Critical History of the American Red Cross, 1882-1945

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This revisionist perspective on the history of the Red Cross reflects its transformation from its genesis to become the government’s humanitarian agency, and the subsequent effect this change may have had on American prisoners of war held captive in Germany in World War II. Around 1898, Clara Barton’s simple charity for aiding the wounded and comforting the dying was transformed by persons of influence, such as Mabel Boardman, into a bureaucratized amalgamation of expansionism, progressivism, and egocentrism. Renovated by government, military, censorship, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and vanity, the Red Cross desire to serve soldiers, particularly prisoners of war, was thwarted by politics during World War II. It was assumed by many, including the Red Cross, that the Geneva Treaty was being honored, that food parcels were reaching the starving Allied prisoners, and that the Red Cross was relaying accurate information to the homefront concerning the welfare of captive soldiers. Shealy’s work provides data from declassified military documents and Red Cross documents deeded to the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Coupled with mainstream sources, her research offers a revisionist perspective of the American Red Cross era from 1882 to 1945. Additionally, the Red Cross, usually above reproach, turned the mirror on itself with candid monographs written post-WWII to 1950. These discourse, documents, and letters reveal the agency’s struggle to reconcile itself with policy not always in step with its recipients.


“In her excellent work, Professor Gwendolyn Shealy has taken a fresh and critical look at a venerable institution: the American Red Cross…Shealy has peeled away the protective outer shield and asked the troubling question: ‘…is the Red Cross a humanitarian arm of the government, a public relations paradigm, a victim of the changing times?’ In her solidly-footnoted examination of the Red Cross, Shealy asserts ‘more questions have been raised than answered.’… Shealy has the integrity to probe into the institution’s motivations, and the reader will learn much along the way…she meticulously pored through records of the organization itself as well as the National Archives, Library of Congress, and other depositories. Her interviews add depth to her treatment of this important subject. What has resulted is an excellent examination of an agency where public relations sometimes distorted ‘noble humanitarianism.’ We should applaud Shealy’s scholarship…a major work that crosses from social history into the murkiness of international affairs….the author never wanders far from her argument: the Red Cross is not always what we believe it to be. Just ask the American prisoners of war from the Second World War, Shealy stresses, who at times were disappointed and disillusioned by the organization’s paper-thin ‘humanitiarianism’ on their behalf.” – Dr. J. Edward Lee, Winthrop University

Table of Contents

1. From Europe to the United States: Origins of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention
2. The Red Cross during the Spanish-American War: Clara Barton seeks to position the Red Cross as America’s humanitarian agency with the Spanish-American War as the catalyst
3. Expansionist Ideals of Juvenile Nation: American government recognizes the advantage of incorporating the Red Cross as a sponsored humanitarian arm as the US embarks on expansionism
4. Boardman Opens the Door: Barton is overthrown as president of the American Red Cross by Mabel Boardman, who reforms the ARC into a more bureaucratic philanthropy
5. Will, Mabel, and their Progeny: The friendship between William H. Taft and Mabel Boardman as possible impetus behind change in leadership at the ARC
6. The Price of Progressivism: Continuing discussion of the reform of the ARC to an institutionalized philanthropy
7. A New Red Cross: The origins of ARC headquarters in Washing DC; Financial reorganization
8. The Test of the 1905 Charter: First test as a humanitarian arm of the government in WWI; government-endorsed fund drives, propaganda and censorship, trial of Louis Nagle; transformation of the ARC into a quasi-government agency
9. Ersatz Humanitarianism: ARC at the mercy of policy as developed by the ICRC, government censorship, military. ARC so politicized and bureaucratized by WWII, aid to American prisoners of war held in German camps not always effective nor accurately portrayed
Survey Notes

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