If You Ask Me by Eleanor Roosevelt

If You Ask Me
by Eleanor Roosevelt

November 1941


Will you explain just what the President meant in one of his campaign speeches when he said: "Now, mothers and fathers of America, I am talking to you. As I have said and will say again and again and again, your sons will not be sent into any foreign war."

I think your quotation was taken from a speech delivered by the President on October 30, 1940, in which he actually said: "And while I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars."

On October 23, 1940, in another speech, the President said: "We are arming ourselves not for any foreign war. We are arming ourselves not for any purposes of conquest or intervention in foreign disputes. I repeat again that I stand on the platform of our party: ‘We will not participate in foreign wars, and we will not send our Army, naval or air forces to fight in foreign lands outside of the Americas, except in case of attack.'"

Those last five words are frequently left out when people quote these speeches, and I think it is important that they should be included, because there are two points that must be clearly defined. One is that no war is a foreign war when it involves an attack on the safety of our country. It is not the place where it is fought which makes it a foreign war. It is the question of whether the action impairs the safety of our country. Secondly, what constitutes attack? Does attack only mean the bombing of your native land, or the landing on your shores of foreign armies? Or does attack mean a threat, some act which will put a foreign power in a position which will endanger the safety of our country?

These questions are rarely discussed by America First orators. They talk to you primarily about the impossibility of this or that particular thing happening, and rarely about the possibility of things which are actually happening, and their implications.

On November 2, 1940, the President said: "There is nothing secret about our foreign policy…The first purpose of our foreign policy is to keep our country out of war. At the same time we seek to keep foreign conceptions of government out of the United States. That is why we make ourselves strong; that is why we muster all the reserves of our national strength. The second purpose of this policy is to keep war as far away as possible from the shores of the entire Western Hemisphere."

And in May, 1941, the President said: "Nobody can foretell tonight just when the acts of the dictators will ripen into attack on this hemisphere and us. But we know enough by now to realize that it would be suicide to wait until they are in our front yard."

I think the President has made it amply clear that he considers attack to be possible beyond our own borders and that he does not consider war to be a foreign war which menaces the United States, no matter where that menace occurs.

If we are ever endangered by this war or any other, it will be our war for the safety of our land, and not a foreign war. This does not of necessity mean that your boys or mine will be fighting in New York City or Kansas City or San Francisco. Three of my boys have already been far from our shores, as have many other boys in our armed forces, but all of them have been and are on duty connected with the preservation of the safety of the United States.


You have perhaps traveled more widely than any other woman in this country. What would you say were the essential differences between Northeasterners, Southeasterners, Middle Westerners and Westerners?

I would say that essentially we are all very much alike. The Westerner, perhaps, knows more about handling himself out-of-doors in his particular environment than would people from other parts of the country, but the people from New England are good at outdoor life too. Middle Westerners are perhaps more isolated from the problems of the two coasts, and therefore take a little different point of view on both domestic and foreign questions. The Southerner, because of the climate, may perhaps be inclined to move a little more slowly, but on the whole we are all very much the same.


What do you consider a successful life for a man? For a woman?

A successful life for a man or for a woman seems to me to lie in the knowledge that one has developed to the limit the capacities with which one was endowed; that one has contributed something constructive to family and friends and to a home community; that one has brought happiness wherever it was possible; that one has earned one's way in the world, has kept some friends and need not be ashamed to face oneself honestly.


Don't you think a girl of twenty-one should be able to decide a few things for herself, without having her parents do it for her?

I certainly do think a girl of twenty-one should be able to decide anything for herself. At twenty-one many girls are married and directing their own households; but I think if a girl wants to decide for herself, she must be quite sure she has prepared herself to make wise decisions. She must be a disciplined person, and she cannot make hasty decisions, and she must seek advice where she is not experienced and needs it.


Do you think one should believe in fortunes told by gypsies and others who claim to be telling you true fortunes through the study of astrology?

I am afraid there are many people who tell fortunes who are not telling them with any background whatever of study or of knowledge. I think it would be unwise, therefore, for anyone to put undue emphasis on what was told by any fortuneteller. People who study astrology or palmistry or some other form of character reading and of foretelling the future, scientifically, can often be extremely helpful in overcoming certain traits of character which undoubtedly would lead in the future to disastrous situations. To try to make a pattern or a guide for action out of any of this advice seems to me a foolish thing to do.


Who writes your column? What is your system for getting so much other writing done, along with your many activities?

I write my column myself; at least I dictate it to Miss Thompson, who takes it directly on the typewriter, and then I correct it and she makes the final copy and sends it to the syndicate by wire.

As far as my other writing goes, I nearly always dictate it to Miss Thompson and then correct it; sometimes a good many drafts have to be typed before it is in final shape. I use whatever spare time I can find for doing this writing and I try not to be idle much of the time.


Since all of your children attended private schools, the assumption is that you consider them above public schools. How, then, would you suggest that public schools could be improved?

I am sorry to say that your assumption is entirely wrong. I do not feel that all private schools are better than all public schools. They vary.

My children went to private schools because there were certain difficulties which seemed to make it unwise to send them to public schools when they were small. When my sons were old enough, there was a tradition in the family that they should go to a certain boarding school, and that is how it happened that they attended private school all the way through.

I have long advocated that all our children should go to public schools and that we should take advantage of all the great teachers in the private schools to improve our public schools. It would be an advantage, also, to have the interest which many of us take in our children's education centered on our public school systems.


How do you explain your visits with Joseph Lash, general secretary of the International Student Service, a Communist-dominated group, at Camp William James, in Tunbridge, Vermont? Do you approve of Communists?

I will answer your last question first. I do not approve of Communism in this country. I have nothing whatsoever to say about the kind of government people choose to have in their own country.

You are misinformed if you think the International Student Service is a Communist-dominated group. It is an anti-Communist group and works with young people to help them to oppose both Communism and Nazism. Joseph Lash was at one time in the American Student Union and the American Youth Congress. At the time of the Russian-Nazi Pact, he broke with these groups and obtained a position with the I.S.S. as general secretary, because of his ability and character and courage.

My visit to Camp William James, which certainly is not Communist controlled, was made because of my interest in seeing an experiment conducted by young people. There is a great seeking today among young people for avenues through which they can help to improve our democracy and at the same time increase their own satisfaction in living. Camp William James is an effort of this kind.


When your country breaks its promise, as it has in holding our soldiers, what is there left to believe in?

I do not think the country has broken its promise in holding the boys in camp. They were told that if the emergency warranted it, they would be asked to give longer service; and the emergency does warrant it, in the eyes of responsible officials. Your suggestion of broken promises seems to me foolish.


History will record your name, if only because you are the wife of the President of the United States. But for what single accomplishment of your own would you best like to be remembered?

There is no accomplishment of mine that I think could possibly be important enough to be recorded, and I have no desire to be remembered except by the few people whom I love.


If you were not the President's wife, what kind of position would you like to hold? What do you intend doing after you leave the White House?

If I were not the President's wife, I should like to hold some kind of executive position which involved some writing and the direction of some kind of project in which I could see definite results. I have no idea what I may do after I leave the White House. I hope I will be able to do some kind of work which will be useful, but I have always found that it was better to cultivate one's capacity for hard work and then accept whatever presented itself to be done.


Do you think our Army morale is low? If so, what do you think can be done to raise it?

There are many things, of course, which can be done to raise Army morale. One is to make sure that the families at home are well cared for by the communities in which they live. Another is to see that the communities near the camps take an interest in the boys in camp and give them some kind of home atmosphere. Also, I think it is important that the home community continue to have an interest in the boy, even when he is in camp. I do not think Army morale is especially low. Nearly all armies grouse. It seems to be a soldier's right, and it does not necessarily mean a man is not a good soldier or will not do his duty.


Is there any color the President especially likes to see you wear?

I doubt very much if the President is conscious most of the time of what color I wear. He is too busy with other things.


What is your favorite flower? Your favorite perfume? What color do you prefer to live with?

Lily of the valley…I have none…I like all shades of blue.


Everyone has a certain philosophy on which they justify their life. What is your philosophy?

I do not know that I have any very well thought-out personal philosophy. I think, perhaps, the thing I consider the most important, is to bring as little unhappiness into the world as is possible. All of us, at times, inevitably bring some unhappiness to other people. If we try, however, to train ourselves so that our approach to life shall be one of kindness and cheerfulness, I think we will contribute something to the general happiness of the world. In addition, I think perhaps another important thing for real satisfaction is the knowledge that whatever we do is done to the best of our ability; whether it is taking care of a baby, scrubbing a floor or writing a scientific treatise.

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About this document

If You Ask Me, November 1941

Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962
[ ERPP bio | VIAF | WorldCat | DPLA | SNAC ]

Ladies' Home Journal, volume 58, November 1941

Digital edition created by The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project

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