Henry Morgenthau Sr.

Henry Morgenthau Sr.
4th United States Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire
In office
President Woodrow Wilson
Preceded by William Woodville Rockhill
Succeeded by Abram I. Elkus
Personal details
Born (1856-04-26)April 26, 1856
Mannheim, Baden, Germany
Died November 25, 1946(1946-11-25) (aged 90)
New York City, United States
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Josephine Sykes
Children Helen Morgenthau Fox
Henry Morgenthau Jr.
Alma Wertheim
Ruth Morgenthau
Alma mater City College of New York
Columbia Law School
Profession Lawyer
Religion Judaism

Henry Morgenthau (/ˈmɔːrɡənt/, with a /t/; April 26, 1856 – November 25, 1946) was an American lawyer, businessman and United States ambassador, most famous as the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. As ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Morgenthau has come to be identified as the most prominent American to speak about the Armenian Genocide.[1]

Morgenthau was the father of the politician Henry Morgenthau Jr. His grandchildren included Robert M. Morgenthau, District Attorney of Manhattan for 35 years, and the historian Barbara W. Tuchman.

Early life

Morgenthau was born, the ninth of 11 living children, in Mannheim, Grand Duchy of Baden, in 1856 into an Ashkenazi Jewish family. He was the son of Lazarus and Babette Morgenthau. His father was a successful cigar manufacturer who had cigar factories at Mannheim, Lorsch and Heppenheim, employing as many as 1,000 people (Mannheim had a population of 21,000 during this period). Having suffered a severe financial setback during the American Civil War, due to an 1862 tobacco tariff on imports, which closed German tobacco exports to the US forever, the family emigrated to New York in 1866. There, despite a considerable "nest egg" of cash, his father was unsuccessful in re-establishing himself in business, as his development and marketing of various inventions and his investments in other enterprises failed. Lazarus Morgenthau was able to stave off failure and stabilize his income by becoming a fundraiser for Jewish houses of worship. Henry attended City College of New York, where he received a BA, and later graduated from Columbia Law School. He began his career as a lawyer, but he made a substantial fortune in real estate investments.[2] He married Josephine Sykes in 1882 and had four children: Helen, Alma, Henry Jr. and Ruth.[3] Morgenthau built a successful career as a lawyer and served as the leader of the Reform Jewish community in New York.[4]

Democratic Party

Morgenthau's career enabled him to contribute handsomely to President Woodrow Wilson's election campaign in 1912. He had first met Wilson in 1911 at a dinner celebrating the fourth anniversary of the founding of the Free Synagogue society and the two "seem to have bonded", marking the "turning point in Morgenthau's political career".[5] His role in American politics grew more pronounced in later months and though his desire to be designated the financial chairman of the campaign finance committee went unfulfilled, Wilson offered him the position of ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He had hoped for a cabinet post as well, but was not successful in gaining one.

Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire

Main article: Armenian Genocide
A telegram written by Morgenthau to the State Department in 1915 described the massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as a "campaign of race extermination".

As an early Wilson supporter, Morgenthau assumed that Wilson would appoint him to a cabinet-level position, but the new President had other plans for him; like other prominent Jewish Americans, Oscar Straus and Solomon Hirsch before him, Morgenthau would be posted as the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Wilson's assumption that Jews somehow represented a bridge between Muslim Turks and Christian Armenians rankled Morgenthau; in reply Wilson assured him that the Porte in Istanbul "was the point at which the interest of American Jews in the welfare of the Jews of Palestine is focused, and it is almost indispensable that I have a Jew in that post". Though no Zionist himself, Morgenthau cared "fervidly" about the plight of his coreligionists.[6] He initially rejected the position, but following a trip to Europe, and with the encouragement of his pro-Zionist friend Rabbi Stephen Wise, he reconsidered his decision and accepted Wilson's offer.[7] Appointed as U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1913, he served in this position until 1916.

The real purpose of the deportation was robbery and destruction; it really represented a new method of massacre. When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.

 —Henry Morgenthau, Ambassador Morgenthau's Story pg. 309.

Although the safety of American citizens in the Ottoman Empire, mostly Christian missionaries and Jews, loomed large early in his ambassadorship, Morgenthau stated that the one issue that most preoccupied him was the Armenian Question.[8] After the outbreak of war in 1914, the U.S. remained neutral, so the American Embassy – and by extension Morgenthau – additionally represented many of the Allies' interests in Constantinople, since they had withdrawn their diplomatic missions due to the hostilities. As Ottoman authorities began the Armenian Genocide in 1914–1915, the American consuls residing in different parts of the Empire flooded Morgenthau's desk with reports nearly every hour,[9] documenting the massacres and deportation marches taking place. Faced with the accumulating evidence, he officially informed the U.S. government of the activities of the Ottoman government and asked Washington to intervene.[10]

Audio recording of Chapter 24, "The Murder of a Nation", from Ambassador Morgenthau's Story.

The American government however, not wanting to get dragged into disputes, remained a neutral power in the conflict at the time and voiced little official reaction. Morgenthau held high-level meetings with the leaders of the Ottoman Empire to help alleviate the position of the Armenians, but the Turks waived and ignored his protestations. He famously admonished the Ottoman Interior Minister Talaat Pasha, stating: "Our people will never forget these massacres."[11] As the massacres continued unabated, Morgenthau and several other Americans decided to form a public fund-raising committee that would assist the Armenians – the Committee on Armenian Atrocities (later renamed the Near East Relief) – raising over $100 million in aid, the equivalent of $1 billion today. Through his friendship with Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, Morgenthau also ensured that the massacres continued to receive prominent coverage, with 145 articles in 1915 alone.[12] Exasperated with his relationship with the Ottoman government, he resigned from the ambassadorship in 1916. Looking back on that decision in his The Murder of a Nation, he wrote he had come to see Turkey as "a place of horror. I had reached the end of my resources. I found intolerable my further daily association with men, however gracious and accommodating…who were still reeking with the blood of nearly a million human beings."[13] He published his conversations with Ottoman leaders and his account of the Armenian genocide in 1918 under the title Ambassador Morgenthau's Story.[14]

In 1918 Ambassador Morgenthau gave public speeches in the United States warning that the Greeks and Assyrians were being subjected to the "same methods" of deportation and "wholesale massacre" as the Armenians, and that two million Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians had already perished.[15] In June 1917 Felix Frankfurter accompanied him, as a representative of the War Department, on a secret mission to persuade Turkey to abandon the Central Powers in the war effort; the mission had as its stated purpose to "ameliorate the condition of the Jewish communities in Palestine".[16]

Interwar period

Following the war, there was much interest and preparation within the Jewish community for the upcoming Paris Peace Conference, by groups both supportive and opposed to the concept of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In March 1919, as President Woodrow Wilson was leaving for the Conference, Morgenthau was among 31 prominent Jewish Americans to sign an anti-Zionist petition presented by U.S. Congressman Julius Kahn;[17] he and many other prominent Jewish representatives attended the Conference. Morgenthau served as an advisor regarding Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and later worked with war-related charitable bodies, including the Relief Committee for the Middle East, the Greek Refugee Settlement Commission and the American Red Cross. In 1919 he headed the United States government fact-finding mission to Poland resulting in the Morgenthau Report. In 1933, he was the American representative at the Geneva Conference


Morgenthau on a 2015 Armenian stamp from the series "Centennial of the Armenian Genocide"

He died in 1946 following a cerebral hemorrhage, in New York City, and was buried in Hawthorne, New York. His son Henry Morgenthau Jr. was a Secretary of the Treasury. His daughter, Alma Wertheim, was the mother of historian Barbara Tuchman.


He published several books. The Library of Congress holds some 30,000 documents from his personal papers.


Official documents

See also

Further reading


  1. Balakian, Peter (2003). The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response. New York: HarperCollins. pp. 219–221. ISBN 0-06-055870-9.
  2. Balakian. The Burning Tigris, p. 219.
  3. About Henry Morgenthau. henrymorgenthaupreserve.com
  4. Oren, Michael B (2007). Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. pp. 332–333. ISBN 0-393-33030-3.
  5. Balakian. The Burning Tigris, p. 220.
  6. Oren. Power, Faith, and Fantasy, p. 333.
  7. Balakian. The Burning Tigris, p. 222.
  8. Balakian. The Burning Tigris, p. 223.
  9. Oren, Michael B. (2007). "Spectators of Catastrophe". Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. Armenian Research Center collection. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 334. ISBN 9780393058260. Retrieved 2016-02-25. Daily at first and then almost hourly, the reports reached Morgenthau's desk.
  10. Oren. Power, Faith, and Fantasy, pp. 333–336.
  11. Oren. Power, Faith, and Fantasy, p. 335.
  12. Oren. Power, Faith, and Fantasy, p. 336.
  13. Oren. Power, Faith, and Fantasy, p. 337.
  14. Morgenthau, Henry (1918). Ambassador Morgenthau's Story. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.
  15. Travis, Hannibal. "Native Christians Massacred: The Ottoman Genocide of the Assyrians during World War I." Genocide Studies and Prevention, Vol. 1, No. 3, December 2006, p. 327.
  16. Hirsch, H. N. (1981). The Enigma of Felix Frankfurter. New York: Basic Books. p. 53. ISBN 0-465-01979-X.
  17. Alfred M. Lilienthal, The Zionist Connection II: What Price Peace? (New Brunswick, New Jersey: North American, 1982), pp. 768–769. Cited in Edward C. Corrigan, Jewish Criticism of Zionism, Middle East Policy Council, Journal, Winter 1990–91, Number 35
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