Eleanor Roosevelt to Harry Truman

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Eleanor Roosevelt to Harry Truman

14 May 1945 [Hyde Park]

Dear Mr. President:

I was very much touched to have you take the trouble to write me that long letter in longhand about the Russian situation. Please, if you write again, do have it typed because I feel guilty to take any of your time.

I am typing this because I know my husband always preferred to have things typed so he could read them more quickly and my handwriting is anything but legible.

Your experience with Mr. Churchill is not at all surprising. He is suspicious of the Russians and they know it. If you will remember, he said some pretty rough things about them years ago and they do not forget.11

Of course, we will have to be patient, and any lasting peace will have to have the Three Great Powers behind it. I think, however, if you can get on a personal basis with Mr. Churchill, you will find it easier. If you talk to him about books and let him quote to you from his marvelous memory everything on earth from Barbara Fritche to the Nonsense Rhymes and Greek tragedy, you will find him easier to deal with on political subjects.12 He is a gentleman to whom the personal element means a great deal.

Mr. Churchill does not have the same kind of sense of humor that the Russians have. In some ways the Russians are more like us. They enjoy a practical joke, rough-house play and they will joke about things which Mr. Churchill thinks are sacred. He takes them dead seriously and argues about them when what he ought to do is to laugh. That was where Franklin usually won out because if you know where to laugh and when to look upon things as too absurd to take seriously, the other person is ashamed to carry through even if he was serious about it.

You are quite right in believing that the Russians will watch with great care to see how we keep our commitments.

A rumor has reached me that that message from Mr. Stalin to you was really received in plenty of time to have changed the hour but it was held back from you.13 Those little things were done to my husband now and then. I tell you of this rumor simply because while you may have known about it and decided that it was wise just not to receive it in time, you told me in your letter that you did not receive it and I have known of things which just did not reach my husband in time. That is one of the things which your Military and Naval aides ought to watch very carefully.

Sometime when you have time, since my son, Elliott, is in Washington now and then, you might like to let him tell you about what he learned of the Russians when he was there. He was in Russia quite a good deal and helped establish our airforce there and he has an old friend who is the only American who has flown with the Russians from the very beginning. Elliott gets on well with them and understands the peculiar combination that can look upon human life rather cheaply at times and yet strive for an ideal of future well-being for the people and make the people believe in it. He has an understanding of their enjoyment of drama and music and the arts in general and he realizes what few people seem to understand—namely that when you telescope into a few years a development in civilization which has taken hundreds of years for the people around you to achieve, the development is very uneven.14

I will, of course, keep confidential anything which comes to me in any letter from you and I will never mention it, and I would not use a private letter in any public way at any time.

I would not presume to write you this letter only you did say you would like me to give you some little personal impressions of these people, gathered from my husband's contacts, before you went to meet them and as I realize that may happen soon, I thought perhaps you would like this letter now.

If you or any of your family ever feel like getting away from formality and spending a few days with me in this very simple cottage, I should love to have you and I am quite accustomed to the necessary Secret Service protection.

With much gratitude for the trouble which you took, and with my kind regards to Mrs. Truman and your daughter, believe me,

                                     Very cordially yours, Eleanor Roosevelt


1. ER to HST, 8 May 1945, PPF, HSTL.

2. MD, 10 May 1945.

3. In her column of May 10, 1945, ER wrote that although she had listened to most of the coverage during the day, she still wondered "why the Russians withheld their announcement of the end of the war until 6 in the evening. In any case, now it has been announced by the Big Three and there must be great rejoicing in Russia, which has suffered so much."

4. As Truman recorded in his memoirs, although Herschel V. Johnson, the American minister to Sweden, had relayed Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler's proposal to the White House, when Prime Minister Churchill phoned Truman to discuss it, the president had not yet seen the offer, only "a short message saying that there was such a message in existence" and that he had "no other information except" that which Churchill now relayed. The prime minister then summarized the British ambassador's report on Himmler's request to meet with Count Folke Bernadotte, a nephew of King Gustav V of Sweden, who often traveled to wartime Germany on humanitarian missions as vice-chairman of the Swedish Red Cross. Himmler, after informing Bernadotte that Hitler had suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage that placed Himmler "in a position of full authority," proposed that Bernadotte ask the Swedish government "to make arrangements … for him to meet General Eisenhower in order to capitulate on the whole Western Front." Bernadotte responded that "Himmler could simply order his troops to surrender." When Himmler suggested that Norway and Denmark might also be included in this capitulation, Bernadotte conceded "there might be some point in a meeting because special technical arrangements might have to be made with Eisenhower and de Gaulle if the Germans were to lay down their arms in those two countries." Himmler then made it clear that German troops would only "surrender to either British, American or Swedish troops" and that he hoped "to continue resistance on the Eastern Front at least for a time." Bernadotte replied that such a situation "was hardly possible, in fact, that it would not be acceptable to the Allies" and that Himmler's stance "may mean a lot of unnecessary suffering and loss of human life." The Swedes, however, agreed to pass this message to British and American officials "who were, as far as the Swedish Government were concerned, at complete liberty to transmit it to the Soviet Government" to insure "that the Swedish Government would in no way be, or propose to be, an instrument in promoting any attempt to sow discord between the Allies."

Churchill, assuming Truman had seen Johnson's summary of the meeting, telegraphed the president: "There can be no question that as far as His Majesty's Government is concerned, arranging thus an unconditional surrender simultaneously to the three major powers." Frustrated after waiting two hours for Truman's reply, Churchill then called the president to determine his response to Himmler's proposal, only to learn that Truman had not yet seen his cable. Churchill then told Truman what he had wired Soviet Premier Josef Stalin:

There can be no question as far as state history is concerned about anything else but unconditional surrender simultaneously to the three major powers. We consider Himmler should be told that German folk either as individuals or in units should everywhere surrender themselves to the Allied troops or representatives on the spot. Until this happens, the attack of the Allies upon them on all sides and in all theaters where resistance continues will be prosecuted with the utmost vigor!

Truman concurred and agreed to send his own wire stating:

I am informed by the American Minister to Sweden that Himmler, speaking for the German government in the absence of Hitler due to incapacity, approached the Swedish government with an offer to surrender all the German forces on the western front including Holland, Denmark and Norway. In keeping with our agreement with the British and Soviet governments it is the view of the United States government that the only acceptable terms of surrender are unconditional surrender at all fronts to the Soviet Union, Great Britian and the United States (Truman, vol. 1, 89-94; "Himmler's Offer Sent Via Sweden," NYT, 29 April 1945, 3).

5. On April 25 Truman made an unexpected visit to the Pentagon to meet with Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Acting Secretary of State Joseph C. Grew, and the chiefs of staff of the armed services. The New York Times reported that the meeting took place and "caused excitement in the War Department building and an air of mystery throughout the national capital," but neither the White House nor the Pentagon provided an explanation at the time. When pressed later in the day, Truman's staff tried to characterize the meeting as an inspection of the Pentagon (Bertram D. Hulen, "President Visits Pentagon Offices," NYT, 26 April 1945, 6).

6. As Reichsfuhrer-SS, Himmler directed the Gestapo and the Waffen-SS. In 1943, Hitler also made him minister of the interior. In that position he assumed responsibility for the mass murder of Jews and other populations the Nazis targeted for destruction (OWWTC).

7. On April 28 reporters asked Senator Tom Connally (D-TX), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and vice-chair of the American delegation to the UNCIO, to comment on Truman's prompt dismissal of rumors of German capitulation. The senator contradicted the president and, citing an unnamed, "authoritative" source, announced that he believed Germany would announce its unconditional surrender "momentarily" ("Nazis' End Near," NYT, 29 April 1945, 1).

8. Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz (1891–1980). When Hitler learned of Himmler's attempt to negotiate a peace with the United States and Britain, the Fuhrer replaced Himmler with Doenitz, his second in command. Doenitz succeeded Hitler as German head of state after Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945 (OCAMH, 296; Kershaw, Hitler, 183-84).

9. Field Marshal Alfred Jodl formally surrendered German forces to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe (SHAEF), on May 7, 1945, at Eisenhower's headquarters at Reims, France (OCAMH, 296).

10. Brigadier General Frank Allen, Jr., the public relations officer for SHAEF, accompanied the sixteen wire service reporters selected to observe the "top secret" German surrender. He instructed each correspondent that "this story is off the record until the respective heads of the Allied Governments announce the fact to the world" and "pledge[d] each and every one of you on your honor not to communicate the result of this conference or the fact of its existence until it is released by SHAEF." Edward Kennedy of the Associated Press filed his story on the German surrender before the release time set by SHAEF, thus violating the agreement and prompting a bitter, public debate among the press ("Bitter Controversy Over Ethics," NYT, 9 May 1945, 1).

11. ER's specific reference is unknown, but Churchill had delivered two major addresses widely reported in the United States, attacking the character and ethics of Soviet Russia. In an October 17, 1938, radio broadcast, Churchill compared the Soviets to the Nazis:

like the Communists, the Nazis tolerate no opinion but their own. Like the Communists, they must seek from time to time, and always, mark you, at shorter intervals, a new prize, a new victim. The dictator in all his pride is held in the grip of his party regime. He can go forward; he cannot go back. He must blood his hounds and show them sport or else be destroyed by them … As Byron wrote one hundred years ago, "These pagan things of sabre sway, with fronts of brass and feet of clay."

He continued this theme January 20, 1940, after the Soviets invaded Finland, telling his listeners that only the "magnificent" resistance of Finland to the "Nazi and Bolshevik threats" shows:

what free men can do. There, exposed for all the world to see, is the military incapability of the Red Army and of the Red Air Force. Many illusions about Soviet Russia have been dispelled in these few and fierce weeks of fighting in the Arctic Circle. Every one can see how communism robs the soul of a nation, how it makes it abject and hungry in peace and proves it base and abominable in war.

On January 24, Pravda responded to Churchill's "slanderous allegations against the Soviet Union," arguing that "naturally, Churchill misses no occasion to slander the Soviet Union … But this sounds unconvincing. The English Minister has said too much" ("Text of Address by Winston Churchill Replying to Chancellor Hitler," NYT, 17 October 1938, 5; "Text of Churchill's Speech on War Prospects," NYT, 21 January 1940, 30; "Churchill 'Nervous,' Soviet Press States," NYT, 26 January 1940, 4).

12. ER later described FDR and Churchill's working style in an article published posthumously.

My husband was not given to sitting up late at night after dinner, as a rule, but during Mr. Churchill's visit he stayed up, and I am sure he was deeply interested at all times, for they seemed from the very first not only to have a good understanding of each other but to enjoy each other's company. They both loved history, both loved the navy, and while I think Mr. Churchill had a more catholic interest in literature, they had some particular literary interests in common. For instance, on one occasion I drove down in the car with them to Shangri-La. This was a retreat which had been set up for my husband for weekends in warm weather when he could not go far away. We drove through the town of Frederick, Maryland, and Franklin pointed to a window and said it was the window from which Barbara Fritchie had hung the Union colors. Mr. Churchill then recited the whole of the Barbara Fritchie poem. My husband and I looked at each other, for each of us could have quoted a few lines, but the whole of the Barbara Fritchie poem was quite beyond us! Franklin happened to be fond of Edward Lear's Nonsense Rhymes, and I can remember Mr. Churchill capping every rhyme my husband quoted. How long they could go on, I don't know, but fortunately a turn in the road brought an end to this particular amusement.

John Greenleaf Whittier's popular poem, "Barbara Fritchie" (1864), praises the woman who allegedly defied Confederate troops under Stonewall Jackson as they marched through Frederick, Maryland, by flying the Stars and Stripes from the attic room of her house (Roosevelt, "Churchill at the White House;" Lounsbury, Yale, 163).

13. The source of the rumor that the message had, in fact, arrived in plenty of time, is unknown.

14. ER thought her son, Elliott Roosevelt, who had accompanied FDR to the Atlantic, Casablanca, and Tehran conferences, and who had earned the rank of air force brigadier general for his service in the North African and Mediterranean air campaigns and for photo reconnaissance essential to D-Day planning, could offer valuable observations to the homebound president. Furthermore, Elliott had traveled to Russia twice during the war. In May 1944, he joined Eighth Air Force officers charged with assessing the Soviet airfields the Allied air forces would use in the shuttle bombing of Germany. During his week-long stay, especially during his visit to Poltava field, he "learned to respect the vigor with which [the Soviets] overcame obstacles" and "the forthright way in which the Red Army solved the question of supply and transport." He "carried away the impression that the Russians were almost childishly eager to get along with us, cooperate with us." Truman did as ER suggested and found his meeting with Elliott "very pleasant" and the exchange of "vital information" useful (Elliott Roosevelt, As He Saw It, 217-18; Harry S. Truman to ER, 18 May 1945, AERP).

On the Bretton Woods Accords

ER often used My Day to call her readers to action. As this discussion of the Bretton Woods accords demonstrates, when Congress prepared to debate a proposal ER strongly supported, she used her column to explain the plan to her readers and to encourage them to tell their elected officials how they "feel about this."

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Eleanor Roosevelt to Harry Truman

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Eleanor Roosevelt to Harry Truman