Humanitarian Aid – American Style

US flag, coin and boater hat illustrating American humanitarian aid

telegram by MorgenthauThe Ottoman government carried out deportations and massacres in eastern Turkey under the fog of World War I. Because it controlled the telegram system, and travel was difficult at that time, it was several months before foreigners realized the extent of the government’s plans. On July 20, 1915 American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau sent a telegram, right, to the US Secretary of State calling the situation a “campaign of race extermination.” Word spread quickly. Once it was clear that the country was in turmoil and that survivors were in desperate need of humanitarian aid, compassionate people began to organize. In the best American style, James Barton, then a Corresponding Secretary of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions, and mining millionaire and noted philanthropist Cleveland H. Dodge, rolled up their sleeves and took action.


By mid-September they had formed the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief (ACASR) with several prominent New Yorkers. At its first meeting they raised $60,000 and wired it to Morgenthau for distribution within Turkey. Dodge decided to pay the Committee’s operating expenses to ensure all funds raised went directly to support the relief work. ACASR then launched a fundraising and public awareness campaign across the United States. Business men donated money and goods, women organized bake sales and sewing circles, and little children gave up their candy money. Missionaries, like Susan Wealthy Orvis, who were on furlough in the United States and Canada, went on speaking tours to drum up support. Designers, agencies, and writers of all kinds worked on advertising campaigns to promote the funds. (This is how the story of Aurora Mardiganian was turned into a fundraising tool.)


It was likely that feedback from the missionaries on the ground caused the ACASR to change its name in 1917 to the American Committee for Relief in the Near East (ACRNE). It was not just Armenians and Assyrians who suffered. Many other Ottoman and Persian civilians, including Greeks, Turks and Kurds, were left destitute by the destructive activities taking place in the Near East. It’s always the civilians who pay the price of the decision by men in high office to go to war, isn’t it?

As long as Morgenthau and his successor, Abram Elkus, remained in the embassy, funds were able to get to the missions in Turkey to provide some relief. But once the United States entered WWI in the Spring of 1917, and even though it never declared war on the Ottoman Empire, all Americans were ordered to leave. Thus the channel to distribute funding within Turkey was cut off. That is why the survivors and caregivers in Aleppo suffered so much. There was little food and even less hope during those dark days. Relief camps were set up outside of Turkey for survivors who managed to escape. The largest camp on the Mediterranean was in Port Said, Egypt; two were in Russia, in Erevan and Alexandropol (today’s Yerevan and Gyumri, Armenia, respectively).


Personally, I think the reason ACRNE’s name was changed in 1919 to Near East Relief (NER) was because that’s how the missionaries and relief workers referred to the organization. In any case, the NER became the second American humanitarian organization, after the American Red Cross, to be chartered by an act of Congress.

SS LeviathanAs soon as WWI ended, the NER organized a massive influx of money and personnel into Turkey. The ABCFM missionaries were now working under the direction of NER, and they were joined by doctors, nurses, office workers, truck drivers, mechanics and other relief workers who volunteered to go. It took a couple of months to get everything ready, but on February 16, 1919 the SS Leviathan set sail from Hoboken, New Jersey with 250 humanitarian aid workers. Among those on board were Stella Loughridge and Clara Richmond, on their way back to Talas, and new recruit Stanley Kerr who ultimately ended up in Marash. The group landed at Brest, France six days later, then took a train to Marseilles, there boarded the Gloucester Castle, a British hospital ship equipped with mine sweepers, and headed for Constantinople. For a detailed account of the Leviathan expedition (and source of the photo of the ship), see the lengthy, well-researched article by Abraham D. Krikorian and Eugene L. Taylor.

Most had to wait in that area until conditions in the interior were made somewhat safer by the British army in Spring 1919. What they found at their stations was beyond their imaginations: hundreds of thousands of people starving, dressed in rags, and ravaged by disease and lice. The monumental goal was to help rebuild lives. My book, Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad, is about that effort.

Humanitarian Aid

From 1915 to 1922, when the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist and all Christians were ordered to leave Turkey, the NER sent:

  • 730 personnel
  • 25,300 tons of food, clothing, and medical supplies valued at $4.2 million (60 million in 2016 dollars)
  • $73 million ($1.06 billion today) worth of aid

The combined efforts of ACASR, ACRNE and NER represent the world’s first large-scale relief effort. It was extremely well planned and well orchestrated. And it was the beginning of international humanitarianism as we know it.

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