President Obama marked the “solemn” anniversary of the 1915 massacre of more than 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks, but stopped short Thursday of using the term genocide despite a 2008 pledge to do so as president.
Obama called the massacre the “first mass atrocity of the 20th century.” But as the White House had indicated earlier this week, he did not use the term genocide despite increasing pressure to do so on the 100th anniversary, which is Friday.
Still, the statement released late Thursday was more expansive than similar ones in previous years.
“I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed,” Obama said. “A full, frank, and just acknowledgment of the facts is in all our interests. Peoples and nations grow stronger, and build a foundation for a more just and tolerant future, by acknowledging and reckoning with painful elements of the past.”
Obama also said he welcomed the “recent expression of views” by Pope Francis, who did call the massacre a genocide, as well as those by “the many others who have sought to shed light on this dark chapter of history.”
Advocates of making the distinction had hoped that the milestone, and the pope’s use of the term, would prompt a change.
But U.S. officials met with Armenian American groups and officials from both Turkey and Armenia to explain their decision not to.
“We believe that all parties have a vested interest in acknowledging the truth about that massacre,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters earlier Thursday. “The president has spoken forcefully about the value and importance of acknowledging that particular tragic incident.”
Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew is leading a presidential delegation to Armenia to attend commemoration events. Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-Menlo Park) are part of the delegation.
The Turkish government says that the mass killings do not meet the legal definition of genocide and that it would be a mistake for the U.S. to use the term. The U.S. is counting on Turkey’s cooperation in the battle against Islamic State militants, and some fear that a recognition of genocide could imperil Ankara’s support.
National security advisor Susan Rice met this week with the Turkish foreign minister, encouraging him “to facilitate an open and frank dialogue in Turkey about the atrocities of 1915,” the White House said.
Staff writer Noah Bierman contributed to this report.