Every Thursday, we will use an event that occurred on this date to discuss an important moment in international history. This week: The American Red Cross is founded (1881)
The American Red Cross was founded on May 21, 1881 by Clara Barton, a pioneering American nurse, who had earned the informal appellation, ‘Angel of the Battlefield’ for her invaluable service organizing relief during the Civil War.
During her travels in Europe in the 1870s, Barton was introduced to the global Red Cross– an independent, neutral humanitarian organization, codified in the Geneva Conventions– inspired by Jean Henri Dunant’s account of the Battle of Solferino, which he published under the title, ‘A Memory of Solferino’. Dunant proposed the creation of an impartial international organization to provide relief to wounded soldiers, irrespective of their nationalities.
Impelled by her own experiences during the American Civil War, Barton began to champion an American wing to the organization.
Barton’s movement was met with much domestic opposition. The presiding view during the Hayes administration was that signing the Geneva Convention could imply an “entangling alliance” , and that this would be an unnecessary move as the United States would never again be hit by a catastrophe as drastic as the Civil War. However, Barton contended– and successfully so– that the mandate of the American Red Cross would not be limited to providing relief during war, but extend to other calamities as well. The American Red Cross was established in Washington D.C. in 1881 during the Arthur administration, and the U.S. subsequently ratified the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field in 1882.
In 1884, the American Red Cross called for a similar expansion of international Red Cross activities to include victims of epidemics and natural disasters through an amendment to the Geneva Convention. The “American Amendment” was met with some initial resistance, but, owing to the success of Barton’s work within the U.S., was subsequently passed.
The organization received its first congressional charter in 1900, further legitimizing its role of providing national and international relief during times of peace and conflict, and in accordance with the Geneva Conventions of humanitarian law.
Since then, the organization has emerged as a key player, both in the U.S., and abroad, actively working toward preventing and relieving suffering during military operations such as the World Wars and Vietnam, and natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti, and more recently, Nepal.