United States approval of the Geneva Convention occurred in the context of increasing engagement in international political affairs. Motivated by a search for markets for increasing industrial and agricultural production, a desire to enhance security and expand influence, and a sense of national importance and confidence in its political values and institutions, the United States flexed its power and asserted its role as a force for human improvement. A global economy was increasingly connected through enhanced transportation and communication technology. People, goods, and information flowed rapidly among areas of the world that were far apart. While the reporting of world events had long influenced public sentiment in favor of relieving human suffering, the expansion of diplomatic, commercial, missionary, and recreational connections spawned wider interest in distant wars and disasters. Competition for circulation and low journalistic standards prompted sensationalized accounts of human distress. Large efforts focused on Russian famine relief in 1892, when Americans offered $1 million in goods and services. A former missionary to India, Louis Klopsch, the editor of the Christian Herald, supported the Russian famine effort and relief for victims of the Indian famines of 1897 and 1900. The Christian Herald, like other newspapers, published lurid accounts of the effects of starvation and guilt-inducing appeals for relief funds.
Although in the 1890s the ARC primarily engaged in domestic disaster relief, it cooperated with three major relief efforts abroad. The first was in response to the famine in Russia in 1892. The second was a relief mission in 1895–1897 to Armenians in Turkey. Again, the media played an important role in galvanizing American opinion to intervene. In the first instance, Russian crop failures from drought brought sympathetic outpourings of grain and other food supplies from the Midwest. Various groups participated in the effort, and the American Red Cross coordinated the shipments. An estimated 700,000 people were saved in one month from starvation.
Not long after this effort, news came from American missionaries and diplomatic personnel of the persecution of Armenian Christians in Turkey, allegedly by Kurds with the tacit approval of Ottoman officials. Americans were outraged by the reports. Pleas for assistance came from the American Board of Foreign Missions and the Armenian Relief Committee. After hope for European intervention dimmed, the ARC—led by Clara Barton—undertook a relief mission to Turkey. Barton convinced Turkish officials that the ARC would play a neutral role, assisting all victims of the ethnic and religious conflict. Under the protection of the Turkish government, the ARC team traveled into the zones where conflict had occurred, appalled at the loss of life, hunger, malnutrition, and disease they witnessed. The relief efforts included distribution of food and medicine, but American relief assistance also involved efforts to help restore economic activity through aid in reopening shops to gifts of seeds and tools to reestablish agriculture. These activities ceased after several months because of a lack of funds and reports of further carnage.
However, the attempt to provide humanitarian relief set a precedent for action within a country where the state was implicated in violence against minorities or insurgents. There had been hopes of a more official intervention. But a congressional resolution to intervene and to support the establishment of an independent Armenia never got out of committee, although Congress did pass a joint resolution that called on the president to support European powers in pressuring the Turkish government to end the carnage. Humanitarian relief had widespread support; humanitarian intervention did not.
The United States was about to emerge as an imperial power, complete with subject colonies. Yet this development originated with humanitarian concern for the victims of a repressive government and violence spawned by a Cuban struggle for independence from Spain in the 1890s. As Cuban rebels waged guerrilla war, both insurgents and Spanish officials engaged in acts of cruelty and excessive violence. Governor General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau initiated the infamous reconcentrado policy, in which civilians were moved into reconcentration camps to isolate the rebels from the civilian population. Spanish atrocities were easy to believe for Americans, many of whom harbored anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic bias. Moreover, the initial refusal of Spanish officials to undertake reforms frustrated first Grover Cleveland's and then William McKinley's administration to seek a diplomatic solution.
The American press, including the competing New York Journal of William Randolph Hearst and New York World of Joseph Pulitzer, reported sensational accounts of Spanish abuses. Then came the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in 1898, which was widely viewed as a Spanish act. Still, McKinley resisted forcible intervention. He did, however, call upon the public for relief funds, to be forwarded to a Central Cuban Relief Committee that included the ARC, the New York Chamber of Commerce, and the Christian Herald. Fund-raising ran into some difficulty because some Americans thought forceful action to end Spanish rule, rather than relief or charity, was necessary. The Red Cross in Havana coordinated the distribution of food, clothing, and medicine. A turning point in American support for intervention came after Senator Redfield Proctor traveled to the Cuban reconcentration camps, accompanied by an entourage that included Barton. Appalled by the miserable conditions in the camps, including inadequate food, sanitation, and health care, Red Cross personnel provided relief supplies and set up health facilities for the internees. Back in Congress, Proctor outlined to his colleagues the appalling conditions facing civilians in the camps. McKinley's efforts at diplomacy increasingly turned on ultimatums, which the Spanish refused to accept. In April 1898 McKinley and Congress opted for war.
Humanitarian reasons motivated many Americans to support war with Spain. The desire to end the needless hunger and deaths of innocents seemed a just cause, even a Christian duty. Furthermore, proponents of American intervention could refer to the Teller Amendment—which proclaimed that the United States had no intention of annexing Cuba—as evidence of U.S. self-lessness. Some, though, were caught up in an emotional frenzy of nationalism, seeking national prestige and power through "unselfish" intervention. U.S. intervention in the Cuban war for independence had economic and political reasons as well, namely to end the destruction of American property in Cuba and to bolster the political standing of the Republican Party. At the end of the war, moreover, U.S. imperialists, like their European counterparts, justified annexation of territory by citing a duty to uplift and civilize other peoples for their ultimate good. Violent means to that end, especially in the Philippines, shook Americans who believed the United States acted out of altruism, not selfishness.
With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, the largest international relief activity in the nation's history to that point began. Much of the relief activity was coordinated by the ARC, which faced its biggest undertaking to that point. McKinley declared the ARC the sole representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross under the Geneva Convention, and it followed a pattern that would recur in future wars. In wartime, the national Red Cross organization served the state. Competition between the Army Medical Corps and the Red Cross limited the activities of the Red Cross in some ways, and much of its work involved helping the military at home; after the war, however, the ARC also aided the victims, both military and civilian, in Cuba. Around six thousand tons of food and clothing, valued at $500,000, were distributed by the ARC in Cuba, and further assistance was provided in Puerto Rico.