Ahmet Ertegun Knew What's Good For Turkey: Genocide Recognition
by Harut Sassounian
Ahmet Ertegun, the Founder and CEO of Atlantic Records passed away on Dec. 14, 2006 at the age of 83. He was the most famous Turkish American. His death was announced in newspapers and TV networks throughout the world. He was the son of Mehmet Ertegun, the former Turkish Ambassador to the United States who had played a key role in pressuring the State Department in the 1930's to prevent MGM from making into a movie Franz Werfel's classic novel, "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh."
Ahmet Ertegun was a music magnate who launched the careers of many great singers and groups, such as Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.
A couple of years ago, I received a surprising phone call from this prominent Turk. Ertegun said he was calling from New York to see if he could meet with me in Los Angeles to discuss Armenian-Turkish issues. I told him that I usually decline to meet with Turkish individuals unless they acknowledged the Armenian Genocide. He said he did acknowledge the Armenian Genocide.
Ertegun arrived in Los Angeles with his wife a couple of days later. He invited me to have lunch with him at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. For more than two hours, we discussed various Armenian-Turkish issues. It was a fascinating conversation. He was a gracious man who spoke with great charm, self-confidence and sincerity. He surprised me by saying that he could not understand why Turkish officials denied the Armenian Genocide -- a fact known to the entire world. He made it clear that he was not acknowledging the Genocide in order to appease the Armenians. He believed that it was, first of all, in Turkey's interest to acknowledge the Genocide, because doing so would help Ankara's application for membership in the European Union and get rid of the stigma that had haunted his native land for so many years.
Ertegun said he had read about the Armenian Genocide in many Western books, but had not seen a single reputable book that denied its occurrence. He referred to Turkish officials who denied the Genocide as being "Turk ghafali," implying that they had a stubborn Turkish mentality. We explored various ideas on how to encourage the Turkish government to acknowledge the Genocide. He suggested that he and I fly to Ankara on a private jet and meet with high-ranking Turkish government officials. I declined by saying that Turkish officials were not yet ready to acknowledge the Genocide. Instead, I proposed a number of steps that would prepare the ground for its acknowledgment by the Turkish government in the future. I told him that if prominent Turks such as himself, who enjoyed the confidence of the highest echelons of the Turkish state, would speak out on the Genocide, that would pave the way for its eventual recognition. He agreed to consider the possibility of issuing a public statement recognizing the Genocide.
Before leaving, he asked me again to fly to Ankara with him. I declined again his invitation and promised to stay in touch with him. He said he would return to California in a few months and expressed the hope that we could go Turkey together at a later date. We parted very amicably. Due to his advanced age and ill health, we could not meet again, although we spoke several times by phone.
It is a shame that the public statement we had discussed regarding the Armenian Genocide never materialized. I was aware that he was a very influential man both in the United States and Turkey. He had contributed funds to many Turkish causes and had invited influential U.S. officials to attend Turkish events in New York and Washington, D.C. I knew that Ertegun was not contacting me because he was pro-Armenian, but because he sincerely wanted to help erase the stigma of the Genocide from Turkey's name. He firmly believed that once Ankara put the issue of the Genocide behind it, the country would attain the respect of the international community and would not waste its efforts and resources to counter Armenian efforts for Genocide recognition.
I could not write this column while he was alive since I did not want to make him the target of hate mails and threats from Turkish extremists by alerting them that he was considering the possibility of issuing a public statement on the Armenian Genocide. Alas, he passed away without being able to do so which is a loss for both Armenians and Turks. I hasten to add that it was a greater loss for Turkey. Ahmet Ertegun believed that by acknowledging the Genocide, Turkey would earn many political dividends and lose practically nothing!