In Spring 1915, U.S. diplomats and missionaries in Turkey began firing off grim messages describing Armenian Christians being systematically disarmed, driven from their homes, and corralled into death marches that stretched into the Syrian desert.
It was the start of the Armenian Genocide, during which right-wing Turkish nationalists murdered an estimated 1.5 million Armenians and wiped out their ancestral communities. This month, the Armenian diaspora — some 11 million people — are marking the 100th anniversary of the genocide with memorial events, church services, and academic conferences.
The commemorative activities are attracting heavy attention. The Armenian American reality TV star Kim Kardashian lent some star power to the anniversary during a visit to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Human-rights lawyer Amal Clooney and her husband, actor George Clooney, headlined a March event hosted by 100 Lives, an effort to preserve and share the stories of the Armenian Genocide.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government, which denies that a genocide occurred, recalled its ambassador to the Vatican after Pope Francis used the term "genocide" during a Mass earlier this month.
Buried amid it all is an important but little known chapter in American philanthropy history: the unprecedented national charitable response to the genocide that drew the equivalent of more than $1 billion in private donations. Using sophisticated fundraising techniques that attracted everyone from Sunday school children to the mightiest industrialists of the day, the effort saved hundreds of thousands of people, including 130,000 orphans, and is credited by some for rescuing the Armenians from total annihilation.
"It broke all records in American philanthropy, but it wasn’t by accident," said Suzanne Moranian, a historian and the president of the Armenian International Women’s Association. "This was highly orchestrated."
Ties between the United States and the Armenian people date to the first half of the 19th century. It was then that American missionaries, many Congregationalists sent by the Boston-based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, began to establish hundreds of schools, colleges, hospitals, and churches in Armenian communities in what was then the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey.
As Christians living within a predominantly Muslim population, Armenians flocked to American-sponsored institutions like the American College for Girls in Constantinople and St. Paul’s Institute in Tarsus, whose patrons included a Vanderbilt.
The flow of money, missionaries, and communiqués between the evangelical Protestant establishment in the United States and Armenian population centers continued for decades. "The soil had been tilled, if you will — increasingly so at the end of the 19th century," said Susan Billington Harper, a nonresident scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who researches and writes on the topic.
Sounding the Alarm
It was those missionaries, along with members of the U.S. diplomatic corps and business community, who sounded the alarm as the Armenian Genocide commenced in 1915 amid the chaos of World War I. Trying to avoid Turkish censorship, U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau and missionaries such as Mary Louise Graffam sent hundreds of messages, some written in informal, improvised code, describing the events and entreating well-positioned colleagues back home for help.
Those communications were kindling for a massive national philanthropic push, much of it organized under a fundraising machine that would eventually be known as Near East Relief. The Rockefeller Foundation was an early backer. And with the Near East Relief board packed with moneyed, powerful trustees such as capitalists Cleveland Hoadley Dodge and William Cooper Procter, the effort raised $116 million during more than a decade, the equivalent of over $1 billion today.
"Near East Relief was the pioneer of the multimedia campaign," said Molly Sullivan, director and curator of the Near East Relief Historical Society. "The founders were extremely connected to philanthropists, businesspeople, educators. They had many contacts at newspapers, at radio stations, and in the arts as well."
Fundraisers tapped Americans’ generosity in a myriad of ways. The backbone was America’s network of evangelical Protestant churches. They hosted church field days, in which donations were solicited directly from the pulpits of every church in a specific community. Donors were invited to sponsor an orphan for the duration of his or her education, an action that was then referred to as "adoption" because the concept of international adoption did not yet exist. The sponsors received photos and a report card in return.
In October 1916, two days were set aside for a national Armenian relief drive, headlined by prominent political and civic leaders.
Americans also participated in huge numbers in what were known as Golden Rule Sunday meals. They entailed consuming a lunch or dinner comparable to those that Armenian orphans ate and then donating the difference in cost to the Near East Relief campaign.
"They were really pioneers of a lot of the kinds of fundraising techniques that we are familiar with today," Ms. Harper said.
There were bundle-day campaigns in which Americans donated clothing and shoes, and private companies then took up the cost to ship them overseas. Farmers filled burlap bags with grain that was shipped to starving communities.
As efforts to save the Armenians and other minorities from starvation after World War I continued into the 1920s, Near East Relief officials produced a monthly magazine to keep the American public informed about its work. They also produced sophisticated how-to materials. One organization manual dated 1925 offers fundraising strategies, with details on how to secure big gifts. "It is desirable wherever possible to prepare a selected list of those in the community capable of making a large gift or at least a larger gift than the average and to have such people specially approached," it reads.
American newspapers and magazines published hundreds of stories about the humanitarian crisis. Advertising shops created propaganda posters, with the Armenians presented as light-skinned victimized Christians and the Turks cast as shadowy, barbarous assailants. College presidents lobbied on behalf of the Armenians. High-ranking public officials wrote donor thank-you letters.
Rescued From Oblivion
The effort to save Armenians and other starving minorities in Turkey and Russia during and after World War I happened even as the United States was feeding swaths of Europe.
"It was just on a massive scale," said Rouben Paul Adalian, a historian and director of the Armenian National Institute. "We are talking a part of the world that is barely developed. There are no paved roads. There are maybe one or two train lines. The Armenians have been cast out of their homes. They are out in the deserts of Syria. And yet the relief workers arrive and literally make the difference in their lives."
Near East Relief, which was incorporated by Congress in 1919, functions today as the Near East Foundation. It does some work in modern-day Armenia, among other places.
April 24 is the formal annual date for Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. In addition to the papal Mass and the Kardashian visit, other 100th anniversary commemorative events taking place include a three-day gathering in Washington next month where scheduled guests include the president of Armenia and descendants of Ambassador Morgenthau. Those being honored posthumously will be the individuals who stoked U.S. charitable response.
Said Mr. Adalian: "Their names should be remembered and their actions appreciated for making the difference between life and death for thousands condemned to oblivion."