A General Evaluation of the American Sources on Forced Relocation

The most valuable sources regarding the topic of the forced relocation of Armenians and the causes and consequences of it are undoubtedly the correpondence of American diplomats and missionary reports after the Ottoman official documents. The German and Austrian documents are also significant. However, since they were the allies of the Ottoman Empire during the war, those documents were censored – according to the claims of some authors. In additon, the sources that the British propaganda department used and worked on intensively were of American origin. Even today, an important part of the documents that are put forward as the proofs of the so-called genocide belong to American diplomats and missionaries. The reason that makes American documents a primary source that must be consulted with regards to the forced relocation is the fact that the American diplomats and missionaries in the period under discussion were at many different places in the Ottoman Empire and they were large in number. Until 1 April 1917, i.e. until the declaration of war by the U.S. against Germany, American diplomats and missionaries were the most important followers and observers of the forced relocation. They can even be considered the most important implementers of it if we take into consideration their situation in the aid activities.

However, after noting this importance, there is another point that needs to be emphasized regarding the American documents. Most of the missionary reports that are used to prove the so-called genocide today by the Armenian historians and propagandists were reports that James L. Barton, who was the head of American Board of Commissoners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), had other people write to be used as a chip against Turkey.  Therefore, the American sources on the forced relocation should be assessed in three groups:

  1. The official and secret reports that were written by the diplomats who were working in Anatolia during the forced relocation to the embassy or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
  2. The reports and memoirs of the missionaries who worked at charities or American schools,
  3. Witness statements and memoirs that other people had officials write after the war.

Most of what was mentioned in the first group was sent to the State Department of the U.S. through Morgenthau. Morgenthau was always influenced by two Armenian assistants he had in Istanbul where he served as an ambassador between November 1913 and February 1916. His real profession was real estate investor and contractor. Therefore, he had no experience and knowledge in diplomacy. He did not know the languages such as Turkish or French, which were required for him to do his job properly. His Armenian clerks used very well these weaknesses he had and turned him into a diplomat who served the Armenian cause (Morgenthau, 2004). He often conveyed the reports that came from the consuls and missionaries regarding the forced relocation and its implementation to the headquarters as the American ambassador. Heath Lowry showed very convincingly in his work (Lowry, 2001) how the reports of the embassy were prepared. The fact that the reports of the embassy were prepared by the two clerks of Morgenthau is a sufficient reason to approach them with suspicion. However, what is more important than that is that the Armenian assistants of the consuls had a part in the reports written by the consuls. It should not be forgotten that most of the translators of the consulate were chosen from among the young Armenian people who knew English and who had studied in the West. These people generally manipulated the consuls, who did not know any Turkish at all, with the reports they wrote. The translators could not be consulate employees by coincidence, for it does not seem to be possible when one takes into consideration the effectiveness of the Armenian political parties in Anatolia in that period. In our opinion, the British propaganda department, which used the forced relocation of Armenians to convince America to enter the war, placed their men in the U.S. consulates with the help of the Tashank and Hinchak parties. In several reports written by the American consul in Izmir, Philip Hoffman, and the Beirut consul, Mr. Hollis, complained about the unreliability of the Armenian translators. Unfortunately, it is not possible to uncover the probable proofs regarding this subject for the time being because monographic studies have not been conducted on the consulates that were in Turkey in that period. However, we have found that the fabricated propaganda reports that were prepared by the Tashnak Information Bureau, which was based in Bucharest especially, were turned into embassy and consulate reports.

The missionary reports and memoirs, which were generally in the appendix of the reports of the American diplomats, and which we assessed in the second group, are used frequently since they depict the troubles experienced during the forced relocation. It is an important chance for historians that the missionaries served in many remote places in Anatolia. In the end, they were the Western observers who were the closest to the events after the deportation of the diplomats and missionaries of the Western countries who entered the war agains the Ottoman Empire. Their numbers were not insignificant. According to the ABCFM data, 145 missionaries worked in Anatolia in hundreds of centers before the war. 800 local Christians helped them and most of them were Armenians (Barton, 1930). However, it is overlooked that missionaries often gave information based on the narrations of the Armenians with whom they were in touch without witnessing the events themselves. When we analyze the writings of the missionaries in a serious manner, we can see that they were witnesses to a few incidents in a limited area and they describe many events as if they had been witnesses. Nevertheless, when the reports are read carefully, a critical eye can easily see that what is narrated was not what was witnessed, but the testimonies of those who said they had been witnesses.

The third group of sources, which were put forward as the sworn reports of the missionaries by James L. Barton starting in 1918, include many mistakes because they were wirtten down 3-4 years after the incidents (Barton, 1998). When one looks at these documents with a critical eye, one can easily determine that locations, dates, and people were mixed up. However, what is more important is that these witness statements were written by people who were forced to do so by other people with ulterior motives. The Armenian Diaspora, which claimed after the end of the First World War and before the Paris Peace Conference that the Armenians who had lived in the Ottoman territories had become victims, that they had been massacred and had been deprived of the right to establish a state, needed forced relocation stories in order to convince the delegations of the countries that took part in the conference and the public opinion. Therefore, no description that stated that the Armenians were guilty and provocateurs was included in the missionary reports.   Almost all of the witness statements talked about the troubles, arrests that the Armenians suffered during the forced relocation and the massacres that were heard but not witnessed. Although the number of Muslim refugees was bigger than the Armenians, the ordeal of the former was seen only a little in these reports. The writings of the missionaries formed almost a “ghetto” in their minds, whereas in reality, the Christians in Anatolia were never isolated in this manner. For example, the tragedy of the Muslims who were exiled from the Caucasus and suffered many losses due to hunger, thirst, and epidemics while on the road was not reflected in the missonary reports at all (McCarthy, 1998). Therefore, the missonary reports and the witness statements that were written after the war were written in order to exploit emotions and to ensure sympathy for Armenians. One cannot say that these reflect the incidents that were experiences in all their plain truth. As a matter of fact, Admiral Bristol also often complained in his reports that the missonaries misled the public opinion with biased, inconsistent, unreal, exaggerated, and misleading information during the forced relocation.

Nevertheless, the American documents are a group of forces that have to be used to understand the forced relocation of Armenians better provided that one retains skepticism. The most dangerous trap for a historian in the use of these documents is to use them as if they were a real legal document such as court records and to convict the past of the Turkish nation. When the American documents are used together with the Ottoman documents, they shed a light on many untrue details which the Armenian historiography puts forward today.



Barton, James L. (1930). Story of Near East Relief (1915-1930), An Interpretation, New York.

Barton, James L. (1998). Turkish Atrocities: Statements of American Missionaries on the Destruction of Christian Communities Ottoman Turkey, Michigan.

Lowry, Heath W. (2001). The Story Behind Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, İstanbul.

McCarthy, Justin (1998). Ölüm ve Sürgün: Osmanlı Müslümanlarına Karşı Yürütülen Ulus Olarak Temizleme İşlemi 1821-1922, İstanbul.

Morgenthau, Henry (2004). United States Diplomacy on the Bosphorus: The Diaries of Ambassador Morgenthau, Gomidas Institute.


(Kemal Çiçek, “Amerikan Kaynaklarında Tehcir” [Forced Relocation in American Sources], Türk-Ermeni İlişkilerinde Yeni Yaklaşımlar, 2008, pp. 323-344)

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