Just a hundred years ago this month Americans were recovering from a season of disaster out west -- blizzards, floods, fuel famines. The government tried to help. Organized relief would already have been at hand if there had been an American Red Cross. But the US had lagged in accepting the Geneva convention under which Red Cross societies were operating in a number of other countries. The indefatigable Clara Barton seized one more opportunity to promote her cause.
"As an American woman I am proud of the picture of our President and his Cabinet gathered in council to devise ways and means of succor for the distress of the distant and the littlem people," she wrote to the secretary of the treasury. She begged to remind them that such "national calamities" were what the provisions of the Red Cross were designed to cover, while the US remained in "utter want" of any systematic method for meeting them.
Within a month, on May 21, 1881, the American Red Cross was born, and ratification of the Geneva convention soon followed. But listen to Miss Barton's 19th-century eloquence against the kind of attitudes that have still not been wholly eliminated from her land:
"We glide on unconcerned until, suddenly we are confronted with some appalling fact,m our rushing engine stands shivering upon the obstructed torn track of the nation, and it is left for the passengersm without implements or preparations to rush out and repair the damage . . . and the most pitiful feature of it all is, that past experience proves no warning against future occurrence, -- buys us no wit."
A century later it can be seen that the Red Cross -- and the relief agencies rising in its wake -- have bought us somem wit. The prudent preparation for meeting human tragedy is far advanced over 1881. The Red Cross stands for care and compassion, deserving of the tributes this anniversary year is bringing.
But Clara Barton's original concerns should not be forgotten by individuals or nations. Lessons canm be learned from adversity: to improve the measures of safety and prevention, to foster the prayer and thoughtfulness, which reduce the miseries that the Red Cross is so faithfully prepared to r elieve.