The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, Digital Edition > Audio Materials

Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches

Speech to the Assembly of Allied Arts, Part 2

February 26, 1949


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

Print ColumnText Size: Small Text Normal Text Large Text Larger Text

and before the USSR will give up its hope of a world revolution in the favor of communism, they have got to be convinced that democracy has proved to the peoples of the world that they can actually have more of the things they want by following the leadership of the democracy. [Applause] That's one reason why the Charter of Human Rights is an important thing today. That's one reason why what we do in the moral and spiritual field is so important in this century.


I'm sure that you know that the USSR does everything in the way of propaganda that they possibly can to spread every shortcoming of democracy. And they use the United States because we are the leading democracy. And this is what they do! In a committee for instance of the General Assembly, if some incident occurs somewhere in this country, there are representatives of fifty-eight nations sitting around that table, and the USSR will recite that incident, and then they will turn to me if it's in my committee, and they will say, "Is that what you call democracy, Mrs. Roosevelt?" Very often I haven't even heard of the incident, and I have to send my advisors, telling them to find out if there is an explanation, what it-what really happened. And very often I am forced to say, "No, that isn't what I call democracy. That is what I call a failure of democracy." That's not pleasant to say. And that's why it's so important that here in this country we realize that we are a country open to infection, and that everything we do does not reflect only on the people of the United States, but reflects on democracy and means how people feel about the democratic spirit throughout the world. Because when there is repeated propaganda about the failures of democracy, people are bound to begin to say, "Well is this what always happens in a democracy? Is this actually the spirit of democracy?"


Now naturally we try to show that these failures are not really the spirit of democracy. And I always say that in our country we have one great advantage. And that is that we can know about our failures. And knowing about them, when we care enough, we can improve our democracy. And I add occasionally something which they found very difficult to answer. In the whole four years that I have served in the General Assembly, I have yet to hear a representative of a communist state, whether of the USSR or of the satellites, ever acknowledge that there is anything that can be improved. Everything is always perfect! Well now, naturally, I always say, "You are human beings, so are we. And human beings are not perfect. Therefore I would assume that there must be some things in your country that might be improved! When none of these ever mentioned, I am forced to believe one of two things: either that your people are too afraid to mention any shortcomings, or that they are so apathetic that it makes no difference to them whether there should be improvements or not." And nothing kills democracy faster than apathy or fear. Those two things will do away with democracy very quickly. Now the USSR always talks about democracy, but our democracy is a bourgeois democracy, a decadent democracy, theirs is a people's democracy.


Now the reason that I believe that with patience and persistence and with a clear understanding on the part of our people, of their individual responsibility in their own communities, for it is the example that democracy gives to the world. The reason that I believe that we can win, so that we can persuade the USSR that they have to live in the same world, is because I do honestly believe that the peoples of the world, once they are convinced that democracy really is striving to live up to its idea, and [00:07:10] [00:07:12](7:10-7:12) more freedom and therefore more security for the individual, more or less a unity of the race of the individual and of common dignity. I think that once that is done, goes out to the people of the world, the USSR will begin to feel that change in the world, and be the kind of government from which the others go out from on top. We will see it change.

I think it will come primarily at first in the economic field because they are going to get pressure, more and more, from their people, who begin to know that in the decadent democracy, there are certain desirable things. They may believe that spiritually and morally we are bankrupt, but they know that there are certain material things that are desirable. And if the thought that convinces them, that there is a change in the real [00:08:40](8:40), that there are not only some material things that can be obtained through intercourse with a democracy, through a better economic interplay, but that there is also a spiritual and moral leadership that is having an effect in the world as a whole. That day I'm quite sure we will begin to have cooperation. [Coughs] We will begin to find the Iron Curtain no longer an iron curtain. And I look forward, therefore, [Coughs] with a certain amount of confidence, if we can keep [Coughs] our-- Thank you very much, [00:09:43](9:43). [Coughs] If we can keep our military strength, and our economic strength, if we do not have what they hope for, the kind of greed which brings about a depression, if we do not have that, I think time is on our side. They think time is on their side. So, you see, it is a test, a challenge. And those of us who believe in democracy, those of us who believe with all our heart that democracy can serve the good of the majority of the people of the world, have this challenge before us. It means that in our own country, in our own communities, in our own lives, we have to show what democracy can achieve. But it also means that the promise which goes out to the world is worn out by reality, by things people can see. Now the USSR makes scary and alluring promises, those promises-it lies to the world, day after day. They will say to me, for instance, "We are a government by workers, for workers. We have an economy, which in the end, we know now of course, that we cannot give our people all the things that they want, not even all the things they need. But at least our economy means a full sharing, everybody shares a light." Those promises are alluring promises; but they're only promises because very few people see the realities lying behind the Iron Curtain.


And the third promise is the most alluring of all, to people who have felt for a long time that the white races of the world look down upon them. That is the promise under communist governments, all races are equal. Every human being is equal to every other human being. That is a very alluring promise. And if you sit in the United Nations, you recognize the fact that there are more peoples in the world that are not white than there are white people. And that many of those people represent nations who, for centuries, have felt that they were not on an equal footing, and now that they sit in the General Assembly and they have an equal vote. That's a very precious thing; more precious, perhaps, than we realize. So those three promises are the promises that we have to meet. And there are advantages to being an open country, as well as disadvantages. They can see our failures, but they can also see our successes.

And so that is our challenge today. That is really the thing that gives us hope, that there may be a time coming in the world if we have patience, if we have courage, if we have vision, and if we are not afraid, when we may begin at least to see that Iron Curtain lift and to see that opposite ideologies, different types of government, can still exist in the world side-by-side. And I believe it can happen. [Applause] But I believe that it can only happen if we accept our responsibility as the leading democracy for the job that has to be done. It's not an easy job. And when you criticize the United Nations, think a little bit about some of the difficulties that have to be faced in any type of international action and in the drawing up of any type of international document, which is to have a meaning to the peoples of the world. There is first that difficulty of language. That's a real difficulty because in five official languages, any document that is drawn up and accepted has to mean the same thing and the people who-who are native of the countries using those languages have to say that those translations do mean the same thing. Now that is a difficult thing to achieve, particularly with some languages. I'm convinced that Russian has some kind of intonation in the way you say words [Audience laughs] that makes it difficult to understand because sometimes our Russian delegates uh stop their own interpreters and say, "That isn't what I mean!" And the rest of us sit helpless, because most of us don't know Russian, and there is an argument between the Russian who's speaking and his own interpreter! [Audience laughs] We had that in the Declaration of Human Rights. The Russian was making a long speech; he wanted something said in Article II. Now Article II is the non-discrimination article, and he was very insistent that something was to be said, and when his translator translated it he said, "No, that isn't what I mean." So it happened that he was a gentleman who we knew very well, spoke both French and English. But it's politically an advantage to make your speech in your native tongue, so he was speaking Russian. And finally we asked him if he wouldn't please tell us what translation he thought was correct in French and English. And he thought for a minute and he said he would accept the word "état" in French, "a state" in English. Now I'll read you the article, "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration without distinction of any kind such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." Now, we were going to say, "without distinction of any kind because of "état" in French, "a state" in English. Now Mr. Cassin, who was a member of, on the Supreme Court in France, said he was sorry but there was a time when there were three estates in France, but they didn't have such things anymore and it wouldn't have any meaning. The trois états were over! And I thought a little and I wondered exactly what we would think of a distinction which said there was no distinction because of a state. So I said I didn't think it was a very good translation. So then he said, "Well you would accept the word, class?" And I said, "Oh don't let, put in an international document the word that we're trying to get away from!" [Audience laughs] And so then he said he would accept the word "birth," and some of us felt that this had some connotations, and we accepted it. But then we went through our difficulties, because--and I give you this to show how difficult it is to understand what's going on in people's minds. Our delegate from China who speaks English much better than most of us whose native tongue it is, uh Dr. P.C. Chang, said, "Well if we have 'birth' it must come directly after 'race.' It must say, 'race, birth, color.'" And I thought our USSR delegate was going to have apoplexy! [Audience laughs] It could not come after "race," and I just thought that he was trying to delay things. That it was just ordinary Soviet tactic, they knew they couldn't accept the declaration, and it would be much easier to go home and say that he hadn't been able to come to an agreement. That was much easier to explain than why you abstained on a Declaration of Human Rights! So I just thought, well this is just going to be drawn out forever and we're never going to find the right place for that word! But finally we said, "Well where would you like it?" And he said, "After, 'property,'" and then we began to understand that the distinction was similar, that we're brought about by property and birth. And so he accepted that, and our delegates got back as though he'd won a major victory! [Audience laughs] He was relaxed, he was smiling, he voted for the article, which he did on hardly anything, and he was perfectly happy. And I never understood why until [00:21:00](21:00)] today. [Audience laughs] It was a major victory!


Now I give you that to show you the little difficulties of language and of trying to understand what the other person's thinking about. But I'm going to give you, I'm going to use [00:21:12](21:24) this document because it's one I'm familiar with, and it's the same thing in any action you're going to take as in a document you're trying to write. There was another thing which illustrated the difference in habits and customs. We took from the commission Article I, exactly like our own, it said, "All men are created equal," and it came out of Committee Three, "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and right." And why? Why the change of those first words from "every man" to "all human beings?" Because we have a good many women in Committee Three who come from nations where they have come up as an individual, but where in their countries the great mark of their sisters have no equality at all and they were the ones who said, "In this document, it's going to be, 'all human beings' where you say, 'a man', it's going to be 'everyone'; where you say 'no man', it's going to be 'no one'. [Audience laughs] Because when you go home if it says 'all men' it will be your men and it won't be your women!"


Now that's a demonstration of what habits and customs does. Now I'll give you an illustration of what legal, different legal systems do. And when you wonder why there is so much talk in the United Nations, just remember there's a good deal of talk about legal difficulties at home, and we're all one nation. Now when you come to a question of different legal systems, you've got a real difficulty. Now Professor René Cassin from the beginning has said that it wasn't so important in the Declaration but in the Covenant there had to be an article and that article had to say, "Personne ne doit était perdu de la personnalité juridique."


Well, I'm not a lawyer and behind me, as chairman, I have five lawyers from different departments in Washington. They frequently disagree. [Audience laughs] But, nevertheless they are lawyers. But I was very rash that day and I said, "Well, Professor Cassin, I suppose that would be translated into English, 'No one shall be denied the juridical personality.'" Well, a storm broke out behind me. [Audience laughs] And the British all put their heads together and they said, "they're all lawyers", they said, "No! There's so such expression as 'juridical personality' in English common law." And all my people said, "No, no, no. You can't say that. Doesn't exist in American law!" Well, what were we going to say? We argued two days to find a translation for "personnalité juridique". They kept saying to me "well its due process of law." But all the Latin countries said, "No, that doesn't mean the same thing to us. 'Personnalité juridique' has to have an ex-a- a really translation that means the same thing to us." And finally from the Department of Justice my young lawyer put a paper before me and said, "You can take 'juridical personality', it was once used in American law." [Audience laughs] Do you know when it was used? It was used by Justice Taney in the Dred Scott Case [Audience laughs] when he said, "A slave has no juridical personality."

[Audience laughs]

So we accepted that, but the British accepted it because they couldn't think of anything better! [Audience laughs] But it's not permanent, and when the Covenant, when we really come to it, that's got to be argued all over again. So just remember what legal differences na-Napoleonic code and English Common Law and uh the law of Islam and all the intervening things have come up, they can make a great deal of argument for you. And then perhaps the most difficult thing of all: the differences in religion. We took an article to Committee Three which we thought we had consulted with every major religious group on. And it said, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance." And we found that we had forgotten a very important religious group. We just hadn't consulted them at all. That was the Mohammedans. Nobody had thought to ask them if that article could be accepted by them. And the words "change his religion or belief" made every one of the Mohammedan delegates say they could not accept the declaration. And it was only the [00:27:08] (27:08) of Pakistan, after his delegates had voted against him, got up in the General Assembly and said, "I am going to cast the vote of Pakistan for the Declaration. And I am going to do it because I interpret the Koran to say, 'He who can believe shall believe. He who cannot believe shall disbelieve.' The only unforgivable sin is to be a hypocrite. And therefore I shall vote [Audience applause] for the declaration." And he was followed by a number of the other Muslim states. Yemen was absent, and Saudi Arabia abstained, but that's the [00:28:06] (28:06).


But I've given you these to illustrate the difficulties that come about when you begin to work closely with groups of people from all over the world. And that is what is happening in every meeting of the United Nations. And we do come to better understanding. And I'll illustrate it for you by a little incident that happened in [00:28:36](28:36). We had had on the Commission of Human Rights [00:28:42](28:42) delegates from Central and South America and they had agreed on the whole declaration, but when we got into Committee Three, with the fifty-eight nations which were then represented, now there are fifty-nine this year, but in Paris we had only fifty-eight. We found that a number of the South American delegates, all they found so many faults with little things here and there, and one day I said to Ambassador Santacruz from Chile, who had worked with us from the beginning, "Why cannot you explain these points to your South American colleagues?" And he looked at me with a smile and he said, "Madam, I have worked on the commission two years and a half. It was not 'til I came here that I realized what an Anglo-Saxon document it is. I had become accustomed to the Anglo-Saxon point of view. But now I see that there are many things that shock our Latin people." That's what happened to someone who worked for two years and a half and came to understand the points of view of other people. And that is the purpose that has to go on by working together and seep back [00:30:16](30:16)] through those representatives into the country so that little by little we come to better understanding, to accepting certain fundamental similar standards to working together for common objectives. The one great thing is to win a peaceful world.


Now, we work together, those of us who were allies in the war, because we knew if we didn't work together we'd lose the war and we had to win the war. Now we're faced with the fact of doing something much more difficult because there was a point at which we would win the war. There is no point definitely set when we win the peace. It goes on, that effort, day in and day out, all through our lives, perhaps through the lives of our children and grandchildren. But every year that goes by that we keep the peace, that means one step more towards our goal;, we have to decide whether it's worth the effort. And that requires character and courage and conviction. And I think probably it requires more from us, the United States of America, than from any other nation in the world. I believe our people have the character, the patience, the courage, the conviction, but they're not quite accustomed yet to the idea. But this is something that is going to be done in a dangerous world, and the danger isn't going to be over at some fixed point. You're going on carrying that and your children are going to carry it. And so you must hand on to them the same kind of courage it took our forefathers since the days of the Revolution. It must have seemed just as dangerous to them, just as hopeless a time, and just as difficult to solve the problem, to know what was the right thing to do. So that I think we have to face our particular challenge and realize that it's the same characteristics and the same courageous attitude that will win victory for us. And we have to teach that same thing to the younger generations that will take over from us. And if you are given a kind of service, a kind of courageous example, a kind of growth and conviction of democracy and ability to live democracy, then they will have a little better chance to win true and to have a peaceful world.


Program Participants

  • : Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962

About this document

Speech to the Assembly of Allied Arts, Part 2

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