Eleanor's Take on the DayFrom the Collection: Women in American History
Eleanor Roosevelt's "My Day" was a syndicated newspaper column published from 1935 to 1962. During those years, Eleanor wrote the column consistently six days a week, the only interruption being when her husband died, and even then she missed only four days. The column allowed Eleanor to reach millions of Americans with her views on social and political issues, current and historical events, and her private and public life. Dealing with subjects far out of the range of the conventional first lady's concerns, "My Day" is an outstanding example of the breadth of issues and activities which occupied Eleanor Roosevelt's life.
NEW YORK, July 14, 1939 - A number of letters have come to me complaining bitterly about the fact that I said in an article recently that the repeal of prohibition had been a crusade carried on by women. I know quite well, of course that the Democratic Party took the stand in its platform that Prohibition should be repealed. I have always felt, however, that the women's organization for repeal, which was a nonpartisan organization, laid the groundwork which finally brought about the vote for repeal.
I was one of those who was very happy when the original prohibition amendment passed. I thought innocently that a law in this country would automatically be complied with, and my own observation led me to feel rather ardently that the less strong liquor anyone consumed the better it was. During prohibition I observed the law meticulously, but I came gradually to see that laws are only observed with the consent of the individuals concerned and a moral change still depends on the individual and not on the passage of any law.
Little by little it dawned upon me that this law was not making people drink any less, but it was making hypocrites and law breakers of a great number of people. It seemed to me best to go back to the old situation in which, if a man or woman drank to excess, they were injuring themselves and their immediate family and friends and the act was a violation against their own sense of morality and no violation against the law of the land.
I could never quite bring myself to work for repeal, but I could not oppose it, for intellectually I had to agree that it was the honest thing to do. My contacts are wide and I see a great many different groups of people, and I cannot say that I find that the change in the law has made any great change in conditions among young or old in the country today.
WASHINGTON, DECEMBER 8, 1941 - I was going out in the hall to say goodbye to our cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Adams, and their children, after luncheon, and, as I stepped out of my room, I knew something had happened. All the secretaries were there, two telephones were in use, the senior military aides were on their way with messages. I said nothing because the words I heard over the telephone were quite sufficient to tell me that, finally, the blow had fallen, and we had been attacked.
Attacked in the Philippines, in Hawaii, and on the ocean between San Francisco and Hawaii. Our people had been killed not suspecting there was an enemy, who attacked in the usual ruthless way which Hitler has prepared us to suspect.
Because our nation has lived up to the rules of civilization, it will probably take us a few days to catch up with our enemy, but no one in this country will doubt the ultimate outcome. None of us can help but regret the choice which Japan has made, but having made it, she has taken on a coalition of enemies she must underestimate unless she believes we have sadly deteriorated since our first ships sailed into her harbor.
The clouds of uncertainty and anxiety have been hanging over us for a long time. Now we know where we are. The work for those who are at home seems to be obvious. First, to do our own job, whatever it is, as well as we can possibly do it. Second, to add to it everything we can do in the way of civilian defense. Now, at last, every community, must go to work to build up protection from attack.
We must build up the best possible community services, so that all of our people may feel secure because they know we are standing together and that whatever problems have to be met will be met by the community and not one lone individual. There is no weakness and insecurity when once this is understood.
Leaving the White House
WASHINGTON, APRIL 21, 1945 - There is always a certain emotional strain about the last time for anything. When you have lived twelve years in a house, even though you have always known that it belonged to the nation, you grow fond of the house itself, and fonder still of all the people connected with your life in that house.
Yesterday the President and Mrs. Truman and Miss Truman lunched here with us and, from then on, I began to do "last things." At four o'clock, I greeted the members of my press conference for the last time. I have always looked out at the Washington Monument from my bedroom window the last thing at night, and the little red light at the top of it has twinkled at me in friendly fashion. That simple shaft, so tall and straight, has often made me feel during this war that, if Washington could be steadfast through Valley Forge, we could be steadfast today in spite of anxiety and sorrow.
Now, I have spent my last night in the White House. I have had my last breakfast on the sun porch. And all today, I shall be saying good-bye to different people who have been loyal and kind and have given all that they could for the success of my husband's Administration or for the comfort and welfare of us all as a family. Yet I cannot feel that it is goodbye for, when you are fond of people, you are sure to meet again.
I wonder if others have been thinking, as I have, of the rather remarkable way in which our people and our government have passed through this major period of change. Ordinarily, when there is a change of administration, there is a period between election and inauguration during which the outgoing president and his family prepare for their departure, while the incoming President and his family prepare to assume their new responsibilities.
Never before has a sudden change of presidents come about during a war. Yet, from the time that Mr. Truman, followed closely by Secretary of State Stettinius, walked into my sitting room and I told them of my husband's death, everything has moved in orderly fashion. There was consternation and grief but, at the same time, courage and confidence in the ability of this country and its people to back new leaders and to carry through the objectives to which the people have pledged themselves.
That this attitude established itself so quickly is a tribute to President Truman, to the members of the Cabinet, and to the Congress. But above all, it is a tribute to the people as a whole and it reaffirms our confidence in the future.
Hollywood and HUAC
NEW YORK, OCTOBER 29, 1947 - I have waited a while before saying anything about the Un-American Activities Committee's current investigation of the Hollywood film industry. I would not be very much surprised if some writers or actors or stagehands, or what not, were found to have Communist leanings, but I was surprised to find that, at the start of the inquiry, some of the big producers were so chicken-hearted about speaking up for the freedom of their industry.
One thing is sure--none of the arts flourishes on censorship and repression. And by this time it should be evident that the American public is capable of doing its own censoring. Certainly, the Thomas Committee is growing more ludicrous daily. The picture of six officers ejecting a writer from the witness stand because he refused to say whether he was a Communist or not is pretty funny, and I think before long we are all going to see how hysterical and foolish we have become.
The film industry is a great industry with infinite possibilities for good and bad. Its primary purpose is to entertain people. On the side, it can do many other things. It can popularize certain ideals, it can make education palatable. But in the long run, the judge who decides whether what it does is good or bad is the man or woman who attends the movies. In a democratic country I do not think the public will tolerate a removal of its right to decide what it thinks of the ideas and performances of those who make the movie industry work.
I have never liked the idea of an Un-American Activities Committee. I have always thought that a strong democracy should stand by its fundamental beliefs and that a citizen of the United States should be considered innocent until he is proved guilty.
If he is employed in a government position where he has access to secret and important papers, then for the sake of security he must undergo some special tests. However, I doubt whether the loyalty test really adds much to our safety, since no Communist would hesitate to sign it and he would be in good standing until he was proved guilty. So it seems to me that we might as well do away with a test which is almost an insult to any loyal American citizen.
What is going on in the Un-American Activities Committee worries me primarily because little people have become frightened and we find ourselves living in the atmosphere of a police state, where people close doors before they state what they think or look over their shoulders apprehensively before they express an opinion.
I have been one of those who have carried the fight for complete freedom of information in the United Nations. And while accepting the fact that some of our press, our radio commentators, our prominent citizens and our movies may at times be blamed legitimately for things they have said and done, still I feel that the fundamental right of freedom of thought and expression is essential. If you curtail what the other fellow says and does, you curtail what you yourself may say and do.
In our country we must trust the people to hear and see both the good and the bad and to choose the good. The Un-American Activities Committee seems to me to be better for a police state than for the USA.
NEW YORK, APRIL 16, 1954 -- Increasingly, people are talking to me about the new H-bomb and its dangers. Even on "Meet the Press" I was asked if the knowledge that one could carry a devastating bomb in a suitcase didn't frighten me, and so I have decided to tell you what I feel about this whole situation.
It seems to me that the discovery of this latest bomb has actually outlawed the use of atomic bombs. The power of destruction is so great that unless we face the fact that no one in the world can possibly use it and therefore it must be outlawed as a weapon, we risk putting an end to all civilization. However, this realization makes it necessary to think of other things much more critically.
The day that we agree the world over that no one can use an atom bomb, we must either agree immediately on total disarmament, except for a united force in the United Nations, or we must make sure that we have better weapons than anyone else. We must have the best of the less destructive weapons, such as tanks, guns, etc. We are not equal as to population with the Communist world.
Therefore, the free world must stand together to defend itself. It will not do to rely on a weapon that we cannot use for protection. It is entirely obvious that were we, because we had no other strength, to use the H-bomb, let us say against an enemy that seemed to threaten us or that seemed to threaten the security of an area of the world that we felt should not fall to Soviet domination, instead of having the sympathy of the world we would, by that one action, have created fear and hatred of us.
No one can use this new destructive weapon without destroying innumerable innocent people. It would not be only our enemies that would condemn us, it would be our own conscience.
The conscience of America is a very real thing and if, because of any temptation whatsoever, we use this terrific weapon first, there are few of us in this country who could live with our own conscience.
Before we drift into war in one way or another, I feel that every possible agency, primarily the United Nations and its negotiation machinery, should be called into play. Sometimes I think we rely too much on negotiation only among the great powers. True, there is no force set up in the United Nations and you cannot rely on the enforcement of peace through an already set-up compulsory force provided by every member nation in the United Nations.
Just because of this, however, the mobilization of world opinion and methods of negotiation should be developed and used by every nation in order to strengthen the United Nations. Then if we are forced into war, it will be because there has been no way to prevent it through negotiation and the mobilization of world opinion. In which case we should have the voluntary support of many nations, which is far better than the decision of one nation alone, or even of a few nations.
I dislike fear and I confess to being on the whole rather free from it. But not to look at the dangers of the present and make up our minds that we do not want to drift, but that we want to use all the machinery there is to prevent war, seems to me foolhardy.
I think the women of this country, if they face the fact of the present situation, will agree with me that this is a time for action-not for war, but for mobilization of every bit of peace machinery. It is also a time for facing the fact that you cannot use a weapon, even though it is the weapon that gives you greater strength than other nations, if it is so destructive that it practically wipes out large areas of land and great numbers of innocent people.
NOVEMBER 5, 1958 - If the use of leisure time is confined to looking at TV for a few extra hours every day, we will deteriorate as a people.
Actually, preparation for the use of leisure time should begin with our schoolchildren. The appreciation of many things in which we are not proficient ourselves but which we have learned to enjoy is one of the important things to cultivate in modern education. The arts in every field--music, drama, sculpture, painting--we can learn to appreciate and enjoy. We need not be artists, but we should be able to appreciate the work of artists. Crafts of every kind, the value of things made by hand, by skilled people who love to work with wood or clay or stone will develop taste in our people.
These are all things that can give us joy and many of us will find that we are capable of acquiring a certain amount of skill we never dreamed we had, which will give an outlet to a creative urge. But these things must be taught, and in the age now developing about us they are important things. For if man is to be liberated to enjoy more leisure, he must also be prepared to enjoy this leisure fully and creatively.
For people to have more time to read, to take part in their civic obligations, to know more about how their government functions and who their officials are might mean in a democracy a great improvement in the democratic processes. Let's begin, then, to think how we can prepare old and young for these new opportunities. Let's not wait until they come upon us suddenly and we have a crisis that we will be ill prepared to meet.
NEW YORK, DECEMBER 20, 1961 - What can one woman do to prevent war? This is the question that comes my way in any number of letters these days.
In times past, the question usually asked by women was "How can we best help to defend our nation?" I cannot remember a time when the question on so many people's lips was "How can we prevent war?"
There is a widespread understanding among the people of this nation, and probably among the people of the world, that there is no safety except through the prevention of war. For many years war has been looked upon as almost inevitable in the solution of any question that has arisen between nations, and the nation that was strong enough to do so went about building up its defenses and its power to attack. It felt that it could count on these two things for safety.
There was a point then in increasing a nation's birth rate: Providing more soldiers. There was a point in creating new weapons: At their worst, they could not destroy the world as a whole.
Now, all a citizen can do is watch his government use its scientists to invent more powerful ways of achieving world destruction more and more quickly.
As I travel around this country I cannot help thinking what a pity it would be to destroy so much beauty, and I am sure this thought crosses the mind of many a Russian traveling through his country--in fact, the mind of anyone traveling anywhere in the world. Peoples of the world who have not yet achieved a place in the sun must feel this even more deeply than those of us who have had years of development and acquired resultant comforts and pleasures.
A consciousness of the fact that war means practically total destruction is the reason, I think, for the rising tide to prevent what seems such a senseless procedure.
I understand that it is perhaps difficult for some people, whose lives have been lived with a sense of the need for military development, to envisage the possibility of being no longer needed. But the average citizen is beginning to think more and more of the need to develop machinery to settle difficulties in the world without destruction or the use of atomic bombs.
Of course, if any war is permitted to break out, it is self-evident that the losing side would use atomic bombs if they were available. So the only thing to do is to put this atomic power into the hands of the United Nations and have it used only for peaceful purposes.
Here is where the individual comes in. To the women and the men who are asking themselves "What can I do as an individual?" my answer is this: Take a more active interest in your government, have a say in who is nominated for political office, work for these candidates and keep in close touch with them if they are elected.
If our objective is to do away with the causes of war, build up the United Nations and give the UN more control over the weapons of total destruction, we should urge that world law be developed so that people's grievances can be heard promptly and judiciously settled.
We should begin in our own environment and in our own community as far as possible to build a peace-loving attitude and learn to discipline ourselves to accept, in the small things of our lives, mediation and arbitration.
As individuals, there is little that any of us can do to prevent an accidental use of bombs in the hands of those who already have them. We can register, however, with our government a firm protest against granting the knowledge and the use of these weapons to those who do not now have them.
We may hope that in the years to come, when the proper machinery is set up, such lethal weapons can be destroyed wherever they are and the knowledge that developed them can be used for more constructive purposes.
In the meantime, no citizen of a democracy need feel completely helpless if he becomes an active factor in the citizenship of his community. For it is the willingness to abdicate responsibilities of citizenship which gives us our feeling of inadequacy and frustration.
As long as we arc not actually destroyed, we can work to gain greater understanding of other peoples and to try to present to the peoples of the world the values of our own beliefs. We can do this by demonstrating our conviction that human life is worth preserving and that we are willing to help others to enjoy benefits of our civilization just as we have enjoyed it.
HYDE PARK, MAY 8, 1961 - Commander Alan Shepard's flight into space was exciting news. For us this is the beginning of more and more experiments until the day comes when we will know whether there is human life on the stars and what it is like, if so.
I must say, however, that this seems to me some time off. I am still more concerned with what happens to us here on earth and what we make of our life here than I am about these remarkable experiments. I know they have great value, and undoubtedly important discoveries arising from these experiments will help us here on earth. But I hope we are particularly careful not to send our man into orbit as the Russians did until we are sure that the return has been safeguarded as far as is humanly possible. The differences between our system and that of the Russians is a regard for human life, and I do not want to see us lose any of this regard.
We must congratulate astronaut Shepard--and, incidentally, his wife--for the courage and endurance in the training period leading up to this triumph. Let us hope that all those who carry forward these extraordinary achievements will come home as successfully to receive a grateful nation's acclaim.