The diplomat who cracked
John Marshall Evans, a career U.S. diplomat with extensive experience in Central and Eastern Europe, was sworn in as ambassador to Armenia in August 2004. In February 2005, Evans made a trip to California, the capital state of the Armenian diaspora. At three different meetings with Armenian-American groups, when asked about Washington’s lack of official recognition of the 1915-23 Armenian genocide as a “genocide,” Evans said some variation of the following: “I will today call it the Armenian Genocide.”
Since this deviated from State Department guidelines, Evans was eventually asked to resign. Now the mild-mannered foreign service veteran is preparing a book about his “intellectual journey” that led him “rock the boat” of U.S. policy.
I caught up with Evans this March, a few days after he gave the keynote speech explaining his dissent to the second annual banquet for USC’s Institute of Armenian Studies. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
To start with, when did it become unusual, your preparation for this job? When you said that basically you wanted to read up on this controversial historical thing before assuming the ambassadorship, one does that before one goes to a foreign posting, anyway; at what point did that process become different than your usual diplomatic posting, in terms of fact-gathering, and conclusions that you might come up with? [...]
[M]y nomination for Yerevan was announced in the first half of May 2004. I was confirmed in late June, I can give you the exact dates. And then I had a window of a couple weeks in which I went into a kind of monastic retreat and read everything I possibly could about Armenia.
Now, I had the advantage that [...] [in] 1989, that year I had received a Cox Fellowship, and was spending a year reading Ottoman history at the Wilson Center in Washington, at the Kennan Institute. And so I read a lot of history. So I wasn’t coming to the issue of Armenian history with a totally blank slate; I’d read mostly mainstream books -- Lord Kinross and various others who have written about Ottoman history. [...]
I read as much as I could before I went out to Yerevan. I read [former U.S. ambassador Henry] Morgenthau’s story, which had a profound impact on me, and [...] I proceeded [to Yerevan], but not before having a discussion with my immediate boss about the issue of the genocide, and how it was treated in State Department materials. I felt that it was not being adequately addressed, but at that point I had no sense that we couldn’t do a better job basically in the same lines that we were already using. I had not abandoned the policy, but I felt we could do a much better job with that policy, and in particular using the things that had been said by President Bush and President Clinton.
So I went out there and I became increasingly frustrated when I returned to that subject, at the fact that it was considered taboo. And it was; I couldn’t really get it onto the agenda for at least a discussion. [...]
Let me also just say that I never departed from the U.S. policy line in Armenia. The question, if you look at public opinion polls in Armenia, what you see is that although the question of recognition of the genocide is on the minds of people, it’s sort of the ninth or tenth issue behind social stability, having a job, worrying about their retirement, you know, worrying about Nagorno-Karabakh. And then you get down to the single digits, the people who put the recognition of the genocide at the top of their lists. Single digits.
So in a way it’s much bigger for the diaspora?
That’s right. That’s correct. And I did not ever -- I rarely got a question about it when serving as U.S. ambassador to Armenia, and I never used the word ‘genocide’ in answering any question there. Almost never; I can’t remember a time when a local journalist asked me about it.
By the time of my trip out here in February in 2005 I’d been in place for about six months, and I’d done more reading. I was more upset than ever about both the issue and the policy, and about the prospect that this is just going to be a situation that was going to continue ad infinitum. I mean, Turkish interests, and U.S. interests in Turkey; a country with 72 million, a member of NATO of long standing, with valuable strategic property in the Middle East, secular, Muslim, in a time when we’re contending with forces in the Muslim world that have produced this fundamentalist ideology and terrorism. Turkey is a hugely important ally, and little landlocked Armenia, population 3 million at best, is never going weigh in those scales in such a way as to even make a showing.
And yet, the facts of the matter, the facts of the historical matter, and the legal definition of genocide as basically codified in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, which we ratified, does count for something in my view. I felt that something had to be done to rock the boat, and to open up some space around this taboo subject, which in the State Department was routinely referred to as “the G-word.” Which to me is sort of reminiscent of potty training. [...]
I never in 35 years had encountered a U.S. policy that I could not at least live with. Certainly not one in my own area of responsibility.
I wonder how much of that is the fact that you had the good fortune, mind you, to spend most of your life basically working in what in retrospect can seem like the most virtuous of American endeavors, which is --
Winning the Cold War
Winning the Cold War in Central Europe in particular. You know, it’s a lot different having done that than if you had to deal with Saudi Arabia, ever, you know, or other parts of the world where we have a much more realpolitik type of appraoch.
Well you bring to mind another point that I made Sunday night, and that is since 1989, American diplomats have spent a lot of their time encouraging the growth of civil society. [...] Civil society does matter, and when civil society, taken together -- that is, historians, journalists, public people who’ve thought about issues -- when the vast majority of them perceive that there was a genocide of Armenians in 1915, and we are withholding that in our declared policy, it sets up a very difficult situation: You can’t call it cognitive dissonance, exactly, but as I expressed it the other night, when a policy is perceived as not conforming to the broadly accepted truth, the policy becomes less supportable, and may not be supportable.
I came to the point where I felt this strongly, that it couldn’t be -- it was not -- sustainable. That this flew in the face of the facts as we know them from people I hugely respect, starting with Henry Morgenthau, and our past diplomatic colleagues. [...] The truth as we know it from very good sources had diverged to an unsustainable degree. [...]
But was it reasonable for you to imagine that your rocking the boat wouldn’t get you fired? [...]
Clearly when I was here in February 2005, I knew that by mentioning this word, I could get myself in trouble. I didn’t know precisely what the degree of that trouble would be, but I knew that it could range from a slap on the wrist to being immediately canned. And as it turned out it was something between those extremes: I got more than a mere slap on the wrist, I wasn’t immediately canned. I basically was eased out after about 18 months, although I had more time on my clock. [...] I was basically asked to go ahead and retire. [...]
How would you characterize the reaction of your superiors or even just your colleagues when you said “Hey, this is a policy that I’m beginning to believe is untenable, we need to shift it this way”? And when I ask you how would you characterize it, is it your impression that they, too believed that this is a historically settled issue, it’s just one that is inconvenient to talk about?
Nobody ever used those terms, and I never had that kind of a conversation. [...]
The problem for me was not that we were having an argument about it, the problem for me was we couldn’t talk about it. I couldn’t even get it on the agenda. And I couldn’t take the policy positions that had been devised for dealing with this, I couldn’t get them properly deployed, because nobody wanted to even touch it. I kept running into this sort of impossible Maginot Line, or just obstacle to even getting the issue onto the table, and that’s where I decided to do an end run.
So it was less that people were saying, you know, “Stop knocking on this door”; it was more of just like, “Oh, I gotta go fill up my water glass now”?
Well, it was sort of “Now’s not the time.” But there never -- given the realities -- there never would be a good time to face this issue, if one does the traditional calculations of well, Turkey is 72 million, Armenia is 3 million, it was 92 years and counting, and so on and so forth. This is a formula for it to go on for 500 years.
A cure for the common opinion
Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.