Cuba, China, Korea, Hawaii and the Armenian Genocide

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 cover of the New Near East Magazine's January 1923 issue.

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.

Report in The Washington Post (Feb. 17, 1919) about one of the first shipments of American aid to the Near East.

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.

Indigenous Kaffir Folks, South Africa, who contributed to the Armenian relief appeal. (Source: New Near East, March 1921).

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.

Vicken Babkenian

Vicken Babkenian

Vicken Babkenian is an independent researcher for the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He is the co-author (with Professor Peter Stanley) of Armenia, Australia and the Great War (NewSouth Publishing 2016) - shortlisted for 2 major Australian history awards.
Vicken Babkenian

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  1. what a great story…
    first they cause our demise, which turned us into homeless refugees, and beggars, 
    then they organize a relief fund to help the starving armenians
    what angels of mercy…
    but, not all is lost, justice will be served, sooner or later
    armenians all over the globe, wake up and realize who your true enemies are, and remember safety is in qualitative numbers, organization and vigilance, and most of all being well versed in your history and MOTHER TONGUE, improving the present and planning for a super strong united armenia.
    universe…bless armenia, and all armenians across the globe

  2. I fully agree with Hayrenaser. These facts do not exalt me at all. On the contrary. To learn that imperialists who devastated the native populations of the countries mentioned and then played nice guys and general and compassionate donors (very likely just to clear their own dirty conscience for their own genocidal policies against the Chinese, the native Sud-Africans, etc.) to the Armenian cause makes me sick.

  3. Dear Hayranaser and Armenian lady

    I’m not sure if you understood Vicken’s article. The Near East Relief was a non governmental organisation. Individual Americans, Australians, native Chinese, Koreans, Filipinose, Kafir’s etc etc donated out of their compassion and sympathy. This is different from “state foreign policies” of the countries in which they lived in. The article is not intending to whitewash the dark history of imperialist nations, it’s just highlighting the fact that there were compassionate people of all nationalities that responded to the Armenian Genocide. Also, that the Armenian Genocide was widely publicised around the world and there was an international repsonse. I can’t believe you interpreted the article so wrongly.

  4. sireli david
    i understood vicken’s article very well, and i am not questioning his intentions…
    i am sharing my reaction to the genocide reality as i see it,
    “gna merir yekur sirem” closely translated would be “i will love you after your dead”
    this his how the organized criminals in  tie and suite, (aka, modern day NGO’s, non-profit charitable organization, corporation, CEOs, just a few variants of real crooks with angelic masks) operate, they murder someone and then show up to the funeral and weep pretending to show  how much they cared and loved  that person…the ultimate keghtzavoruthyun
    and by the way no government will allow  NGO’s to operate within/out of   of its territories unless they serve its needs in a form of soft power
    and last, if they really wanted to help us, they should of armed us before they were activly involved in the destruction of the ottoman empire
    they came as missionaries, surveyed the land gathered information, and proceeded with their plan, knowing very well that the armenians would be slaughtered…once again i am not fooled by this charitable cover-up,
    i am too familiar with gna merir yekur sirem sickness that has plagued the world since the beginging of time…
    as i said before, all is not lost, what goes around, comes around
    those who have ears let them hear

    ArmenianLady you are my herosuhi,  

  5. David, I can see why Hayrenaser jumped to that conclusion after putting up with his slanders in most English-language Armenian publications. I’m surprised he’s posting his commentary in what he has previously deemed an evil, ARF, anti-Hay publication, though.

  6. hagop,
    you must be confusing me with someone else, i don’t know what you mean by putting up with my slanders in other publications????\
    that aside, what part of my comment did you find slanderous, that lead you to believe that i am the same person you encountered in another context???
    i have no doubt there are many user names: hayrenaser 
    i would strongly suggest you read my comments carefully and connect the dots, i would never slander anyone or anything that is genuinely

  7. I agree with Hayaser. To add. An American relief organization’s number one job is to make a profit and meddle into the political affairs of a target nation. And nothing makes a better profit for such entities than a major disaster. From Haiti to Africa to Indonesia, examples are many.
    In my opinion, any NGO in Armenia (or elsewhere in the world) with ties to the United States is suspect. The potential for such NGOs being front offices for US intelligence services, or exploited by one, is extremely high. The death and destruction brought upon the developing/third world countries during the past fifty-sixty years by Washington based multinational corporations and government entities such as the World Bank, IMF and the USAID is biblical in magnitude, and they dwarf the supposed evils of Communism and Nazism. The Armenian sheeple need to read an insider’s two very eye opening publications. John Perkin’s – Confessions of an Economic Hitman and The Secret History of the American Empire Economic: Hit Men, Jackals, and the Truth about Global Corruption.
    Here is a little video presentation on John Perkins:

  8. Dear Avetis

    Vicken’s article is about the work of the Near East Relief from 1915 to 1929. It is not about NGOs today which may be different in their organisational structure and aims. Many Anerican missionaries did not leave their posts in order to protect Armenians during the genocide. Many American relief workers died trying to save the Armenians. The NER operated over 200 orphanages which housed and fed over 130,000 Armenian orphans who would have otherwise died. The orphanage program taught the children Armenian and made sure they kept their original Armenian Gregorian religion. I would suggest those who are ignorant of the work of the NER to read James Barton’s “The Story of Near East Relief” before passing judgement on an organisation they know nothing about.

  9. David,
    My comments were specifically addressed to “Random Armenian” and they were general in nature. Although they were ultimately political and in it for profit, I am aware of the significant charitable work carried out by the NER during the genocide years.

  10. david…
    the only ones who are ignorant are those who view the world in a narrow scope and lack the intelligence to discern between good or bad intention when they see what seems to be a helping hand, we are well aware of the angelic work that was provided to our devastated people…
    gna merir, yekur sirem…which part of that do YOU not understand?????

    random armenian…
    avetis said it eloquently, haskatsoghin shat barev, for me to say respond to you, would be redundant

    if we just  had more hayrenakitsner like avetis u armenianlady, where would we be now as a nation????

    as i said before, not all is lost

  11. Dear Hayrenaser

    Just like my decision not to engage with Turkish nationalists who deny the Armenian Genocide, I will not engage with Armenian nationalists who are ungrateful and ignorant of the enormous humanitarian relief effort mounted by concerned members of the international community. Applying “gna merir, yekur sirem” to the work of the NER is evidence of a severe lack of knowledge on the subject matter and the inability to distinguish between the policies of the US State department with the policies of a humanitarian relief organisation that was concerned with the welfare of the Armenians.

  12. david,
    this is the 2nd time you are luring me into the word fighting arena…i will not sucumb  to this  bait, i will not argue with another armenian (assuming you are one) specailly when the subject at hand is our common enemy, so go ahead throw in all your american style stereotypical rebuttals, i have heard it all…yes we are ignorant and you are enlightened, we are ultra-nationalist and you are internationalist, globalist, unitarian… 
    you the bigger person,
    we are backwards, primitive, closed mined, anti-piece, politically incorrect, blindly devoted to the welfare of our people, and utterly ungrateful,,,
    where as, you are, the model-exemplary citizen, well versed in history, full of gratitude, and well trained in diplomacy and the art of bringing people together
    why don’t we all hold hands and sing kumbayah with our murderers (not just the turks, but specially their enablers, the ones you are sooooooo grateful for) and you can lead us to the campfire
    apre’s, shat apre’s

  13. In brief  format,to David, hayrenaser,Armenianm lady and all others.
    We thank Vicken,also author of Tigris Burning ,P.Balakian and Ms.Peterson.
    David  is  right to the point.One should know to seperate compassionate folk/people,NGO’s etc., from the politico/diplomats  of especially imperialistic  countries.
    My view point is the rest of you also have  indeed some reason…”Todos tenemos razon” a diplomatic phrase in spanish, that…moderates,such as self  now…meaning we all have reason in what we set forth to explain the many facets of our people…NAY  our Nation/State,excuse my mistake.for we are no more a pueblo/people..BUT  a NAION/State.Let us all be proud of it  and Artsakh that was similarly liberated from usurpers…
    As to the Nation/states  whose “compassiponate” sector CONTRIBUTED to Armenia and Armenians we bow  and thank them and hope we can  some reciprocate to them if God forbid need  arises.Dimplomacy///that is another sector  of humanity.A very clumsy one that has to be handled  with utmost caution,lest we make errors…
    hama Haigagani  SIRO

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