State Department lobbying against a congressional resolution recalling "the genocide of the Armenian people" has sparked charges from Congress and the Armenian-American community that pressure from Turkey has caused the department to deny the facts of history.
At issue is a nonbinding congressional resolution that has prompted intense criticism in Turkey because it states that Turkish authorities from 1915 to 1923 systematically eliminated a 2,500-year Armenian presence in the country by killing 1.5 million people and deporting 500,000 more.
Most impartial historians agree that large-scale persecution and killing occurred, but successive Turkish governments have denied that there was a genocide campaign and have reacted furiously to charges like those in the congressional resolution. Accordingly, the Turkish Embassy here and its public-relations representative, Gray & Co., mounted a strong effort on Capitol Hill and gained the support of the State Department, which regards Turkey as an important ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Despite the opposition, the House passed the resolution Sept. 10. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved it Sept. 12, but because it did not go before the full Senate for a vote last week in the rush to adjournment, it has died for this session.
In a statement Thursday, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), one of the principal sponsors, told the Senate that because of procedural questions he had decided against trying to attach it as a rider to the continuing appropriations bill. However, his lengthy remarks contained harsh words for the State Department.
Echoing criticism by other members of the House and Senate, Levin noted that President Reagan, in a 1981 proclamation memorializing the World War II holocaust of the Jews, had specifically cited "the genocide of the Armenians before it."
Yet, Levin continued, State Department officials, seeking to dissuade him from sponsoring the resolution because it would "muck up relations with the Turkish government," had insisted "that the Armenian genocide has never been documented."
"Neither the republic of Turkey nor the State Department should be allowed to deny the facts of the Armenian genocide or the role of the United States in attempting to stop it," Levin said.
The department's position was spelled out in June by Richard R. Burt, assistant secretary for European affairs.
He told Congress that passing the resolution might encourage Armenian terrorists who have assassinated more than 50 Turks in different countries since 1975 and that it would damage U.S. relations with Ankara by giving the impression that Washington sides with the terrorists and is not a reliable ally.
Lastly, Burt argued that the events described in the resolution were a "matter of historical record" and the department thus saw "no utility" in characterizing them. That was an attempt to avoid taking a stand on whether the charges were true.
However, Levin and other congressional sources said that department officials, lobbying against the resolution, repeatedly had made the argument that the charges against Turkey are ambiguous and cannot be proven with certainty now.
That was described by Levin as "an unbelievable and outrageous denial of decades of U.S. policy which infuriated me and others in Congress, as it did the Armenian community and those students of history who know the difference between fact and fiction."
Department officials argue privately that the real issue is not arguing about events of almost 70 years ago but avoiding an anti-American reaction that they say threatens to sweep Turkish society. That, they contended, would damage NATO's southern defenses and undermine U.S. efforts to influence internal Turkish stability and resolution of Turkey's dispute with Greece over Cyprus.
But Levin saw the matter differently. He noted that the State Department had advocated ratification of a 37-year-old inter- national treaty outlawing genocide and said:
"We are also being urged by the same State Department to not acknowledge that the first genocide of the 20th century ever happened."