In a noteworthy new study of American humanitarianism abroad, Julia Irwin explores the burgeoning American appreciation of foreign aid as a tool of foreign relations through an examination of the overseas civilian relief work of the American Red Cross during and after World War I. Established in 1881 as part of an international movement to succor injured soldiers, the American Red Cross (ARC) had instead focused on disaster relief for civilians. Its role changed during the Great War when the ARC made foreign civilian relief a major part of its work. Statecraft, the ARC and government leaders well understood, could be pursued through humanitarian aid. Irwin’s important book not only challenges the view of American isolationism in this era, but it also shows that the post-World War II development of a robust international humanitarian infrastructure was built on long experience.
Based on the records of the American Red Cross and key personnel, Irwin’s is the story of leaders. Extending scholars’ exploration of the transnational networks that shaped Progressive-era reform, [End Page 140] she “examines the lives of a cosmopolitan cadre of American civic leaders, philanthropists, and medical and social scientific professionals—individuals who embraced foreign assistance as a new way to participate in the international community” (p. 2). Working closely with the government, ARC leaders organized a remarkably comprehensive response to foreign civilian suffering, at first across Europe and then, once the U.S. entered the war, in Allied countries only. ARC personnel fed, clothed, and healed thousands of Europeans. They built temporary housing, rebuilt damaged buildings, and provided furniture and other necessaries. They also created work programs, taught public-health classes, established orphanages, and built playgrounds. When the war ended, the ARC sought to continue this work, again working across the war-torn continent. These efforts, ARC leaders believed, fostered a strong international community and thereby served the national interest. These true internationalists also aimed to sustain the reform networks and welfare projects that had been disrupted by the war.
Although Irwin focuses on ARC leaders, she does not want this story to be theirs alone. In a fascinating section, she examines the various motivations of Americans who went to Europe as ARC staff and volunteers. Donors have a place, and a large one, in the accomplishments of the ARC too. President Woodrow Wilson had, in April 1917, named it as the lead institution for both military and civilian relief, but the Red Cross was a voluntary organization and needed to raise private funds. While some money came from philanthropic foundations, the lion’s share came from the public. An astonishing one-third of Americans became members during World War I and in 1917 and 1918 Americans gave the organization no less than $400 million.
The book thus seeks to explain not only the belief of the leaders but also that of the American public in the importance of foreign aid to American foreign relations. Terming it an “awakening” may underestimate the extent to which the ARC built on earlier generations’ overseas humanitarianism, but the large-scale giving did represent a [End Page 141] new phenomenon in philanthropy. Irwin is alert to the diverse reasons why millions of people supported the ARC. Ultimately, however, she suggests that many ordinary Americans, at least for a time, believed that foreign aid was a worthwhile and progressive diplomatic tool. They may have. But the steep postwar decline in popular support for the ARC leaves lingering questions about whether Americans had donated so much during the war to help foreign civilians or to aid, first and foremost, American soldiers. Those questions aside, Irwin, in a crisply written and stimulating book, has made a persuasive case that to understand fully the development of international humanitarianism later in the twentieth century, we must look to the American Red Cross overseas relief work during World War I. Students of American foreign relations and humanitarianism alike will be rewarded by reading this book.