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Eleanor Roosevelt and World War I
 

World War I horrified Eleanor Roosevelt. Like most Americans, ER hoped that America could stay out of war. Yet, unlike the majority of her peers, she knew that the neutrality Wilson and Bryan promoted was unrealistic. When a German classmate from Allenswood asked what ER thought of Germans now that the war had begun, she replied to her friend on May 14, 1915:

. . . . This whole war seems to me too terrible. Of course, it brings out in every nation wonderful, fine qualities for it calls for self-sacrifice and unselfishness, two qualities which are not apt to shine in uneventful and prosperous times but every people believes that it is right! War also brings out in all nations certain qualities which are not beautiful and I wish it could be wiped from the face of the earth though I recognize that in our present state of civilization there comes a time when every people must fight or lose its self-respect. I feel that it is almost too much to expect that we shall be spared when there is so much sorrow and suffering in so many countries abroad.
As to the opinions we have formed of the Germans in the war, I can only speak for myself . . . but I think that among the people here there is great respect for the people of Germany and also for the wonderful efficiency and preparedness of her army. Sympathy is pretty well divided I think on both sides but I think Count Bernstorff has been unfortunate in talking too much at first and though Dr. Denberg has made very able speeches he has alienated many who felt he was trying to appeal to the popular sympathy over the heads of the Government. Just now you know the feeling is very tense but I cannot help hoping some understanding maybe reached . . . . (1)

More and more, she saw American involvement in the war as inevitable. As the war progressed, FDR, Wilson's assistant secretary of the navy, kept ER up to date on his battles to modernize the navy and equip it to defend allied interests as well as the latest arguments amongst key White House staff. Although she admired Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan's pacifist principles, his resignation made her "so glad. . . ." She labeled the submarine attack on the passenger ship Arabic "an outrage" and wrote FDR from Campobello "we are all wondering whether there are to be more words or actions of some sort over the Arabic. The Germans certainly are not treating us with great consideration!" (2) Yet she still held out hope that Wilson's call for "peace without victory" might work.

After word of the Zimmerman telegram leaked, the Cabinet recommended that Wilson ask Congress to declare war. ER accompanied FDR to Congress to hear the president's war message. After hearing the president declare America must fight because "the world must be made safe for democracy," ER returned "home still half-dazed by the sense of impending change." (3)

When America entered the war, ER, like thousands of other women, threw herself into the war effort. She supported her brother Hall's enlistment. She staffed the Red Cross canteen, where she served soldiers departing from Washington's Union Station and balanced its books. She helped organize the Navy Red Cross and volunteered at the Naval Hospital, visiting the wounded and coordinating families' appeals for aid. As head of the Navy League's Comfort Committee, she coordinated the distribution of wool to 40 knitters and the collection of the finished goods. Outraged by the treatment shell-shocked sailors received, she lobbied Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane to humanize the protocol governing their stay at Saint Elizabeth's Hospital. As much as she hated the suffering, she thought the war was "waking people to a sense of responsibility and of obligation who perhaps never had it before." (4)

In 1918, ER accompanied FDR to Europe, where he was to coordinate the liquidation of naval property. In France, she visited hospitalized soldiers and civilians and toured battlefields potmarked with trenches and strewn with bloody barbed wire. Appalled and heartsick, she could not help but feeling "as though ghosts were beside you." This experience, ER's close friend Joseph Lash wrote, "imbued her with an intractable hatred of war." (5)

Unlike Jane Addams and many other progressive women with whom ER would later be compared, ER was not a pacifist. Rather she was strongly anti-war, and she painfully concluded that in some critical times defending democracy was more important than staying out of war. The horrible suffering and carnage World War I inflicted on all its participants compelled ER to work with those determined to prevent such violence from happening again. She found the Treaty of Versailles too punitive, enthusiastically backed the League of Nations and the World Court, and lamented Wilson's poor political judgement. She knew once the president turned the referendum on the Treaty of Versailles into a referendum on the Democrats, the treaty was lost. This lesson stayed with her. In World War II, she would often admonish leaders and the public alike that we must win the war and the peace.
 


Notes:

  1.  Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin, (New York: Signet, 1971), 218
  2.  Ibid., 202.
  3.  Eleanor Roosevelt, This Is My Story (New York: Harper, ), 245.
  4.  Lash, 219.
  5.  Ibid., 231

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