The Spanish-American War set off alarms that the United States was ill-prepared to fight in war. The "splendid little war," as it was called by John Hay, U.S. ambassador to Britain, was actually a lesson in poor management and planning, with soldiers suffering disease exacerbated by inadequate sanitation and poor food. Progressive-era efforts at the rationalization and organization of modern society extended to the military, but they also affected relief efforts of the kind conducted primarily by the ARC. Increasingly, the ARC faced charges of inept management, and foes targeted the personal leadership of its founder. In 1900 the ARC was incorporated by Congress and in 1905 it underwent reorganization and reincorporation. The ARC was subjected to a national audit by the War Department and officials of the government were placed on its Central Committee. In a sense the ARC, recognized under the provisions of the Geneva treaty, was now a quasi-governmental institution. While still funded by private donations, it was now akin to other Red Cross organizations in other nations in its relationship to the state. Still, the organization remained small and had difficulty in raising funds, especially on a consistent basis.
Before World War I natural disasters rather than wars were the focus of the international activity of the ARC and other, more spontaneous (ad hoc), organizations. The most significant assistance went to Asia and Italy, with lesser amounts going in response to crises such as an earthquake in Costa Rica, a fire in Istanbul, a typhoon in Samoa, and a cholera outbreak in Tripoli's Jewish community. Occupations by U.S. armed forces in the Caribbean region led to military relief efforts during disasters, but given the larger consequences of occupation, the assistance did little to endear the United States to local populations. Limited assistance was provided for civilian victims of war in the Balkans and in Mexico. Famines in Japan and China drew sympathy. Missionaries and commercial interests there drew attention to the plight of the starving after crop failures in Japan and flooding in China. While many voluntary organizations participated, Theodore Roosevelt designated the ARC as the official relief agent to deal with the crisis in Japan. Over $245,000 worth of money, food, and supplies was sent to Japan, where the Japanese Red Cross oversaw the receipt and distribution of relief assistance. The large foreign presence in China was the context for an international effort composed of diplomats, businessmen, missionaries, and some Chinese, who created the Central China Famine Relief Committee. In addition to providing foodstuffs, the committee promoted public works and distributed seed. Much of the U.S. aid was funneled through the ARC, which participated in the relief effort.
The deep American economic and missionary involvement in China and concerns about the poverty and vulnerability of the local population led to efforts to move beyond temporary relief measures. American observers noted that repeated flooding along the heavily populated rivers of northern China resulted in frequent famine. Dismayed that relief efforts were required again and again, and confident that American engineering could find a solution to the underlying problems, the ARC initiated flood control schemes, a major departure from its customary practice. The Chinese government paid for American engineers retained by the Red Cross to study the problem and propose a solution. In 1914 they completed a proposal for a flood control project in the Huai River basin, with a cost estimated at $30 million. The ARC agreed with the Chinese government to assist in rallying U.S. bankers to the cause, but the eruption of World War I sidetracked their efforts. The Red Cross had spent over $1 million in China before World War I and would again provide relief. However, despite later Chinese requests that the Red Cross again join in supporting the Huai River project, the ARC determined that it was outside the scope of its activities.
Another departure from early Red Cross practice occurred in Italy. In 1908 southern Italy suffered a destructive earthquake and tidal wave near Messina. The resulting campaign to raise contributions to the Red Cross disaster fund was wildly successful. Americans provided over $1 million. Some relief money went directly to Italian relief agencies, but in contrast to the experience in Japan, charges of abuses of funds and unwise expenditures led to a decision by ARC officials to direct relief efforts themselves. American missionaries and religious organizations also participated in relief efforts. Once again, the Red Cross experimented in this period with assistance that went beyond the scope of immediate relief of hunger or sickness. Because so many Italians were left homeless, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of housing for the displaced. The ARC combined its resources with this federal funding and, along with U.S. naval personnel and Italians, participated in an early experiment in prefabricated home construction using partially constructed cottages shipped from the United States.
Before World War I the ARC primarily involved itself in disaster relief, but there were exceptions. The Mexican Revolution spawned intense human suffering and widespread displacement. In response, churches, the ARC, and spontaneously organized local groups provided sporadic relief. Much of the relief efforts were concentrated along the U.S.–Mexican border and conducted by local organizations, including local chapters of the Red Cross. The ARC expended only $125,000, a minuscule sum given the extent of the humanitarian crisis. A special appeal by President Woodrow Wilson brought in only $69,000. Civil breakdown in Mexico, along with physical destruction of transportation, fears of anti-American sentiment, and uncertainty of political protection from competing political factions led the Red Cross to undertake just a few projects. The lack of empathy generated by the Mexican Revolution, compared to the response to the Italian earthquake, may be explained in part by the contrast in American attitudes toward victims of natural disaster and victims of political and social violence. Frustration over economic losses from the revolution, indifference or outright hostility resulting from racism, fears of political radicalism, uncertainty about how the seemingly intractable conflict would be resolved, and reflexive disdain for Mexican disorder may have hardened Americans to the plight of the suffering.
The Mexican Revolution posed a special dilemma for humanitarian relief efforts because the United States occasionally intervened in the conflict. The ARC was presumably neutral, but matters were confused by its recognition by the government and the fact that at this time the president of the United States was also the president of the ARC. In this era legal problems arose because the Mexican revolution was a civil conflict. The judge advocate general of the army ruled that the Geneva provisions for Red Cross neutrality during war did not apply, because the belligerents in this conflict had no legal status. Practically, the American Red Cross could operate only insofar as warring factions agreed to give it protection.