The Red Cross has long been dogged by the persistent belief that it exacts payment for its services from the victims of disasters. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that notion surfaced again, this time asserting those left homeless and desperate were being charged for coffee, cups of juice, and cookies:
We heard that the red cross was charging people in New Orleans 70 for a cup of juice and a cookie? Assuming we donate money to pay for the aid, could this be true?
I’ve recently heard the Red Cross & maybe the Salvation Army sends bills to the people they help. Say it isn’t so!!
I do know one person, a close friend of mine, who about 20 years ago was displaced due to an apartment building fire. She was provided shelter by the Red Cross but later received a bill from them for their services. That’s the only place I’ve heard the story and it wasn’t a rumor.
The rumor is false: rhe Red Cross does not solicit payment for services rendered from those whom it is called upon to assist during times of emergency. The American Red Cross notes on their web page about disaster preparedness for seniors that “All American Red Cross emergency services are provided free of charge,” and the Southeast Michigan Red Cross web site’s ‘Ask Us‘ page plainly states:
Q: How much does American Red Cross disaster assistance cost?
A: All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by the voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. Disaster assistance is given free-of-charge without judgment or a promise of support.
Modern rumors about the service’s turning a profit by taking items it had been supplied with via donations and selling them to the needy date to World War I. George Creel, Chairman of the Committee on Public Information at that time, offered the opinion that vilification tales aimed at the Red Cross bore unmistakable signs of enemy origin, begun in the hopes the negative stories would turn people against the organization. In WWI, and again in WWII, the slander took the form of cautionary tales about sweaters knit by volunteers as gifts for men serving at the front being instead sold to those troops by the Red Cross. One altruistic knitter, it was said, received a letter from a sailor who had come to be in possession of her work, in which the Navy man both thanked her for the garment and asked if she thought it fair he’d had to pay six dollars for it. Also rampant in WWII was scuttlebutt that soldiers serving in the Pacific theater were forced to pay five dollars for cardigans that had Red Cross labels in them. The sweaters the Red Cross collected from volunteers and sent to servicemen were, of course, never sold to GIs; they were always provided for free.
Similarly, the Red Cross was said to be selling to servicemen cigarettes that had been donated by major tobacco companies.
The Red Cross blood donor service was also a target of rumor-mongering during WWII. Whispers swept along that blood donations had been accepted from the Japanese, thereby (it was said) making it likely the offspring of those receiving such transfusions would display Japanese characteristics. Similar concerns were raised about blood from African-Americans being added to the pool. Rumor was also used to discourage those inclined to donate blood: stories were spread that those who gave ran the risk of contracting infection or disease from unsterilized instruments.
The Affairs of Dame Rumor, a 1948 book about rumors rampant in America, recorded the following:
The Red Cross rumors illustrate that the enemy rumor mill was designed to sabotage anything the American people might do to help their own war effort. If they were asked to lend aid by contributing their money to this organization, there was a lie that the Red Cross money was terribly mishandled and their books unaudited. If they were asked to become volunteer workers, there was a canard about men in the army saying there is no need for it. If they were being enlisted as consistent blood donors, there was a prohibitive fable about how blood plasma could be kept for only two months and if not used by then was thrown away. If American ladies persisted in knitting sweaters, the falsehood to discourage them was that garments sent to England were being ripped up and the wool sold to the British people. And lies of inefficient practices and waste dogged the efforts of the Red Cross throughout the war.
There is truth to one of the rumors, however. During WWII the American Red Cross did indeed charge American servicemen stationed abroad for coffee, doughnuts, and lodging. However, they did so because the U.S. Army asked them to, not because they were determined to make a profit off homesick dogfaces.
The request was made in a March 1942 letter from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to Norman H. Davis, chairman of the American Red Cross. Because American soldiers were fighting as part of the Allied Forces, matters had to be considered on a Force-wide (rather than a solely American) basis. The Red Cross was asked to establish club facilities for U.S. servicemen overseas where Allied troops would be welcome, and because English and Australian soldiers were being charged for the use of such facilities, it was deemed unfair that Americans were to get similar benefits for free (especially in light of the fact that their pay was higher than that of their Allied counterparts). For the good of the alliance, the American Red Cross was persuaded to exact nominal charges from American GIs for off-base food and lodging.
This act resulted in the Red Cross’ coming to be regarded by numerous GIs as having profited off them. Bad feeling exists to this day over the decision to charge American servicemen for these services, with any number of such soldiers and their families carrying long-lasting resentments against the service. Yet while that ire might have been merited, it was misdirected: the culprit was the U.S. Army, not the Red Cross.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Chief of Staff, United States Army, addressed the controversy surrounding this issue in a statement to the press on 10 April 1946:
I am surprised to learn that one of the reasons [for Americans not contributing to the American Red Cross] is the complaints being leveled at the organization’s overseas operations by returning servicemen. For the most part these criticisms have grown out of a Red Cross policy of making nominal charges to our forces for food and lodgings in fixed Red Cross installations abroad. These complaints are distressing to me since this particular Red Cross policy was adopted at the request of the Army, so as to insure an equitable distribution among all service personnel of Red Cross resources.I know the Red Cross. I have seen it in action. Overseas it performed with the precision of a well-trained army. It would be grave injustice to the splendid work of the Red Cross if its campaign should be retarded anywhere by mistaken criticisms.
Even after World War II, the Red Cross continued to be dogged for years by false tales about their imposing fees on military personnel for basic humanitarian services, such as the following 1952 rumor that claimed the organization had charged a U.S. serviceman interest on money he borrowed from them to attend his mother’s funeral:
A recent rumor to the effect that a serviceman had been loaned money by the Red Cross at 6 per cent interest so he could attend his mother’s funeral was revealed by the local chapter.When the rumor proved to be unfounded, said a local Red Cross official, the serviceman wrote to deny the story: “I have not been asked to pay 6 per cent interest on this loan nor has it ever been suggested by anyone employed by the American Red Cross that I pay interest,” he said. “It was through the joint effort of the Hartford Chapter and the office of the field director that I was granted a leave …”
The story of the interest charging went through a nearby summer resort “like wildfire,” reported the official.
The Red Cross’ version was this: the local serviceman had just been inducted and was beginning his service at an Air Force base. The Red Cross notified him of his mother’s death, and since the serviceman was without enough money for the trip, the chapter advanced him more than $100 which he agreed to pay over a prolonged period — without interest.
The advent of social media breathed new life into rumors the Red Cross was charging disaster victims, which spiked amid separate online controversies involving the organization following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in August-September 2017:
There is a post going viral stating Red Cross stole goods from churches in Texas in the wake of Harvey and that they are charging 1.25 for water that was donated.
The Red Cross was stealing from the doorsteps of churches after Harvey devastated Texas. They were protected by order EO 13603, which is an executive order that was signed on March 16 of 2012 by Barack Obama. You can find this information at ObamaWhiteHouse.archives.gov
I am working at a kitchen in midtown Houston that is providing food support to affected areas. We have received several reports that Red Cross sites in the Port Arthur/Beaumont area are, in fact, charging for food. These are reports directly from the field by phone, not internet. We are trying to track down more supporting info for this claim, but it was reported by at least 3 people on site.
In a separate article regarding rumors that the Red Cross was charging disaster victims after Hurricane Harvey hit in August 2017, we noted:
Just to make sure their policy regarding disaster assistance has not changed since the last time these claims surfaced, we reached out to the Red Cross to ask if they charged for any disaster relief related services in the wake of Harvey. A media representative assured us that all Red Cross disaster assistance is provided free of charge.
The rumors, this time, seem to have spread most rapidly from a 28 August 2017 piece (“Why You Shouldn’t Donate to the Red Cross to Help Hurricane Victims”) by Affinity Magazine, which makes the statement that some disaster victims never received money collected by the organization that was ostensibly there to help them:
When the World Trade Center went down back in 2001, the Red Cross this time raised over a billion dollars in donations. Again, victims of the terrorist attack never saw the money. They opened only a few shelters during the attack and no one came to them. They even handed out coffee and donuts for the rescue workers on site, yet charged them for the food and drinks.
On 31 August 2017, the Red Cross detailed how they would be spending their funds in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, introducing that documentation with the following statement:
The American Red Cross has been truly humbled by the outpouring of public support for those affected by Hurricane Harvey. Working around the clock, the Red Cross is making good use of donations and bringing help where it is needed. Each cot holding a sleeping child, each meal served to a family who is hungry and each blanket a disaster worker wraps around someone wet from the floodwaters is a result of a generous donation. As the storm moves north, flash flood emergencies are in effect throughout the Gulf Coast, and the storm may produce as much as a foot of rain through the end of the week.
- Jacobson, David J. The Affairs of Dame Rumor. New York: Rinehart & Co., 1948 (pp. 356-359).
- Landers, Ann. “Ann Landers.” 11 March 1989 [syndicated column].
- Associated Press. “Red Cross Charged for Food, Lodging at Army’s Request.” The Milwaukee Journal. 10 April 1946.
- The Hartford Courant. “Serviceman Who Borrowed Money Denies Red Cross Charged Interest.” 23 August 1952 (p. 7).