The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, Digital Edition > Audio Materials

Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches

The Responsibilities of World Leadership

Commencement address at conferring of honorary degree at Colorado State University

August 8, 1958


Speech: "The Responsibilities of World Leadership." ER discusses the role each individual plays in US's success as leader of the non-Communist world

Print ColumnText Size: Small Text Normal Text Large Text Larger Text
[Male Speaker:]

From time to time, it is the pleasure of the University to award an honorary degree to some person who has distinguished himself in a particularly outstanding way. In accepting the degree, the one so honored, does honor himself to the university. May I ask the vice president of the State Board of Agriculture to escort Anna Eleanor Roosevelt to the stand to hear the reading of a citation I hold.. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, humanitarian, world citizen, lecturer, and author, not only has established herself as a powerful force in our national life, but has created for herself a position of highest regard in the hearts and minds of the peoples of the world. By her clear thinking, her good humor, her calm voice, and her gracious personality, she has endeared herself to millions everywhere. Through energetic devotion to the objectives of the United Nations, in the General Assembly of which she has held membership as a United States representative, through tireless effort on behalf of the Committee on Human Rights of the United Nations Economic and Social Council upon which she served with distinction, and through daily attention to the affairs of the American Association for the United Nations to which she now directs her talents, she has been and continues to be an outstanding figure in the day-to-day campaign for world peace. Her deep loyalty to the principles of liberty, her sincere compassion for troubled humanity, and her keen and sympathetic analyses of national and international events, as viewed upon the screen of history, have made her a recognized authority on world affairs. Mrs. Roosevelt, under authority vested in me by the governing board and upon the vote of that board and of the faculty of Colorado State University, I confer upon you, in recognition of your distinguished achievements, the honorary degree, Doctor of Laws, with all the rights, honors, and privileges, here and everywhere as pertaining to that degree. It is my pleasure to present you this diploma, given in testimony to this action, the academic hood signifying your admittance to this degree will be placed by the vice president of the State Board of Agriculture, Mr. Walter B. Cooper, and my congratulations to you, Mrs. Roosevelt.


[Overlapping, with applause as well] Thank you very much.

[Male Speaker:]

Members of the class, to speak to you on the subject, The Responsibilities of World Leadership, your distinguished colleague, Dr. Roosevelt.


To the president, members of the faculty, members of the graduating class, faculty, and their friends, I am very happy to be able to be here today and I would like to say a word of gratitude for this degree which has been given me. It is a great honor and one I appreciate and I'm glad to be uh in company with all of you who are graduating today. Now, I'm to talk to you about world responsibility and I imagine a good many of you will say, why choose that subject to talk about? We, who are graduating today, we have to decide, many of us, the young ones, what we will do with our lives, how we will earn a living, where we will live, where we will get a job, what we will be doing. There are many decisions before us. We haven't time to worry about the world, that, we leave to our government, to the people in our Senate, in our Congress, in our state government. This isn't for us to think about. And some of the older people will say, we have responsibilities to our families, to our own communities, but we see no way in which we, as individuals, can really carry the burden of world responsibility and that, because of that, because there is so much the feeling that world responsibility is not an individual responsibility, I want to say a few words about it today. You see, we are the leaders. I don't think we wanted to be the leaders, but it happens that we are one of the strongest nations in the world and it has fallen to us to be the leader of the non-communist world. The Soviet Union is the leader of the communist world. And there is a struggle between two ideas, two ways of life, two different forms of government, but the ideas are what really matter. We believe that the individual is important, that government exists for the individual and that we must want things, must be convinced that they are good things and then work for them, plan for them, and when we achieve them, it will be our achievement as individuals. And in the aggregate, that makes a strong country when each person has the feeling that they carry the responsibility in what they do in daily life, in their success, in their work, that they still carry the responsibility for what their country becomes. And now, we not only carry that responsibility, but we carry the responsibility of proving that what we offer, what we believe in, actually can bring human beings a better life, more satisfaction, more happiness. And that we have, not only, our ideas of government and our ideas of a way of life, but that includes a spiritual leadership, a leadership which we feel devotion to a type of government or to a secular idea cannot possibly have and this was what gave us strength when we first founded our nation. I often think that to the Founding Fathers, it must have seemed an almost impossible thing that this nation would ever grow to have the strength that it has today, and the power, and the influence.


And sometimes, I think that we don't have as much faith as our Founding Fathers because you will hear people say, why should we take up the burdens of other parts of the world? What business of ours is it to worry if children haven't enough to eat in some distant area of the world? Why does it worry us, if this country or that country hasn't got living conditions that we consider are decent, if people are hungry in some other part of the world? We have enough to worry about at home. We have enough things to do at home. Unfortunately, part of the inspiration which we had when we founded our nation was that we had a new idea and it made every individual important and we believed that God thought this was an idea that would mean a great deal to the world. And so we grew and we grew more and more in strength and today we are faced with a world divided. One part of the world, which believes in a materialistic doctrine where the individual is just a pawn to build the strength of the state and where the state is the religion to which all people pledge their allegiance; and those people have accomplished a considerable amount and they cover a considerable area of the world [coughs] and today we are engaged in a struggle to win the uncommitted areas of the world. And we will only win them if we understand that the battle is a battle which we wage as individuals in our own homes and in our own communities. This country of ours is the showcase for what can be accomplished if you hold the beliefs that we hold and all the world watches us and all the world can know what happens here because our communications are very good.


So today, you can't say, I live in a part of the country which is so remote, I look at my mountains around me and I feel protected and I feel that I don't touch these people in other areas of the world. I don't have any personal responsibility, but you do. You have a responsibility for your whole country. It was brought home to me (clear throat) when I spent last y-last autumn, three weeks in the Soviet Union. And just before leaving, I had a long talk with Mr. Khrushchev at the request of the papers which I represented. Now, a good many people said to me, "how can you meet that man who's killed so many people? How can you talk to him?" He does happen to represent the country which is our strongest adversary and which is the showcase for what you do, what you can accomplish under communism and I think we need to meet and to talk. And people told me, "You will find him very disagreeable. He's vulgar. He's coarse. He's--drinks a good deal. You will not like your meeting." I was fortunate, perhaps. I met him up in Yalta where, you will remember, some conferences many years ago were held and he had had a month's vacation and perhaps also, I understood the type of person that I was meeting. He comes from the peasant class of the Soviet Union. His people were peasants. They had no chance for education under the czars. He has a university education. Now, he's stockily built; he's strong. You could think of him as coarse, but that isn't quite true. He's very close to the earth and he's learned; he's quick. He has some of the traits of other European peasants that I have known. He's suspicious. He's canny, but he's also intelligent and I think that the most important thing in the world is that our leaders, on different sides of this struggle should have an opportunity to know, not only each other, but the peoples of the countries that the different ones represent.


It's very important that there comes greater understanding and greater knowledge because you cannot, actually, counteract something that you don't know anything about. If you don't know what's back of what the Soviet Union does and you don't actually know how they do things, how are you going to plan to counteract those things? I learned an enormous amount in the three weeks I was there. I don't feel that I learned enough because I'm constantly asked questions that I can't answer and I'm going back to try and get the answers. One of the things that I never thought of until after I came home was that in all the time I'd been there I had never seen a handicapped child. What do they do with them? Where were they? And that's one of the things that I want to find out, among a number of things, but that we need to know and that we need to realize what the differences are between us, I'm convinced, is essential. And I'm convinced it's essential all over the world. And I'm convinced that a feeling on our part, that as individuals we do not carry any responsibility is the way to losing our battle because I know how closely we are watched and while I was in the Soviet Union the incident occurred at Little Rock and it was the only thing in the Soviet papers, the only thing about the United States. And when I met Mr. Khrushchev, I said, "I think you are not very fair. The United States consists of 48 states. We are having real trouble in 8 or 10 states, but the only thing I see in print is an incident that occurred in one of those states" and this was the answer and this is what I want you to remember, "Madame, is that state not the United States?" And I said, "why of course, but it's one of the states of the United States." And he said, "We have many republics, but they are all the Soviet Union, your states are the United States and you are all responsible." And I have never forgotten that because I felt, immediately, that perhaps among us, we did not have enough, the realization, that we could not turn our heads away and say, this problem, in one part of our country, is only their concern, it isn't ours. We don't have to think about it. We have to think because we are the United States.


Now, I think today, the overriding problem that lives in the heart of all of us is the problem of how we can have a peaceful world. That is not going to be achieved over night; it's going to take a long time. And you young people, particularly, who are just coming to your big decisions in life, you've been trained through your schools and universities to know where to get the strength to make the right decisions. Your homes and your churches have had a part in your training. Now, is going to come the time where you, yourselves, are going to prove what you can do for your country. I have a theory that for a long time we are going to have to be ready to fight for our country, but that we are going to also have to be ready to live for our country and that may be, in many cases, a more difficult piece of work than actually to go to war because to live for your country means that you will make the decisions, day by day, of how your home and your community and you, yourself, will act as a citizen of how you will try to build your country in order to make it what it should be, to really lead the non-communist world. There are two things that I think stand out as paramount. One of them, because the world that we are trying to lead, two-thirds of it, is a colored world and it is the people of Asia and Africa who are struggling for their freedom, in many cases, that are looking for leadership today and that are trying to weigh the two different things that are being offered them.


And we've got to understand what's happening in these areas of the world, what their problems are, what their needs are, but first and above everything else, we have to show that we believe in the Christian doctrine that all men are born equal and that it is a case of giving equal opportunity for development and that it is a case of considering all men as brothers. Now, that is something that has to come from your heart and enter your spirit. It's the spiritual leadership that the world is looking for and it's one of our problems today because over and over again you will be asked, you have citizens that are not really given their full rights as citizens and you can't very well say no because it happens to be true. And you can well say that that is not so everywhere, but actually, in every part of our country, we carry the responsibility for what happens in any part of our country and there is much that we have to do in our hearts and in our minds to bring about the kind of citizenship for all which we stand for and which we will have to make a reality if we are going to lead in the world. The other thing that I think is a real problem before us and that is a return to the feeling we had in the early days for education and for learning. As we have developed, we've set, as a mark of success, the material and financial values and we've lost something that we had when our forefathers decided that in order to run our type of government we had to have an educated citizenry and that learning an education was something of infinite value. Now this is something I found among the young people in the Soviet Union and that is because the rewards go, in the Soviet Union, to those who have achieved in learning and in any type of cultural achievement.


Now there are many rewards, not only their salaries, which are very adequate than most of ours, in many areas are not, for learning, but many other things, respect um, real consideration, and some things that we would not uh think of because we happen not to have the same conditions of life. But in the Soviet Union, if you're just an ordinary human being, doing your days' work, you will probably live out your days without ever owning an automobile, but if you have saved enough and you can buy an automobile, you put your name down and it will be-- I saw a young man, who was a teacher, but not in the higher ranks as yet, but he was very happy because after eight years of waiting, he had acquired a small automobile. Eight years, he had waited and if he had not been a teacher, he wouldn't have acquired it that soon. So uh you can see, that there are other things also in the Soviet Union that are granted for learning and I wish we could go back and have the same type of respect for learning as learning that really started us in our efforts for universal education because I think today, all over our country, we need a change in our standard of values and a respect for what we can achieve if we put into education the real effort that our forefathers hoped we would put in. We are apt to think that it's too heavy a burden to pay more for education. Instead, we cannot afford not to. We must not slavishly follow a pattern set by the Soviet Union. That would be acknowledging their superiority and I assure you they are not superior. They have built their education on the pattern of education in Europe, particularly in Germany and France. We had the ideal of building citizens, through education, that could live in a free country. That is not part of the objective in the Soviet Union. From the time the baby first comes in the day nursery into the control of the state, every child is brought up under the Pavlov theories and it produces an amenable and a very well-disciplined people, but it does not produce a people able to live in a free country and think for themselves and it certainly does not produce a people who have any sense of individual responsibility and any feeling that what happens in their community shapes their country, shapes the thinking of their leaders. Oh no, they're not responsible for that. We are. Every one of us, we have the right to elect our representatives and to follow everything they do and when we don't, we haven't accepted our responsibility and we've actually not accepted it at home and we haven't accepted it for the world. And you cannot lead and win in the struggle we are now engaged in unless each one of us wakes up to that sense of personal responsibility, makes their decisions in life with that feeling of obligation to their country and to the world.


Now many people will say why should we spend money? Why should we be taxed? Why can't we live at home and let the rest of the world do what they want? The answer is the world has grown so much smaller that no one can live at home, alone, any longer. You will feel what happens in a part of the world which you never heard of and you will find the results creeping in to what happens in your country and so we had better realize that one of the things we can use to learn is the United Nations. There, you can gather together the representatives, once a year, of eighty-two nations and all the rest of us can use those representatives to find out what they say in the United Nations, what they do. Very often as I go through the country, I'm surprised to find how little news there is of what happens in the world, of what happens in the United Nations, of what is done by the specialized agencies of the United Nations. And always when I ask, I'm told, oh we run a paper, the way our people want us to run it and there isn't any interest in those things. So you see it is the people. It is the people who bring about the result and if you demand to know what's happening, you will know.


They will give you the information, but you don't ask for it. You don't demand it and the same thing happens in many other ways. I have people constantly ask me why this happens or that happens. If they really wanted that information it would be coming, over the radio, over television. We have wonderful ways of communication and there are many things that are up to us to decide. How are we going to develop our country? In the next fifty years, let's say, the Soviet Union says, "Mr. Khrushchev told me this himself, you are wasting your time. The law of the future is a communist world. You've had feudalism. You've had capitalism. A little socialism here and there, the law of the future is communism." Alright that's your opinion, Mr. Khrushchev, and you're going to work for it and you'll work for it, very hard, and you'll plan for it. Alright, I'm going to work for what I think is the law of the future. I'm going to work and I'm going to plan. That answer has to come from every individual in the United States. If it doesn't, we're going to fail because if we don't know where we want our country to be in the fifty years that he says it will take, then we haven't set ourselves a goal of achievement. And what are we offering to the rest of the world that we ask to stay with us and keep a free world? We can't shake this responsibility. It lies on every one of us. And so I'd like to say, to the young people and the older ones, who are today getting their degrees or new degrees that each of them have perhaps the greatest opportunity that has ever come to a-a people. We are the most important nation in the non-communist world. We can abdicate and let communism win. We can work and say that each of us carries responsibility and we can win because we believe that we follow God's teaching, and his plan.


Program Participants

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

About this document

The Responsibilities of World Leadership
Commencement address at conferring of honorary degree at Colorado State University

August 8, 1958


Commencement address at conferring of honorary degree at Colorado State University

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