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John Evans ’66 on the American Acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide
Eliza MacLean

If you read the news on April 24, you would have noticed a version of the following headline: “Biden Recognizes Massacres of Armenians as Genocide” (Wall Street Journal). The Armenian Genocide was the systematic mass murder and ethnic cleansing of approximately one million ethnic Armenians from Anatolia (in what is now Turkey) and surrounding regions by the Ottoman Empire from 1915-1923. These events have been defined and recognized as genocide by historians and governments around the world since they took place; the Armenian Genocide was even referenced as an example to follow by Hilter in a 1939 speech to Nazi military commanders just before the invasion of Poland. The United States, however, resisted this formal recognition, preferring instead to maintain the status quo in its diplomatic relations with Turkey, which denies the Armenian Genocide. (Its primary architect, Talat Pasha, is recognized in Turkey as a national hero.) While individuals within the US government, including Ronald Regan, had referred to the Armenian genocide as such on occasion over the intervening century, the United States declined to use this term from the late 1980s onwward; it was not until this past April that the genocide was officially recognized by President Biden. 

One such dissenting individual: John Evans ’66, who served as the American ambassador to Armenia from 2004 to 2006. (Evans is seen here at center with Bill Davis ’44, Andy Reynolds ’68, Gardner Cadwalader ’66, and Win Schwab ’66 at the US Department State when he was sworn in as Ambassador to Armenia in 2004.) In meetings with Armenian-Americans in 2005, Evans referred to the Armenian genocide as such, thereby bucking a longstanding, unspoken State Department policy. “I think it was actually in Watertown, MA that I first uttered the word genocide,” Evans recalls. “I said ‘Look, the US government has not formally changed its position. But I'm using the word because I think it is accurate and that we ought to call a spade a spade.’ As you can imagine, there was a lot of enthusiasm among the Armenians, and anger on the part of my superiors.”

“My employer, the US government, was deeply caught up in a very complex series of lies, which had ultimately to do with the fact that we were allied with Turkey, through NATO, and Turkey would go apoplectic when anybody would moot the possibility that they had committed a genocide,” Evans says. “I felt somebody needed to come out and say that this [genocide] had happened, and not to acknowledge it was wrong and that ought to change.” Shortly thereafter, Evans was recalled from his ambassadorship. “Technically, I wasn't fired; I resigned early,” Evans notes. “I had additional time on my clock, so to speak, but it clearly was time for me and the State Department to part ways.” 

Evans’s path from St. Andrew’s student to foreign service officer to outspoken dissenter, albeit winding, shows clear through lines from the classrooms of Founders Hall to the offices of the State Department. Evans was raised in Williamsburg, Virginia and spent summers at his family’s cottage in Maine. “As chance would have it, our near neighbors were Dave and Ellie Washburn,” he recalls. “We got to know them and we did a lot of boating with them. So that's how I learned about St. Andrew's. I applied in the same year as my classmate [in Williamsburg], John Reeve ’66, and we both got in. For the next four years, Colonel Reeve and my father took turns driving us up old 301 to Middletown.”

At St. Andrew’s, Evans was senior prefect—“I spent a lot of time making announcements after dinner”—acted in plays, and played football, basketball, and squash at turns. “But what I really loved most was rowing,” he says. “I have to say that my St. Andrew’s experience was  fantastic. As good a school as Yale [where Evans went for undergrad] is, I got a whole lot more out of St. Andrew’s than I did out of Yale.”

The summer after he graduated, Evans, Steve Richardson ’66, and a few other boys purchased a Volkswagen bus and drove all around Europe. The group visited the British Isles, France, Germany, Italy, Greece and “drove through Northern Europe all the way to Moscow, then down through Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria into Turkey,” Evans says. “We weren't staying in plush places. Some nights we slept in ditches. Other nights, we would go to a monastery and say, ‘Can we sleep in your barn?’ In the Soviet Union we camped. It really opened my eyes a lot.”

This trip would have a lasting impact on the rest of Evans’s life. Intending to major in English at Yale, he switched to Russian studies in his sophomore year. “I was so impressed by what I had seen in the Soviet Union,” he says. “I don’t mean impressed in the sense of thinking everything there was fine, but impressed by what a huge area for study it was.” After college, he started pursuing a PhD at Columbia in Russian history, “but I discovered fairly quickly that was not for me,” he says. “The Vietnam War was still raging; we had just invaded Cambodia. I didn’t want to sit in Butler Library for the next seven years breathing dust.” 

Enter the Foreign Service. Evans had originally learned about the Foreign Service from a number of SAS classmates who had parents in the service or in the military, including Walter Pratt ’66 (whose parents Evans visited while in Moscow) and Bryan Morris ’66 (whose father was, at that time, Consul General in Manitoba, Canada). After taking the Foreign Service exam in 1970, his first assignment was to the American embassy in Iran. “I was there for almost three years,” Evans says. “This was, of course, before the revolution in Iran, and things seemed to be going along pretty well—although there were a couple of incidents that led us to believe there was trouble ahead.” Following that first posting, Evans’s foreign assignments were primarily to the region that had so interested him that first summer after St. Andrew’s. He served in Czechoslovakia (twice), at NATO, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and of course, in Armenia (see a collection of his colorful anecdotes from his years in the Foreign Service in the box at right). He notes that his St. Andrew’s education was indispensable throughout his career. “Diplomacy depends on speaking and writing,” he says, “and where did I learn how to write? At St. Andrew’s, from Chester Baum, Chris Boyle, Louis Crew and all those great people who taught us.”

When Evans was appointed ambassador to Armenia, he didn’t know much about the country other than what he had learned from reading Ottoman history. “I knew that something had gone very badly wrong in 1915, but I didn’t know the full story,” he recalls. “Before I left, I asked someone in the [State Department] legal department, ‘Well, wasn’t it really a genocide of the Armneians that took place in 1915?’ And he looked at me and said ‘Genocide is in fact the perfect word to describe what happened. But for political reasons, we don’t do that.’”

“I went to Armenia,” he continues, “and I read more and more about [the Genocide], and at a certain point, I thought: this is intolerable. The United States government is in the business of denying a historical fact, which historians, civil society, and any number of other governments have agreed was a case of genocide. In fact, it was the first modern genocide, and it led to the Holocaust, because it wasn't punished. Hitler famously asked his generals, as he was about to invade Poland, ‘Who remembers today the annihilation of the Armenians?’ What I was facing as ambassador of the United States was a terrible ethical choice about whether to obey my implicit instructions, which were not to mention the genocide, or [to obey] another value system, in which we honor the truth. I learned that basic system of intellectual honesty at St. Andrew’s, particularly in Sacred Studies in my senior year. [In that course] we looked at various questions in modern ethics, and as I was debating what to do, I was thinking back on what we had learned about situational ethics at St. Andrew’s. I finally decided that, even though it ended up costing me my career, I had to go with telling the truth about this. I didn’t do this for Armenia, or for Armenians. I did it to get the United States off this terrible false position of misleading  its own citizens, and the world public, for that matter, about this. I don't take any pride in it, and I don't hold any grudges.”

Evans notes that in calling the Armenian genocide a genocide, he knew he was fighting an upstream battle—but now that the US position has changed, he does not think there will be any huge political or legal ripple effect. To Evans, there is a simple and vital power at the core of any truth. “What this does is to destroy a terrible taboo,” he says. “We weren’t given explicit instructions like ‘You may not mention the Armenian genocide.’ It was deeper than that. Everybody understood that you weren’t to bring the subject up; it was a deep, deep, entrenched taboo. And the problem with taboos is that they prevent any kind of healing and any kind of policy change. If you can’t raise the issue, even in a closed-door meeting—if you have to put the word ‘genocide’ in quotation marks—that’s a formula for no progress.” 

Ethical questions of the power of truth, and who gets to define it, are at the center of our current national consciousness. In some ways, Evans’s story of civil disobedience feels like a “John the Baptist moment” for the national politics of the 2010s. “We have a very divided country,” Evans points out. “But, I see some little green shoots of possible cooperation. I do think that infrastructure is a very popular topic. Of course, the two parties are arguing over the definition of infrastructure—what should be included, and what shouldn’t —but that's good. At least they’re talking about infrastructure. The other thing is immigration. Everybody, including the American public, sees that the system is broken, they just don't agree entirely on how it ought to be fixed. So these issues are impelling the two parties [to work together]. Things are going to happen in our country because they’ve got to happen. We’re at a point where change is necessary; it’s a question of shaping that change. What we have to do is get away from the extremes, because the extremes tend to stimulate each other, and challenge each other, and make the dialogue very ugly.” 

Good advice from an honest diplomat. 

You can read more about Evans’s experiences as ambassador to Armenian in his book, Truth Held Hostage: America and the Armenian Genocide - What Then? What Now?, published by Gomidas Institute in 2016.

Here are some “hot takes” on international politics and 20th century history from John Evans ’66: 

On Soviet defectors:
“Czechoslovakia at that time was still very much a communist country and I was in charge of visas. I gave a non-immigrant visa to Martina Navratilova, the tennis star. Had I known she was going to stay in the U. S., I would have had to turn her down.  I’m glad I didn’t.”

On the Camp David accords:
“I was with Secretary [of State Cyrus] Vance in Jerusalem when the final deal was struck. I remember it was about six o’clock in the morning, we were on the top floor of the King David Hotel, and the sun was coming up over the Judean Desert. The phone rang, and it was Moshe Dayan, calling to report on an all-night session of the Knesset.  A week later the Camp David Accords were signed.”

On the importance of humor:
“Secretary Vance resigned over the helicopter incident in the desert in Iran that he had opposed and that went badly [Operation Eagle Claw, a failed 1980 attempt to end the Iran hostage crisis]; he was very upset that his relationship with the President had broken down. So he resigned and Senator [Edmund] Muskie came in, who I have to say, had a much better sense of humor than Cyrus Vance did. I got a few jokes into his materials.”

On ending the Cold War:
“Ronald Reagan decided that he wanted to work with Gorbachev. So in the three years I was on the Soviet desk, we prepared 28 meetings between [Russian] Foreign Minister [Eduard] Shevardnadze and Secretary of State [George] Shultz. As soon as one meeting was over, we started preparing for the next—plus four summits between Reagan and Gorbachev. And that's, of course, how the Cold War was brought to an end.”

On working with celebrities:
“After the Cold War, my next assignment was back in Prague. My ambassador was Shirley Temple. She was still a star, and she was wonderful to work for. She used to say, ‘Just give me good talking points—I've been working with scripts since I was three.’ And it was true: you could give her a set of arguments to make, and she would go in there and deliver those points. It was magnificent. She actually spent more time in US government service than as a movie star.”

On Vladimir Putin:
“In St. Petersburg, my wife and I lived in an old czarist-era palace. It was enormous, and very good for entertaining, although in the bedroom the temperature would fall to 36F.  One of the people I got to know was the first deputy mayor [at the time], Vladimir Putin. He came to our house; I had him in my library. If I'd known where he was headed, I would have had him over for lunch every week.  He was very helpful to us at times. He didn't seem to be anti-American at all, and he could be counted on to do what he said he would do.”