THIS WEEK IN ARMENIAN HISTORY
(Prepared by the Armenian National Education Committee)
Birth of Henry Morgenthau, Sr.
(April 26, 1856)
Righteous men were a plenty during the years of the Armenian Genocide, and Henry Morgenthau, Sr., Ambassador of the United States to the Ottoman Empire, was the prominent American name among them.
Morgenthau was born in Mannheim (Germany) on April 26, 1856. He was the ninth of eleven children to a Jewish family. His father, Lazarus Morgenthau, was a prosperous manufacturer and merchant, who bought tobacco from the United States and sold it back as cigars. However, the American Civil War hit him severely: German cigar exports ceased after a tariff on tobacco imports was set in 1862. Four years later, the family migrated to New York. Despite his father’s unsuccessful attempts to re-establish himself in business, Henry Morgenthau—who knew no English on his arrival at the age of ten—graduated from City College in 1874 and from Columbia Law School in 1876. Beginning a career as a successful lawyer, he would later make a substantial fortune in real estate investments. He married Josephine Sykes in 1882 and had four children. He served as a leader of the Reform Jewish community in New York.
In 1911 Morgenthau, then 55, left business to enter public service. He became an early supporter of President Woodrow Wilson’s election campaign in 1912. He had hoped for a cabinet post, but Wilson offered him the position of ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, with the assurance that it “was the point at which the interest of American Jews in the welfare of the Jews of Palestine is focused, and it is almost indispensable that I have a Jew in that post.” The encouragement of his friend, Rabbi Stephen Wise, led him to reconsider his decision and accept the offer, although Morgenthau was no Zionist himself.
The United States remained neutral after the beginning of World War I, and since the Allies had withdrawn their diplomatic missions following the outbreak of hostilities, both the American embassy and Morgenthau himself additionally represented their interests in Constantinople. American consuls in different parts of the Empire, from Trebizond to Aleppo, reported abundantly about the Armenian plight and documented the entire process of the Armenian Genocide. Morgenthau continuously kept the U.S. government informed of the ongoing annihilation and asked for its intervention. His telegram to the State Department, on July 16, 1915, described the massacres as a “campaign of race extermination.” He intervened upon the Young Turk leaders to stop the mass killings, although unsuccessfully. His friendship with Adolph Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, ensured a wide coverage of the Armenian atrocities throughout 1915.
Morgenthau reached out to his friend Cleveland H. Dodge, a prominent American businessman, who was instrumental in the foundation of the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief in 1915 that would later become Near East Relief (nowadays the Near East Foundation). Finding “intolerable” his “further daily association with men . . . who were still reeking with the blood of nearly a million human beings,” as he wrote in his memoirs, he returned to the United States in February 1916 and campaigned to raise awareness and funds for the survivors, resigning from his position as ambassador two months later. In 1918 he published his memoirs, including his account of the genocide, as Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story (published in Great Britain as The Secrets of the Bosphorus).
He attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and worked with various war-related charitable bodies. He also headed the American fact-finding mission to Poland in 1919 and was the American representative at the Geneva Conference in 1933. He died on November 25, 1946, in New York City, at the age of 90, following a cerebral hemorrhage, and was buried in Hawthorne, New York. Morgenthau was the father of Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, and the grandfather of Robert Morgenthau, long-time District Attorney in Manhattan, and historian Barbara Tuchman. He appeared in “Ravished Armenia,” the film based on the memoirs of survivor Aurora Mardiganian, commissioned by the Near East Relief. One of his dialogues with Talaat is portrayed in the forthcoming film The Promise.