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America's DutyEdit

By Newton D. Baker, Secretary of War

From a meeting of the American Red Cross War Council, Washington, D.C., May 24–25, 1917


I shall not attempt to describe the size of our American duty beyond saying that the human race is a waif left to die unless we, as trustees, accept the task of rescuing it.

I suppose there has not been, since the very early times in human history, a war in which slaughter was so casual as it is in this. Of course, there has not been in recorded human history a war in which slaughter was so tremendous in its proportions as in this war.

I speak of its casual character because for a great many hundred years we have been progressing in the direction of limiting the horrors of war to the combatants, and that in this twentieth century we should revert to the casual slaughter of children, to the improvident slaughter of women, to the theory of warfare by the extermination of peoples, and to the use of weapons of war like starvation and disease—for both of them have become weapons of war—is an unthinkable reversion to a barbarous type which it was the hope of the intelligent that the world had outgrown.

Tragic figures in historyEdit

But, whatever the cause, the fact remains that the suffering of the people in these warring countries is more widespread, the desolation and devastation more complete, than ever before within the knowledge of living persons; and as this mode of warfare has not spared little persons, so it has not spared little nations.

I suppose that when this war comes to be written as an epic—and it will some day be written as an epic of the folly of mankind—the tragic figures in it that will persist in the imagination and memory of mankind forever will be countries like Belgium and Roumania and Poland.

America's duty! We are separated from the actual scene of this conflict by thousands of miles of sea. Our losses in it have as yet been minor. We are entering the war in the firm belief and purpose of ending it in a victory for right, and we have not the slightest intention of stopping until that victory is achieved!

Mad as the world seems to be, some day there will be reëstablished on this stricken planet a peace which will be just and wise and permanent—just in proportion as America pours out her spiritual resources in the waging of the war from now on and is heard at the conference table to challenge the attention of mankind to the beauty of righteousness among nations!

But in the meantime, as the armies which are being called are trained and are led to battle, all along the national wayside of every nation in the world still crouch the terrified and trampled figures of the children of mankind—disowned, starving, and dying.

Horrors that make the stoutest hearts quailEdit

There is no limit to it, and I shall not undertake to harrow your feelings—in fact, I am not certain that I could command myself to repeat intimate letters which I have seen within the last day or two about Roumania.

But the call is limitless and it is going to be made known to the hearts of the people of the United States, and we are going to endeavor to respond to this cry of distress. The President has urged that the Red Cross be made the vehicle of our response.

Organization for any task is the more important as the task becomes larger and more serious. It requires no organization to allow one of us as an individual to buy a dinner for a hungry man. But it requires a very high degree of organization effectively and economically and wisely to administer the charities of a city. It requires a very much higher degree of organization and coördination to make effective the philanthropies of a nation.

By that same token it requires the highest degree of organization, of concentration and consecration of purpose, the most careful coöperation, the most willing harmony, the utmost centralization of effort, to deal with the woes of a world.

And so, in the interest of making effective our generous impulses, in the interest of saving just as many as we can—facing an impossible task in size, and yet seeking to save life and alleviate pain and suffering just as far as we can—the concentration of our efforts through the Red Cross, which has both a national and an international status and is managed and conducted by men of large affairs and great experience with this sort of thing, seems to be essentially demanded.

I think if anybody would ask me how much he ought to give to the Red Cross at this time I would say, “All you have.” That is a counsel of perfection, I know, but then it would not be enough.

I understand the War Council has set itself the task of raising one hundred million dollars.

Give till you feel itEdit

That may sound to some like a large amount, and yet this war is costing in actual money every day from sixty to seventy millions of dollars, and in human life from ten to fifteen thousand of those who are killed in actual warfare, without counting those who starve and die of disease.

The Red Cross of the United States of America has set itself the great task of raising for, one might say, cosmic philanthropy a sum equal to the destruction which the war entails in a day.

I cannot further describe the size of this task. I am very happy to repeat the admonition of the President of the United States to the people that they centralize their energies. Let us have as little lost motion as possible about this great enterprise, and center our activities in this national and international agency. The response which we ought to make ought to be limited only by the extent to which our sympathy, enlightened by knowledge and stirred by imagination, and then overstepping rather than understepping the mark, will enable us to make sacrifices for the greatest need the world has ever known!

Source: Newton D. Baker (May 1917), “America's Duty”, The National Geographic Magazine 31(5): 453–457.