The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project is a university-chartered research center associated with the Department of History of The George Washington University

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The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project
Questions and Answers about Eleanor Roosevelt

Question: What did Eleanor Roosevelt do during World War II?

Answer:

ER told a friend that World War II filled her with a sense of responsibility she could never fulfill. Consequently, ER increased her already daunting pace to one that amazed reporters, admirals, defense workers, and soldiers. Her wartime work can be divided into three categories: refugee issues, home front issues, and soldiers' concerns.

Refugees: Well before the United States entered the war, ER worked to make it easier for refugees from Hitler's Germany to enter the country, but there was stiff resistance to changing America's strict immigration laws. She served as both an official and unofficial advisor to groups trying to aid refugees from the Spanish Civil War. After Kristallnacht, she worked with the Emergency Rescue Committee, the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children, and the Children's Crusade for Children. She also offered key support to Varian Fry's rescue operations. Her support for refugee work was so public that she received hundreds of petitions from people trying to enter the United States. She was able to help in individual cases, but the laws remained the same. She lobbied diligently for the Child Refugee Bill which would have allowed 10,000 Jewish children a year for two years to enter the United States above the usual German quota, but Congress refused to pass the bill. When the United States entered the war in December 1941, she continued to advocate a more open policy and to assist individual refugees to gain admittance to the country. She spoke out forcefully against the restrictive visa policies of Breckinridge Long and worked with Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles to issue more entrance visas. She never achieved all that she wanted. Her critics within the administration and FDR's critics within Congress united to oppose new refugee policy.

The Home front: ER believed that promoting democracy at home and keeping up people's spirits was a vital part of the war effort. She thought the major lesson of World War I was that we won the war, but "lost the peace." She told Americans that we had forgotten what we were for and focused instead on what we were against. Throughout WWII, even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, she remained determined to do all that she could to promote democracy and shore up morale so that we would not make the same mistake.

ER did this in many ways. (1) She strongly supported women working outside the home and urged their employment in defense industries. When women workers had trouble finding child care and adequate pay, ER lobbied to have day care centers and take-out kitchens within various factories, and spoke out strongly in favor of equal pay for equal work. (2) She played a key role in convincing FDR to establish the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which outlawed racial discrimination in industries that received federal contracts, urged equal treatment for blacks in the military, and helped to ensure that black units, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, had the opportunity to engage in combat. (3) She urged citizens to accept volunteer assignments and tried to make those assignments useful. FDR wanted her to be deputy director of the Office of Civilian Defense, but Harry Hopkins and Anna Rosenberg had to convince her to take the position. She soon became a target for criticism and resigned. She felt she could be more effective in an unofficial capacity. (4) She continued to press FDR to act on the issues with which she was concerned, and warned him when Congress began to attack programs they valued.

ER also used the radio to boost American morale and to urge her listeners to remember that in these dangerous, uncertain times, Americans must take strength from each other and rededicate themselves to democracy. In fact, ER addressed the nation the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. To read her address, click here.

Soldier Morale: ER felt that she could never thank soldiers enough for the sacrifices they made. She even carried a prayer in her wallet encouraging her "to remember that somewhere someone died for me today" and "to ask am I worth dying for."

Her work for soldiers took several forms. She corresponded with several soldiers and became their "pen pals." They responded honestly to her questions and she helped get their issues addressed. For example, when officers always got the best seats at the USO shows, ER worked to arrange a more just seating plan. She also thought the letter FDR sent to families of soldiers killed in battle was too cold and helped rewrite it. She would use "My Day" to put soldiers' concerns before the public and Congress. But, perhaps, her most important contribution was the kindness and support she gave the thousands of soldiers she met on her trips to military bases at home, in England, and in the South Pacific. (Click here to read Admiral Halsey's report on ER's activities in New Zealand.) When she returned from her five-week trip (August 17 to September 23, 1943) to the Pacific, she wrote a nine-page report to the Red Cross evaluating all the facilities she visited.
 


Sources:

Black, Allida M. Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, 89-174.

Lash, Joseph. Eleanor and Franklin. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971, passim.