Red Cross, American

views updated


The American Red Cross traces its origins to 1864, when the first Geneva Convention established the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose charter obligates member organizations to provide volunteer aid to the sick and wounded of armies in time of war and to carry on a peacetime program of national and international relief during disasters caused by either nature or human actions. Clara Barton founded the American chapter of the Red Cross on May 21, 1881, and it first served the United States military in 1898, during the Spanish-American War.

Initially the organization distributed relief supplies to the several hundred thousand Cubans suffering from the Spanish re-concentration policy, which held individuals in concentration camps. When the United States declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898, the American Red Cross directed its efforts toward assisting the poorly supplied volunteer army regiments in camps located in the Southern United States. The Red Cross provided them with items such as toothbrushes, sleeping apparel, cots, canned goods, and even ambulances. When the army launched its overseas expeditionary forces to the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, the American Red Cross followed, providing the forces with nurses and supplies not issued by the army, including mosquito netting, bedding, blankets, and towels.

Clara Barton, who arrived in Cuba aboard the relief ship City of Texas, was often seen unloading supplies and helping care for sick and wounded soldiers. When the Spanish-American War ended in August 1898 and the soldiers returned to the United States for demobilization, many of them were suffering from malaria and the Red Cross provided kitchens and emergency hospitals at the various debarkation points, including Jacksonville, Florida, and Montauk Point, New York.

During World War I, the American Red Cross once again provided assistance on the homefront and overseas, mostly in the area of medical and health services. The Red Cross operated fifty-eight domestic and overseas hospitals for the military, staffing them with doctors, nurses, and administrative personnel, and provided ambulances and trucks. On the homefront, the Red Cross set up a Home Service to help solve personal and family problems for veterans and their next of kin. Overseas, the Red Cross was in France by June of 1917, and by the time of the armistice in 1918, more than 8,000 America Red Cross workers were in Europe providing medical, recreational, and welfare services. General Pershing expressed his gratitude to the Red Cross when he said, "No organization since the world began has done such great constructive work with the efficiency, dispatch, sympathy, and understanding with which the Red Cross has accomplished its work" (American Red Cross, p. 15).

World War II created an even greater need for the American Red Cross than had earlier wars. During the war, the Red Cross had 7.5 million volunteers, and 39,000 paid employees The organization undertook a major recruiting drive for nurses and established blood donor services throughout the United States, receiving 134,000,000 pints of blood for military use. To assist veterans far from home, it offered financial assistance and recreational facilities near training camps and it distributed books, magazines, birthday gifts, stationery, and other essential items. Red Cross volunteers responded to 100,000 letters per week from relatives and friends of veterans who were seeking their whereabouts. Among its more noteworthy efforts was the weekly distribution of packaged supplies for American prisoners of war held in Europe. By the end of the war, more than 28,000,000 food, medical, and other POW parcels had been distributed by the International Red Cross, and public contributions totaled 784,000,000 dollars. Similar efforts in Japan were less successful because the Japanese government refused to let neutral vessels enter waters controlled by its military. One of the more memorable American Red Cross programs were the Club Mobiles—converted jeeps, ambulances, command cars, or weapons carriers that operated just behind the advancing front lines and distributed doughnuts and coffee. In August 1945, the American Red Cross began assisting Veterans Administration

(VA) hospitals by providing 40,000 volunteers and staff members.

After World War II, the American Red Cross shifted its emphasis, helping more than one million veterans and their families with disability claims that had been challenged by the Veterans Administration. American Red Cross workers were also assigned to VA hospitals to run recreational programs and to serve as nurses' aides.

The impact of the American Red Cross during wartime was unprecedented. It was able to fill a void that federal agencies did not have the resources for. The American Red Cross continues to serve the military and public. Its success and secure place in American society reflect the volunteer spirit and humanitarian impulses that are deeply embedded in American culture.


American Red Cross. The Red Cross Activities of the American People during 75 Years, 1881–1955. Washington, DC: American Red Cross, 1955.

Dulles, Foster Rhea. The American Red Cross: A History. New York: Harper, 1950.

Mitchell Yockelson

See also:Medicine, World War I; Medicine, World War II.