Today’s problems demand Eleanor Roosevelt’s solutions

By Mary Jo Binker 

November 15, 2019

In this Oct. 18, 1944, photo, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, left, buys a $100 war bond from Venus Ramey of Washington, D.C., crowned winner of the 1944 Miss America pageant, at the White House. (Herbert White/AP)

The 2020 election is just a year away, and the list of issues facing Americans is both lengthy and daunting: possible presidential impeachment, income inequality, immigration, global warming, increasingly invasive technology and crumbling infrastructure, just to name a few. Trying to build consensus to address any, let alone all, of these issues seems daunting, if not impossible, given the fears that surround our options and cloud our thinking. Fear may in fact be the greatest challenge we face.

That was the philosophy of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of America’s most significant first ladies. She, too, knew what it was like to live in trying times. Whether American democracy would survive the Great Depression, World War II, the McCarthyite Red Scare or the Cold War were real questions for her. She could not be sure of the outcome.

However, Roosevelt firmly believed that fear was a dangerous response to a world in constant turmoil. It robbed individuals and societies of their ability to speak out and act. It was the reason nations stockpiled armaments and closed their borders. Above all, fear destroyed the possibility of constructive action. “People who ‘view with alarm,’ ” she wrote at the end of her life, “never build anything.” Instead of giving into fear, Roosevelt pioneered a four-step process of citizen action that we can use today to combat contemporary problems.

Roosevelt’s process started with…

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Roosevelt, Churchill And The Creation Of The United Nations

By: David Carlin

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945, left) with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) at the White House, Washington DC, December 1941. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) GETTY IMAGES

Today opens the 74th UN General Assembly. For many New Yorkers, mentioning the General Assembly evokes images of a Manhattan traffic apocalypse. Traffic notwithstanding, the United Nations reflects the remarkable vision of two great leaders: Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.  

It was December 1941. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, America had entered WWII and immediately experienced a series of setbacks in the Pacific. The war in Europe and Africa was going nearly poorly too. Nazi troops were on the outskirts of Moscow and British forces faced losses in Libya. Amid this gloom, Churchill arrived at the White House. He and Roosevelt met extensivelyon the military situation and Anglo-American cooperation. Several months prior, the two had issued the Atlantic Charter. When the war’s outcome remained uncertain, this landmark document dared to imagine a free and peaceful future. The charter asserted the rights of self-government as well as economic and social freedom for all. It also laid the groundwork for international collaboration on a variety of topics from trade to defense.

Now, Churchill and Roosevelt sought to formalize their war aims and clarify the relationship between the numerous allied nations. Yet, they struggled to find a suitable name for their coalition. The name came to the president in a flash of inspiration. He raced to Churchill’s bedroom and announced: “the United Nations!” Roosevelt quickly realized that his guest was stark naked and begged his pardon. Churchill allegedly replied: “the prime minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the president of the United States!”

Tall tale or not, both men were unswervingly committed to building a better world from the ashes of WWII. On New Year’s Day 1942, Roosevelt and Churchill…

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Jean Edward Smith, biographer who reassessed presidential reputations, dies at 86

September 14, 2019 at 8:55 p.m. EDT

Jean Edward Smith. (Christine Smith)

Jean Edward Smith, a scholar who was one of the most admired biographers of his time, the author of smoothly written accounts of several presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, that became prizewinning bestsellers, died Sept. 1 at his home in Huntington, W.Va. He was 86.

He had complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Christine Smith.

Dr. Smith, a Washington-born political scientist who spent seven years as an Army officer, was a faculty member at the University of Toronto for many years and later taught at Marshall University in West Virginia. His first books were on German politics, but beginning in the 1990s, he became a prolific chronicler of the lives of major figures in U.S. history, and was praised by historians and everyday readers alike.

In 2012, Columbia University historian Henry F. Graff called Dr. Smith “indubitably America’s most distinguished biographer.”

His 2001 study of Grant, the Civil War general who later served two terms as president, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and helped raise scholars’ estimation of Grant’s effectiveness as president.

Grant was a failure in business — “He was too…

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War Comes to Warsaw: September 1939


Staff members drape a large American flag over the roof of the embassy in Warsaw in anticipation of German air attacks. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum / Julien Bryan Archive

U.S. Consulate General Warsaw on Sept. 1, 1939. U.S. Library of Congress

Warsaw, Sept. 1, 1939, 5:30 a.m. The shriek of air raid sirens awakens Ambassador Anthony “Tony” J. Drexel Biddle Jr. Troubled by heightened German-Polish tensions, Adolf Hitler’s demands for territorial rectifications and the recent mobilization of the Polish Army, Biddle calls the duty officer at the Polish Foreign Ministry.

Is this an attack? The answer: Yes, there are numerous reports of German incursions onto Polish soil. Electing to telephone rather than cable flash news, Biddle manages to reach Ambassador William C. Bullitt in Paris. Bullitt, in turn, places a trans-Atlantic call.

2:55 a.m., Washington time. A sleeping President Franklin Roosevelt awakens to Bullitt’s call. After weeks of tension, a war of nerves is now a shooting war. The president alerts Secretary of State Cordell Hull and other senior officials. In the pre-dawn hours, lights suddenly begin to burn at the State Department. Twenty years after the peace settlement of Versailles, Europe again plunges into general war.

The German attack does not catch Ambassador Biddle or the department entirely by surprise. In March 1939 the department had…

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How Franklin Roosevelt learned of the start of the Second World War

In the early morning hours of September 1, 1939, President Roosevelt was awakened in his bedroom at the White House by a telephone call from his Ambassador in Paris, William C. Bullitt, who advised the President that Germany had invaded Poland and that several Polish cities were being bombed. Roosevelt understood immediately that this meant a larger war, for Great Britain and France had pledged to come to Poland’s defense if Germany attacked. World War II had begun. The President wrote this unique “bedside note” documenting for posterity how and when he had received the news of the outbreak of World War II.


“The President received word at 2:50 am, by telephone by Ambass. Biddle through Ambass. Bullitt that Germany has invaded Poland and that several cities are being bombed. The President directed that all Navy ships and Army commands be notified by radio at once. In bed 3:05 am, September 1, 1939. FDR”

On September 3, FDR went on national radio to speak to the American people about the crisis in Europe. “This nation will remain a neutral nation,” he declared, “but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well. . . . Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or his conscience.”

In the crucial months that followed, the President would demonstrate that his sympathies lay with the victims of Axis aggression. Yet America’s isolationist mood limited FDR’s freedom to act. In particular, the country’s Neutrality Acts prohibited the sale of American weapons to warring nations.

Complied by Cynthia M. Koch, August 29, 2019

Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, “Found in the Archives, FDR’s Bedside Note, and the special exhibition, “Freedom From Fear: FDR, Commander in Chief,” September 2, 2005- November 5, 2006 (compiler’s files).

No Refuge

In April 1933, at the beginning of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term, Undersecretary of State William Phillips called Labor Secretary Frances Perkins on the phone, expecting to tell her how immigration policy would work in the new administration. Philips “was almost blown off his end of the telephone.” Perkins told him “in no uncertain terms” that accepting immigrants whose lives were in danger was an American tradition and that “it was up to her department, not the State Department, to decide whether such admission would adversely affect the economic conditions or entail a fight with the AFL [American Federation of Labor].”1

a black and white photo of a middle-aged white womanAs the first woman cabinet secretary and longest-serving Labor Secretary in American history, Perkins is best remembered as a key architect of the New Deal and Social Security. A lesser-known component of her tenure is her role in U.S. immigration policy, which was largely under her department’s control in the 1930s. From her volunteer work in a Chicago settlement house to her work on industrial safety in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, immigration issues had always been a part of Perkins’ labor activism. In many ways, if you were looking to flee Europe in the 1930s, she may have seemed like the ideal cabinet secretary to oversee immigration to the United States. Yet when she joined the cabinet, the United States did not even have an official definition of refugee, let alone a coherent policy for managing their petitions for entrance to the country.2

Understanding the story of Perkins’ attempt to carve a welcoming refugee policy out of scraps of existing law, from her phone call with Phillips to the complete transfer of INS out of her control in 1940, requires us to follow a series of bureaucratic maneuvers between and among cabinet departments.3 But these maneuvers—and the smaller battles over bureaucratic turf that both precipitated and followed them—were part of fighting a greater war for the spirit and implementation of the nation’s immigration policy. Would the United States cling to its legally-codified hostility towards immigrants—even refugees—or would it open its doors to those fleeing persecution and violence? Perkins’ struggle to open those doors in the 1930s shows us how a culture war can be fought through, and consciously disguised by, bureaucratic battles over policy and implementation.

Barely a month before FDR’s inauguration on March 4, 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Americans had followed Hitler’s rise to power in the news, and now they followed the deteriorating status of Jewish Germans. In March 1933, Nazis smashed windows of Jewish stores, broke streetcars, and assaulted Jewish passersby. The following month, they boycotted Jewish businesses. In mid-April, FDR’s Cabinet convened to discuss a sudden surge in applications for immigration visas from Jewish Germans.4

At this time, immigration to the U.S. was guided by…

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