Coolidge in Julia Irwin’s “Making the World Safe”

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President Coolidge plays a crucial supporting role in the large cast of participants involved in Professor Julia F. Irwin’s “Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening.” The book was published in 2013 by Oxford University Press. Professor Irwin teaches history at the University of South Florida. Her work here provides a severely neglected chapter not only in the long and illustrious service of the American Red Cross but in nearly every history of the time period. It has become an academic cliche to demarcate the 1920s as the sudden interruption of American involvement in the world and the abrupt suspension of politically progressive impulses. It was neither. Professor Irwin shatters both myths. She does so with meticulous attention to details that often get brushed aside if not omitted altogether in the conventional telling of the Great War, the Twenties, and paths chosen beyond them.

“Making the World Safe,” of course, keys off of President Wilson’s request, on April 2, 1917, to Congress for a declaration of war, in which he said:

The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.

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President Wilson requesting a declaration of war from Congress, April 2, 1917.

The book is organized into six chapters and a brief epilogue. Professor Irwin aims to explore how regular Americans and their government saw, discussed, and reassessed the nation’s responsibilities concerning global humanitarian aid (p.2). She succeeds in giving an honest and open consideration of the various sides in what is still a living discussion. The founding and transformation of the American Red Cross from a neutral relief organization committed to offering impartial aid for combatants in wartime into a network of professionalized humanitarians implementing comprehensive reform of Europe’s health, education, housing and human well-being opens the book. The institutional preparation necessary to equip the ARC to be the preeminent, officially sanctioned, organization for humanitarian assistance was years in the making. It required an overhaul of mindset not just a rallying of resources. The campaign to sell the American Red Cross to the public, deliver on that commitment in Europe and to initiate a long-term reconstruction once there all receive careful treatment in Irwin’s work.

Professor Irwin argues that the humanitarian awakening out of the Great War was, to many Americans, a new “Manifest Destiny,” a duty of every citizen to fulfill in keeping with the nation’s uniquely blessed role in human history. They took that confidence with them to Europe and gave, as they saw it, the best they had for human advancement. It did not always mean giver and receiver understand each other — they often did not — but it demonstrated an attitude that remains ebulliently American no less than the resolution to scale back and fix ourselves first. Americans aspire to be self-improvers (however imperfect we may be at it) and it is that quality, as much as the interest in being global helpers, that moves these two often contradictory ideals of being American. We are never unconscious of the world around us. In fact, we are acutely sensitive to it, perhaps to a fault. Professor Irwin’s book, however, is not a psychological analysis of the American mind. She keeps us centered on practical events and the people who led the work of the Red Cross from 1917 into the 1920s with more than one look ahead to the post-war world we know. Along the way, we discover President Taft’s impact on the ARC was as substantial as President Wilson’s. It is unfortunate that Taft was not more included in the peace process. There remain many regrets, however, left out of the abrupt Armistice of November 11, 1918 and the Paris negotiations that followed. It is outside the book’s purpose to speculate what could have been on those military, diplomatic and political fronts.

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That the American Expeditionary Force and the American Red Cross could cross an ocean, each with massive armies and coordinate, on an unprecedented scale, with conditions as they met them and as they shaped them attests to the preparedness of visionary leadership at work years before the very first American ever set foot on the shores of Europe in 1917. It is something that remains a justifiably impressive demonstration of America’s newfound leadership. Like President Wilson echoed, however, when we had it within our grasp to stay and enthrone ourselves on the map of Europe, we came not to conquer and occupy but to help and serve while the fighting was yet underway. This same attitude prevailed in the return to peace. It would not happen through vengeful indemnity by the victors continuing to punish the losers economically and financially. That would only hasten another war. Building up the forces of good between nations would always do far more to withstand evil than feeding the resentments, jealousies, and hatreds in the naive hope of keeping the beast away. That, even as the AEF returned home and the ARC downsized, was the way Americans saw it. They did not always agree that leaving Europe was a complete positive but they understood enough to know staying would certainly not be. Americans, after all, were not just leaving because they wanted to but because Europe was more than ready for them to go. It is a detail Professor Irwin notices that the usual narrative rarely does in the rush to label America too hasty in its departure.

There is always more going on than the narrative allows and the twenties were no different. President Coolidge appears in the sixth and final chapter, “A World Made Safe?” We venture through the twenties and into later decades with the question allowed to remain open, as any fair assessment should. Far from retreating from the world, the United States under Harding, Coolidge and Hoover kept up an impressive involvement in it (p.186). The first great test, however, for how the country and the ARC would meet future needs abroad came quickly with the earthquakes in Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923. The rapid response, following the President’s direction of the Asiatic Fleet to the sites impacted in order to assist in rescue and relief, and the generous outpouring of American resources, raising more than double ($11.5 million) the amount President Coolidge had called for reveal a country more than ready and willing to give freely to those in distress. Moreover, it takes place at a time it was not supposed to, according to the usual narrative, when Americans were “turning inward” and excluding the very people they collaborated with and shared concern for here. It was no small achievement to coordinate the two fleets that would later oppose each other but here emerged with a new and mutual respect. The response to the Japanese disaster would bring a delegation to the United States in 1930 to thank America (and make a point to visit the Coolidges too) for its generous friendship even as that friendship had taken a rocky (and still rockier ahead) turn at times. It was no isolated model for the rest of the twenties either. It proved the merits of deferring to the more than capable Japanese in handling themselves, free of American “interference,” the way help was administered, as Chairman John Barton Payne would tell the U.S. ambassador (p.189). This return of the responsibility to the authorities of afflicted areas would be replicated in post-World War II Europe in similar fashion. Americans were learning since the Great War that they did not have to send armies of personnel to accomplish the goal. They could delegate and share the burden.

The twenties were replete with conferences of all kinds and international gatherings on social welfare, business, science, law, and numerous other matters occupied American professionals regularly. Through them all was the growing awareness that scientific methods and comprehensive overhauls merited attention. The continued dominance of Herbert Hoover in public affairs almost single-handedly refutes the notion of the death of American progressivism in the twenties. When we get into details like those shared by Professor Irwin we begin to see that reports of its death are greatly exaggerated throughout this decade. The good and bad of its impulses beat no less strongly in every strata of American life than it had during the first two decades of the twentieth century. It simply is a false construct to declare the Progressive Era dead and buried at 1920. Pan-American Red Cross conferences met in Buenos Aires (1923) and Washington (1926). Many could now afford to participate in and contribute to a broad range of relief organizations involved in causes all over the world. Beyond the Red Cross, there was the American Lung Association working to fight tuberculosis not only in the United States but abroad. There was the Near East Relief which had been striving on behalf of Armenians, Syrians and other minorities targeted by the Turkish authorities. Then there were dozens of other humanitarian efforts focused on still more causes. The Junior Red Cross membership rose strongly in the twenties, building a solid organization of young people across the United States who were learning and connecting with people overseas to an extent they had not before enjoyed. The national government had not yet stepped into that historically private, voluntary role. And, just as Professor Irwin points out, Coolidge liked the Red Cross because it had learned the importance of remaining apolitical. In 1924, addressing the ARC’s Annual Convention, he said, “We have not all been able to agree on how to rid society of poverty, but we can all agree with the Red Cross in helping the poor.” In fact, the strong support of their work gave firm evidence that “materialism is not the dominant motive of the people of the United States.” And far from an uneventful decade, the Red Cross would remain busy. It would be at hand in domestic emergencies like the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 and Florida’s 1926 and 1928 hurricanes but also ventured into the Native American reservations (addressing a longstanding mesh of health and welfare needs there among the mix of citizens and sovereign tribes), and insular possessions like Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Hawaii. Latin America would also involve the American Red Cross in forging closer bonds with its counterparts to the south as Pan-American partnerships in technology and commerce, science and medicine, diplomacy and law, among other interests, multiplied during the decade.

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President Coolidge (third from right) with Red Cross President John Barton Payne (to his left) and other attendees (including Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover (to Coolidge’s right) of the American Red Cross Annual Convention, October 6, 1924. Memorial Continental Hall, Washington, D. C. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

President Coolidge’s role, like in this book, was not hands-off. The channels he used at times certainly had official rank, ambassadors like Alanson B. Houghton, Dwight Morrow, and Henry Stimson, but he also made generous use of and encouragement for the unofficial ambassadors, the Pan American Goodwill Flight commanded by Major Herbert Dargue, the excursions of Colonel Charles Lindbergh, the travels of Will Rogers, the work of General Dawes in Europe to settle German debt, as well as the cultural associations, social societies and civic clubs all over the country. Together they represented a diverse and vibrant participation in meeting needs not only at home but anywhere in the world individuals felt obligated to do so. By government holding back and encouraging people to do this for themselves, whatever humanitarian aid may have lacked in consolidated efficiency, it made up for in the sheer range of participants and causes. It did not force them into giving or channeling the gifts into one focus but left that to the choice of each American. The American Red Cross was one option of many and while it continued as the principal organization administering international assistance with U. S. government approval, it was by no means empowered to eliminate all others. Nor did government see the benefit of assimilating all that volunteerism upon its own shoulders and out of the hands of regular citizens. A critique of where things are now is not something Professor Irwin indulges and (at least in part) because she resists that temptation, her fine study “Making the World Safe” is a welcome contribution to a greater understanding of American humanitarianism, the Great War, the twenties, foreign aid since World War II, and the continuing question of where the proper limits and responsibilities rest even now. The question is by no means as settled as some seem to treat it, who take for granted that the response for what America should do is: Yes, always more. What Professor Irwin brings to light in her fair reappraisal is that there is also a very legitimate place for a different answer: No, sometimes less is more. Even then, it was a busy decade, the efforts not less active for humanitarian aid but merely diversified and decentralized.

Sharing organizational histories, be it of the American Red Cross or any other humanitarian institution, may not appeal to readers in quite the same way that a thrilling account of Patton’s Third Army in Europe or the Island-Hopping Campaign in the Pacific by the Navy and Marine Corps might but they carry no less a pivotal weight on which mountains of history turn. They are expressions of outlook and coordination, the products of just as sweeping a vision as any of the great engineering projects of the twentieth century. They are no less incredibly intricate logistical plans than the strategic maneuvers of Midway or D-Day. They are still the product of large ideas marshaled into concrete action. The American Red Cross did not become what it is at its founding, it exists today both as a testament to and response from the lessons learned in the Great War and its aftermath. The desires and ideals that motivated Edward Devine and the leadership of the ARC did not die with them nor were they extinguished by the Senate’s rejection of President Wilson’s expectations for a future world. They informed the work of the 20s and 30s and inspire the post-war labors of American involvement even now. The fact is, they never really went away.

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Edward Devine, head of the Bureau of Refugees and Relief for the American Red Cross, who would say: “Our manifest destiny is not indefinite expansion but indefinitely expanding brotherhood” (p.1).

Crucial, though, as Professor Irwin points out, the experiences of the Great War and its post-war reform crusade guided and redirected how humanitarian aid operated differently during the Second World War and beyond. Sizable numbers of ARC personnel continued to directly administer relief programs with very large objectives across Europe through 1922-23. When the efforts transitioned in 1923 to local oversight, the work didn’t stop there, it simply changed scope and became the mission of international Red Cross workers, local medical professionals and regional authorities. It did not create a vacuum, despite fears that it would with the departure of American personnel. The scale of those early programs and the people staffed to accomplish them did not recur in the Second World War. Americans had learned from their Great War/Twenties experience that enormous “occupation” and direct implementation only go so far. Even the best of intentions can stir resentment on both the giving and receiving ends. It was a wisdom that still informs how we can administer humanitarian aid today. Sometimes our desire to give is more a hindrance to those we seek to assist so that our help is no help at all. The twenties show us there is a time to aid and there is a time to refrain from aiding. The end of the world is not imminent simply by choosing the latter nor is it a betrayal of American ideals to constantly bait and catch everyone’s fish for them. We all have a burden to bear in this world that is uniquely our own.

With no less sincerity, humanitarian efforts have transitioned from what was, in the teens and twenties, a voluntary expression on the part of U. S. citizens, willingly contributing and collaborating to better the world, into one where our national government and international bodies have now largely assumed charge of that burden. They are present in both official and unofficial channels to administer foreign aid, provide disaster relief, and direct oversight of humanitarian goals. It has come a long way from the days of Ed Devine, Ernest Bicknell, Henry Davison, and John Barton Payne. The realization of unprecedented American influence began to bear fruit in their lifetimes and it was out of the Great War that the U.S. stood best positioned for world leadership. It was 1920, not 1945 that America discovered it stood the equal of any global superpower. For many the realization provided the means of avoiding another war, an absorbing quest many who lived the twenties and thirties bent every effort to prevent. That war did come does not mean they were insincere, untrustworthy or somehow culpable in its arrival, but it is instructive that the sweeping reform of foreign populations would never quite approach the same open-ended, indeterminate or lofty heights it did during and immediately after the Great War. Reality is an exacting and precise teacher. The balloon of their highest hopes may have been burst but perhaps a more modest version of the apparatus could be patched and flown again, as it was in the wake of World War II. It is the craft in which we currently travel. We now have experimented in both approaches, the mandatory one for several decades more than the voluntary effort that preceded it.

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Ernest P. Bicknell, national director of the American Red Cross, who observed: “It seems to me that the great war is only the beginning of our troubles and that no one yet knows whether it is the worst of them. It has shaken loose a good many things in the complicated contrivance which held the world together in a semblance of order and system.” To find and maintain stability again would be “a mighty difficult business” (p.185). The Harding, Coolidge and Hoover administrations, then, had no easy task before them.

We Americans will never quit caring about the displaced and suffering in this world. Nor will we every quit debating the nature of our obligation or the effectiveness of our help. Professor Irwin reminds us these debates are not new and they transpired in the heat of war and peace a century ago. But we benefit by looking past the present to seek a deeper perspective of what has been tried and done before us. We are given the opportunity to see beyond ourselves and our situation to something that we may disagree with but we can grow from if we would learn another perspective. We never fail to find some treasure buried and forgotten, some piece that may supply answers to current riddles or some quality we lack that the past keeps in store for us to find anew. We can learn a great deal from those we prejudge. That the twenties are so often prejudged deprives us of what good qualities and insights are waiting, if we would open our minds a little more.

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Judge John Barton Payne, a Democrat and member of Wilson’s Cabinet was named by President Harding to head the American Red Cross in October 1921. He would continue as Chairman until his death in 1935. He presided over some of the most challenging adaptations of the ARC from war to peacetime.

That the debate takes form in directions we may dislike from time to time does not negate the merits of the direction chosen. Let wisdom be vindicated by all her children, not just the ones we prefer. The twenties were a mixture of both sides in that debate. It was no clear-cut isolationism any more than Americans all turned prejudiced jerks to everyone else, as if that were some new trait in human civilization anyway. America never has had a monopoly on vanity, pride or foolishness. It is a world problem because it is a human problem. It occurs everywhere and individuals shared it globally no less than they do today. To make sense of it within the narrow confines of academic prejudices, however, the narrative resorts to simplistic “all or nothing” characterizations of the American twenties. The people of that time buried their collective heads in the sand, preached the gospel of materialism, and otherwise partied on while the world plunged deeper into that epic train wreck of depression and misery that only the arrival of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his successors corrected. The scaling back to more unofficial means of world engagement did not mean there was no engagement. The scaling back to more modest goals of humanitarian assistance did not mean that America had become heartless and apathetic either. It is so easy (and intellectually lazy) to blame America for everything else wrong with the world, be the year 1929 or 2020. The way the twenties are viewed is a product of the same laziness.

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President Coolidge addressing the annual ARC Convention in 1925. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

Nor do we have to look very far for countless illustrations of how frequently the fear of standing alone governs in human affairs (not to mention, in the historiographic literature). We are afraid to do it in the classroom and playground. We are afraid to do it at work. We are afraid to do it in a hundred other situations every day. We are intimidated and, for some, repulsed to see it among nations. So when Americans decided to risk standing alone in the twenties, they did it only to a point. They still took part in world decisions, still sat in on League business (albeit, as observers), still worked in countless ways to improve things around the globe, and did it all with the basic caveat that it was not just a joiner, a bandwagon nation, a country prepared to subordinate national interests to another kind of monarchy: the bureaucracies of Europe. For that, the twenties get holy fire from on-high called down upon them by academics who keep fighting with the sentiment of a personal vendetta those who do not accord with their own political wishes. They keep imposing on the past their own partisan expectations.

Professor Irwin, in contrast, brings a breath of fresh air to the scene. She gives us a needed balance on those poor folks of the twenties routinely dumped on by the historical narrative. She explores fairly and openly an era desperately in need of the scholarship she demonstrates can be done with the twenties. We look forward to more honesty and openness, more graciousness and understanding of that era and those who, like Coolidge, lived it.

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Delegates of the Pan-American Red Cross Convention meeting in Washington, pose here at the White House with President and Mrs. Coolidge, May 1926. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

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