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International humanitarianism in the United States

By Julia Irwin


Each year on 8 May, the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies of dozens of nations unite in celebration of World Red Cross/Red Crescent Day. This global event observes the birthday of Henry Dunant, one of the founders of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC), and commemorates the humanitarian principles that this organization represents. This year’s Red Cross Day is a particularly noteworthy occasion for the year 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the ICRC’s founding.

This 8 May 2013, the American Red Cross (ARC) will join 186 other national societies in marking this momentous occasion and honoring the ICRC’s sesquicentennial. This probably comes as little surprise: after all, the ARC is an important and influential humanitarian organization, both domestically and globally. And yet, this has not always been the case. It was not until 1881, 18 years after the ICRC’s creation, that US citizens formed their own national Red Cross society. Only in the early 20th century, moreover, did the ARC come to be recognized as a major international war and disaster relief society. The story of these developments — of the creation of the American Red Cross and its path to becoming the official voluntary aid association of the United States — is an important part of the history of US international engagement, and of its evolution at the turn of the last century.

This process began in 1859, when a young Swiss citizen named Henry Dunant observed a bloody battle in Solferino, Italy and witnessed the horrors of wartime suffering firsthand. The experience convinced him of the necessity of establishing permanent associations of humanitarian volunteers, ready to provide neutral medical care on the battlefield whenever the need arose. These ideas started coming to fruition when, in February 1863, Dunant met with four fellow Swiss citizens in Geneva to develop an organization dedicated to the relief of wounded soldiers. The result of their meeting would be the formation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The ICRC’s founding members lobbied for two goals: the creation of Red Cross societies in every nation and the passage of new international laws to protect both wounded soldiers and aid workers. By August 1864, their mission had achieved considerable success. In Geneva, representatives from twelve nations signed a treaty to establish international standards for wartime humanitarianism, the First Geneva Convention. In the ensuing months and years, additional countries would become signatories as well.

Jean Henri Dunant (1828-1910), Swiss author and philanthropist, founder of the Red Cross society. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1864, the ICRC’s leaders invited the United States to participate in this fledgling international humanitarian movement. However, the US government demurred. Preoccupied with the nation’s ongoing Civil War, policymakers had their hands full with domestic concerns. Yet even after the Civil War came to an end, US diplomatic officials chose not to follow the growing number of nations that had signed the Geneva Treaty. Citing longstanding precedents in US foreign policy, dating back to the 18th century, government officials declared it best for the United States to avoid entering any entangling political alliances with Europe.

Not all Americans agreed with this decision. Several former members of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, an agency that provided aid to sick and wounded Union soldiers during the US Civil War, lobbied the government to join the International Red Cross Movement. Beginning in the early 1870s, so did an American woman named Clara Barton. Barton had served as a volunteer during the Civil War, helping to deliver medical supplies to Union field hospitals and to identify wounded and dead soldiers. After the Civil War ended, she traveled to Europe to rest and recover. Soon, however, she became involved again in war relief. After the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Barton volunteered with the newly formed ICRC to assist its medical aid efforts. It was there that she met Dunant and became inspired by his international humanitarian mission.

Clara Barton, (1821-1912), president of the American Red Cross from 1882 until 1904. Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.

In 1873, Barton returned to the United States and began to lobby against the U.S. government’s policy of non-engagement. For nearly a decade, she led a twin crusade for US ratification of the Geneva Convention and the formation of an American Red Cross society. Eventually, Barton achieved both of her goals. In May 1881, she and fifty-one other US citizens drafted and signed a charter to create the American Association of the Red Cross. The next year, in the spring of 1882, the United States joined a growing body of nations — in Europe and throughout the world — in ratifying the Geneva Convention. US government officials had come to see signing the Geneva Convention as compatible and consistent with US foreign policy goals. As Secretary of State James G. Blaine put it, the American tradition of non-entanglement in foreign political affairs “was not meant to ward off humanity.” Thus, in the early 1880s, the United States became a belated entrant into the world’s foremost international humanitarian movement.

The ARC remained quite limited, in terms of its membership, finances, and power, for several decades to come. It was not until 1900 that the US Congress granted the organization its federal charter. Although President William Howard Taft designated the agency as the “official volunteer aid department of the United States” in 1911, it was only during the First World War — fifty years after the First Geneva Convention — that the ARC began to attain broad popular support and financial stability. It took US entry into the conflict, in April 1917, for the ARC to truly solidify its status as the recognized face of American humanitarian aid.

American Red Cross Parade, Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham View Company., 05/21/1918. Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.

Despite this slow progress, the creation of the American Red Cross and the subsequent US ratification of the Geneva Convention in the early 1880s marked a major milestone in the histories of US humanitarianism and international cooperation. On 8 May, as the world unites in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the ICRC, it is worth taking a moment to remember how the United States and its citizens came to see relieving the suffering of others as a national and an international obligation.

Julia F. Irwin is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Florida. She specializes in the history of U.S. relations with the 20th century world, with a particular focus on the role of humanitarianism in U.S. foreign affairs. She is the author of Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening. Her current research focuses on the history of U.S. responses to global natural disasters.

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