“To stabilize America first, to prosper America first, to think of America first, to exalt America first.”
These lines from Warren Harding’s 1920 presidential election campaign seem not the least dated nearly a full century later as Americans, once again wearied by intervention and internationalism, debate their nation’s role in the world and its responsibilities to peoples outside its own borders. Julia Irwin’s Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening is an intriguing, tightly written, and salient contribution to that debate.
Irwin’s first book examines the role of the American Red Cross in United States foreign policy from 1880 to the end of the Second World War. Irwin makes a convincing case that international humanitarian assistance by the ARC not only played a crucial role in American diplomacy during the progressive era, it also created lasting inertia for the humanitarian-interventionist role America has played through the last century. By claiming a “new manifest destiny,” Irwin says, the ARC of the late 19th and early 20th centuries harnessed the progressive, missionary, and cosmopolitan currents of the time to enable ordinary Americans to aid people across the world—and to aid the American state’s imperialist aims.
Founded by Clara Barton in 1881, the ARC spent its first decades working primarily in smaller-scale disaster relief situations. It gradually became more internationalized during the Spanish-American war, but it wasn’t until Barton’s downfall in 1904 and the ARC’s reorganization under William Howard Taft that the aid organization became truly enmeshed with U.S. foreign policy establishment. Under the influence of the U.S. State Department as the “official volunteer aid department of the United States,” as Taft put it, the private-public partnership that defined the ARC through the first decades of the 20th century fed on the domestic energy created by new and broad American ambitions for efficient, scientific social welfare following the its Civil War. The ARC’s major early international efforts, however, also demonstrated humanitarian aid’s efficacy as a tool of American diplomacy. ARC aid was deployed strategically in China, Italy, and Nicaragua to counter anti-American sentiment that threatened to undermine U.S. foreign policy objectives including, in Nicaragua’s case, pro-American regime change. Even from its early days, the ARC’s humanitarian work was inseparable from larger foreign policy goals.
The impact of humanitarian aid in these decades, however, was hampered by limited public support for ARC’s mission, which while growing, had yet to reach substantial levels. The outbreak of the Great War changed that. Already fully embraced by the U.S. government by the time America entered the war in 1917, the ARC sought mass public support through mobilization campaigns that pushed two interlinked messages: 1) Americans had a responsibility to aid other democracies around the world and 2) the ARC uniquely represented America’s social science-based humanitarian values. Thus, only through the ARC, it argued, could Woodrow Wilson’s popular internationalist aims achieved and “the world be made safe and fit to live in.” As a result of these campaigns and loud government support, 22 million Americans (almost a quarter of the population) joined the ARC cause during the First World War, many of them shipping off to Europe. In a break with the norms set by the International Red Cross that limited care to wounded soldiers, the ARC empowered individual Americans to live up to their personal ideals and aspirations by aiding civilian noncombatants. In doing so, they incidentally served American interests in creating a stable, pro-American post-war Europe. ARC aid was tactically targeted to achieve foreign policy objectives in France, Italy, and for a time, Russia under the provisional Kerensky government; no aid went to the Central Powers and the ARC quickly cut off Bolshevik Russia. ARC efforts, where they took place, often began as emergency relief but soon morphed into ambitious, region-spanning, and sometimes paternalistic social welfare schemes, including public housing, sanitation, and health programs, reflecting America’s changing self-perceptions of its role and purpose in the world.
Few of those projects endured through the interwar period, however, which saw a rapid reversal in American enthusiasm for Wilsonian-style internationalism. By 1919, the ARC, which had been positioned to rebuild Europe, lost much of its private funding and came under intensifying scrutiny. Harding’s “America First” politics carried the day by the early 1920s, and the ARC dismantled most of its postwar program. It remained an important tool of informal diplomacy in the interwar years, Irwin states, belying claims of American isolationism in that era. It continued to raise impressive funds for isolated disasters, but it would take another world war to return the ARC to international prominence. Even so, ARC involvement in World War Two took a much different form than in the Great War. Instead of mobilizing the American multitudes, the ARC instead relied on a burgeoning network of international and local aid organizations to distribute funds and supplies. Perhaps more importantly, in contrast to the donation-only model of the early 20th century, the ARC began to receive significant federal funding. This redefining of the ARC’s mission, Irwin tells us, reflected a growing role for the federal government in international aid, one that would remain important through the Cold War as the American government—not only through the ARC but also new agencies such as the Peace Corp and USAID—sought to win hearts and minds across the world. America’s ongoing inclusion of international aid in its foreign policy is owed to the role of the ARC during the progressive era, Irwin says.
To close the book, Irwin asks whether the ARC’s international humanitarianism was simply an “altruistic, benevolent form of foreign relations” or “should it instead be regarded as a gentler variety of American cultural imperialism, just another way that American citizens and government officials exercised power on the global stage?” But Irwin has already spent more than 200 pages answering that question, and the answer is emphatically “both.” That is perhaps the books greatest strength: Irwin goes to great lengths to demonstrate just how intertwined altruism and American power are within its historical humanitarian assistance efforts. She does it by deftly (and aptly) intertwining the personal stories of ARC volunteers with bold government pronouncements on the ARC and remarkable facts about the magnitude of its role on the in progressive period’s foreign policy.
Where she does falter is in assessing that impact. Although ARC staff and its government boosters have much to say about the importance of the ARC in American foreign policy, the voices and attitudes of aid recipients are noticeably muted. If a primary purpose of the ARC’s efforts in Europe was to manufacture pro-American attitudes—and Irwin convincingly argues that it was—what were the lasting effects of those efforts? Whose hearts and minds were won? And if American assistance was intended to create a stable, pro-American postwar Europe, to what extent did the ARC succeed? Might history have been different if Americans had maintained their enthusiasm for international intervention and humanitarian assistance once the First World War ended?
Irwin makes no real attempt to answer those questions, but they are worth thinking about in our own era of “America First,” especially if, as Irwin says, by understanding the history of the ARC, “we can better determine the role that foreign aid should play in U.S. relations with the world today.” Making the World Safe makes a significant effort to illuminate that history, even if it provides as many questions as answers.