More than two years after her husband became the first U.S. diplomat to publicly acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, Donna Evans revealed some of the behind-the-scene details of Ambassador John Evans’ tenure in Armenia and his dramatic forced retirement from the U.S. Foreign Service. She spoke at the Armenian Assembly’s Annual Capital Region Holiday Reception held at the Armenian Embassy in Washington, D.C., on November 18.
Mrs. Evans began her talk by describing the phone call she received from her husband, telling her, “Assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones had just informed him that he was the State Department’s choice to be assigned as Ambassador to Armenia in the summer of 2004. She told him that it was a small country but growing in importance and had a significant assistance program and a new Embassy was being built. She encouraged him to accept it and he did, without hesitation.”
After Senate confirmation, Amb. Evans and his wife moved to Armenia in fall 2004. Mrs. Evans described the constant “tension” because the “unwritten policy of the State Department was that the word %u218genocide’ had to be in quotation marks and, if spoken, it would be referred to as the %u218g’ word.” She said Foreign Service officers “knew, for certain, that the word %u218genocide’ was a strict taboo.”
She went on to state, “The Armenian genocide was a very sensitive subject and therefore avoided in diplomatic circles in Yerevan. The wives of other ambassadors did not talk about it even in private. The first time we drove by the Genocide Memorial my husband whispered to me %u218there’s the Genocide Memorial.’ I looked over and caught a fleeting glance of the spire. As I turned back, our driver’s eyes caught mine in the rear view mirror. I was so uncomfortable. My husband told me that we were allowed to go there once a year, on April 24th.”
Amb. Evans’ problems began during his speaking tour of the Armenian communities in the United States in early 2005. Upon the couple’s arrival in California, Mrs. Evans said her husband informed her that “he was going to use the word %u218genocide’ and that it might cost him his job." She said she was "stunned at first but then very proud of him. I hoped that telling the truth would result in no more than a reprimand and that he would be marginalized for a while. I thought that losing his job was the very worst-case scenario.”
Once her husband used the term “genocide” in public, Donna Evans was amazed that the Armenian American media did not rush to publicize it immediately ‘s “It was as if they were protecting the Ambassador.” Eventually, after a press release from ANC revealed that Amb. Evans had actually used the words “Armenian Genocide” during his talk at Berkeley, she said her “husband went on to Washington to brief the State Department on what had transpired. The reaction was not pretty to say the least” which made her “sick at heart.” Meanwhile, the Ambassador did not know “whether his recall orders would be on his desk when he returned to Yerevan. I did not know whether I would be returning to Yerevan myself.”
Mrs. Evans had harsh words for the State Department for buckling under Turkish pressure. “It was unthinkable that the Turkish ambassador and the Government of Turkey had enough clout to get a knee-jerk reaction from the State Department and cause the recall of an ambassador,” she said.
Leaving his ambassadorial post voluntarily was out of question, Mrs. Evans said. “Not resigning was the right thing to do. My husband had not committed a crime, he only acknowledged a crime,” she said.
Upon returning to Yerevan, Mrs. Evans said her husband went on carrying out his diplomatic duties and “acted as if it was business as usual.; However, each morning he arrived at the office wondering if the morning e-mail and telegram traffic would include his official recall. Then, on July 2, 2005, the dreaded telephone call came.” Dan Fried, the Assistant Secretary of State, called to inform that her husband’s position was “about to be posted as open for the summer of 2006 and that we could be removed at any time,” she said.
Mrs. Evans said she was “furious” particularly since this call had come “just before July the 4th, Independence Day and axed a professional diplomat with 35 years of faithful service to his government — and a 12th generation American — just because he said %u218genocide’ in an academic setting in the United States.”
Mrs. Evans further revealed that she wrote a personal letter to First Lady Laura Bush because she said she believed “in spouse power.” She never received a reply.
When the word got out — this writer was the first to report that Amb. Evans was about to be recalled for his statement on the Armenian Genocide — Mrs. Evans reported that “the pressure was on;[there was] wild speculation in the Armenian papers, some calling my husband a hero and others not so flattering and some downright ridiculous. Again the press had a field day. My husband’s answer had to be %u218I serve at the pleasure of the President.’ I died a little every time I heard him say it.”
Notably, Mrs. Evans revealed that during those tumultuous days, “the diplomatic community” supported her husband “privately.” She then described April 24, 2006 as “an unforgettable day” in her life when thousands of Armenia’s from all walks of life tied yellow ribbons to a fence at the Genocide Memorial Monument in Yerevan, in support of her husband. “How this was pulled together and who supported it is a remarkable story. I wish I could give them all a hug individually. This event inspired us to stay strong during a very trying time,” she said.
As they say, the rest is history. The White House cut Amb. Evans’ service short and announced the nomination of his successor, Richard Hoagland, who never made it to Armenia.
Showing her continued support for the reaffirmation of the Armenian Genocide, Mrs. Evans said that when the House Foreign Affairs Committee adopted the Armenian Genocide resolution, it was one of the happiest days of her life.
However, she was “stunned and outraged” when her husband showed her the letter that was signed by eight former Secretaries of State opposing the congressional resolution on the Armenian Genocide. “How could Secretaries of State so blindly sign such a document? What I would say to the former Secretaries of State is %u218shame on you’ for being used by the Turkish lobby. By your actions, you have set back any progress that has been made to normalize diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey. It would have been better to remain silent. A special shame on Secretary [of State Alexander] Haig because he served under President Reagan, who acknowledged the genocide,” she said.
Donna Evans described her dismay at some of the negative reactions to the genocide resolution. “What followed was the worst turn of events that I had witnessed in all my time in Washington. The supporters of the recognition of the genocide were in shock and awe at the cruel commentaries, articles, and Internet buzz. What we were witnessing was a hyper-overkill of a human rights issue.”
She concluded her remarks with heart-warming words: “The Armenian experience has woven itself into my soul like the intricate carvings in the Khachkars. It is beautiful, it is sad and it is hopeful. So what do we do now? We don’t give up. We bide our time and return to the fight, more experienced, better informed and therefore better armed. Most important of all we continue to educate. Grassroots support is vital. You are vital. This issue needs to be resolved. You and your ancestors deserve an apology and recognition of the first genocide of the 20th century;the Armenian Genocide.”