As the U.S. Enters World War I, President Woodrow Wilson Appoints Republican Philanthropist and Business Mogul Cornelius Bliss to the Red Cross War Council

It is “a patriotic service which I trust will be possible for you to perform…There are unlimited opportunities of broad humanitarian service in view for the American Red Cross.”

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On March 19, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson was named the first honorary president of the American Red Cross, establishing a precedent for all chief executives who have followed. His quotation “I summon you to comradeship in the Red Cross” became a rallying cry, and decorated one of the most famous Red Cross...

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As the U.S. Enters World War I, President Woodrow Wilson Appoints Republican Philanthropist and Business Mogul Cornelius Bliss to the Red Cross War Council

It is “a patriotic service which I trust will be possible for you to perform…There are unlimited opportunities of broad humanitarian service in view for the American Red Cross.”

On March 19, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson was named the first honorary president of the American Red Cross, establishing a precedent for all chief executives who have followed. His quotation “I summon you to comradeship in the Red Cross” became a rallying cry, and decorated one of the most famous Red Cross posters – a young woman clutching an American flag with the Red Cross symbol and U.S. Capitol in the background.

When the United States officially entered World War I on April 6, 1917, Wilson immediately championed the American Red Cross for a major relief role, which meant an exponential expansion of the organization and a bipartisan, broad-based leadership. On May 10, 1917, Wilson appointed a 13-man special War Council to guide operations of the Red Cross during the conflict, seeking out major business leaders of both parties to head the effort. At the same time Wilson called upon the American people to back the organization to the hilt in its support of millions of young men heading to the battlefields of Europe.

Cornelius N. Bliss, Jr., whose father was a member of President McKinley’s Cabinet, was a philanthropist who was also active politically. He participated in the successful presidential campaign of Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. In July 1916, he was named treasurer of the Republican National Committee, and also served as president of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. With his experience in philanthropy, finance, and as Republican Committee treasurer, it was natural that Wilson would want Bliss to be one of the 13.

Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, Washington, May 10, 1917, to Bliss, asking – no actually instructing – him to join the Red Cross leadership during the crisis of war, and to put position that higher than any other potential service. “After consultation with my active associates in the American Red Cross, it has been thought wise to create a Red Cross War Council of seven members, including the chairman and the vice-chairman of the executive committee. I have today created the council. This letter is to ask you to accept membership on this council, a patriotic service which I trust will be possible for you to perform. The close cooperation between the American Red Cross and the military branch of the government has already suggested new avenues of helpfulness in the immediate business of our organization for war, but the present crisis is larger than that and there are unlimited opportunities of broad humanitarian service in view for the American Red Cross. Battlefield relief will be effected through Red Cross agencies operating under the supervision of the War Department, but civilian relief will present a field of increasing opportunity in which the Red Cross organization is especially adapted to serve, and I am hopeful that our people will realize that there is probably no other agency with which they can associate themselves which will respond so effectively and universally to allay suffering and a relieve distress.”

We have never seen another Red Cross War Council appointment reach the market. We obtained this letter directly from the Bliss descendants, and it has never before been offered for sale.

Bliss accepted membership, and the next year became acting Red Cross chairman. When it came time to raise funds for the Red Cross in 1918, Wilson formed the National War Finance Committee and placed Bliss on that also. After the war, Bliss returned to business and philanthropy on a large scale, operating as a trustee, board member, or president of several organizations, including the Metropolitan Opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the Depression, he was one of six men named by New York City Mayor Walker to operate a relief fund, two others being J.P. Morgan and former governor Al Smith. During World War II, he was a chairman of the American Red Cross committee on war activities, and was for a time chairman of the Red Cross.

With Bliss on board, the Red Cross held its first War Fund drive in 1917. As part of the war effort, the Red Cross began service to blinded war veterans, 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. Between 1917 and 1919, over 8 million American women, along with many Junior Red Cross members, produced over 370 million relief articles for the Allied armed forces and civilians in Europe.

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