In her exhaustively researched and beautifully written Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: The War Years and After, 1939-1962, the concluding volume of her definitive biography, Blanche Wiesen Cook gives us a sympathetic but very human portrait of this “First Lady of the World.”
Roosevelt’s public life was devoted to persuasion, and she used her many roles as president’s wife, newspaper columnist, author, public speaker, educator, presidential envoy and activist to influence events. In the midst of this work, she had to handle family matters and pursue private interests with many friends, whose rivalries and jealousies are detailed here. She admitted she “would never be any good in politics,” whereas her husband dealt capably with politicians and public opinion, which sometimes meant maneuvering through racial prejudice and anti-Semitism to reach a compromise or just inaction. Though she never overtly opposed FDR’s policies, a close reading of her columns reveals divergences.
Two primary themes of this volume are Roosevelt’s civil rights work for African Americans and her efforts to rescue those fleeing the ravages of World War II in Europe. The depth of her involvement in these two efforts is one of the most compelling aspects of the book. Her sharp differences with her husband on these subjects contributed mightily to an already strained relationship between them. She had a significant influence on some of her husband’s decisions, although it is often difficult to trace. Both were keenly aware that it was politically unacceptable for her to appear to have influenced policy; her husband never publicly acknowledged “her role in his life.” Eleanor said they “argue about everything in the world,” but never tried to influence each other. Each would do, she said, what he or she “considered the right thing.”
She was unanimously elected chair of the United Nations committee that wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was to be “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” Since its passage in 1948, it continues to be the most important U.N. declaration on behalf of basic political freedoms, as well as economic and social rights.
Anyone interested in the life of this towering figure in 20th-century history will want to read this book.