For decades, it was almost strictly an Armenian issue. No matter how hard they lobbied politicians to recognize the genocide of their people more than 90 years ago, Armenian-Americans often failed. When it mattered most, they lacked the political clout and friends to make a difference.
But the recent uproar in Watertown, home to roughly 8,000 Armenian-Americans, shows that the dynamics of the debate have changed. It is no longer just Armenian-Americans pushing for formal recognition of the genocide of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks during World War I, but also Jews and politicians of many backgrounds.
Observers cite decades of lobbying and a raft of recent scholarly work on the subject as reasons for the change. But the shift is also indicative of a growing antigenocide constituency in the United States. Stirred up by recent massacres in Rwanda, the Balkans, and Darfur, Americans may be more concerned about genocide today than ever before, said Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
"Before it was known to some people," Wiesel said, "but now it transcends age limits and society. It's everywhere. It's in theaters, on TV, in movies, in books, in schools. It's all over, and all that is because people are more sensitive to the Holocaust memory."
The feeling is evident in the US House of Representatives, where 227 members, a majority, are cosponsoring a resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide. It is the largest number of cosponsors the resolution has had in recent years. And perhaps more importantly, with Democrats in power Armenian-Americans are optimistic the resolution will get to the floor for a vote. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has supported the resolution in the past.
But a vote is hardly a guarantee. Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who introduced the resolution, said the Turkish efforts to lobby against the measure are "beyond anything I've ever seen."
The Turkish government is paying big money to two former congressmen-turned-lobbyists -- Bob Livingston, a Republican, and Dick Gephardt, a Democrat -- to twist arms on Capitol Hill.
Last week, after the national ADL acknowledged the deaths of Armenians as genocide in order to appease local board members but still refused to support the congressional resolution, the Turkish government responded by calling the genocide "historically and legally baseless" and asked the ADL to "rectify" its position. For Armenian-Americans, it was a familiar response.
"What I always say to Armenians is that they've won the most important fight on this," said Samantha Power, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. "Which is, they've won the battle for the history books, for the court of public opinion, and for the culture. The only place they've lost is with the Turkish government and the US government on the issue of formal recognition."
On April 24, 1915, Ottoman Turks arrested hundreds of Armenian leaders and began executing Armenians shortly thereafter. Henry Morgenthau, the US ambassador to Turkey, told the State Department in July 1915 that the events amounted to "a campaign of race extermination." In the years that followed, as many as 1.5 million Armenians were massacred.
But in the homes of many Armenian-Americans, there was little discussion of this history. For many children and grandchildren of the survivor generation, the past was like a secret. Armenians were struggling just to learn English and fit in. Some Armenian-American families even changed their names to remove the -ian ending. Ruth Thomasian's father, for example, changed the family name to Thomason.
"That's how I grew up in Belmont," said Thomasian, who was born in 1945 and heard little about the genocide for decades. "Everybody wanted to forget it, just forget it. If you don't talk about it, it doesn't exist."
But the 50th anniversary of the genocide hit the Armenian people "like a rocket of consciousness" in 1965, said Peter Balakian, author of "The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response."
The survivor generation was dying off, and a new generation, born in the United States, wanted to take action.
Two local Armenian-Americans were part of a small group leading the way. "We'd been mourning," said Robert A. Kaloosdian. "Now it was time to bring some recognition to this, time to right an awful wrong."
In 1971, Kaloosdian and Haig Der Manuelian, both Belmont lawyers, began talking with others about forming an Armenian assembly. The goal: speaking with one voice. The group, later named the Armenian Assembly of America, helped push for recognition of the genocide, along with the Armenian National Committee. In 1975 and 1984, the US House commemorated the genocide.
But instead of gaining momentum, the issue stalled. By 1985, when a similar resolution came before the House, one West Virginia Republican called it "the most mischief-making piece of legislation in all my experience in Congress." The resolution was shelved and would continue to face challenges over the next 20 years because of the difficult geopolitical relations of the former Soviet Union and the region.
"The historical facts are clear," said John M. Evans, the former US ambassador to Armenia. "But to the foreign policy elite in the State department and members of the Senate and House who have to think hard about foreign policy choices, there is no desire to irritate our ally, the Turks. What comes through clearly again and again when it comes to that part of the world is the role that Turkey can play in the Middle East."
Evans may know this better than almost anyone. He was dismissed in May 2006 after publicly acknowledging the genocide, an act many Armenian-Americans cite as the latest example of the influence that Turkey enjoys with the US government. In some Washington circles, Evans said, the word genocide is taboo.
Historically, that word has been similarly problematic for some Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League. Turkey is a rare Muslim ally to Israel, and the ADL, fearful of upsetting relations between Israel and Turkey, has shied away from acknowledging the genocide for decades.
But last week, under pressure from Boston's Jewish leaders, the ADL reversed its stance, called the Turkish atrocities "tantamount to genocide," and announced that it would reconsider its position on the pending congressional resolution in November.
The reversal was greeted by cheers in Armenian communities across the country and especially in Watertown, where the debate began last month when people in the town questioned its participation in an antibigotry program sponsored by the ADL.
"All of this reaffirms the activism of the Armenian community, that the truth is finally prevailing over all sorts of political powers and pressures," said Harut Sassounian, publisher of the California Courier, a newspaper in Glendale, Calif., that covers Armenian issues. "And this has a domino effect. One by one all the pieces of denial are crumbling."
Others questioned the ADL's sincerity. Armenian-Americans said last week that the ADL's statement asking for "further dispassionate scholarly examination" of the genocide reflected little progress. Others wondered if recent events will help the congressional resolution pass this fall.
Even Manuelian, 81, is taking a skeptical approach to the latest resolution about a tragedy that began 92 years ago. "I'll believe it when I see it."