Who Was Eleanor Roosevelt?

It is essential, above all, that in making history we don’t forget to learn by history, to see our mistakes as well as our successes, our weaknesses as well as our strengths. —Eleanor Roosevelt, 1962

Eleanor Roosevelt had not planned to work for the United Nations, nor had she planned to devote her days to the challenges of writing legal documents and international treaties. By the time she left the White House, she was recognized as a powerful political actor in her own right, and as a leading advocate of the rights and well-being of ordinary people. As First Lady, she had labored ceaselessly to extend civil rights to all and traveled on diplomatic and humanitarian missions around the globe. But she had not expected to be involved in the daily work of the peace organization that she and her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had envisioned during World War II.

As the clouds of war began to disperse over Europe, and the German slaughter of millions of Jews, Roma (Gypsies), political dissenters, homosexuals, and other innocent civilians came to light, Eleanor understood for the first time how much power modern states had over the lives of vast numbers of people. Then, in August 1945, when the United States detonated atomic bombs over two Japanese cities, the picture became even grimmer, as hundreds of thousands of human beings were killed in an instant. At that time, putting a permanent end to war became Eleanor’s mission: the people of the world should set up mechanisms to resolve international conflicts peacefully, she said, or they would have to face the possibility that one day they would not wake up.

The opportunity to do something about this came before the war had ended. Just weeks before representatives from around the world first met to draft the United Nations (UN) charter, Harry Truman (who had succeeded Roosevelt to the presidency) asked Eleanor to join the United Nations delegation from the United States. Eleanor proved to be the perfect champion for this document, which many thought the United Nations could never approve.

This occurred in 1945. At the time, several prominent statesmen objected to Truman’s choice because of Eleanor’s well-known liberal positions, her popularity among African Americans and union members, and the fact that women were rarely considered for high-profile positions in the State Department. Nevertheless, three years later, on December 10, 1948, Eleanor presided over the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document reflects the UN’s determination to stem international conflicts by overcoming differences between cultures and nations. It also reflects Eleanor’s worldview and lifelong interest in the needs and rights of ordinary people. Indeed, in many ways, the document reflects her journey as an advocate of individual freedoms and rights.

She did not write the Declaration on her own—no one could have. Canadian scholar and jurist John Humphrey wrote the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; French legal expert René Cassin wrote the second draft and later won the Nobel Prize for his contribution; Lebanese philosopher and diplomat Charles Malik served as secretary for the Human Rights Commission; and several Russian diplomats, including Alexei P. Pavlov, also helped shape the Declaration. The prominence of these men and other delegates has tended to overshadow the role of the woman who ran the commission’s meetings. And yet it is Eleanor, who skillfully directed their writing and kept their drafts simple and practical, to whom we owe the successful completion of the Declaration.

Eleanor possessed a combination of qualities, skills, and experiences that made her a better leader than the more formally educated members of the commission. It was her perseverance and fair-mindedness, coupled with charisma and authority, that kept things going when delegates stopped making sense or exchanges became heated. Secured by Eleanor’s influence, the backing of the United States ensured that the writing was completed, adopted by the UN, and later ratified by the Senate. Such an achievement cannot be underestimated, especially against the backdrop of the Cold War and the retreat from international cooperation that came with it in the late 1940s. For example, an equally important document, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), was buried in United States congressional committees for years; other international agreements never saw daylight, or, if they did, they lacked the international support needed to make them useful.

However, it is wrong to view Eleanor as a mouthpiece of the State Department. She fought hard for the principles and rights she valued, and she even threatened to resign from the United States delegation when the State Department resisted. How did she come to possess such qualities? What shaped her moral outlook? Who was Eleanor Roosevelt?

In this book, we will explore these questions as we investigate Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Elizabeth Borgwardt, a historian, has written that from its inception, the United Nations was designed to expand to the whole world certain aspects of the New Deal—the ambitious combination of legislation and executive action initiated by the American government to combat the economic and social problems faced by millions of Americans during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The direct link between the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the New Deal can be traced to the Anglo-American Atlantic Conference of 1941. There, the United States and the United Kingdom, facing the threat of Nazi Germany, “called for self-determination of peoples, freer trade, and several New Deal–style social welfare provisions.” But the conference, Borgwardt wrote, was “best known for a resonant phrase about establishing a particular kind of post-war order—a peace ‘which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.’”1 Note the wording: the leaders of two of the world’s most powerful nations had spoken of individual rights, rather than states’ rights. A revolution was under way. It would take several decades to spell out what that revolution meant. For some, like Winston Churchill, it had little or no political implications and therefore would not serve to undermine the empire he fought hard to maintain under British rule.

For others, including Eleanor, it had far-reaching implications, with the potential to empower oppressed groups around the world. Indeed, the phrase ”all the men in all the lands” established the principle of universality, which would inspire Eleanor Roosevelt and the other members of the Human Rights Commission to set aside considerations of nationality, sex, ethnicity, age, and religion, speaking instead of the rights of every human being on earth. The discussion of human rights that began during the 1920s and 1930s blossomed and bore fruit as a reaction to the horrifying events of World War II. 

Just two decades after World War I, a conflict that killed 18 million soldiers and civilians, Germany forced Europe into a new war. This war pitted Germany, Japan, and Italy—the main Axis powers—against the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union, the main Allies. Though World War II began when Germany invaded Poland, the conflict expanded into North Africa, China, the Soviet Union, and many of the other nations of Europe and Asia, bringing a whirlwind of death and destruction that far exceeded the unprecedented previous bloodbath of 1914–1918. This new war was nearly global in scope, and it was fought as a total war—each side committed all of its human and material resources to combat. After early Axis victories, the resolute defense mounted by the Soviet Union and the long-awaited entry of the United States on the side of the Allies changed everything.

Allied victory, however, would come only at the highest price: millions of human corpses and entire cities in ruins. Germany’s barbarism did not diminish with the Allied advances. Quite the opposite occurred: the more defeats and losses the Nazis suffered, the faster they gassed and shot innocent men, women, and children. Only when the war in Europe ended in May 1945 did the world begin to confront the largest genocide in human history—the systematic murder of close to six million Jews, over 220,000 Gypsies (Roma and Sinti), and thousands of homosexuals and other minorities, many of whom perished in the last year of the war.2 All told, the war had claimed the lives of 58 or 59 million civilians and combatants.3 Over 30 million people were displaced by the Germans and the Soviets alone, and many millions more began the uncertain life of homelessness, displacement, and exile (for example, an estimated 25 million people in the Soviet Union, and 20 million in Germany, became homeless by the end of the war).4

In Asia, the Allied war against Japan raged. On August 6, 1945, two months after the end of the fighting in Europe, the Allied powers’ systematic bombing of Japanese cities culminated in President Truman’s decision to drop an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. The bomb incinerated the entire city of 300,000 people. In a matter of seconds, it obliterated one quarter of the population, and many more deaths followed from exposure to deadly levels of radioactive fallout. Three days later, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki. Shortly thereafter, Japan surrendered unconditionally.

Clearly, in the course of one generation, the destructive forces in the world had grown at an unprecedented rate, leaving little doubt in the minds of many that if a third world war were to erupt, human civilization was in serious peril. In a My Day essay published two days after the first bomb, Eleanor struggled to come to terms with the bomb’s awesome power:

If wisely used, it may serve the purposes of peace. But for the moment, we are chiefly concerned with its destructive power. That power can be multiplied indefinitely, so that not only whole cities but large areas may be destroyed at one fell swoop. If you face this possibility and realize that, having once discovered a principle, it is very easy to take further steps to magnify its power, you soon face the unpleasant fact that in the next war whole peoples may be destroyed.5

In this essay, Eleanor took a position that very few in Washington were able or willing to take. Her renewed focus was on prevention: “We can no longer indulge in the slaughter of our young men,” she declared. “The price will be too high, and will be paid not just by young men, but by whole populations.”6 In the weeks after Japan’s surrender, she did not publicly object to the use of atomic bombs; she assumed it had ended the war more quickly than any other course of action could have.7 But several months later, Eleanor somberly reminded a group of reporters that humankind now possessed the capacity to eradicate itself:

I think that if the atomic bomb did nothing more, it scared people to the point where they realized that either they must do something about preventing war, or there is a chance that there might be a morning when we would not wake up.8

Faced with the possibility of self-annihilation, many groups, politicians, lawyers, and intellectuals began to call for measures to ensure the safety of the human race. Eleanor was among them. Her response to the enormous challenges that arose in the wake of World War II grew out of her lifelong commitment to social and political justice and her work to advance international peace. Indeed, by the time she joined the United States delegation to the UN, she had already completed a long personal and political journey that put her at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights in America. By then she had already acquired plenty of experience in deliberating policies and was perhaps one of the most under-recognized advocates for peace and international cooperation in America (for example, she chaired the Edward Bok Peace Prize Committee, which reviewed plans for reintroducing the United States into peacekeeping efforts around the world after the country refused to join the League of Nations).9 Her new work would soon make her the face of the human rights campaign around the globe.

  1. Citations

    • 1 Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 4.
    • 2 Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York: Penguin, 2005), 18.
    • 3 Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (New York: Penguin, 2006), 651–52.
    • 4 Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York: Penguin, 2005) 16–17, 23.
    • 5 Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Day” (column), August 8, 1945.
    • 6 Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Day” (column), August 8, 1945.
    • 7 See, for example, the letter from Eleanor Roosevelt to Harry S. Truman, August 12, 1959, Post-Presidential Files, Harry S. Truman Papers, in the Truman Library, accessed December 29, 2008; Lois Scharf, Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady of American Liberalism (Boston: Twayne, 1987), 145.
    • 8 Memorandum of press conference held by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt (January 3, 1946); Allida M. Black, ed., The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers (New York: Thomson Gale, 2007), 184; Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone (New York: Norton, 1972), 29.
    • 9 Allida M. Black, private communication (August 11, 2009). Her work there introduced her to the language of international treaties and law, as well as to the ideas of many peace activists and scholars. The prize itself, $50,000 (one million dollars or more today), was enormous and generated wide publicity. Isolationists in the House, however, were livid and petitioned successfully for a Senate investigation into the “un-American” activities and “communist internationalism” of Eleanor, Bok, and their allies. See Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 1: 1884–1933 (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), 342–45.

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