Henry Morgenthau was born in Mannheim in 1856 into a large and wealthy Jewish family of cigar manufacturers. After falling on hard times, the Morgenthaus emigrated to the United States when Henry was 10 years old. He was later to graduate in law from New York’s Columbia University and went on to become a brilliant professional. An active member of the Democratic Party, he was renowned for his political acumen.
In 1913 he backed the election of President Woodrow Wilson, whose commitment to reform and fight against corruption he admired. In the same year he was appointed US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in Constantinople, seat of the government of the Sublime Porte. In Turkey the “Young Turks” were planning their final solution for the “Armenian question”; the issue concerned the Armenian Christian minority that had existed in Turkey for over 3000 years. The Armenians had had the “effrontery” to demand political reforms and equal rights and they were thus considered rebels. Ambassador Morgenthau was one of the rare witnesses to truth, in direct contact with the organizers of the “nameless crime”, and in a position to observe day by day the strategy and the method followed to commit genocide. An entire people was annihilated while all evidence of their massacre was destroyed so that in the future nobody could say that the Young Turks’ plans had been intentional or that extermination had effectively taken place.
Thanks to personal contacts established with the leaders of the "Young Turks", and especially with the minister of the interior Talaat Pascia, Henry Morgenthau intervened, albeit unsuccessfully, during his term of office, in an attempt to prevent the crime. He was unable to stop the slaughter. The outbreak of the First World War, a single party in power issuing the decrees that saw the Armenians deported and their assets confiscated, without any ratification by parliament, combined to facilitate the genocide. Rejecting the concept of “collective guilt”, in a famous dialogue with Talaat reported in his Memoirs, the ambassador asks: “Supposing that a few Armenians may have betrayed you, why eliminate old people, women and children?” “We cannot avoid it” - replied Talaat – “the innocents of today will be the guilty of tomorrow”; and to Enver Pascia, who reprimanded him, as a Jew, for caring so much about the fate of Christians, Morgenthau replied: “I am appealing to you not on behalf of a race, or a religion, but on behalf of mankind! In 1914, for the same reason, he had saved thousands of Jews in Palestine.
At that point the only road open to him was humanitarian aid. He provided assistance on the deportation routes, helped the survivors, collected letters and petitions from the deportees. He did his best to organize trains to take home foreign residents mixed with Armenians, stopped the attacks launched against a number of schools, organized rescue efforts in favour of children orphaned by the massacres. To Washington he forwarded the systematic reports from American consuls dotted around the cities of Anatolia, aware that they formed an exceptional documentary source, along with his own diary, that would bear witness to truth for the Armenian people. In a dispatch sent to the State Department on 16 July 1915, Henry Morgenthau declared: “the racial campaign to exterminate an entire people is already under way!”; and in December of the same year he wrote:” My failure to stop the destruction of the Armenians has turned Turkey into a place of horrors….. and I have come to the end of my resources”. Bitterness, anxiety and a sense of utter prostration were the sentiments that accompanied Morgenthau on his return, in 1916, to the United States.
In 1917, after the United States entered the war, he began to organize conferences and meetings to heighten awareness of the Armenian massacre; he published numerous articles in the New York Times and started writing his Memoirs. He raised funds for the survivors, worked in contact with foreign missions and philanthropic leaders, he supported the efforts of the American Committee for Relief, which tried to recover orphans lost in the desert or enslaved by the Turks, to move them to orphanages and into transit camps. It was not until 1918 that he managed to publish documentation about the massacre of the Armenians, and to publish his book Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story; before the US entered the war, it had, in fact, been censored. The chapter entitled “The murder of a Nation” was particularly important; in it Morgenthau analyzes the genocidal method, prepared also thanks to the assistance offered to the Turks by German advisors, and he denounced the role and the responsibilities of Germany as an ally of the ottoman empire in the First World War. He backed president Wilson’s project and the 14 points presented in 1918 to set up the Society of Nations, the body that was supposed to keep the peace (in 1919 Woodrow Wilson was awarded the Nobel peace prize ). Morgenthau reaffirmed the value of the principle of self-determination for minority peoples as well as the defence of human rights.
In 1919 he took part in an investigative mission into Poland’s pogroms against the Jews and, at the same time, he worked to repatriate Armenian survivors who were continuing to die as a result of starvation and epidemics, a project to which Herbert Hoover objected. Morgenthau anyway ensured that a Commission, led by general Harbord, would cross the territories of the Ottoman Empire, the theatre of the genocide, to examine the political and economic conditions of the Anatolian area of Turkey and of sub-Caucasian Armenia in view of possible repatriation. On his return, Harbord handed a detailed and far-reaching report on what he had seen to the State Department in Washington. His report provides irrefutable proof of the extermination of the Armenian people. A tale of horrors, violence, robbery and destruction that profoundly affected the members of the Harbord military mission itself and dispelled all doubts about the fact that the ethnic cleansing campaign waged by the Young Turks had been premeditated.
In 1920 Ambassador Morgenthau fought to create "Wilson’s Armenia”, an Armenian state in the heart of Anatolia, the great Anatolian Armenia, set up on paper thanks to American protection and to the mandate demanded by Wilson, but which the Senate failed to ratify. Not even the Treaty of Versailles was ratified. Political pragmatism persuaded the great powers to use Kemalism for their own anti-Soviet ends. In December 1920 President Wilson appointed Henry Morgenthau his personal mediator to try to save what remained of Armenia from attacks on the part of troops reorganized by Mustafa Kemal, but it was too late: Armenia was divided up between Soviet Union and Kemalist Turkey. After the great fire of Smyrna in 1922 , Morgenthau did his best to help the Armenian and Greek refugees.
The Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 makes no mention of Armenia.
Henry Morghenthau died in New York on 25 November 1946 aged 90.
Soil from his grave, collected by Piero Kuciukian during a moving ceremony in the presence of members of the Ambassador’s family in New York’s Mount Pleasant cemetery, was laid in the Dzidzernagapert Wall of Remembrance in Yerevan on 23 April 1999, in the presence of his grandson Henry Morgenthau III.
His memoirs were published in 2003 as: Ambassador Morgenthau's Story, by Henry Morgenthau, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Michigan 48201.