The end of the First World War brought to a conclusion what had been regarded at the time as the bloodiest conflict in human history. For the tens of thousands of Armenians who survived the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey, the end of the war did not bring an end to their suffering. Many of them became victims of a second round of massacres in the 1920’s during the onslaught by the Turkish nationalists. In refugee camps across the region, vast numbers of Armenians were homeless and destitute, and relied on international compassion for survival.
In 1921, a group of Americans associated with the Near East Relief (NER), an organization established to save the survivors of the Armenian Genocide, launched the Lenten Sacrifice Committee. The committee members were prompted by the desperate situation of more than 110,000 Armenian orphans whose lives were completely dependent on American aid. The committee was headed by Major-General Leonard Wood, the chief of staff of the United States Army and at one time military governor of Cuba. Wood declared that “Americans will not willingly allow a child to starve; they only need to be shown how to save lives and the means are forthcoming.”1
In order to reach their objective, the committee pioneered a philanthropic technique in the form of a coupon booklet designed by the secretary of the Pennsylvanian NER committee, George E. Silloway. The booklet, titled “The Life of a Child,” begged the question, “What is Your Verdict … 115,000 little children await the verdict of America as to whether they shall have life or death.” The booklet contained 60 $1 removable coupons with 60 unique pictures of the Armenian Genocide printed on one side. It was stated that each coupon purchased would prolong the life of a child for one week, that 5 coupons would give life to a child for a month, and 60 coupons would give life to a child for a year.
The booklet attempted to transform a vast and distant horror into a sympathetic cause in which Americans could channel sentiment into action. The booklet stated: “If you rescued a child from drowning today, you will be hailed as a hero… It is just as much within your power to save a child from death as if one were drowning in your sight, and you should leap to his rescue. But the child whom you can save through the suggestions of this little booklet is dying a slow and agonizing death from starvation and needs your help infinitely more… You may never see this child whom you have saved.”2
Tens of thousands of the coupon booklets were sold throughout the United States by fraternal organizations and friends of the NER. The first lady of the United States, Florence Harding, and the president, each pledged responsibility for the life of an Armenian child for a year by purchasing a booklet. In both public and private life, the Hardings were staunch endorsers of the NER. In a letter to the NER, Mrs. Harding wrote: “I am very glad, indeed, to testify to my keen interest in the work that that is being carried on in behalf of relief of suffering in the Near East. I have had some occasion to acquaint myself with the gravity of conditions in that historic area, and earnestly hope that the efforts now on foot for its amelioration may produce results that will testify to the humane interest and sympathy of the American people.”3
With the support of President Woodrow Wilson, the American Committee of Armenian and Syrian relief (later known as Near East Relief) was inaugurated in September 1915. By 1930, the organization had raised over $110 million (about $1.4 billion in today’s terms) and is accredited for having saved the lives of about 1 million Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians from almost certain death. President Calvin Coolidge stated that the NER “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.”4
The activities of the NER were so widespread in America that it was reported at the time that there “is scarcely a child in the United States who has not, through church or school, helped to feed and clothe the children of the Near East.”5 Sadly, despite the unprecedented scope of America’s humanitarian response to the Armenian Genocide, the history of the NER does not form part of America’s collective memory of the First World War. Through the work of historians such as Keith Watenpaugh, Peter Balakian, Merill Peterson, and others, the history of the NER is becoming more widely known. However, there is still a great deal of work required in having the history of the NER taught as a fundamental part of American social history in schools and colleges throughout the United States.
1. “Lighten the Shadows of the Cross,” The New Near East, Near East Relief, March 1921, p. 10
2. “The Life of Child,” Coupon Booklet, Near East Relief, 1921, p. 1.
3. “The Chosen Executives of America Adopt Orphans of the Near East,” The New Near East, Near East Relief, May 1921, p. 3.
4. James Barton, The Story of Near East Relief: 1915-1930, Macmillan, New York, 1930.
5. The New Near East, Near East Relief, June 1924, back page.