From the Letters to the Editor column of the December 2005 Perspectives

Taking a Position on Genocide

Jesse Lemisch, December 2005

To the Editor:

I was glad that President James Sheehan and the American Historical Association Council expressed disapproval of the Turkish government's role in the cancellation of a conference on "Ottoman Armenians during the Decline of the Empire" (Perspectives, September 2005, 3–4). But I found it jarring that, in the midst of this otherwise commendable expression, the AHA and its president felt the need to state that, "Needless to say, the Association does not have a position on the fate of the Armenians." As a veteran of Vietnam-era struggles within the professional associations, I know just how militantly the AHA has held to the notion that, in President Sheehan's words, it "does not take a position on particular historical issues." (And I recall the December 1968 AHA meeting in New York in which a procession of worthies proclaimed that the convention had been moved from Chicago after the police riot during the Democratic Convention in August only as a matter of convenience, with no hint of political or historical judgment.)

As President Sheehan reminds us, the Turkish government has denied that a genocide took place. But can it be that the AHA has no position on the fact of the Armenian Genocide? In response to my query on what I take to be a related question, the AHA's executive director has reminded me of the AHA Council's 1991 statement deploring Holocaust Denial ("No serious historian questions that the Holocaust took place"). I'm sure some readers will see an inconsistency between the AHA's position on the Holocaust and its position on the Armenian Genocide; I'm sure others will find enough angels on the head of this pin to squirm out of it. But doesn't it come down to this: the AHA opposes Holocaust denial in one case but is agnostic in another?

—Jesse Lemisch, Professor Emeritus of History, John Jay College of Criminal Justice