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U.S. Neutrality: 1914 - 1917Relief Efforts and Volunteers

Although the United States was officially neutral, American organizations and individuals found ways to get involved in the war, through fundraising, aid efforts and volunteerism behind the lines and in combat.

Feeding a nation

Immediately after the war began, Belgium faced a food crisis. The country imported most of its food, but it was now isolated by the German occupation and the British blockade.

An American-led group founded the Commission for the Relief of Belgium (CRB). Headed by future U.S. president Herbert Hoover, the all-volunteer effort raised funds, collected food supplies, chartered cargo ships, and organized distribution efforts. All the while, it navigated its way through a complex web of diplomatic and military considerations in order to ensure that food reached Belgian civilians.

The CRB fed 7.3 million Belgian and 2 million French civilians between 1914 and 1919. It demonstrated that humanitarian relief could be successfully delivered into an active war zone, and set a standard followed by aid organizations to this day.

Saving lives

When war broke out, Americans living in Paris organized a field hospital and ambulances to help the French Army. This effort evolved into the American Ambulance Field Service (later the American Field Service, or AFS) through which volunteer drivers helped save the lives of thousands of wounded French soldiers. Other organizations raised ambulance units in France and on other fronts. Ernest Hemingway famously drove for the Red Cross in Italy. Most volunteers paid their own way to Europe, and covered their own expenses.

American women played a large role in providing medical support to Allies. A number drove ambulances, many more were nurses, and some wealthy women funded and ran hospitals. One newlywed bride and her husband even spent their honeymoon volunteering in France in 1915.

Joining the fight

Despite U.S. neutrality, many young American men were eager to join the action, especially on the Allied side. Thousands crossed into Canada to join the British war effort. Others, including the poet Alan Seeger, served with the French Foreign Legion.

Some American volunteers flew with the Lafayette Flying Corps or the Lafayette Escadrille, attached to the French Air Force. Many of these orig- inally volunteered with the American Field Service. Others came from the Foreign Legion, including Eugene Bullard, the first black fighter pilot.

When America entered the war, most of these volunteers were transferred to U.S. command. Bullard was denied a position in the U.S. Army Air Service, due to his race. Yet he, like many other American volunteers, received numerous honors and decorations from the French government.