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Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches

Speech to the Democratic Political Institute Forum

June 14, 1958


At Syracuse University, ER addresses the Democratic Political Institute Forum sponsored by the New York State Young Democrats. ER speaks on working hard and education.

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[Unknown speaker:]

-Conscience of the Democratic Party and of our country, Eleanor Roosevelt.


Distinguished guests, and ladies and gentlemen, Young Democrats in particular. You know I'm very happy to see that this meeting is such success, because the national chairman of the Young Democrats and I met earlier this year at a meeting in Oklahoma, which the Young Democrats at Oklahoma University had staged and I came away from that meeting with the feeling that uh they had done some quite extraordinary work. I'm not quite sure how they accomplished it, Um they got more uh people at that dinner uh that I felt sure- they used undue influence to uh [laughs] get to come. The governor was there. The two senators were there [laughs] from Washington. Mr. Paul Butler was there. It was the most astonishing array of people that had come to the dinner in Oklahoma and I finally said to the chairman, "How did you get all these people here?", because I had gone thinking that they really couldn't get anyone and I was out on a lecture trip and I thought, 'Well now, on the way home, I can just stop an-and uh make a little speech for a small group of Young Democrats in this university.' I said, "How did you get all these people here?" and they said, "Oh, we got you first and then we told all the others you were coming." [Audience laughs] But, they really must have worked hard and hard work, I think, is the secret of good political organization and we need good political organization; and it should begin with the Young Democrats and you should then graduate into the regular party and do as good political organization as you've done in the Young Democrats.


I always think that New York State should have the very best political organization in the Democratic Party eh of the country and so perhaps I'm unduly critical because I never think that we achieve all that we should and could achieve, if we worked as hard as actually the things we want to accomplish should make us work. Now why do I think that, at present, we need to work within our organization? I believe that a question that I was asked this morning when I did a recording for a television show, which is only going to be shown in Russia. I did it with the four young Russian college uh newspaper people who are over here touring uh while ours are over there touring, and they interviewed me and the first question they asked was, "what do you think is the greatest problem before the American young people today?" And the answer to that, from my point of view, is why I think we need to work within the Democratic Party. I think the greatest problem before the young people is also the greatest problem before the older people, namely a realization of the place of their country in the world and of the changed position of leadership which the United States must accept if we are going to preserve what, to most of us, is the dearest thing we have and that is our freedom and our belief in democracy and in the principles on which this nation was established.


Now, you may not agree with me that that is the greatest problem, but I have been watching the scene in this country very carefully and even before Sputnik, because I was in Russia last September and in Russia, I came to the conclusion that I was not frightened by what Russia was doing, I was frightened by what we were not doing, by what we were not understanding, by what we were not accepting as a responsibility. I don't care what Russia does, but I care enormously what we do, because we are the leaders of the non-communist world and unless we come to realize this, and understand it, and work for good government, work for the well-being of everybody in our country, what's going to happen is very simple. The Soviets know exactly where they want to be in fifty years. They want a communist world and they think they can get it without war. They do not want a ruined world. What good does that do to them? They want a going concern and they think that they know they can achieve this and they think they are going to do it by chewing off little bits of the world. They chewed off quite a big hunk in Communist China, in the mainland of China. [coughs] There they just achieved, in one stroke, one quarter of the world's population. Now they think they can go on doing that, little by little, in all the uncommitted areas of the world and someday we'll wake up and there won't be enough of the non-communist world left for the non-communist world to function.


Now, this is no simple party question, but it's the reason why I believe Democrats, if they believe in their party, if they're willing to work to elect people who understand the world situation and who are going to have integrity and conscience, if they're willing to do that, then I believe it's enormously important to be in an organization and to work at it, because we have got to remember that we are the showcase for what people can accomplish for themselves in freedom and we have to do it locality by locality. It's not just an edict that a- some small group at the top of our government can hand to us. That, I think, is a Republican theory that whatever you uh decide is good at the top will seep down to the bottom. I don't happen to believe in that. I think we as individuals have to wake up to our responsibility and we have to see to it that every community does the best it can in the people it elects to office, in the things that you put your work in.


I'm appalled that we have to be told by a group of our own educators who've just come back from a tour in the Soviet Union that we must regain an understanding of the value of learning. But I'm afraid they're right because we've taken it for granted that education was available to all of us. We haven't actually realized that modern education means putting a great deal more money into good teachers. You saw in that report today that a teacher in the Soviet Union is paid on a comparable basis to a doctor or to an engineer. They have a reverence for learning, but why did we ever forget that that was one of the things that actually our forefathers told us? We could not have a democracy unless we had a literate people. And only the other day, I got an appeal to support [coughs] a group that is organizing to wipe out illiteracy in our country because they find that we have, coming to the age of fourteen every year, several million young people who are illiterate in our country. These are things we have to face. We can't afford to allow our government, state or national or city or county, not to understand the problems that face us today. And we've been very lax in this knowledge that we really should have of what's happening in the world and what it is that we are challenged with today. It's what makes it exciting, of course, to be alive and you Young Democrats have the most remarkable period of history to work in. What you can do if you use atomic energy for really valuable purposes, what you can do if you use your television and your radio for good purposes, is tremendous because communication is easy today, but you have got to have an educated people. They've got to know what the challenge is.


We've never failed, as a people, to meet any challenge we understood and I believe that we, in the Democratic Party, have an obligation. We have watched the years that the Republicans have been in power. I think that we know that there has been a lack of leadership at the top and I think leadership at the top is essential, but that does not mean that there must not be leadership also all the way down the line and a sense of responsibility in every individual. It doesn't excuse us from not feeling that we have a job to do, each of us as individuals. I think we've had an opportunity to see what we feel is wrong in the Republican administration. I think we also had better look with care, however, at what we think is wrong in the leadership that we, as a minority party, have not given in the last few years. There is importance in that, too, and I think where we failed is that we have not really faced the new responsibilities of this country. Not only are we the showcase for what you can do at home for your people in government to show what democracy means, but we also are the people who have to show by cooperation with the United Nations what can be done in leadership in an organization where eighty-two people meet together, what can be done there to work with other people, to give them an opportunity to change their own conditions with help.



I wonder if you've ever stopped to think, that the Soviet Union sends out today not only teams of people to work in other countries, but many young people who've just graduated from college with a particular skill, not only with the skill, but with the language of the country to which they are being sent. There is not a big city in the Soviet Union that does not have a language institute and they do what we do. The scientists, who are most important to them, get the first pick of the young fresh minds that show real genius in science as they come out of the university. After that, their [ER coughs] industries choose, but they educate far more and they say to the third group, "now you are going to work for the country. You're going to Burma for a couple of years. You're a young engineer or a young physicist. You go for a couple of years. Learn every Burmese dialect." Every institute teaches forty-three languages. "You go..." and this is said quite plainly to them, "You go with your skill. You go with a gesture of friendship because every country is flattered when you know their language, and besides that you go having passed right up along the line your examination in Marxism, so you transmit the ideas that we want the world to have." This is no unplanned happen-so, this is a carefully thought out plan and we had better beware of this, because it's as important that the people of the world know that when they look here they see the results of free people planning for themselves and carrying out their plans and they see that gradually we are moving not towards a communist world, but towards a world where other people are allowed freedom and help to make their own plans and to carry them out. But we have to do that in order for them to see it and we don't do that unless we understand what actually is the challenge in the world today.


Twelve million young Russians are learning English. Four thousand young Americans are learning Russian. All these things are things we must understand because we lead the non-communist world and we lead it, at the present time, with practically no leadership at the top from the party in power. John Foster Dulles has traveled a great deal and the results of his travels have not brought us many friends, I think largely because he seems entirely unable to know what the people are thinking about to whom he's talking. You have to have some kind of understanding of the conditions in which people are living, of their background and history, and of the things they're striving for.


The Soviets know that the coming continent to be developed is Africa. That's why they're so active in the Near East today. They don't need oil. They have all the oil they need at home. What they want is a free bridge into Africa. Why do they support the dictatorships, the Arab dictatorships? Easy to understand this, so they can control the dictatorships. They understand the dictatorship. They know that if they can get dictatorships where nobody is free, where it goes on being poverty and disease for the masses of the people, they can control. They'll have a free hand to move into Africa. And what do we, as a people, know and do to actually push forward the things that we believe in?


That's, I think, the responsibility of the Young Democrats today. You're young. You're not afraid of new ideas. You're not afraid of having to find new things and new ways of doing things. Go to work to get the best nominees you can from bottom to top and measure them by their ability to understand what's going on in the world and to be able to inspire the kind of following here that will make us do what will help our people to stand out as a good picture of what can be accomplished in a free country. And then be sure that you have people who understand that we can't live alone anymore. I can be in India in thirty-six hours. This is no longer a world where two oceans make a difference. This is a small and a shrinking world and we're going to live closer and closer together. So we better know what happens, and we need people in leadership who do know and who will help us to help them through the United Nations, through everything we do as a government, but to do it with humbleness, to do it with an understanding that you cannot teach unless you are willing to learn. You cannot give unless you are willing to receive. When we are humble, we will be able to lead better than ever before. And so to you, Young Democrats, I say be active in your parties. Have standards for the people you want to put in office and see whether they measure up to those standards. Do not follow leadership blindly. Insist that it shall be responsible to the people, because the people who live in a democracy cannot escape their individual responsibility. But go forward with courage and go forward with vision and imagination, because you have the most exciting period of history to live in. You can um create an enormously better world to live in and you can also miserably fail. Don't fail. Trust in God and work hard and dream dreams.


Program Participants

  • : Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962
  • : Young Democrats of New York

About this document

Speech to the Democratic Political Institute Forum

June 14, 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