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Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches
Speech at Brandeis University, part 2
April 17, 1958
ER answers questions from the student panel. ER discusses her trip to the Soviet Union.
I hope that I don’t appear to be an ungracious host if I suggest to Mrs. Roosevelt [microphone feedback] if I suggest to Mrs. Roosevelt that most of us will not agree with her that she has not made any real decisions. They may not have been overt decisions, but the modesty and the simplicity with which she described some of the most important events in modern history made it perfectly plain that she was a decisive force, a decisive force in her husband’s life, and a decisive force among the people who were part of that very decisive period. I was very much interested in the technique which the President of the United States used to learn by making his assistants mad and by picking the brains of wife, and children, and advisors, and so on. We can all learn from that and I certainly learned how to use my deans [audience laughster]. Now, the room is crowded and it’s become warm. Nevertheless, I—I think it would be a mistake to call for our coffee break now. We have a student panel. They’ve been eager to ask some questions. Mrs. Roosevelt, despite the fact that she’s had a very busy day, has opened herself to the questioning of this group and of all of you who wish to ask in the audience. I’ll turn first then to Johnny Prince. Ask your question. I’ll repeat it if necessary. Go ahead.
Uh, Mrs. Roosevelt, you spoke about your husband annihilating his son uh at the you’ve annihilated most of us by answering most of our questions. Uh you spoke in the beginning of your talk about the fact that we live today in an ever changing world. Uh, this is a world that I will say terrifies at least me, and terrifies, I’m sure, uh many other young people who are going out into the world today. Several months ago, I think you visited the Soviet Union and uh I heard two weeks ago, or three weeks ago, you spoke on the radio about the Soviet Union. I wish you would [unclear term]speak a little bit about your experience there.
Well I could give you a whole lecture on the Soviet Union. Uh [clears throat] I think there are two things you have to remember. I think I’d like to start by saying that I’m always sorry to hear young people say that this is a world that terrifies them, because from my point of view, this is the most exciting world that you could live in and the most adventurous world. Um [clears throat] if it terrifies you, it’s of course, it’ is because you do not understand the different forces that are at work, but you will understand as you study and as you work and I think you have today the greatest opportunity that any generation has ever had and I don’t want you to approach it with fear. I want you to approach it with a determination, that you will know my husband choose to annihilate the boys by the fact that he knew about ten times as much history as they knew and that when they said such and such a thing happened, he could go back into the [unclear term sounds like: multus]remotest period and tell them something that had happened uh that proved something quite different and then show them all along the line uh what was different, why now it was knowledge that really always annihilated them. Do you see?
And I think that- that the main thing I want to tell you about the Soviet Union, we have been through a period in which, because of McCarthyism, we developed this a great fear of communism and very little knowledge with the result that many of us thought that anything we didn’t like must be communistic and that had very bad results. [Clears throat] now uh for a very long time they had an iron curtain and then, in retaliation, we set up our own iron curtain and between the two, we knew very little about what was going on in the Soviet Union and I’m more than grateful for Sputnik because it suddenly meant that we discovered how little we knew and that we better wake up and find out what wais really going on in the Soviet Union. Now I have never been afraid that if our people really knew about communism, they would suddenly embrace communism because freedom is a very precious thing. and And to be free, to decide what you want and to organize yourself to get what you want is a much firmer foundation than to be told from the top that such and such a thing is good for you and you are going to do it.
Now it’s very difficult to judge the Soviet Union with our eyes. If you’re going to compare what happens in the Soviet Union today with what’s happening today in the United States, you’re not going to understand anything about it., but But if you’re going to compare what’s happening in the Soviet Union today with what they had forty years ago under the tsars, then you’re going to learn a good deal about what has happened to the people in the Soviet Union. Now, you and I would think that life was terrible, but remember forty years ago, the vast majority of people were peasants. A few of them managed to get some land of their own, but many of them lived on other people’s land and saw no chance of doing anything else and if they had enough to eat they were lucky; and they lived in a hut with a mud floor and their animals lived right in the same room with them. Now, a few people at the top were cultivated, had a great deal of delightful life, but that was a very few and you’re dealing today with the mass of the people in the Soviet Union. Now, you wouldn’t like housing in the Soviet Union, you would hate many of the things that they must do, but what you must understand is that under compulsion, they have done things that are were good for them and that the results of what they have done often are quite remarkable results. Now their medicine is not—you can’t compare their medicine with ours, but they’ve done the essential things. They knew that they had to get rid of malaria; they had to get rid of the epidemics that killed people like flies, so they developed first public health doctors in large numbers and they graduated far more doctors, about double what we graduate every year and [coughs] they were mostly in public health at first and gradually they got rid of malaria to a great extent. It hardly exists any longer. Their epidemics to a great extent have been conquered. They had dirty water, dirty milk. They’re gradually improving their milk supply and it’s clean. Their water supply in practically every city is clean. The change in forty years is something astounding. Now, it’s done under compulsion, so we would say it had no firm foundation at all, but you have to look at the results and the results are very remarkable. and wWhen-when the revolution happened forty years ago, only ten percent of the people of the Soviet Union could read and write. Today, I don’t think you will would find ten percent of the people under fifty who can’t read and write. Practically everybody can read and write under fifty. Now that’s quite an achievement and so, you see, these changes are changes in material things that a lot of these people believe this is the beginning of freedom because they’ve never known freedom., never Never known knowing freedom, you don’t know what it is,is; don’t know what it feels like and so it’s easy to believe that every little material gain is a gain in freedom. And That’s that’s what you’re up against: a lack of knowledge on our part and also a lack of knowledge on theirs.
Mary [unclear] Mrs. Roosevelt, in retrospect, what was the outstanding accomplishment of the New Deal and what lessons can we learn from it today?
I didn’t hear that very clearly
Mrs. Roosevelt, what would you evaluate as the outstanding accomplishment of the New Deal and what lesson can we draw from the New Deal for some of the problems that we have today?
I would say that in the whole period that my husband was in office, the outstanding achievement was making the people of the United States feel that they knew what their government was doing, that they understood and were part of the government of the United States. I still have—just the other day I got into a taxi in New York and an elderly man turned around and said “I still miss your husband’s voice in my living room. He told me about my government. I don’t feel I know anything anymore.” I think that was the outstanding thing because it was the feeling of confidence in the people that they shared and that together they could meet whatever happened.
Uh, in the past few months, several authors have appeared in American magazines comparing the Russian and American school systems. Do you believe that our system is inferior to that of the Russian’s and if so what improvements would you we make?
I think it would be a dreadful mistake if we tried to copycat the Russian method. The Russians have built their educational system on the French and German system. Um [coughs], I think we need to take a good look at our own education and see if we are meeting the ideals that we have or had uh for education in this country and I think there are many things that we should do, uh but to simply say that because the Russians apparently have done more in science and mathematics than we have, we must copycat the way they’ve done it. I think that’s nonsense, perfect nonsense. Um I think that um they have more science and more mathematics, it may well be that we will decide to make some changes in the way that we teach, but to do the same thing uh without knowing, without putting it through our own thinking what we want to accomplish would be very foolish I think. Now, I do not mean that I don’t think there are things we could learn from the Russians. There are always things you can learn. There are things you can learn in every country and I think, for instance, that their method of making young people learn languages, making it attractive for them to learn languages because that is the way they make money, uh iwas a very good idea and I think it would be probably very useful for us. Um I think- I do not like uh the way in which they give examinations and rigidly put people into different areas because I believe that people develop at different times; and that to say when a child has finished its seventh year of school this child hasn’t shown in its record or in its ability tests that it cannot take higher education therefore it will go to a Technicon, I think you might make some rather serious mistakes and uh I don’t think it should be an irrevocable thing. and And to tell a boy of seventeen, which is what they do now, that he must choose his profession at seventeen and that he never can change afterwards, that I also think is a great mistake, . but But to give youngsters the feeling that learning is one of the great things to achieve, that I think is one of the best things and one of the things we need to do. Learning is held in high esteem and the people who are the great scientists, the great, - the heads of cultural activities of different kinds who make a name through learning and through gifts of intellect get the highest salaries in the Soviet Union; and I’m not sure that it isn’t a very uh good thing to have that regard for learning as learning.
Mrs. Roosevelt, why, in your opinion, was the Declaration of Human Rights not accepted by the United States and what would you recommend in order to make it acceptable?
Well I think the Declaration was acceptable because we accepted it. It’s the Ccovenant that uh um had to be legally binding document should, -see the Declaration is not legally binding in any way and the covenants would be if we accepted them and as they are now written, I doubt very much if they could be accepted because we did not do any good work in drafting them. We announced that we would present no covenant to the Senate for ratification which meant that no one was going to pay attention to anything we said and I think now, as I read those documents, that it would be a good idea to start all over again. We know how difficult it is to right write comprehensive documents; and therefore I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea if we said we will begin and write [pause] in the civil and political rights because simpler things that can be phrased well legally and accepted by the greatest number of nations and we will put in a clause that as we progress, we will add to these rights. On the economic and social uh covenant, I’m afraid it’s going to be a long time before we find the legal formula for these social and economic rights. We can work that way, but I think it’s going to be a long time. They’re equally important rights, but I think it’s going to take a while.
Uh Mrs. Roosevelt, uh how did China and North Korea make a proposal to fix the regions which participated in the Korean War to unite Korea by free elections under the [unclear terms] under the [unclear term] of neutral regionnations? Last Thursday, the state department announced that the sixteen nations approved, the- approved the communist statement favoring free elections, but it wanted a clarification of the meaning of neutral regions of [unclear term]. Do you think that the United States should or should not accept this communist [unclear term]proposal of free elections in Korea under the [unclear term] of neutral regionsnations? If your answer is in the negative, how do you propose to ever [unclear term] the original Korean unification?
I didn’t understand. It’s been accepted under the sixteen nations?
Under the [unclear term] of neutral nations.
I have forgotten now which sixteen nations it was. As I understand your statement, um we refused to accept the supervision of those sixteen nations. Is that right?
No, sixteen nations are still participating in the Korean War.
Oh, oh yes, oh I see, those who participated in the Korean War. Well I personally would accept that, you see, but I don’t know what the reasons are for which they have refused it. I’ve not followed it very carefully and I don’t really know what our state department gave as the reasons for not being willing to accept it. Uh personally, I would accept it because I think that the unification of Korea and the withdrawal of communist Chinese troops is uh, is one of the most important things uh to really begin any kind of second settlement in the Far East and that’s as far as I understand it. Can anyone else answer that better than I have? Someone else may know more about it that I know.
We’ll, -we’ll have them ask questions. There’s, - there’s time before our coffee break for two or three questions from the audience itself. Yes please, I’ll listen carefully.
Mrs. Roosevelt, I wonder, having you been so recently in Soviet Russia, what dowhether you believe that the possibilities possibility of their waging a war against us are as great as many people would lead us to believe?
Uh You’ve you’ve very recently been in Soviet Russia, is it your impression that the possibility of their waging war against us is as uh close as many people would lead us to believe?
I think the Soviet Union is as conscious of the power of destruction that they have and that we have as we are; and I think that when they now uh are making proposals to stop nuclear tests, it’s in their own interests. I do not trust the Russians to make disinterested proposals. I watch to see whether the proposals they make are in their own interests before I believe that they are really honest in those proposals or not. In this case, I think that they’ve come to the conclusion, and I think they came to this conclusion at the Geneva conference, that law would probably not be a possible- uh the instrument to use that unless they could be sure that at one blow of annihilating every area from which retaliation could come, that they ran the risk of being as devastated as the area they were attacking and they don’t want that. They want a going concern and they have made up their minds, I think, that this can be accomplished.
Their aim has never changed. They are sure that they are going to have a communist world. It may take them fifty years, more, or less, but they’ are sure that’s what’s going to happen. and And Khrushchev himself said to me “you are wasting your time. [Pause] We’ve had feudalism, we’ve had capitalism. The law of the future is communism.” And all you can answer to that is “well, sir, that’s your opinion [laughter and applauseAudience laughs] and you’re entitled to your opinion and I am entitled to mine. [Audience applause 23:44-23:50] and And you will work for your opinion and I will work for mine.” [Audience laughs] and And [coughs] I think they decided that they could win without war. Now that means that they ha’ve decided that this can be done through the use of economic [pause] methods, of cultural efforts, and from our point of view, of some--, though they would not call it spiritual, we would could call it spiritual leadership, they would call it something else: communist leadership, but uh those three ways are the ways that they hope to accomplish their end. So when they suggest the stopping of nuclear tests, they do it because they know that it will be well received by the uncommitted nations of the world and they’re trying to win those uncommitted nations to their side and all nations that have no bonds that uh are not making tests are frightened by the tests and are very anxious to have them come to an end. so So this is a very good propaganda move for the Soviet Union. I wish, personally, we had done it first um for the same reason, but uh now it’s been done by them and I don’t very well see without alienating many countries that if we’ are going to keep a free world we have to win. we’re We’re going to be able uh to go against it.
About this document
Speech at Brandeis University, part 2
April 17, 1958
- 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