Lesson 5 of 8
Two 50-minute class periods

American Responses to the Armenian Genocide

From the Unit:

Learning Objectives

In this lesson students will: 

  • Analyze choices made by the United States and its representatives during the Armenian Genocide;
  • Understand the concept of sovereignty and how it applies to US intervention during the Armenian Genocide;
  • Discuss the range of options available to Americans at that time.


As American newspapers turned attention to the unfolding horrors within the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, leaders in the United States and other countries struggled to find an appropriate response to what was recognized as a massive violation provides an opportunity to recognize the ways people can work today to prevent neighbor from turning against neighbor. This lesson focuses on two American responses to the Armenian Genocide: the diplomatic response of Henry Morgenthau Sr., American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and the humanitarian response of the American Committee for Relief in the Near East.

This lesson addresses the following essential questions:

  • What were American responses to the Armenian genocide? What factors influenced their response?
  • What is sovereignty? Are there situations when a foreign nation should intervene in another government's affairs? If so, when? Is military intervention ever justified?


Teaching Strategies


Warm up:
Ask students to reflect in their journals about a time when they saw or were aware of an injustice but did not try to stop it. Have them describe the situation and try to remember why they responded as they did. In small groups, have students share their responses. As a group, develop a list of reasons why people may not try to stop an injustice. Ask representatives from each group to share their list with the class. Keep the list students generated as they read about the responses of a nation to an injustice. You can refer to this later as it connects to issues raised in the readings.

  1. Main activity:
    Explain to students that they will be reading about the choices faced by the United States government and Henry Morgenthau Sr., American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian Genocide (The American Ambassador in Constantinople). This text is written for advanced readers, but can be accessed by less sophisticated readers if read in smaller chunks. You may want to divide the text into sections, assigning a group of students to paraphrase a specific excerpt. Each group can share their summary with the whole class.

  2. This reading illuminates several important questions about sovereignty and a nation's responsibility to protect citizens of another nation, including:

    • President Wilson did not encourage intervention because the Turks had not violated the rights of Americans. What do you think of this action? Should nations only act when their own citizens are in jeopardy?
    • What did the Turks do to limit Morgenthau's actions?
    • What options do government officials have when they are aware of an injustice in another nation?
    • When does one nation have the right to intervene into the internal affairs of another sovereign nation?
    • What was Morgenthau's dilemma? What choices were available to Morgenthau? Why do you think he made the choices he did?
    • How would you respond to Teddy Roosevelt's assessments of Morgenthau's efforts?

    Use these questions to guide a discussion of the reading. You might ask students these questions as they go through the reading. Or, you can assign groups a question to discuss and then students can share their answers with the class. Students could also respond to these questions in their journals.

  3. Government officials were not the only Americans to respond to events in the Ottoman Empire. Show students Near East Relief Posters created by the American Committee for Relief in the Near East to raise American's awareness of the plight of Armenians (posters are also in the Crimes Against Humanity Kit available to borrow from our library). First, ask students to observe what they see in these posters. Record a list of images on the board. Then, ask students to interpret the meaning of the posters. What do they think was the purpose of these posters? Students can read Armenian Relief, Reading 9 in Chapter 5 to deepen their understanding of Americans' humanitarian response to the Armenian Genocide.

  4. Now students have two examples of American responses to the Armenian Genocide. Some people argued that American officials, like Morgenthau, and American citizens, such as those involved in the American Committee for Relief in the Near East, did not do enough to stop the violence against Armenians. Ask students if they can find this critique in Reading 5. For example, President Roosevelt argued: To allow the Turks to massacre the Armenians and then solicit permission to help the survivors and then to solicit the fact that we are helping the survivors as a reason why we should not follow the only policy that will permanently put a stop to such massacres is both foolish and odious.

  5. To help students analyze American responses to the Armenian Genocide, you might want to have students engage in a barometer activity:

    • On one side of the room post a sign that reads, "The US should have intervened military to stop violence against the Armenian community." On the other side of the room, post a sign that reads, "The US had to respect the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. Morgenthau and others responded as best they could."
    • Tell students that you will ask them to stand at a point between the two signs that most represents their views. Positioning themselves in the middle of the room represents ambivalence. To encourage students to take a clear position, you might make the rule that no one can stand exactly in between the two signs.
    • Before having students leave their seats, ask them to write in their journals about where they plan on standing and why. This will prepare them to speak during the activity.
    • Once all students are standing, ask students at different positions to explain their views. Tell students it is okay to move if someone says something that causes them to change their mind.

    Option: You might want to repeat the barometer activity by replacing the phrase "Armenian community" and "Ottoman Empire" with more contemporary examples of violence and injustice in the world. To what extent do students' opinions about intervention change based on the context?

    Follow through:
    Debrief the barometer activity by having students connect this material to their own lives. Have students return to the journal entry they wrote at the beginning of class. Given what they have learned in class today, how would they now analyze their response to acts of injustice? Did they do enough? Why or why not? Have students share their journal entries. Or, you might ask each student to contribute one interesting idea or question raised by today's class. What did this lesson make them think about?


Ask students to write an essay expressing their opinion on Morgenthau's comment: Technically, I had no right to interfere...the treatment of Turkish subjects by the Turkish Government was purely a domestic affair, unless it directly affected American lives and interests, it was outside of the concerns of the American Government.


  1. Despite Morgenthau's frustration, many people consider him a hero for his response to the Armenian Genocide. Have students write an essay or engage in a discussion focused on the following questions, "Was Morgenthau a hero? Was he successful? What is the criteria they use to judge if somebody is a hero? Does one have to succeed to be a hero?"
  2. Ask students to compare American response to the Armenian genocide to a current response to injustice (i.e. an event students have witnessed in their school or community or a national or global event, such as the genocide in Darfur). What can we learn from the past to improve our responses to injustice in the future?


Lesson 1 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

Identity and Belonging

Students are introduced to the Armenian Genocide and the concept of identity through the artwork of Arshile Gorsky, an Armenian American artist and refugee.

Lesson 2 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

We and They, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire

Students learn about the Armenian people and the challenges they faced as they advocate for certain rights within the Ottoman Empire.

Lesson 3 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

Analyzing Historical Evidence

Students explore the ways in which historical evidence has been used to construct a narrative of the Armenian Genocide

Lesson 4 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

The Range of Choices

By studying the dilemmas facing individuals, groups, and nations in response to genocide, students deepen their understanding of the range of choices made during the Armenian Genocide.

Lesson 5 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

American Responses to the Armenian Genocide

Students study two US responses, one diplomatic and one humanitarian, to the human rights violations that occurred during the Armenian Genocide.

Lesson 6 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

What is Justice after Genocide?

While learning about the post-war trials that occurred in Turkey, students study the challenges of seeking justice in the aftermath of genocide.

Lesson 7 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

Nation Building

Through a debating activity, students contemplate the United States' participation in nation building abroad. They will focus on the case study of Armenia after World War I.

Lesson 8 of 8
Genocide & Mass Violence

Denial and Free Speech

Students examine why and how some government officials have refused to acknowledge the crimes against the Armenians as acts of genocide.

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