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[picture: Practice air raid 'victim' is transfered to  hospital by a Medical Corps of the Office of Civilian Defense.]  ER saw World War II as an opportunity to unify the American people, encourage citizen participation, and strengthen American democracy. She believed that "we must continue with the progressive social legislation as part of national defense." She was impressed with the accomplishments of her good friend Lady Stella Reading, who directed the Women's Voluntary Services for Civil Defense in England, and particularly by the way Reading had worked for greater social equality and justice. She wanted American women to become involved in the war effort in a similar way and successfully urged FDR to ask Florence Kerr, the head of Works Progress Administration Community Service Projects, to draw up a plan to make use of women volunteers in the war effort. ER worked closely with Kerr to produce a document entitled "American Social Defense Organization."

Kerr and ER's document helped shape the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD), which FDR established by Executive Order in May 1941. Agreeing with Kerr and ER and rejecting the advice of Harold Ickes and some other members of his administration, FDR gave the agency a mandate to meet a wide array of needs, including the protection of the civilian population, the maintenance of morale, and the promotion of volunteer involvement in defense. It was also charged with ensuring that federal agencies responded to community needs resulting from the war. FDR selected Fiorello LaGuardia, the flamboyant mayor of New York City, to head of the new agency.

The OCD established air-raid procedures, supervised black-outs, filled sandbags, and planned for protection against fire in case of attack. But LaGuardia showed little interest in organizing volunteer participation in civilian defense and in the social welfare programs that ER believed should be part of the program. ER was especially interested in seeing women and young people involved. Although she had resisted becoming officially involved with the OCD for fear that her presence would draw criticism to the OCD, LaGuardia's failure to promote volunteer involvement persuaded her to become his assistant. She set to work organizing the national office and appointing a strong team of assistants and advisors. She facilitated an interagency agreement on providing federal funds for day care and support for maternal, child-health, and child-welfare services. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the responsibilities and problems of the OCD increased dramatically. ER and other advisors to FDR became convinced that LaGuardia was not capable of heading the OCD and FDR replaced him with James Landis. Some charged, however, that Landis was "pink" and others attacked some of ER's staff appointments as too radical.

As ER had feared, she became a lightning rod for criticism of the OCD. Congress and the press became especially critical when they learned that ER's good friend, the dancer Mayris Chaney, received a substantial salary to work as an assistant in the OCD physical fitness program. Although the total national staff for the OCD numbered less than seventy-five people, this fact failed to silence the critics. In addition, Southerners strongly resisted ER's efforts to integrate the OCD's programs. As the loud chorus of criticism swelled, it distracted from the important work to be done, and ER concluded that she could not be effective in the official role she had taken on. On February 20, 1942 she resigned. Although she continued to believe, as she said in a radio broadcast on February 22, that "better nutrition, better housing, better day-by-day medical care, better education, better recreation for every age" were essential to national defense, her vision did not prevail. (1)

The lack of interest by LaGuardia and the open hostility of many of the key men involved in national defense at the time brought about the eventual demise of the OCD. The nine regional offices that coordinated the work of state and local defense organizations were closed June 30, 1944, and an executive order of June 4, 1945, formally terminated the OCD.


  1. Quoted in Lash, Joseph P. Eleanor and Franklin (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971), 842.


Lash, Joseph P. Eleanor and Franklin. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971, 826-843.