The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response

The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response

by Peter Balakian

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Awarded the Raphael Lemkin Prize for the best scholarly book on genocide by the Institute for Genocide Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY Graduate Center.

In this groundbreaking history of the Armenian Genocide, the critically acclaimed author of the memoir Black Dog of Fate brings us a riveting narrative of the massacres of the Armenians in the 1890s and genocide in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Using rarely seen archival documents and remarkable first-person accounts, Peter Balakian presents the chilling history of how the Young Turk government implemented the first modern genocide behind the cover of World War I. And in the telling, he also resurrects an extraordinary lost chapter of American history.

During the United States' ascension in the global arena at the turn of the twentieth century, America's humanitarian movement for Armenia was an important part of the rising nation's first epoch of internationalism. Intellectuals, politicians, diplomats, religious leaders, and ordinary citizens came together to try to save the Armenians. The Burning Tigris reconstructs this landmark American cause that was spearheaded by the passionate commitments and commentaries of a remarkable cast of public figures, including Julia Ward Howe, Clara Barton, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Alice Stone Blackwell, Stephen Crane, and Ezra Pound, as well as courageous missionaries, diplomats, and relief workers who recorded their eyewitness accounts and often risked their lives in the killing fields of Armenia.

The crisis of the "starving Armenians" was so embedded in American popular culture that, in an age when a loaf of bread cost a nickel, the American people sent more than $100 million in aid through the American Committee on Armenian Atrocities and its successor, Near East Relief. In 1915 alone, the New York Times published 145 articles about the Armenian Genocide.

Theodore Roosevelt called the extermination of the Armenians "the greatest crime of the war." But in the turmoil following World War I, it was a crime that went largely unpunished. In depicting the 1919 Ottoman court-martial trials, Balakian reveals the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide confessing their guilt — an astonishing fact given the Turkish government's continued denial of the Genocide.

After World War I, U.S. oil interests in the Middle East steered America away from the course it had pursued for four decades. As Balakian eloquently points out, America's struggle between human rights and national self-interest — a pattern that would be repeated again and again — resonates powerfully today. In crucial ways, America's involvement with the Armenian Genocide is a paradigm for the modern age.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060198404
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/30/2003
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 496
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.16(d)

About the Author

Peter Balakian is the author of Black Dog of Fate, winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize for Memoir and a New York Times Notable Book, and June-tree: New and Selected Poems 1974–2000. He is the recipient of many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. He holds a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University and teaches at Colgate University, where he is a Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities.

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The Burning Tigris
The Armenian Genocide and America's Response

Chapter One

A Gathering at Faneuil Hall

Ah, Mrs. Howe, you have given us a prose Battle Hymn.
-- Frederick Greenhalge,
governor of Massachusetts

The light in New England in late fall is austere and clean and rinses the white steeples of Boston's Congregational and Unitarian churches, the red brick of the State House, and the gray stone of the Back Bay town houses. Even the gold dome on the white cupola of Faneuil Hall reflects its luster. It's November 26, 1894, the Monday before Thanksgiving, a windy and clear evening, as men and women file into Faneuil Hall from all over Boston and from the suburbs of Cambridge, Watertown, Winchester, and as far out as Quincy and Andover. They have come to this public meeting place near the harbor to talk about the most pressing international human rights issue of the day.

Schooners and sloops and oyster scows make a grid of rigging that glows in the sunset. The sound of squawking gulls. Buckets of cod and haddock on the docks. The outline of the giant masts of the USS Constitution fading in the twilight of the Charlestown Naval Yard. Across the street the stalls of Quincy Market are closed, the awnings rolled up for the night.

Faneuil Hall was known as the Cradle of Liberty because Samuel Adams and James Otis and the Sons of Liberty had met here in the decade before the American Revolution to form their opposition to the sugar tax, the stamp tax, and other forms of British oppression. The Boston Tea Party was conceived here. The space itself was made even more dramatic when the architect Charles Bulfinch redesigned it in 1805. Even after government by town meeting ended in Boston in 1822, the hall continued to be the main forum for political and social debate. Here in the 1840s William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, and Frederick Douglass gave some of their most important antislavery speeches to overflowing crowds.

By 1873 women were speaking from the podium, and suffragists Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe were among the first to address the movement for woman suffrage on that stage beneath George A. Healy's dramatic painting of Daniel Webster exhorting, "Liberty and union, now and forever" on the Senate floor. In keeping with that spirit of reform, a group of prominent New Englanders filled Faneuil Hall on that blustery late-November evening.

All that summer and fall, news of the massacres of the Armenians at the hands of the Turks in the Ottoman Empire reached Americans through news reports and bold headlines in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and in the nation's leading magazines -- The Nation, The Century, and Harper's. The news came from American missionaries who were teaching Christians at missionary colleges all across the Anatolian plain of central and eastern Turkey; it came from American and British diplomats stationed in the Armenian provinces of the Ottoman Empire, from European and American journalists, and from Armenian survivors and refugees. And recently it came by way of a new invention -- the wireless telegraph.

The outrage over the Armenian massacres emerged in a culture that was just beginning to look outward to the international arena in which the United States would define a global identity in the coming decade. In the first years of the 1890s, there had been a near war with Chile over the killing of two American sailors in Valparaiso, and U.S. involvement in a border dispute between British Guiana and Venezuela that brought jingoism to a new level. Americans such as Theodore Roosevelt began to broadcast their feeling that the country needed a war. The question of annexing the Hawaiian Islands dominated a tug-of-war between the imperialists and anti-imperialists that lasted throughout the decade.

Americans also expressed great sympathy for the Cubans in their struggle for independence from Spain. By 1895, when Cuban rebels rose up against the deplorable conditions to which they were subjected by their Spanish rulers, the Cuban crisis became a Western Hemisphere liberation cause for Americans. By 1898 the Cuban struggle would lead to the Spanish-American War -- the war that consummated the jingoist spirit and launched the United States as a colonial force in the world. With the defeat of Spain, in a war that lasted ten weeks and gave Cuba its independence, the United States acquired Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam, giving the nation a rising sense of global power.

The 1890s were a transformative time for U.S. foreign policy -- a decade in which it would embrace imperialism and assert itself, at times, with a rhetoric of Protestant Anglo-Saxon superiority over the "backward" peoples of the world. The Armenian Question emerged, in some ways uniquely, as a humanitarian project at a time when imperialist designs were governing most American international interventions.

Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the Turkish caliph, had begun to implement his solution to what was now internationally known as the Armenian Question. In short, the Armenian Question revolved around the issue of much-needed reform for the oppressed Armenians -- the largest Christian minority living under Ottoman Turkish rule in Anatolia. As the British journalist and longtime resident of Constantinople -- Sir Edwin Pears -- put it, all the Armenians "desired was security for life, honour, and property." But, the sultan's lifetime friend and confidant, the Hungarian scholar Arminius Vambery, wrote, the sultan had decided that the only way to eliminate the Armenian Question was to eliminate the Armenians themselves. The means would be government-sanctioned mass murder on a scale never before seen.

The Turkish massacres of some fifteen thousand Bulgarians in 1876 (a response to the Bulgarian uprising for independence) had been an unprecedented act of state-sponsored mass murder that riveted Europe and the United States ...

The Burning Tigris
The Armenian Genocide and America's Response
. Copyright © by Peter Balakian. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Deborah E. Lipstadt

“Peter Balakian tells the powerful and largely unknown story of [Armenian Genocide]. This important and compelling book is long overdue.”

Martin Gilbert

The terrible fate of the Armenians... is brilliantly described. A great service to the history of the Armenians.”

Paul Fussell

“A gripping treatment of the official Turkish mass murder...a masterpiece of moral needs to be widely read.”

Jean Bethke Elshtain

“Balakian tells a story long ripe for the telling.... He writes with grace and power.”

James Carroll

“The Burning Tigris is an act of acute historical memory, of personal testimony, of prophetic witness - and of high art.”

Reading Group Guide


The Burning Tigris tells the story of Turkey's attempt to destroy the Armenian people, the 20th century's first genocide, and America's response to it -- this country's first entry into the arena of international human rights. Balakian's beautifully researched narrative guides the reader through eyewitness accounts, documentation, and the Turkish government's continued denial of historical fact. The book allows the reader an in-depth look into the truth of history and human nature at its best and worst. Balakian's restrained and eloquent prose reminds us that by looking accurately into history we can change the present and the future.

Armenia is one of the oldest Christian civilizations in the world, and its people had lived in what became the Turkish Ottoman Empire long before the OttomanTurks arrived. By the end of the 19th century, the Armenians were a thriving and complex society of professionals; artists, writers, farmers, and craftspeople, and were adapting to a modern and cosmopolitan worldview. But as a minority in the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians endured years of discrimination. One of the most important themes in The Burning Tigris is the examination of the subtle ways in which years of cultural and religious prejudice, unchecked and unexamined, laid the ground for genocide. A lethal combination of political and religious fanaticism became the basis for an ideology that made it not only acceptable -- but practically mandatory -- to torture, massacre, and finally attempt to completely annihilate an entire people. Balakian's detailed and unflinching presentation of the story shows the many results of xenophobia taken to its most shocking extreme.

The "Young Turk" regime in 1915 initiated a systematic program to exterminate the Armenian people, and word of the horrors reached the United States. The response of leaders such as Henry Morganthau, American Ambassador to Turkey, and many humanitarians in the U.S. was powerful and immediate. The result was an unprecedented grassroots campaign involving everyone from ordinary Americans to missionaries to the wealthiest business moguls and several Presidents, all of whom cared greatly and wanted to help. The movement to save the Armenians was defeated by the growing U.S. dependence on oil and what Balakian calls "dollar diplomacy." This, combined with the ongoing denials by the Turkish government, led to the failure of the relief effort to result in justice for the Armenians after World War I and to the cultural amnesia that persists today. Where once the plight of the "starving Armenians" was familiar to every schoolchild in America, today few of us even realize that genocide was committed before the attempted extermination of the Jews in Hitler's Germany. This erasure is, as this book powerfully demonstrates, the final step in genocide. Hitler himself was inspired by what happened in Turkey, and asked, eight days before the Nazis invaded Poland, "Who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

Although Balakian's book is a story of enormous human suffering, it is also an important testimony to the power of truth, to the human will to survive against great odds. In exploring the danger of fanaticism in all forms, it is -- an important book written on how ideology can result in unthinkable crimes against humanity.

Questions for Discussion

  1. The Armenian Genocide raises a question about how Turkish society used Islamic religious ideology for the purpose of committing massacre and then genocide against the Armenians. Was this use of violence -- torture, rape and murder -- part of the Islamic belief system, or was Islam distorted and put in contradiction with its own teachings? Discuss the ways in which religion is made an ally of politics, throughout history and today.

  2. How did American feminism of the 19th century lay a foundation for a larger commitment to human rights? What means did these women use to get their message across? In what ways were their efforts both effective and ineffective?

  3. Discuss the concept and consequences of nationalism, as it figured in the Armenian genocide, and as it might have figured in other such extreme episodes of race killing in modern history, right down to today. What ways of thinking might lead the government of a given country to decide that "ethnic purity" is a necessary element of nationalism? Why do countries that are undergoing hard times and crises of national self-esteem tend to scapegoat an ethnic minority? What other examples in history can you think of?

  4. "The movement brought together Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, Christians and Jews -- all believing in their own Victorian American way that each individual could make a difference; each person could be -- as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it -- a vehicle for 'the triumph of principles '" (Page 69). Has this belief in the power of the individual changed since then? If so, why? Did it turn out to be effective in American efforts to help the Armenians?

  5. In 1896, British Prime Minister Gladstone saw the Turkish massacres a "betrayal of civilization itself" (Page 123). He criticized what he saw as their inability to learn, saying, "The very least that can be expected is that the conquerors should be able to learn civilization from the conquered as the Romans from the Greeks" (Page 122). What might Gladstone mean by "learning civilization"? What might the Turks have learned from the Greeks and the Armenians? When such learning does not take place, what is the effect on the conquerors?

  6. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who in 1903 founded the journal Armenia, believed that individual sympathy for the Armenian cause was not enough, and that "National crimes demand international law, to restrain, prohibit, punish, and best of all, to prevent" (Page 131). In her inaugural essay, she discussed the behavior of a nation as if it were an individual and a member of a family or community. "If a nation is bankrupt, it should be put in the hands of a receiver and forcibly improved. If it is frankly criminal, it should be restrained. If it is simply ignorant, it should have compulsory education, and if it has senile dementia it should be confined under treatment, and the estate administered in the interests of the heirs" (Page 132). Discuss how this statement might have forecast some of our modern ideas of international human rights? Do you think the United Nations meets such a need today? In 1915, were other nations, such as the U.S., complicit in the Armenian genocide because of their refusal to go to war with Turkey? Is the concept of an international policing system viable today? Do the recent genocides in Rwanda and now in the Sudan dramatize this dilemma?

  7. Richard Rubenstein described the Armenian Genocide "as the first full fledged attempt by a modern state to practice disciplined, methodically organized genocide" (Page 180). Discuss the ways that the Young Turk government organized and implemented its plan to exterminate the Armenian population. How was World War I a factor in this plan? What comparisons can you make with how the Nazis exterminated the Jews and how Word War II was a factor in their plan?

  8. Why was President Wilson unable to convince the Senate to accept the American Mandate for Armenia after World War I? Why did the new Republican leadership in 1919-1920 turn its back on Armenia after Americans had fought so hard to help Armenia for decades? How has the pursuit of oil diplomacy in the Middle East become a pattern in U.S. foreign policy ever since?

  9. In 1919-1920 in Constantinople, after World War I, the Turks were compelled by the British to put on war crimes tribunals in order to bring to justice those who had abused prisoners of war and those who had carried out the massacres of the Armenians. What did these trials tell us about the Armenian Genocide? Why did the trials fall apart? Why is the implementation of justice so important after such crimes against humanity? What did the Nuremberg Trials do after WWII that the Constantinole Trials of 1920 failed to do?

  10. The Armenian Genocide has been called a landmark in the modern history of international human rights. It spawned the term "crimes against humanity," it contributed to Raphael Lemkin's pioneering coinage of the term and concept "genocide," and it helped to define World War I, and it gave rise to America's first international human rights movement. Discuss.

  11. 11. Balakian closes his narrative by retelling the many failed attempts of a Congressional resolution to recognize the Armenian Genocide as fact. The Turkish government continues to threaten any government that wants to pass such a resolution, and Presidents Carter and Clinton were forced to comply. France, however, passed a resolution in 2001. Why is the Turkish government still unwilling to admit what happened? Why do you think the U.S. government gives in to this kind of pressure?

About the Author

Peter Balakian is the author of Black Dog of Fate, winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize for Memoir and a New York Times Notable Book, and June-tree: New and Selected Poems 1974-2000. He is the recipient of many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. He holds a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University and teaches at Colgate University, where he is Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities.

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The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I purchased the book on clearance at my local B&N as an impulse buy and I'm very happy I did so. I can't express how eye-opening and truly tragic it was to read this book. Genocide is nothing new to humanity, but this particular historical episode is not talked about nearly enough. The book contains tremendous amounts of information that will appeal to anyone, regardless of their love for history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is an easy read and very thorough in backing up its historical findings with facts! Unfortunately, the United States proved to have made unethical decisions under the guise of what was best for the US?
Barbra_Gordon More than 1 year ago
One of the best historical books that I have read. Up there with Barbra Tuchman's work in terms of research and narrative. Peter Balakian skillfully weaves the stories of America's first human rights movements- feminism, emancipation and foreign aid to the brutalized minorities of Turkey- in to a compelling page turner. His meticulous research and fine writing make this book a necessary addition to any library collection of books concerning the American rights movements, genocide and the history of the near east. Recommended!
Guest More than 1 year ago
We live in fragile times: while we look to other countries and shudder at the famine, mass deaths, suicide bombings, the ever bubbling curse of AIDS, we also sit and watch highschool killing sprees, 911 reactions, serial rapists and killers on the television nightly news and on the front pages of the following morning's papers. We cannot avoid being aware of atrocities that surround our tiny planet. One particular atrocity of the past is retold in frequent books, movies, musical elegies, paintings, poems, and theater - that incredible crime against humanity being the Holocaust of Hitler's Nazi Germany. But how many of us are aware of the magnitude of the Turkish Genocide of the Armenians that took place in 1915? Or of the massacre of Armenians in the 1890's that became an American focus for humanitarian concerns, advancing Clara Barton and the Red Cross into action with all the backing of the press and religious support that was readily mustered? The time has come to set the record straight on this submerged tragedy in hopes that bringing attention to this omission from American history books will alert the people of the world (and especially America) just how powerful our government's preoccupation with OIL and the countries that supply truly is. Peter Balakian has written the definitive book THE BURNING TIGRIS: THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE AND AMERICA'S RESPONSE - A History of International Human Rights and Forgotten Heroes and I would urge everyone to read this enormously well researched, documented, and readable volume. Balakian starts his history with the early 1890's and traces the ever-increasing degradation of Armenians in Turkey by the Ottoman Empire. The strangest aspect of this ongoing murder of innocents is that for many years it was a cause celebre in the USA. The Women's Rights Movement led by such luminaries as Grace Kimball, Clara Barton, Julia Ward Howe, and Alice Stone Blackwell gave of their time, money and personal commitment to send relief to the Armenians and to keep the tragedy before the public eye. Great thinkers and writers of the day like William M. Ramsey wrote ' Turkish massacre...does not mean that thousands are killed in a few days by the sword, the torture, or the fire. It does not mean merely that everything [the Armenians] possess is stolen, their houses and shops looted and often burned, every article worth a halfpenny taken, the corpses stripped. It does not mean merely that the survivors are left penniless - without food, sometimes literally stark naked...Sometimes, when the Turks have been specially merciful, they have offered their victims an escape from death by accepting Mohammedanism.' Yet this massacre was only a prelude to the Genocide that occurred in 1915. The real horror of this history is the absolute drive of the Turks toward annihilation of the Armenians in 1914 - 1915. This genocide was a mirror image of the Nazi Final Solution for Jews in WW II complete with ghettos, mass murders, camps, slaughter of all men below age 50, then mass slaughter of the women and children. A particularly heinous note is that the Turks identified, isolated and then exterminated most of the great philophers, teachers,artists, writers, and thinkers - leaving few to transmit the horror of the genocide to the future generations. But despite the initial care and concern of the USA in sending aid to the Armenians and accepting thousands into the country here, the actual events of treaty signing, accords, agreements, and political stands at the close of WW I and WW II focused on the need to pacify Turkey in order to keep the flow of OIL Almighty flowing. The embarrassment of this lack of courage to punish violations of Human Rights is now felt acutely as we are left to view our country's errors in Vietnam, the Middle East, our own 'ethnic cleansing' of the American Indians and our history of supporting slavery of the African Americans. Where in 1915 the New York Times wrote daily about the Armenian atr
MHelm1017 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Everything included in this book made up a fascinating and gripping account of an inappropriately obscure series of events that encompassed a major historical tragedy. However, I found myself wondering about many matters not directly or thoroughly addressed in this book, especially in the material that covers the years after the 1915 massacres. For instance, I wanted to know more about the experience of deportation victims who somehow got on with their lives in the midst of starvation, illness, and the continuing threat of violence; the post-war government in Turkey that allowed trials of the genocidal leaders to occur; the reactions of different groups within Turkey to the genocide; the nature of the Armenian nation that emerged among traumatized survivors and was absorbed by the Soviet Union; and what of the traditional Armenian culture endured throughout the following century.
DKRafi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interesting and very engaging piece of work, based on great research and a lot of materials to draw upon. th many chapters describing the public sentiment in the US and the State department efforts during the Genocide might discourage the non-American reader from continuing to read the rest of the book, but these chapters do provide a authentic view of US sentiments during those terrible times.The book provides many witness accounts and testimonies of Genocide survivals, perpetrators and of people who were present in Turkey from late 19th century until 1920s.Highly recommended.
Tennesseedog More than 1 year ago
In memory of the Armenian people. What a tremendous non-fiction work this is. Author Peter Balakian has written the definitive work on the horrors that were the Armenian massacres of the late 19th Century and first decade of the 20th Century, the Ottoman Turkish government's policy of genocide during World War I and the final solution attempted by the modern Turkish government of Mustafa (Ataturk) Kemal in the early 1920's. This volume also addresses the American response to these periods of slaughter beginning with the massive fundraising, missionary efforts and public harangues by the American people against the Ottoman and Young Turk policy of deportation, property seizure, death marches and ultimately murder at the hands of Kurd nomads, criminal Turkish civilians or authorized Turkish military forces. The American response to these killings in Turkey then moved to a lukewarm State department response as Turkey was never a declared combatant of WW I in the US government's eyes (and their oil reserves were more important for our corporate leaders) and was given every out when world opinion demanded justice for the murdered, displaced and raped Armenian people. Finally, the US completely forgave the Turkish misdeeds in the name of fighting Communist Russia and being a stalwart partner in the Cold War. And this amnesia in our government decisions and actions and in the statements regarding the slaughter by our Presidents continues today and brings to the fore our disregard for moral misbehaviors by foreign governments as long as our corporate or state objectives are being met. What a horrific journey reading this volume is. The documentation, much of it from eyewitness reports or Turkish government documents, is stunning in its depth and detail. No one can deny that these horrors did occur and resulted in the death of more than a million Christian Armenians, Syrians and Greeks. The fact that the present day government of Turkey with their paid supporters in government circles and academia refuse to face up to facts and to the genocide and crimes against humanity that they have committed speaks loudly about the trustworthiness and fealty of these people in the world wide fight against Islamic terrorism and against the ISIS monster presently shaking the Middle East. Until the world again speaks out loudly and confronts Turkey with demands for them to admit their misdeeds, make needed reparations to victims and provide safety for Christians living within their borders, no one will believe that this large Muslim nation is really secular as they claim or peace-loving as their religion is alleged to be.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kisses back (gtg will be back tomorrow
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Slowly, almost teasingly kisses you (awwwww
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Hugo-Z-Hackenbush More than 1 year ago
For readers unfamiliar with middle eastern histories, Mr. Balakian has painted a dense, fact filled, and easy to read account of the sufferings of his people. His history is as clearly defined as a razors edge. However, this book is tainted by its omissions, which a well read individual will quickly realize, and by its none to subtle ethnic biases. Americans forgive easily, and the enemy of a few years ago can quickly become an ally. Other nationalities seem unable to advance beyond Mohacs, Manzikert, Kosovo; they let their defeats define them, not their victories. I do not recommend this book. If you want to appreciate Armenia, enjoy its fine, fiery brandy.