by Amy McCray
In 1917, as the United States was sending troops to France to fight in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson called upon the American people to give generously in a spirit of patriotic sacrifice to support the nation in its war efforts. He stated that, “by virtue of my authority as President of the United States and President of the Red Cross, I, Woodrow Wilson, do hereby proclaim the week ending June 25, 1917, as Red Cross Week.” He created a War Council within the Red Cross, to meet the “extraordinary demands which the present war will make upon the services of the Red Cross both in the field and in civilian relief.”
In response to this plea, the American Red Cross (ARC) set up a nationwide fundraising campaign beginning June 18, 1917, to raise over $100,000,000 to aid these efforts. Henry Davison, Chairman of the War Council of the ARC, challenges Seattle to play its part, and raise $300,000. In an urgent appeal, he states that, “Bullets will not wait on tardy dollars. The man who offers his life on the battlefield for the defense of his country must not be left to bear the burden alone.”
The ARC’s goal was to provide resources needed by the soldiers—to aid medical treatment of the wounded in the field hospitals, and to fight tuberculosis. Davison asks for support:
“The force of Red Cross physicians and nurses must be greatly increased and kept on duty; convalescent hospitals must be built. If we secure the subscription, we shall purchase, equip and man hospital ships; we shall organize and maintain a sanitary engineering corps, to be subject to the call of the Army and Navy…These men will be returning to this country some day. We want to make it certain that as many as possible return in health and strength, and not afflicted with disease from which our fore-thought might have protected them.”
Davison says that, “The Red Cross must—and it alone can—become a real Foster Parent of our soldiers while they are in Europe.”
We should be prepared to meet any and every emergency in connection with the need of our soldiers and sailors in the country when called upon by the Army and the Navy—Davison
The funds were also designated to assist the families of the soldiers abroad—“mothers and wives who have given up sons and husbands and who have no other support must be cared for by the Red Cross.” Additional programs aimed to help the soldiers assimilate upon their return, including the development and the funding of vocational schools.
The sensational pledge drive inspired Seattle to act:
The streetcars stopped simultaneously for one minute on June 18th—“The idea of the unique observation is not alone to call attention to the Red Cross Drive but to set aside one minute for general reflection on the purpose for which the big campaign is being made,” Seattle Daily Times, June 15th.
Parades were held, with trucks carrying nurses and wounded soldiers, urging support for the cause.
Several hundred “mercy barrels” were scattered as a great chain over the entire downtown district, which were filled with donations of money and goods, including valuables, as well as other resources—such as an enormous iron bolt that was salvaged from a ship that wrecked decades earlier in the Strait of Juan de Fuca!
Employees were asked to donate one day’s pay to the Mercy Fund on Monday, June 25th—a time for sacrifice: “Perhaps giving a day’s pay means for you no butter on your table for a month. Give it. What right have you to withhold, for a paltry luxury, the tender hand held out to him, stricken and tortured, who fights the good fight for you?” The Argus, June 23rd.
Seattle residents heard the call. The Seattle division of the ARC collected over $450,000 and the state of Washington, which was asked to give one million dollars, raised more than $1,500,000—over $31 million in 2017’s dollar value. The nation as a whole amassed over $20 trillion, based on today’s currency!
The money was used not only to support the armed forces and provide medical and social relief, but also to build an expanding humanitarian relief organization. The ARC was originally started by Clara Barton to assist soldiers and their families during and after the Civil War, and continued to serve people in need into the twentieth century. But the funds and resources from this campaign built a strong foundation for the growth of the organization. Inspiring millions of Americans to act for a cause established a sense of purpose which continues to motivate volunteer service today.
After the war, Henry Davison continued to shape the ARC on a global scale, by promoting a federation of national Red Cross societies from around the world, which is known today as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. This created a world wide humanitarian network that inspires millions to work toward relief of those in need.