The Magazine

Mission Accomplished

The Americanization of the Red Cross.

Sep 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 01 • By MARTIN MORSE WOOSTER
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Nor were all Americans welcome as volunteers. The Red Cross did block military requests that Americans of German, Austro-Hungarian, Turkish, or Bulgarian descent not serve in Europe; but although no formal order was given from national headquarters, many local Red Cross units barred African Americans from volunteering. “The president has instilled in all of us the belief that the present war is one for democracy,” said Tuskegee Institute trustee Charles E. Mason in 1918. “It is almost criminal that all classes cannot share in the relief work.”

Red Cross volunteers in Europe did far more than feed the hungry or aid the wounded: They were supposed to teach Europeans the virtues of the American way of life. Most volunteers accepted this mission, but a few grumbled. “We will be used in the most conspicuous way possible,” said John Dos Passos, who volunteered with the Red Cross in Italy. “We are here to help cajole the poor devils of Italians into fighting.” When the war ended, the Red Cross’s global mission began to crumble, and, in 1919, War Council chairman Henry Davison declared that his organization was no longer capable of feeding starving Europeans. The task of helping the hungry, he said, “could only be coped with by the governments.” In February 1919, President Wilson created the American Relief Administration to administer food aid in Europe, and he appointed Herbert Hoover to head it. Hoover’s efficiency in aiding the malnourished throughout the war made him an international figure.

But returning to its prewar task of helping in emergencies ensured that Red Cross revenues and membership plummeted. While 20 million Americans were members in November 1918, membership had plunged to 5.7 million by November 1920. The Junior Red Cross became increasingly important, because, while adult Americans weren’t always willing to support adult Europeans, children eagerly pooled their nickels and dimes to aid other children.

The role the American Red Cross played in World War I won’t be repeated, because most of the tasks performed by the Red Cross are now done by international development agencies. But the questions volunteers had to answer—What’s the best way to help? How are we representing America?—are ones every volunteer for the Peace Corps, or any internationally minded nonprofit, has to answer. And Julia F. Irwin reminds us that the role Americans play overseas is complex and deeply rooted in our nation’s history.

Martin Morse Wooster, senior fellow at the Capital Research Center, has written about the American Red Cross in By Their Bootstraps (Manhattan Institute).