The Forgotten Global Humanitarian Response
While America’s response to the Armenian Genocide has in recent years gained increased attention thanks to well-researched literary works such as The Burning Tigris by Peter Balakian and The Starving Armenians by Merrill Peterson, the international response to the Armenian Genocide has received little or no attention by historians. This is rather surprising considering that over 50 countries had in some way participated in the collection of funds on behalf of the destitute Armenian refugees and orphans. It was at the time an unprecedented demonstration of international solidarity and goodwill towards victims of a major catastrophe.
The global response to the genocide was sparked by a cablegram sent by the U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, to the secretary of state in Washington on Sept. 6, 1915, stating: “Destruction of the Armenian Race is progressing rapidly…will you suggest to Cleveland Dodge, Charles Crane, John R Mott, Stephen Wise and others to form committee to raise funds and provide means to save some of the Armenians’ who had survived.”1 These individuals, together with other religious and civic leaders, heeded Morgenthau’s call, forming an organization called the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief (later known as Near East Relief) in New York on Sept. 16, 1915. By the early 1920’s, the Near East Relief (NER) had enlisted more than 500 American relief workers who serviced over 200 orphanages, rescue shelters, and hospitals throughout Turkey, Syria, Greece, Palestine, and Armenia.
Britain soon followed America’s lead with the establishment of the Armenian Refugees (Lord Mayor’s) Fund at Mansion House, London, on Oct. 15, 1915. The churches in Britain co-operated closely with the fund and many clergymen took a very active part in organizing collections. Roman Catholic Cardinal Francis A. Bourne and Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Randall T. Davidson were among the vice-presidents of the fund. Australia and Canada also formed Armenian relief funds during the period which were linked to the British and American relief committees.
In 1929, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge eloquently summarized what the humanitarian relief endeavor had meant to America and its people: “The volunteer relief committee was, from the beginning, a National organization of the United States, manned by our people and incorporated by a special act of congress in 1919 as the Near East Relief. It was National because it received its support from all our people and was endorsed by Congress and all our Presidents throughout its history; and, in its widely extended work of life and child saving, it represented the true spirit of our country…it clothed the naked, fed the starving and provided shelter, care and practical schooling for more than a hundred and thirty thousand fatherless waifs left as a wreckage from the Great War… No private enterprise ever undertaken by Americans and in the name of America has accomplished more to arouse, in the minds and hearts of all the peoples of the countries in which this organization has carried on its operations, a sincere regard and even affection for America.”
It was thanks in large part to the work of the Rev. Dr Lincoln L. Wirt, an American Congregational minister and the international commissioner of the NER, that the latter took on an international dimension. While visiting Australia in 1922, Wirt stated that his aim was to “form a chain of mercy from one end of the world to the other”—and his mission was a great success. By 1923, Wirt had helped to establish Armenian relief committees in Hawaii, Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, Cuba, and New Zealand.
In spite of the horrors associated with the Armenian Genocide, from across the world there are hundreds of stories of compassion and generosity that ultimately helped save the Armenian people from complete annihilation. The following are only a few of the many stories that have recently been unearthed.
After embarking from San Francisco aboard the Golden Gate in January 1922, Lincoln Wirt’s first port of call was Waikiki, Hawaii, where he was warmly received at a reception held in his honor at the royal palace. At the event, an Armenian relief committee was formed with the American governor, Sanford B. Dole, as its chairman and the wife of the well-known missionary Dr. William D. Westervelt as its secretary. Under their guidance, Wirt was sent to every town on each island appealing for aid on behalf of the suffering Armenians. Wirt noted that “in every community committees were set up and a thorough canvass for funds inaugurated.” On the day of Wirt’s departure from Hawaii, he was handed a sum of $50,000 from the committee, which was twice the expected quota from island. Hawaii’s Armenian relief committee continued to generously contribute funds and by the late 1920’s had successfully collected over $200,000 (about $2.8 million dollars in today’s terms) for the NER, which was regarded at the time as a remarkable achievement.
With the help of Wirt, an Armenian relief committee was also established in the Philippines headed by the governor general of the Philippine Islands, Leonard Wood. Colonel Frank R. McCoy, General Wood’s aide, assisted in setting up meetings throughout the islands and in gathering funds for the NER. According to Wirt, “the American and European residents gave generously, and the Filipino people themselves gave from their meager store.”
Despite a devastating famine in China in 1921, Armenian relief committees were formed in Peking, Canton, and Shanghai in 1922. The well-known American missionary in China, the Rev. Elwood G. Tewksbury, became the central committee’s chairman, which was headquartered at 5 Quinsan Gardens, Shanghai. Earlier, in the American city of Indianapolis, a joint fundraising event had been organized for NER and the Chinese Famine Fund. Lady Anne Azgapetian, the wife of a prominent Armenian, spoke to the audience with great eloquence on the plight of the Armenians and their current needs. Deeply touched by her plea, the head of the Chinese mission in the United States, Sao-Ke Alfred Sze, who was present, contributed a considerable sum towards the Armenian appeal.
In Korea, an Armenian relief committee was also established with the U.S. consul, Mr. Miller, as chairman. Renowned American medical missionary, Dr. Oliver R. Avison, along with many other Americans and Europeans became members of the committee. It was reported that at a summer Sunday School in Scrai Beach, Korea, a sum of money was collected by the students during a special Sunday devoted to the Armenian relief appeal. According to Wirt, “Out of their poverty, the Koreans gave to the Near East Relief.”
In Cuba, General Pedro Betancourt, the Cuban secretary of agricultural, became the president of the Armenian relief committee that was established in Havana in early 1923. Members of the executive committee included Colonel Eliseo Cartaya, General Eugenio Sanchez, and Pedro Luis Schellen of the National City Bank of New York. The committee enthusiastically pledged to raise over 7,000 bags of raw sugar, money, and clothing for the NER. The Cuban Red Cross made the initial contribution of $500 in gold, as well as the allowance of an office at its headquarters to be used by the Armenian relief committee. The Cathedral School for girls in Vedado, Havana, became the first organization to donate clothing. Most of the children were very young, but not one failed to contribute clothing, toys, or money. The New York based NER organization acknowledged that despite Cuba’s political upheaval at the time, a large number of the island’s most influential men and inhabitants “found time in their busily occupied days to share with the United States in one of the finest charities the world has ever known.”
A fascinating story of compassion and generosity came from another South American country. A college of 320 girls in Santiago, Chile decided to sacrifice dessert for a whole month and to contribute the money saved to the NER. So the 320 girls gave up cake and pudding and other dainties (and the girls were known to like this part of the meal best) for a month, and there wasn’t one complaint. It was reported at the time that when the “check was sent, deep love went with it” and “new bonds united Chilean and Armenian girlhood.”
In far away Africa, the Rev. J. D. Mbengo-Nyangia, a minister of the Independent Church in East Bank Location, South Africa, with a congregation of about 250 indigenous Kaffir folks, sent to the NER a “contribution of money to buy food for the hungry people of Armenia.” An NER publication at the time noted: “This money lost none of its value in travel, nor did the kindness that inspired the act drop any of its richness by the roadside. Rather, the remote thought and its practical spokesman bear a quality of picturesqueness that intensifies their value and usefulness.”
While many facets of the Armenian Genocide continue to be researched and studied today, the philanthropic dimension to the catastrophic event seems to have been relatively neglected. The international response to the genocide was arguably the world’s first major global humanitarian relief effort, and the United States played a leading role in achieving this landmark event.
1. “Internal Affairs of Turkey 1910–1929,” General Records of the Department of State, document no. 867.4016/117, cable record group 59, U.S. National Archives, Washington, D.C. Cleveland H. Dodge was a leading American industrialist, philanthropist, and trustee of Princeton University. Charles R. Crane was a wealthy Chicago industrialist and close friend of President Woodrow Wilson. John R Mott, an American Methodist lay person, was a long serving leader of the YMCA and the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF). Stephen S. Wise was an American reform Rabbi and Zionist leader.