Revisiting the early years of the Armenian lobby

Revisiting the early years of the Armenian lobby

Pittsford, N.Y. – Robert G. Koolakian’s book, Struggle for Justice: A Story of the American Committee for the Independence of Armenia, 1915-1920, is a welcome contribution to the early history of Armenian-American relations. Seminal studies for Mr. Koolakian’s work emerged from his 1967 master’s thesis, “Mr. Azadian Came to America.”

The book provides details on the early history of the American Committee for the Independence of Armenia (ACIA), a lobby group. Mr. Koolakian’s major contribution is to provide the hitherto unknown background to the ACIA inaugural meetings and banquet at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, attended by some of the most powerful members of America’s establishment.

What is so unusual about the ACIA events that took place ninety years ago (February 7-11, 1919)? Mr. Koolakian writes: “The ACIA founding ceremonies . . . were among the most auspicious peacetime gatherings in modern history.” Through diligent detective work, Mr. Koolakian identified many of the 400 dignitaries shown in the banquet photographs: First Lady Mrs. Woodrow Wilson; former president William Howard Taft; future chief justice Charles Evans Hughes; oil magnate John D. Rockefeller; newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst; industrialist George Eastman; Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler; former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau Sr.; and many others.

There was also a scattering of Armenians at the banquet. Ambassador Garegin (“Armen Garo”) Pastermadjian of the Republic of Armenia; Arshalouis (“Aurora”) Mardiginian (author and star of the film, Ravished Armenia); and M. Vartan Malcolm (lawyer and author of The Armenians in America) were there.

The surprising presence of “The Syracuse Triumvirate” at the ACIA banquet is at the heart of Struggle for Justice: Harutun Azadian (Azadian Gauge Manufacturing Co.); George Koolakian (the author’s grandfather and founder of the prestigious Custom Garment Making Co.); and, Harry Philibosian (rug dealer and real-estate entrepreneur. His nephew Stephen Philibosian was a noted benefactor of the Armenian Missionary Association of America.)

Since Syracuse is in upstate New York, far from the main Armenian population centers, one wonders how these immigrants managed invitations from America’s powerful elite. All three had strong prior connections both in Ottoman Turkey and the United States with the influential group, American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). In 1915, ABCFM founded the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief (ACASR). Both ABCFM and ACASR were instrumental in the launching of ACIA in late 1918. Through their ABCFM and ACASR contacts, Azadian, Koolakian, and Philibosian were welcomed as liaisons to the newly formed ACIA. The Syracuse group was held in high esteem by ACASR and ACIA.

A major feature of Struggle for Justice is a set of previously unpublished banquet photographs, plus rare historical letters and telegrams sent by American dignitaries to the Syracuse liaison group. Correspondence from the following are reproduced in Mr. Koolakian’s book: President Woodrow Wilson (two telegrams); former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft; William Jennings Bryan (Mr. Wilson’s former secretary of state and a presidential candidate); Josephus Daniels (Navy secretary); Bernard Baruch (War Industries Board); industrialists Thomas Edison and George Eastman; and, James W. Gerard (president of ACIA and former U.S. ambassador to Germany).

One of the intriguing questions upon reading this book is this: What was the hidden motivation that prompted sponsorship of a prestigious event on behalf of a small ethnic group that had no significant domestic political clout? Mr. Koolakian’s introduction (page 17) provides a clue: “From its inception in November 1918, the ACIA’s development was guided by the State Department and the ACASR (American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief) in collaboration with the United States Armed Forces, the War Industries and Naval Consulting Boards, the War Department and the United States Attorney General’s office.”

An added bonus found in Mr. Koolakian’s book is a large set of photographs of the early Syracuse community and relief efforts in response to the 1915 Genocide. Another welcome inclusion is a number of unpublished photographs of the Azadian and Koolakian families. A big surprise was the 1884 drawing, “View of Marmora/Rumeli Hissar/Constantinople,” by Harutun Azadian, which depicts the venerable Khrimian Hairig approaching the Azadian home.

For a full chronicle of the history of ACIA, the reader is referred to Gregory L. Aftandilian, Armenia, Vision of a Republic: The Independence Lobby in America, 1918-1927 (Boston: Charles River Books. 1981). A recent update has been covered by D. Yogaratnam, “Aftandilian Compares Lobbies of the Past and Present” (Armenian Mirror-Spectator. November 4, 2006. p. 5.)