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Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches
Inteview with Arnold Michaelis, Part 2
July 2, 1957
In part two, ER speaks with Arnold Michaelis about her guiding principles, her relationship with FDR, trends in American life, charity, international responsibilities, and women's roles.
[Arnold Michaelis:] A moment ago you spoke of uh of the inner resources that a person needs and must have of a person who has enormous responsibilities. If I were to ask you as someone who has lived close to these responsibilities and has had many yourself, what would you say is the one single thing that you have learned as a principal of guidance eh, something to lean on?
[ER:] Well, um it's a difficult question for me to answer because um for most of my life, at least as long as my husband lived, I suppose life was made very easy for me because I never felt that anything that I thought or that I decided had any importance. He was the important person. His work was the important work. [coughs] Afterwards, I think, I-I have of course, developed since I've been without that feeling of um of having a shield, so to speak, uh that would decide for you [laughs] that you didn't have to have responsibility. Um I suppose I think the most important thing is to try to be honest with yourself as far as your motives go. It-it sounds easy, but it isn't always easy, and you-it's so easy to rationalize what you want to do into being what you ought to do. Um and I think sometimes, perhaps the most um important thing is the kind of integrity that forces you to look at a thing as it is and then to decide what you will do regardless of what the personal consequences might be, pleasant or unpleasant.
[ER:] No, I meant the shield that a-you had, where a man was so important, that you had no responsibility except not to interfere, which is not so with every-every husband because often it's a nearer balance between
[ER:] it's more of a companionship. And in the case of my husband, it was more a question of being sure that you didn't interfere. Now, what you did, you did uh because he wanted it, or um-even in-in writing the columns as I did, I was always careful not to touch on things that might be things that would affect something that he was really doing. Um I was never dishonest, uh but I avoided things and--now, he never asked me, in all the years we were in the White House or in Albany, he never asked me not to do anything. But I remember once sending him a column because I thought I had touched on something controversial that he might think was harmful. And I got it back with one word changed and the simple little note, "This word seems to me less antagonistic."
[Arnold Michaelis:] You've spoken negatively that, in the sense that, um you avoided, uh ever involving your personal thinking in matters of state. Did you ever in-in a personal way disagree with legislation he had afoot and so express it?
[ER:] I would have never thought of-of bringing it up. He would often bring up questions at dinner, for instance. And then, we would argue perfectly honestly. And in the-all during his life, except at the very end, um we used to argue very freely, both the children and I, and I would always preface it by saying that I had no knowledge that I was only speaking as the man in the street would speak. And we would often argue very violently, and there were certain things that I believed in. He never asked me not to come out for anything or not to stand for anything, but once he said to me very amusingly um, "Of course if I'm asked about this, I shall say that I can do nothing with my wife."
[Arnold Michaelis:] [Laughs] Mrs. Roosevelt, as you think of the-the America you knew as a girl, and then your days in the-in Albany and in Washington, are there any specific tendencies and trends in American life that you find particularly to fulfill your idea of America as it should progress?
[ER:] That's a difficult question. I do think there is a greater belief that government has certain responsibilities because the individual, in the complex world we now live in, cannot quite cope with those situations in the way they could, for instance, in the much simpler world of slower communication, of more stability in-in one place, and a slower world all together. Um I do not think we have weakened the fiber of people, either young or old. Um simply, I think that we have changed the concept of what the responsibility of government and of the individual is. Now, when I was young, I was brought up by a grandmother who had very little knowledge of government. She had been treated like a child by her husband, but she had a sense of responsibility because of her privileges because she had had a certain amount of money, she had had a certain amount of ease of life, she had had engrained in her the obligation to help the poor, and the-the less-favored. So I was brought up, from the time I was a little girl, to feel that I had to do certain things. Um she would send me, at Christmastime with her own children, into the most dreadful parts of town-own to help decorate a Christmas tree. I could remember one in hell's kitchen when I was eight or nine. And I got it too from my father's side. My father's father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., died at the age of forty-six, but it-he had started the Children's Aid Society by starting the Newspaper Boys' Clubs, and he took his sons, Theodore and Elliott, two nights of every week to the newsboys' club, and the first thing I ever remember doing was being taken with my father to serve Thanksgiving dinner at the News Boys' Club. I was five years old! And so [laughs] , that was their sense of obligation. It went with their period of time. Now that has changed, and we believe, as a people even-even the most privileged, though they may kick against the pricks a little, do believe today that government has an obligation to carry um some of the responsibilities which we thought were exclusively to be carried by private organization. I think the reason is that it's become too complicated a world for it to be carried by private organizations alone. And therefore, it has not weakened the fiber of people because they still feel that they control their destiny, but they control it by the control and action of their government. So that-that particular point which is the one that did trouble me when it was first brought up doesn't trouble me anymore. I've looked at people all over this country quite critically,
[Arnold Michaelis:] I'd like to look into the future with you, Mrs. Roosevelt. Uh we sit here roughly mid-century. It's been a thrilling century for the world and for America, technological advancements which many of our major pillars of our daily life are unknown in your girlhood, am I right?
[Arnold Michaelis:] and the dating life of our youth, and the automobile and women working as a commonplace instead of staying only in the home, uh radio, television, the airplane, and all of the obvious factors of our life. Now, we look ahead to the next thirty years, the next generation, and we look at American first its economic growth. You-you probably feel as everyone does: continued constant vigorous expansion in our country economically.
[ER:] Yes. Um I feel that we will uh have a vigorous expansion, if we are willing um to recognize um that this expansion must be at the same time a cultural expansion because you cannot have it purely an economic expansion. Uh you can't have, for instance, more leisure time and not know how to use it. In order to use it well, you must have education. You must have more appreciation of the arts. With much of our industrial expansion, will go a prep greater uh increase in the lack of creativeness in the way your daily bread is earned, um particularly for the worker in great factories and so on. Therefore, you must have four people in general, then: the ability to do something, which will be creative, it may be doing something with their hands, it may be that we will come to appreciate the crafts more than we ever have before. And that many people, who work perhaps for their living four days a week, will work for the love of creating some object of beauty, which people will appreciate because it is a created thing. Uh the other two days a week, or whatever work they wish to put into it um so that I think you have [coughs] a period, which requires much more education and much more um intelligent use of leisure time. And um great possibilities for the advance of mankind but it can't just be industrial and technical advance without cultural and spiritual advance.
[Arnold Michaelis:] And now our country, uh mid-century, has a leading position in the world. The fences which existed when you were a girl on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean--they did exist, didn't they?
[ER:] Well I think of course we've taken on enormous responsibilities in the past year. Uh actually, the peace of the world rests with us today to a far greater extent than it did when we acted always with our allies. We've now taken a position that we act by ourselves, and that is more or less realistic because we have greater power uh than any other nation. Potentially, our closest um power against us is the Soviet Union. Therefore, um actually the peace of the world rests in our hands. It requires great wisdom, now on our part, and a great sense of responsibility. And I don't think it's something that our government, as long as we are a democracy, can assume alone. It requires an education among our people to the facts of responsibility and an understanding of the world, which they never had before.
[ER:] No. No, I did not mean to say, "If we continue to be a democracy." I said, "As a democracy," that's what I meant. As a democracy, um what people actually-when they wish to, can control their government. It is much more vital that the people are prepared to accept the new responsibilities. If you were Soviet Russia, it would be sufficient for the little governing group to understand. But if you are um the United States of America, the people as a whole have to understand.
[Arnold Michaelis:] Well with these continuing, and I think you mean increasing world responsibilities um naturally my thinking turns to yourself in connection with the United Nations. I want to ask you, do you see any organization of states of the world, any society of nations, which can guarantee permanent peace?
[ER:] Well, I don't see any guarantee um to permanent peace uh for permanent peace for a long time. I look upon the United Nations as our one essential machinery, which we can strengthen and develop. But it lies in the hands of the people; this machinery is made up of sovereign states. You cannot force any of them to anything. But um you can accustom them to thinking in terms of meeting around a table and discussing problems, and not going to war. You can accustom them through habit and uh understanding of problems, to using this machinery and making it stronger.
[ER:] Yes, I think there will. Um, it will not come quickly, perhaps. But there will come a time, I think, when all people will recognize that the contribution of men and women to life is different but equally important. They complement each other. That does not mean that at different times you don't need the contribution of one or the other. Um when we come to choosing people for a time and for a place where they are needed at that time, regardless of sex, we just think about them as people that could fit into a position because their qualifications are needed at that time. Then I think you will have real emancipation of women because you will think of them as people with certain contributions that they have, or qualities, and you will chose them as people, not as a man or a woman, but as the person able to fill that position. And then, there is no question then of-of-of discrimination or of saying, "uh should we choose a woman or should we choose man," you choose the person that is fitted to do that job.
[Arnold Michaelis:] Then the ancient tradition, coupled with the biologic fact of uh women as child-bearers, and uh I say tradition of uh activity in the home and hearth, the kitchen, these century old complexes of physical fact and tradition can be altered?
[ER:] Oh, no, you'll never alter that. That is the woman's part of creation, that will never be altered. But just because um you have born children uh you probably, for instance, if you were being considered for the presidency of the United States at any given time, will be past the child-bearing age, even the age when your youngest child needs your complete attention. And, it will then be a question of whether uh you have done the things, developed the qualities, um have the necessary abilities to fill a need, and it will be considered from that point of view. It will not, I don't think, be necessary at all to change the basic things that men and women um have always thought. For instance, the idea of the man as a protector of the woman was because he was the protector of the family. She was the bearer of children, the person who cared for the children. The basic family cannot exist without men and women. And in certain ways, those same obligations exist. At certain times, they do not exist in quite the same way. Um therefore, it seems to me that we adjust, in this concept of how men and women meet life, together.
[Arnold Michaelis:] Well, now our young people uh are showing signs of great energy and strength in solving these problems, but there are difficulties that many of them run into. You speak of the stresses of our modern society. What do you think young people can do to strengthen their individuality and sense of independence and therefore their ability to handle these pressures in-in this complicated society?
[ER:] Well, I think young people are doing remarkably well. I can only judge, of course, from those I know best. But um I will take, for instance, a young uh granddaughter of mine who has three children. They, she and her husband, have decided that they will live in a certain way. They say they do not want to have a great deal of money, they want to live comfortably, they want to live with their children. And they want to um have the fullest cultural development. Uh they've chosen their way of life; they've talked it over, together. Um I think young people today are planning how they want to create their lives, and they're doing it in spite of changes around them.
[Arnold Michaelis:] I'm just uh I am thinking Mrs. Roosevelt, of the drive for perfection that you speak of in these cur-present generations. After the travail they have gone through-their parents have gone through, uh why should the young people be so rebellious for a perfect world uh when they see how difficult it is to manage the one they have, that's been given to them--?
[ER:] That is-that is all a question of courage. They are willing to risk, to do something better. Um in every-in every area you find it. And, um sometimes it seems to us um almost dangerous. And it may be I'm not sure, but it certainly takes courage and I admire the courage.
[Arnold Michaelis:] Now Mrs. Roosevelt, before we say good-bye, you spoke some time ago in this conversation about the possibility of Toynbee's prediction for our society uh crumbling, falling, being washed away in the grinding march of history. Does this uh dismay you as you look into the future for yourself, your children, your grandchildren?
[ER:] That has happened many times in the course of history. You see many civilizations fall uh they always fall because of their own inadequacies. Now we may fall for the same reasons. Um but we have now much more communication, much more knowledge of history, much more opportunity I think to use our intelligence. It isn't an essential that this part of history goes on, it may happen again, of course, but it doesn't have to happen. And I am just hopeful enough that the generations to come may have much more intelligence, uh in their development than we have had. Um certainly, as I look at the children growing up today, they know more at their own ages than my generation knew at their ages. They have a broader concept of the world, um they have great opportunities which were lacking entirely in-in my young life. I-I have a feeling that um they may do things that didn't happen before. It's not a necessity that you follow what history has done in the past uh it has always happened alright, it may happen again. But the day will come when it doesn't happen.
About this document
Inteview with Arnold Michaelis, Part 2
July 2, 1957
- 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
Transcribed and published by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, 2019-11-27
Transcription created from holdings at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library