America’s Chosen Executives Help Save Lives of Armenian Children

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.

Front cover of The Life of a Child coupon booklet

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

Page 7 of the coupon booklet

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

Page 10 of the coupon booklet

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.

Endnotes

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.

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.

9 Comments

  1. A great article with such educational information that we can all attach as to what our parents endured and how so many miraculously survived.
     

  2. A great article that recounts the charitable deeds of many Americans to save the survivors of the Armenian Genocide . A Genocide that successive American Presidents have refused to acknowledge! 

  3. Wow.. very informative article….  It clearly says that US is turning its face from recognizing the Armenian Genocide despite all these evidence…it is a shame…

    Gayane

  4. Dr. Diamadis puts it right. 
    Let the facts speak for themselves:
    In a society where family takes care of its own, to find such a high incidence of orphans is evidence of the degree of destruction of lives that took place.  Under ‘normal’ circumstances, an aunt, uncle or grandparent would assume the care of an orphaned child, but in this case, there were no remaining relatives to be found.
     

  5. Many of us are descendants of Armenian Orphans left over from the Ottoman Sword, about 70% of us in Fresno are, this is why we pay so close attention to our many missionary and support groups for the current orphans in Armenia.
    We are in crisis, their parents cannot find jobs and struggle, as many as 200 people a day leave Armenia to find work in Russia, Turkey or Dubai.  Many must leave their children with a relative, neighbor or at one of the 16 state run orphanages – This is wrong.  It is ah’mote for this to be happening to our future generation of children.
    ARF, AYF and many other groups are not only putting bandaids on the situation with aid to the children or sending them to camps, but are creating training and volcational assistance. 
    We must create commerce and an economy for the future generation of Armenians, 40% don’t want to stay in Armenia, our villages are emptying out.  Please support those programs like farm assistance, etc., that promote Armenians learning and providing with their OWN hands.

  6. Turkey’s onging lying/denials of the Turkish Genocide of the Armenian nation… now does that mean that the Turkish leaderships thus deny- too, the existence of  the Near East Relief organization –  an historic USA organization.. too, the history of the Near East Relief… 
    In the United States of America the Near East Relief was formed directly to offer aid to the survivors of the Turkish Genocide of the Armenian nation.

  7. It talks about Armenians in the U.S. as professional beggars who live in luxury while their countrymen bleed. Not good at all.

    America and the Armenians
    The Reno Evening Gazette U.S. / November 14, 1915

    Having imposed upon a committee of well-meaning but admittedly prejudiced American missionaries, the same agencies that have been engaged in reporting Armenian outrages which never had been committed are now trying to mislead Christian charity in America and Switzerland into furnishing funds for the relief of the supposed victims of the unspeakable Turk.

    It would not matter, so far as the country at large is concerned, but unfortunately there is danger that a self-sufficient person like President Woodrow Wilson will accept these stories of atrocities as truth, with no further evidence than the statements of Armenians who are directly interested in raising money for the support of themselves. Professional beggars who have bled their own countrymen for years are now trying to to induce kindly Americans to support them, not caring for whether the United States would or should not be imbroiled with Turkey and through Turkey with Germany. Ambassador Morgenthau appears to have fallen a ready victim to the same smooth rascals that, by apocryphal tales of outrages, have procured contributions from their Armenian countrymen abroad and in this country and have lived in luxury on the proceeds for the last 30 years.

    The ambassador seriously notified the state department that the Turks had slaughtered “the majority of the Armenians of Asia Minor.” This “majority” now turns out to be 32,000 known to be hostile to Turkey and, therefore, dispossessed of their homes in Erzerum and Zeitun and interned in a district where they could be watched by Turkish troops — not killed, nor even dying. The English have done no more with German residents and even with English subjects of German birth and the Germans have done the same with English residents of the German states.

    If this country, therefore, does not want to appear foolish before the whole world it will refuse to be duped by impossible tales and will let the Armenians severely alone.

  8. Why try to prove more then….rather, try to find out the WHY we are not being justified and compensated for.
    Fact of the matter is We are not wanted there…..(meaning where East and Western Armenia is located.) Why???
    Clear enough the powers have had their eyes on the Baku oilfields , since begiining of 18th century,fought over it,lost and then again gained…
    Want facts. The Red Army in 1920´s entered Baku and took over the oilfields.Never m ind the Comissars whether Azeri or Armenian…they planted themselves there. Who were the Red army principally??
    The Russians of course.
    Then after 70 years of WAIT the Anglo-Ams triumphed and re-entered BAku!!!!
    Why do I say re entered, becasue they were there actually from the 1900 hundreds-that is when the four Armenian families had started exploration ,the Mantashians, The Lazarians, the Lianazof´s, the Nercessians…
    And through these and Gulbenkian profited by the oil…
    Now re enter and through their stooges,Aliev etc., make certain that it flows through great Turkey-paying later yearly 1.6 million dollars as Transit duty and then sell it in Europe at high profits…
    Try to ex`plain then why we are not fortifying ourselves against such devious!!

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