The ICRC in the US, 1941 to 1947

Italian POWs at work, 1943, Camp Carson, CO - ICR

Italian POWs at work, 1943, Camp Carson, CO - ICR

Most people think that the first operational discussions the ICRC ever had with the US were those that took place in the aftermath of 9/11. Not so. Our first delegation in Washington D.C opened its doors in 1941.

As war starts in Europe in September 1939, there are no ICRC delegates in the United States. Negotiations and the active support of American Red Cross President Norman Thomas result in the US government authorizing the ICRC to open a permanent representation in the country in March 1941. Marc Peter, a former Swiss diplomatic envoy to the United States, becomes the first ICRC permanent representative in the United States. Peter resides in Boston when Geneva HQ approaches him. He moves to Washington soon after taking up his functions. In September 1941, Peter appoints as his deputy his nephew Georges-Henri Martin, later to become a well know Geneva reporter and commentator. Both men immediately work to develop a network of interlocutors in the capital, including at the Department of State.  Swiss national radio announces the official opening of the ICRC delegation on 20 December 1941, 13 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Operating out of a suite at the Shoreham Hotel, in Rock Creek Park, Peter and Martin set about their first task – to arrange for the purchase of relief goods for Allied, German and Italian prisoners of war and civilian internees held in various theatres of operations throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa.

As the involvement of the United States in the war deepens, the delegation in Washington expands, as ICRC delegations are bound to do during wars. Now installed in a permanent office at 2500 Q Street, NW – and using the telex address Intercross for their correspondence with HQ – Peter and his nephew negotiate with the US government for German, Italian and Japanese prisoners of war and civilian internees on American soil to receive the protection they are entitled to. Peter personally visits POWs and civilian internees in the many camps rapidly built across the country. Geneva sends additional delegates in early 1942 to assist the two men. Peter also hires several American staff. As citizens of a party to the conflict, they do not visit camps with their Swiss colleagues but play an essential role, as is the case in every ICRC action, in ensuring that the operation runs smoothly. The delegates Werner Bubb, Alfred Cardinaux, Charles Huber, Paul Schnyder and Max Zehnder visit POWs and civilian internees throughout the country, from Ellis Island to Malibu, CA. The Washington delegation works closely on humanitarian issues with the State Department, the War Department, the War Refugee Board and the US administration at large. Among other things, our men in DC – there were no women delegates at that time – work to soften the economic blockade put in place by the US and the UK to facilitate the shipment of relief goods for civilian victims of war in the countries occupied by Axis powers.

A priority for Peter and his team throughout the period is to keep tabs on the situation of American prisoners and civilian internees held by Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. ICRC colleagues working in-theatre carry out hundreds of detention visits throughout the war to monitor the conditions of detention of both US POWs and civilians internees and to deliver family news and thousands of relief packages. The Washington delegation also works with the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to develop a relief action for Jews persecuted by the Nazi regime and its allies.

At the end of World War II, the delegation focuses on the repatriation of Axis prisoners and internees held on US soil. In 1944, the Nobel Committee awards the ICRC a second Nobel Peace Prize for its humanitarian contributions, despite its failure to denounce the Holocaust as it was taking place. The first incarnation of ICRC Washington finally closes its doors in 1947. Not the end of our relationship with the US government, but the end of a defining era no doubt.