How a forgotten American diplomat resisted the Armenian Genocide.
Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.
Brief though it was, Henry Morgenthau’s career as U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire marked one of the most astonishing chapters in American overseas diplomacy. In January 1916, he left Constantinople having served for little more than two years and headed home to New York, determined to help Woodrow Wilson win a second term. “I could imagine no greater calamity,” he later recollected, “for the U.S. and the world than that the American nation should fail to heartily endorse this great statesman.”
Morgenthau was convinced that Wilson was the best candidate to reshape an international order that had descended into savagery. In the preceding nine months, he had seen it with his own eyes, as the Ottoman government carried out an unspeakable offense against its people, slaughtering more than a million ethnic Armenians. Protected by American neutrality during the first three years of World War I, Morgenthau was the fulcrum of a network of American diplomats, missionaries, and businesspeople who gained an eyewitness perspective of the massacres. Their testimony constitutes a compelling body of evidence about what happened to the Armenians: an outrage for which the term genocide was invented.
News of the massacres reached Washington through Morgenthau, but it was U.S. consulate officials in more remote regions who saw up close what’s known in Armenian as Medz Yeghern, “the Great Crime.” Leslie Davis was U.S. consul in the province of Harput, an area of Turkey in which Armenians accounted for about a third of the population. Seated amid the Anatolian highlands, Harput was roughly seven hundred miles from the capital, necessitating a twenty-one-day journey: eighteen on horseback to a railway station, then three on a train. Davis himself described the Harput consulate as “one of the most remote and inaccessible in the world”; the urban splendor of Constantinople seemed as distant as the moon.
Until 1910, Davis had worked in a presumably well-paid but sedate job as a lawyer in the Manhattan financial district. On entering his thirties, and fearing that life was passing him by, he applied to join the State Department, likely with romantic dreams of intrigue and exotic adventure in faraway lands. His first posting was to Batumi, in what is now Georgia, where his taste for outdoors pursuits earned him a reputation as a very American type of eccentric: a Teddy Roosevelt of the Black Sea who took every opportunity to make life more rugged and uncomfortable than it needed to be.
In April 1914, just two months before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he was transferred to Harput. Surveying his new jurisdiction, Davis was full of optimism: “the country was peaceful and the people were hopeful of progress.” Railroads were under construction; the ethnic and religious populations existed in apparent harmony. He reported “nothing but good feeling between Mohammadean and Christian,” after attending a ceremony at a college run by American missionaries, “and the Turks and Armenians appeared to be on friendly terms … Who could have then foreseen,” he wondered, “amid those peaceful surroundings … what is probably the most terrible tragedy that has ever befallen any people in the history of the world?”
Though they had forged a secret alliance with Germany as early as August, the Ottomans only formally allied themselves to the Central Powers in November 1914. As Constantinople’s military commanders saw it, this was a golden opportunity for the empire to revivify itself, rediscover the lost genius of Turkish civilization, and reclaim the territory it had lost in recent decades. But the Ottoman Army was under-resourced and ill-prepared, and it soon suffered some crushing defeats. The regime, led by a triumvirate of Turkish nationalists known as the Three Pashas, was quick to characterize the reverses as the treacherous handiwork of enemies within, especially the Armenians. In the early months of 1915, a toxic atmosphere developed; isolating and persecuting these foes was framed as a military necessity and a patriotic duty. On April 24, Talaat Pasha, the minister of the interior, ordered the arrest and deportation of hundreds of leading Armenian intellectuals and community leaders. It was the start of what Davis would later call “the reign of terror” that swamped the whole of Turkey.
A thriving Armenian community had existed in Harput since the Middle Ages. Often well-educated and civic-minded, Armenians were prominent among the region’s merchants, teachers, doctors, and lawyers—exactly the types of community leaders who were singled out in the first wave of persecution. From numerous sources, Davis became aware of the arrests and torture sessions happening just a stone’s throw from his office. Some men were whipped and bastinadoed, their fingernails ripped out. On the night of June 23, the authorities put hundreds of them into oxcarts and drove them away. Three days later, the town crier announced that, starting on July 1, all Armenians—including women, children, and the elderly—were to be “deported” to the settlement of Urfa, near what’s now the Syrian border.
It was Davis’s suspicion that deportation was a euphemism for something much darker. Yet even if the government aimed, as it claimed, to relocate and segregate the Armenian people, this proclamation was a virtual death sentence for thousands: without proper transport or adequate rations, few stood much chance of surviving a trek of 140 miles across the desert under the blazing sun. Davis wrote despairingly of the situation to Morgenthau: “A massacre, however horrible the word may sound, would be humane in comparison … I do not believe it possible for one in a hundred to survive, perhaps not one in a thousand.”
The next few days were chaos. Each morning, lines of Armenians arrived at Davis’s office, desperate for help. Since the declaration of war, the U.S. was by far the most powerful neutral nation with a diplomatic presence in the Ottoman Empire. To the Armenians of Harput, Davis was their best—perhaps their only—hope of survival. Some who turned up at the consulate advanced claims to American citizenship. Among them were the wives of men who had left to find work in the U.S., and some had children who had been born in America. Most, though, had only the flimsiest connections to the United States. Regardless, Davis devoted himself to assisting as many as he could; he prioritized anyone “who had documents of any kind” that could form the basis of a citizenship claim, and managed to secure many of them temporary exemptions from the deportations, despite the Ottoman government officially refusing to acknowledge the validity of dual citizenship.
As the day of the first deportation approached, Armenians scrabbled to put their financial affairs in order, selling off their worldly possessions at knockdown prices to Turkish neighbors. The deportees were permitted to take hardly anything with them; the government would seize whatever they left behind. “The scene reminded me of vultures swooping down on their prey,” shivered Davis, who agreed to secretly store money and precious items in his safe at the consulate, in the hope that one day their owners would be allowed to reclaim them. He estimated that once the deportations began he was guarding as much as two hundred thousand dollars’ worth of gold. The police knew what was going on, but Davis played dumb and ignored their demands to hand it over. The local governor, who might have admired his counterpart’s chutzpah, let the matter drop. It was a small act of defiance, maybe, but greater ones were to follow.
The deportations began in July, and Davis watched aghast as thousands of Armenians, most “carrying their baggage on their backs and their children in their arms,” were escorted from their homes, “spiritless and in despair.” It was a scene that was being played out across the empire. In Aleppo, the U.S. consul Jesse B. Jackson reported to Morgenthau that he had seen Armenians being marched by armed guards through the city, and he had learned of thousands being “scattered over the desert to starve or die of disease in the burning heat.” In the province of Sivas, an American missionary named Mary Louise Graffam managed to accompany a deportation party and spoke of robberies, beatings, and executions. Davis’s request that some American missionaries be allowed to join those leaving Harput was denied. They would be defenseless against the elements and the darkest recesses of human nature.
As the exodus took place that summer, Davis tried to keep as many as he could out of harm’s way. Audaciously, he allowed dozens to hide right under the nose of the Ottoman government, in the American consulate. The spacious three-story building—“one of the best in the interior of Asia Minor,” according to Davis—was well-suited to the task, its huge, beautiful garden studded with forty mulberry trees, all surrounded by a high wall. In the dry, warm summer months, it was here that men, women, and children slept in idyllic refuge from the infamy on the streets. The practicalities of hiding and sustaining all these people were a constant headache. For a short time, Davis employed a young Turkish boy to buy food from the market each morning—enough to feed a few dozen extra mouths—but the kid was unhelpfully curious about the consul’s rocketing consumption of bread. Davis soon decided it was safer to take care of these tasks himself, and keep the secret truly secret.
In total, Davis sheltered eighty people in the consulate and its grounds in 1915 and 1916, with at least twenty there at any one time. Every day he did so, he risked his own life: it was made unambiguously clear that a death sentence awaited anyone found guilty of interfering with the deportations. Occasionally, the threat of being rumbled became uncomfortably high. One evening, he hosted the chief of police until two in the morning, with three dozen or so Armenians hidden silently out of view. Davis was attempting to persuade the authorities to end the deportations, and , initially, his overtures were surprisingly well-received: the governor of the region assured him that “he felt very sorry himself for these poor people and would be glad to do anything he could.” When the police chief arrived that evening, however, strings were visibly attached. The deportations could be stopped immediately, Davis was told, but only if he signed a letter stating that “all the Armenians who had been deported or otherwise punished were guilty of some offense.” There was no chance that Davis would give the regime an opportunity to justify their actions, and refused to sign any such statement.
By December, Davis estimated that more than 90 percent of the local Armenian population had been deported. Those who had been spared looked to him for protection, and for the rest of his time in Harput he worked incessantly on their behalf. Of those hidden in the consulate, Davis arranged for as many as possible to be housed with families on the outside. Those he couldn’t safely relocate in Turkey he helped to escape to Russia, via boats that sailed discreetly along the Euphrates.
But for every life he saved, there were dozens who had been marched away, and whose fate he resolved to uncover. On several occasions in the months following the deportations, Davis and a companion discreetly surveyed the surrounding countryside. They came upon Armenian villages that were now husks. “We rode through empty streets filled with rubbish,” he said of one, “and all except about half a dozen of the inhabitants were gone.” Traveling farther afield, Davis encountered abundant evidence of what had happened to them: thousands of corpses, nearly all naked and many horribly burned. These people had clearly been killed in the most dehumanizing ways imaginable. A few were propped up against trees, having perished from hunger and exhaustion. The majority had been violently killed and left in piles like so much firewood. On one trip to Lake Goeljiuk, Davis estimated that in the space of twenty-four hours, he had seen the remains of ten thousand Armenians. On first taking in these scenes, he realized that even his worst fears about the events of the summer had been exceeded. “I understood better than ever what the ‘deportation’ of the Armenians meant.” Harput had become “the slaughterhouse.”
Davis sent what reports he could to Morgenthau, though many of his communications were intercepted. Frustrated by the limits of his power in Constantinople, Morgenthau filtered the testimonies of diplomats and missionaries not only to the State Department in Washington but also to the press in New York. They caused a sensation. A hundred and forty-three articles appeared in the New York Times alone in 1915, and newspapers across the country followed its lead. In that pocket between the outbreak of war in Europe and America’s entry into the conflict, the plight of the Armenians became a nationwide campaign, consuming not just statesmen and journalists, but factory workers and farmers, people from every walk of life. So passionate was the campaign that the president declared October 21 and 22 an official moment of solidarity with the Armenian people.
Morgenthau headed back to the U.S. in January 1916; Davis stayed on until diplomatic relations were severed with the Ottoman government in the spring of 1917. On his return, he traveled the country to meet with 189 Armenian Americans who’d asked the consulate for information about the fate of loved ones.
His unfussy but unbending devotion to the cause is deeply touching, and it permeates the detailed account he left of the horrific events of 1915. Unlike Morgenthau’s published memoirs of his time in Turkey, which tend on occasion toward lurid melodrama, Davis’s report, written at the end of 1917, is the measured and restrained work of an unassuming public servant, delivered in clean, uncomplicated prose. The report, 130 pages typed on fragile onionskin, lay unread for decades in State Department archives; it was exhumed only when the researcher Susan Blair came upon it almost by accident in the 1980s. Its languishment reflected our collective ignorance of the Armenian Genocide, which, in America and Western Europe at least, ceased to be a topic of household knowledge once the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao came to light.
Today, historians of the Armenian Genocide frequently cite Davis’s report, though none seems to have fully excavated its author, who remains an elusive figure—a man who summoned substance enough to leave his mark and then dissolved. After the war, he sought out new adventures in the foreign service, first in Russia, then in Finland, Portugal, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Scotland. He died in Massachusetts in 1960. At that point, his courage and commitment during World War I had been all but forgotten in the United States. In Armenia, an independent nation since 1991, the Americans whose efforts saved thousands of innocent lives are revered to this day. From what we know of him, Davis wouldn’t have sought recognition or thanks. “The important thing,” he told Morgenthau in the bleak, final days of 1915, was simply “to keep people alive for the present.” In the context of the times, that was an act of true heroism.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.