Seeking to Understand

Eleanor Roosevelt lived during a time when international travel was less common, and diversity was not celebrated as widely as it is today. She was, however, determined to understand the cultures and viewpoints of a wide variety of people.

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Eleanor Roosevelt talking to American soldier during her goodwill tour of Great Britain
Eleanor Roosevelt during her goodwill tour of Great Britain, Nov 1942

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) – First Lady, Diplomat, Activist

A prayer that has special significance for many Christians, the world over, is the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. Dedicated to the Italian monk born in 1182, the prayer reads as follows:

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.

Even though Eleanor Roosevelt was not religious, her life and the things she accomplished exemplified the lines above. Her extensive travels in times of both war and peace allowed her to study people, to serve them, to console them in their times of trouble, and to understand their outlook on life that had been formed by their cultures and experiences. From a young age, until her death in 1962, she was an extensive traveler and reader, often going through several newspapers every day. It was because of her vast experience that her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, was able to use her as a political sounding board, especially in the area of foreign policy.

Starting when she was a teenager, Eleanor sought to understand the diversity of cultures and customs around the world, especially in the countries she was traveling to. When her school headmistress, Mlle. Souvestre took Eleanor on travels during school breaks, she encouraged Eleanor to embrace the native lifestyle, as much as possible while on a journey. This included, but wasn’t limited to speaking the language, eating native foods, and participating in local customs.

After serving in the Red Cross during World War I, Eleanor began to look for more practical ways to help people than just sitting on boards of charities. Amid the Great Depression, she used money earned from teaching, writing, and speaking to set up relief foundations. One such foundation was dedicated to single, jobless women. It provided a place for them to rest, eat, and connect during the day as they were out looking for jobs. Eleanor also used her money to pay off the mortgages of the buildings for various other charitable organizations. She also traveled to some of the country’s most impoverished areas to speak to the people there.

Eleanor Roosevelt arrives at Arthurdale, West Virginia to understand the condition of the miners.
Eleanor Roosevelt in Arthurdale, West Virginia, 1933

Hearing the stories that the miners of West Virginia told about their lives inspired her to petition the government for the formation of a community in West Virginia, where unemployed coal miners and their families would receive a house and enough acreage on which to farm for food and personal supplies. Most notably, she and several of her friends founded a company that produced hand-crafted reproductions of Early American furniture. This company provided jobs and livelihood to several local families.

Eleanor was able to render invaluable services during the Great Depression as a result of her increased awareness of social issues, and her compassion for her fellow humans. Her skills in assuaging the injured and wounded, both in soul and flesh, were utilized during World War II. After the United States entered the war, Eleanor made a trip to Europe in 1942 to see the work that women were doing for the war effort. During this time, she visited and comforted both US and British soldiers who were hospitalized due to war injuries. Eleanor took it a step further by personally writing to the families of anyone who asked her to.

Eleanor Roosevelt enjoying the company of the troops
Eleanor Roosevelt during her tour of the Southwest Pacific. Aug 17 – Sep 23, 1943

In 1943, she traveled to the South Pacific, where she toured Red Cross hospitals, and here too she wrote letters to the families of men injured in combat. It got to the point where she was carrying around stacks of names and addresses and staying up at all hours to finish writing. This gift of consolation is something that set Eleanor apart. Her visits made the wounded men feel special and were a much-needed morale boost for the troops when they needed it most. It is said that wars are fought as much in our homes, as they are on the fronts, and one can only imagine the joy the families of the war veterans must’ve felt upon receiving a letter from the First Lady of the United States herself!

Her husband, Franklin Roosevelt, also lived by this same principle of understanding on his travels as President. Once during World War II, he met Winston Churchill in Egypt. At the end of the meeting, President Roosevelt insisted on meeting the Egyptian Sultan. When Prime Minister Churchill enquired as to why he wanted to do so, FDR replied that it was a matter of being courteous as it was the Sultan’s country they were convening in! Thanks to her husband’s respect for the leader of the country, Eleanor received an uproarious welcome when she later visited Egypt, with the crowd waving homemade American flags!

Eleanor’s desire to understand the culture and motivations of different groups of people often went beyond simply speaking the language or eating native foods. She also wanted to understand the political and social reasons behind decisions that the government made. An example of this desire was on display when she interviewed the president of Yugoslavia about its relationship with Russia. Yugoslavia had broken away from Russia, but still, somehow, managed to develop an amicable relationship with it, and Eleanor was very interested in knowing how that worked on a practical level. This was doubly vital from a geopolitical standpoint, with the USSR emerging as a major power player in the aftermath of WWII.

Eleanor Roosevelt shakes hands with Josip Tito
Eleanor Roosevelt and Josip Tito in Brioni,Yugoslavia, 16 July 1953

Perhaps the most notable example of Eleanor seeking an understanding of people from all walks of life is her multiple trips to Communist Russia and her meetings with Nikita Khrushchev. She not only wanted to see how Communism worked in cities but in rural areas as well. She toured several farms to see how they carried on their day-to-day business and also wanted to see how the economy and science worked in conjunction with Communism. Eleanor walked away from these trips with some key insights.

She understood that the Soviets used the people’s obedience to get things done. She called it distorted conditioning, and wondered how children being born, raised, and conditioned in orphanages would survive in the real world. During her time in Russia, she felt cut off from the world and did not see people smile or hear them laugh much. She was astonished at what Communism had done, and how the government brainwashed its people. She was allowed to tour the schools as well and saw firsthand the uniformity of behavior in children. She was told that any deviation from the expected behaviors was immediately dealt with.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev on his visit to the United states (15-27 Sep 1959)

It was a result of these visits and her ability to categorize and deal with human behaviors and emotions that she was able to see a pattern. She understood that the reason for the USSR being so influential on the global stage was that Mother Russia exported not only goods but brains in the form of teachers and scientists and doctors as well. She feared that this would lead to the spread of Communism, and urged the young people of the United States to go out into the world and be of service on a global stage rather than sticking to the domestic scene!

As she aged, Eleanor sought to understand the opinions and viewpoints of the younger generations around the globe. She talked to Japanese students and extensively enquired around their feelings on the atomic bomb and nuclear disarmament. She also regularly hosted college students and other young people at her home to discuss politics, defense, and other world issues.

Finally, Eleanor exhibited her love for her own people by being vocally pro-integration during a time when Jim Crow laws prevailed across the South. Franklin Roosevelt’s political advisors worried that Eleanor’s outspokenness on the topic of integration would hurt his chances at re-election. Eleanor’s attitude, on the other hand, was always that if people didn’t vote for him because she stood up for human rights, then Franklin didn’t want to be President anyway.

Eleanor Roosevelt is often thought of as a trailblazing woman, but there was a soft side to her personality as well. She used her prominent positions as the First Lady of New York, the First Lady of the United States, and a delegate to the United Nations to console, understand, and love both Americans and people around the world.

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