Excerpt from The UN Association–USA: A Little Known History of Advocacy and Action
By Dulcie Leimbach
Eleanor Roosevelt may have been the wife of one of the most popular presidents in the history of the United States, but she pursued her own ambitions in the political arena long before her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was voted first into the governorship in New York and later into the White House.
Roosevelt’s role as first lady has been extensively chronicled, including an autobiography and columns she wrote for magazines and newspapers over decades. She operated from an insatiable need to please, attracting a devoted audience of admirers wherever she traveled. One of her great gifts was her ability to relate to all kinds of people with a joyful ease.
But what is little known about Roosevelt was her volunteer work, from 1953 to her death in 1962, with the American Association of the United Nations, the predecessor organization of the UNA-USA. While acting as an unofficial ambassador for the AAUN, Roosevelt helped to promote not only the UN itself, a beloved cause of hers, but also helped to shape the AAUN into a larger national network of chapters and divisions and enhance its influence in the US and overseas. Drawing on papers and letters from the Clark Eichelberger archives at the New York Public Library, Roosevelt’s role at AAUN solidified her image as an activist and promoter of democratic and international causes…
… When FDR died that April and the Roosevelts had to suddenly vacate Pennsylvania Avenue, Harry Truman, the new president, appointed Eleanor to the US delegation to the United Nations soon after the world body emerged as a reality from negotiations in San Francisco and was meeting at first in London. Truman understood the political gain of having FDR’s widow on his team.
The UN work, it turned out, became a natural continuance of life at the White House for Eleanor, since her tasks as a delegate involved more traveling and meeting foreign dignitaries, negotiating and diplomacy. It also became the most important achievement in her public life – paradoxically won after her husband’s death. Yet as the only American woman delegate at the UN at the time, Roosevelt, at age 62, believed she had to prove herself twice over, despite her years as first lady of the US but lacking a college education…
Eleanor resigned [from the US] delegation in 1952 (in 1961, she rejoined the US mission to the UN as an adviser to the US ambassador, Adlai Stevenson), offering to leave when Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president, aware that a Republican appointee would replace her.
Her departure benefited the AAUN, as she knocked on the organization’s door in New York in 1952. Approaching Clark Eichelberger, the executive director, she declared she was ready to volunteer. Eichelberger almost fell off his chair, he recounted, having no trouble accepting Roosevelt’s offer.
By late December 1952, a memo from [Estelle] Linzer to AAUN staff members said, in part, that “Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt will begin coming into the AAUN office as a volunteer on January fifth. She will be here two days a week, and through the kindness of Eleanor Gardner and Ruth Berridge, will occupy their office. Mrs. Roosevelt will occupy herself with chapter liaison activities.”
She actually arrived on Jan. 10 in the offices, a townhouse at 45 E. 65th Street, next door to the home, it turned out, that her mother-in-law had bought for Eleanor and FDR soon after they were married. Hers was a small office, sparsely furnished, but she said it would “do.” The staff members, once broken of their awe, became used to her habits: being prompt for meetings and appointments, preferring face to face talks rather than on the phone, going into her colleagues’ offices rather than summoning them into hers and gently dismissing overlong visitors by pushing back her chair, standing and extending her hand for a farewell shake.
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