excerpts from the book
Eleanor: The Years Alone
by Joseph P. Lasch
W.W. Norton, 1972
Champion of Her Husband's Ideals
They can always keep busy." What she really wanted to do
was to make some contribution to what had been Franklin's main
wartime objective-the establishment of machinery that would help
ensure a lasting peace. As long ago as 1939 she had read Clarence
Streit's Union Now and had had the author dine at the White House
in order to explain his plan to Franklin
She had kept Franklin informed of the work of Clark Eichelberger's
Commission to Study the Organization of Peace. All through the
war she had argued for a "United Nations" rather than
an Anglo-American approach to peacekeeping. In July, when the
UN Charter was before the Senate, she had pleaded for immediate
ratification, saying her husband thought it most important to
write the Charter and have it accepted while the exigencies of
winning the war still kept the Allies together.
The United Nations, regardless of its imperfections, now seemed
more important than ever. Mrs. Roosevelt considered it her husband's
most significant legacy to the world and wanted his name to be
associated with it. She enlisted the help of Truman and Hopkins
to get the United Nations to consider the possibility of using
Hyde Park as the permanent site of the new organization. She even
thought that she, too, might be of help in carrying forward her
Truman yielded to no one in his admiration of Mrs. Roosevelt,
whom he still addressed as "First Lady," just as he
still thought of Roosevelt as "the President." There
were two people, Truman had told James Byrnes sometime in November,
that he had to have on his political team-Henry Wallace, because
of his influence with labor, and Mrs. Roosevelt, because of her
influence with the Negro voter. He could "take care of Henry"
but wanted Byrnes to find an appointment for Mrs. Roosevelt in
the field of foreign affairs. "The following week,"
Byrnes said, "in recommending a list of delegates for the
first meeting of the United Nations Assembly in London, I placed
Mrs. Roosevelt's name at the top of the list, expressing the belief
that because of her husband's deep interest in the success of
the UN she might accept. Truman telephoned to her immediately,
while I was still in his office, and she did agree to serve."
"She has convictions and does not hesitate to fight for them,
wrote Scripps-Howard columnist Thomas L. Stokes. "The New
Deal era was richer for her influence in it. That influence was
far greater than appeared publicly." Other women could represent
American women, but this was a good appointment because "she,
better than perhaps any other person, can represent the little
people of this country, indeed of the world."
A Magna Charta for Mankind
[Mrs. Roosevelt] ... had cited the guarantees written into the
UN Charter of fundamental human rights. The trampling upon those
rights by Nazism and fascism, especially Hitler's persecution
of the Jews, was considered by the drafters of the Charter as
among the underlying causes of the catastrophe, and a major respect
in which the Charter was an advance over the League Covenant was
its provision for the establishment of a commission "for
the promotion of human rights." It had been the American
hope to annex to the Charter a Declaration of Rights, and Durward
Sandifer had been assigned to draft such a document. But there
was no time before San Francisco to obtain agreement on a Declaration,
so its drafting was assigned to the human rights commission as
its first order of business.
No delegate in London had more eminently personified the cause
of respect for human dignity than Eleanor Roosevelt, and it was
not surprising that the Economic and Social Council asked her
to serve on the "nuclear" human rights commission whose
job it would be to prepare a plan of work and the permanent setup
of the Commission.
In January, 1947, the eighteen-nation Human Rights Commission
held its first plenary session. Mrs. Roosevelt was the U.S. representative,
appointed by President Truman to a four-year term. Again she was
chosen chairman by acclamation. The other officers were a vice-chairman,
Dr. Peng-Chun Chang, a scholarly Chinese diplomat, and the Commission's
rapporteur, Dr. Charles H. Malik of Lebanon, a Christian humanist
with an ever-ready reference to Thomas Aquinas.
The initial debate was somewhat philosophical.
The debate had revealed two schools of thought within the Commission.
"Our policy was to get a declaration which was a carbon copy
of the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights,"
said Hendrick. The Soviet stress was on the need to include all
sorts of economic and social rights, "and the less said about
freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, etc., the better."
The State Department was lukewarm toward the inclusion of the
newer rights. Mrs. Roosevelt, however, saw no reason why such
rights should not be incorporated into the draft, and she succeeded
in pulling the department along with her.
Policy was formulated by an interdepartmental committee. But,
in effect, Mrs. Roosevelt set the policy.
The Commission set up a drafting committee of three to prepare
a text for their next session. Mrs. Roosevelt felt "ill-equipped"
compared with such "learned gentlemen" as Dr. Chang,
Dr. Malik, and Dr. John Humphrey, the United Nations' Human Rights
director, but perhaps she could help her colleagues put their
"high thoughts" into words that the average person can
understand. "I used to tell my husband that, if he could
make me understand something, it would be clear to all the other
people in the country-and perhaps that will be my real value on
this drafting commission!"
The drafting committee met in Mrs. Roosevelt's Washington
Square apartment. While she poured tea, Chang and Malik argued
philosophy. The group finally agreed that if a draft was to be
prepared by June the responsibility for doing so would have to
be taken by the director of the Human Rights Division, Dr. Humphrey.
He should first spend a year in China studying Confucianism, Chang
grinningly admonished Humphrey, which was his way of reminding
the UN official that something more than Western rights would
have to go into the Declaration.
"I get more and more the sensation of something happening
in the world which has a chance to override all obstacles,"
Hendrick wrote her after the session, "and more and more
that this 'something' could never have come into being without
In June, an enlarged drafting committee went to work on the
draft prepared by Humphrey.
They should write a bill, Mrs. Roosevelt told the drafting
group, that stood some chance of acceptance by all fifty-five
governments. As she said this, some of her colleagues wondered
how explicit a statement of the state's responsibility for full
employment the United States was prepared to accept. At the February
session Mrs. Roosevelt had not been sure, but in the intervening
months she had overcome resistance within the U.S. government
and now said the United States was prepared to support not a "guarantee"
of full employment, but an undertaking to "promote"
The Soviet representative thought this a pretty feeble affirmation
of the right to work. "It would be incorrect for him to ask
the U.S. representative to undertake to eliminate unemployment
in the United States," he said scornfully. "The economic
system in the United States made that impossible.... He could,
however, ask that something concrete should be done. Instead of
making a general statement about the right to work, the relevant
article should list measures to be taken to ensure that right."
"The right to work in the Soviet Union," Mrs. Roosevelt
" means the assignment of workers to do whatever task
is given to them by the government without an opportunity for
the people to participate in the decision that the government
should do this. A society in which everyone works is not necessarily
a free society and may indeed be a slave society; on the other
hand, a society in which there is widespread economic insecurity
can turn freedom into a barren and vapid right for millions of
At her urging, the drafting committee did not spend too much
time on the precise wording of the articles. A touchier issue
had arisen and was dividing the committee-the binding character
of the rights that were to be listed in the Declaration. The small
nations in particular wanted something more than a moral manifesto.
They wanted states to assume a treaty obligation to grant, protect,
and enforce the rights enumerated in the Declaration. Neither
the United States nor Russia favored this, but the United States,
chiefly as a result of Mrs. Roosevelt's pressure, deferred to
the views of the majority. There would be two documents, the committee
decided, one a relatively brief declaration of principles that
would provide "a common standard of achievement," the
other a precise convention that would constitute a treaty binding
on the states that ratified it and become a part of their own
law. It was largely owing to Mrs. Roosevelt, wrote Marjorie Whiteman,
that the Commission gave priority to the Declaration. "In
her view the world was waiting, as she said, 'for the Commission
on Human Rights to do something' and that to start by the drafting
of a treaty with its technical language and then to await its
being brought into force by ratification, would halt progress
in the field of human rights."
Public opinion in the United States and the mood in Congress were
turning hostile toward additional UN commitments. In part, this
was a response to the fact that the end of the war, instead of
ushering in an era of peace, order, and friendliness, had brought
almost chaotic conditions as well as a perilous confrontation
with the Soviet Union. In part, it reflected domestic developments-the
postwar swing to the right that culminated in McCarthyism and
McCarranism. In part, it was a reaction to Soviet behavior in
the United Nations. The readiness of the Soviet Union to exploit
the platform and high principles of the United Nations in order
to abuse the West and to boycott and paralyze the organs of the
United Nations when those principles were invoked against Russia's
mundane interests turned congressional sentiment against a legally
binding convention, which, it was said, the Russians would disregard,
even as they did their own constitution.
Another factor, perhaps the decisive one, in hardening congressional
opposition to the Convention was the rising tension over civil
rights inside the United States and the fears of the southern
whites that the United Nations might help American Negroes in
their struggle against discrimination. Black Americans had already
appealed to the United Nations Human Rights division for redress
of their grievances against American society. An NAACP petition
to this effect was submitted ( to the United Nations in 1947.
The Soviet double standard and the hostility of the southern bloc
in the Senate to any international undertaking that might bolster
the Negro drive made the State Department warier than ever of
the Convention. Hendrick went up to consult Dr. Humphrey, director
of the United Nations Human Rights division, on whether in realistic
terms a declaration might not be as effective as a convention
in the protection of human rights. Although Dr. Humphrey agreed
with the United States that the Declaration should be the starting
point in the UN approach to human rights, he did not believe,
Hendrick advised Mrs. Roosevelt, it would have legally binding
A week before Christmas the Declaration was approved by a vote
of 13 to 4. Mrs. Roosevelt was not satisfied with the language.
It was too professorial, too lawyer-like. "All my advisers
are lawyers or I would be lost," she advised a friend, adding,
"common sense is valuable now & then I find however!"
The Commission approved her resolution asking the drafting committee
to prepare a short text, "which will be readily understood
by all peoples." On this resolution there was neither abstention
The revised drafts were forwarded to the member governments for
their comments before a final session of the Commission on Human
Rights, after which she hoped the documents would be ready for
consideration by the 1948 General Assembly. The United States
no longer had any problem with the Declaration since it would
not require congressional approval.
But there was furious debate inside the administration over
whether to go ahead with a covenant under which nations would
assume a legal obligation to protect the rights enunciated. Officials
on the working level in the field of human rights favored a covenant,
but would Congress ratify such a treaty? Mrs. Roosevelt came down
to Washington after the Geneva meeting to confer with the president
and the State Department. Truman's Committee on Civil Rights had
just submitted a hard-hitting report that listed ten recommendations
to secure minority groups rights in the United States, and southern
demagogues, in full cry against those recommendations, were threatening
to bolt the Democratic party in 1948.
The 1948 General Assembly met in Paris at the end of September.
It was a moment of tense confrontation with the Communists, who
were on the offensive throughout western Europe. Soviet Russia's
blockade of Berlin was being abetted by Communist-instigated strikes,
street demonstrations, and violence inside France and Italy. At
the heart of the confrontation, in the view of the West, was the
issue of human liberty. The Assembly would have before it the
draft Declaration. The president and General Marshall thought
Mrs. Roosevelt should give a major speech in Paris.
"I saw both the Secy of State & the Pres. on a flying
visit to Washington the other day. They are putting considerable
responsibility on me in this session. Dulles has suggested that
we point out that all our troubles are rooted in a disregard for
the rights & freedoms of the individual & go after the
U.S.S.R, not, thank heavens, claiming perfection but saying that
under our system we are trying to achieve those rights & succeeding
better than most. They want me to make an opening [address] to
set this keynote outside the Assembly & I am trying to plan
it now. I feel as you do, there cannot be a war but strength &
not appeasement will prevent it."
She accepted Rene Cassin's invitation to come to the Sorbonne
and talk on "The Struggle for the Rights of Man." She
arrived at the Sorbonne accompanied by General and Mrs. Marshall.
The amphitheater, which held 2,500, was packed and many hundreds
were unable to gain admittance. The French minister of national
defense presided, the French foreign minister was in her audience,
and the French Broadcasting System broadcast the entire proceedings.
The basic obstacle to peace, she said, sounding her central theme,
was the different concept of human rights held by the Soviet Union.
was the battle of the French and American Revolutions all
over again. "The issue of human liberty is as decisive now
as it was then." Her excellent French and extreme graciousness
of manner charmed her audience, as did her ad-libbed departures
from her text. Her audience "was particularly delighted when
she said she thought she had reached the limits of which human
patience is capable when she brought up her family, but that since
she had presided over the Commission on Human Rights she had realized
that an even greater measure of patience could be exacted from
an individual." So the foreign service officer who was assigned
to cover the meeting reported to the State Department.
At 3 :00 A.M. on December 10 the Assembly adopted the Declaration
and she could write "long job finished." The final vote
was 48 countries in favor, none against, 2 absent, and 8 abstentions,
mostly of Soviet bloc countries. The Assembly delegates, in recognition
of Mrs. Roosevelt's leadership, accorded her the rare personal
tribute of a standing ovation.
She glowed when General Marshall told the delegation that
the 1948 session would go down in history as the "Human Rights
Assembly." "I do not see," commented Charles Malik,
who succeeded her as chairman of the Commission, "how without
her presence we could have accomplished what we actually did accomplish."
Helen Keller, after reading the Declaration in Braille, wrote
her, "my soul stood erect, exultant, envisioning a new world
where the light of justice for every individual will be unclouded."
She was being proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize, Clark Eichelberger
of the American Association for the United Nations informed her,
but the French felt she and Cassin should share the award. Would
she object? He could go ahead, she wrote back, but she did not
see why she should be nominated at all. Dulles sent her a copy
of a letter he had sent the American Bar Association defending
the Declaration and her role in drafting it:
"As regards Mrs. Roosevelt, she has worked loyally and
effectively on this matter for two years and, while herself without
legal training has had the assistance of competent draftsmen.
It is to be borne in mind that the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights is not, at this stage, primarily a legal document. It is,
like the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, a major element
in the great ideological struggle that is now going on in the
world, and in this respect Mrs. Roosevelt has made a distinctive
contribution in defense of American ideals."
Some were cynical about the Declaration, stating there was
"an inherent absurdity" in an "organization of
governments, dedicating itself to protect human rights when, in
all ages and climes, it is governments which have been their principal
violators." But this was precisely the value of the agreement
on the first intergovernmental bill of rights and fundamental
freedoms. "Man, the individual human being, has emerged on
the international scene which in the past was the jousting ground
only of States."
"The first step has been taken," Mrs. Roosevelt
replied to Helen Keller. "We shall now go ahead with the
work on the Covenants." Progress would be very slow on the
Covenants. For a time after Mrs. Roosevelt had left the delegation
in 1953, the United States declined to take any part in their
drafting. In 1966 two Covenants, one on civil and political rights
and the other on economic and social rights, were approved by
the Assembly and opened for ratification, but as of this writing
fewer than twenty countries have deposited such ratifications
and neither of the Covenants has gone into effect.
The Declaration, meanwhile, demonstrated an influence far
beyond expectations. It has proved to be "a living document,"
Dag Hammarskjold observed on the tenth anniversary of its adoption.
"It has entered the consciousness of the people of the world,"
Adlai E. Stevenson wrote in 1961, "has shaped their aspirations,
and has influenced the consciences of nations." The European
Convention on Human Rights was a spin-off effect of the Declaration,
even going beyond it, since it established a commission to hear
complaints and a court to adjust them. The Declaration has found
its way into many constitutions and is increasingly cited in domestic
court decisions. Its provisions often have been invoked in General
Assembly resolutions and by Soviet dissenter and black resister.
Pope John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, called the
Declaration "an act of the highest importance," an "important
step on the path towards the juridical-political organization
of the world community."
Most international lawyers now think that, whatever the intentions
of its authors may have been, the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights is now binding on states as part of the customary law of
The decision of Mrs. Roosevelt and her advisers to give priority
to the Declaration was vindicated. The first United Nations Human
Rights prize was awarded to her posthumously.
But more than the prize, she would have enjoyed the knowledge
that the Declaration was slowly working its way into the ethical
conscience of mankind. For as she wrote in 1958:
"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?
In small places, close to home-so close and so small that they
cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world
of the individual persons; the neighborhood he lives in; the school
or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works.
Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal
justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.
Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning
anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close
to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."
Reluctant Cold Warrior
"Of course, I do not believe in having everyone who is a
liberal called a communist, or everyone who is conservative called
fascist, but I think it is possible to determine whether one is
one or the other and it does not take too long to do so."
"The American Communists seem 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 be
very essential even at the price of being called red-baiters...
Like her uncle Theodore, Mrs. Roosevelt enjoyed a good scrap.
To stand up for the underdog, she knew from three decades of public
activity, meant to run the chance of public attack and vilification.
Eleanor Roosevelt and the Nobel Peace Prize
Several efforts were made to have the Nobel Peace Prize awarded
to Mrs. Roosevelt. In 1961 Adlai E. Stevenson, at that time United
States representative at the United Nations, nominated her, not
only because of the contribution that she had made to the drafting
and approval of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but
because "in this tragic generation [she] has become a world
symbol of the unity of mankind and the hope of peace."'
A year later, when he renewed his request for consideration
of Mrs. Roosevelt's nomination, he was seconded by President Kennedy,
who wrote the Nobel Committee that she was "a living symbol
of world understanding and peace," and that her "untiring
efforts" on its behalf had become "a vital part of the
historical fabric of this century." An award to this remarkable
lady, Kennedy added, "in itself would contribute to understanding
and peace in this troubled world." 2
This was nine months before Mrs. Roosevelt's death. Death
did not stop the efforts on her behalf. Ralph J. Bunche, himself
a recipient of the prize, proposed that it be awarded to her posthumously.
"I can think of no one in our times who has so broadly served
the objectives of the Nobel Peace Award," he wrote Gunnar
Jahn, chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament
which made the award. The prize went to Linus Pauling in 1962
and to the International Red Cross in 1963.
In the summer of 1964 a new effort got under way to obtain
the prize for Mrs. Roosevelt posthumously. Lester B. Pearson,
prime minister of Canada and a winner of the prize for his work
in establishing the first United Nations peace force, wrote Gunnar
Jahn urging a posthumous award. "She certainly was an outstanding
woman and I believe that the world does owe her a special debt
of gratitude for her magnificent work for peace, and for the freedom
and human rights on which peace must be based." Nobel officials
replied that the statutes of the Nobel Foundation prohibited the
submission of the names of deceased persons. But Mrs. Roosevelt's
friends thought the committee, if it wished, could interpret the
statutes to make the award. Andrew W. Cordier, Dag Hammarskjold's
closest collaborator in the United Nations Secretariat, wrote
Jahn pointing out that Mrs. Roosevelt had been nominated prior
to her death, and in his view, therefore, she "technically
qualifies under the rules of your Committee."
At Adlai Stevenson's request, the Norwegian ambassador to
the United Nations, Sivert A. Nielsen, inquired whether Mrs. Roosevelt
could not be awarded the prize since she had been nominated while
alive. "My attention has been drawn to the fact," Ambassador
Nielsen added, "that the late Secretary-General [ Dag Hammarskjold]
was awarded the prize post-mortem." The director of the Nobel
Committee did not find the parallel persuasive. "It is not
possible to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Mrs. Roosevelt post-mortem,"
he informed Nielsen. "The last time she was recommended was
in 1962." Nielsen took up the matter with Nils Langhelle,
president of the Norwegian Storting and a member of the Nobel
Committee. The rules of the Nobel Foundation concerning post-mortem
awards, Langhelle replied, were interpreted to mean: "Deceased
persons cannot be proposed whereas one who has been proposed and
subsequently died can be awarded the prize post mortem for that
Mrs. Roosevelt's friends were not to be deterred. Since the
1964 prize had been awarded to the Reverend Martin Luther King,
Jr., an organizing committee, consisting of the Dowager Marchioness
of Reading, former publisher of the New York Herald-Tribune Mrs.
Ogden Reid, and Esther Lape, undertook to secure consideration
of Eleanor Roosevelt for the 1965 award. Twenty-eight distinguished
citizens from all over the world sent supporting letters.
Former President Truman, with characteristic bluntness, wrote
I understand that there are regulations in your committee
that rule out an award of the Peace Prize to Mrs. Franklin D.
Roosevelt because she has passed away.
The award without the financial prize that goes with it can
be made. You should make it. If she didn't earn it, then no one
It's an award for peace in the world. I hope you'll make
Clement Attlee, former British prime minister, wrote from
the House of Lords with equal brevity and bluntness:
Eleanor Roosevelt did a great work in the world, not only
for her fellow citizens of the United States, but for all people,
and there is no doubt at all that if posthumous awards are given
then the name of Eleanor Roosevelt should be among the recipients,
and this nomination has my full support.
"If there is anyone who serves the posthumous award of
the Nobel Prize it is she," wrote Jean Monnet, father of
the Common Market:
Fundamentally, I think her great contribution was her persistence
in carrying into practice her deep belief in liberty and equality.
She would not accept that anyone should suffer-because they were
women, or children, or foreign, or poor, or stateless refugees.
To her, the world was truly one world, and all its inhabitants
members of one family.
Letters of support came from United States cabinet members
and senators as well as from foreign statesmen. Two former presidents
of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Charles Malik
of Lebanon and Rene Cassin of France, endorsed the nomination.
One letter came from a Harvard professor of international relations
in whose class Eleanor Roosevelt had regularly lectured and who
later would become better known. "As someone who knows Mrs.
Roosevelt for many years," wrote Henry A. Kissinger,
and admired her work all his adult life, I can say that she
was no ordinary person, not even an ordinary Nobel laureate. Mrs.
Roosevelt was one of the great human beings of our time. She stood
for peace and international understanding not only as intellectual
propositions but as a way of life. She was a symbol of compassion
in a world of increasing righteousness. She brought warmth rather
than abstract principles. I am convinced that recognition of her
quality would move people all over the world....
"We have no illusions about the flexibility of the Nobel
Committee," Esther Lape wrote David Gurewitsch. "Its
statements reflect a rigidity extraordinaire. But that the views
of these distinguished persons in the United States, United Kingdom,
Japan, and France will have an impact on the Committee, I cannot
The 1965 prize was awarded to UNICEF.