WILMINGTON, Del. -- The systematic killing and deportation of nearly 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Empire forces in the early 20th century was "genocide," the U.S. formally declared Saturday, as President Joe Biden used that word after the White House had avoided it for decades for fear of alienating Turkey.
"The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today," Biden said in a statement. "We affirm the history. We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated."
Turkey reacted with furor, with the foreign minister saying his country "will not be given lessons on our history from anyone." Armenia said it appreciated Biden's "principled position" as a step toward "the restoration of truth and historical justice."
Biden was following through on a campaign promise he made a year ago -- during the annual commemoration of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day -- to recognize that the events that began in 1915 were a deliberate effort to wipe out Armenians.
In Armenia on Saturday, people streamed to the hilltop complex in Yerevan, the capital, that memorializes the victims. Many laid flowers around an eternal flame, creating a wall of blooms 7 feet high.
Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Avet Adonts said at the memorial that a U.S. president using the term genocide would "serve as an example for the rest of the civilized world."
Biden also praised the contributions of the Armenian diaspora, including in America.
"With strength and resilience, the Armenian people survived and rebuilt their community," the president said. "Over the decades Armenian immigrants have enriched the United States in countless ways, but they have never forgotten the tragic history that brought so many of their ancestors to our shores."
The killings of Armenians occurred at the end of World War I during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey.
Worried that the Christian Armenian population would align with Russia, a primary enemy of the Ottoman Turks, officials ordered mass deportations in what many historians consider the first genocide of the 20th century. Nearly 1.5 million Armenians were killed, some in massacres by soldiers and the police, others in forced exoduses to the Syrian desert that left them to starve to death.
Turkey has acknowledged that widespread atrocities occurred during that period, but its leaders have adamantly denied that the killings were genocide.
While previous presidents have offered somber reflections of the dark moment in history, they have avoided using the term genocide -- instead calling the killings a "massacre" or "horrific tragedy" -- out of concern that it would complicate relations with Turkey, a NATO ally and important power in the Middle East.
But Biden had promised to make human rights a central guidepost of his foreign policy. He argued that failing to call the atrocities against the Armenian people a genocide would pave the way for future mass atrocities.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a letter to Biden that recognition of the genocide "is important not only in terms of respecting the memory of 1.5 million innocent victims, but also in preventing the repetition of such crimes."
He said the move "reaffirms the supremacy of human rights and values in international relations. From this point of view, it is an inspiring example for all who want to build a just and tolerant international society together."
Turkish officials struck back immediately.
"We reject and denounce in the strongest terms the statement of the President of the US regarding the events of 1915 made under the pressure of radical Armenian circles and anti-Turkey groups," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted that "words cannot change history or rewrite it" and that Turkey "completely rejected" Biden's statement.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a message to the Armenian community and the patriarch of the Armenian church, urging that they not allow "the culture of coexistence" of the Muslim Turks and Christian Armenians to be forgotten. He said the issue has been "politicized by third parties and turned into a tool of intervention against our country."
The U.S. Embassy and consulates in Turkey issued a demonstration alert and announced their offices would be closed for routine services Monday and Tuesday as a precautionary measure. They cautioned Americans to avoid areas around U.S. government buildings and exercise caution in locations where foreigners gather.
In a phone call Friday, Biden had informed Erdogan of his plan to issue the statement, said a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to publicly discuss the private conversation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. and Turkish governments, in separate statements after the call, made no mention of the American plan to recognize the Armenian genocide. But the White House said Biden told Erdogan that he wants to improve the two countries' relationship and find "effective management of disagreements." The two also agreed to hold a bilateral meeting at the NATO summit in Brussels in June.
Biden's call with Erdogan was his first since taking office more than three months ago. The delay had become a worrying sign in Ankara; Erdogan had a good rapport with former President Donald Trump and had been hoping for a reset despite past friction with Biden.
Erdogan reiterated his long-running claims that the U.S. is supporting Kurdish fighters in Syria who are affiliated with the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers' Party.
The Kurdistan Workers' Party has led an insurgency against Turkey for more than three decades. In recent years, Turkey has launched military operations against Kurdistan Workers' Party enclaves in Turkey and northern Iraq and against U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters. The State Department has designated the group a terrorist organization but has argued with Turkey over the group's ties to the Syrian Kurds.
During his presidential campaign, Biden drew ire from Turkish officials after an interview with The New York Times in which he spoke about supporting Turkey's opposition against the "autocrat" Erdogan.
In 2019, Biden accused Trump of betraying U.S. allies with his decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria, which paved the way for a Turkish military offensive against the Syrian Kurdish fighters.
RESPONSE IN U.S.
Lawmakers and Armenian American activists had lobbied Biden to make the genocide announcement on or before remembrance day. The closest that a U.S. president had come to recognizing the World War I-era atrocities as genocide was in 1981 when Ronald Reagan uttered the words "Armenian genocide" during a Holocaust Remembrance Day event. But he did not make it U.S. policy.
Members of Congress, including those with large Armenian American constituencies, hailed the decision.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., lamented that "the truth of these heinous crimes has too often been denied, its monstrosity minimized."
"History teaches us that if we ignore its darkest chapters, we are destined to witness the horrors of the past be repeated," she said.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., praised Biden for following through on the pledge.
"For Armenian-Americans and everyone who believes in human rights and the truth, today marks an historic milestone: President Biden has defied Turkish threats and recognized the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians for what it was -- the first genocide of the 20th Century," Schiff said in a statement.
"I commend President Biden's decision to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. "Calling this atrocity what it was -- genocide -- is long overdue. We must recognize the horrors of the past if we hope to avoid repeating them in the future."
Salpi Ghazarian, director of the University of Southern California's Institute of Armenian Studies, said the recognition of genocide would resonate beyond Armenia and show Biden's seriousness about respect for human rights as a central principle in his foreign policy.
"Within the United States and outside the United States, the American commitment to basic human values has been questioned now for decades," she said.
"It is very important for people in the world to continue to have the hope and the faith that America's aspirational values are still relevant, and that we can in fact do several things at once. We can in fact carry on trade and other relations with countries while also calling out the fact that a government cannot get away with murdering its own citizens," Ghazarian said.
Armenian American groups hailed the long-sought move.
"President Biden's affirmation of the Armenian Genocide marks a critically important moment in the arc of history in defense of human rights," said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America. "By standing firmly against a century of denial, President Biden has charted a new course."
Information for this article was contributed by Aamer Madhani, Matthew Lee, Zeynep Bilginsoy, Avet Demourian, Aida Sultanova and Jim Heintz of The Associated Press; by Katie Rogers and Carlotta Gall of The New York Times; and by John Hudson of The Washington Post.