Humanitarian Intervention and Relief - The interwar period




In the 1920s public interest in international affairs declined, partly out of weariness with Europe and disillusionment with international diplomacy. However, Americans still responded to disasters abroad such as famines and earthquakes. A Japanese earthquake in 1923 led to a large outpouring of relief assistance, which the navy helped deliver.

The 1930s saw a renewal of international conflict, and while Americans strongly supported neutrality, they contributed to relief efforts in China and Spain and for persecuted Jews. Economic hardship during the Depression, however, reduced the success of fund-raising. In 1938 the ARC tried to raise $1 million for China relief. It was unsuccessful. The Committee for Impartial Civilian Relief in Spain failed to reach its goal of $300,000. But while Americans sought to stay out of war, the conflicts in China and Spain provoked partiality toward one side or another.

European Jews suffered increasingly from harsh anti-Semitic policies as the decade wore on. Jewish Americans had long participated in relief efforts, and in 1914 the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a multinational organization, had been formed to provide relief to Jews persecuted in Europe. Much more than a relief agency, its leaders sought to combat anti-Semitism and promote a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The JDC did not just assist Jews. For example, it assisted in famine relief in Russia without regard to religion. The JDC and other Jewish organizations such as the American Palestine Appeal grew in the 1920s, although they differed over the goal of Zionism, which was the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The JDC and other groups provided relief assistance in the 1930s for Jews in Europe and migrants to Palestine and elsewhere.

The Japanese war in China led to a great outpouring of sympathy for the plight of the Chinese. Chinese Americans raised relief funds, as did the American Red Cross, churches, missionaries, and business leaders. Seven agencies working together established United China Relief, buoyed by such prominent supporters as Time publisher Henry Luce, who had long promoted Chinese cultural affinity with the United States; Pearl Buck; Paul G. Hoffman; David O. Selznick; Thomas Lamont; and John D. Rockefeller III. The honorary chairman was Eleanor Roosevelt. Despite its success, United China Relief was criticized for its high administrative costs. Still, funds sent to China provided basic necessities and supported Chinese Industrial Cooperatives that employed Chinese refugees and produced a variety of goods, including some for the military resistance to Japanese. The immensity of Chinese suffering continued as China fought Japan and faced civil conflict.

The Spanish Civil War represented the type of civil conflict in which even neutral groups like the ARC had been reluctant to operate. To provide relief assistance, specialized organizations such as the Spanish Child Welfare Association and the Committee for Impartial Relief of Spain joined with the ARC and long-established religious relief groups, including the Mennonite Central Relief Committee, the Brethren Board of Christian Education, and the American Friends Service Committee, all from religious peace traditions. The most active group was the American Friends Service Committee, which coordinated relief and fed hundreds of thousands of hungry people, especially children. Shortages of supplies led to the practice of weighing children and keeping records to determine who most desperately needed food. While a desperate compassion motivated this practice, it was also consonant with the growing rationalization of relief efforts. The ideological nature of the conflict led to tension both within the AFSC and between the relief effort and Americans at home who chose sides. The U.S. government, despite neutrality legislation, provided agricultural surpluses through the U.S. Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation, which was given authority by Congress to offer wheat to the Red Cross in 1938.

After the outbreak of war in 1939, organizing and fund-raising activity for relief purposes expanded. The Neutrality Act of 1939 required voluntary agencies engaged in relief to register with the State Department and keep it apprised of their activities. The law did not apply to areas out-side of Europe, like China, the Soviet Union, or Finland, but only to belligerent nations. It also exempted the ARC. From 1939 to 1941, when the United States entered the war, almost $50 million was raised for the relief of civilians and refugees by registered voluntary agencies. Congress appropriated $50 million for the ARC, which continued to receive donated funds. The Department of Commerce reported $174.4 million in goods and funds sent abroad, which included relief sent to areas not covered by the neutrality legislation.

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