Biden breaks with predecessors, calls 1915 mass killings of Armenians a genocide

U.S. and Armenian flags.
(Image credit: DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images)

While addressing Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day on Saturday, Biden said "the American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today." The statement fulfills a campaign promise Biden made to Armenian-Americans, and makes him the first president in 40 years to call the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 a genocide.

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Biden's gesture is significant for Armenia and its diaspora, and it's not controversial among most historians, who estimate that 1.5 million Armenians were systematically killed in 1915. But, as is often the case, politics have rendered the language debate more challenging for the U.S. For instance, former President Barack Obama also made a campaign promise to call the killings a genocide; ultimately, though, he refrained from using the politically-charged term. Former President Ronald Reagan was the last commander-in-chief to do it, but he too backtracked, Bloomberg notes. Their reason? Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire and a strategic, complicated U.S. ally that claims the killings were in response to an armed Armenian rebellion.

There's no doubt Biden's decision to follow through — despite the fact that he warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about what was coming — will drive a wedge between Washington and Ankara. Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has already said the government rejects Biden's statement, and his ministry said the U.S. had "opened a deep wound that undermines our mutual trust and friendship."

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Ryan Gingeras, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School who focuses on Turkey, writes in The Washington Post that Biden's willingness to break with his predecessors likely stems from the fact that that his administration is losing patience with Turkey and its worsening human rights record. The decision "is as much a testament to changing political realities as it is a clear vindication of historical truth," he writes. Read more at Bloomberg and The Washington Post.

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Tim O'Donnell

Tim is a staff writer at The Week and has contributed to Bedford and Bowery and The New York Transatlantic. He is a graduate of Occidental College and NYU's journalism school. Tim enjoys writing about baseball, Europe, and extinct megafauna. He lives in New York City.