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Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches
My Trip to Iran
Speech to the Woman's National Democratic Club, Part 2
May 25, 1959
In speech to the Woman's National Democratic Club, "My Trip to Iran", ER discusses steps to alleviate poverty in Iran, modernization projects in the country, and comparisons between Iran and Israel. (poor quality recording) Dinner
--Then he builds as high a wall as he can around his house and his garden, and then he throws all his refuse into the street. Now, the answer of course is obvious: you have a responsibility for your home, but you have no community responsibility at all, and if you have no community responsibility, how are you going to bring about the fundamental changes that have to be brought about in practically every Arab country so that you can make a dent in this mass of people and do something about poverty and disease and education? They have wonderful laws in Iran; there is compulsory education and every child is supposedly obliged to go to school, but as you just haven't got enough schools, why, every child doesn't go to school. And therefore, the laws are wonderful. The laws are really wonderful, but if you don't carry them out they haven't very much value and you can't carry them out. There isn't uh there are not the facilities.
And so, actually, I had a feeling, I went up-- afterwards I went to a most interesting old city called Isfahan where we have a very interesting consular officer who knows a great deal about the history and the customs and the habits of the people, and he showed me something I'd never seen before, which was the camel press. I imagine your husband has seen it too but I was very much interested in it, particularly in the part where they swing this great big boom down and the man at the end of it as he swings out and calls out, "Allah, Allah!" which means he's saying his prayers for his safety as he swings out. But it was-it's-it's most interesting to see.
But by the time I got back to Tehran, I had a feeling that I wanted to know just what both the UN and we were doing, so [unclear term (2:50)] was at the head of the permanent resident for the UN and I had known him very well in our delegation in the very early days, and he was kind enough to get together all the different people who headed projects for the UN. Now you have every nationality represented when you have projects for the UN, and um we had English, and German, and Swiss, [laughs] and all kinds of people working. And uh you'd be interested to know that uh there is a railroad in Iran which has functioned until now without any signal system at all. I suppose it was fairly easy because not very many trains ran and they didn't go very fast, but one of the UN projects is to put in a signal system and train the people to use it.
Um there are a great many, very good projects. I suddenly asked, "Well now uh when you gentlemen go, who's going to administer and organize these projects?" And this one voice, they said, "Oh the Americans have an excellent project for training organizers and administrators!" [Audience laughs] I said, "That's very nice." And I went and talked to Mr. Brenn who is our head man in our economic aid. I also talked to the general; the general in charge of our military aid says Iranians learn to be soldiers wonderfully quickly. That they're really very good soldiers, and it's very strange they're quite happy the reason being they're eating. [ER and audience laughs] And, it's very simple to know why they're happy, they're getting some food.
But um I can see the Shah's point: he wants more military aid, and I who've always felt that in most of these countries it was a complete waste, could see his point there because he has a long border with Iraq. And if we don't want to give nuclear weapons, and I think we certainly don't, uh we'd better have enough men to watch that border, and it's a long border. But um we have to draw the line as to what is really watching the border and what is approaching aggression which is um uh a careful line that has to be watched. But nevertheless, I think the general was telling me what was obviously true, that the Iranians in the army were happier because they were eating-- he didn't say because they were eating, that's my supposition [audience laughs]-- um but they were happier and they were good soldiers, I imagine that's true.
And Mr. Brenn was in charge of our economic projects, and uh he felt we were doing very well. And I think we probably were as far as we could go, but I cannot help wondering what we are doing to make that group at the top have a sense of responsibility for the whole population. Now the only people that I met that had uh this sense and were trying to do something were three women, and I had been asked-given their names and asked to see them by Mrs. Rose Parsons, who's head of the National Council of Women, and who had met them at the meeting in Silan last year. And she said, "These are three women I want you to see. They need help. Uh the leading one has taken a job with the Iranian Department of Agriculture to try to change the life of women in the villages. And what she wants is someone to go live in each village and demonstrate how you live better with what you have. Now what you have is very little, and to demonstrate how you live better is going to be very difficult, and just to live there at all if you don't have to is going to be a tremendous uh sacrifice and a great project." And I said, "Well, have you found the people you need?" and she looked at me and said, "No Mrs. Roosevelt, I'd like to find young women, but you see because of our Muslim religion no young girl can go and live in a village by herself because it would ruin her chances of marriage, so I haven't been able to get any young girls who would go and I can't find any young women because of course they have children and they are anchored to their homes. And I'm having a dreadful time trying to go myself to the village and find someone there whom I can indoctrinate," and that's almost an impossibility, so I've gathered that she was practically standing still. And, I've thought about this ever since because uh it seems to me that it would be one of the most remarkable uh gifts that we could make if we could take some of our young graduates from home economics courses in this country and say, "Please give two years to go and take three months training in Tehran, and then go live, you're not a Muslim, you're an American young woman, you can live there", to go live there, and try and see what can be done to demonstrate how you can live uh better, and how you can needle people to doing things for the community as a whole, those who live there.
Now this is no easy thing, and I would be deeply concerned about each one of them who went because disease is rampant and uh it would be a very tough assignment. But nevertheless, I can't help thinking that it's probably the only way this can be done, and it's a very exciting uh thing and unless we can devise some way of changing the sense of responsibility in the rich people at the top I don't just know how valuable all the projects and all the things are going to be that we and the UN are doing. And I think this is a subtle thing. I came back and asked Paul Hoffman to come over and talk to me because he's in charge of a thing called "Special Projects" at the UN. I said, "I have a very special project to suggest to you," [laughs]and he said, "Goodness, I go abroad tomorrow," and I said, "Well it'll wait 'til you get home," [laughs] but I said, "When you get home, this is a special project, I think it would be wonderful to work out: how you change the thinking of a whole group of people who have centuries behind them of living on the glories of the past, and a very glorious past, and of being completely concerned about themselves and their own immediate environment, and the rest of the people, well it's just sad that they're in this condition, but that's, that's all there is to it, they are." And [laughs] and this of course is not very different in most of the Arab countries. It's really very much the same in all those countries.
And I went straight from Iran with my granddaughter to Israel, and um it hits you like uh a blow the minute you get into Israel because the whole atmosphere is different. You will find an experiment being tried by a group of professional people as to how they make farming succeed in the Negev. And uh it's never been their job before, but they have leaders, and they have a passion to develop a new country, and success is coming. I uh went down to Eilat which is at the very tip-end of the south where practically only a handful of people lived a short time ago. There are seven thousand people in Eilat today, and they had a number of small industries that had just been started, some to use the semi-precious stones in the mountains which had a great deal of artistic things being developed with the little chips by one woman who was very artistic, and cutting diamonds is another um industry that's just beginning. But the most interesting thing that we saw was seven miles outside of Eilat uh a little kibbutz. You go quite high up to where they live, there are sixty boys and twenty girls between the ages of twenty and twenty-two, all army age. They've had their basic training, but if you're willing to go and live in the Negev and make it flower you may cut short your basic-- after your basic training and go live in the Negev. And these people are young and you need to be young. And, I saw to my interest and surprise up on the high cliff uh cattle, both beef cattle and milking cows uh sheep uh chickens, and I said, "Where do you get the fodder? There's not enough, no matter how far you grazed around here because it's desert all around." And they said, "Oh we let them graze as much as possible but we grow the fodder." "Oh? But what-what is your paying crop?" "Oh we have several, uh we uh have just finished with growing gladiolas and other spring flowers, irises uh
[14:33-14:47] all around [14:47-14:53] uh whereabouts [14:54-14:56] eight large fields their total foliage was so poor-- had a pest of locusts fly over and they'd eaten every green thing in sight.
And they'd told me that their telephone out to the kibbutz, now they had only a matter of minutes. Yhey gathered every bit of stray material and eighty young people and everything they could use as flails and they went down to their fields, so long as the stray material lasts-lasted they used the spray. And then when they didn't have any more left they fought the locusts with flails and they saved their crops. Now I think that's one of the most dramatic stories because you couldn't have done it if you hadn't been young. [Laughs]You had to be the ages that they were. But it shows the kind of determination and the kind of spirit which is typical of that particular country and of those who are making what I would have said was an impossible area uh to-to make flower, of those who are making it flower. And the impact as you come in from the other countries is perfectly tremendous and you realize that actually building a nation is probably a tremendous incentive. Living on the glories of the past is not anywhere near the incentive that it is to be building for the future. You can live surrounded by danger with any sensible person will tell you that your chances of survival are probably meager, but you have no sense while you're there that anybody questions survival, or that anybody questions that they can make their country self-supporting and self-[unknown term (17:22)], and you get the feeling that this is true. And you get a feeling of growth and of uh change. I haven't been there for four years, uh Be'er Sheva at the head of the Negev uh has today forty-two thousand people. Four years ago it had only twenty thousand. It has all the problems and growing pains, too few schools, too few hospitals, but the way the problems are being met is simply astounding. And you get a feeling that really nothing is impossible if you have the right kind of spirit.
And so, I was-I was encouraged when I left Israel, I was discouraged when I was in Iran. But I can't help feeling that you could do this in Iran if somehow we could get the right people to go in on the level of the people and begin to get the people to working and at the same time do something to make this top level begin to feel that they are human beings and that they are not people set apart, that they really will have a-a fuller life and a more interesting life if they become part of the human family and not an-a little group that is preferred to the mass of the people in their country. And, it's a curious thing of course to come back from this part of the world because it makes you so conscious of the tremendous responsibility that we carry today as leaders in the non-communist world because unless you can understand these areas of the world, and unless we meet these problems with wisdom, the Soviets will win and Mr. Khrushchev's statement that the law of the future is communism is not of present being combatted with everything that we really have. Because until we know that here we paint the picture for the world of what democracy really is and what we offer them as an ultimate future. And until we know that everything we do is known everywhere in the world, and until we also know that what we do when we go into any areas of the world, no matter whether we go as government servants, as businesspeople, as tourists, we are ambassadors. We actually are watched for how we behave because we represent something they're being asked to decide about. Will they decide for a democratic way of life and the kind of government that they're told that we have?
Well then they must know how good it is and whether it is really better than what they are told exists in the Soviet Union, where the government is constantly inviting delegations from their country who then go back and tell them what they've seen. And they've always seen what has been accomplished under compulsion in forty-one years, but they are never told that there was any compulsion which accomplished these results. And I think this is the thing you come back with: a sense of the responsibility that we have to accept, not as a government, as individuals, for what we do in our communities, for what we present as a picture, and for what we do through every possible avenue that we have to increase the value of what we offer when we go to other parts of the world.
I know I express for you all our great thanks to Mrs. Roosevelt for coming. She has given us a brilliant, eye-witness reporting account of conditions in Iran and Israel, with great philosophical overtones. And now we have an additional treat. She will be delighted to answer your questions.
I'll read the question.
You have to listen and then repeat it because I can't hear.
I'm sorry, I can't hear you now. Can you come forward, just a little bit?
I think that many of the women here today are shocked by Mrs. Roosevelt's stories of the conditions she found in Iran, but I wondered how many of them know the parallels which exist [unknown term (24:14)] in the United States. Uh Dr. [unclear term (24:17)] testifies that among the thousands of children in D.C. and women [unclear term (24:23)] and there was one child who was so depressed [unclear term (24:28)] because of starvation [unclear term (24:31)] Uh, if I may ask you about children's care in [unclear term (24:36)] and I'm wondering how, in this capital of the United States, we can change [unclear term (24:23)] we can provide for the poor or more?
It has been quite a doubt that we are shocked by conditions existing in Iran, but it's been quite a doubt that conditions here in the nation's capital are um if not equally bad. [unclear term: (25:06)] They need our attention.
I don't think that anyone who had seen conditions in uh Iran uh would say that there were conditions here um that were equally bad because here there is always someone you can go to for help. In Iran there's no one you can go to for help. And here, if they are anywhere near as bad, it is because of our selfishness and our neglect, and we should be desperately ashamed, but it should never stop us from having a sense of responsibility for the other areas of the world because we can do what we have to do at home. And if we don't do it, we should be ashamed. But that does not excuse us from not doing something elsewhere because in our own self-interest we had better be doing. It's very important to our survival, as a free nation.
About this document
My Trip to Iran
Speech to the Woman's National Democratic Club, Part 2
May 25, 1959
Speech to the Woman's National Democratic Club, Part 2 PT26M29S
- 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