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Armenians in the United States
Dickran Kouymjian

Published in French: "Les ArmÚniens aux Etats-Unis," published in a special issue ArmÚnie : 3000 ans d'histoire of Les Dossiers d'ArchÚologie, Paris, no. 177, December 1992, pp. 136-138. 

    America, America was the clarion call of nineteenth and twentieth century immigrants. The United States endeavored to fuse nations and races into a homogeneous citizenry. For a century Armenians have sought security and a better life in the new world. The Armenian American community is the largest in the world outside Armenia and easily the wealthiest and best educated. Rightly or wrongly, it is perceived as the major participant in the reconstruction of Armenia. Though "Martin the Armenian" established himself in the tobacco business of Virginia in 1618 and "George the Armenian," a native of Iran, worked cultivating silk in the same colony in the 1650s, the first body of Armenians arrived in the mid-nineteenth century inspired by Protestant missionaries to seek higher education in New England universities. Their numbers increased dramatically in the 1890s as a result of the anti-Armenian pogroms of Sultan Abdul Hamid. 15,000 Armenians had arrived by 1900. Those who followed were ever more desperate, looking for a land where people enjoyed security as individuals. With the onset of the planned Turkish genocide of 1915, immigration became a matter of survival. By 1924, when the United States established the quota system, at least 100,000 Armenians had arrived, more than 95% from Turkey. After World War II a second, larger migration took place: post-war refugees, others fleeing nationalism in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, Armenians from Romania, Lebanon and Iran, and as political refugees from Soviet Armenia itself. Today there are 800,000 to 1,000,000 in America plus another 100,000 in South America -- Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela -- and 50,000 in Canada. The great historical centers were Worester, New York, Boston, Watertown, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Fresno, and later San Francisco and particularly Los Angeles, which alone has nearly a quarter of a million Armenians in places like Hollywood, Glendale, and Pasadena. The success of Armenians in America has been attributed to their skills in business and crafts, their very high rate of literacy, a long history of minority status, and hard work. Second and third generations turned increasingly to the professions and teaching benefiting from the great value their parents placed on education. In the arts individual Armenians have achieved national and international fame. Rouben Mamoulian (1898-1987), an innovator in theater and film, directed masterpieces such as "Queen Christina" with Greta Garbo. Alan Hovhanes (1911-) is the most famous Armenian musical figure and among the most performed American composers; his vast output includes more than 50 symphonies, many with Armenian titles and themes. Ruben Nakian's (1898-1988) sculpture can be found in major American museums; in his lifetime he was known as the sculptor's sculptor. Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) became a legend among avant garde artists in New York; he was admired by AndrÚ Breton and is regarded by all critics as the great precursor of Abstract Expressionism, the first truly American artistic movement. Major Gorky exhibits underlining his Armenian origin have been mounted in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Lisbon, Tokyo, Geneva, London, and this year Venice. And there is William Saroyan (1908-1981), the Pulitzer prize-winning writer from Fresno, California who many consider the most famous Armenian of all time. His plays "The Time of Your Life" and "My Heart's in the Highlands" and novel The Human Comedy are considered American classics. All of these near mythical figures of American culture, though firmly rooted in an early Armenian childhood, exerted their artistic impulses isolated from the diasporan community. All married non-Armenians and had only occasional contacts with organized Armenian life. Each stepped back from the ghetto into the larger arena of American creativity. Gorky, Hovhanes, and Saroyan were profoundly inspired by Armenian culture in their own works. In the plays of An Armenian Trilogy, published posthumously, Saroyan even traced the evolution of the Armenian American immigrant's world view from a first generation desire of "return," to a second generation realization that the return is impracticable if not impossible, and the ultimate insight that diasporan exile is permanent and thus the fate of each Armenian must be understood existentially. Also written from the "outside," Michael J. Arlen's Passage to Ararat (1975), is the best literary work on the meaning of being an Armenian. Increasing artistic and intellectual activity led to the establishment of endowed professorships of Armenian studies championed by the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) at the best universities: Harvard, Columbia, UCLA, California State University, Fresno, University of Michigan, and Tufts. Young specialist have been formed, new translation from classical Armenian prepared and hundreds of monographs written. The first Armenian professional organization, the Society for Armenian Studies, was founded in 1974. The society's Journal along with NAASR's, Armenian Review, and Ararat, the literary quarterly of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) provide vehicles for both Armenian scholarship and literature in English. The diaspora was radically affected by the sovietization of Armenia in 1920; the authoritative and ultimately totalitarian regime resulted in separate historical evolutions for those in exile and the homeland. The Cold War of the 1950s and after, led by the United States against all communist countries, made it difficult for Armenians in America to openly embrace the material achievements of the young soviet republic. Armenian Americans felt the ideological struggle more acutely than their compatriots in France or the Middle East, because in 1933 church in American was violently split after the political killing in New York of an archbishop from Soviet Armenia. After 1956 the dissident church, principally those sympathetic to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnags), gave its allegiance to the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon. Today even though the Catholicoi of Etchmiadzin and Antelias are united on church and national issues, the church in the United States remains divided. Party politics were brought over with the earliest immigrants. The first Armenian newspapers were party organs: Hairenik (1899 Boston) and Asbarez (1908 Fresno) both Dashnag, while Baikar (1911 Boston) was Ramgavar. Though all parties were outlawed after the Communist take over of Armenia, they maintained organizations in America and other centers. The ruling party of the first Republic, the Dashnags, remains the most active in exile against a much a weaker Ramgavar-Hnchak coalition. Though membership in parties represents a fraction of the population, and continues to decline, through their respective media, especially the Dashnag press, they claimed to be the spokesmen for the Armenian community. The highly educated and strongly integrated younger generation, English speaking and pragmatic, has turned its back on traditional parties to form pan-community, American style lobbying groups like the very successful Armenian Assembly in Washington. Other Armenians have made careers in American politics; George Deukmejian, twice Governor of California, the most populous of the fifty states, is the most spectacular example. Abandoned by third and forth generation, the parties have been taken over by newly arrived immigrants from Lebanon and Iran, adding to the tension between older and recent Armenian immigrants. Charitable organizations like the AGBU and the Protestant Armenian Missionary Association have taken a more political stance. Ironically, in the United States the nearly moribund Ramgavar and Hnchakian parties as well as the better disciplined but greatly weakened Dashnag party have experienced a small revival since the start of the Democratic movement in Armenia four years ago. Armenian American youth have become Americanized, though a vital minority aggressively identifies with its Armenian heritage. This is due to contact with respected grandparents, nationalist attitudes of parties, particularly the ARF, the more than 25 Armenian primary and secondary schools established since the 1960s, the influx of new immigrants, the ethnic revival in the United States, and the allure of the new Armenia. The large American diaspora has provided the greatest number of high ranking officials in the new Republic: the young Minister of Foreign Affairs, Raffi Hovannisian, a lawyer and political scientists, whose father, Richard, professor of Armenian history at UCLA, is the foremost authority on the first Republic; the Minister of Energy, Sebuh Tashjian, also from Los Angeles; Jirair Libaridian, historian and former Director of the Zoryan Institute, who is a personal advisor to President Levon Ter Petrosian, and Mathew Der Manuelian, a Boston lawyer with a high post in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Today Armenian Americans are confront by the same existential and practical questions life as are compatriots in France: assimilation, loss of language, intermarriage, Americanization. And though a large majority of Armenians no longer speak the language, Armenian American youth show a devotion to their heritage unknown in previous generation. Will the existence of a free and independent Armenia make superfluous the struggle to preserve an ethnic identity outside the fatherland? It seems not. After a century of building institutional structures -- churches, political parties, charitable and fraternal societies, lobbying organizations, and an Armenian school system -- there is little likelihood that such complex mechanisms will quickly disappear. All have refocused their efforts toward Armenia, providing financial and professional skill. The identification of Armenians with those in Erevan and Karabagh has been greatly facilitated by Armenia's membership in the United Nations and the regular reporting of its problems in the American press.. Diasporan history has been transformed by the Republic: nowhere is this more strongly felt than in America. The unifying force of the Genocide has been superseded by that of the Republic, while religious freedom in Armenia has revitalized the church in America and given it a mission. As the largest and most prosperous community in the world, as inheritors of a Protestant American work ethic, coupled with American self-righteousness, Armenian Americans feel they have a special role in the survival and success of the new state. They take pride in their support of Etchmiadzin, in the massive humanitarian aid given since the 1988 earthquake, in Armenians in high government positions, and particularly in the establishment of the American University of Armenia, the first major experiment in American higher education in the former Soviet Union. As English quickly becomes the second language of the new republic, Armenians in America feel closer to the homeland, suffering Armenia's tragedies and rejoicing in its successes. The Karabagh crisis, economic chaos, lack of basic amenities, and the threat of war fill all diasporan Armenians with an anxiety unknown before, because they know that their efforts may determine Armenia's fate. Diasporan Armenians must give up certain myths, especially that if all Armenians unite and act together the future will be assured. They must understand that parliamentary democracy can only function with a multi-party system and a healthy opposition. Just as Republicans and Democrats in America fight each other, at times bitterly and violently, for control of congress and the presidency, so, too, strong opposition to the present Armenian government is natural and healthy. The Republic of Armenia is a new chapter in history: its relations with the diaspora will be in constant evolution.

Select Bibliography

  • Robert Mirak, Torn between Two Lands: Armenians in America 1890 to World War I, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.
  • Armenians in America. Celebrating the First Century, The Armenian Assembly, 1987.  

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