This new study by Daniel Maul is an in-depth account of the activities, spiritual ethos, and cultural identity of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Quakers’ central international and domestic humanitarian relief organization in the United States, from its early years to 1945. Founded in Philadelphia in April 1917, the same month that Woodrow Wilson took the country into the First World War on the side of the Allies, the AFSC was involved in a variety of high-profile missions. These included work with war victims and on war-damaged infrastructure in France in 1917–18; a food program for children in early post-war Germany, which at its height in summer 1921 was providing around one million meals per day; famine relief in Russia in 1921–23; work on behalf of political prisoners, Spanish Civil War victims, and refugees in 1930s Europe; and – at home in the United States – the provision of aid to the families of striking and unemployed workers.
In all of these endeavors, the AFSC was dependent for funds, and for political access and logistical support, on several “big” U.S. or U.S.-led humanitarian super-organizations, including the American Red Cross, the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration, various welfare bodies associated with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, and – from 1943 – the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Through its collaboration with these bodies, which between them formed a considerable part of the United States’ unique and growing presence within the transatlantic community of “progressive” nations, it willingly became – at least to some extent – an arm of U.S. cultural, economic, and even military diplomacy. And yet, as Maul shows, the AFSC was much more than this. What stands out in particular is its “dynamic” (p. 168) acquisition of a unique self-identity, which had to be continually renegotiated in the face of new demands for humanitarian intervention, tensions between the Philadelphia-based Quaker establishment and the more conservative Midwest Friends’ groups, and the desire to project a professional, “politics and ideology free” image to funders at home and negotiating partners in Washington D.C. and abroad.
One aspect of this constant finding its way back to itself “after painful compromises” (p. 312) was the AFSC’s close but ever-changing relationship with the British Quakers. In 1917, the AFSC was very much in the shadow both of the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU), already active in France in 1914 and staffed from 1916 by British conscientious objectors, and of the Friends War Victims Relief Committee, whose origins were in the 1870 military conflict between France and Prussia. But in the last phase of the First World War, and in particular during the children’s food program in Germany in the early 1920s, the AFSC developed its own, highly visible profile and used its access to much larger sources of funds, allowing it to emerge as the more enterprising and (in its own mind) more professional of the two.
Another dimension to the AFSC’s shifting knowledge of itself in relation to others was its particular concept of the Quaker spiritual mission – a concept that saw it beholden neither to the metropolitan East Coast nor the rural Midwest communities, but rather reflected its own working through of how to capture the whole and the specific, the universal and the American, in the provision of emergency relief to those in need. The universal can be seen in the idea that religious conviction is nothing if it is not “fully turned to the world and its problems” (p. 26), while the specific can be seen in the AFSC’s deliberate reaching out to help “unpopular groups” – such as German children in post-First World War Europe; striking workers’ families in 1920s and Depression-era America; fascist, communist, and anarchist refugees in civil war Spain; “non-Aryan Christians” fleeing racial persecution; and imprisoned Nazis in (pre-1938/9) Danzig, Memel, and Austria. The image it presented of non-combatant duty in wartime America in 1917-18 was also framed rather differently. Whereas the British Quakers stressed work in the FAU as a pacifist alternative to military service, their American counterparts portrayed it as a patriotic act. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this made them participants in the cultural mobilization for war against Germany in 1917, giving the U.S. service a more masculine and even soldierly ethos compared to its British counterpart.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, on the other hand, the real controversy was over the AFSC’s refusal to take sides in the ideological battles between fascism and anti-fascism, both in the United States and more importantly, on the other side of the Atlantic. To some extent, Maul underestimates just how unsustainable its strictly neutral standpoint had become by the mid-1930s. Negotiating the release of political prisoners with the Gestapo or refusing to make an open declaration of support for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War risked not only handing important propaganda victories to the fascist cause, but also underscoring what today we would call the practice of drawing “false equivalences,” with all the corrosive, and even subversive, implications this had for democracy. Nazis imprisoned in pre-1938 Austria were not subject to the same kinds of abuse as anti-Nazis imprisoned in the Third Reich, and their children did not suffer equivalent levels of poverty and destitution but rather were well looked after by funds sent over the border. At times, the AFSC seemed impervious to evidence-based realities.
The focus on rescuing children from famine in fundraising campaigns at home and in negotiations with the national and international gatekeepers of foreign diplomacy and aid was considered crucial in order to keep ideology at bay and retain the support of the entire U.S. Quaker community for a professionalized, non-partisan, and corporate approach. However, democratic politics and the notion of a new world order built on social equality as well as collective security became more important after 1939, and especially after 1941. This partly reflects the move away from isolationism in the United States itself, a broader acceptance that the country would have to become a major and consistent socio-economic as well as military player in European affairs, even after the end of the Second World War. But Maul could be criticized for not fully explaining how the campaigning emphasis before 1945 on feeding children came to be transformed into a greater stress on rebuilding families and communities after 1945 (p. 301). Indeed, for all its stress on being non-partisan, the AFSC had become ideologically complicit in the promotion of democracy by the end of the period covered in this book. The relevance of its entanglements with the practical work and social values of the New Deal could have been explored at a deeper level, even though Maul does admittedly make the connection when he argues that the AFSC’s domestic activities in the 1930s “predestined” it to become a leading representative of the “New Deal for the World” in 1947 (p. 306) – the same year that the AFSC and the British Friends Service Committee jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize.
All in all, and in spite of the few criticisms mentioned above, it is hard not to be impressed by the depth of research and the precise presentation of facts and analysis contained in Maul’s book. It certainly succeeds in its main aim of offering a comprehensive national and transnational case study of the complex interplay between fundraising and spiritual values, pacifism and militarism, and corporatism and idealism during the “humanitarian turn” (Aufbruch) of the first half of the twentieth century.