King Woodrow’s Wilsonian Armenia: an imperial folly avoided

Carlton Meyer, “King Woodrow’s Wilsonian Armenia” (Tales of the American Empire, 29 April 2022)

Among the many follies of past US President Woodrow Wilson (who served two terms from 1913 to 1921) was his plan to establish an independent Armenia, by force if necessary, in northeast Turkey in the early 1920s. The new country would have covered a large area right up against Turkey’s border with what was then contested territory between Turkey, then emerging from a dying Ottoman empire, combined with the Armenia of the old Russian empire that would soon become part of the Soviet Union. The area in Turkey had been subjected to ethnic cleansing of Christian communities, many if not most of them Armenian, by Ottoman Turkish authorities during World War I. Kurdish individuals were often tasked by the Ottomans to kill Armenians and other Christians, and some of these Kurds were rewarded with the houses and other properties of their victims. Irony of ironies, in the later Republic of Turkey, these and other Kurds would end up under immense pressure from Ankara – including the banning of their languages and cultures, deportations and even massacres – to give up their Kurdish language, traditions and history, and assimilate to the dominant Turkish ethnicity.

Meyer gives a summary of the situation in Turkey just after the end of World War I when the Ottoman empire was weak and European powers were vying with one another to grab and control Ottoman territory in the Middle East. Britain and France carved up the Levant between themselves and Italy and Greece competed to grab parts of western mainland Turkey around Izmir / Smyrna and the islands just off the coast. Turkish soldiers and military officers under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk (who for some strange reason is not mentioned in the episode) took up arms against the Ottoman government and fought to secure Turkey’s territory and borders. Independent Armenia, established just after World War I from Russian imperial territory, did not stand a chance: abandoned by the West, the country was invaded and forced by a new revolutionary Turkish government to give up territory taken from the old Ottoman empire.

For his part, Wilson had relied on getting approval from the US Congress to send US troops to fight with Armenia to gain Turkish territory in 1920. Congress refused and independent Armenia ended up being squeezed by two powers in its region (Turkey and the Soviet Union). The rump Armenia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1921 and did not regain its independence until 1991.

Had Wilson been able to persuade Congress to send troops to Armenia, the outcome could have been very different and much bloodier: Wilson’s ambitions would have pitted him and the US against not only Turkey but the USSR and possibly even Britain and France at a time when the US was relatively inexperienced in conducting international diplomacy. A war against Turkey and then the USSR might have drained the US of money and young men, and the US and economy would have run a very different course in the 1920s. The US was already in the habit of occupying other nations militarily and running their domestic affairs to the detriment of the populations in those nations, and the addition of Armenia to that set would have entrenched the habit and created an unstable geopolitical situation in the Middle East close to the Soviet Union. Armenia and its neighbours in Georgia and Azerbaijan could very well have become buffer states between the West and the USSR and all three could have become the setting for a new World War.

While Meyer regards Wilson’s plan for an independent Armenia (albeit one that would eventually become dependent on the US and at the same time act as the eyes and ears for the US in the Middle East) as yet another foolish imperial adventure following previous ones, starting with despatching troops to Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean from 2015 onwards, he does not give very substantial reasons as to why supporting an independent Armenia in land taken from others (even if those others stole the land themselves) was a foolhardy undertaking. A small, impoverished nation stuck between two much larger powers with their own plans for the Caucasus would never have survived for very long and American lives lost in defending Armenia would have been lost in vain, to say nothing of the impact on Armenians themselves. That an independent Armenia exists now and has done so since 1991 is the result of a much changed geopolitical context in western Asia.

While Soviet annexation of Armenia delayed Armenia’s political development, it did at least help preserve the nation and gave Armenians a reason to rally around their culture, language, history and traditions in the hope that one day Armenia, no matter how big or small, would become independent.

Though one can sympathise with the Armenians’ desire to run their own affairs after the horrors they endured during World War I, perhaps in the long run it was better for the Soviets to have annexed Armenia than for Wilsonian Armenia to exist. A Wilsonian Armenia would have been surrounded by neighbours hostile to it and heavily reliant on faraway Western nations whose support would be inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst. In the multi-polar world, Armenia may well find that having been part of the Soviet Union gives it an entry into the network of China’s Belt Road Initiative at a time when Europe is turning away from partnership with Russia and by implication China.