During World War II the U.S. government extended its role in relief and rehabilitation assistance. It also asserted control over the many voluntary agencies that were a hallmark of the American experience in humanitarian relief. The neutrality legislation of 1939 required detailed information from organizations involved in activities with states at war. Philanthropic organizations engaging in foreign activities, including relief organizations, had to be licensed by the State Department. The department refused to allow relief assistance for refugees in Axis-occupied countries. This limitation, of course, continued after the United States entered the war. Despite the efforts of Herbert Hoover, who organized the Committee on Food for the Small Democracies to undertake relief along the lines of the CRB in World War I, President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to allow relief to German-occupied countries on the grounds that this would help Germany.
Public criticism of frivolous and unscrupulous fund-raising and of high overhead by some agencies gave credence to the U.S. effort to oversee the voluntary agencies, but the primary goal of the State Department was to assure that they operated in the service of larger policy goals. During the war the government sought to keep the relief agencies' operations efficient and to avoid overlap with the ARC, with which it preferred to work. In the spring of 1941, Roosevelt named Joseph E. Davies to head the new Committee on War Relief Agencies, later the Relief Control Board (RCB). Through consolidation, the number of licensed voluntary agencies was reduced from 300 at the end of 1941 to 67 by war's end. The agencies were organized into country groups. After the war the Relief Control Board became the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid, which did not require licensing, although it did decide which private groups would get government funds. In addition, during the war a private group known as the Council of Voluntary Agencies worked with the RCB. Although voluntary groups continued to raise funds from the American public, they relied heavily on government resources. From 1939 through 1954 government funding to voluntary groups totaled $54 million for Russia, $38 million for Great Britain, $36 million for Palestine, $35 million for China, and $30 million for Greece.
During World War II the ARC made a sharp distinction between civilian war relief and services for American armed forces. While the ARC provided supervisory and coordinating functions for relief to civilians, it generally did not send personnel to direct civilian war relief during World War II, except for some milk distribution to children in North Africa and limited efforts in Italy. Instead, civilian war relief delivery became the province of the state through the armed forces, the Office of Foreign Relief and Rehabilitation (OFRR), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). The Red Cross spent as much as half of its funds on returning servicemen and women and their dependents. The government's extensive role in relief and rehabilitation contrasted sharply with its practice in World War I.
Another departure from World War I regarded measures for providing relief to prisoners of war, the latest addition to the Geneva Convention role for the Red Cross. The combatants in World War II were, except for the Soviet Union and Japan, signatories to the 1929 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. The convention established the principle that national relief societies could work among prisoners of war to assure humane treatment, with the assumption that the International Red Cross would direct such activities. German authorities allowed the Red Cross to send packages according to the rules, but the Japanese government had never ratified the Geneva Convention and did not permit International Red Cross inspection of its prisoner of war camps or give safe conduct to neutral relief ships. During World War II, attempts by relief organizations to provide relief to prisoners of war set enduring precedents. The State Department gave the ARC authority to coordinate all relief supplies to American soldiers held by enemy powers. In addition to government financing and cooperation from the navy and army, the ARC spent over $6 million providing relief to prisoners of war with weekly food packages to American prisoners of war and monthly packages to many Allied prisoners of war. Other supplies, including clothing, toiletries, and medicine, were sent as well. The International Committee of the Red Cross also carried out inspections to make sure camp authorities complied with the terms of the Geneva Convention. Standards were uneven in the various camps and over time, but given the hardships of the war, it was clear that the Geneva Convention and the activities of the Red Cross ensured humane treatment for prisoners of war of nations signatory to the agreement. Unfortunately, since the Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention, its prisoners of war were badly treated by the Germans, and prisoners of Soviet forces also faced harsh conditions and brutal treatment.
Most prisoner of war relief supplies went to prisoners in Europe. Some International Red Cross officials were permitted to inspect Japanese prisoner of war camps in some parts of the Philippines and Japan, but inspectors were not permitted in most camps in Asia. Japanese officials permitted limited delivery of relief supplies, but not on a regular basis, and some relief supplies sat in Vladivostok until the end of the war, when they were finally distributed to liberated prisoners.
German concentration camps were filled with civilians (including political prisoners) and did not come under the purview of the Geneva Convention. Whether detention or extermination camps, internees faced intolerable conditions, and the International Red Cross was not permitted to inspect them. Millions died in such camps, including Jewish victims of the Final Solution, the Nazi campaign to eliminate European Jews.