Eleanor Roosevelt, The United Nations as a Bridge, 1954

Eleanor Roosevelt

First Lady of the United States (1933–45) and Diplomat

Eleanor Roosevelt’s outspoken public career continued long after the death of her husband, the thirty-second president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. As first lady, Roosevelt redefined the terms of this role as an active and influential position of leadership. She spoke out publicly against racial discrimination and human rights violations, and she often gave speeches in her husband’s place. In 1945, the year of Franklin’s death, President Harry Truman appointed her a representative on the United States’ first delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, a role in which she served until 1952. Two years later, she was elected the first chair of the UN’s newly formed Human Rights Commission, where she shepherded to completion a landmark document: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Introducing the Declaration before the UN in 1948, Roosevelt said that she hoped it might come to be seen, like the British Magna Carta or the American Bill of Rights, as a guiding source of moral authority. In many ways her hopes have been borne out: the Declaration has been translated into over 500 languages and has influenced the drafting of countless laws. In Roosevelt’s time, however, it was still a hopeful and untested experiment, like the fledgling UN as a whole. In 1954, she addressed some of the public frustration with the UN before an audience at Brandeis University, in Massachusetts. At the height of McCarthyism and fears about the Soviet Union, Roosevelt reminded her listeners that progress is incremental and ‘talk can have great value; you have to think of it as a bridge’. Think of the UN’s General Assembly, she said, ‘as a place where bridges are built between peoples’.

The United Nations as a Bridge 1954

We in the United States are an impatient people. We want to see results tomorrow. I am not sure sometimes that it isn’t the people who can outwait the other people, who have the advantage. Frequently, moving too fast can set you back.

People are meeting in the United Nations that come from backgrounds where there have been certain customs and habits for generations. Some people grow impatient of these. We might think occasionally that other people find their way the best, and not our way. There are things we can learn from other people. You must have as a basis to all understanding, the willingness to learn and the willingness to listen.

… When we look upon the failures in the United Nations, we should not be disheartened, because if we take the failure and learn, eventually we will use this machinery better and better. We will also learn one important thing, and that is, no machinery works unless people make it work.

And in a democracy like ours, it is the people who have to tell their representatives what they want them to do. And it is the acceptance of individual responsibility by each one of us that actually will make the United Nations machinery work. If we don’t accept that, and if we don’t do the job, we may well fail—but it lies in our hands. And I think that is the main thing for us to remember today.

We are the strongest nation in the world. We, whether we like it or not, are the leaders. And we lead not only in military and economic strength, but we lead in knowing what are our values, what are the things we believe in, and in being willing to live up to them, and being willing to accept the fact that living up to them here, we help ourselves, but we also help the world.