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Eleanor Roosevelt and the Cold War

Eleanor Roosevelt had many responsibilities during the Cold War: delegate to the United Nations, syndicated columnist, human rights activist, and Democratic party leader. Regardless of the arena in which she operated, ER worked to keep the focus on what democracy represented rather than on how communism threatened it. She thought the nation gained little from spending most of its energy hating the Soviet Union and urged Americans to recognize that making democracy work at home and encouraging democratic movements abroad was often more effective than intemperate foreign policy. "While her opposition to the spread of communism never wavered," ER refused to play political one-upmanship. As diplomatic historian Anna Kasten Nelson concludes, "In her unique position, she tried to persuade her fellow Americans that the Cold War was the result of both the expansionist ideology of the Soviets and the wrong-headed American response to them." (1)

ER could easily be inserted into classroom discussions of the Cold War as both a domestic and international contest in ways that encourage students to see the reciprocal relationship between American domestic and foreign policy.

The Cold War at Home: ER can be held up as a counterpoint to Churchill's Iron Curtain speech (she opposed both this rhetoric and his interpretation), Truman's loyalty oaths (she editorialized against them, calling the policy un-American), HUAC (she recommended that the FBI rather than Congress investigate subversion to de-politicize the inquiry), Alger Hiss (she thought Hiss a perjurer and not a traitor) and McCarthy (she told readers of My Day that she "despised" his methods). When the NAACP, the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), and other organizations to which she belonged were accused of being "soft on communism," ER often served as their honorary chair to signal her strong faith in them and her deep disdain for what she called "the politics of fear." While she opposed the outlawing of the Communist Party and thought Dennis v. the United States a dangerous decision, she preferred to work with organizations that did not have communist members. As she wrote journalist Max Lerner, "The American Communists seemed to have succeeded very well in jeopardizing whatever the liberals work for. Therefore, to keep them out of policy-making and staff positions seems to very essential even at the price of being called red-baiters, which I hope no member of this organization [Americans for Democratic Action] will be." (2) Yet she would work with any group she thought valuable and ethical, telling the ADA it must not succumb to anti-communist red-baiting.

The day I'm afraid to sit down with people I do not know because five years from now someone will say that five of those people were Communists and therefore, you are a Communist – that will be a bad day.

I want to be able to sit down with anyone who may have a new idea and not be afraid of contamination by association. In a democracy you must be able to meet with people and argue your point of view - [with] people you have not screened before hand. That must be part of the freedom of people in the United States. (3)

Linking civil rights at home with democracy abroad, ER insisted the more the nation deferred recognizing the civil rights of all Americans, the more ammunition the Communists had to label democracy hypocritical and ineffective. She urged the nation to recognize the severe test it faced, to understand that it was "on trial today to show what democracy means." (4)

The Cold War Abroad: The international arena presented ER with different challenges. As a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, she represented the state department; therefore, she could not speak as freely about U.S. foreign policy as she could on domestic matters. Nevertheless, ER can be incorporated into classroom discussions in ways that reflect Cold War tensions between America and Russia and within the Truman foreign policy team.

She very much supported Truman's position on the "repatriation" of refugees and, in a deft rebuttal to the Soviet delegation during a debate in the General Assembly, played a key role in securing UN support for resettlement and not "repatriation." Yet, unlike Truman, Churchill and DeGaulle, she opposed the propping up of former British and French colonies in India, Africa, and Indochina. She worried that Churchill had too much influence over Truman, and opposed the former prime minister's "Iron Curtain" call to create a British-American alliance against the Soviet Union. Rather than exacerbating wedges among the Big Three powers, by flaunting "tough policy" talk in a futile attempt to stem Soviet aggression, ER argued the administration should focus on strengthening the UN. The "go-it-alone implications of the Truman Doctrine" were both counterproductive to spreading democracy and detrimental to the UN's development.

Like George Kennan, ER believed Russia presented an economic and political, rather than military challenge to the West and thought George Marshall's efforts to develop "an over-all economic agreement in which we would try to aid" Europe "very constructive." As she told readers of "My Day," "The Marshall Plan is a bona fide offer to help Europe get back on its feet. Mr. Molotov [the Soviet ambassador to the United States], in refusing to join the rest of Europe, is creating the very thing he says he fears, which is division instead of cooperation." (5)

By 1948, as Joseph Lash has argued, ER had become a "reluctant cold warrior." (6) She mourned her friend Jan Masaryk, Czechoslovakia's foreign minister, who died mysteriously when during the Soviets invaded his country. Concerned that the Soviets had won the propaganda war in the developing world, she struggled to make Americans and American policy makers emphasize what they were for rather than accentuate what they were against. ER organized her own diplomacy around this principle. In mid-1948, ER saw Truman waver over the partition of Palestine, she threatened to resign from the UN unless he recognized the need for a Jewish state. In 1953, as part of her world-wide tour, she had extended visits with Tito and Nehru, spending weeks with them discussing politics, religion, micro-credit, and publishing their conversations as part of her campaign for world understanding. In 1957, she traveled to Russia to interview premier Nikita Krushchev, only to have the interview turn into a spirited debate. She would return their hospitality by inviting all three leaders to Val-Kill. President Kennedy recognized ER's influence and, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, asked her to work with Walter Reuther to help get pro-American personnel released from Cuban jails.

Despite ER's efforts and others with whom she worked, she still thought America was loosing the Cold War because it had lost its vision; in its place she saw a new world defined more by fear of communism than commitment to democracy. As she asked the nation in 1961, "what has happened to the American dream?" (7)


  1. Anna Kasten Nelson and Sara E. Wilson, "Cold War," in The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia edited by Maurine Beasley et al (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000), 102.
  2. Eleanor Roosevelt to Max Lerner, January 19, 1947, General Correspondence, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York.
  3. Eleanor Roosevelt, "Address to the Americans for Democratic Action 1950 Convention," Speech and Article file, AER Papers, FDRL.
  4. For more information on ER and the Cold War at home, see Allida M. Black, Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Post War Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), chapters 3-5.
  5. Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day, June
  6. See Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone (New York: New American Library, 1972), Chapter 4 for a thorough discussion of ER, the UN, and Cold War politics.
  7. Eleanor Roosevelt, "What Has Happened to the American Dream?" reprinted in Courage In A Dangerous World: The Political Writings of Eleanor Roosevelt edited by Allida M. Black (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000) 223.

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