Photo of the governor by J.D. Lasica
California’s governor reflects on the Armenian genocide — and how it still affects his people’s spirit
This Q&A with the sitting governor of California appeared in The Sacramento Bee and was reprinted in the magazine Ararat. It was one of the few one-on-one interviews Deukmejian granted during his governorship.
By J.D. Lasica
Gov. George Deukmejian, who is looked upon as a source of pride in the nation’s Armenian community, has made public discussion of the Ottoman Empire massacres a recurring theme of his administration. The governor’s parents emigrated to this country from Armenia in 1907 and 1909, before the massacres of 1915-18. Following are excerpts from an hourlong interview conducted by J.D. Lasica:
Let’s start off with your early years. Were there some Armenian traditions that thrived in the Deukmejian household?
Oh, absolutely. My parents were very much involved in Armenian community activities. My father used to participate in some of the Armenian fraternal organizations. … My mother was actively involved with what they called the Armenian Relief Society, which is like the Armenian Red Cross. My mother used to sing at a lot of different Armenian events and functions, and my sister was a very accomplished pianist and so she had to play the piano while my mother sang. And obviously little Corky, as I was called in those days, used to have to go along to all these events.
Where was your home?
It’s in a village called Menands, New York. It’s like a suburb of Albany.
Did you ever experience any kind of discrimination?
Well, not knowingly. I think there maybe were things that might have been done that I wasn’t aware of, but I’ve never had any ugly types of incidents.
Let’s turn to the genocide. You’ve stated that you lost an aunt.
My father was the oldest son in the family; he had two brothers and three sisters. He made his way to the United States and eventually brought his brothers and one sister over here. Another sister lived most of her adult life in Beirut, Lebanon. The other sister was lost in the massacres that took place.
That was before you were born. Did your family ever learn what became of her?
I never knew what happened to her. But it just happened to so many other people at the same time that it was just one more tragic example of what was happening.
It’s sometimes called the forgotten genocide. Why do you suppose so few people know about it today?
Well, when it occurred there was such a dispersal of people who had been living in that part of Turkey. They all had to flee in so many different directions that small Armenian communities (sprang up) throughout the whole world. You can go almost anywhere and you’ll find some small Armenian community.
And as a result of that, and as a result of there not being any strong leadership, the people were without any money, without any resources, they were spread all over the world, they were just trying to make ends meet and live day to day and get a foothold and try to raise a family and so on.
There wasn’t any core group that had resources to keep the issue before the world. Another thing is that at the time we did not have the same kind of multimedia communications that you have today.
Now, as Armenians have become more established in their communities, now that they have been able to succeed in their businesses and professions and they’ve been able to educate their children and so on, now they’re able to have a little more influence and they’re able now to focus the world’s attention on what happened at that time. But there was nobody in the intervening years to do that.
What kinds of lessons can the world draw from the genocide? Why is it important to remember?
Well, perhaps if the world had not forgotten about it, maybe they would’ve been a little more attentive and might have taken steps earlier — been more united in opposition to what happened in Nazi Germany — and perhaps 6 million Jewish people and non-Jewish people might not have suffered as a result of that.
It’s important to keep in the minds of the people today what did happen in Nazi Germany because a lot of people would like to rewrite history, a lot of people would like to forget and they’d like to say, “Well, that’s a long time ago, let’s not dwell on it, you know, let’s try to go on and look at more positive things.”
Unfortunately, human beings being what they are, this kind of thing can repeat itself. We see it repeat itself in Cambodia and perhaps not in the same numbers but in some other countries as well.
The Turkish government has acknowledged that hundreds of thousands of innocent lives were lost during the deportation processes, but they say the killings were a consequence of the civil war within a world war and there was no government policy to wipe out the Armenians. How do you respond to that?
Well, that’s contrary to actual fact. Literally volumes have been written on this by people who were there at the time, people who are non-Armenian. Historians have recorded what have gone on, newspapers in the United States carried all kinds of articles and stories about what went on, the United States ambassador at the time also was reporting to the American government what was going on. So, unfortunately, the version of history that the present-day Turkish government is expressing is contrary to actual fact.
If the Turkish government issued a formal apology tomorrow, would that be the end of it? What is it that needs to be done?
I certainly think that that would be very satisfactory to an overwhelming majority of people of Armenian ancestry. Obviously there are still some people within the Armenian community who would like to some day have an independent nation, Armenian nation, just as there was such a nation for a brief period of time after World War I. And, you know, no group of people like to be without a country of their own. …
But I think what would be the next important step would be to have some kind of an actual dialogue begin with representatives of the Armenian community and Turkish government and (Soviet Armenia).
Short of an apology from Turkey, what would it take to heal the wounds?
I don’t see that there is anything short of that. … I mean, they’re doing just the opposite. They’re just trying to rewrite history. They’re spending literally millions of dollars in opposition to any effort by the Armenians to try to get recognition. They are now financing large numbers of professors in different educational institutions around the country and giving them certain grants and so on in an effort to try to rewrite history. So they’re doing just the opposite of trying to be conciliatory. They’re just trying to make the division even wider.
You signed into law a genocide studies bill that becomes part of the public school curriculum this fall. What do you hope schoolchildren will take away from this?
We hope that they’ll be more aware of the potential for that type of ugly activity that some rulers of countries can carry out, which costs the lives of millions of people and affects many millions of others, and to be aware that … it could always happen in the future, if they as future leaders don’t try to do everything they can to prevent it.
I assume you’ve been reading in the paper the news accounts of the demonstrations in Soviet Armenia. The Soviets have agreed to increase Armenian emigration to about 5,000 a month. Do you suppose many of them will be coming to California?
Yes. There already have been a rather significant number that have come over the years and every indication is that anytime you do have a mass immigration like that from a region, they tend to go to where maybe their relatives already are or where they have contacts and friends. Inasmuch as there already are a rather large number of Armenians, especially those from the Soviet Union, who are here in California, we do expect that there will be a large number of those coming to California, but they will perhaps go to other areas too.
Are you concerned that your strong criticisms of the Turkish government might antagonize Turkish-Americans?
I would hope that Turkish-Americans would be willing to accept history as it occurred and not try to rewrite it, as, unfortunately, the current government is trying to do.
You’ve publicly criticized the Reagan administration and State Department for putting the wishes of a NATO ally, Turkey, ahead of the moral weight of the genocide. In foreign policy matters like this, would you put a higher premium on morality than on realpolitik?
Well, absolutely. I think that it is in our own country’s best interest to adopt and carry out policies that are in accord with our own strong principles with respect to freedom and respect to human rights, civil rights.
Any time that a country begins to adopt policies for geopolitical reasons rather than based upon our own fundamental, strong principles of allowing for freedom and allowing for democracy and representative government, and so on, then I think that we lose a lot of our own credibility and I think that it begins to chip away at some of strengths that we have throughout the world.
If we can have allies like, let’s say, West Germany and Japan, which acknowledged the wrongdoing done by former governments, I fail to see why we can’t still have Turkey as a NATO ally.
But at the same time we cannot allow them to get away with trying to rewrite history and see our State Department, or our administration, knuckle under to a position taken by an ally that is totally contrary to what happened. To me that is very regrettable and I am not very proud of that stand.
A few Armenian-Americans I’ve talked to expressed support for the goals of the radical terrorist groups that are seeking to liberate their Armenian homeland. Do you find yourself sympathizing with their cause?
No, and to my knowledge, I don’t know of any Armenians who support any kind of terrorist activities.
So you can’t separate the goals from the means …
You can’t, when you talk about it in that context, you can’t separate it out. There’s nobody I know and I can tell you that all of the responsible people in the Armenian community are very, very much opposed to any kind of activity of that nature.
You’re held in very high esteem by Armenians across the nation and it’s said that you’re probably the best-known Armenian-American in the world. Do you see yourself as a sort of symbol, as carrying a banner for the cause, perhaps?
Well, that’s not something that you — what’s the right way for me to say it? (He laughs.) I recognize the fact that since I happen to be, you know, probably holding the highest elected office (of any person of Armenian ancestry) in the United States. …
I recognize that there are certain responsibilities that go along with that. It’s not a position that I sought, but I do recognize that there is a certain amount of responsibility that goes along with my position.
Obviously there are a number of issues that are important to you, but the genocide seems to be in a class by itself. Why does it touch you so deeply?
Well, you know, unlike so many other American families that have not had that kind of experience, I think those of us whose families have been touched by it, where it’s been involved in our history, we’re naturally more aware. I think the same is true of, let’s say, some of the residents of California who are of Jewish ancestry whose families were touched by it.
And so, to try to use that experience to the best advantage, we can perhaps help mankind to prevent further atrocities in the years ahead by reminding our fellow Americans and fellow human beings throughout the world that these types of genocide policies and activities can happen again.