Profile: Henry Morgenthau Sr, the US envoy to Constantinople

Witness to a great catastrophe

The World Today
2 minute READ
Photo: The Life Picture Collection/Getty

Photo: The Life Picture Collection/Getty

Few diplomats are remembered by history, but Henry Morgenthau Sr is an exception. His name will be especially recalled this year, the centenary of the massacres that came to be known as the Armenian genocide of 1915, of which he was perhaps the most famous witness.

At first glance, Morgenthau looks to be a representative of the much-criticized modern American phenomenon, the insider who lands an ambassadorial post as a political appointee. Yet, he was driven more by ideas, than money. He is is more accurately described as a flamboyant wealthy internationalist humanitarian, an earlier George Soros. Morgenthau was a dynamic ambassador in the city then known as Constantinople. After the First World War he was instrumental in setting up the organization that later became Near East Relief, the world’s first large-scale humanitarian operation to provide food aid and house orphans in Ottoman lands. He also led a mission investigating the abuse of Poland’s Jews and headed the League of Nations commission resettling Ottoman Greeks in Greece.

Like Soros, Morgenthau came from a European Jewish family that emigrated to the United States. He was born in Mannheim in 1856, the ninth of eleven children, the son of a German Jewish cigar merchant. He was nine when his family moved to New York.

Morgenthau became a wealthy lawyer and property developer and helped bankroll Woodrow Wilson’s successful bid for the presidency in 1912. As a reward, he was offered the post of ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

When the Ottomans entered the Great War on the German side in 1914, Morgenthau, as envoy

of a neutral power, became the de facto representative of several European nations. He had good access to the two main Young Turk leaders, Enver Pasha, the war minister, and Talat Pasha, the interior minister.

Caleb Gates, who ran Robert College, the US-founded school in the city, writes that Morgenthau ‘gained the confidence of the Turkish government and had a prestige which no new man could at once command’ and would go riding with Talat and Enver in the forest.

In 1915, his privileged position gave Morgenthau a front-row seat to the decisions of Talat and Enver, who, as they faced near disaster during the Allied assault on Gallipoli, ordered the deportation and almost total destruction of the empire’s Armenian population on the grounds that they were Allied fifth columnists. Men were massacred, women and children sent on death marches to the Syrian desert. At least one million Armenians – half or more of the whole population – died in what was regarded at the time as the worst atrocity of the war. In one especially frank conversation in August 1915, Morgenthau wrote that Talat cut him short. ‘It is no use for you to argue,’ Talat said. ‘We have already disposed of three quarters of the Armenians … The hatred between the Turks and the Armenians is now so intense that we have got to finish with them. If we don’t, they will plan their revenge.’

He records that Talat expressed surprise that a Jew would speak out on behalf of suffering Christians to which he gave this rebuke: ‘I am not here as a Jew but as an American ambassador. My country contains something more than 97,000,000 Christians and something less than 3,000,000 Jews. So at least in my ambassadorial capacity, I am 97 per cent Christian.’

In 1916, Morgenthau resigned from the diplomatic service, citing as one reason his ‘failure to stop the destruction of the Armenians’. He became a zealous lobbyist for the Armenians, even playing himself in a lurid film entitled Ravished Armenia. In 1918, he published Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, telling the inside version of his battles with the Young Turk leadership and the Armenian deportations. It is a gripping book. It is so damning about the Ottoman government that in 1990, Heath Lowry, an American historian of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey, published a book trying to discredit Morgenthau’s narrative as a work of wartime propaganda.

Long after his death, this made Morgenthau the subject of another familiar Washington controversy – over the authenticity of a political memoir. The book is certainly polemical.

But Morgenthau was vindicated by the subsequent publication of his ambassadorial cables, which basically tell the same story. A forthcoming biography of the Morgenthau family by Andrew Meier will set the record straight.

For all his 19th century flamboyance and prejudices, Morgenthau now looks to have been a man ahead of his time: a down-to-earth believer in Woodrow Wilson’s ideas of international justice, which a generation later would later be enshrined in the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights.