Humanitarian Intervention and Relief

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Humanitarian Intervention and Relief

Darlene Rivas

The phrase "humanitarian intervention and relief" reflects recent usage. Yet the types of activities that it incorporates have a long history. At times, natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, or human-compounded disasters such as famine or war, have caused great human suffering and material damage, resulting in efforts to provide relief in the form of basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter. Despite the view that Americans have shown exceptional generosity, the practice of caring for the victims of disasters is as old as human communities and is widespread among cultures. The scale of the human response to human suffering has changed, however, largely because of the development of institutionalized structures to provide relief, and Americans have been at the forefront of such development. In the modern era, the idea that states or peoples should respond to victims of calamities in other states has grown dramatically. Especially since World War II, nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations for humanitarian assistance have multiplied and become institutionalized.

Debates about humanitarian assistance abroad have increasingly focused on whether states have a right and even a duty to alleviate distress, and whether the acceptable means include forcible intervention to end suffering and protect human rights. Intervention implies interfering in a situation in order to change an outcome. It may or may not indicate the use of force in achieving its objectives, although in the recent past that has been a key issue in its definition. Humanitarian relief and intervention implies short-term rather than long-term action. In the period after World War II, however, what began as efforts to prevent imminent harm increasingly took on the character of efforts to promote social and economic development or provide longer-term protection of civilians during intractable civil conflicts. Nation building, efforts to promote economic and social development, and peacekeeping seemed to follow efforts at humanitarian intervention and relief, with the distinction between these efforts becoming increasingly blurred.

Both humanitarianism and self-interest have inspired actions by individual Americans and the U.S. government to provide assistance and relief to people of other nations. The idea that individuals, nations, or governments intervene purely to promote the well-being of other humans is contested. Some believe that the essence of being human is to be humane, to act out of compassion, kindness, and sympathy so as to aid fellow humans in distress or danger. Others, however, believe that people act only out of self-interest. Indeed, some biologists conduct research to understand what they deem as the aberrant behavior of individuals who sacrifice their personal interests for the good of others. Considerations of whether humans behave solely on the basis of survival mechanisms largely ignore moral and ethical studies, religious or otherwise. The most common position avoids extremes, holding that humans often act out of humanitarian impulses, but that these are neither purely altruistic nor purely selfish.

The question of how states or governments respond used to be less murky. National self-interest, including the promotion of the wellbeing of the state's citizens and its survival, has been the raison d'être for the state. Yet with economic, demographic, and technological change in the twentieth century, some observers suggest that the erosion of borders has created an international community in which old conceptions of national interest are inappropriate. The interrelationships of a global community, and increasingly common values as evidenced by the development of international law in support of human rights, seem to warrant international responses to human distress wherever it may be found.


The United States and the other nations born of the Enlightenment laid claim to the notion that nations could be based on ideals as well as interests. Religious beliefs also contributed to American conceptions of their role in the world. In addition to developing a vision of a city on a hill, a model community as exemplar to the world, the Puritans and other Christian groups emphasized the importance of doing good, which was interpreted in light of the biblical injunction to love thy neighbor. In the nineteenth century, millennial hopes of hastening the Kingdom of God also inspired some Americans to work for an ideal society that elevated or protected human rights. To many Americans the expansion of liberty through the spread of American-style institutions promised to free humanity everywhere from political oppression, and in the twentieth century, to free them from poverty.

A commitment to public good in the colonial and early national eras resulted in providing relief for the poor or those injured by disasters, which was usually conducted by those closest to the victims, members of one's religious organization, or local communities, but at times by colonial or state governments. There was some stigma attached to poor relief, but victims of fires or floods received greater public sympathy. Emergency relief escaped the stigma associated with poor relief, because victims of disasters were viewed as suffering only temporary misfortune. Such victims escaped questions as to whether they were morally unfit or somehow deserved their fate. Indeed, in times of emergency Americans quickly proved adept at organizing; they created private agencies to alleviate human suffering, since generally that was not seen as the responsibility of the state. Most assistance went to local communities. Early in the Republic's history, however, there were both public and private efforts to help victims of disaster abroad.

In 1812 a Venezuelan earthquake resulted in as many as ten thousand deaths. Concern about the extent of devastation, sympathy with the republican cause in Latin America, and hopes for commercial ties should Venezuela win its independence from Spain resulted in an appropriation of $50,000 from Congress for the purchase of food to avert famine. This type of federal appropriation was rare in early American history. Fires in Canada in 1816 and 1825 spurred private donations in Boston and New York, primarily raised by merchants and churches. Certainly, much human suffering occurred during this period, and when reports from merchants or consuls or other Americans stirred sympathy, Americans sent aid to, for example, survivors of French floods or to victims of famine and disease in the Cape Verde Islands.

Americans often responded to international crises because of cultural and political affinity. The prospects for republican government in Latin America and in Europe sometimes led to calls for intervention, but Congress resisted the impulse to do so. George Washington's pleas to remain neutral and avoid entangling alliances deeply impacted American views of their role in the world, particularly after the War of 1812. In 1821 Greeks rose against Turkey. Some Americans saw themselves as heirs to the freedom represented by ancient Greece. The portrayal of Muslim Turks as barbarous and the Christian Greeks as noble and civilized fed American prejudices. Support for the Greek cause provoked interest by groups as diverse as women's organizations and university students in a spate of fund-raising, and even in talk of government support. In 1824 Congress debated a resolution in support of Greek independence. It failed, however, and the government refused to allocate funds for either the Greek cause or Greek relief. Some Americans volunteered to fight, but they were few in number. Money already raised was used to purchase limited amounts of arms. In 1827 and 1828, however, the most significant support was in the form of relief assistance to the victims of violence. Individuals, churches, and other organizations like the Ladies Greek Committee of New York raised funds, purchased clothes, foodstuffs, and other supplies, and shipped them to Greece. Around $100,000 worth of goods was sent during the spring of 1827 and another $59,000 the next year. Samuel Gridley Howe, a Boston doctor and later an ardent reformer, helped coordinate the delivery of the relief aid. Americans, largely missionaries and diplomats, supervised the distribution of clothes and food, which were designated for civilians. As would future deliverers of relief aid, Howe soon engaged in efforts to provide more lasting assistance. Granted government lands for the purpose, he organized an agricultural colony that eventually included fifty families.

The next instance of large-scale relief led to an ardent debate in Congress over the constitutionality of congressional appropriations for foreign assistance. Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky proposed that the United States provide $500,000 for famine relief for Scotland and Ireland in 1847. Some proponents of relief argued that doing nothing was unconscionable, even if providing help violated the constitution. Some suggested pointedly that the United States was willing to coerce Mexico to "sell" land but was unwilling to alleviate human suffering in Ireland. Opponents argued that the measure was unconstitutional, and their argument won. On the other hand, naval vessels helped in delivering assistance raised through voluntary donations. Relief assistance came largely as a result of humanitarian and religious appeals whose effectiveness was increased by anti-English sentiment. The hope that feeding starving Irish would keep them in Ireland and away from American shores motivated some contributions. According to Merle Curti in American Philanthropy Abroad: A History (1963), some Americans contributed as a way to relieve personal and national guilt for participation in the Mexican-American War. Americans sent aid, but they did not distribute it. This was left to British government officials, the Catholic Church, and the Central Relief Committee of the Dublin Society of Friends (Quakers).

In the nineteenth century, opposition to relief led on occasion to criticism of the political and economic systems that created the conditions leading to famine, as in the case of Ireland and later Russia. Relief assistance, however, did not come with expectations or requirements for change. Except for isolated instances of technical missions, and more often in the case of missionary efforts, there was little attempt to reorder other societies in the nineteenth century.

Instances of relief efforts grew along with the nation, almost all of it on a voluntary basis. Famine was the most common disaster that brought forth American resources, although concern for victims of war or political violence also stimulated American relief efforts. Missionaries and diplomats often brought word of the need for assistance in places like Crete, Persia, China, and Turkey. Areas like Africa that had been colonized by other nations were hardly ever at the forefront of American concern. While the U.S. government rarely appropriated funds for the relief of disasters in other countries, there were occasional episodes in which American military forces provided limited assistance. For example, if a U.S. naval vessel was nearby, crew members sometimes assisted local populations in disaster, as in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, in 1825; Nicaragua in 1852; Peru in 1873; and Chios, Greece, in 1881.


In the latter half of the nineteenth century, international law and various institutions addressed the issue of humanitarian relief to those involved in war. In Europe, a movement emerged to improve treatment of the wounded in the wake of the Crimean and Austro-Italian wars. Swiss philanthropist Henry Dunant inspired the founding of the Red Cross after witnessing the hardships faced by the wounded and medical personnel at the Battle of Solferino. Within the space of two years, support for his idea led to the Geneva Convention of 1864, which elaborated the principle that both the injured and medical personnel should be treated as neutrals during war. Later Geneva conventions and protocols extended these provisions to war at sea, then to prisoners of war, and later to protection of civilians in enemy and occupied territories, with an emphasis on the needs of refugees and displaced persons. But although it had a tradition of neutrality, the United States was slow to join this international movement because of America's tradition of avoiding noncommercial treaties.

When these international developments began, the United States was in the midst of a destructive Civil War. In America's early wars, care of wounded soldiers was provided by family members and limited numbers of military medical personnel. Local communities, religious groups, and women's groups sometimes organized relief efforts to get supplies and medical care to their loved ones.

The Civil War, with wider consequences than previous calamities requiring American assistance, witnessed even greater voluntary mobilization. Women of high social prestige in both Union and Confederacy established organizations like the Women's Central Association of Relief in New York to help provide clothing and other supplies. The growing movement for an expanded role for women in nursing during war as well as desperate need led other women to volunteer for a more direct role in the relief of suffering. This voluntary relief movement had lasting importance, since women tapped into popular conceptions of gender roles, arguing more and more successfully that women brought uniquely feminine compassion to assist the wounded. Professional standards for nursing, a gendered profession, would expand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ladies' Soldiers Aid Societies provided food and other services at camps behind the front lines.

The mobilization of relief during the Civil War set new precedents in organization. In addition to local efforts, the United States Sanitary Commission, a voluntary yet governmentapproved organization, was established with the aim of coordinating the activities of the local groups. The Sanitary Commission organized the collection and delivery of supplies and appealed for funds, raising $5 million by the end of the war.

The Civil War also provided experience in dealing with refugees. Inspired to action first by the needs of "contrabands"slaves fleeing the ravages of war who went behind Union linessympathetic individuals founded voluntary organizations called freedmen's aid societies to provide food and clothing to contraband camps. Soon, Congress entered into relief and refugee efforts, creating the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, established in March 1865 to provide relief assistance to southerners, black and white. The Freedman's Bureau, as it evolved, also came to provide rehabilitation or reconstruction, making efforts not only to feed and clothe refugees but also to provide freedmen with education and assistance in negotiating job contracts and in leasing or purchasing land. The issue of the constitutional right of the federal government to engage in these kinds of activities led to fierce struggles over the Freedman's Bureau and contributed to its eventual demise. The pattern of dealing with emergency needs to relieve human suffering, followed by attempts to create conditions in which the victims of disaster could build or rebuild institutions and sustainable economic activity, would be repeated in the twentieth century.

Civil War experiences raised hopes for U.S. approval of the Geneva Convention of 1864. Although the United States did not participate officially in the 1864 conference, Charles S. Bowles, a member of the Sanitary Commission, attended the convention as an American observer and reported on the commission's experience. Congress was reluctant to support an international treaty that seemed to undermine the American principle of nonentanglement with other nations. Secretary of State William Seward refused to consider the treaty, arguing that it was political and would violate the principle of U.S. neutrality. Henry W. Bellows, who had headed the Sanitary Commission, Bowles, and other members of the commission created the American Association for the Relief of Misery on the Battlefield in 1866, lobbying futilely for Congress to ratify the Geneva Convention. Seward and, later, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish continued to reject U.S. participation in the treaty.

Another veteran of Civil War relief efforts was ultimately more successful in convincing American statesmen to support the Geneva Convention. In 1870 Clara Barton, who had gained pubic attention during the Civil War for her relief activities, met members of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. Inspired, she worked with the national organizations of the Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War and later during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. She tirelessly argued for a Red Cross in the United States, and wrote a pamphlet, The Red Cross of the Geneva Convention: What It Is (1878). In it she emphasized not only the potential for Red Cross activities in war, but the role it could play in peacetime in the United States to provide relief in the wake of disasters and emergencies. Recent devastating fires in Chicago and Boston as well as floods, industrial accidents, outbreaks of disease, and other emergencies required organized action and Americans in growing numbers supported the Red Cross largely because of its potential to help at home. Barton also petitioned Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and Chester A. Arthur to promote the ratification of the Geneva treaty. Barton's success came all at once. She finally succeeded in establishing an American Red Cross (ARC) in 1881 and in 1882, with the support of Secretary of State James G. Blaine, the United States Congress ratified the Geneva treaty.

In its early years the ARC was mostly involved in disaster relief at home rather than relief to victims of war, but its future role in world affairs would be extensive. Although a latecomer to the League of the Red Cross, the name of the federation to which national organizations belong, the ARC had some impact on the international movement. Henry Dunant had suggested the Red Cross should also assist in disaster relief, and the International Committee of the Red Cross considered such activities as a part of their role. The adoption by the ARC in 1884 of an explicit article calling for relief of suffering in times of peace was known as the American Amendment.


United States approval of the Geneva Convention occurred in the context of increasing engagement in international political affairs. Motivated by a search for markets for increasing industrial and agricultural production, a desire to enhance security and expand influence, and a sense of national importance and confidence in its political values and institutions, the United States flexed its power and asserted its role as a force for human improvement. A global economy was increasingly connected through enhanced transportation and communication technology. People, goods, and information flowed rapidly among areas of the world that were far apart. While the reporting of world events had long influenced public sentiment in favor of relieving human suffering, the expansion of diplomatic, commercial, missionary, and recreational connections spawned wider interest in distant wars and disasters. Competition for circulation and low journalistic standards prompted sensationalized accounts of human distress. Large efforts focused on Russian famine relief in 1892, when Americans offered $1 million in goods and services. A former missionary to India, Louis Klopsch, the editor of the Christian Herald, supported the Russian famine effort and relief for victims of the Indian famines of 1897 and 1900. The Christian Herald, like other newspapers, published lurid accounts of the effects of starvation and guilt-inducing appeals for relief funds.

Although in the 1890s the ARC primarily engaged in domestic disaster relief, it cooperated with three major relief efforts abroad. The first was in response to the famine in Russia in 1892. The second was a relief mission in 18951897 to Armenians in Turkey. Again, the media played an important role in galvanizing American opinion to intervene. In the first instance, Russian crop failures from drought brought sympathetic outpourings of grain and other food supplies from the Midwest. Various groups participated in the effort, and the American Red Cross coordinated the shipments. An estimated 700,000 people were saved in one month from starvation.

Not long after this effort, news came from American missionaries and diplomatic personnel of the persecution of Armenian Christians in Turkey, allegedly by Kurds with the tacit approval of Ottoman officials. Americans were outraged by the reports. Pleas for assistance came from the American Board of Foreign Missions and the Armenian Relief Committee. After hope for European intervention dimmed, the ARCled by Clara Bartonundertook a relief mission to Turkey. Barton convinced Turkish officials that the ARC would play a neutral role, assisting all victims of the ethnic and religious conflict. Under the protection of the Turkish government, the ARC team traveled into the zones where conflict had occurred, appalled at the loss of life, hunger, malnutrition, and disease they witnessed. The relief efforts included distribution of food and medicine, but American relief assistance also involved efforts to help restore economic activity through aid in reopening shops to gifts of seeds and tools to reestablish agriculture. These activities ceased after several months because of a lack of funds and reports of further carnage.

However, the attempt to provide humanitarian relief set a precedent for action within a country where the state was implicated in violence against minorities or insurgents. There had been hopes of a more official intervention. But a congressional resolution to intervene and to support the establishment of an independent Armenia never got out of committee, although Congress did pass a joint resolution that called on the president to support European powers in pressuring the Turkish government to end the carnage. Humanitarian relief had widespread support; humanitarian intervention did not.

The United States was about to emerge as an imperial power, complete with subject colonies. Yet this development originated with humanitarian concern for the victims of a repressive government and violence spawned by a Cuban struggle for independence from Spain in the 1890s. As Cuban rebels waged guerrilla war, both insurgents and Spanish officials engaged in acts of cruelty and excessive violence. Governor General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau initiated the infamous reconcentrado policy, in which civilians were moved into reconcentration camps to isolate the rebels from the civilian population. Spanish atrocities were easy to believe for Americans, many of whom harbored anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic bias. Moreover, the initial refusal of Spanish officials to undertake reforms frustrated first Grover Cleveland's and then William McKinley's administration to seek a diplomatic solution.

The American press, including the competing New York Journal of William Randolph Hearst and New York World of Joseph Pulitzer, reported sensational accounts of Spanish abuses. Then came the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in 1898, which was widely viewed as a Spanish act. Still, McKinley resisted forcible intervention. He did, however, call upon the public for relief funds, to be forwarded to a Central Cuban Relief Committee that included the ARC, the New York Chamber of Commerce, and the Christian Herald. Fund-raising ran into some difficulty because some Americans thought forceful action to end Spanish rule, rather than relief or charity, was necessary. The Red Cross in Havana coordinated the distribution of food, clothing, and medicine. A turning point in American support for intervention came after Senator Redfield Proctor traveled to the Cuban reconcentration camps, accompanied by an entourage that included Barton. Appalled by the miserable conditions in the camps, including inadequate food, sanitation, and health care, Red Cross personnel provided relief supplies and set up health facilities for the internees. Back in Congress, Proctor outlined to his colleagues the appalling conditions facing civilians in the camps. McKinley's efforts at diplomacy increasingly turned on ultimatums, which the Spanish refused to accept. In April 1898 McKinley and Congress opted for war.

Humanitarian reasons motivated many Americans to support war with Spain. The desire to end the needless hunger and deaths of innocents seemed a just cause, even a Christian duty. Furthermore, proponents of American intervention could refer to the Teller Amendmentwhich proclaimed that the United States had no intention of annexing Cubaas evidence of U.S. self-lessness. Some, though, were caught up in an emotional frenzy of nationalism, seeking national prestige and power through "unselfish" intervention. U.S. intervention in the Cuban war for independence had economic and political reasons as well, namely to end the destruction of American property in Cuba and to bolster the political standing of the Republican Party. At the end of the war, moreover, U.S. imperialists, like their European counterparts, justified annexation of territory by citing a duty to uplift and civilize other peoples for their ultimate good. Violent means to that end, especially in the Philippines, shook Americans who believed the United States acted out of altruism, not selfishness.

With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, the largest international relief activity in the nation's history to that point began. Much of the relief activity was coordinated by the ARC, which faced its biggest undertaking to that point. McKinley declared the ARC the sole representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross under the Geneva Convention, and it followed a pattern that would recur in future wars. In wartime, the national Red Cross organization served the state. Competition between the Army Medical Corps and the Red Cross limited the activities of the Red Cross in some ways, and much of its work involved helping the military at home; after the war, however, the ARC also aided the victims, both military and civilian, in Cuba. Around six thousand tons of food and clothing, valued at $500,000, were distributed by the ARC in Cuba, and further assistance was provided in Puerto Rico.


The Spanish-American War set off alarms that the United States was ill-prepared to fight in war. The "splendid little war," as it was called by John Hay, U.S. ambassador to Britain, was actually a lesson in poor management and planning, with soldiers suffering disease exacerbated by inadequate sanitation and poor food. Progressive-era efforts at the rationalization and organization of modern society extended to the military, but they also affected relief efforts of the kind conducted primarily by the ARC. Increasingly, the ARC faced charges of inept management, and foes targeted the personal leadership of its founder. In 1900 the ARC was incorporated by Congress and in 1905 it underwent reorganization and reincorporation. The ARC was subjected to a national audit by the War Department and officials of the government were placed on its Central Committee. In a sense the ARC, recognized under the provisions of the Geneva treaty, was now a quasi-governmental institution. While still funded by private donations, it was now akin to other Red Cross organizations in other nations in its relationship to the state. Still, the organization remained small and had difficulty in raising funds, especially on a consistent basis.

Before World War I natural disasters rather than wars were the focus of the international activity of the ARC and other, more spontaneous (ad hoc), organizations. The most significant assistance went to Asia and Italy, with lesser amounts going in response to crises such as an earthquake in Costa Rica, a fire in Istanbul, a typhoon in Samoa, and a cholera outbreak in Tripoli's Jewish community. Occupations by U.S. armed forces in the Caribbean region led to military relief efforts during disasters, but given the larger consequences of occupation, the assistance did little to endear the United States to local populations. Limited assistance was provided for civilian victims of war in the Balkans and in Mexico. Famines in Japan and China drew sympathy. Missionaries and commercial interests there drew attention to the plight of the starving after crop failures in Japan and flooding in China. While many voluntary organizations participated, Theodore Roosevelt designated the ARC as the official relief agent to deal with the crisis in Japan. Over $245,000 worth of money, food, and supplies was sent to Japan, where the Japanese Red Cross oversaw the receipt and distribution of relief assistance. The large foreign presence in China was the context for an international effort composed of diplomats, businessmen, missionaries, and some Chinese, who created the Central China Famine Relief Committee. In addition to providing foodstuffs, the committee promoted public works and distributed seed. Much of the U.S. aid was funneled through the ARC, which participated in the relief effort.

The deep American economic and missionary involvement in China and concerns about the poverty and vulnerability of the local population led to efforts to move beyond temporary relief measures. American observers noted that repeated flooding along the heavily populated rivers of northern China resulted in frequent famine. Dismayed that relief efforts were required again and again, and confident that American engineering could find a solution to the underlying problems, the ARC initiated flood control schemes, a major departure from its customary practice. The Chinese government paid for American engineers retained by the Red Cross to study the problem and propose a solution. In 1914 they completed a proposal for a flood control project in the Huai River basin, with a cost estimated at $30 million. The ARC agreed with the Chinese government to assist in rallying U.S. bankers to the cause, but the eruption of World War I sidetracked their efforts. The Red Cross had spent over $1 million in China before World War I and would again provide relief. However, despite later Chinese requests that the Red Cross again join in supporting the Huai River project, the ARC determined that it was outside the scope of its activities.

Another departure from early Red Cross practice occurred in Italy. In 1908 southern Italy suffered a destructive earthquake and tidal wave near Messina. The resulting campaign to raise contributions to the Red Cross disaster fund was wildly successful. Americans provided over $1 million. Some relief money went directly to Italian relief agencies, but in contrast to the experience in Japan, charges of abuses of funds and unwise expenditures led to a decision by ARC officials to direct relief efforts themselves. American missionaries and religious organizations also participated in relief efforts. Once again, the Red Cross experimented in this period with assistance that went beyond the scope of immediate relief of hunger or sickness. Because so many Italians were left homeless, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of housing for the displaced. The ARC combined its resources with this federal funding and, along with U.S. naval personnel and Italians, participated in an early experiment in prefabricated home construction using partially constructed cottages shipped from the United States.

Before World War I the ARC primarily involved itself in disaster relief, but there were exceptions. The Mexican Revolution spawned intense human suffering and widespread displacement. In response, churches, the ARC, and spontaneously organized local groups provided sporadic relief. Much of the relief efforts were concentrated along the U.S.Mexican border and conducted by local organizations, including local chapters of the Red Cross. The ARC expended only $125,000, a minuscule sum given the extent of the humanitarian crisis. A special appeal by President Woodrow Wilson brought in only $69,000. Civil breakdown in Mexico, along with physical destruction of transportation, fears of anti-American sentiment, and uncertainty of political protection from competing political factions led the Red Cross to undertake just a few projects. The lack of empathy generated by the Mexican Revolution, compared to the response to the Italian earthquake, may be explained in part by the contrast in American attitudes toward victims of natural disaster and victims of political and social violence. Frustration over economic losses from the revolution, indifference or outright hostility resulting from racism, fears of political radicalism, uncertainty about how the seemingly intractable conflict would be resolved, and reflexive disdain for Mexican disorder may have hardened Americans to the plight of the suffering.

The Mexican Revolution posed a special dilemma for humanitarian relief efforts because the United States occasionally intervened in the conflict. The ARC was presumably neutral, but matters were confused by its recognition by the government and the fact that at this time the president of the United States was also the president of the ARC. In this era legal problems arose because the Mexican revolution was a civil conflict. The judge advocate general of the army ruled that the Geneva provisions for Red Cross neutrality during war did not apply, because the belligerents in this conflict had no legal status. Practically, the American Red Cross could operate only insofar as warring factions agreed to give it protection.


World War I transformed humanitarian relief. The magnitude of the conflict, the extent of civilian suffering, particularly in occupied areas, and the destruction and consequences after the end of hostilities accelerated the rationalization of humanitarian relief. Organizations, both temporary and permanent, embraced the challenge of alleviating human suffering, creating new precedents for international cooperation. Among the new organizations was one that would have a long legacy in foreign assistance, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), an association of Quakers. Spontaneous organizations such as the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, the American Jewish Relief Committee, Christian Science Relief, and the Smith College Relief Unit sprang up. Established organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation, which set up a War Relief Commission, and the YMCA and the Salvation Army participated. In all, 130 U.S. agencies involved themselves in war relief. The ARC, the oldest and most organized relief group in 1914, had less than 150 chapters and twenty thousand members. The agency had a new national headquarters in Washington, D.C., signifying its arrival as part of the American establishment. When World War I began in Europe, the ARC offered war relief only to sick and wounded combatants. It sent medical and hospital supplies, and at first even established hospital units. Soon it was obvious that civilians were in dire straits, particularly in occupied nations like Belgium. Under the leadership of Henry P. Davison, chair of the War Council of the ARC, the organization engaged in intensive fund-raising and publicity. The ARC raised $400 million during the war and immediate postwar for relief. Membership grew from 250,000 in early 1917 to 21 million at the start of 1919.

An individual whose reputation took on heroic proportions emerged as the most important figure in the history of American humanitarian assistance and relief, with the singular exception of Barton. Herbert C. Hoover, Quaker, Stanford-trained engineer, and millionaire had spent his early career in international mining endeavors, primarily in Australia and China. His first experience at providing relief came in Tientsin, when he and his wife, Lou, helped distribute food and supplies to anti-Boxer Chinese. Appalled by the devastating effects of German occupation, American diplomats called for relief for Belgium. They asked Hoover, who was in Europe, to head what became the American Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) and was later transformed into an international undertaking. The primary goals of the CRB were to provide food to prevent starvation and, by its neutral presence, to offer protection to the population. It was the start of almost a decade of American relief efforts in Europe.

Efforts to provide relief required close cooperation with the belligerents. The image of starving Belgians swayed British officials to reject the seemingly callous position of those like Winston Churchill, who believed that feeding Belgians helped Germany and impeded Britain's war goals. Conflicts with the belligerents emerged, yet Hoover cajoled and manipulated German and British officials throughout the war to keep the relief program going.

Hoover attempted to distribute relief assistance in ways that kept the Belgian economy functioning. Although some food was handed out freely, Hoover purchased wheat (mostly from the United States) and sold it at fixed prices to millers, who then sold flour at fixed prices to bakers, and so on to consumers. Belgian town leaders also helped distribute food in an equitable manner. While Hoover favored voluntary efforts, he sought public funds since the CRB required more resources than the organization could raise through private donations. Voluntary contributions totaled $52 million to the CRB. But the organization spent about $1 billion between November 1914 and August 1919. Much of it was Belgian money in banks outside of Belgium, British and French government funds, and U.S. government loans, which came after 1917.

The CRB also coordinated relief in northern France after 1915, and made some effort to provide relief in other parts of Europe. Suffering in Poland and Serbia in particular gained American attention. The CRB cooperated in a limited way with the Rockefeller Foundation to extend relief to Poland, but Britain opposed Polish relief. Talk of starving Poles bolstered public support for the war. Despite U.S. diplomatic pressure on Britain to permit food for Poland and on Germany to stop requisitioning Polish food, both countries remained intransigent and little was accomplished, except for some food shipments for children. These relief attempts, however, spurred later support for Polish independence, in part by promoting the organization of Polish American lobbies, which along with Polish constituents in other countries rallied to press for Polish interests. Also, while President Wilson was already moving toward support for Polish independence, the failure of relief to Poland helped stimulate sympathy and thus domestic political support for an independent Poland. Efforts to provide relief to Serbia won more support from Britain than the United States. Hoover thought Serbian relief too complicated and he resented British efforts to tie Polish relief to relief in the Balkans.

When the United States entered the war, Belgian relief was turned over to the Comité Hispanico-Hollandais, with figureheads at the helm in the persons of the king of Spain and the queen of Holland. Hoover still ran the show, but now he did so from Washington. The CBR ended its activities in 1919. According to auditors, its overhead costs came to only about one-half of one percent. Some 2.5 million tons of food at a value of $300 million fed nine million people in France and Belgium. As David Burner concludes in his biography Herbert Hoover: A Public Life (1979), these projects "constituted a superb accomplishment, technically, morally, and practically."


When America entered the war, Hoover headed to Washington, D.C., as U.S. food administrator; he was a volunteer receiving no salary. His goal was to rationalize the production and distribution of food for the war effort. When the war ended in November 1918, Hoover transformed the Food Administration into the American Relief Administration (ARA) to help Europe recover from the devastating aftermath of the war. On 24 February 1919 Congress appropriated $100 million for the ARA. Undamaged by war, the United States provided the bulk of relief assistance, including food, medical supplies, other goods, and credits to Europe after World War I. Concerned for efficiency and for U.S. public relations, Hoover insisted that Americans, rather than the Allies, supervise the relief efforts.

Hoover and other Americans were motivated by humanitarianism and other factors. Food surpluses in pork, wheat, and other commodities, fostered by the Food Administration's efforts to stimulate production to support the war effort, now served to feed Europe. Hoover was criticized for being motivated more by concern for the American economy than by genuine humanitarian feeling. Hoover claimed food was not political, but it occasionally was. He ensured the flow of food to nurture new countries in eastern Europe, but to discourage Bolshevism in Hungary, Hoover temporarily withheld food aid from Bela Kun, leader of the communist revolution there. Certainly, Hoover believed that food and other supplies would help provide greater order and stability. Food promoted peacemaking in that sense, and if at the same time it reduced the appeal of Bolshevism, all the better. On the other hand, Hoover opposed an Allied invasion of Soviet Russia.

After the armistice the Allies held back humanitarian relief to the defeated powers until Germany signed the peace terms. When they did, Hoover tried to get food to Germany partly to use up the American surplus but largely out of his desire to feed hungry people. The AFSC helped coordinate relief assistance to Germany. In some ways it served as a buffer between the ARA, which had helped Belgium and was seen as anti-German, and the German American community. It was expected that the German Americans would offer substantial support for German relief, especially since they had contributed proportionately less after the war than Hungarian, Polish, and South Slavic Americans.

Hoover assisted the German relief effort by providing $5 million in ARA funds. The ARC became deeply involved in providing civilian relief once the war ended. The Inter-Allied Relief Commission recommended that the ARC focus on civilian relief in eastern Europe. Surplus army food, equipment, and supplies were handed over to the Red Cross following congressional approval. It was not until 1923 that the American Red Cross brought the last of its foreign civilian relief workers home. Once again, while relief was intended to respond to an emergency, occasional attempts were made to have a lasting impact on the societies where relief was provided. For example, in central and eastern Europe the Red Cross helped communities develop health centers that were designed to promote child welfare.

In late 1919 the publicly funded ARA endowed private organizations for specific tasks, essentially privatizing the relief effort. One such organization was the Children's Relief Bureau, later renamed the American Relief Administration Children's Fund. Although it continued to provide important feeding and health services to Europe's children, it also was the vehicle by which the ARA became a private relief agency under Hoover's leadership. Although Hoover had objected to U.S. intervention against the Bolsheviks, he used the ARA to provide support for the anti-Soviet White Russian forces. The ARC also offered relief to the anti-Soviet forces.

In 1921 Hoover, now secretary of commerce, responded to word of a devastating Russian famine in the Volga region. American assistance for famine relief included the work of the ARA, the Volga Relief Society, the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Friends Service Committee, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund, and others. Despite concern in the United States that the assistance would succor the Bolshevik regime, Hoover was successful in rallying new congressional appropriations for the ARA. Agricultural interests supported such funding because of eagerness for subsidies, but the measure passed largely because of a widespread understanding that regardless of anti-Bolshevik feeling, this famine threatened large-scale suffering. Soviet authorities, at first suspicious, cooperated with Hoover, and American relief assistance prevented the loss of millions of lives.

Domestic American support for the relief effort was high when the war ended, but Americans soon turned inward, disillusioned by the results of war in Europe, consumed by developments at home, and eager to return to their regular peacetime pursuits. Despite pleas by ARC officials that relief work counteracted the threat of Bolshevism, Americans were less willing than during the war to support relief efforts either through volunteer activities or financial contributions. Despite the decline in giving, it still exceeded prewar levels. In 1919 and 1920, $35 million was spent in the United States and $75 million was spent for overseas relief. By the end of 1922, $15 million in additional funds went to foreign relief.

Total U.S. relief efforts in the armistice and rehabilitation period were approximately $1.255 billion. Much of it came from the ARA, the European Relief Council, and other U.S. agencies (including loans and congressional appropriations); about 10 percent came from the Red Cross. In an unprecedented effort, a cooperative fundraising campaign called United War Work raised $200 million for seven relief organizations. Despite extensive American generosity, loans required repayment and would later spark European resentment against the United States.

While many relief organizations had ceased operations by the early 1920s, some, like the AFSC, became permanent. The American Red Cross grew dramatically. Increasingly, the ARC was operated by paid professionals rather than volunteers. The monthly payroll grew from less than $12,000 per month in 1914 to $1 million in 1919. As support for foreign relief fell, ARC officials determined to expand domestic operations. Increasingly, the ARC engaged in activities designed to promote health and well-being on a permanent basis rather than concentrating on responding to emergencies. While this shift focused largely on the domestic front during the interwar period, it set precedents for an expanded understanding of the role of relief agencies that was later applied abroad.


In the 1920s public interest in international affairs declined, partly out of weariness with Europe and disillusionment with international diplomacy. However, Americans still responded to disasters abroad such as famines and earthquakes. A Japanese earthquake in 1923 led to a large outpouring of relief assistance, which the navy helped deliver.

The 1930s saw a renewal of international conflict, and while Americans strongly supported neutrality, they contributed to relief efforts in China and Spain and for persecuted Jews. Economic hardship during the Depression, however, reduced the success of fund-raising. In 1938 the ARC tried to raise $1 million for China relief. It was unsuccessful. The Committee for Impartial Civilian Relief in Spain failed to reach its goal of $300,000. But while Americans sought to stay out of war, the conflicts in China and Spain provoked partiality toward one side or another.

European Jews suffered increasingly from harsh anti-Semitic policies as the decade wore on. Jewish Americans had long participated in relief efforts, and in 1914 the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a multinational organization, had been formed to provide relief to Jews persecuted in Europe. Much more than a relief agency, its leaders sought to combat anti-Semitism and promote a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The JDC did not just assist Jews. For example, it assisted in famine relief in Russia without regard to religion. The JDC and other Jewish organizations such as the American Palestine Appeal grew in the 1920s, although they differed over the goal of Zionism, which was the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The JDC and other groups provided relief assistance in the 1930s for Jews in Europe and migrants to Palestine and elsewhere.

The Japanese war in China led to a great outpouring of sympathy for the plight of the Chinese. Chinese Americans raised relief funds, as did the American Red Cross, churches, missionaries, and business leaders. Seven agencies working together established United China Relief, buoyed by such prominent supporters as Time publisher Henry Luce, who had long promoted Chinese cultural affinity with the United States; Pearl Buck; Paul G. Hoffman; David O. Selznick; Thomas Lamont; and John D. Rockefeller III. The honorary chairman was Eleanor Roosevelt. Despite its success, United China Relief was criticized for its high administrative costs. Still, funds sent to China provided basic necessities and supported Chinese Industrial Cooperatives that employed Chinese refugees and produced a variety of goods, including some for the military resistance to Japanese. The immensity of Chinese suffering continued as China fought Japan and faced civil conflict.

The Spanish Civil War represented the type of civil conflict in which even neutral groups like the ARC had been reluctant to operate. To provide relief assistance, specialized organizations such as the Spanish Child Welfare Association and the Committee for Impartial Relief of Spain joined with the ARC and long-established religious relief groups, including the Mennonite Central Relief Committee, the Brethren Board of Christian Education, and the American Friends Service Committee, all from religious peace traditions. The most active group was the American Friends Service Committee, which coordinated relief and fed hundreds of thousands of hungry people, especially children. Shortages of supplies led to the practice of weighing children and keeping records to determine who most desperately needed food. While a desperate compassion motivated this practice, it was also consonant with the growing rationalization of relief efforts. The ideological nature of the conflict led to tension both within the AFSC and between the relief effort and Americans at home who chose sides. The U.S. government, despite neutrality legislation, provided agricultural surpluses through the U.S. Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation, which was given authority by Congress to offer wheat to the Red Cross in 1938.

After the outbreak of war in 1939, organizing and fund-raising activity for relief purposes expanded. The Neutrality Act of 1939 required voluntary agencies engaged in relief to register with the State Department and keep it apprised of their activities. The law did not apply to areas out-side of Europe, like China, the Soviet Union, or Finland, but only to belligerent nations. It also exempted the ARC. From 1939 to 1941, when the United States entered the war, almost $50 million was raised for the relief of civilians and refugees by registered voluntary agencies. Congress appropriated $50 million for the ARC, which continued to receive donated funds. The Department of Commerce reported $174.4 million in goods and funds sent abroad, which included relief sent to areas not covered by the neutrality legislation.


During World War II the U.S. government extended its role in relief and rehabilitation assistance. It also asserted control over the many voluntary agencies that were a hallmark of the American experience in humanitarian relief. The neutrality legislation of 1939 required detailed information from organizations involved in activities with states at war. Philanthropic organizations engaging in foreign activities, including relief organizations, had to be licensed by the State Department. The department refused to allow relief assistance for refugees in Axis-occupied countries. This limitation, of course, continued after the United States entered the war. Despite the efforts of Herbert Hoover, who organized the Committee on Food for the Small Democracies to undertake relief along the lines of the CRB in World War I, President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to allow relief to German-occupied countries on the grounds that this would help Germany.

Public criticism of frivolous and unscrupulous fund-raising and of high overhead by some agencies gave credence to the U.S. effort to oversee the voluntary agencies, but the primary goal of the State Department was to assure that they operated in the service of larger policy goals. During the war the government sought to keep the relief agencies' operations efficient and to avoid overlap with the ARC, with which it preferred to work. In the spring of 1941, Roosevelt named Joseph E. Davies to head the new Committee on War Relief Agencies, later the Relief Control Board (RCB). Through consolidation, the number of licensed voluntary agencies was reduced from 300 at the end of 1941 to 67 by war's end. The agencies were organized into country groups. After the war the Relief Control Board became the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid, which did not require licensing, although it did decide which private groups would get government funds. In addition, during the war a private group known as the Council of Voluntary Agencies worked with the RCB. Although voluntary groups continued to raise funds from the American public, they relied heavily on government resources. From 1939 through 1954 government funding to voluntary groups totaled $54 million for Russia, $38 million for Great Britain, $36 million for Palestine, $35 million for China, and $30 million for Greece.

During World War II the ARC made a sharp distinction between civilian war relief and services for American armed forces. While the ARC provided supervisory and coordinating functions for relief to civilians, it generally did not send personnel to direct civilian war relief during World War II, except for some milk distribution to children in North Africa and limited efforts in Italy. Instead, civilian war relief delivery became the province of the state through the armed forces, the Office of Foreign Relief and Rehabilitation (OFRR), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). The Red Cross spent as much as half of its funds on returning servicemen and women and their dependents. The government's extensive role in relief and rehabilitation contrasted sharply with its practice in World War I.

Another departure from World War I regarded measures for providing relief to prisoners of war, the latest addition to the Geneva Convention role for the Red Cross. The combatants in World War II were, except for the Soviet Union and Japan, signatories to the 1929 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. The convention established the principle that national relief societies could work among prisoners of war to assure humane treatment, with the assumption that the International Red Cross would direct such activities. German authorities allowed the Red Cross to send packages according to the rules, but the Japanese government had never ratified the Geneva Convention and did not permit International Red Cross inspection of its prisoner of war camps or give safe conduct to neutral relief ships. During World War II, attempts by relief organizations to provide relief to prisoners of war set enduring precedents. The State Department gave the ARC authority to coordinate all relief supplies to American soldiers held by enemy powers. In addition to government financing and cooperation from the navy and army, the ARC spent over $6 million providing relief to prisoners of war with weekly food packages to American prisoners of war and monthly packages to many Allied prisoners of war. Other supplies, including clothing, toiletries, and medicine, were sent as well. The International Committee of the Red Cross also carried out inspections to make sure camp authorities complied with the terms of the Geneva Convention. Standards were uneven in the various camps and over time, but given the hardships of the war, it was clear that the Geneva Convention and the activities of the Red Cross ensured humane treatment for prisoners of war of nations signatory to the agreement. Unfortunately, since the Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention, its prisoners of war were badly treated by the Germans, and prisoners of Soviet forces also faced harsh conditions and brutal treatment.

Most prisoner of war relief supplies went to prisoners in Europe. Some International Red Cross officials were permitted to inspect Japanese prisoner of war camps in some parts of the Philippines and Japan, but inspectors were not permitted in most camps in Asia. Japanese officials permitted limited delivery of relief supplies, but not on a regular basis, and some relief supplies sat in Vladivostok until the end of the war, when they were finally distributed to liberated prisoners.

German concentration camps were filled with civilians (including political prisoners) and did not come under the purview of the Geneva Convention. Whether detention or extermination camps, internees faced intolerable conditions, and the International Red Cross was not permitted to inspect them. Millions died in such camps, including Jewish victims of the Final Solution, the Nazi campaign to eliminate European Jews.


The United States cooperated with other nations to provide relief in World War II, but as in the previous world war, the leadership and resources came largely from the United States. In 1942 President Roosevelt placed the OFRR under the direction of Herbert H. Lehman, and when it merged into the UNRRA he made sure Lehman headed the new multinational agency. Despite Herbert Hoover's protests that the UNRRA would allow too much Allied influence on American relief, Roosevelt saw to it that the UNRRA would largely be directed by the United States. The UNRRA provided relief assistance to refugees and communities devastated by the effects of war.

By 1946 President Harry Truman was worried that some UNRRA funds were going to communists, so he stopped providing U.S. contributions. The United States continued to provide relief and rehabilitation assistance, particularly in occupied Germany and Japan, with the U.S. Army administering much of it until 1947. Concern for reconstruction as well as relief guided U.S. policy. The United States oversaw the creation of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development at the end of the war; it offered loans so that governments could purchase needed supplies. The Marshall Plan, or the Economic Recovery Program (ERP), initiated in 1947, represented a commitment by the United States government to foster the long-term rehabilitation of Europe and its dependencies through massive foreign aid, including grants and loans. While initiated out of concern for continued suffering and fear of communist inroads among discontented populations in Europe, the ERP signaled an end to emergency relief efforts and the transition to foreign aid for development.

The ARC also stepped up its activities with the war's end, playing a particularly valuable role in dealing with refugees and displaced persons, including prisoners of war and internees of concentration camps. Voluntary agencies, some representing church groups, labor organizations, and colleges and universities, offered relief services as wartime control measures were lifted. The government welcomed such groups, which extended the resource base for operations and demonstrated overwhelming generosity and concern by Americans moved by extensive suffering. Some groups focused on non-European regions such as China, but most American attention and resources went to Europe.


As the Cold War began, an institutional framework to respond to humanitarian emergencies came into existence. The United States played a primary role in the development of the major institutions of the international relief and rehabilitation networkincluding the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the World Health Organization (WHO)and contributed significantly to the funding of such organizations. Although the United States could not completely control the directions of these institutions, the State Department carefully oversaw U.S. relations with these intergovernmental organizations, and their growth did not displace unilateral efforts. Voluntary organizations, increasingly institutionalized, frequently served the larger purposes of American foreign policy as well as their own relief goals.

The functions and priorities of U.S. government agencies, intergovernmental organizations, and nongovernmental organizations shifted from emergency relief to economic and social development. Rising aspirations for political and economic independence in European colonies sparked greater U.S. attention to these underdeveloped areas, later known as the Third World. Fear of Soviet communist expansion into those areas generated efforts to promote economic development in order to undercut communist appeal. Increasingly, foreign aid became a permanent practice. The academic community produced development studies that emphasized the need to link political, economic, and social development and which suggested that the United States could assist nations to develop. Organizations involved in foreign assistance proliferated and moved from a focus on emergency relief as a response to disaster to attempts to solve underlying conditions of poverty that often led to crises. During the immediate postwar era, much relief was sent to Europe; afterward it went increasingly to the Third World. While some voluntary agencies resented government efforts to use them in the service of American foreign policy, others reveled in the role. As the government expanded its involvement in foreign relief, federal grants became easy money in comparison to the tremendous effort required to raise private funds.

An organization that reflects many of these trends is the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE). In 1945, twenty-two American organizations collaborated to found what was originally called the Cooperative for American Remittances in Europe. At first a parcel service, the organization shipped "CARE packages" of Army surplus food to friends or relatives of Americans in Europe. Soon, specially prepared packages of purchased items were being sent to strangers in Europe, and then to Asia and the developing world. CARE packages captured the imagination of the American public, and celebrities like Ingrid Bergman helped spread the organization's appeal. CARE eventually stopped sending the famous packages and, like other such organizations, expanded from relief during emergencies into other areas including health care and development advice and assistance. CARE relied heavily on government grants as well as private donations.

During the Cold War, much CARE activity was focused on areas of strategic significance to the United States, such as the Phillippines in 1949, Korea in 1951, and Vietnam in 1966. In the early 1950s, relief assistance was targeted to areas of political concern including Korea (through UN auspices, during the Korean War), Yugoslavia (to encourage its break with the Soviet Union), and India (which was offered food loans, not grants). In 1954 Congress passed the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act (Public Law 480), later known as Food for Peace. Under Title I of this legislation food surpluses, owned by the U.S. government, were sold at reduced rates to foreign nations and could be sold in the open market. This use of the market was intended to deter charges that the United States was dumping its surplus and to alleviate concerns about fostering dependence on relief assistance. Title II provided for U.S. food surplus to be used as grants for humanitarian assistance. Most of this food surplus was distributed through the auspices of the nongovernmental groups, especially CARE and Catholic Relief Services. In practice, both Title I and Title II food aid usually went to allies or friendly governments.

In the early 1960s the Kennedy administration reconsidered food assistance, hoping that the rationalizing of food needs and distribution would combat world hunger and malnutrition. Food assistance remained political, although the new emphasis on economic development meant that food aid went to development programs as well as for emergency assistance. The United Nations, increasingly conscious of the significance of food, created the World Food Programme (WFP) in 1963. Reflecting the new emphasis on development, only 25 percent of WFP funds were targeted for emergency relief. U.S. organizations like CARE continued to work with the American government through the Agency for International Development (AID), which was charged with coordinating both relief and economic development assistance, with the priority on development. The world's reliance on U.S. food to handle world crises led President Lyndon B. Johnson to call for greater multilateral cooperation to handle famines like those faced by India in the mid-1960s. Indeed, world agriculture was changing, with nations like Canada also being well-endowed with agricultural surpluses. However, in the early 1970s a world food crisis emerged as the U.S. agricultural surplus dwindled and bad harvests in the Soviet Union and elsewhere taxed world food supplies. The wealthier food-importing nations purchased at higher prices, leaving the poorer nations unable to afford what remained. Food assistance reflected U.S. strategic priorities. Food shipments to Southeast Asia made up half the commodities under the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act in 1974, leaving less available for the Sahel region in western Africa, wracked by famine caused by an extended drought.

Increasingly, a network of organizations responded quickly to humanitarian crises. Although relief organizations extended their functions to focus on development, most retained their capacity for responding to disasters. Despite the more permanent character of a large number of institutions like CARE, Save the Children, American Near East Refugee Aid, Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, and Lutheran World Relief, ad hoc responses to natural disasters sometimes led to the creation of short-term organizations or committees to handle a crisis, often but not always by coordinating through other, more permanent, relief agencies like the American Red Cross. Such emergencies as flooding in Bangladesh, an earthquake in India, a hurricane in Central America, and famine in Ethiopia led to outpourings of voluntary private assistance as well as government aid. Refugees from civil conflicts, such as the thousands of Southeast Asians who fled Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s and 1980s, generated similar outpourings of assistance, with the added complication that relief organizations had to work with suspicious governments. In such cases, while intergovernmental organizations sought to help, the nongovernmental organizations were often able to maneuver more successfully to provide relief. While critics complained of overlapping and duplication of effort, inefficient fund-raising, inadequate or unfair distribution of food, cultural insensitivity and racism, excessive emphasis on institutional self-preservation, impersonal and unfeeling treatment of the suffering, corruption and mismanagement, poor analysis by media and relief organizations, inattention to underlying causes of crises, and a host of other flaws in the network, international relief was largely effective in reducing immediate suffering and resolving emergencies.

The phrase "repeat disasters" came into use as certain areas faced recurring crises. For example, in the early 1970s famine in western Africa resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Some of the same regions faced an even worse crisis in the 1980s. Such events heightened calls for means to prevent or mitigate disasters. In the 1960s and 1970s foreign aid came under increasing criticism, and some of those criticisms were applied to relief assistance. Food aid often undermined self-reliance, injuring indigenous agriculture by reducing incentives to produce and tempting governments to rely on free or inexpensive foreign food to the detriment of their own farmers. Critics pointed out that food relief, not just food aid, could have this effect, citing as an example the response to a 1976 Guatemalan earthquake. An abundant Guatemalan harvest spoiled as people stood in line for free food. Short-term relief of disaster rarely faced such criticisms, but short-term relief efforts continued to face charges that they failed to address underlying political, social, and economic conditions that lead to continued distress. Efforts to reduce the effects of dependence and to foster dignity resulted in renewed emphasis on developing indigenous organizations for relief, particularly in areas subject to recurring crises. International assistance increasingly operated in cooperation with such local organizations, some private, many governmental.

Much of the criticism of foreign aid was linked to the political uses to which it was sometimes put. Clearly, all disasters did not receive the same response. When Nicaragua suffered a devastating earthquake in 1972, President Richard M. Nixon provided aid to the dictatorial pro-U.S. regime. When Hurricane Fifi devastated Honduras in 1974, the regime of General Oswaldo López was out of U.S. favor because he supported labor and land reforms and had nationalized the timber industry. Fifi left 8,000 dead and as many as 300,000 Hondurans homeless, yet U.S. assistance was not forthcoming. López slowed the pace of reform and eventually resigned.


Humanitarian assistance had long implied the potential of forceful intervention. International responsibility for the protection of human rights and alleviation of human suffering led to the development of international institutions, including the multinational United Nations. The development of international law, from the Geneva conventions to the response to the Holocaust at Nuremberg and the UN Declaration of Universal Rights increasingly reflected the idea that the international community could hold individuals and nations responsible for violations of human rights. Still, what this meant in practice was not clear, and the United Nations was based on respect for national sovereignty. So despite some precedents for humanitarian intervention, the notion that states could intervene in other nations' affairs to protect human rights was not pursued with great vigor until after the Cold War had ended.

Still, Cold War competition led to numerous interventions by the United States and the Soviet Union. Since the Cold War was not only a strategic contest but also an ideological one, each side felt compelled to proclaim the moral basis for their actions, resulting in dubious claims that such interventions as that of the Soviet Union in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and that of the United States in the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Grenada in 1983, were for humanitarian purposes.

Each side could argue that their political and economic system served humanity's interests, while the other side's represented oppression and the violation of human rights. In such a contest, the definition of "humanitarian intervention" could apply to any superpower attempts to influence a nation to choose sides. By the late 1960s and the 1970s, backlash against this idea spread as some Americans grew frustrated with the nation's foreign policy as a whole, but in particular toward its policy in Southeast Asia. The Vietnam intervention, ostensibly to uphold freedom in the face of communist aggression, alienated Americans as they realized the vast physical, ecological, and human destruction it was causing and as they grew to doubt not necessarily the ability of the United States to defeat the enemy, but its capability to build a nation. By 1979 and 1980, when Vietnam intervened in Cambodia to end the murderous holocaust initiated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, Americans supported relief efforts for the tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees. On the other hand, they did not support U.S. intervention. The relief efforts were carried out almost entirely by nongovernmental relief agencies, such as Oxfam, a British relief agency, Catholic Relief Services, and the AFSC.

Although there was a revival of support for intervention in the name of humanitarianism during the presidency of Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1989, it was highly contested. For example, Congress placed curbs on the ability of the Reagan administration to assist the contras in Nicaragua against the leftist Sandinistas, despite administration claims that the Sandinistas were violating the human rights of Miskito Indians. In fact, during the 1980s Reagan faced constant criticism from voluntary humanitarian organizations regarding the administration's policy toward El Salvador. They charged his administration with failing to intervene on behalf of victims of that nation's civil war, choosing instead to support the government despite its failure to curb abuses by the military and right-wing death squads.


The end of the Cold War brought tremendous changes. Triumphalists hailed the victory of democracy over communism, claiming it heralded a new age of freedom. New ideas circulated regarding approaches to humanitarian relief and intervention, many of them reflecting a new optimism, even hubris, about the ability of humans, in the form of the international community, to reduce human conflict and suffering. Perhaps the approaching millennium influenced such trends. In 1989 the United Nations General Assembly declared the 1990s the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. The goal of reducing vulnerability to destruction was not new, witness Red Cross flood control planning in China in the early twentieth century. Meteorological advances after World War II led to progress in predicting some natural disasters. Satellite imaging later increased information on creeping desertification, the process by which land grew increasingly arid and unsupportive of vegetation.

There was also awareness of the human role in magnifying the effects of natural disaster, both because of political crises and human pressures on the environment. Environmental degradation in the form of deforestation and desertification were the result of human decisions. Poor urban populations settled on tree-denuded hillsides, for example, vulnerable to the impact of flooding and mudslides from hurricanes. Growing confidence in the ability to reduce the impact of disasters emerged from a sense that there was a confluence of helpful technology with greater understanding of the human sources of disaster. In Anatomy of Disaster Relief: The International Network in Action (1987), Randolph Kent wrote, "In the final analysis disasters are about vulnerability, and vulnerabilitywhatever the disaster agentis created by mankind." Absent was a sense of fatalism or talk of "acts of God." If humans created problems, humans could solve them. In 2001, the USAID/OFDA (Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance) website declared cheerily "Where There's A Will, There's A Way." "Prevention, reduction, preparedness" were the focus of USAID/OFDA, resulting in such programs as the Central American Mitigation Initiative (CAMI). After Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998, President William Jefferson Clinton promised $11 million to establish CAMI to assess vulnerability and suggest plans to reduce it.

As the disaster relief network sought ways to prevent future disaster by relying on science, engineering, and organization, there were also increasing calls for building democracy. Humanitarianism was no longer narrowly defined as a compassionate response to human suffering but included the responsibility to protect human rights. Human rights were defined to include universal rights to basic material goods like food, clothing, and shelter and to political freedom as well. If these rights were denied, the human community had an obligation to intervene to preserve and protect them, whether this violated the sovereignty of nations or not. Whether or not the United States should undertake such interventions alone or multilaterally was another question hotly debated, but the idea of a responsibility to police other nations grew as the twenty-first century began.

Proponents of humanitarian intervention sometimes sought to support and enhance the leadership role of the United States. They might prefer that the United States intervene multilaterally, but believed it should lead its allies and international community. To others, the end of the Cold War paved the way for intergovernmental institutions to grow in effectiveness, unhampered by competition between superpowers. They believed in the idea of a global community.

In the 1990s the United States, in conjunction with the United Nations or the Organization of American States (OAS), engaged in humanitarian interventions in Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia. The United States and the UN did not intervene to stop all human rights disastersthe most notable examples, including Sudan and Rwanda, being in Africa. (The French conducted a limited intervention in Rwanda, and the international relief network provided humanitarian relief.) Noninterventionists complained that humanitarian explanations for intervention masked ulterior motives or that U.S. policies had served to create the very crises they were now addressing. From a very different perspective, others suggested that the U.S. national interest was not at stake and deplored the possibility that the lives of Americans and innocents might be lost while "doing good." Some opponents argued that the United States should set its own house in order, spending its resources and energies at home on behalf of American workers or to combat American poverty. Some feared a tremendous drain on American resources in areas of intractable conflict.

In 1991 the United States intervened with allies in Operation Desert Storm to force Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. While the Bush administration portrayed the intervention in humanitarian terms, important strategic interests were at stake. The claim of humanitarianism was weakened because although President George Bush had urged the Iraqi Kurd and Shi'ite minorities to rise up against Saddam, the United States stood by while the dictator repressed them. However, the Bush administration initiated a relief effort, Operation Provide Comfort. Along with the United Nations, the United States set up refugee communities along the northern border of Iraq in a predominantly Kurdish region. A security zone was established and a no-fly zone instituted for protection. Because the Kurds could be isolated geographically, it was easier to intervene at a low cost in lives (although not in military resources) than in the later Bosnia and Kosovo crises.

Despite its strategic purposes, the Persian Gulf War had the flavor of a humanitarian intervention because although Hussein continued to defy Western attempts to weaken his regime, his military power and potential to wage destructive war was limited as UN inspectors discovered and oversaw the destruction of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons capabilities. On the other hand, a new humanitarian crisis emerged as the Iraqi people suffered from an embargo to force Hussein's compliance. The embargo reduced stocks of food and medicine as well as stifling the flow of oil. Measures to increase the flow of basic items were restored after harsh criticism of this policy.

The United States had occupied Haiti in the early twentieth century. Resulting mostly from strategic and economic concerns, the early occupation was also a result of an American sense that the United States could make Haiti reform its political institutions to provide greater democracy. Reforms also included efforts to improve the health and well-being of Haitians. Near the end of the twentieth century, the United States intervened again. A political crisis in Haiti resulted when in 1991 a military faction toppled the elected regime of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. For three years a military regime ruled Haiti, with as many as five thousand dying in the political violence that ensued. Meanwhile, Haitians left the country in boats, creating a refugee crisis. The OAS and the UN's efforts at mediation failed. The UN, attempting to monitor human rights in Haiti, was expelled in mid-1994. Pressure mounted for a military intervention to restore Aristide to power. President Clinton favored a multilateral response, and along with the United Nations prepared a multinational force (MNF) to enter Haiti. With the MNF on the way and in the midst of talks with former President Jimmy Carter, the military government of General Raoul Cedras agreed to permit the MNF to land and oversee a peaceful governmental transition. Troops numbering twenty-one thousand landed in Haiti. Initially hailed as a successful humanitarian intervention, disillusion grew as the Haitian political situation deteriorated. Troops remained in Haiti, although their mission was redefined to peacekeeping in 1995 and then peace building in 2000, after the last of the U.S. troops departed.

In the early 1990s scenes from Somalia, located on the horn of Africa and wracked by civil war, stirred Americans. In addition to images of skeletal, desperate people, they also witnessed the abuse of the weak at the hands of the strong as the private armies of competing warlords stole food sent through humanitarian auspices. Guilt may also have moved Americans. During the Cold War the United States had been a patron of dictator Siad Barre after he left the Soviet orbit in 1977. U.S. economic and military assistance had distorted the Somalian economy. With the end of the Cold War, aid to Somalia dried up and Barre lost out in an emerging civil war. American and international humanitarian organizations sought to provide relief to civilians caught up in this turmoil, but they found themselves in danger and the relief supplies at the mercy of competing warlords. UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt complained that Westerners, including the United States, were paying more attention to the Bosnian crisis than the Somalian one.

President George H. W. Bush decided to take action in Somalia. His advisers suggested that the case of Somalia was quite different from Bosnia, where they opposed intervention. While each was in some sense torn by a civil war, it seemed that intervention in Somalia would save hundreds of thousands of lives by halting starvation. In addition, it seemed that while political efforts to promote mediation would be required, the whole process could be done quickly. This was important, because in the post-Vietnam era the United States had developed criteria for intervention that called for an "exit strategy" to avoid open-ended commitment. Another factor that may have stirred Bush was the desire to expand the postCold War mission of the American military in response to some domestic pressures to down-size and others to maintain a strong military. Humanitarian intervention might satisfy both sets of critics. Operation Restore Hope was thus initiated in December 1992, when Bush sent in 23,150 U.S. troops. Americans celebrated as Operation Restore Hope met its early goals by organizing and protecting the distribution of relief supplies and fostering mediation between rival clans. Although the United States had intervened militarily with the blessing of the UN secretary general, the United Nations oversaw much of the relief effort.

Unfortunately, the U.S. presence in Somalia soon became an irritant to Somalians. President Clinton reduced U.S. forces, but left a small contingent as part of a larger UN peacekeeping force. General Mohamed Farah Aidid, with whom the Americans had cooperated to conduct relief operations, began to harass the UN troops. After twenty-four Pakistani troops were killed by Aidid's forces, the U.S. forces sought to capture or kill Aidid. Hostilities between the United States and Somalians grew as U.S. forces were increasingly viewed as an imperial, invading power. After eighteen U.S. Army Rangers were killed and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Clinton made plans to bring all U.S. forces home, leaving the United Nations with the responsibility to oversee peace-keeping in Somalia. In retrospect, observers agreed more on intervention in Somalia than in Haiti. The general consensus was that the widespread starvation had been averted by the time of the killing of U.S. forces, and that the intervention failed when the political goal turned toward capturing Aidid. Earlier recognition of the consequences of growing anti-Americanism might have led to a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. What troubled critics of humanitarian intervention was what they saw as the unrealistic goal of nation building. Competing perspectives over whether it was more moral to respond only to an immediate emergency or also to address the underlying conditions that led to the emergency seemed irreconcilable.

In 1991 and 1992 Yugoslavia dissolved into civil war. The demise of the Communist Party's monopoly on power in 1989 had paved the way for the rise of nationalist political leaders who sought greater autonomy or even independence for their regions. Croatia and Slovenia declared independence in 1991. In turn, Serbia and Montenegro under the leadership of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic created a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and initiated policies to intimidate non-Serbian ethnic groups in Croatia and Bosnia. With assistance from Milosevic, the Serb minority in Croatia fought the Croat ethnic majority, and the Serb minority in Bosnia battled the Croat and Muslim majority. Croatia won its independence. In Bosnia, the civil war dragged on, although it declared independence in April 1992. The international community watched these developments in horror, because one of the characteristics of this civil war, practiced by all sides on at least some level, was what came to be called ethnic cleansing. Villages or entire regions were violently swept clean of Serbs, or Croats, or Muslims by opposition forces who hoped to gain control of an area for their own ethnic group. The shooting of unarmed women and children shocked observers, as did reports of mass rapes of Muslim women by Serbs. Despite comparisons by some to the Nazi holocaust and talk of genocide, however, both Americans and Europeans reacted in uncertain fashion.

The question of intervention to prevent human suffering, to prevent holocaust, was debated in multiple arenas: in Europe, in the United States, in the United Nations. Using force for humanitarian purposes provoked ambivalent responses. Moreover, historical precedents for intervention in civil war were not promising. The specter of Vietnam loomed in the United States, as did the more recent fiasco in Lebanon in 1983. There were political consequences and emotional anguish when American service personnel lost their lives in what many Americans viewed as hopeless endeavors. Therefore, the United States thus at first portrayed the problem as a European one and encouraged European solutions. Europeans had similar concerns, and in addition Germany faced constitutional limits on its ability to use force except in self-defense or in defense of allies. The international community understood the complexity of ethnic animosities in the former Yugoslavia and the intransigence of such conflicts to political solution. Stopping the carnage seemed undeniably important, yet assigning resources to what promised to be an indefinite, long-term commitment seemed unwise. Most of the military options in which the Europeans and United States were willing to engage involved air strikes that, while punitive, seemed unlikely to promote a long-term cessation of ethnic violence. As chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, opposing intervention, pointed out that the only effective way to end violence was to send in ground troops, which all sides were reluctant to do.

President Bill Clinton wavered indecisively from indications of possible forceful action to declarations that the United States could not fix Balkan problems. In February 1994 Clinton gave Serbs surrounding Sarajevo an ultimatum to abandon their siege. At the last minute the Serbs complied, although only after several Serbian planes had been shot down by U.S. jets acting under NATO auspices. Attempts to mediate the conflict were finally successful, resulting in the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. The settlement partitioned Bosnia between Muslim and Croats on the one hand and Serbs on the other. This political solution seemed the only way to prevent continued violence, yet it worried many observers because old animosities continued to simmer. The diplomatic solution, achieved through threat of force, was seen as an example of successful humanitarian intervention. But the violence was not over, and international attention soon turned to Kosovo, a predominantly ethnic Albanian area of Yugoslavia.

In the name of the Serbian minority in Kosovo, Milosevic encouraged the repression of Kosovar Albanians, often through the offices of the Serbian police in Kosovo. In response, the Kosovo Liberation Army retaliated with bombings and attacks on Serbian police and government officials. In 1988 UN resolutions denounced the abuse of civilians by the police, established an embargo against Yugoslavia, and warned that the international community would consider "additional measures to maintain or restore peace and stability in the region."

Representatives of the United States, the European Community, and the Russian Federation comediated peace talks. In mid-March 1999 the talks broke down, and on 20 March, Serbia launched an offensive in Kosovo, burning homes, killing ethnic Albanians, and driving them into the mountains and into neighboring Albania and Macedonia. With U.S. approval, NATO began forceful humanitarian intervention in the form of air strikes on 24 March, which Russia condemned. NATO targeted sites in Belgrade such as the Yugoslav and Serbian interior ministries, Milosevic's Serbian Socialist Party headquarters and his home, and Serbian state television. But air strikes also killed civilians, including sixty-four Kosovars in a convoy and eighty-seven Kosovar Albanians in an air attack on Korisa. In addition, three U.S. airmen were captured by Serbia and several pilots were killed. An international incident occurred when NATO planes hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three. Russia continued to criticize the bombings and suggested to China that the bombing of its embassy was deliberate.

Meanwhile, relief to refugees in Bosnia, Albania, and Macedonia was undertaken primarily by organizations of the United Nations such as UNHCR that oversaw the needs of refugees in Bosnia, Albania, and Macedonia. Some refugees gained temporary or even permanent entry into the United States. As more and more reports of ethnic cleansing seemed verifiable, the UN war crimes tribunal indicted Milosevic and four other Serbians for crimes against humanity.

This was no disaster relief operation. In Kosovo providing relief from suffering meant intervention to stop mass killings. While traditional relief aid was offered by UN agencies, the International Red Cross, and nongovernmental organizations, an additional goal of the operation was the protection of civilians, not only Kosovar Albanians but also Serbs who faced vengeful reprisals. Getting in, restoring "normal" life, and getting out was not a viable option. As in Somalia, it was clear that humanitarian intervention had to be followed by peacekeeping, which in UN practice had come to mean efforts to maintain cease-fires while remaining neutral between warring parties. British, French, and U.S. troops were chosen for the purpose. In 2001, forty thousand NATO troops remained in Kosovo and in Macedonia, where ethnic tensions threatened to create a new humanitarian emergency.

Rwanda gained international attention in the spring and summer of 1994. Presidents Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi were killed when their plane was shot down, an incident followed by terrible slaughter in a competition for power fueled by ethnic rivalry between rival Hutus and Tutsis. The Rwanda Patriotic Front moved through the countryside, murdering civilians, mostly Tutsis, as they went. UN forces in the country left, having no mandate to intervene. Some human rights organizations called for international action to stop the massacres, which resulted in over half a million dead. French forces created a safe zone in southern Rwanda, but that was the extent of international intervention. As over 800,000 Rwandan refugees fled to neighboring Zaire, American and other relief organizations swung into high gear, offering typical relief assistance. Cholera swept through refugee camps and shortages of supplies plagued the relief effort. Some criticized the relief community for failing to do more, expressing confusion over the roles and responsibilities of the relief community. Should the relief network do something to stop the genocide, to relieve suffering under dangerous conditions, to use its cumulative voice in the international community to explain the political sources of the violence? The decision by the United States not to intervene disappointed even some critics of intervention, who could agree with interventionists on stopping genocide. Charges of racism and inconsistency in American foreign policy were made.


There is no question that forceful humanitarian intervention violates state sovereignty. Debates on international law and philosophy focus on this problem. Do human rights inhere only in states, which reflect particular cultures, or are there universal rights that supersede the laws of states? Statists argue that human rights can only be guaranteed by the state, not by an international community. International law is between states, not individuals. If a state violates a people's rights or restricts their liberty, it is up to the people to make the necessary changes. Liberty, by its very nature, cannot be won by outsiders. Supporters of intervention argue that states which fail to protect citizens' rights forfeit their international rights. They point to the weakness of many oppressed peoples, who have no recourse to advance their own liberty without assistance. Moreover, some proponents of humanitarian intervention argue that not only does the international community have a right to intervene, but a duty to do so. The history of genocide in the twentieth century, from the massacres of Armenians to Jews to Cambodians, has impacted both interventionists and noninterventionists, with even many of the latter supporting intervention in the case of massacre or genocide. The problem is more complex when it is asked what rights so violate international norms that states should intervene. What if a state engages in torture or kills its opponents? Is one such death enough for intervention or thousands or more? If parts of the population are denied basic needs or rights like free speech and the right to organize, should other states intervene? Most interventionists argue for proportionality, the idea that the response of the international community should be proportional to the nature of the violations. This includes calculations of the damage to property and loss of life that will occur when force is applied as well as the extent of the violations.

While there has been much discussion on these points in recent years, the underlying tension between these positions has a long history. Statesmen like George Washington and John Quincy Adams warned of the dangers of intervention and advocated a position akin to the Puritans, that the republic of liberty should stand as a beacon, living by its example rather than seeking to mold other peoples. As the United States emerged as a world power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such a limited view became increasingly unpopularbut, ironically, largely because of a similar underlying premise, that the United States should use its power to advance human progress. In the late twentieth century, U.S. policy reflected ambivalence and competing perspectives. Confidence in American values and institutions and the seeming convergence of liberal values in the world seemed reason enough to assert American power to protect human rights. On the other hand, historical experience seemed to suggest that nation building was a complicated task and that well-intentioned intervention could lead to unhappy consequences. Another factor at century's end was that in many ways the United States not only led, but followed, as international nongovernmental human rights organizations and intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations also set agendas. In the 1990s Pope John Paul II and UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali both pressed for humanitarian intervention in certain cases as not merely a right, but a duty.

Humanitarian assistance (as opposed to intervention) is designed to relieve suffering and prevent imminent loss of life that results from natural or human-made disasters. Despite growing dissatisfaction with the limited scope of humanitarian relief, its short-term duration, and its inability to promote fundamental structural changes in societies, relief efforts will continue so long as humans respond as humans. The American-led international relief network reflects historic continuities. Despite institutionalization and pressures toward self-preservation and bureaucratization, U.S. nongovernmental institutions for humanitarian relief reflect diverse segments of American society, experience wide success at raising funds, and offer compassionate service to ameliorate human distress in crisis situations.


Bolling, Landrum R. Private Foreign Aid: U.S. Philanthropy for Relief and Development. Boulder, Colo., 1982.

Bremmer, Robert H. American Philanthropy. 2d ed. Chicago, 1988.

Burner, David. Herbert Hoover: A Public Life. New York, 1979.

Curti, Merle. American Philanthropy Abroad: A History. New Brunswick, N.J., 1963. The most comprehensive survey of the history of American international relief efforts.

Curti, Merle, and Kendall Birr. Prelude to Point Four: American Technical Missions Overseas, 18381938. Madison, Wisc., 1954.

De Waal, Alexander. Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa. Bloomington, Ind., 1997.

Dulles, Foster Rhea. The American Red Cross: A History. New York, 1950. A detailed survey of the early history of the American Red Cross.

Field, James A. America and the Mediterranean World, 17761882. Princeton, N.J., 1969.

Garrett, Stephen A. Doing Good and Doing Well: An Examination of Humanitarian Intervention. Westport, Conn., 1999. Discusses philosophical and legal arguments for humanitarian intervention.

Gorman, Robert F. Historical Dictionary of Refugee and Disaster Relief Organizations. International Organizations Series, no. 7. Metuchen, N.J., 1994.

Hoover, Herbert. An American Epic. 4 vols. Chicago, 19591964. Hoover's own account of his relief activities.

Kent, Randolph C. The Anatomy of Disaster Relief: The International Network in Action. New York, 1987. An analysis of the network of organizations that responds to disasters, including nongovernmental organizations, governments, and intergovernmental organizations. Kent favors the development of an international relief system that is more effectively coordinated.

Kuperman, Alan J. The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda. Washington, D.C., 2001.

Minear, Larry, and Thomas G. Weiss. Mercy Under Fire: War and the Global Humanitarian Community. Boulder, Colo, 1995.

Nash, George H. The Life of Herbert Hoover. 2 vols. New York, 1983, 1988.

Nichols, J. Bruce. The Uneasy Alliance: Religion, Refugee Work, and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York, 1988.

O'Hanlon, Michael. Saving Lives With Force: Military Criteria for Humanitarian Intervention. Washington, D.C., 1997. A 1990s argument for selective use of force in humanitarian intervention with conditions for its application.

Osgood, Robert. Ideals and Self-Interest in America's Foreign Relations. Chicago, 1953.

Rosenberg, Emily S. Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 18901945. New York, 1982. Humanitarian intervention and relief are not the focus of this book, but it is one of the few examples of diplomatic history monographs that incorporate this aspect of American foreign relations.

Ross, Ishbel. Angel of the Battlefield: The Life of Clara Barton. New York, 1956.

Rotberg, Robert I., and Thomas G. Weiss, eds. From Massacres to Genocide: The Media, Public Policy, and Humanitarian Crises. Washington, D.C., 1996.

Shawcross, William. The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust, and Modern Conscience. New York, 1984. A reflective discussion of the response to disasters, based largely on an eyewitness to the international response to the mass slaughter in Cambodia from 1979 into the early 1980s.

Technical Assistance Information Clearing House. U.S. Non-Profit Organizations in Development Assistance Abroad. New York, 1956. Published in varying years by the American Council of Voluntary Agencies.

Tesón, Fernando R. Humanitarian Intervention: An Inquiry into Law and Morality. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., 1988. A philosophical defense of humanitarian intervention, with a discussion of the evolution of international law.

Wallerstein, Mitchel B. Food for WarFood for Peace: United States Food Aid in a Global Context. Cambridge, Mass., 1980.

Weiss, Thomas G., and Larry Minear, eds. Humanitarianism across Borders: Sustaining Civilians in Times of War. Boulder, Colo., 1993.

Weissman, Benjamin M. Herbert Hoover and Famine Relief to Soviet Russia, 19211923. Stanford, Calif., 1974.

Wilson, Joan Hoff. Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive. Boston, 1975.

Winters, Paul A, ed. Interventionism. San Diego, Calif., 1995. A textbook providing an overview of arguments on interventionism, this book reflects much of the debate on humanitarian intervention in the 1990s.

See also Foreign Aid; Human Rights; International Law; Philanthropy .


In the 1990s scholars and pundits spoke of the "media effect" or the "CNN effect" because of their sense that the American public responded to foreign crises based on visual images. Concerned with the consequences of the immediacy of information, critics worried that the U.S. government, under public pressure, would make decisions based on emotional responses and inadequate analysis. Thus, television images of precision bombing in Iraq led to American confidence in the humaneness of contemporary war, while images of emaciated, starving Somali children and the brutal indifference of other Somalis resulted in cries for intervention.

Critics of the media complained that journalists often misunderstood the crises about which they reported, relying on relief or aid workers for information, or even intentionally manipulating opinion to foster public pressure on politicians on behalf of the journalists' pet causes. Americans were accustomed to seeing images of starving children on television as relief and development organizations sought to raise funds by evoking compassion. Save the Children pioneered in television and print advertisements of pitiful, blank-eyed children to help raise funds for its efforts. World Vision filmed and aired documentaries of its activities, often showing actress Sally Struthers caring for unclothed and hungry children while appealing for assistance. Critics charged that such images bolster stereotypical perspectives of other peoples, and imply helplessness and victimization rather than resourcefulness and dignity.

Sensationalized accounts of human suffering. however, have long been used to enhance giving. In the early days of the American republic, broadsides, newspapers, and sermons offered dramatic descriptions to promote fund-raising. In 1832 initial reports of hunger in the Cape Verde Islands stirred little sympathy until dramatic accounts of misery (including a comparison to Dante's Hell) spurred citizens from Portland to Philadelphia to Richmond to raise generous funds. In the 1890s sensationalist press accounts stirred support for intervention in the Cuban struggle for independence against Spain. Less well-known are similar stories of starving Russians, with reports of desperate peasants eating hair, leather, grass, leaves, and even each other. This type of reporting was powerful. Indeed, Clara Barton found it helpful to assure skeptical Turkish authorities that she did not have any journalists with her. The power of words and images to evoke compassion has long been problematic.