Prologue: The South Pacific, 1943
J. William T. Youngs, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Personal and Public Life
J. William T. Youngs, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Personal and Public Life
FROM THE WINDOW of an Army transport plane Eleanor Roosevelt gazed down at the blue waters of the South Pacific. In the vast ocean the occasional islands seemed so remote that she "wondered how our planes found them or that the waves did not wash them away." The very names of the islands suggested something distant and exotic: Bora Bora, Tutuila, Samoa, fiji, New Caledonia, Espiritu Santo, Guadalcanal. Until recently these specks of land had been some of the most peaceful places on the globe, the subject of romantic tales by Stevenson, Melville, and London. Eleanor Roosevelt came to the South Pacific, however, not to find peace, but to study war. Her trip would cost her dearly in mind and body, stripping thirty pounds off her graceful frame and leaving her so tired that friends would worry about her health.
For the past two years the South Pacific had been a huge war zone. Fleets of battleships, carriers, and destroyers maneuvered across the waters and fought one another fit places like Midway and the Coral Sea. Swarms of planes screamed over the islands, blasting naval bases. And on some islands, occupied by both armies, gunfire sounded in the tropical air, and men died horribly on beaches and in jungles.
Eleanor Roosevelt had already seen the results of this carnage during her visits to hospitals on the West Coast, where she walked miles of corridors talking to wounded men. War was no abstraction to her; it was as palpable as a medical report on the men she saw in a San Francisco hospital: "Fractured skull, fractured vertebra Severe avulsed wound, left leg .... Amputation, left leg Gunshot wound, face. Ruptured eye, right .... Multiple machine-gun bullet wounds, legs and arms." Each wound touched her as if her own child had been injured.
Eleanor's four sons were in the armed forces, and she had felt as they left that she "might be saying goodbye for the last time." Her son Franklin was wounded when his ship was bombed in the Mediterranean. His injury was slight, but at any moment Eleanor might learn that one of her boys had been killed. "Life had to go on," she later wrote, "and you had to do what was required of you, but something inside of you quietly died." She knew that millions of other American mothers were "going through the same slow death," and she was angry. She could not accept war as a necessary element in human affairs. It was wrong, and she must publicize the wrongness of it. She was determined, she said, "to prevent a repetition of this stupidity called war."
And so she went to the South Pacific in 1943. The First Lady had a number of "practical" reasons to tour the region. She planned to visit Australia and New Zealand, where her presence would symbolize the wartime alliance between those countries and the United States. She intended to visit women's groups in both places to see how they were contributing to the war effort. And as an official representative of the Red Cross she would report back to its chairman, Norman Davis, on conditions in the South Pacific. But above all Eleanor felt that in order to oppose'" war, she must know war. She could not, of course, enter a battle zone while the bullets were flying, but she was determined to come as close to the fighting as possible.
During her tour of the South Pacific she would travel 23,000 miles, spending more than a hundred hours aloft in a four-engine Liberator bomber equipped as a transport, and visiting Australia, New Zealand, and seventeen smaller islands. Eleanor traveled in spartan simplicity in planes crowded with soldiers. When island natives bedecked her with floral wreaths, she passed them on to the enlisted men. Like the other passengers, she carried only forty four pounds of luggage, and because some of her allotment went for the typewriter on which she wrote her newspaper column, "My Day," her wardrobe was plain. She wore a crisp blue-gray Red Cross jacket and skirt over a white blouse, a "uniform" that symbolized well the austerity of a world at war.
Eleanor was fifty-nine in 1943. She had been First Lady of the United States for a full decade - longer than any woman before her - and had attained a reputation as a uniquely energetic woman. She had given more teas, shaken more hands, written more articles, delivered more addresses, and held more press conferences than any other First Lady. She was virtually an assistant President, traveling around the country and the world on Franklin Roosevelt's behalf, proposing legislation to him and to his advisers, and publicizing programs she favored. She was known as a friend of the poor and the oppressed: one of the most popular magazine cartoons of the 1930s showed her deep in a coal mine; "Oh, my God," says a miner, "it's Mrs. Roosevelt!"
Eleanor Roosevelt's personality was never revealed more dramatically than during her South Pacific tour of 1943. There was, first, her public persona: the impression she created on people she met. She was a master politician – charming journalists, soldiers, legislators, housewives, farmers, and factory workers with her grace and capturing their imaginations with her vision of a better world. Beneath the surface of this public performance - always serene and orderly - was the private Eleanor Roosevelt, more vulnerable than the public figure. While the First Lady met generals and prime ministers and delivered public addresses, the more reclusive Eleanor was profoundly troubled by the brutal inhumanity of war. Her anxiety was deepened by the presence of one of her best friends, a young sergeant named Joseph Lash, in the war zone, on the island of Guadalcanal. Eleanor's affection for Lash had begun five years before when he was a leader of the American Youth Congress and Eleanor was looking for ways to help the nation's young people. They had become political collaborators, friends, intimates. When he was shipped overseas, she wrote him, "All that I have is yours always, my love, devotion and complete trust follow you."
The First Lady's famous warmth owed much to her communion with men like Lash. She could project herself compellingly to humankind en masse: to blacks, Jews, the poor, the oppressed; she could shake a hundred hands in a receiving line and seem interested in everyone she met; she could sign and send a hundred letters a day. But in order to deal with the generalities she needed particularities. She understood the suffering of millions of American blacks because she knew a few blacks well. She understood the plight of unemployed coal miners because she visited and revisited one mining community. And above all she understood people because she had come to love a few people as much as life itself. Joseph Lash, a weatherman on Guadalcanal, was one of those friends.
Christmas Island was one of the first places to receive the First Lady. The Liberator dropped out of the sky, taxied along the runway, and came to a halt before a small cluster of buildings. A man fixed a short ladder to the passenger door at the rear of the aircraft, and Eleanor Roosevelt stepped onto the tarmac. On such islands men often felt that their country had forgotten them, caring only about the big battles in Europe and Africa. Simply by her presence the First Lady gave the men a sense of importance. But more than that, an island journalist reported, she "soon won the admiration and eternal friendship of every man she contacted."
Mrs. Roosevelt attended a base movie, "a Betty Grable epic," and visited every comer of the island, . .seeing the radio station, newspaper offices, the mess tent, and the camp laundry. She chatted with wounded men in hospital tents and "signed autographs by the thousands." How did Broadway look, some of the men wondered, and she described for them "the Great White Way" with the lights covered for wartime defense. The men who put together a report on the visit for the soldier's Pacific Times were struck by two seemingly contradictory qualities in the First Lady.
She was an aristocrat, a "gracious lady," and yet she was warm and approachable. "She reminded one more of some boy's mother back home," wrote Corporal Terry Flanagan, "than the wife of the President of the United States - and we all loved it."
The First Lady went from Christmas Island to New Zealand and Australia, where she planned to visit American hospitals and to see factories and farms where women had taken over men's jobs because of the war. In New Zealand, according to her secretary George Durno, she took the country "by storm." She was equally successful in Australia. Thousands of people flocked to Canberra to hear her speak, renting every available room in and near the city and camping in tents and cars. In Melbourne 3,000 people came to the town hall to hear her, and another 10,000 gathered on the streets outside. In Sydney people climbed telephone poles, awnings, and car roofs to watch her go by, and 20,000 gathered for her speech. A reporter who followed her around Canberra collecting people's reactions heard her described, in the Australian dialect, as a "corker," a "beaut," a "real aristocrat," and "all wool and a yard wide."
They came to see Eleanor Roosevelt in part because she was the wife of a famous American and in part because she represented an important wartime ally. But they also came because she had attained an international reputation in her own right. The Auckland Star described her as a woman dedicated to "the quest for a better way of life, not only for her own people of the United States, but for all the peoples of the world." Eleanor Roosevelt's name "carries its own title," the Star asserted: "There is no better known woman in all the world . . . and that includes all the most glamorous film actresses."
The journalists Down Under were accustomed to notable visitors who had little time for reporters. But Eleanor always made time. At airports she would pose until the photographers were satisfied. In press conferences she established a friendly, informal tone. She met with forty reporters in Canberra; they expected to be kept at a respectful distance, but she invited them to sit nearby. "As she sat on a rose brocade settee," a journalist wrote, "with a large bowl of white blossoms in the background, and the press representatives on the floor at her feet, she looked just like most people's dream aunt - understanding, good-natured, yet worldly wise." Mrs. Roosevelt's topics ranged from family life to foreign affairs. She replied to the hardest questions "with a gunshot quickness, and a clarity that showed a thorough grasp of what she was discussing." What did she think of the Soviet Union, she was asked. This was a hard question. She must not appear too pro-Soviet, for Russia was a Communist country, but she could not be anti-Russian, either, because Russia was fighting against Germany. She placed the question in a personal context: she would "love" to have Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin visit the White House.
Several reporters tried to capture Eleanor Roosevelt's physical presence. "She was completely charming to look at," wrote one. "Her blue eyes were always alight with interest; her fair skin was pale but clear, and framed by soft, silver hair worn in a small bun." Sometimes she leaned forward with her elbows on her knees as if she were talking to a class of students. Her "beautiful hands, long and slim and brown" were wonderfully expressive. Her speech was soft and her enunciation clear; she emphasized certain words, particularly at the ends of sentences. She seemed completely relaxed.
Many of the reporters who listened to Eleanor Roosevelt were struck by a quality they had difficulty in describing. Sometimes they resorted to hyperbole: she was "a very great woman," a "great and gracious person," and America's "Public Energy No. 1." Or they tried to describe some fundamental attribute: one reporter admired "her alert, lively independent mind, her quick sympathy for ordinary people, . . . her inexhaustible curiosity about the world." Several journalists remarked that in spite of her many activities she remained preeminently "feminine" and "motherly." Above all she was natural: she was "a confident woman who appears completely oblivious of her own terrific personality." She carried herself with a dignity that was "so constant and effortless that you feel it would still be there if she stood on her head."
During her tour of Australia the First Lady could do no wrong. She met with the Prime Minister and Members of Parliament, and she visited farms, hospitals, and factories. She held a koala bear in Sydney's Taronga Park Zoo and delivered speeches on the postwar world. Her temporary secretary, George Durno, was staggered by her energy. Durno wrote Malvina Thompson, Mrs. Roosevelt's secretary in Washington, "Mrs. R. keeps telling people Down Under about that secretary of hers who has been with her for twenty-odd years. I don't believe it. Long before twenty years anyone in that job would have to be in an insane asylum." He told her, "when this tour is over, I am going to return to one of the convalescent officers' retreats we have visited and catch my breath."
Despite her great success, however, Eleanor was strangely restless in Australia. One reporter discerned tension beneath the placid exterior. "Her hands gave her away ... " the journalist wrote. "One of them is nearly always in the air, but when it isn't, she clasps them nervously, rubs them together, moves a finger or thumb of one hand around the palm of the other." Eleanor felt oppressed by the continual "pomp and ceremony"; she did not enjoy being on display. The world was at war. Only a few hundred miles off the coast of Australia men were locked in deadly combat. Her friend, Joseph Lash, was among them. She could not be content to bask in public adulation while they were fighting.
She must have felt better when she was delivering speeches. An idealist, she sought to move people with her concept of global justice. In a radio address in New Zealand she declared, we "want a world which is peaceful because people have enough to eat, shelter for themselves and their families, enough clothes to wear, and above all, work to do which will pay a decent living wage. We want a world which is peaceful because all people have hope hope that they can grow and build increasingly for themselves the kind oflife of which they dream." In a better world women would achieve equality with men. When Eleanor saw women at work in factories, replacing men who were at war, she used the opportunity to speak on behalf of women's rights. In Sydney she declared, "Perhaps here is the germ of an idea that in the postwar period women will be encouraged to participate in all activities of citizenship."
Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to believe that men were fighting at this very moment in the South Pacific for a more just world. But even in Australia the war seemed remote. She longed to be nearer to the actual front, and was deeply moved when she met men going to the battlefields. In the north of Australia outside Townsville she encountered men in combat dress heading down a dusty road for a disembarkation point; they were on their way to the bloody fighting in New Guinea. Eleanor walked down the line wishing the men good luck, her voice quavering with emotion. The First Lady wanted to visit New Guinea, but General Douglas MacArthur would have no woman, even the President's wife, in his war zone. It looked as if Eleanor would be denied the chance to see the actual battlefields.
But then word came that Admiral Halsey had approved her visit to Guadalcanal, which had seen some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, and which was still being bombed almost daily by Japanese aircraft. The First Lady arrived in the early morning and breakfasted with General Nathan Twining. Eleanor told the general that she wanted to see a Sergeant Lash, and soon the soldier and the First Lady met, upsetting military protocol with a warm embrace. Joseph Lash accompanied Eleanor as her driver during much of her island tour.
Guadalcanal was a large island, some two thousand square miles in area, where only a year earlier the Americans had launched their first major offensive against the Japanese. During six months of fighting in the jungles that covered the island the two sides suffered more than 25,000 casualties. The Japanese had withdrawn from the island, but they still attacked daily from the air.
After breakfast the First Lady began a grueling visit to the island hospitals. In the past few weeks she had talked to thousands of soldiers. And yet she retained an ability to treat each new patient as if he were the first wounded man she had seen. One reporter who had watched her meeting people wrote, "Every time she grasps a new hand her face lights up with a resolute effort to feel sincere, not to leave this a mere empty gesture. She tries to feel a genuine impulse of friendship towards the person she is greeting. "
Eleanor Roosevelt had a feeling for the needs of the soldiers. "One boy told me his wife is expecting a baby in November," she later wrote, "and you could see longing in his eyes. Another one said, 'I am just going to get married and I wrote my girl that I want her dressed in frills and chiffon when I get home. " Most of the men she met had longings like these. At each bedside Mrs. Roosevelt paused and talked. A tough officer who had been assigned to accompany her against his will was soon won over by her manner. He reported: "When she chatted with the men, she said things mothers say, little things men never think of and couldn't put into words if they did. Her voice was like a mother's too. "
In public Eleanor was unfailingly cheerful, but she realized that many of the men she saw would never again see their homes. "Hospitals and cemeteries are closely tied together in my head on this trip," she wrote, "and I thought of them even when I talked to the boys who were well and strong and in training, ready to go wherever they had to go to win the war." Eleanor had been seeking the meaning of the war, trying to find some place that might evoke for her the fundamental message in the whole sordid business.
She came finally to a chapel and a graveyard on Guadalcanal that touched her more than any place before. The chapel had been built of wood by the natives and given to the Americans. Its steep, thatch roof sloped almost to the ground. A thatch-covered cupola rose above and was topped by a cross. Eleanor reported that the local residents "even made the altar and the altar vessels, carving them beautifully, decorating the church with symbols which have special meanings for them - fishes of various kinds which mean long life, eternity, etc."
Outside in the cemetery wooden crosses marked the graves of men killed in the fighting on Guadalcanal. Perhaps the simplicity of the markers most affected Eleanor. Mess kits and sometimes helmets hung on the crosses, and at the base of each marker friends had carved their prosaic tributes: "He was a grand guy" or "Best friend ever." That was all, but here was war reduced to its plainest, the destruction of a young man, a great guy, a friend. In her diary Eleanor wrote, "I said a prayer in my heart for the growth of the human spirit so that we might do away with force in settling disputes in the future."
That evening the First Lady sat on a screened porch talking with Joseph Lash. They discussed the war and their friends back home. Eleanor was helping Trude Pratt, the woman Lash would marry, decorate their apartment. Relieved to be with such a good friend after a month among strangers, Eleanor may have let him see the fatigue that she tried to hide from others. He wrote Trude telling her he had seen "a very tired Mrs. Roosevelt, agonized by the men she had seen in the hospitals, fiercely determined because of them to be relentless in working for a peace that this time will last. "
Few people realized that Eleanor was "agonized" by her contact with wounded men or that she lost thirty pounds under the strain of her tour to the South Pacific. Many politicians had made similar trips without being deeply affected. But it was precisely because she was profoundly moved when she met a soldier who longed to see his sweetheart in "frills md chiffon" or saw a grave marker for the "best friend ever" or embraced a sergeant whom she knew back home - it was, in short, because she knew the war through personal contact that she was able to project a sympathy that came, quite literally, from the heart.
Eleanor left Guadalcanal and began the long trip back to the United States. Most of the area commanders in the South Pacific had been apprehensive about her visit, anticipating that they would waste time entertaining the First Lady. By now it was apparent that she had worked wonders. Admiral Nimitz's flag officers came in from their various posts "singing her praises and reporting on the beneficial effect she had had on the morale of the men." In the South Pacific she acquired almost legendary status. The actress Una Merkel, touring the area shortly afterward, heard about a boy whose stomach had been all but destroyed. He was kept alive by blood plasma and tubular feedings and had lost the will to live, but he began to recover after Eleanor, like a mother, kissed him.
A few weeks later a well-rested Eleanor Roosevelt received a guest at the White House, a reporter named Ernie Pyle, who was the best-known journalist covering the war. Pyle had been in London during the great firebombing of 1940, and he spent the early part of 1943 with the U.S. infantry covering the fighting in North Africa and Sicily. Like the First Lady he instinctively appreciated the sacrifice of the common soldier, and his articles sang their praises.
But despite his breadth of experience, he was overawed at the idea of meeting Eleanor Roosevelt. He had only an old jacket to wear because he had just returned from the front. Somewhat shyly he greeted the First Lady, and sat down to tea. The only other person in the room was the First Lady's secretary. Eleanor immediately made Pyle feel at ease, asking him with interest about the soldiers in Europe and telling him about her own observations in the South Pacific. He found in her a person who cared as much as he did for the common soldier. At last he felt that he should leave. Outside he walked across Lafayette Park, opposite the White House. The air was chilly in the late afternoon, and Pyle felt "as light as a feather. "
Eleanor Roosevelt affected people that way. For the wounded soldier and the battle-hardened journalist, and for the thousands of other men and women who met her and the millions who heard her speak or read her articles, she seemed an unfailing source of courage and inspiration. She was virtually an American saint, able to move with a grace that seemed otherworldly and to heal a dying soldier with a kiss. Her achievements as First Lady seemed so effortless that it is difficult to imagine the anxieties that followed her through life or to see her as anyone other than the legendary figure of her mature years. Could she have been a child who cried when she fell, a painfully shy adolescent, a bride who doubted her husband's affection, and a mother troubled by her failure as a parent?
Surely these youthful worries were only masks that hid the real Eleanor Roosevelt. Beneath all these guises must have been the incipient adult: self-assured, invulnerable. But for Eleanor the worlds of the 1880s and the 1910s were as real as the world of the 1940s. They were different worlds, and she was a different person. There was nothing inevitable about her later triumphs. And yet both the suffering and the achievements of her early years made possible the person whom many regard as the greatest American woman of the twentieth century.