Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: The War Years and After, 1939–1962
". . . a fitting end to the Wiesen Cook’s Eleanor Roosevelt biographical project."
“I . . . want to . . . live in a country where I can think as I please, go to any church I please, or to none if that is my desire; say what I please, and . . . do what I please. . . . I want to have within my own hands the choice of my leaders, and if the majority of opinion is against me at any time, I want the right to differ . . . in order to prove fairly whether the majority is right or not.”
It has been 24 years since Blanche Wiesen Cook began her foray into Eleanor Roosevelt’s life. Seventeen years after the release of the second volume, Wiesen Cook takes the reader through ER’s second, third, and fourth terms as First Lady and ends with her death in November 1962. It has been well worth the wait.
Eleanor Roosevelt was, in the author’s words, “[A]dmired and beloved, scorned and reviled, influential, controversial, and timeless.” This story is one of a woman who took on a job she did not want and expanded it beyond everyone’s expectations.
As in the first two volumes, Cook presents ER as a complicated and fascinating person. At times outgoing, generous and kind, ER could also be vulnerable, petulant and mean.
In many ways, this is not a traditional biography because it deals with a nontraditional subject. Eleanor Roosevelt was unlike other U.S. first ladies. The closest is Hillary Clinton.
In this book, readers will see that the events and criticism facing the country now mirror those of almost 80 years ago.
The criticism Eleanor Roosevelt faced because of her “meddling,” reflect that faced by countless other women, including Hillary Clinton, who failed to behave well and thereby made history.
She wrote books and a weekly newspaper column. At times, she was more popular than the president. Being First Lady gave ER a bully pulpit from which she could speak to the American people about the important and the mundane. She was opinionated, at times, controversial, and she persisted even when criticized and condemned.
A wealthy and privileged background did not interfere with ER’s ability to understand and appreciate the desperate situations faced by Americans in the ’30s and after. She traveled throughout the country to discover for herself what was needed. She reported to her husband and wrote about what she learned. Even when rebuffed, ER showed her tenacity and ability to bounce back because she believed, “the influence you exert is through your own life, and what you’ve become yourself.”
In 1939, the United States was grappling with its place in a global economy and dealing with an influx of immigrants and a growing refugee crisis in Europe. Many viewed refugees and immigrants as Nazis or communists intent on harming the U.S. ER championed the rights of minorities, refugees, and immigrants and saw value in expanding the U.S. role in global situations.
ER was aware of the dangers of nationalism and isolationist tendencies. She observed the pain caused by government policies that favored the wealthy at the expense of the poor. She used her influence to encourage FDR to take action that benefited vast numbers of American citizens.
FDR did not always agree with his wife. Wiesen Cook takes the reader through countless episodes where FDR not only failed to agree but also ignored ER completely.
As the 1940 Democratic National Convention in Chicago started, no one knew whether FDR planned to run for a third term. FDR had no plans to attend the convention. FDR claimed he, “has never had, and has not today, any desire or purpose to continue in the office, . . . to be a candidate, . . . or to be nominated by the convention for that office.”
In spite of this, FDR was nominated by acclamation for an unprecedented third term. FDR’s choice of Henry Wallace, however, proved less endearing. Because of the opposition to Wallace, FDR suggested that ER address the convention because she, “always makes people feel right.”
ER did not want her husband to serve a third term but flew to Chicago. Her close friend, Lorena Hickok, described the moment when she “moved forward, through the haze of dust and tobacco smoke under the glaring lights to the speakers’ stand—tall and proudly erect, her head held high. For a split second, the crowd stared at her in astonishment. Abruptly the boos and catcalls stopped. In dead silence she started to speak.”
Eleanor Roosevelt was the first wife of a president or a nominee to address a major political party. And her convention speech while brief was greeted by “sustained silence” followed by “tumultuous applause.”
The author presents Eleanor Roosevelt as she may not have seen herself. She was an American hero. Through Wiesen Cook’s expert handling, the reader discovers how ER understood and revered the values that defined America and believed in participatory democracy. ER believed that neighbors include “all those who live anywhere within our range of knowledge. That means an obligation to the coal miners and share-croppers, the migratory workers, the tenement-house dwellers and farmers who cannot make a living.” ER defined democracy as “service for all” and neighbor was a global term.
ER believed the tyranny and abuse could find its way into the United States, “[T]here is nothing, given certain kinds of leadership, which could prevent our falling prey to this same kind of insanity, much as it shocks us now. The idea of superiority of one race over another must not continue within our own country, nor must it grow up in our dealings with the rest of the world.”
Reading the words and learning about this most active and socially conscious First Lady makes the reader wonder what she would think of today’s America.
ER never wanted to be First Lady and when FDR’s death on April 12, 1945, freed ER from the White House fishbowl allowing her to return to New York. But that did not stop her from working to make the world better. President Truman appointed her to the U.S. delegation for the first session of the United Nations.
ER’s post-White House life included service on various international commissions. During her post-White House years, only President Eisenhower refused to accept her offers to serve. Eisenhower’s decision, however, failed to silence ER. She left the U.N. and began working with Clark Eichelberger’s American Association of the United Nations. From 1953 until the end of her life, ER promoted peace and human rights.
She said, “If we do not see that equal opportunity, equal justice and equal treatment are granted to every citizen, the very basis on which this country can hope to survive with liberty and justice for all will be wiped away.”
Eleanor Roosevelt believed everyone had a right to equal opportunity, education and a comfortable life in a caring community.
With “proper education . . . a strong sense of responsibility for our own actions, with a clear awareness that our future is linked with the welfare of the world as a whole, we may justly anticipate that the life of the next generation will be richer, more peaceful, more rewarding than any we have apply to us.”
Adlai Stevenson, in his eulogy for Eleanor Roosevelt, said, “Her life was crowded, restless, and fearless. Perhaps she pitied most not those whom she aided in the struggle, but the more fortunate who were preoccupied with themselves and cursed with the self-deceptions of private success. . . . She walked in the slums and the ghettos of the world. . . . [T]his was not sacrifice; this, for Eleanor Roosevelt, was the only meaningful way of life . . .”
Blanche Wiesen Cook gives readers an insight into the nooks and crannies of this unprecedented character in American history. Volume Three of Eleanor Roosevelt is a fitting end to the Wiesen Cook’s Eleanor Roosevelt biographical project.