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The American Red Cross in World War I

By Julia F. Irwin


President Barack Obama has proclaimed March 2014 as “American Red Cross Month,” following a tradition started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943. 2014 also marks the 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in Europe. Although the United States would not officially enter the war until 1917, the American Red Cross (ARC) became deeply involved in the conflict from its earliest days. Throughout World War I and its aftermath, the ARC and its volunteers carried out a wide array of humanitarian activities, intended to alleviate the suffering of soldiers and civilians alike.

Help the Red CrossIn honor of American Red Cross Month, and in commemoration of the First World War’s centennial, here’s a list of things you might not have known about the World War I era history of the American Red Cross:

(1)   On 12 September 1914, just over a month after the First World War erupted in Europe, the American Red Cross sent its first relief ship to the continent. Christened the Red Cross, the ship carried units of physicians and nurses, surgical equipment, and hospital supplies to seven warring European nations. This medical aid reached soldiers on both sides of the conflict.

(2)   After the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the ARC’s intervention in Europe expanded enormously. Over the next several years, the ARC’s leaders established humanitarian activities in roughly two-dozen countries in Europe and the Near East. The organization provided emergency food and medical relief on the battlefields and on the European home front, but ARC staff and volunteers also took on more constructive projects. They built hospitals, health clinics and dispensaries, libraries, playgrounds, and orphanages. They organized public health campaigns against diseases like typhus and tuberculosis. They took steps to reform sanitation in many countries and introduced nursing schools in several major cities. The ARC’s efforts for Europe, in other words, went well beyond immediate material relief to include long-term, comprehensive social welfare projects.

(3)   During World War I, the American Red Cross experienced astronomical growth. On the eve of war, ARC membership hovered around 10,000 US citizens. By 1918, the last year of the war, roughly 22 million adults and 11 million children – approximately 1/3 of the total US population at that time – had joined the American Red Cross and contributed at least $1.00 to the organization.

American Red Cross image(4)   In 1917, the wartime leaders of the American Red Cross established an auxiliary body for US children—the Junior Red Cross (JRC). During the war, American Juniors put on plays and organized bazaars to raise money for the war effort, collected scrap metal and other essential war supplies, and helped produce over 371,500,000 relief articles for US and Allied soldiers and refugees, valued at nearly $94,000,000. After the war ended, postwar leaders transformed the JRC’s mission, moving away from relief efforts and towards international education initiatives. They established pen-pal programs for between US and European schoolchildren and published monthly magazines to teach US students about the culture, geography, and histories of other nations.

(5)   As President of the United States, President Woodrow Wilson was also the President of the American Red Cross. Wilson proved to be a tireless promoter of the ARC. Through many speeches and press releases, he urged all US citizens to join the ARC, defining this as nothing less than a patriotic duty. Wilson also lent his face to ARC posters, magazine covers, and other forms of fundraising publicity. It was on 18 May 1918, perhaps, that Wilson made his commitment to the ARC most visible: on that day, he led a 70,000-person American Red Cross parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City. The visible support of Wilson and his administration played a critical role in defining the ARC as the United States’ leading humanitarian organization—a status that it continues to hold 100 years later.

Julia F. Irwin is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Florida. She specializes in the history of US relations with the 20th century world, with a particular focus on the role of humanitarianism in US 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 US responses to global natural disasters.

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Image credits: (1) “Help the Red Cross.” Public domain via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (2) “In the Name of Mercy – Give.” Albert Herter. Public domain via Library of Congress.

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