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Remembering a dark chapter in Turkish history

By Peter S. Canellos, Globe Staff | March 29, 2005

CAMBRIDGE — Henry Morgenthau III sits in his living room, surrounded by mementos of his family, and speaks of the great goal of his grandfather’s life: ”He wanted to think of himself as fully American.”

Morgenthau’s immigrant grandfather, who served as US ambassador to Turkey between 1913 and 1916, strived to establish the German-Jewish Morgenthaus in the American aristocracy almost as assiduously as Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. strived to establish his Irish-Catholic family in the American pantheon. The Morgenthaus acquired top-notch educations, a grand home in the Hudson Valley near the Roosevelts, and a seemingly permanent seat at the tables of power.

The Morgenthaus ascended the way most immigrants did, by assimilation. Henry III still remembers his grandfather reciting rhymes to try to rid himself of the last vestige of a German accent — his difficulty pronouncing the letters ”th.” The first Henry Morgenthau distanced himself from Zionism, fearful that it would prompt suspicions of dual loyalties among American Jews.

But while assuming the posture of the Protestant Yankee elites, the Morgenthaus never forgot their shared ancestry with the refugees, displaced peoples, and immigrants of the world. That is why they occupy a unique niche among America’s self-made aristocracy: Both Henry Morgenthau Sr. and his son Henry Morgenthau Jr. are heroes to millions overseas for trying to intervene in the first two genocides of the 20th century, the Turkish slaughter of Armenians in 1915 and the Nazi extermination of European Jews.

In the United States, the recent growth of Holocaust studies has cast a new spotlight on the accomplishments of both men, especially Henry Morgenthau Sr. As the 90th anniversary of the date marking the Armenian genocide arrives next month, Armenian-Americans will be quoting from the diplomatic cables sent back by Ambassador Morgenthau as proof of slaughters of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks that the Turkish government has yet to acknowledge.

In a book written in 1918, Morgenthau sought to separate the killings of Armenians from past forms of civil strife, writing of ”the massacre of a nation” long before the term genocide was invented. Collecting eyewitness accounts from US consuls at various locations in the Ottoman Empire, which then included Palestine and Armenia, Morgenthau warned of an unceasing campaign of murder by Turks.

”The cables that were sent back and forth were very alarming — a graphic, florid description of what was going on — and the State Department’s response was just to let him go it alone,” explained Henry Morgenthau III.

Henry Morgenthau Sr. never wanted to be ambassador to Turkey, which was then the segregated Jewish seat of the diplomatic corps. He had higher ambitions.

Morgenthau had attached his hopes to Woodrow Wilson when the New Jersey governor was a long-shot presidential candidate in 1912. Morgenthau, who had made his fortune on Wall Street, chaired Wilson’s campaign finance committee. As a reward, Morgenthau expected nothing less than a Cabinet post — but Wilson did not come through. Instead, according to Henry III, Wilson urged Morgenthau to take the post in Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, as a way of helping ”your people.”

Morgenthau did get to help Jews — funneling American contributions to help rescue Jews in Palestine from starvation — but his greatest contribution was calling attention to the plight of the Armenians. After serving as ambassador for three years, he went on to found the largest private relief organization for surviving Armenians.

By 1932, when he began raising money for the first presidential run of New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ambassador Morgenthau’s ambitions had been channeled into his son, Henry Jr.

Roosevelt named the younger Morgenthau to be secretary of the treasury, a post he held for 11 years, during which time he was instrumental in financing the military buildup during World War II.

But Henry Morgenthau Jr. was also the leading voice calling attention to the systematic killing of Jews, when the State Department refused to highlight the issue. Morgenthau had his Treasury staff research their own report on the Holocaust, declaring ”the acquiescence of this government in the murder of the Jews.” Without State Department approval, he used his personal friendship with Roosevelt to prod the president to take action.

Roosevelt eventually pressured Hungary to halt any transfers of Jews to the Nazis, saving 200,000 people, but he did not heed Morgenthau’s pleas to bomb Auschwitz. Henry Morgenthau Jr. went on to help establish Israel, serving as chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, among other posts.

Later generations of immigrants, holding close to their ethnic and religious identities, came to view assimilation with suspicion, as though those who aspired to Ivy League pedigrees, Dutchess County addresses, and fancy New York men’s clubs were merely trying to disappear into another culture.

The Morgenthaus disprove that theory. In fact, they were far more marked by their religion because they traveled in Protestant circles, and their values were strengthened for being challenged every day. Henry Morgenthau III, who was close to both his father and grandfather, became a public-television pioneer, producing a series called ”Prospects of Mankind” featuring his mother’s good friend, Eleanor Roosevelt. Now in his late 80s, Morgenthau has become the family historian.

His younger brother Robert Morgenthau is the legendary Manhattan district attorney, most noteworthy in recent years for refusing to seek the death penalty, even where allowed under state law, because he believes it is unfairly applied. Now, on the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, Henry Morgenthau III is still pressing his grandfather’s cause, urging the Turks to acknowledge the massacres.

”Ninety years after the 1915 genocide, there are no living individuals who can be held responsible,” Morgenthau said. ”But from the standpoint of both nations, Armenia and Turkey, it would be not only the right thing but a satisfying thing for those people to achieve healing.”

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe’s Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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