By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
Sassounian’s column of March 8, 2007
The USC Institute of Armenian Studies honored former U.S. ambassador to Armenia John Marshall Evans during a gala banquet celebrating its second anniversary on March 4, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, in Beverly Hills. More than 900 guests attended the event during which over $1 million was raised for the Institute.
I was asked to introduce Amb. Evans at the banquet. Below is the text of my introductory remarks followed by the text of the keynote address of Amb. Evans :
Harut Sassounian’s introduction of Amb. Evans :
We just watched together, for the first time, the recently discovered video of the profoundly moving remarks that Ambassador John Evans made two years ago in Fresno. He delivered similarly candid remarks during the rest of his February 2005 tour of Boston, Los Angeles and Berkeley.
As the video showed, Ambassador Evans spoke about the Armenian Genocide in an "honest, forthright and sensitive" manner. He did not make a slip of the tongue. He did not play word games. He called a spade a spade by referring to the Armenian Genocide simply as...GENOCIDE !
He knew that his honesty could cost him his job. And it did.
Before going to Fresno, on his first morning in Los Angeles, he invited me to have breakfast with him, during which he freely discussed the Armenian Genocide in the presence of three other State Department and U.S. Embassy officials. He said he had studied the Armenian Genocide extensively and asked for specific documents on this issue.
For those not familiar with the political gamesmanship involving this serious matter, I must explain that no federal official has dared to use the term "Armenian Genocide," since Pres. Reagan’s proclamation 1981. Successive U.S. administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have avoided the term "Armenian Genocide," in order to placate the Turkish government, in disgraceful complicity with its denialist policy.
At our breakfast meeting, I was intrigued by Amb. Evans’ intense interest in the Armenian Genocide. I was surprised at his forthright manner of speaking about this issue. I was even more surprised, when in the following days, during his public remarks at various venues, he openly spoke about the Armenian Genocide. While his Armenian audiences were stunned by his frank remarks, they were concerned about any possible damage his words may cause to his career.
Ambassador Evans is a highly educated and experienced diplomat. He had studied Russian History at Yale and Columbia. He served in various diplomatic posts in Tehran, Prague, Moscow, St. Petersburg, the U.S. Mission to NATO, and as Deputy Director of the Soviet Desk, among others.
Regrettably, the prophetic words you heard him say in the video, about the risk of losing his job for talking about the Armenian Genocide, came true.
Immediately upon returning to Washington, D.C. from California, he courageously told his superiors at the State Department that he had acknowledged the Armenian Genocide, during his visits with the Armenian-American community.
After receiving complaints from Turkish officials and their lobbyists, the State Department forced Amb. Evans to issue a retraction as well as a correction, stating that he was expressing his personal opinion and not government policy, and that he should not have used the word genocide.
Several months later, when the American Foreign Service Association granted him the "Constructive Dissent" Award for his outspoken views on the Armenian Genocide, the State Department made him give up that prestigious honor.
Unfortunately, after all that, this distinguished career diplomat was forced into "early retirement" from the US Foreign Service. This very honest and highly competent civil servant’s career was terminated for courageously speaking the truth.
Under the rules of ethics and morality, honesty should be rewarded, not punished ! And justice demands that those who lie get fired — not those who tell the truth !
Ambassador Evans, the good and humble man that he is, cannot understand why he’s being honored today for simply speaking the truth. He cannot understand why Armenians worldwide are calling him a national hero and a "modern day Henry Morgenthau" — another righteous U.S. Ambassador who did everything in his power to save the perishing Armenians during the genocide of 1915 in Turkey.
In closing, I must say that Ambassador Evans did not just dwell on the genocide issue during his two-year tenure in Armenia.
He and his wife Donna were deeply engaged in every aspect of Armenian life. To the last day of his service in Yerevan, Amb. Evans was initiating projects, funding new programs, and helping to strengthen the rule of law and democracy in Armenia.
He even learned to speak some Armenian and gave brief talks in the Armenian language. He loved Armenia and its people.
John and Donna Evans went beyond the call of duty to assist the fledgling Republic of Armenia for which Ambassador Evans was decorated by President Kocharian with one of the highest medals of the Republic.
Ambassador Evans deserves the undying gratitude of the Armenian nation for his distinguished service to the United States of America, the Republic of Armenia and his sacrifices for the Armenian Cause !
Ambassador John Evans remarks :
I do find it unusual that anyone, even a former government official, should be honored simply for telling the truth. It should not be that way. Perhaps this is a sad commentary on our times.
In any case, no one should imagine that they owe me any thanks for telling the truth.
When I called the Events of 1915 by their historically correct name - which is “genocide” - I used a word the U.S. Government does not currently employ. As you have just witnessed in this short film, I knew what I was doing and knew it might have consequences for my career. The decision was wholly mine. No one put me up to it. I stand by it. I have taken responsibility for it, paid a price for it. As a consequence, I am free to be with you this evening in support of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies.
None of us in this room is so naïve as to imagine that the official foreign policy of great states - even of the United States - is ever based solely on “the truth.” As educated people, we also are aware that even arriving at and defining the truth can be difficult. But in the real world, when an official policy diverges wildly from what the broad public believes is self-evident, that policy ceases to command respect.
Let me give you an example : You may remember the Iraqi Minister of Information, who, as Coalition Forces were closing in on Baghdad, asked his television viewers, “whom do you believe, your eyes or my words ?” Not surprisingly, we all believed our own eyes.
Of course, when it comes to events that occurred over ninety years ago, we must rely not on our own eyes, but on eyewitness like Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Consul Leslie Davis, on historians, diplomatic archives - and on the survivors themselves.
The overwhelming consensus of these sources is that the tragic events of 1915, despite all the complicating factors of war, rebellion and Great Power politics, constituted genocide.
Above the entrance to the State Department Library, there stands a quotation from Thomas Jefferson, some of whose books are in that library. It proclaims : “We are not afraid to follow Truth wherever it may lead, nor [are we afraid] to tolerate any error, so long as Reason is free to combat it.”
Unfortunately Reason - which tells us that there was a genocide in 1915 -is not everywhere free today to combat false assertions that the deaths of as many as one and one half million Armenians came about as the result of mere “relocations,” “some excesses,” “a few mishaps,” “disease and famine.” One country’s official policy of denying the Armenian Genocide interferes with the process of seeking the truth ; other countries’ policies of going along with this denial do not serve the truth. Instead what we have seen is the horrific murder of Hrant Dink forty days ago.
Over the last twenty years or so, American politicians and diplomats have been urging authorities in other parts of the world to listen to civil society and to take into account what civil society — that is, the realm of opinion outside official circles — thinks. A resolution of the Congress of the United States calling on the Administration to take into account the fact of the Armenian Genocide would be fully in harmony with this principle.
The Armenian Genocide should be recognized as such by this Congress.
Many people have asked me why, two years ago, I decided to speak out on the Armenian Genocide. I am not Armenian. I have no Armenian relatives, even by marriage, and in a diplomatic career of thirty-five years, I had never before encountered a U.S. Government policy that I did not like and could not support, certainly not in my own area of responsibility — until, as the new U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, I ran up hard against the issue of the Armenian Genocide. I believe I owe people an explanation.
I have, therefore, started writing a book to explain the intellectual journey that took me from knowing next to nothing about Armenia, Armenians, and the Genocide, to the point where I felt I had to break publicly with U.S. Government on this issue. I hope the story of my own intellectual journey may help others, particularly those whose names, like my own, do not end in “-ian”, to reach a similar understanding.
In my book I intend not only to explain my own actions, but also to look at some of the things that could and should be done to deal with the great wound and the resulting problem posed by the Genocide. This is a difficult subject on which honest people can disagree, and do, but I already have several ideas that I hope to develop. I do not plan to work in a vacuum, but rather to talk to people on all sides of the issue, many of whom are in this room. I dare to hope that some of my readers will be Turkish-Americans and even Turks.
In the meantime, there is much work to be done. First and foremost, the Republic of Armenia needs our help. I am personally proud to have been involved in implementing the U.S. Government’s official assistance programs, which now include the hugely important Millennium Challenge Account. Taken together, the official assistance programs of all the donor countries and institutions have made a measurable difference in Armenia. The California Trade Office is now open for business in Yerevan, and investment is taking place, if more slowly than one would like. I know that many of you personally and through your work have also made generous contributions and investment in Armenia. Thank you for all you have done and, no doubt, will continue to do for Armenia. Armenia is facing elections over the next twelve months. The United States is attempting to help Armenia to stage the best possible free and fair elections, in the belief that strengthening democracy will strengthen Armenia itself.
Obviously not all Armenians live in the Republic, and it is also important that the needs of Diasporans, especially young people, be met. For that reason, I want especially to salute the USC Institute of Armenian Studies, which, despite its relative youth, is doing a great job of ensuring that Armenian history, arts, science and letters receive the serious academic attention they deserve. The Institute should become even more capable, after this evening’s fund-raising event, of providing a vibrant center for the growing community of scholars it serves.
In any family there will always be divisions and differences of opinion, even bitter quarrels. As an “odar” and friend of your particular family, I think I can safely say that the Armenian-American community is at its best when it joins forces for a common cause, as happened most notably in 1988 at the time of the earthquake. To the extent that unnecessary divisions can be overcome, without sacrificing democracy, the community will become stronger and more capable of achieving its goals. Unity does not always need to occur as a result of tragedy and disaster. Supporting the USC Institute of Armenian Studies ought to be one of those unifying issues that merits your unified and continuing support.
Although we have spent some time tonight thinking about the past, I personally am looking forward to what we can achieve in the future, working closely together as we have done in the past. Pari yerego yev shnorhagalutiun !
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