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New exhibit reveals U.S. military’s humanitarian assistance to Armenia in 1919-1920

The Armenian National Institute (ANI) announced the launch of a groundbreaking new exhibit: “The United States Military in the First Republic of Armenia 1919-1920.” The 27-panel exhibit documents the extent of U.S. humanitarian intervention during the most difficult years in the life of the newly-formed Armenian state. Based upon the photographic collection of an American medical officer, Dr. Walter P. Davenport, the exhibit reveals the depth and breadth of measures taken by U.S. military personnel to stabilize the humanitarian crisis in Armenia, and especially the caretaking of the most vulnerable part of the population through hospitals, orphanages, food distribution points, and other facilities.

Subtitled “The American Relief Administration and Walter Davenport of the U.S. Army Medical Corps,” the exhibit reveals how in 1919, U.S. military personnel and civilian aid workers cared for thousands upon thousands of children. As Dr. Davenport reported: “At the present time we are furnishing food and medical relief to 75,000 children daily, this work being done through the medium of orphanages, orphanage hospitals, soup kitchens, cocoa kitchens, milk stations, bread distributing points, orphanage infirmaries, and public dispensaries.”

The Davenport collection of photographs not only documents the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Armenia, but also the measurable difference American relief efforts made in the span of only a few months. The exhibit displays official and personal records related to Dr. Davenport’s activities in Armenia, which he subsequently reported in The Military Surgeon journal. With 103 pictures, 3 maps, 14 documents, and several newspaper articles, the exhibit pictorially reconstructs the conditions that U.S. military personnel witnessed in Armenia.

The exhibit profiles several important American military figures who rose to prominence as members of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) that were sent overseas to France to join the fight against Germany during World War I.  Many of these officers later joined the American Relief Administration (ARA), created to respond to the postwar situation in Europe where food shortages threatened famine. The ARA was also tasked with relieving the plight in Armenia. Herbert Hoover, who headed the ARA, tapped former U.S. Ambassador to Ottoman Turkey Henry Morgenthau and General John J. Pershing, the commanding general of the AEF, for recommendations on the personnel to be assigned to Armenia. Many of the U.S. officers sent to Armenia were close associates of General Pershing and some were highly decorated veterans of the battles in France where they turned the tide of the war in favor of the Allies.

President Woodrow Wilson dispatched two missions to Armenia, a military mission headed by General James G. Harbord, which investigated the political situation in the region, and a humanitarian mission headed by Colonel Willian N. Haskell, which was also tasked with overseeing the undertakings of the Near East Relief organization that the United States Congress formally incorporated as part of the humanitarian relief effort in response to the dire situation in Armenia.

The exhibit also tracks the military career of several members of the two American expeditions to Armenia who climbed through the ranks to positions of major responsibility right up to World War II, including the likes of: General Frank McCoy, who served as General Harbord’s Chief of Staff; General Sidney Spalding, who wrote a striking report on Armenia when he was a young colonel in 1919; General Leo Daley; and General Haig Shekerjian. General Shekerjian was the first Armenian American graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He arrived in Armenia as a young lieutenant and in later life was instrumental through an organization, best known by  its ANCHA acronym, which addressed the resettlement of the so-called DP Armenian population in Europe after World War II, the “Displaced Persons” who had been transported from Russia to Nazi Germany as slave labor.

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