On March 19, 1913, Woodrow Wilson was named the first honorary president of the American Red Cross, establishing a precedent for all chief executives who have followed. A century later, the Red Cross continues to uphold this tradition with President Barack Obama currently serving in this honorary role.
That title was changed to honorary chairman in 1947.
Honorary chairman duties include appointing the chairman of the Board of Governors and designating members of his Administration to serve on the Red Cross Cabinet Council. As honorary chair, the President’s signature is on the American Red Cross Certificate of Merit National Lifesaving Award, the organization’s highest award for people who have used the skills they learned in Red Cross courses to help save or sustain a life.
President Wilson’s Red Cross Legacy
“I summon you to comradeship in the Red Cross,” said Woodrow Wilson that now decorates one of the most famous Red Cross posters of a young woman clutching an American flag with the Red Cross symbol and U.S. Capitol in the background.
Amid World War I in 1917, President Wilson appointed a War Council to guide operations of the Red Cross during the war. The Red Cross held its first War Fund drive that year, surpassing its goal of raising $100 million in one week. As part of the war effort, the Red Cross began service to blinded war veterans in Baltimore, Md., started its Canteen Service to provide refreshments to the military, introduced medical social work in servicemen’s hospitals and began the Nurses’ Aide program to make up for nurse shortages during wartime.
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson also called on youth across the country to join the newly formed Junior Red Cross, igniting seeds of compassion and humanity in generations to come.
“(T)he Red Cross will bring you opportunities of service to your community and to other communities all over the world,” Wilson stated in a September 15, 1917, letter to the school children of the United States. “And best of all, more perfectly than through any of your other school lessons, you will learn by doing those kind things under your teacher’s direction to be future good citizens of this great country.”
Support from U.S. presidents serving in this honorary Red Cross role would follow in the footsteps of President Wilson.
Thirty years after President Woodrow Wilson served as the first honorary president of the Red Cross, in 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would declare March as Red Cross Month to help raise money for the War Fund campaign during World War II. President Roosevelt called it, “the greatest single campaign of mercy in all history.” In fact, President Roosevelt’s last radio address to the nation is in support of the Red Cross.
A Century of Red Cross Tradition Continues
Today this tradition continues as well. On February 28, 2013, President Barack Obama, the honorary chairman of the Red Cross, proclaimed, “March is Red Cross Month,”
“As we reflect on the ties that bind us together, let us pay tribute to humanitarian organizations working here at home and around the world, and let us rededicate ourselves to service in the months ahead,” the proclamation states.
With one hundred years of support from U.S. presidents, the Red Cross continues to deliver its mission, preventing and alleviating human suffering in the face of emergencies across the country and around the world.
Learn more about Red Cross history.