The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, Digital Edition > Audio Materials

Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches

Speech at Brandeis University, part 1

April 17, 1958


ER is guest speaker at course "General Education S" at Brandeis University. ER discusses many aspects of her life from her childhood through World War II.

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[background talking]
[Dr. Abram L. Sachar:]

Can I have your at— [background talking] I think there's some room for a half a person here [audience laughs]. Some of you might want a to -- [audience laughs]. May I have your attention? First of all may I expess-express my gratification that there's so much interest in our course in General Education S [audience laughs]. I ought to explain these reserved seats in the front. We've had committee meetings of the board of trustees today, and the board itself will meet tomorrow and we're privileged to have our guest speaker tonight because she's a member of our board and has come really to take part in the board sessions. We had a little dinner tonight for the trustees after our committee meetings and for our student panel; and I'm very glad that they have an opportunity to uh see Education S in action. I'm not going to take any time at all tonight for any formal presentation of one of the most beloved persons in the world. I think perhaps the best way that I could present Mrs. Roosevelt is by reminding some of the older students here that two or three years ago, we had as one of our invited guests for Education S the great cartoonist, Herblock. And in the question period that followed, one of the students asked Herblock which cartoon that he did gave him the greatest pleasure and he said, "Well I did one for Mrs. Roosevelt's 70th seventieth birthday. And this is what I did, I showed a group of immigrants on the deck of a ship coming into the harbor of New York, and the Statue of Liberty was standing in all its glory in the harbor and one of the youngsters was tugging at the coat of his parent and pointing to the Statue of Liberty he cried out, ‘Look Mommy there's Mrs. Roosevelt.'" [audience laughs] I'm very privileged indeed to present Eleanor Roosevelt.


The members of Education S [audience laughs] now--

[Dr. Abram L. Sachar:]

May I just suggest that because this room is so crowded that you don't smoke during this session, please?


Um I'm afraid that's hard for most people, yes [laughs] I realize it is crowded. Uh I was here not so many years ago for this same course, and perhaps some of you uh came into that session-- though Dr. Sachar tells me that this is an entirely new generation of students. I'm not going to repeat for any of you uh um things which you have heard already. I started then by telling the group that it was very difficult for anyone my age to talk about their world because in the period of my li—come about in the physical world. That it's almost impossible to tell you what the world was like when I was young, and to be asked to tell you about myself means that I have to tell you a little something about what the world was like. And you will be, I think, interested to know that I was brought up from the time I was eight, my father and mother had both died, and my two little brothers and myself lived with my grandmother. My grandmother had uh been brought up in a world that you couldn't possibly imagine. And she was convinced that the world she had grown up in was the world that was going to always exist. Now every one of you knows very well that the world you're living in is going to change and change a great deal. But my grandmother thought that it had been like this ever since she was young and it was going to continue like this. And as far as I was concerned it was never suggested to me that the world was going to be different. Now, I can remember the first telephone in my house. As a child, when we lived in the country I ran errands for my elders constantly which now everyone would do on the telephone. I ran from the house to the stable if to say wethey wanted a horse or a cart, or I used my bicycle. Now who would think of doing that? The telephone would always be there. I remember meeting my first automobile on a country road. I was fairly young and I was driving a horse in a two-wheeled cart. And the horse and the two-wheeled cart and I all went over the fence and into the field [ER and audience laugh] and because the horse thought this was a strange and very terrifying thing that he was meeting on that country road. And I can remember a long while when we had, my husband and I, our first car always stopping by the side of the road when we saw a horse coming, so that the horse could get by without having too much of a fright [laughs]. So--and airplanes, airplanes why I had never have heard of such a thing. When the Wrights came along they were just one, extraordinary thing that-- and I remember when my husband, in World War I took his first flight in what looked to me like the most dangerous, flimsy thing. All it had was some places for your feet to go on a kind of [unclear term] held on the side. And when I saw him take off I thought he probably would never land safely. He did and-and what actually [ER and audience laughster] uh you don't-you don't know how strange all these things were. Now- now you live in a world where we talk about space and getting to the moon and-and umh fallout from atom bombs and things that I—I sometimes wonder what my grandmother would say.

[>audience laughs]

And-and certainly I have lived through many different things. When I asked my grandmother if I might go to college she had consented to send me abroad to school at the age of fifteen but it had to be a school which was then run by a lady who was no longer very young but thank heavens she was young in her mind. She had been head of the school which Theodore Roosevelt's sister, my aunt Mrs. [Bamie] Cowles , had gone to when she was fifteen. And so my grandmother said alright she'd let me go because it wasn't very good for me to stay in New York when she had two very gay young daughters who were going out in society. I should be working and studying. I'd had the honors tooddest education. I can only tell you that it had been with private classes and private teachers, I didn't really know how to study nor did I know how—what education really meant. I'd had one very fortunate thing, we'd spent months of every summer on a country place on the Hudson River and the only way to get away was in a horse and cart. And there were very few neighbors and I used to sit in a cherry tree or later in other trees and munch cherries and apples and read. And Mymy grandfather had had quite a large library and I read and read. And when I was young sometimes I asked very uncomfortable questions and so then a book would disappear and [audience laughs] I would search everywhere and say, "What happened to that book?" Nobody would know and I never found the book [laughs]. But it was really a—that was a really valuable education because by the time I was fifteen I had read a great many of the classics; and uh books that perhaps I never would have had a chance to read. I'm sure that not many of you read all of Walter Scott without skipping [ER and audience laughs] and I'm sure that many of you don't read all of Charles Dickens and all of Zachary-- [unclear nameER laughs]. But if you had days and days and no playmates as I had, my brother was six years younger than I was, why it was quite a wonderful thing to have a library and never be told that there was anything I couldn't read. It disappeared if I asked a [uncomfortable [audience laughterlaughs] questions but I was never told that there was anything I couldn't read. So I read just everything that came to hand and that in a way was a very good thing. Then I learned languages. I had learned French before I learned English. My mother had been very interested in language and so we were abroad and we brought a French nurse home and I did speak French before I spoke English and that has an advantage because you never forget a language that you learn that way. I learned other languages later but never were they as well implanted in my mind. But [cough] French I really did know very well. And I read a great deal in French and in German, later in Italian and that was very useful because I read a great many things that you read in translations usually. I read them in the original because I had hours of time. There was nothing else to do and it was a wonderful world as far as I was concerned. Then I think I was very fortunate when I was 15 fifteen and sent abroad. Mademoiselle Souvestre who now had a school in England but a school where you spoke French and you were supposed to truthfully report if you used any word of English. Well if you ever tried to find out if you used any word in English during the day it's a terrible thing to be on your honor to report and really not know. So I used to say, "I really don't know but I think I used twenty words of English today." [ER and audience laughs] We were supposed to do all of our lessons in French and to this day I pronounce many things in the French way and when I came back to this country people would look at me and say, "What on Earth are you talking about? We've never heard of that place." And I remember later much later that my husband told me that he also had had tutors and governesses and his first study of geography in this country had been under a German governess; and so when he was taught the geography of New York State he pronounced Schenectady as Schenectardy [audience laughs]. And when he first used that in school they were a little bit bewildered [Er and audience laughs] and wondered what on Earth he meant. Well I was in much the same position as-- but I was very fortunate in that Mademoiselle Souvestre had the idea that Americans could do anything, they could do absolutely anything. She liked them very much and uh um she gave us rare opportunities. I think one of the real decisions that changed a great deal of my life was the decision to send me abroad for three years to Mademoiselle Souvestre. I got more out of it than my grandmother really expected I think because Mademoiselle Souvestre liked Americans enough and she eventually liked me enough to take me in the holidays travelling in Europe. And travelling she was a very old lady already but travelling with the responsibility of doing all the chores but of having a highly intelligent and cultivated person uh lay out for you what you should see and tell you all sorts of things about it and then say to you, -- and remember I was sixteen-seventeen--16-17, "Now uh I'm too tired with staying here on Fiesole which is outside of Florence uh you're young these are the things you should see in Florence. Uh You go down and see them we'll talk them over tonight." Well now to be sent alone uh and I've often wondered if my family had known [audience laughs] they might've been a little surprised at the idea that I was wandering around the streets alone with a [unclear term]. But it was a wonderful thing because I was an ugly child and nobody paid any attention to me. If I asked questions they were all very polite and told—gave me my directions and I learned a most enormous amount because when you are alone you have no distractions, um you really see what you should see and to study it; and then I would always go home and in the afternoon and she would ask what I had got out of the different things and it makes an enormous difference if you exchange ideas about something. It brings out things that you perhaps would never have thought of unless you talked with someone that ha-that had more background and understood things better than you did. And it was a remarkably fortunate thing for me. I spent a Christmas with her in Rome, I did many travels. I remember one-one thing she did for me, I had been brought up as I told you by my grandmother and my grandmother's life was laid out rather rigidly. We moved to the country every year on a certain day, I was allowed to change into spring clothes on a certain day regardless of the weather [Er and audience laughs], and we moved back to the country on a certain day. Suddenly I found myself travelling with someone who would look out of the window and say, "Ah the next station the train stops at is Alassio. ! Oh! Mrs. Humphrey Ward lives there I haven't seen her in six months let's get off." [audience laughs] This was something to me that was perfectly astounding. I'd never done anything on the spur of the minute like that before in my life. But we did get off, the trunks went gaily on as they were checked. We took our bags and got off. We had no rooms of course and it happened the kind Mrs. Humphrey Ward wasn't there. But [audience laughterlaughs] just the same we spent the night and the beach was beautiful at Alassio and it was a full moon. And I will never forget it. We had to stay in a new hotel and the walls were running with wet from plaster and Mademoiselle Souvestre got a terrible cold but I thought it was perfectly wonderful [audience laughs]. I'd done something without preparing it beforehand and that was simply marvelous, truly.


Then I spent three years doing this, getting this education, then I came home and asked my grandmother if I might go to college. And she looked at me with shock and she said, "Oh, no well brought up child goes to college [ER and audience laughs]. You- You are now ready to go into society." And society meant real responsibility and I was to learn that you had a responsibility to society on many different fronts. You had it to be a pleasant companion; wherever you found yourself at a lunch or a dinner or reception you tried to be pleasant. If you—no matter how you felt you might have a headache but you never said it. You just plain had an obligation to be pleasant. But then you also had an obligation, a different world from now, but you had an obligation to people who did not have all the things that you had. [coughs] Well I had started my education in that line when I was very young. At five years old my grandfather,, Theodore Roosevelt, had started in New York City the thing called the Newsboys Club which is now grown in New York City to be the Children's Aide Society. But he'd started because little boys at that time, six years old, were selling papers at any hour of the night on New York City streets. And so we had the first Newspaper Boys Club. And you'd be amused how funnily things come about in life. He always took his two boys, Theodore Roosevelt, who later was president [coughs] and my father, Elliott Roosevelt, twice a week in the evenings to the Newspaper Boys Club. They spent the whole evening and got to know the boys and talked to them about their problems. and And why was thisit possible? Because he had married a perfectly charming, very small lady from Georgia, Martha Bulloch. She never could be on time [audience laughs]. And so they gave up going out to dinner all together [ER and audience laughs]. And That that made it possible for him to do this regularly. And um my father and Uncle Ted always remembered this. Uncle Ted told me years afterwards that when he was campaigning through the West he met any number of men who had been given the money to come West and start life in the West by his father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. And one of the governors of the state at one time met him and said "your father gave me the money to come West." And of all the loans he made to boys he never but once was not repaid. Now I think that's quite a remarkable record. And this sense of obligation-- he always was with the boys on Thanksgiving and on Christmas; and so at five I was taken to wait on tables at Thanksgiving dinner for the newsboys. Well my grandmother carried that on and [coughs] she used to go to the babies hospital in New York and I was taken to play with the sick children. So we did—we did have um a sense of responsibility. Later of course, it has developed into something quite different. We now think, at least I think that all people have a right to certain things and the kind of charity that at that time was thought to be the only way you could better the conditions of living for people has gradually changed somewhat. And we consider that many things people should have and do have by right in a democracy. But you see the world changes and I think that probably my going away to school was not my decision at all though I was very excited at going and wanted to go very much because I always wanted to do—I always wanted to see the world. I had a great curiosity Mademoiselle Souvestre developed curiosity in all her students [coughs]. And I imagine some of you would find—would have found her courses not too different from the courses that you get in college. She used to lecture to us walking up and down with maps on the wall, she gave us history, and she would give you a list of books and if you came back and gave her just what she had given you and shown showed plainly that you hadn't had any thoughts of your own she tore up your paper. She would say, "I know what I gave you I want to know what you got after you read the books and thought about it. What do you think on this period of history or on that person that you studied?" It was a little disturbing when your paper was torn up but it was very good for you [audience laughs] and so [coughs] I-I found her a very stimulating person and she did [coughs] one of the things for which I will always be grateful. She taught me what it meant to be completely fair. She was uh very much stirred up about the Dreyfus case perhaps you young people have never even heard of it. But there was a man in France who was unjustly condemned for something he had done and the case dragged on for a long, long, long time and [Émile] Zola who was one of the great writers of the time wrote a very brilliant paper about it—book about it and finally Dreyfus was declared innocent. But she was enormously interested in that case and she saw to it [coughs] that we- the few of us that she thought worth calling into her own study in the evening and talking to heard every single thing about that case. She was opposed to the World Boer War and if when she was in England she thought the British had no right to be doing what they were doing in South Africa and she had had in her school daughters of whose father-- one of the fathers had been prime minister. And she did not hesitate to say so, but when there were British victories she always allowed the English girls to celebrate. They celebrated in the gymnasium and they were allowed to do whatever they wanted. But the rest of us who were not British, we were called into Mademoiselle Souvestre's study and there were a great many of us who came from a great many different countries:. Russia, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, these I remember as girls that I studied with Germans, French, great many nationalities. And we would be called in and she would lecture us on the rights of small nations [audience laughs], rights of individuals, and uh then to finish off because we enjoyed it so she would read aloud old French poetry. And she trained our memories that way. You try it sometime. She would read short poems and then she would say, "Now you recite it. Can you read a poem once and recite it?" It's-It's a good way to train your memory and I've lost that capacity today, but I had it then and I learned an enormous amount through from just hearing her read a great many different kinds of things that she thought we should know about. And she broadened our knowledge of literature and our enjoyment of poetry and writing of different kinds very greatly. So I think that that decision, while I didn't make it, was a very important decision in my life.


When I came home, I spent some very unhappy years because I hadn't--I'd lost touch with everybody. I had no friends and I had never met a boy. I had a few cousins [audience laughs] but I hadn't seen them since I was fifteen. [Coughs] My own--one of my brothers had died and my other little brother was six years younger and I practically uh took care of him from the time I did come home. Visit him at school and finally after I married he lived with me. But um as to knowing a boy of my own age I never--never had any friends at all. So I had all that to do. [audience laughs] I had to pick up my girls that I'd known, pick up my boys and nobody would even think [audience laughs] – that really was a strange situation. They just calmly said you go to a ball and I went to the first ball and I was miserable, just miserable. There were just two men in the room that I had ever seen before and they were very nice to me because they were my mother's friends [audience laughs]. But this was not exactly an easy situation. Perhaps it was good because it made me do things that I might not otherwise have done. I started out in the Junior League and began to work teaching in a settlement house in New York City and that put me in touch with a whole side of life that I didn't know much about and I began again to learn. And I went right on learning. Oh gradually I made friends and gradually I had plenty of friends but uh um it wasn't an easy first winter I can tell you that. And then when I was twenty I married. I married a very distant cousin. A cousin who was my fifth cousin once removed, but he's--my father had been his godfather. And at the age of two and a half I'd been taken to stay with his mother and father. And he had taken this two and a half year old child on his back and crawled around the nursery. But actually we didn't know each other very well [audience laughs] so it was really like meeting a stranger. [Coughs] But--oh we'd met once or twice through the years but this was really a-a new thing. Well we were married and I think I should tell you that I don't actually-- I can't tell you of decisions that I made that made a great difference in my life. I think that decisions happened because I was a part of someone else's life and I knew that my job was to make somebody else's life more possible. And uh um I never thought about what I was going to do after I married, I just took whatever came along and did the best I knew how with what happened. Now sometimes it was quite difficult. I had six children and one of them died and we went through all sorts of experiences. Very soon my husband started in politics and first of all when we lived in New York his mother was a very strong character, practically ruled my life. So I had to learn after I went up to Albany how to live alone. Because there was nobody there then to tell me what to do every minute [audience member laughs] and that was a new experience because I had taken it for granted that I didn't know very much and I was just um doing as I was told, pretty well. And some of the things I had to be told were really very funny. I had another very delightful friend, who knew about as little as I did about housekeeping or the care of children or any theories of how you should bring up children. We had--we hadn't had any training in that way and sometimes we went shopping together and I can remember quite well. She was very beautiful, her name was Isabella Greenway and she married uh Bob Ferguson who was a very old friend of my family's. And we went in to a fish shop one day and she said, "I would like some salmon." And the man said, "How much salmon?" She looked at him and said, "Why a salmon." And [ER and audience laughterlaughs] and the manhe looked at her and said, "A salmon is very large." She said, "Oh I don't think so. It probably will be six people to eat it." [audience laughs] And--so you can see that we didn't know much about [laughs] how to keep thingshousekeeping and we had to learn a great deal. Now I think of course that one of the wonderful things today is that almost no youngster does not learn at home and in school and then in college a great many practical things besides the academic things that they learn. And I think it's a tremendous help because uh we--we had a great deal more personal service but we were very uncertain because we didn't know how to do things ourselves. And as to bringing up our children I can't tell you what mistakes I made. Oh it frightened me as I look back on them now. And I still wake up with cold shivers thinking how dreadfully I treated my children. And nowadays you know so much more, you're taught so much more. We just had to grope our way and I'm very happy for the younger generation today because they have many chances that we did not have to learn and to be prepared for a more difficult life. Yes, you live in a more difficult world but you have much better preparation. Once I was married most of the decisions were made for me. I just took it that my job was to look after the children, to do what I could to make my husband's life easy. And some of it was difficult for me because I'd been very shy and I kept being shy for a long time and when I found myself first in Albany and then later uh um first in Albany when he was state senator and then later in Washington when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. And my aunt Mrs. Cole said to me, because her husband had been an admiral, she said, "Now remember, the Assistant Secretary's wife has one obligation that is to be nice to all the young officer's' wives in the Navy. You must make it your business to be nice to the young officers' wives. And then of course you must remember that you're among the least important people in Washington [audience laughs] and so you have to call on everybody first." And I said, "Heavens what do I do?" "Oh," she said, "you just go in. people People have days at home and you'll find in the big receptions or the cabinet people uh you'll find long lines of people and you'll just say ‘I'm Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt my husband is the new assistant Secretary of the Navy.'" Well I was so shy that I don't believe many people understood much of what I said [audience laughs]. And I began to find that I was supposed sometimes to stand in these lines, particularly for uh the wife of the Secretary of the Navy at the very end. And Well I can remember still, this is a story that is very famous in Washington, uh somebody got so tired of uh [coughs] explaining themselves and was sure that nobody ever listened so they went down the line they started right at the first and they said uh, "I'm Mrs. So and so I've just killed my husband –" [laughteraudience laughs]. And it wasn't until they reached me at the very end of the line that I took in what had been said and I said, "I beg your pardon." [ER and Audience laughs] And then the person turned around and said, "Well you're the first person who really listens to what I'm saying." [audience laughs] Well then I had—I had a training in being the Assistant Secretary's wife;. Going to Navy Yards, taking terrific trips and having to do all the packing, having to do all the uh planning because my husband was busy. And uh um I had lots of training in those years with little children and a lot of-of official things that had to be done. And then came World War I and I felt very badly because I felt there was nothing I could do. I couldn't leave home very well. My husband was going overseas, not fighting as he wanted to but on an inspection trip and I was going to be left at home with the children. I felt very guilty but I decided to do all the work that I could do. And I ran committees, groups for the Navy. I began to visit naval hospitals, mental hospitals, uh um all kinds of hospitals I'd never been inside a hospital before and particularly mental hospitals. I uh I went into the canteen which served in the railroad yards the trains that came through. And I learned an enormous amount about conditions in our own country about education, about what happened to people. I don't think you would—you couldn't remember you weren't born then but trains came in with men and they were not all colored, some of them were white people from the mountains, from other areas. And they would say as they leaned out of the windows, "Say lady are we over there?" and I would say, "Over there, what do you mean?" "Well where we're going to fight." They didn't even know that they'd only started their journey and many of them we—I'd sell postcards they wouldn't buy because they couldn't read and write and nobody at home could read and write. And I suddenly began to understand what some of the conditions were in our country. We were sending men to fight who would never be able to communicate with their families and who had no idea where they were going nor why. And that was the beginning of a lot of education for me,me; it taught me a lot that was very valuable to learn. And then when World War I came to an end I was still doing what happened to come my way. And I've done that all my life. People keep writing me and saying uh "You have a career." I have no career I never had a career I just have taken things as they happened to come along and done the best I could. And always tried to learn as much as I could and found that everything I learned had value at some time in doing something. Now many of you probably are learning things that you think are useless. Let me tell you that though there is nothing you ever learn which at some time you won't find useful.


And I must skip a little because I'm taking too long. Uh my husband ran for Vice President, was defeated, and we lived in New York and he went into business. And then he had polio and that was a-a very difficult time, terribly hard for him but he won through and finally- against his will rather- because he was hopeful that if he worked long enough he would recover completely from polio. But he had to make the decision of whether he would run for the governorship as um Alfred E. Smith, who was going to run for the presidency, asked him to do;. Or whether he would go on going to Warm Springs and trying to get better. He knew very well that if he decided to be governor that meant he'd go on just as far in physical recovery as he could ever go. And Governor Smith asked me if I would get him on the telephone. They tried all day to get him on the telephone and I thought that this was a pretty tough decision but I helped them to get him on the telephone. I knew very well that this wasn't going to be easy for him to make up his mind but I felt he had an obligation to actually make up his mind, that here was a time when Governor Smith thought that he needed him and only Franklin himself could decide whether this was something he ought to do or not. And so I got him on the telephone and then I left. I took the night train from the state convention and I never knew what he decided nor what they asked him until I got into New York the next morning and bought the morning paper and found that he had decided to-to come back and run for governor. Now in that election he won by the smallest possible margin I think it was 25,000 votes in the state of New York because Governor Smith lost the presidency. And we didn't know when we went to bed whether uh he had won or lost, but by this time we were beginning to decide that fate handed you what you had to take and that therefore you weren't going to worry much and we went to bed and went to sleep. And the next morning we found that Franklin had been elected. Well then began the years in Albany and then finally uh the presidency of the United States. And that of course was a very difficult period because he became the presidency in the middle of something that you don't remember either, a depression and a very serious depression when we had no cushion and banks were failing all the time, this-- and it had started with the farmers. The farmers, first of all, began to lose their farms they couldn't pay interest on their mortgages. And then the industries began to have trouble and it got worse and worse. Nothing fundamental was being done because nobody had ever met such a situation before and so that was the first crisis. I felt that my husband had lived through a good many crises; but this was the first great national crisis that he had ever had to meet. And I can't say that I was very happy over this and I didn't realize either uh what it meant to be the President's Wife and when my husband announced that all the banks were going to be closed I said to him very tentatively, "I've only got twenty five dollars what do I do about the things we have to buy?" [audience laughs] and he said, "Well don't worry [laughs] if you really-- you'll have enough to eat in the house." [audience laughs] But I hadn't realized any of these things yet and umh we progressed through the many things. Now when you're meeting a crises uh- crisis like that uh you don't always do the right thing. You try something and it goes badly and then you try something else. And there were times when things went badly and times when they said dreadful things about the president. And um at first of course the first few months uh everything went beautifully because everyone was so glad to have somebody take some responsibility. But afterwards it wasn't quite the same. And then suddenly we began to have to worry about World War II. And then we were in another crisis, there was war in other parts of the world and we knew very well someday we would be in that war. And how are were we preparing for it? And altogether it was a very difficult time. By this time my children were grown, at least they were at college, and uh there weren't any children living at home though my daughter and her little children came to live with us for a while. But life in the White House had a great many uh things that made it very easy but it also had a great many things that made it very difficult. And again it was nothing that you decided for yourself. You didn't decide what you were going to do,do; you did what you had to do. what What was accustomed the custom to be done. You didn't make any decisions; you just did whatever was- came your way and did it- as you hoped- in the best possible way. And sometimes you got into trouble and my husband knew that if I was just going to be an official hostess I wasn't going to be very happy. And I'd suggested to him that I might be a part-time secretary and he knew also that that wouldn't work because uh it isn't very good to mix your family with your secretaries and the work that has to go on in an office. So he allowed me to do things that probably other people uh would not have thought proper. He allowed me to start going on lecture trips, twice a year. I went for three weeks every spring, three weeks every autumn. I did paid lecture trips because then I had to sign a contract and I had to go. And if you didn't sign a contract there were always things coming up that would seem to be important to keep you home. So um I began again to travel in this country and I travelled all over this country doing lectures and in the daytime seeing as many things which were being done by the government. The projects for-for the getting back to normal at first and that taught me an enormous amount about this country, about its people, about conditions everywhere in the country. I don't think my husband needed the information at all because he always said that as president of the United States you had more avenues of information flowing into you than any head of a state anywhere in the world. But when you are the la- court of last resort you make the final decisions and you're the only person that can make that final decision. I imagine that you are glad of every possible point of view because he always listened when I came back on the reports of what I had seen, what I thought was going well, what I thought was going badly.


I never really knew whether he considered these reports important or not. And he had a very annoying habit,habit; he would bring up subjects at the dinner table and state things that had been said to him exactly as though they were his own opinions [audience laughs]. And he would know very well that I would be thinking just the opposite and I would be very restrained and say, "Well I can only tell you what I think the man in the street would feel. I have no special knowledge but this and this and this is what I think people in the street will feel." And he would egg me on and he would make me very angry and I would get all upset and on one occasion we went all through this a whole evening and I was desperately upset and the next day he never gave an inkling of what he thought beyond repeating the things that he had heard or been said to him. And the next day he called me up and said, "Uh wWill you have tea in the West Hall, um I'm bringing over Ambassador [Robert] Bingham who's going to England for us." He came over, I served tea- I never said a word. I heard my husband tell Ambassador Bingham what the line was that he was to pursue in his work in Great Britain and it was exactly what I'd said the night before [audience]. He never gave me a look, he never gave me the slightest intimation that he knew that this was anything that I had ever thought of or said or anything about it. And I have never known whether he remembered even [audience laughs]. But uh I think it was useful that he encouraged both uh arguments from me and arguments from the children. We were coming back once by train, he'd taken uh the two younger boys, Franklin and Johnny, on a trip out to Hawaii and up to—we-they landed in uh um I think it was Portland, Oregon. And there were two or three cabinet ministers on the train and he invited them to dinner and an argument started and the boys simply- another boy joined us by this time we had three boys- and they were simply argued and argued with their father and I saw the cabinet officers looking shocked [audience laugh] and horrified. And finally I had to say to the one next to me, "You know Franklin doesn't mind this he's always encouraged the boys to argue with him. He thinks it's good for them and in time you will find that he will annihilate them." [audience laughs] And sure enough the time came when he got weary of the argument and he did annihilate them [audience laughs] and that was the end of that. But I think it was good for him because it made him—gave him an opportunity to think through why he thought certain things and nobody else around a president will ever really argue and really object. Most people say, "Yes sir." And whatever they think the president wants them to say. So it's very valuable to have a few people-- now he had a few people in the cabinet who would argue with him. Mr. Morgenthau whom he'd known a long while, uh um Harry Hopkins not so much but still a little, Louis Howe who'd been with him ever since his first days in Albany was one of the best no-mans that he could have. But as far as I was concerned he, I think, just used me as a sort of barometer of public opinion. And uh um enjoyed the argument but uh um sometimes he thought as I did sometimes he didn't. But those years were all the years in which I made very few decisions. I just did what I was told to do. I went to various parts of the world, the first trip into the warzone I took was a trip at the very beginning of World War II to Great Britain, the autumn of '42, to see what we weren't in the war—uh yes we were- yes we were going- our troops were already over there in fact I was seeing the troops. Um tThey were just going to land in Africa and my son Elliott was there with his uh um photographic reconnaissance uh plane that was were going to be among the first to land. And that he uh um wanted me to do because the Queen of England had asked that I come see what the British women were doing for the war. And he thought it might be useful over here and so I spent uh some time in England and by the time it—I went over on a commercial plane by the time I was to come home, uh we were landing in Af—we had landed some troops in Africa. And Ambassador Winant and Mr. Churchill became very worried because they said if I was on a commercial plane that stopped at Lisbon the Germans would find out and I would endanger everybody on the plane, so they wanted to send me back on one of the bombers that brought over crews that had flown over new-new bombers and were taking them back; they wanted to send me back. And Franklin didn't like that idea, but he finally said, "Just send her home." [Audience and ER laugh] And so I went back on a bomber and it was a most uncomfortable trip because we had no heat the whole way and it was cold as Greenland and [ laughs] once I got home safely [laughterAudience laughs]. And um after that of course uh he asked me to go to the Pacific in the summer of '43 and then down into the Caribbean area the winter of '44 so I saw a great many areas of the world during the war. And I went through miles and miles and miles of hospitals. And again I learned an enormous amount and then uh when my husband died and I went back to New York to live, uh the question was uh what was I going to do? Uh Um was I going to just do nothing or was I going to be active? Many people thought I should do nothing and then Mr. Truman asked me to serve in the United Nations and that took the first real decision on my own and I didn't like to take it very much because I didn't feel I was prepared or equipped to serve in the United Nations. And I was very nervous about it because I knew a good many people probably didn't much like having a woman put on the delegation much less having me put on. But finally uh some- one of my children and some friends of mine persuaded me to say yes; and that was a decision which gave me six years of remarkable experience and taught me an enormous amount. I learned things that I never expected to learn, sometimes just by listening to the arguments that were going on behind my back. In the Human Rights Commission you always uh um I had a number of lawyers one of them from the legal department, Marjorie Whiteman her name was, uh-uh of the State Department and uh um another young man who was a lawyer from the State Department and then people that were loaned from other departments from the department Department of justice Justice or--. aAnd I would listen to the lawyers they would fight together on every decision and-and I would hear this behind me going on, "No this is not what you can do. Yes this is. No this is not what you can do." In the long run I'd have to decide what I was going to say or what I was going to do. And uh um I hadn't had a life that prepared me to make decisions. And I hated this at first but I finally came to learn, thanks to the help of some of the advisors.


Mr. Sandefir, who's now in our Foreign Service, was a marvelous advisor. And I will never forget when he first said to me, “The other delegates are watching for the way the United States will vote. You are the representative of an important nation and you must vote quickly.” Vote quickly when all I wanted to do was to wait and find out what I really thought and I wasn't sure at all what I really thought. But I learned—I learned to decide [laughs] what I really thought and those six years, partly as a delegate and uh um at the General Assembly an-and on the Human Rights Commission, were very interesting years. Uh since then I've worked for the American Association for the United Nations and I've done a great deal of lecturing through the years, . I've taken a great many trips. I began to take trips towards the end of my service because I discovered that I was talking about things that I didn't really know much about and I was coming to the end of my service in the United Nations and I wouldn't have the opportunity any more to meet people from different parts of the world. And having met them I realized more and more how little I understood about the different parts of the world; and so I took my first trip around the world after the last session but one of the General Assembly that I attended. And after that I had other opportunities and I've been around the world a number of times. I've been to a number of places, last summer I had a most interesting time in the Soviet Union and I've found an interesting thing, it was my husband's training which began when he was Governor of New York. He had polio and couldn't walk very well and every summer we visited every institution in the state. And he would say, "I will drive around at the head of the institution and see everything from the outside, you go inside." And the first time that I did this, I had never seen anything except during the war those few hospitals during the First World War. And I went through institutions and I looked and I saw nothing and understood less and my husband said to me uhum, "Was that hospital overcrowded?" And I said, "Well iIt didn't seem so." "Did you look how many beds were put in the closets? How many beds were probably brought out at night?" "Oh no I hadn't looked I hadn't thought that it was necessary to look, never occurred to me that anything might be covered up." [Audience member laughs] And then he said, "How about the food?" And I said, "Why I looked at the menus I thought they were very good." He said, "I didn't ask you about the menus. What was cooking on the stove?" [audience laughs] And I said, "I didn't look, I'm very sorry [laughs]." Gradually he taught me to inspect and to find out and that's been of enormous help in travelling throughout the world because people don't show you things they don't want you to see. But you can learn a lot if you learn to observe and you can tell when they don't want you to see things. And all this training was very good. One of the best inspectors I ever saw was the King of England. He came before the war to visit us in Washington. He asked to see a CCC camp. And I had been through CCC camps with our own people over and over again. But I was to learn that day what it meant to be a trained inspector. He looked at everything. When we came to looking through the barracks he felt the mattresses and he asked to see the work shoes that we provided. When we went to look into the uh um mess hall he asked to see the store closet and he looked at the things that were bought for food and then somebody said, "The boys made their own equipment." And he said, "Would you turn over that table I'd like to see the kind of joints they used?" [audience laughs] I learned an awful lot as to how you inspect from someone who'd been trained ever since they were young to do this sort of thing. And I discovered again that it's good always to be ready to learn; and as I look back on my life I would say that I'd made comparatively few decisions I just lived as life presented itself to me. I'd happened to live at the start with a man whose life was a very interesting life and in the last few years of my life, I have of course had the opportunities which his life gave me. And I have tried to use all the education and all the experiences to do as well as I could when I was forced into making decisions on my own and forced to doing things as I thought they should be done. And now I'm still living in that same way, doing whatever comes my way to do, using the experience that I've had. I don't know that I can be helpful in any way to you but I hope you will ask me questions on anything that interests you. I have learned to be a good observer and I have also learned to listen to people and to learn from listening to people; and I've learned that people all over the world are very much the same. If you want to make friends you want to make them feel that you are anxious to know and anxious to listen. That much I can tell you is a valuable asset in life. Beyond that I have to leave it to you to find out now if there's anything that you think valuable that I might go on discussing for.

[Audience Applause]

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Names and Terms Mentioned or Referenced


About this document

Speech at Brandeis University, part 1

April 17, 1958


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