Eleanor Roosevelt to Sabra Holbrook

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Eleanor Roosevelt to Sabra Holbrook

[?] September 1948


I wrote the column to which you refer to make people realize what is happening to our liberties. It seems to me we are strangely unaware of the fact that we are acquiring the pattern of the Soviet. They are succeeding in doing something to us which is quite devastating and I am troubled about it and I think more of us should be aware of it


1. Bert Andrews, "Troubled Man Asks if U.S. Job Invites a Smear," NYHT, 29 August 1948, 1 and 2.

2. See Document 377.

3. Sabra Holbrook to ER, 2 September 1948, AERP For more on the Alger Hiss hearing, see header Document 371 and n10 Document 372.

"The Struggle for Human Rights"

August 13, Truman phoned ER to ask her to travel to Washington August 18 for two hours of meetings on how best to handle "the coming session of the United Nations." "A chore," she confided to Joe Lash, "but not too much for him to ask." She was to meet with Marshall at 11:45 am and the president at 1 pm; however, a malfunctioning aircraft delayed her arrival until 12:40 and she then rushed "horrified" to meet with the secretary. Marshall, she wrote in her column, then spent fifteen minutes and "hurriedly told me of things he wanted to" discuss before ER "rushed" to meet with Truman to hear his expectations "of some of the things that he felt we could do" in Paris.1

Tensions with the Soviet Union ran high at the time as the Soviets blockaded Berlin and Communists led strikes and demonstrations in Italy and France. Dulles, then serving as Dewey's foreign policy advisor and who would soon serve also as Marshall's deputy to the General Assembly, believed that the United States should launch a moral offensive against the USSR. Marshall agreed and urged ER "to give a major address in Paris" that might set the tone for the forthcoming deliberations on security and human rights. Truman told ER "the preservation of peace" was paramount. ER concurred, writing two days later:

If we can't preserve peace, no one in the world whether they be Russian, Polish, German, Italian or French—or from any of the South American continents—will have a chance to make a life of security and happiness in the future.

What a responsibility the President of the United States carries if he really cares about the well being of the average people throughout our own country and in the world as a whole.2

The pressure on ER increased as well. As she admitted to David Gurewitsch, Truman and Marshall:

… are putting considerable responsibility on me in this session. Dulles has suggested that we point out that all our troubles are rooted in a disregard for the rights and freedoms of the individual and go after the U.S.S.R, not, thank heavens, claiming perfection but saying that under our system we are trying to achieve those rights and succeeding better than most. They want me to make an opening speech to set this keynote outside the Assembly and I am trying to plan it now.3

Immediately after leaving Washington, ER wrote René Cassin, the French delegate on the Human Rights Commission, to see if he was "still anxious to have me make an address on Human Rights in Paris. If so, I wonder if it could be arranged for the opening night of the Assembly." She was "fairly sure" she would have no meetings that night and she "would like to make this address before the really hard work" began. She hoped to know "ahead so I can prepare my speech on the way over." She told Sandifer and Simsarian of her overture to Cassin when the two advisors traveled to New York the following week to brief her on "the problems of Committee III and the broad outline of the Assembly agenda." Sandifer then said he would get the US embassy in Paris to contact the French Foreign Office so it might "inform Professor Cassin of the significance of the speech so that all precautions would be taken to prevent any kind of slip up."4

The State Department had begun preparing an outline of the speech as soon as ER completed her meetings with Marshall and Truman. As Rusk wrote Marshall, "We shall offer Mrs. Roosevelt all possible help and will have a number of opportunities to comment prior to her final draft." Rusk then prepared a detailed outline of points ER should address for Marshall's review. The secretary approved the proposal, but thought "more prominence should be given [by] more crystal clear wording, to the fact that the denial of certain human liberties is the key to the police state techniques and the heart of our present difficulties." Sandifer and Simsarian then presented ER with the outline during their briefing session in New York; however, ER responded that she "plan[ned] to draft her own speech" and hoped "to have it ready the following week so that it can be released in advance to the press in both English and in French." Two days later, Marshall wrote "to thank you for your willingness to make the Sorbonne speech to the purpose we desire. I cannot think of a better, more potent approach to that particular problem."5

ER worked closely with the State Department, but she drafted the speech herself and had the final word on the text. She covered the points in Rusk's outline in her draft and in many cases borrowed or adapted the original wording. However, she fleshed it out considerably and, in doing so, added her own perspective. For example, she expressed more sympathy for the Russian people (see note 17) and referred to the shortcomings of the United States in the area of racial discrimination more candidly (see note 19) than the State Department desired. After ER forwarded her draft to the State Department, Sandifer returned the speech with suggested revisions, which the department hoped she would incorporate. Some of these she adopted; some she did not (see notes 14 and 15). Marshall accepted her edits, instructing Sandifer "to express his satisfaction with the general effect of the speech," his sense that her speech "should accomplish the objectives we have in view," and his thanks for her "patient consideration" of the department's "numerous suggestions."6

Twenty-five hundred people packed the ornate, circular Sorbonne auditorium the evening of September 28. Marshall, who would follow the speech from an English transcript, sat on the front row, facing ER. As John Humphrey recorded in his diary, "The great amphitheatre was packed with an enthusiastic audience which gave her a reception the likes of which I have never seen before." ER admitted to feeling "nervous and apprehensive"; "there is," however, "something in the atmosphere of an old building like that and its beautiful hall that has an invigorating effect on speakers. Of course, the French language lends itself to oratory, and long before I spoke I was lost in admiration of the way this language provides words to say things that one would find difficult to say in almost any other language."7

Paul Ramadier, the French minister of defense, presided. Cassin delivered an "impassioned introduction." Sandifer reported to his wife that "looking completely unruffled and with her best smile," ER then "rose to a roar of applause" to deliver her remarks in French. "She did a perfect job," Sandifer thought.

The audience seemed to follow every word and was quite responsive, applauding ten or twelve times. She extemporized at the beginning and Dorothy [Fosdick] said it was just right. Once she got a big laugh when she interpolated that having raised a large family she thought she was a master of patience, but she never knew what patience was until she came into contact with the Russians in the Human Rights Commission.8

The State Department published the following text of ER's speech in February 1949. While this published text is an excellent translation of the original French text ER used, the first paragraph differs significantly from the French version (see note 9). The editors chose to publish the English translation as it is the text the State Department elected to preserve as its official record.

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Eleanor Roosevelt to Sabra Holbrook

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Eleanor Roosevelt to Sabra Holbrook