Study the history of the American Red Cross and you’ll find that the most dramatic change in that organization’s history was between 1910 and 1920, when it was transformed from a relatively small organization into the lumbering giant it is today. Until now, this inflection point in Red Cross history has largely remained unexplored by scholars. But Julia F. Irwin shows that the Red Cross’s rapid growth during World War I is a significant event that raises deep questions about the role charities should play in our country’s diplomatic efforts.
When Clara Barton founded the Red Cross in 1881, she kept it a small organization under her personal control. This led to a titanic feud between Barton and the Red Cross board of directors during 1901-04. The details of the feud do not matter, except that the arguments on both sides had some merit and Barton had clearly stayed on too long. She ultimately was forced to resign from the Red Cross in 1904, at the age of 83. (Her successor, Mabel Boardman, was 39 years younger.)
After Barton’s ousting, the Red Cross reorganized. In 1905, it obtained a congressional charter that turned it into a quasi-governmental organization, and, as part of the deal that led to the charter, an 18-member central committee would be in control. The federal government was allowed to appoint 12 members, and the Red Cross had to submit annual audits of its activities to the War Department. The organization also hired its first full-time national director, Ernest Bicknell, who promised that, in contrast to the disorganized voluntarism of the Clara Barton years, the Red Cross would “carry on its works . . . in a thorough-going, scientific manner.”
An early test came in 1908, when an earthquake struck southern Italy. Bicknell vowed that the Red Cross would help and that all victims would be scientifically investigated before they received aid. Americans donated $1 million to help the Italians, but the Red Cross, at the time, had a paid staff of only three and an endowment of $50,000. After the Red Cross struggled in Italy, President William Howard Taft personally launched a fundraising drive.
The Red Cross steadily grew, thanks to individual contributions and substantial grants from the Russell Sage and Rockefeller foundations. By 1916, it had 286,000 members and an endowment of $1 million. But its greatest growth came during World War I: By 1919, 33 million Americans—one-third of the U.S. population—had paid at least a dollar to join the Red Cross; the organization raised $400 million and had a $2.5 million endowment.
Part of the reason for this dramatic growth was the Red Cross had become an instrument of American foreign policy. When the United States declared war against the Central Powers in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson said that America had entered the war “for the liberation of its peoples,” and that the war aims of the United States included “no conquest, no dominion.” The Red Cross became an integral part of America’s humanitarian mission. On April 6, 1917, the day President Wilson declared war, he announced that, in order to eliminate “confusion, duplication, delay, and waste,” all foreign relief work would be under the control of the American Red Cross. Thus, the Red Cross became, for the duration of the war, an instrument of American policy: “A small proportion of our people can have the opportunity to serve upon the field of battle,” said Wilson. “But all men, women, and children may serve and serve effectively by . . . giving to your Red Cross.”
Flush with funds, the Red Cross filled America’s newspapers and magazines with articles and advertisements stating that giving money and time was the highest form of patriotism. “Show me your Red Cross membership button,” went one jingle, “and I’ll tell you what kind of American you are.” A poster showed two men in uniform, one holding the American flag, the second holding a red cross: “Loyalty to One is Loyalty to Both,” read the poster’s caption. Critics of the Red Cross were condemned and occasionally silenced.
In 1917, the Red Cross began to receive letters from antivivisectionists claiming that animals were being abused in tests of infectious disease in Europe. One high-ranking Red Cross executive warned that such criticism “is in reality giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” Louis Nagler’s criticism of the Red Cross War Council was so fervent that he was found guilty under the Espionage Act, a move (Irwin notes) that “more than likely convinced a number of would-be critics to toe the line” and keep quiet.
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).