No Ordinary Time Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in WWII
by Doris Kearns Goodwin
It’s been on my bookshelf for several years and now I wondered what took me so long to discover this Pulitzer Prize-winning and very personal story of the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the goings-on at the White House during the war years. Did you know that FDR was elected for four terms in a row?! He is the only president to have done that!
At the time of his first presidential campaign, he was already confined to a wheelchair after being suddenly struck with polio at the age of 38. He went on to be elected president and to bring America out of the Great Depression with his New Deal measures.
Unable to get around, he sent Eleanor on a tour of many factories and she reported back to him. She even descended into a coal mine to see the actual working conditions. When touring a mental hospital, she didn’t just talk to the director and take a brief walk through, but visited every ward, every room and checked to see the food they were actually served. Her reports on conditions were invaluable to the president.
As war production geared up, she saw to it that women were hired and day care facilities were opened at the work place, changing forever the lives of American women.
Franklin emerges as the more likable of the two, always ready to tell a good story, enjoying poker games with his staff to wind down. In spite of his paralysis, he enjoyed female companionship.
Goodwin points out two major blots on FDR’s record, the signing of the order to put all Japanese Americans into relocation camps for the duration of the war. and his failure to allow more Jewish immigrants while Hitler was still allowing Jews to leave the country. Recent private conversations have come to light that reveal some anti-Semitic feelings on Roosevelt’s part. In a conversation with Churchill in 1943, FDR said, it would be best to “spread the Jews thin all over the world.” As a member of the Harvard board of directors in 1923, he thought there were too many Jewish students and succeeded in instituting a quota to limit the number admitted.
In 1940,England was being heavily bombed by the Germans,was virtually bankrupt and in desperate need of American ships, artillery and tanks. Roosevelt wanted to keep America out of the war as this was the sentiment of most Americans. Roosevelt developed war production with the idea of Lend-Lease, that they would provide war supplies to Britain and later be repaid in kind. He sold this to the people by telling them that strengthening Britain would enable the Allies to defeat Hitler without America entering the conflict.
Universal conscription based on a lottery was set up for the first time. FDR carried this out in spite of great opposition. American opinion was gradually shifting and, after Pearl Harbor, most Americans supported war.
Franklin depended on Eleanor to represent him on many occasions, to investigate and report to him on public sentiment and many social issues. He valued her advice and respected her deeply. However, her intensity sometimes tired him and he needed to unwind with other friends.
Eleanor was devastated to find a packet of love letters from his mistress, Lucy Mercer, in 1918 . Although he swore never to see her again he later entertained her a the White House when Eleanor was away and she was present in the room at Warm Springs Virginia when he suffered a massive stroke that killed him on April 12, 1945.
Eleanor lacked confidence as a young woman but went on to become the first president’s wife to hold an official office and be widely involved in many political issues. She pushed her husband to ensure equal rights for black service men in the army and navy.
“Eleanor Roosevelt’s stand on civil rights her insistence that America could not fight racism abroad while tolerating it at home, remains one of the affirming moments in the history of the home front during the war….she was far ahead of the president and of the times in her understanding that separate but equal facilities were not enough, that the fact of segregation itself impaired the lives of the Negro population.” (Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time)
Eleanor Roosevelt also encouraged FDR to support workers’ causes, seeing that government funds were set aside for day care facilities and after school care centers, enabling women to work in war production.
After her husband’s death she became one of the delegates to the United Nations was instrumental in forming hte United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. She remained active publicly and politically until her death in 1962 at the age of 77.
Husband and wife, each having their separate strengths and weak points, they were indeed an unusual and certainly not ordinary pair. I highly recommend this engrossing work by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
And one last thought from Eleanor: