In the Name of Mercy: The Legacy of the American Red Cross on Gender and War

Diana Nguyen

HIST 571T

Dr. Shrout

16 December 2016

Following the First World War, the American Red Cross achieved international recognition and fame but also transformed itself into a global and powerful organization by the end of the war. In addition to its phenomenal growth, the American Red Cross also implemented various nursing programs including the development of first aid, water safety, and organized public health campaigns in order to alleviate the pain and suffering of soldiers, civilians, and foreigners alike. Scholars have mostly focused upon the highlights and achievements of the major relief organization and yet through their use of propaganda, the American Red Cross also promoted militarism, sacrifice, and traditional notions of gender during wartime. Future historians should further analyze the omniscient power of the American Red Cross and how it was an organization that ultimately became a symbol of peace and charity that mobilized thousands of men to enlist in the war effort while also encouraging countless of women to prepare themselves and their men for war. By examining how historians have conceptualized and viewed the significance of the American Red Cross and its impact on gender and war during the First World War, scholars must look at the contradicting and manipulative nature of the American Red Cross through a critical gendered lens and how it fundamentally transformed both itself and the United States into a major international power through its relief programs by the end of the war.

In the interest of moving the current state of academic scholarship on the history of the American Red Cross and their rise to power by the end of the First World War, one would have to consider the intimate connections between international humanitarian aid and the ideologies of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny in the twentieth century. Julia Irwin, author of Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening, sought to examine how the American Red Cross gave rise to a new type of international sensibility and helped foster a new sense of responsibility in Americans to help foreign others during the First World War and its aftermath. In their efforts to reduce the suffering of others, Americans aspired to such ideals and believed “the United States had to behave as a benevolent world power, a nation ready and willing to direct its burgeoning material and intellectual resources toward the improvement of international health and welfare.”[1] As part of a calculated campaign to help further U.S. political goals and diplomacy on the world front, the American Red Cross strategically used languages of obligation in order to help convinced U.S. citizens that it was of a vital national interest to donate their money and time to help foreigners in need and the war effort as well as their international aid programs. Irwin continued to assert that by “emphasizing the beneficence of aid [it] effectively masked the more violent and aggressive sides of American involvement in the world and defined U.S. influence as a force for good. The ARC’s humanitarian interventions, in short, undergirded the nascent structures of empire and U.S. global power.”[2] Compared to Gavin and Turk’s positive image of the American Red Cross, Irwin details the contradicting nature of the humanitarian organization in both a favorable and negative light as she follows their expansion from a privately funded voluntary group that focused on emergency aid for disasters to one that concentrated on relief programs and aided both sides of the conflict during World War I. Irwin further affirmed that by providing aid to noncombatants, the American Red Cross used a manipulative strategy in order to prove themselves to the world and their allies that Americans cared about the people of Europe and would do all they could to help those in need. But despite its goal of advancing U.S. national interests, Irwin does acknowledge its growing importance in international relations with the world as well as its ability to forge a nonviolent, cooperative, and mutually beneficial relationship with foreign civilians through aid.

In her attempt to further emphasized the American Red Cross’ role as a quasi-governmental organization that enjoyed unprecedented government support and direction for its work in the First World War, Julia Irwin continued looked at the international humanitarian efforts that the American Red Cross provided, but specifically in Italy, in her article, “Nation Building and Rebuilding: The American Red Cross in Italy during the Great War.” However, in its attempt to emphasize on American methods, expertise, and alliance, Irwin noted that the American Red Cross essentially enacted reforms in order to transform Italy into their own vision of a modern western nation. Not only did the humanitarian organization pledged “to restore southern Italy but also [wanted] to improve it morally and materially. Such assistance promised to benefit both the Italian recipients of aid and the American social scientists responsible for administering it.”[3] In their efforts to rebuilt and essentially convert Italy into a western nation, much like the United States, Irwin implored similar arguments from Making the World Safe when she argued that ARC’s relief activities for Italian citizens helped served both diplomatic and social reform agendas that extended beyond the North Atlantic. According to Irwin, the American Red Cross and it members found ways to propagandize their work by essentially undermining Italy’s contributions to the war effort. John Dos Passos, a member of the Ambulance Corps, complained how they were there “for propaganda it seems—more than for ambulance work.”[4] Irwin also pointed out in her article that although many came to realize the extent in which American propaganda was used as a political strategy to dupe Italian soldiers into fighting, the power and significance of the American Red Cross remains incredibly important—especially in its mission to carry out American ideals, both diplomatic and social, to European countries in such a turbulent time period.[5]

Similar to Irwin’s own statements about the American Red Cross, Marian Moser Jones, author of The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal, maintained a similar claim about the organization and its close ties with the federal government. Detailing the early years of the American Red Cross and its founder, Clara Barton, Jones chronicles the organization from Barton’s influence in the mid-nineteenth century to its transformation into the omnipresent and powerful organization by the end of World War I. In her attempt to characterize the transformation of the American Red Cross during the war, Jones detailed how “the infrastructure developed during the war enabled the [organization] to play a critical role in the public health response.”[6] The push to reorganize the American Red Cross away from Barton’s influences came as no surprise as Jones proclaimed how “the new organization, though more powerful, better funded, and better organized than Barton’s ragtag society, became much more closely allied with the federal government and business leaders and distanced itself from the feminist, independent-minded populism that Barton embraced.”[7] As a result, not only did the American Red Cross and its international humanitarian aid helped serve American diplomatic needs that justified its close government ties in the First World War, it also provided them an opportunity to rise above other aid organizations, both in scope and power, by the end of the war.

Throughout the war, the use of propaganda became an important tool for the United States to mobilize both Americans for recruitment and donations in addition to elevating the American Red Cross into a global power with corporate and government ties by the First World War. Despite mostly focusing on the plight of motherhood and gender, P.J. Lopez’s “American Red Cross Posters and the Cultural Politics of Motherhood in World War I” and its analysis on the influences of U.S. involvement in the war through American Red Cross posters prove helpful in analyzing the connections between humanitarian aid and the peoples’ desire to further their diplomatic needs internationally. Using propaganda posters that displayed romantic images of humanitarianism and war, the American Red Cross helped mobilize U.S. society to assist in the war effort through recruitment and donations. As pointed out by Irwin in her book, the American Red Cross “drew on the longstanding traditions of Christian fraternalism, civilizing mission, and republican humanism that had motivated earlier generations of Americans to ease the suffering of others.”[8] Although Lopez never mentioned Clara Barton in his article, he generally agreed with Irwin’s assessment of the American Red Cross prior to the First World War and how it lacked a strong centralized state in the nineteenth century.[9] Looking at the source through a gendered lens, one can conclude that the American Red Cross used women as another tool to propagandize their cause to American society. Posters for recruitment purposes featuring women urging their fellow citizens to join in the Red Cross movement were splattered across the nation as the warfront intensified. According to Lopez, “ARC posters invoked the figure of the nurse to encourage the public to donate funds and time to the war effort in Europe… she is strong enough to lift a wounded soldier from the trenches without help. She represents both the neutrality of the USA and of the Red Cross. Hers is not yet a patriotic duty, but a request for aid.”[10] In their attempts to appear both benevolent and charitable to the American people and its European allies, the American Red Cross wanted to be represented as an organization that existed solely to help victims of war and the wounded.

When the United States entered the war on April 1917, the American Red Cross experienced massive growth due to the various wartime demands on the organization as well as the overwhelming desires of Americans who wanted to assist in the war effort.[11] Drawing on a range of sources including first-hand accounts, photographs, and statistics concerning the thousands of women who served in uniform abroad, Lettie Gavin’s American Women in World War I: They Also Served detailed the history of American women and the organizations they belonged to in the First World War. Focusing specifically on the chapter entitled, “Red Cross Volunteers,” Gavin positively asserted that the American Red Cross, “known the world over as a symbol of compassion, and fast, charitable action during crisis… [was] a neutral organization devoted to the care of the sick and wounded of armies at war.”[12] However, prior to when the United States officially entered the war in April 1917, the independent voluntary organization had neither government affiliations nor did it limit its focus to aid only on the battlefield. With the goal of demonstrating the hospitality and tremendous growth of the American Red Cross, Gavin repeatedly reinforced that “the Red Cross took its place as a powerful social force… overseas, the Red Cross nursing service took on new importance, providing a constant stream of trained women for service with the military.”[13] Despite its positive image however, the disconcerting fact that the growth of the American Red Cross and its aid directly correlated with the federal government’s overall agenda to promote its goodwill to others proves how influential it was over the humanitarian organization.

Providing readers a compelling synopsis of the how the American Red Cross fundamentally came to shape American society through its efforts to relieve others during wartime and devastating natural disasters, Michele P. Turk’s Blood, Sweat and Tears: An Oral History of the American Red Cross demonstrated how the organization responded to various outcomes from wartime to devastating natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, and floods. Turk also presented the American Red Cross as an organization that deeply cared for the victims of war and natural disasters while also examining how the organization came to shape both American society and its citizens through its efforts to relieve others during wartime. Told through the voices of current and former Red Cross volunteers, Turk examined the history of the American Red Cross while she also introduce the brave volunteers and employees who actively risked their lives in order to help American allies in times crisis. Similar to Gavin’s remarks about the enduring image and legacy of the American Red Cross, Turk wrote that what the organization came to represent “was that of the compassionate and brave Red Cross nurse.” Although Turk acknowledges the many criticisms and problems of the American Red Cross, she quickly proceeds to look toward its more positive attributes instead; as a result, her personal bias and positive reflection about the organization becomes apparent throughout the book.

The idea that the American Red Cross was an organization that not only championed charity by providing aid to those in need but also enthusiastic promoters of militarism and sacrifice in times of war played an important factor in its representation as a powerful institution and major force of change by the end of the First World War. Compared to Gavin and Turk’s positive reflection of the American Red Cross, John Hutchinson’s Champions Of Charity: War And The Rise Of The Red Cross took a stand against the organization and argued that although the Red Cross tried to “civilize war” through their philanthropic efforts, both Red Cross movements in America and Europe profoundly promoted war and martyrdom through their use of propaganda and recruitment of soldiers. Take for example, using a propaganda poster from the German Red Cross featuring a knight, slayed dragon, and a volunteer nurse, Hutchinson claimed that “the pseudo-medieval imagery of European symbolism must have caught the imagination of the American Red Cross because the same style, including a less warlike version of the Red Cross knight, was chosen for the stained glass windows of the new national headquarters building that opened in Washington a few years later.”[14] In comparison to Irwin’s argument that the American Red Cross gradually developed into an international humanitarian relief organization through its connections with the federal government following the First World War, Hutchinson also noted its change “from a charitable society preoccupied with disaster relief into a huge national corporation that was closely tied to the government, the armed forces, and the financial establishment centered on Wall Street.”[15] In some respects, many American historians have also noted its transformation and change due to the ethos of the Progressive era and what they consider the “ineffective” leadership of Clara Barton. With the adoption of business practices and methods in philanthropy, many Progressives thought Barton’s “intensely personal style of leadership was ‘no longer a practical approach to the general problems of Red Cross disaster relief’… Her opponents, on the other hand, were ‘more in touch with the times… [and] reflected the new trends towards greater efficiency and financial accountability.’”[16] In the end, by chronicling the relationship between organized charity, war, and the state, Hutchinson conveyed how the militarization of the American Red Cross helped further the nationalistic and militaristic interests of both its federal government and organization through the use patriotic propaganda throughout the war effort.

Although historians mostly agree that Clara Barton had a huge impact on the legacy of the American Red Cross in her efforts to forge a new path for the organization with the federal government, they have also made critical claims about her administration and ability to lead. Looking at the works of various authors who have written about Clara Barton and her contributions to the humanitarian organization, Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Studies in Health, Illness, and Caregiving: Clara Barton, Professional Angel focused on the life of Barton and her contributions to the American Red Cross. While examining the papers that Barton carefully preserved throughout her lifetime, Pryor maintained that Barton played an important role in both the history and legacy of the humanitarian organization as she risked her life to bring supplies for the war-injured while also providing relief efforts both at home and abroad. As both the founder and champion of the American Red Cross, Barton’s experiences in Europe ultimately laid the foundation and framework for the humanitarian organization and set the stage for it to eventually provide international relief efforts to the people of Europe in the First World War. Pryor’s admiration for her subject becomes clear when she reveals the kind of modern woman Barton was and how she used every resource available to bring comfort the victims of disasters when no one was inclined to support such activities. Similar to Jones and Hutchinson’s evaluation of Barton’s leadership of the American Red Cross, however, Prydor admitted there was a limit to what Barton could do for the organization—especially when it came to spreading the story of Red Cross. In many ways, Pryor agreed that Barton was “ill-equipped to undertake the organization of what was an enormously ambitious project. Barton had the habit of command, but… she was a poor administrator. Accustomed to working alone, she preferred to keep records, plan projects, and oversee relief work personally.”[17] With her leadership in question and public respect for the American Red Cross almost destroyed due to the complications that arose between Barton and the reformers, the reorganization of the Red Cross was in order. The transformation of the American Red Cross “into a national corporation under government supervision”[18] came as no surprise even though debates surrounding the topic of why the reorganization of the society brought it so much closer with the government and military continue to exist today.

Focusing on the activities and private correspondences of American author Edith Wharton and her disagreements with the American Red Cross, Alan Price’s “Edith Wharton at War with the American Red Cross: The End of Noblesse Oblige” provided a brief insight into the mind of an American women who becomes increasingly disenchanted with the Red Cross as the war raged on. Although she never publicly disagreed with it, Price stated that Wharton became disillusioned with the politics of American relief during the First World War as it swallowed up the private relief agencies and charities that had been organized and administered by American women during the first three years of the war.[19] When the United States entered the war, Wharton believed it would promise relief; but instead, it provided her with even more work as she wrote to her friend, Sara Norton, proclaiming, “I have a great deal more work on my hands since our declaration of war which took from me two of our best workers, and has left me to cope with a task beyond my strength.”[20] In the same vein as Jones, Hutchinson, and Pryor’s description of the American Red Cross and its founder, Clara Barton, Price provides a brief history of the organization as well as the early developments concerning war relief policies that went when it went through a sweeping change. In addition to mentioning Barton, Price also related the conflict that arose between the founder and her successor, Mabel T. Boardman, who “represented wealth, social position and the spirit of Noblesse Oblige of her class… [and] convinced as a result of her family heritage that Red Cross leadership should be in the hands of people who command the support of the wealthy members.”[21] Although Price never mentions the connections between the organization and the federal government, he does allude do its practices and takeovers that often align with the methods conducted by the state and business corporations. Many of the volunteers, according to Price, worked in business-related jobs prior to becoming administrative officials in the American Red Cross and concluded that “it would be best if all of the private American relief societies and charities operating in France and England would turn over the management of their separate societies to the American Red Cross.”[22] Although Price does a commendable job outlining the many problems and frustrations Americans in Europe had with the American Red Cross, his assessment of the organization reflects a personal bias. Not only does he fail to include any positive features about the humanitarian organization, he ends his article with a recollection of Wharton’s bitter and lasting impression of the American Red Cross. On the other hand, Gertrude Atherton, an American author, also vehemently tried to protest against the American Red Cross and their takeover of private charities in her letter to the editor of the New York Times. Much like Edith Wharton’s own personal remarks about the indifferent nature and politics of American relief toward other private relief agencies, Atherton wrote a letter to the New York Times complaining about the American Red Cross and its ultimate goal in Europe. Referencing the section where she talks about the organization, Atherton’s disillusionment becomes apparent as she states: “They have undertaken to distribute all out goods to the hospitals we supply in the war zone… But, while the Red Cross distributes our foods and leaves our individuality intact, it gives us nothing.”[23] Although Wharton and Atherton’s claims about the American Red Cross may seem capricious at times, their cynicism ultimately stems from the politics and leadership of the organization as it heedlessly took over other American private relief charities in France during war.

As for the amount of primary sources available on the topic of the American Red Cross and its transformation into an international organization through its connections with the federal government and military, The Story of the American Red Cross in Italy by Charles M. Bakewell directly challenged Irwin’s account on the activities of the American Red Cross and its contributions in Italy during its greatest time of need. His portrayal of the organization as one that alleviated the suffering of Italians and brought justice to the country greatly contrasts with Irwin’s depiction of the American Red Cross in its effort to convert Italy into a western nation during the war. Written two years after the First World War in 1920, Bakewell’s personal reflection of the American Red Cross attempted to convey how the organization essentially created a long-lasting friendship and bond between United States and Italy together though its material aid and assistance. He further commented, “what matters most for our future relations, is the fact that through this material aid the Red Cross succeeded in translating into the deeds the soul of America, in making it plain to the Italians that we were there to work as brothers, filled with a common enthusiasm and inspired by common ideals.”[24] Though his opinion of the American Red Cross and its contributions in Europe during the war rings true, his opinion of the organization reflects the typical mindset of an American politician in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who strongly believed in a strong government tie with the Red Cross and that it was their duty to convey their benevolence and charity to the world.

While many historians have agreed that although the American Red Cross played a critical role in the war and came out of it transformed, other scholars including Irwin, Hutchinson, and Jones have questioned the reorganization, transformation, and legacy of the society in regards to its close ties with the federal government and military throughout the First World War. Although American Red Cross and its aid programs were more welcomed during the First World War, they became less popular after as European countries sought to reassert their control over healthcare in their own respective communities while American continued to impose rather aggressive tactics in their pursuit of American exceptionalism. In the end, with the goal of advancing the field of American Red Cross studies and history of philanthropy forward, future scholars should continue to look at the dynamic relationship between the federal government and its ties with the Red Cross as well as its transformation; furthermore, historians should also place the American Red Cross it within the larger context within the community of humanitarian organizations prior to its ascendency in World War I.

Bibliography

Primary Sources:

Bakewell, Charles Montague. The Story of the American Red Cross in Italy. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1920.

Gertrude Atherton. “Women To Go To France: Mrs. Atherton Wants Helpers for Le Bien-Être du Blessé.” Accessed December 1, 2016. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9A04E3D9103AE433A25750C2A96F9C946696D6CF.

Secondary Sources:

Gavin, Lettie. American Women in World War I: They Also Served. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1997.

Hutchinson, John F. Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross. Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.

Irwin, Julia F. Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Irwin, Julia F. “Nation Building and Rebuilding: The American Red Cross in Italy during the Great War.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 8 (2009): 407-439.

Jones, Marian Moser. The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Lopez, P.J. “American Red Cross Posters and the Cultural Politics of Motherhood in World War I.” Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal Of Feminist Geography 23 (2016): 769-785.

Price, Alan. “Edith Wharton at War with the American Red Cross: The End of Noblesse Oblige.” Women’s Studies 20 (1991): 121-131.

Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Studies in Health, Illness, and Caregiving: Clara Barton, Professional Angel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Turk, Michele P. Blood, Sweat and Tears: An Oral History of the American Red Cross. Robbinsville: E Street Press, 2006.

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[1] Julia F. Irwin, Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 3.

[2] Ibid, 210.

[3] Ibid, 41.

[4] Julia F. Irwin, “Nation Building and Rebuilding: The American Red Cross in Italy during the Great War,” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 8 (2009): 407-408.

[5] Ibid: 408.

[6] Marian Moser Jones, The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), xv.

[7] Ibid, 98.

[8] Julia F. Irwin, Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 79.

[9] P.J. Lopez, “American Red Cross Posters and the Cultural Politics of Motherhood in World War I.” Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal Of Feminist Geography 23 (2016): 772.

[10] Ibid: 772.

[11] Lettie Gavin, American Women in World War I: They Also Served (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1997), 179.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 181.

[14] John F. Hutchinson, Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), 181.

[15] Ibid, 224.

[16] Ibid, 225.

[17] Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Studies in Health, Illness, and Caregiving: Clara Barton, Professional Angel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 218.

[18] John F. Hutchinson, Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), 233.

[19] Alan Price, “Edith Wharton at War with the American Red Cross: The End of Noblesse Oblige,” Women’s Studies 20 (1991): 121.

[20] Ibid: 122-123.

[21] Ibid: 123.

[22] Ibid: 125-126.

[23] “Women To Go To France: Mrs. Atherton Wants Helpers for Le Bien-Être du Blessé,” New York Times, accessed December 1, 2016, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9A04E3D9103AE433A25750C2A96F9C946696D6CF.

[24] Charles M. Bakewell, The Story of the American Red Cross in Italy (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1920), v.

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