were derived from the missionaries, such as a contemporary Armenian translation of the Bible, the founding of colleges, and a more equitable view of women. Throughout the lecture, Dr. Merguerian discussed both of these viewpoints.

Dr. Merguerian also discussed the missionaries in detail, giving her audience a picture of the “common” missionary. Most missionaries that went to Armenia were idealistic college graduates from the eastern part of the United States, most of whom attended Congregational churches. These missionaries began to enter Armenia in the mid-1840’s, finding success in converting some Armenians in rural villages to Protestant Christianity; soon thereafter, Protestant Christianity found its way into Cilicia. In the next few decades the number of converts increased, and Robert College, the first missionary college, was established in Istanbul in 1860. By 1870, there were 83 Protestant churches, approximately 9,000 students in Armenian schools, and other missionary colleges being built. However, Dr. Merguerian estimates that in 1914, there were no more than 12-15,000 Armenian Protestants in the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

In her second presentation, Dr. Merguerian opened with remarks stressing the political power of the missionaries within the United States at the turn of the 20th century, and pointing out that missionary groups were some of the first lobbyists to Washington, DC. As decades passed, the missionaries “converted” more and more Armenians and also watched as the Armenian liberation movement grew in intensity.

Because the American missionaries who resided within the interior of Ottoman Turkey were at the mercy of Turkish villagers and the Turkish police, the missionaries made a concerted effort on Washington, DC to place consulates within the interior of Ottoman Turkey. Interestingly enough, America was given that power in 1830 when the Ottoman Empire and America signed a treaty, allowing for consulates to be placed anywhere their presence would be beneficial to the citizens of the country that the consulate represented.

Beginning in 1886, the first consulate within the interior of Turkey was founded in Sivas, with consulates being placed in Erzeroum and Kharpert, in 1896 and 1901, respectively. The first consulate in Sivas was H. A. Jewitt, who was the son of a missionary. Jewitt resided as consulate in Sivas between 1886 and 1890, citing that he was powerless to solve the problems at hand. Dr. Merguerian explained that, though in theory the consulates had much power, in practice they could only do little to reconcile the Armenians and the Ottoman Turks.

During the last decade of the nineteenth century, tensions rose between the Armenians and the Turks, leading to Armenian persecution at the hands of the Ottoman government, exemplified in the 1894-1896 massacres. Though the consulates in Sivas, Erzeroum, and Kharpert were powerless to stop the attacks, their presence was important as witnesses of the atrocities that took place. However, the consulates’ reports to the American government fell on deaf ears, as the government, guided by a policy of isolationism, chose not to intervene. Former President Grover Cleveland’s administration failed to assist the Armenians, and former President Theodore Roosevelt, who was at one time critical about America’s lack of intervention, also did nothing to help the Armenians.

Yet between 1886 and 1917 (when Kharpert, the last of the three consulates was closed down due to America’s involvement in WW I), the American consulates were very active, trying to help the Armenian people by protecting the missionaries that taught, clothed, and fed many Armenians.

Consulates tried to unsuccessfully implement new farming techniques among the Armenians. Furthermore, the consuls often traveled to war-torn cities and villages aiding needy Armenians, such as Thomas Norton’s travels to Mush and Bitlis during the massacres. They encouraged visits by the Red Cross, such as the 1896 visit made by Clara Barton to distribute aid to the American missionaries. But most important was their witness to the “dangerous tensions” brooding in Ottoman Turkey, which they consistently reported to the American government.

This is where Dr. Merguerian ended her lecture-though the American consulates tried to better the lives of the Armenians both directly and indirectly, they were powerless to stop the violence carried out against Ottoman subjects. Still, their stories live on as they would later serve as a record of the crimes committed by Ottoman Turkey.

Dr. Merguerian’s final lecture, co-sponsored by the College of Arts and Humanities Lecture Series and the Armenian Studies Program, will be held at 7:00 pm on December 6th, in the Wahlberg Recital Hall in the Music Building at CSU Fresno.