It was about a hundred years ago and a period of history most people have forgotten.
It was during the throes of the First World War that Iran, a militarily-weak country, watched helplessly as Turkish and Russian armies battled each other across its territory, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake and tens of thousands of refugees. Starvation and disease were soon decimating these poor victims of war.
But into this huge humanitarian gap jumped, without hesitation, America’s Near East Relief organization, perhaps the greatest American humanitarian organization that ever existed. It would go on to be responsible for saving at least one million lives in the war-wracked Near East in Syria, Iran, the Russian Caucasus and Greece, especially those of children. At one time, Near East Relief was caring for, feeding and providing medical care to 132,000 orphans. And yet nowadays hardly anyone knows the name of Near East Relief and the great work it did.
The Near East Relief got its start in September, 1915 when a telegram was received in the United states from the American ambassador to Greece, Henry Morgenthau, about the Turkish genocide against the Armenians. In it, he urged the formation of a committee to save the Armenians.
“The destruction of the Armenian race is rapidly progressing,” stated Morgenthau.
Morgenthau’s message was then given to James L. Barton, Foreign secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, who enlisted Cleveland H. Dodge to form a committee to address the Armenian crisis. Dodge was a personal friend of President Woodrow Wilson.
Under the leadership of Dodge, Barton and Samuel Dutton with Henry Morgenthau, the Near East Relief was founded first as the Armenian Relief Committee, and then the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief. It was incorporated to be an act of Congress in August, 1919 as the Near East Relief.
Former President William Taft was named in this act of Congress as an incorporating officer. The Near East Relief always received substantial presidential backing.
Taft was the subject of a New Orleans newspaper story in which he made a Christmas appeal for Near East Relief. Wilson gave government money and food to the organization and ordered the army and navy to cooperate with Near East Relief, having the navy make ships available. Presidents Coolidge and Harding did the same, with President Coolidge writing the introduction to Story of the Near East Relief (1915-1930): An Interpretation, the excellent account of this splendid organization and its work. Future president Franklin Roosevelt was also listed as a trustee.
What motivated the ten men of the founding committee, who were white and mostly of Anglo-American background (except for rabbi Nathan Wise), to act so promptly on behalf of peoples that most barely knew existed before the war was their Christian piety.
“The Armenians have no one to speak for them and it is without question a time when the voice of Christianity should be raised,” stated Near East Relief founder James Barton.
These men took their Christian faith so seriously that they even sang Christian hymns at Executive Committee meetings. Most remained Executive committee members until 1930, ensuring continuity. Three died while serving on the committee.
The founders at first had no idea of the scale of the problem facing them. They first decided to raise $100,000 with some thinking that was too large a sum. The Near East Relief would go on to raise about $91,000,000, an enormous sum in 1920s dollars.
It is inconceivable nowadays to imagine the national effort made by Americans to raise money for the Near East Relief. It seemed like everyone and every organization in the nation participated, especially religious ones. Sunday schools raised one million dollars. Children donated their daily school milk ration. Boy and Girl Scouts helped tremendously. Unions, the Rockefeller Foundation, and women’s organizations all donated, among many others. The head of the National Women’s Organization always was a board of trustees member. Subcommittees of the Near East Relief were set up in every state, including Honolulu and the District of Columbia, often chaired by governors.
For Iran, the Near East Relief decided to send out a special commission, the only time it ever did so. It was headed by Dr. Harry Judson, president of the university of Chicago, who was received by the shah and highly decorated by him. Judson also met with the Secretary of State.
Seventy-five relief workers were in Iran at war’s start, mostly missionaries. They knew the languages and local conditions and provided invaluable to Near East Relief for whom many of them eventually worked. Near East Relief workers’ salaries, were minimal. However, they weren’t there for money, but to serve.
The commission had its work cut out for it. Due to the war, as one observer noted in the Story of the Near East Relief:
“The country was in terrible state, and the peasantry was in the last stages of starvation.”
There was “failure in crops and vast fertile districts abandoned because of insecurity” which brought “hunger and distress to great masses of people…” Marauding Kurdish tribes were also a danger. Dead bodies lay at street sides.
And all the while “men…are praying for America to save them this winter from starvation, or death by cold.
One American relief worker, a missionary, fled with the refugees when the Turkish army invaded. She estimates there were 70,000 refugees in her “endless human caravan,” many of them Christians with some Armenians refugees from Turkey, of whom 2,500-3,000 died during the flight.
Her missionary husband, a doctor, died during the flight of cholera. At one point, thirteen of eighteen American relief workers contracted from the refugees typhus and typhoid. Three of these died in the service of the Iranian people and lie in Iran. Telegrams frequently brought news of American relief workers’ deaths.
As stated about Iran at that time: “One calamity followed another in rapid succession.”
But there was hope. Thirty thousand refugees were being helped in Tehran alone. This did not include the thousands of others in other Iranian cities, towns and villages.
But it was America’s large heart and generous spirit that saved thousands of lives of Iranian refugees like these. Near East Relief, which was non-political, said its mission was to save life regardless of race or creed, which it did splendidly in Iran.
It imported tons of food and medical supplies into the country to feed the desperate Iranian population. Near East Relief also provided much-needed quilts, clothing and charcoal for warmth and for fuel.
A report of a local relief committee stated that from the money the Near East Relief had sent; “…many villagers have sown wheat and barley and thousands have been saved from starvation.”
In the wake of war always come orphans. Iran was no different. Near East Relief ran there three orphanages for the destitute children, who arrived dirty, in rags and disease-ridden. The American orphanages cleaned them up, cared for them and provided education, so that they could later provide for themselves and become productive citizens.
Near East Relief represents America at one of her greatest moments. It is a wonder Near East Relief is so forgotten today. Peoples of the Near East thought of America, as one reporter stated, “in terms of the Near East Relief activities.”
Another reporter stated: “… the United States has given the world a fine exemplification of practical Christianity.”
And still another wrote: “No relief in history has directly saved so many lives and put so many children on their feet and the management has won and deserved the thanks of humanity.”
But where Near East relief and their supporters were mistaken is that they thought the gratitude of peoples like the Iranians would last for generations for saving so many of their citizens’ lives.
It would be interesting to know what the hard-working Near East Relief officials and workers, especially those who gave their lives, would think of Iranians yelling “Death to America” in their streets today. But knowing them, their Christian piety, their self-sacrifice for their fellow man and the times they lived in, they would still do it all over again wherever humanity is suffering. Perhaps this is their greatest tribute.