Thursday, 28 March 2013 16:51

What is David Miliband's International Rescue Committee?


The news that David Miliband is stepping down from Parliament to become President of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has prompted a wave of reflection on the former foreign secretary's career.

Perhaps the most acerbic judgement came from Peter Oborne, who detected "a savage irony to the fact that Mr Miliband is going to head a humanitarian organisation when the government of which he was such a loyal member created so many of the world’s disasters".

In fact, however, the International Rescue Committee is itself steeped in an interventionist tradition which led many on the centre-left to support the Iraq War a decade ago. Its history is a microcosm of that tradition from the anti-Stalinist left of the 1930s to the Cold War liberalism of the 1950s and the neoconservatism of the 1980s.

In his letter to South Shields Labour Party, Miliband wrote that the IRC "was founded at the suggestion of Albert Einstein in the 1930s for those fleeing the Nazis". In fact the full story is a little more involved. The IRC's earliest incarnation, the International Relief Association (IRA), was founded in 1931, not in the United States but in Germany by two left-wing factions, the Communist Party Opposition (KPO) and the Socialist Workers Party (SAP) to aid victims of state repression. After the Nazis took power in 1933, the organisation moved its headquarters to Paris (Chester, p.7).

The KPO consisted of members of the right opposition, purged by Stalin in 1929 because of their support for Nikolai Bukharin, as opposed to the left opposition of Leon Trotsky. Among those purged was Jay Lovestone, the erstwhile head of the American Communist Party. It was Lovestone who formed an American section of the International Relief Association in 1933. His intention was mainly to aid his Right Opposition comrades, but in classic Comintern style, he ensured the board consisted mainly of progressive luminaries who could attract much wider support. Einstein was one of these (Chester, p.8).

The IRA's substantial refugee work in the 1930s was partly a cover for resistance work in Germany. The MI5 file on KPO chief Heinrich Brandler includes a 1937 report which states:

The Paris centre is run entirely by German refugees and is mainly supported by a monthly contribution from the American organisation and also by donations, some of which come out of the pockets of the Lovestone group, but others which are secured by Lovestone from various trade unions in the United States, which are under the impression that their donations are to be used for the underground fight for trade unionism in Germany, and which are kept very carefully in ignorance that the Paris comrades are Communists, albeit not of the brand recognised by Moscow.

The file also contains MI6 intercepts of Lovestone's letters to his comrades trying to ensure that they did not give American supporters the impression of being a purely a Right Opposition organisation. It was perhaps this sectarian aspect of the International Relief Association that led to the creation of a rival organisation for socialist refugees after the fall of France.

Founded by European exiles and American liberals close to Eleanor Roosevelt, the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) rescued many refugees from Vichy France, including a significant proportion of prominent intellectuals. Its representative in Marseilles, Varian Fry, also worked closely with British intelligence, helping to establish escape routes for British servicemen (Chester, pp.11-18).

With US entry into World War Two, the American Government asserted its control over the refugee issue. the IRA and ERC merged to form the International Relief and Rescue Committee, financed largely by the National War Fund (Chester, 18-19).

After the war, the Committee's European representatives focused on rebuilding the German SPD as a bulwark against the Communists. With the onset of the Cold War, its refugee work became of interest to the newly emerging CIA as a potential source of intelligence and propaganda expertise. The CIA created front organisations, such as the National Committee for a Free Europe, that were potential rivals to the Committee, which stressed its status as a 'voluntary agency' in a 1949 memorandum, but also its willingness to ensure that "specific interests relating to our national security will receive top priority over any others" (Chester, p.65).

In the 1950s, the IRC expanded its work beyond Europe to Vietnam, and was instrumental in the establishment of two key Washington lobby groups supporting South Vietnam, the American Friends of Vietnam, and its successor, the Citizens Committee for Peace with Freedom in Vietnam (Chester, p.145).

In the wake of the Cuban Revolution, IRC chairman Leo Cherne proposed a Caribbean Refugee Program to CIA director Allen Dulles. The project announced publicly in 1960 was said to be focused on refugees from the right-wing Dominican Republic, as well as Cubans, but in the event the vast majority of aid went to Cubans (Chester, p.185-186).

The Committee began a major aid programme in El Salvador in 1984, a move some linked to the election of a pro-American president (Chester, p.190). At around the same time, David Miliband's 1970-vintage predecessor as IRC president, Bill Casey, was using Nicaraguan exiles to launch a proxy war against the Sandinistas as Reagan's CIA director.

If the IRC has been accused of being an instrument of US foreign policy, it has also been a forceful lobbyist for US intervention in its areas of interest; Iraqi Kurdistan and Yugoslavia are two examples from the 1990s (Chester p.194-196). The IRC moved into the rest of Iraq in 2003, but was forced to withdraw between 2004 and 2006 by the escalating violence.

The IRC is one of the world's largest aid organisations, but is one which has long existed at the intersection between humanitarian relief and the western foreign policy establishment. If it has nurtured key neoconservatives such as Bill Casey, it is itself best seen as a bulwark of bipartisan interventionism. If as some suggest, Miliband's ultimate aim is to secure a senior role at the UN, the IRC is an item on his CV which US administrations, whether Democrat or Republican, will appreciate.


Eric Thomas Chester, Covert Network: Progressives, the International Rescue Committee and the CIA, M.E. Sharpe, 1995.

Tom Griffin

Tom Griffin is a freelance journalist and researcher. He is a former editor of the Irish World newspaper, and is currently undertaking a Ph.D at the University of Bath. He was a contributor to Fight Back! OpenDemocracy's book on the 2010 student protests, and a co-author of the Spinwatch pamphlet The Cold War on British Muslims. His website is at: