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Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches

Speech to the Assembly of Allied Arts, Part 1

February 26, 1949


Speech. ER addresses the Assembly of Allied Arts on the work of the UN.

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[Audience applause]

Chairman, [00:00:13] there's the best one [00:00:17], Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I'm very happy to come and talk to you about the United Nations. I'm sure that here, as in many other places, there are times when people say, "What has the United Nations accomplished? What are they doing? We don't want war. The peoples of the world are sick and tired of war. But what is happening in the United Nations? It's just a debate in society. They call each other names, they argue, but what do they do?" I've heard that said quite often, and I'm sure you have too. And so, I'd like to come and talk about the things we do. It isn't that I don't believe even the arguments, and the calling of names has value. I believe it has. Because if people have violent feelings, it's rather better to take it out in calling names, and in saying what they say, than in just letting it seethe until finally you come to blows!

But when you really stop to think, we have set up machinery, machinery which the peoples of the world have to use in order to accomplish their ends. Their ends are the hope of building an atmosphere in which peace can grow.


I've heard a few people who thought that peace just came in a sort of package once, and remained with you. But most of us know that peace will have to grow. Men have been looking for centuries for a way in which they could settle their difficulties and live together without the use of force. They've never found that way. They tried the League of Nations. They found that there were flaws in the setup of the League. One of the main flaws was that there was no force. They could not really do anything to enforce the decisions that were made. So in setting up the United Nations, in the minds of those who first conceived it, they intended that there should be force. But we, because we've never made peace in the world, have never been able to finish the organization of the United Nations as it was conceived and we have never been able to have joint force. And we will not be able to have it until the two great nations with opposing ideologies can come to a point where they can agree that both of them can live in the world without resorting to force to settle their difficulties.


In the meantime, we've had to use our machinery in the United Nations, which was meant to be used in conjunction with joint force, purely with the backing of persuasion: the backing of creating public opinion and letting world opinion have the full weight of its force on matters that were discussed throughout the world. Well even using that, I think we can feel that these political questions, which are the least satisfactory part of the United Nations picture, have had some notable successes. Indonesia can be claimed as one of the United Nations' successes through persuasion and publicity and world opinion. I think we can feel that the truce in Palestine has come about through conciliation and the machinery set up by the United Nations. I think we can feel that the settlement, as far as it has gone, of the question of the Italian colonies is one that has been accomplished peacefully and is a success.

But the area of political question is of necessity as long as we have no force, or making nations do what the majority of the world thinks they should do. As long as we don't have that force, and have to rely on persuasion, that is the area in which we cannot expect to see as many good results as we can on the other side of the picture. And so I am mainly going to talk to you tonight about what is being done in the economic and social areas because, as you know, the Economic and Social Council and the specialized agencies and other commissions were set up primarily with the thought that they would bring people together. They would initiate projects on which people throughout the world would work together, and in doing so, they would create that atmosphere in which peace could grow.


Now I want to tell you a little bit about the specialized agencies. They are independent, in a way, they have their own budgets they do their own planning, but they report to the Economic and Social Council. And they are doing some of the most important work today. Food and Agriculture, for instance, is doing for the first time, work in the area of acquainting the world as a whole, on a world scale, with conditions that affect the food supply of the world. We've long known that we needed new methods of distribution. It seems foolish that in some parts of the world we should have a surplus of food where in other parts of the world people starve. It also seems foolish that with the knowledge we have today there should still continue the waste of the soil, the waste of our forests, the kind of waste that pioneering nations endowed in. And now, the pioneering days for most nations are over. We know that we have been wasteful; we begin to know how much we lose year by year by continuing our wasteful method. But very little has ever been done before, from the world's point of view, trying to bring together the knowledge that exists, and spread it throughout the world, trying to help nations that need soil conservation and forestry experts much more even than we do! That for the first time is being done. And I think we should be very grateful because on-in the long range, that is one of the important things. You know some of our scientists have been telling us that before long there wouldn't be enough food in the world to feed the peoples of the world. And this is one of the agencies in the United Nations that actually faces that problem and tries to find solutions.


Now the World Health Organization has for me a particular interest. I think we in this country have been so fortunate that we sometimes forget that the situation is different in some of the other countries of the world, and I know very often when I say that one of the main projects the World Health Organization is undertaking is a fight, on a worldwide basis, against tuberculosis that people in my audience look at each other and say, "What do we need of a fight against tuberculosis? We're doing pretty well on that score! But you see, we are not the world as a whole. We are a very fortunate part of the world because war did not happen to take place on our own soil. I can remember getting letters before we entered the last war from women in different parts of this country who said that they hoped their sons would never be off to fight outside of their own country. Well now we know that the fact that our sons did fight outside of their own country is one of the reasons for which we are deeply grateful today. Because we have our land intact. We have the greatest production unit that the world has. And it's not impaired in any way by the ravages of war.

We have our difficulties with housing, but they're not brought about by the bombing of houses. And when you talk to some of the nations, you look at their cities in ruin, some of the people if you look at their cities in ruin, they wonder exactly why we have any difficulty with housing. And occasionally I have a little difficulty in pointing out the reasons that sound perfectly easy for us to understand, but don't seem quite so easy for the people who look at ruins in large areas of their country and not only have to rebuild, but have to build anew, as much as we have.


In the same way, we do not understand that countries that have been occupied, from which food has been siphoned out to the conquering area, have had to live through a period of malnutrition which has resulted in the younger people particularly, suffering from tuberculosis. When I was in Holland a year ago last spring, two years ago this coming spring, I asked the present queen who was then Princess Juliana, and who was deeply interested in the-the local health situation, whether she knew how many children in Holland had tuberculosis. And her answer was shocking. She said, "We've not been able to make a complete survey because we have not had the equipment. But from what we now know, we think that fifty percent of our children have tuberculosis." Well that is a very high percentage! And we think perhaps that will not affect us. But those children will someday be the people that our children will be working with. And no matter what the disease is, if it weakens the power of the population to come back, to go to work, to have initiative, it hurts that nation's ability to be a productive part of the world family.


And so this fight made by the World Health Organization throughout the world is a very valuable thing which is done for us. The fight against malaria is valuable to all of us. And those projects undertaken as projects which are done by teams of people chosen from different nationalities, those are the things that bring people together, and that give them an inkling of what it might be like to live in world where people work together as brothers, really care about what happens to the people of their different nationalities.

So that I think we can feel that there are two agencies doing things that are potentially good in building an atmosphere for peace. We don't hear much about their successes, because news is always about disagreement. And when we have meetings where we agree about something, you never read about them in the papers at all. There's hardly anything ever said about the question where we arrive at successful compromises, [audience applause] where we manage to really have a meeting of minds. [Audience applause] And that is understandable enough, but I often wish it might be changed. I wish that we might have a report now and then of some of the things that are really done in a spirit of brotherhood. The Social Commission, which works directly under the Economic and Social Council, has helped with specialized services throughout the world, in many nations, and I think has created a great deal of good will. UNESCO is beginning to undertake some real projects, which I think in the field of education, and of science, and of intellectual interest, will bring peoples together.


We've always had the International Labor Organization, ever since the time it was organized in the League, working to bring a greater- a better standard for the labor peoples of the world. And now we have organizations working in many other fields to make conditions better throughout the world. The one commission, which I am most familiar with because I've been the United States representative on that commission, is the Commission on Human Rights. And a great many people wonder just why that was the first commission set up in the spring of 1946 after the first organization meeting when the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and the machinery of the United Nations began to function. The Economic and Social Council set up The Human Rights Commission. That very spring, it was practically a mandatory commission, because in the charter, as one of its very first objectives, there is this statement, "The purposes of the United Nations are:" and when you come to the third paragraph it says, "To achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion," That-[audience applause] that meant that the people who wrote the Charter felt that the abrogation of human rights had been one of the causes of war. And with a better understanding throughout the world of what were standards of human rights and freedom would be a foundation stone on which it could grow peace. And that was why they set that commission up, and asked us to write a Charter of Human Rights.

Now I'm not minimizing at all the fact that in any work done on an international scale, whether it is the writing of a document, whether it is coming to an agreement as to how you shall take action in a certain area, there is- there are always tremendous difficulties. And I don't feel that just because we set up machinery in the United Nations of necessity we're going to succeed, the League failed, but there are certain reasons why. Perhaps this effort may be successful.


One reason is that we have the failure of the League and we can try to avoid the mistakes we know. The second reason is that those of us who are old enough to have watched the development of our ability to destroy, know very well that between World War I and World War II we achieved an ability to destroy which makes it possible for us, even without the use of the atom bomb, to destroy much of our civilization if we so desire. And that is one of the great incentives which has brought the people in the United Nations to really wish to succeed. And if they can keep before them the constant thought of what defeat means, we may succeed.

Now a great many people say, "What gives you any hope when you yourself say that there has to come an agreement between the USSR and the USA, and as far as we can see there is no agreement?" Well of course I can only give you my own personal thinking on that. But I've had a good deal of experience now with our friends from behind the Iron Curtain as they come to meetings of the United Nations. It's not easy to have any feeling that you're meeting with people. I don't say with free people because, of course, they're not free. But it's hard even to feel that you're meeting with people because they behave exactly like automatons. They are always government representatives. Now we are government representatives, but there is a great difference between being a government representative and still remaining a human being and still having some freedom. And being a government representative, where you do not dare to deviate by one word from the orders which were laid down before you came.


I had a very good illustration of that when we were working in Geneva on the Human Rights Commission. Now remember I am a government representative, the United States representative on that commission. I have been elected chairman at each session, and I happen to have remained the representative because unlike the delegation to the General Assembly which serves only for one session, and then automatically resign, we do not have to be reappointed [clears throat] to a commission each time. We serve the length of time that our country is elected to serve on that commission, and when we were named and passed by the Senate, we will pass for that period. Therefore, my election holds good 'til after the next meeting of the Human Right Commission. But at each session we re-elect our officers, and it happens that at the Nuclear Commission I was elected chairman and I've been elected chairman ever since. When we went to Geneva for a meeting a few weeks before Christmas, we had a very interesting time. I've been told that the United States' position was [unclear (27:55)]. I wasn't entirely in agreement because I knew the feeling of the people on the commission, and I was very sure that we would have to make certain concessions. After all, you don't get all of what you want. You get-you do not compromise on principle, but you frequently get as much as you can. You don't get all of it!

So I had sent back word after going over what the decisions in the State Department were that I doubted if we could carry some of our positions, and I had been told to try and see. And for two or three days I tried, and we lost every vote. And every night I would send back, our advisors send back reports, every night, of everything that had happened. And I would always say, "Please say that I still believe that we have got to make some concessions and that we will be voted down just as long as we do not make certain concessions." And at the end of the third day of having said that, I got a long-distance call from Washington, and at the other end of the telephone they said, "What is the matter with the vote against the United States?" And I said, "Just what I told you, we're not making any concessions!" And the voice at the other end of the telephone said, "Oh, go ahead and use your own judgment, but change those votes!" And so we made some concessions, and we began to win our main point. But I was told to use my own judgment. Now nothing like that ever happened to anyone from the USSR. Never. They're never told to use their own judgment. They've got to go ahead if they're defeated right straight down the line, and they are defeated, right straight down the line, time after time after time. And that must be pretty hard to take, but they have to take it.


Now I have an idea that we have pretty well established the fact that for the time being, we have military strength sufficient so that there is no use for anyone to actually attack us. I think we've established the fact successfully that our economic strength is sufficient so that we can win our points in the economic field. I'm not sure that we have yet established the fact of our spiritual and moral leadership-


Program Participants

  • : Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962

About this document

Speech to the Assembly of Allied Arts, Part 1

February 26, 1949


Eleanor Roosevelt

Project Editors
  • National Endowment for the Humanities

Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches is a project and publication of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, The George Washington University, Academic Building, Post Hall, Room 312, 2100 Foxhall Road, NW, Washington, DC 20007

Transcript Editors

Transcribed and published by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, 2019-11-27

Transcription created from holdings at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library