While there has yet to be a female president, first ladies have been important in shaping many presidencies and their policies. Following her article on Abigail Adams (here), Kate Murphy Schaefer considers the role of Eleanor Roosevelt in World War II. Specifically she looks at Eleanor’s opposition to the internment of Japanese-Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

A White House painting of Eleanor Roosevelt.

A White House painting of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Tammy Wynette said “sometimes it’s hard to be a woman,” but it can be especially hard to be a woman married to a man in the public eye.[i] While history generally paints First Ladies as ornamental, many played important roles in guiding presidencies. Like Abigail Adams, a first lady can be her husband’s sounding board, confidante, and greatest supporter, but what if a first lady takes issue with her husband’s decisions and policies?

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reassurance there was “nothing to fear but fear itself” seemed hollow.[ii] As the nation went to war with the Empire of Japan, distrust and fear spread to anyone of Japanese descent. On Valentine’s Day 1942, General John DeWitt warned the president of the threat posed by Japanese Americans, saying, “racial affinities are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race.”[iii] The absence of evidence supporting DeWitt’s claims of a fifth column of Japanese-Americans actively plotting against the government did not discredit them. Instead supporters like California Attorney General Earl Warren argued DeWitt’s claim was proof attacks were imminent and “(o)ur day of reckoning is bound to come.”[iv] Five days later, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, creating “military areas” in which thousands of Japanese-American men, women, and children would be interned for the duration of the war. Forcibly removed from their homes, their belongings, livelihoods, and civil liberties were forfeited because local military officials believed their presence near military bases and installations posed a threat to national security. Fear and suspicion trumped the protection of constitutionally-guaranteed civil liberties, and Order 9066 gave Americans a legally-sanctioned domestic scapegoat on which to heap their outrage over the Pearl Harbor attack.


“You’ll have bad times and he’ll have good times, Doin’ things you don’t understand”

Eleanor Roosevelt was horrified. Taken under the wing of a progressive boarding school headmistress as a teen, she was dedicated to social justice. While many of her peers viewed education as preparation for an MRS, not a BA or MA, Roosevelt used it as a springboard for what would be a lifelong calling to serve others. She used her platform as first lady and her syndicated newspaper column to highlight civil rights issues.

Eleanor recognized the threat to Japanese-Americans early on, even meeting with the editor for Japanese-American newspaper Rafu Shimpo. In an October 1941 press conference, she said “the Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants to the United States) may be aliens technically, but in reality they are Americans and America has a place for all loyal persons regardless of race or citizenship.”[v] Less than two weeks before her husband signed the Executive Order, she gave another address, vowing “no law-abiding citizens of any nationality would be discriminated against by the government.”[vi] The executive order rendered both promises moot.

Others also recognized the threat Order 9066 posed to American democracy, especially as the press shifted from reporting the news to outright fearmongering. Archibald McLeish, FDR speechwriter and (ironically) the Director of the Office of Facts and Figures, tried to convince news editors to provide more balanced media coverage instead of giving in to sensationalism. McLeish also spoke with Eleanor Roosevelt on the situation, believing she was could counsel her husband. FDR refused to speak with his wife on the subject. In all fairness, though, he refused to speak to anyone about the issue. With the domestic “threat” contained, he focused on the war in Europe.

In March 1943, Congressman John Tolan briefed Eleanor Roosevelt on the status of the internment camps and updated her on the investigations, telling her the government never found evidence of sabotage or espionage committed by Japanese-Americans. DeWitt’s “fifth column” had never materialized. The American government had taken away the civil rights of thousands of legal citizens with no real justification. Eleanor went to her husband immediately with this news, requesting permission to visit one of the internment camps herself. She also asked if they could invite an interned Japanese-American family to live in the White House as an expression of goodwill to the Japanese-American community. Her second request was denied.


“But if you love him you’ll forgive him, Even though he’s hard to understand”

In a draft speech summarizing her visit to the Gila River internment camp, Roosevelt did not criticize her husband’s policy or the camps it created. Instead she perpetuated the more comfortable and conscience-soothing argument that the camps were as much for the Japanese-American community’s safety as for other Americans’ safety from the Japanese-American community and praised the internees’ “ingenuity” in living in such difficult circumstances. She navigated a more precarious political tight rope than McLeish: she had to perpetuate the lie that internment was justified while also arguing for its end. “To undo a mistake is always harder than not to create one originally but we seldom have the foresight,” she said.[vii]

She found her true balance by striking at the heart of racism, and American racism in particular. The fears exacerbated by the attack on Pearl Harbor were “aggravated by the old economic fear on the West Coast and the unreasoning racial feeling which certain people, through ignorance, have always had wherever they came in contact with people who are different than themselves.”[viii] Calling out the Americans who profited from Japanese-American misfortune, she also implied any non-white, non-natural born ethnic group could share the same fate. “We have no common race in this country, she said, “but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal: we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion…We retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.”[ix] Roosevelt also skillfully reminded Americans of the thousands of immigrants serving in the American armed forces. The military had depended on immigrants to fill its ranks in WWI, and the trend continued in WWII. They needed soldiers and did not care what color they were or language they spoke.

Internment ended in 1945 through the Supreme Court’s ruling on Endo v. United States. Though the court reached a decision in December 1944, it graciously allowed FDR the ability to save face by delaying its verdict announcement until he could announce he was closing the camps. The president died the following April, and Harry S. Truman took over the nation and war he left behind. Truman ensured Eleanor maintained a public role after her husband’s death, appointing her as delegate to the United Nations. She was later elected president of the committee tasked with writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1946. Referencing her tireless work to protect human dignity and rights, Truman referred to her as the “first lady of the world.”[x]


“Stand by your man, and show the world you love him”

Eleanor Roosevelt’s most lasting post-war role, however, was keeping and shaping her husband’s legacy. Whatever their differences during life, Roosevelt focused on her presidential husband’s strengths and accomplishments in her writings and in interviews given after his death. She never mentioned his role in internment, and especially not her objections to that policy. She “stood by her man,” and so did the American people. Americans tried hard to forget the internment of citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, leading many historians to fear it could—and will—happen again. America’s tendency to consolidate national unity through common hate, our “propensity to react against ‘foreigners’…during times of external crisis, especially when those ‘foreigners’ have dark skins is a recurring pattern in times of crisis.”[xi] The pattern persists, the only change is the ethnic group, race, or religious tradition targeted. Though the “military necessity” of internment was never proven and the Supreme Court ruled it was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership,” the legal precedent stands.[xii]

Internment recently made the news as some politicians floated the idea of revisiting the policy for use in containing what they perceived to be the domestic “threat” posed by Muslim-Americans. If we refuse to learn from the mistakes of the past, perhaps we can learn from historical figures. Though most likely not as forceful as she would have liked to be, Eleanor Roosevelt was a voice of dissent in a difficult time. She tried to lend her voice to those silenced by racism and prejudice. Who will decide to be the voices of dissent in ours?


What do you think of Eleanor Roosevelt? Let us know below.


[i] Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man (1968),” lyrics available on Song Facts, http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?lyrics=6668.

[ii] “Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself: FDR’s First Inaugural Address,” History Matters, accessed December 6, 2016, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5057/.

[iii] John DeWitt quoted in Richard Reeves, Infamy: The Shocking Story of Japanese American Internment in World War II (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015), 41.

[iv] Earl Warren quoted in Roger Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II (Hill and Wang Critical Issues) (New York: Hill and Wang, rev. ed. 2004), 37.

[v] Togo Tanaka, ‘Mrs. Roosevelt Talks to Local Representatives,” Rafu Shimpo, November 1, 1941, 1.

[vi] Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 71.

[vii] Eleanor Roosevelt, “To Undo a Mistake is Always Harder Than Not To Create One Originally,” in Jeffery F Burton, Mary M. Farrell, Florence B. Lord, and Richard W. Lord, Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese-American Relocation Sites. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 24.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] “Voices for Human Rights: Champion of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962),” Human Rights.com, accessed May 24, 2018, http://www.humanrights.com/voices-for-human-rights/eleanor-roosevelt.html.

[xi] Roger Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II (Hill and Wang Critical Issues) (New York: Hill and Wang, rev. ed. 2004), 113.

[xii] Deju Oluwu, “Civil liberties versus military necessity: lessons from the jurisprudence emanating from the classification and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II,” The Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern Africa 43, no. 2 (July 2010): 190-212, accessed December 5, 2016, www.jstor.org/stable/23253161, 207.


The story of Mihail Shipkov is indicative of what happened to many people in communist regimes in the years after World War Two. For his opposition to the government, he was to pay a heavy price – the disturbingly titled “Menticide”. In this article, we conclude the Mihail Shipkov story that was started here and explain American reactions to Menticide.

Richard H. Cummings returns to the site (after the podcast based on his book here) and explains.


Only in the contest of ideas can there be a final victory, which will yield us one world dedicated to peace with freedom.

 - Breakdown, April 1950


In April 1950 broadcasting to Bulgaria and other countries behind the Iron Curtain over Radio Free Europe was yet to come. The National Committee for Free Europe (NCFE), reprinted 100,000 copies of the Shipkov story in a 31-page pamphlet in the “public interest” with the long descriptive title Breakdown: how the Communist secret police are able to pry confessions of treason out of men and women who love their country, a story courageously laid bare for the first time in March, 1950. 


The first page contained this summary of the pamphlet: 

Telling how the Communist secret police are able to pry confessions of treason out of men and women who love their country, a story courageously laid bare for the first time by Michael Shipkov.

The cover of the pamphlet  Breakdown .

The cover of the pamphlet Breakdown.

In an April 25, 1950, cover letter to NCFE members, including future President Dwight D. Eisenhower and future CIA Director Allen Dulles, NCFE President DeWitt C. Poole wrote, “Our Committee III --the Committee on American Contacts -- has prepared ... pamphlets as part of our campaign to reach the American public ... I am sure you will agree that these pamphlets will prove useful in our struggle for victory in the contest of ideas.” 

The back cover of the pamphlet told the American public:

The Committee's members are convinced that the danger of the present crisis cannot be exaggerated. Freedom is at stake. At this very moment it is being decided what kind of world our grandchildren are going to live in.

The ultimate decision lies in the contest of ideas. Only a world relieved of totalitarian despotism and held together by the tested ideals of freedom and democracy can live in peace. In the struggle for this consummation the National Committee for Free Europe offers every single citizen the opportunity to throw in his weight.


Allen W. Dulles.

Allen W. Dulles.

Allen Dulles sent a copy of the NCFE pamphlet to psychiatrist Dr. George Eaton Daniels, M.D., Columbia University, and asked him if he would review it in view of a possible “psychiatric appraisal of the effect of the procedures used by Iron Curtain countries to obtain confessions from their prisoners.”

Dulles followed this up with a telephone conversation with Dr. Daniels, who turned down the appraisal possibility for professional reasons but supplied Dulles with names of other specialists who might be willing to help, including Dr. Iago Galdston.         

On April 27, 1950, Daniels sent a note to Dulles, with Galdston’s telephone number and address, and the comment: “As I mentioned, the Academy has a section on Neurology and Psychiatry from which I believe competent neurologists and psychiatrists could be selected for the study which you have in mind.” Dulles made wrote a note for the file on April 28, 1950:

Dr. Daniels, after talking with Dr. Nolan D. C. Lewis, suggested that possibly the New York Academy of Medicine would be the best organ through which to work and that Dr. Galdston at the Academy would be the appropriate man to approach. The New York Academy could, of course, bring in any nation-wide organization that seemed desirable.


Eleanor Roosevelt

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was an ardent supporter of the NCFE and Crusade for Freedom. In 1950 she wrote about this pamphlet in her national syndicated column, My Day, which was published six days a week from 1935 to 1962. In her March 9, 1950, column she wrote:

I am sure many people were very much interested in the account given by Michael Shipkov, a Bulgarian, who explained how it was possible to make individuals confess treason in a Communist-dominated court, regardless of the truth. I am sorry to say that intimidation has been used in practically every country by some of its officials who felt it legitimate because they were trying to obtain some particular kind of testimony. I have heard with concern of methods used occasionally in some of our police courts. None of them, however, seems to have acquired quite the technique that brings about these mass confessions in the Soviet court-rooms. I was sorry this morning to read that Mr. Shipkov had been taken a prisoner and now has confessed to being a spy for the Americans!


In her June 2, 1950 column, she wrote:

A little booklet I have just read, published by The National Committee for Free Europe, Inc., called: "Breakdown"—"The story of Michael Shipkov in the hands of the secret police." This pamphlet will give you a picture of how, under authoritarian regimes, confessions are finally extorted. One shudders to think what horrors confront people where justice no longer exists; where they live under constant espionage and where freedom is something they may once have dreamed of but no longer know as a reality.

It seems impossible for people ever to free themselves under the circumstances described in this pamphlet. Neither is it conceivable for a nation to go forward and develop economically, spiritually or socially under this type of government. Living must become so utterly futile. Even under the lash of fear one must cease to work and produce because life is so completely valueless. No one could want to bring children into a world where people are no longer allowed any personal freedom and must face moral and mental domination.


Dulles and the Shipkov report

On April 10, 1953, Allen Dulles, now CIA Director, made a speech entitled “Brain Warfare,” at the National Alumni Conference of Graduate Council of Princeton University. He referenced the Shipkov case: “The techniques employed in the case of Shipkov were somewhat crude but give the pattern of the later more refined methods.” 

Dulles then quoted from the Shipkov report:

Out of the jumbled memories, some impressions stand out vivid. One: they are not over interested in what you tell them. It would appear that the ultimate purpose of this treatment is to break you down completely, and deprive you and any will power or private thought or self-esteem, which they achieve remarkably quickly. And they seem to pursue a classic confession, well round off in the phraseology, explaining why you were induced by environment and education to enter the services of the enemies of Communism, how you placed your capacities in their services, what ultimate goal did you pursue – the overthrow of the people’s government through foreign intervention. And they appear to place importance on the parallel appearance of repentance and self-condemnation that come up with the breaking down of their prisoner.


Quite simply, that explains the terrible menticide.


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This article is based on a piece that originally appeared on the fascinating site, http://coldwarradios.blogspot.com.

After winning the 1961 election, the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy became ever more intriguing. Roosevelt tried to influence the president in a variety of ways, and JFK was normally ready to listen. Indeed, over the first two years of JFK’s presidency they forged a bond that seemed unlikely to some just a few years before.


Here, Christopher Benedict follows-up on his article about Roosevelt and JFK in the 1950s (available here) and the dramatic 1960 US election between Nixon and Kennedy (available here).

The official presidential portrait of John F. Kennedy.

The official presidential portrait of John F. Kennedy.

Support Any Friend, Oppose Any Foe

Although she was not seated prominently on the rostrum beside new first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and her past and future peers Lady Bird Johnson, Mamie Eisenhower, and a disagreeable-looking Pat Nixon, Eleanor Roosevelt was in attendance when John F. Kennedy took the oath of office. On that frigid January morning in 1961, JFK’s breath was billowing visibly from his mouth as he implored his fellow Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” She would ride past the president on the reviewing stand in the inaugural parade with fellow representative of America’s war years Edith Wilson, Woodrow’s eighty-eight year-old widow, and later write to Kennedy of the “sense of liberation and lift to the spirit” she had experienced during his address.

Six weeks later, President Kennedy hosted Eleanor at the White House on the day he issued the Executive Order making the Peace Corps a reality. She was thankful for the opportunity to “have a glimpse of the children…and of the lovely redecorating that you are doing,” adding that “with all the responsibilities and aggravations that are bound to come your way, it does make a difference if one’s surroundings are pleasant and cheerful.” Kennedy outlined for her the agency’s systemic particulars and stressed how vital public service among the nation’s youth was to the success of his policies and to their own best interests. The Advisory Council for the Peace Corps would be one of several pro-active brain trusts (others including Tractors For Freedom, George McGovern’s Food For Peace, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, as well as the Cancer Foundation bearing her name) to which Eleanor would contribute during the twenty months of earthly existence left to her.   


I Might Be of Use

Appointed in 1945 by President Harry Truman to the first American delegation to the United Nations, Eleanor Roosevelt was unanimously elected to chair the newly formed Commission on Human Rights. Before magnanimously stepping down from the position in 1951 (then forcibly resigning from the UN altogether a year later, per President Eisenhower’s request), Eleanor was the driving force behind the drafting and passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, still considered, nearly seventy years later, a monumental achievement.

Kennedy, at the urging of UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, reinstated her to the General Assembly just before the official formation of the Peace Corps. She sat in on plenary meetings, consulted with international delegates, traveled the globe extensively on productive good will missions, and used the My Day column to proliferate her message from the exclusivity of private chambers out into the court of public opinion.

In July 1961, with the physical, moral, and ideological wounds sustained by African Americans in Alabama and Mississippi during the Freedom Rides still very fresh, a bulk mailing was sent out across the country with the endorsement of Harry Belafonte, including one addressed directly to President John F. Kennedy in care of the White House, soliciting donations for CORE, or Congress of Racial Equality. Among their esteemed advisory committee were the likes of Reverend Ralph Abernathy, novelist James Baldwin, Jackie Robinson, FDR’s main civil rights critic A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King Jr. Eleanor contributed a note inside each envelope which beseeched that “you and I keep faith with those who suffered” and demanded the continuation of vigilant activity “until buses and terminal facilities are open to all - everywhere - in our country.”

She personally appealed to Kennedy for mercy in the case of fifteen year-old Preston Cobb Jr., a black Georgian found guilty and condemned to death for the murder of a seventy year-old white farmer. Though Cobb admitted in an unsworn statement to having shot Frank Coleman Dumas to death, Eleanor branded “unthinkable” the County Superior Court’s eye-for-an-eye retribution against “a boy of fifteen, whether black or white.”

She also petitioned the president on behalf of convicted Communist Junius Scales who, after weighing the facts of his case, Eleanor believed was “deserving of compassion”, determining that “in a democracy, the fate of an individual is important”.


You Can Take the Boy Out of Boston…

Kennedy’s elocution, and the general delivery of his speeches, which could be mistaken by some for condescension, caused Eleanor to remark that his public addresses would never “take the place of fireside chats”, FDR’s famous form of communication while he was in the White House. As for his harsh Boston accent, which she wished he would “deepen and strengthen” to convey more sincere “strength and personality”, Jack could only volley back light-heartedly, “It is difficult to change nature, but I will attempt to nudge it.” In the very next sentence he mirrors Eleanor’s somber concern over the nuclear arms race with the Soviets in which there could be no winner. “It would be possible to be among the dead rather than the quick,” he wrote. “This has been the weapon on which we have relied for our security…we are going to attempt to improve this, however.”

In light of this, it seems a bit ironic that Eleanor would forward to President Kennedy, “with every good wish and apologies for the number of things I keep sending your way”, the January 1962 issue of Computers and Automation. The cover story was a report on the advancements made to military weapons capabilities called Computers and War Safety Control, which she hoped would be of use to Kennedy and the scientific community in beating their Soviet counterparts to the atomic punch. 


This Great Society of Ours

In recognition of her numerous global humanitarian endeavors, President Kennedy sent a letter to the Nobel selection committee nominating Eleanor Roosevelt for 1962’s Nobel Peace Prize. “I am grateful for your kindness,” she humbly wrote to him, “but shall not be surprised if nothing comes of it.” Unfortunately, nothing did. The golden medallion went instead to molecular biologist Linus Pauling who had previously won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954.

Kennedy was the special guest on Eleanor’s Prospects of Mankind program, broadcast in April 1962 on WGBH, Boston’s public television affiliate. Discussing their joint venture, the Committee on the Status of Women, the president opined that “providing equal pay and equal conditions for women” was a “matter of great national concern”. After acknowledging the sincerity of his sentiments, Eleanor laments the dichotomy of the situation in relation to foreign nations wherein “women can be found in higher positions, policy-making positions or legislative decisions than they are in this country.” A recurring theme of the president’s boys’ club mentality throughout the interview centered around “how a mother can meet her responsibilities to her children and at the same time contribute to society.” To prove his commitment to the cause, Kennedy, just weeks later, joined Eleanor for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Housing Project dedication in New York City.


These Particularly Difficult Days

In mid-June, with the Cold War heating up daily by calculable degrees, Kennedy responded to Eleanor’s despair in regard to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy’s proposal to conduct high altitude nuclear testing, recognizing “an apparent contradiction between our efforts to advance the peaceful uses of outer space at the UN and experiments like these.”

Unwell yet unwavering, Eleanor dictated a September 27 letter to President Kennedy asking for the use of his name as Honorary Chairman of the Wiltwyck School for Boys, “a unique residential treatment center for deprived, neglected, and disturbed children all under the age of twelve” of which she was a founder and member of its Board of Directors. Five days later, Eleanor mailed Kennedy a typed thank you note for the flowers he sent, along with the cryptic disclosure that “the cause of my fever has been discovered” above her alarmingly shaky signature. The unspecified “cause” was bone marrow tuberculosis.

The handwritten note Eleanor received from Kennedy for her 78th birthday would sadly conclude their personal correspondence. She passed away in her Manhattan apartment on November 7, 1962. An Executive Order issued the following day decreed that, until her internment, flags of all buildings, grounds, embassies, legations, consular offices, military facilities and vessels be flown at half-mast. Mary Todd Lincoln was the only other first lady up to that point to be accorded such a distinctive honor, and only then because of her husband’s extraordinary achievements.

Typically defiant, even while staring into the grim face of her own mortality, Eleanor expressed her desire for her public farewell to be quiet and intimate, a wish which even she must have known on some level was absurd and would be disregarded. She was laid to rest on November 10 beside Franklin in Hyde Park, New York in what was tantamount to a state funeral, attended by her dear old friend Adlai Stevenson, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, former Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower alongside Bess and Mamie, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson with Lady Bird. 

John and Jackie Kennedy arrived on the first flight made by the new Air Force One, the very same plane that would, not much more than a year later, convey the body of the assassinated President Kennedy back to Washington from Dallas and on which Lyndon B. Johnson would assume command of the mourning nation as Jackie stood boldly by his side in her blood-spattered pink suit.

In a statement issued on October 11, 1963, Kennedy (as both President of the United States and Chairman of the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Foundation) celebrated what would have been her 79th birthday with the release of the Eleanor Roosevelt commemorative stamp.

“Her memory serves as an abiding reminder of the ideals of which she provided the most complete embodiment among Americans of this age,” declared Kennedy. “The ideals of justice, of compassion, and of hope.”


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And remember, you can read Chris’ article on JFK and Roosevelt in the 1950s here, and his article on 1960 election between Nixon and Kennedy here.


  • Papers of John F. Kennedy (with relation to Eleanor Roosevelt) from the Archives of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
  • Eleanor vs. JFK: The Back Story by Elizabeth Deane (Inside the Open Vault, WGBH Boston).
  • Eleanor Roosevelt’s Anything But Private Funeral by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer (The Atlantic, November 4, 2012).


AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

The Kennedys and the Roosevelts are two great American political dynasties. But in spite of both being Democrats, they have not always got on well. In this article, Christopher Benedict explores the often difficult relationship in the 1950s between John F. Kennedy and the wife of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

JFK and Eleanor Roosevelt together in New York in October 1960.

JFK and Eleanor Roosevelt together in New York in October 1960.

Family Ties, Twisted Knots

The original Adams family - John, Abigail, John Quincy, Charles Francis, and Henry - were among the first American clans to project a far-reaching political and historical sphere of influence. The many intertwining branches of the Lee and Harrison family trees likewise extended well beyond the eighteenth century and the same goes, more recently and to a lesser degree, for the Bushes and Clintons.

The two names, however, most synonymous with almost mythological levels of intrigue and adoration, or else abominable degrees of bitterness and contempt, would inarguably be Roosevelt and Kennedy.

Before embarking on a political career which many thought would culminate at the White House, patriarch Joseph Kennedy, during the early stages of the “Happy Days are Here Again” presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, founded the scotch and gin distribution company Somerset Importers with FDR’s eldest son James. Joe was rewarded for his loyalty and shrewd business sense with the appointment as the first Secretary of the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) and, subsequently, Ambassador to the UK. His tenure, and with it any hope for future political aspirations, ended with his opposition to US intervention and acceptance of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.

Given this discourteous fall from grace, it is quite understandable how reticent Eleanor Roosevelt was to pass the proverbial torch to John F. Kennedy without her feeling as though he would wield it recklessly enough to risk burning the nation down.


1956 Democratic Convention

Never unafraid of voicing her opinions on weighty matters in the face of equally considerable opposition, Eleanor re-entered politics in 1956 by making known her displeasure with the lack of progress made by Dwight Eisenhower’s so-called Modern Republicanism and giving her endorsement to Adlai Stevenson for the Democratic presidential nomination, earning the ire of Harry Truman who was avidly backing New York Governor Averell Harriman. Her approval was sought as well by both serious contenders for the Vice Presidency, Senators Estes Kefauver and John Kennedy.

“I did not feel I could support him because he had avoided taking a position during the controversy over Senator Joseph McCarthy’s methods of investigation,” Eleanor explained to the unnamed Kennedy associate who had approached her at the convention. Kennedy proved unable himself, in the course of a face to face meeting in Chicago, to sway her with the assurance that his absence during those hearings was due only to his recuperation from back surgery, or by his buoyant argument that the episode was “so long ago” and “did not enter into the current situation”. Needless to say, this letdown ruffled the feathers of Kennedy supporters sufficiently for his counselor and speechwriter Ted Sorensen to gripe that Mrs. Roosevelt “used the occasion to chastise the Senator in a roomful of people for being insufficiently anti-McCarthy.”

With “a sense of great relief at leaving politics behind”, however short-lived it would prove to be, Eleanor boarded a New York-bound plane prior to the balloting. Jack Kennedy was left in the dust to deliver Stevenson’s nominating speech, stew over his bitter loss to Kefauver, and choke on the aftertaste of sour grapes at how Eleanor “hated my father and can’t stand it that his children turned out so much better than hers.”  


My Dear Boy

Following Jack’s 1958 re-election to the Massachusetts Senate with the assumption that it was a likely foothold propping open the door to the 1960 presidential nomination, Eleanor commented on the ABC Sunday afternoon program College News Conference that she had learned from her sources that “Senator Kennedy's father has been spending oodles of money all over the country and probably has a paid representative in every state by now”. This sent shockwaves throughout the Democratic Party and initiated a two-month exchange of correspondence beginning with Kennedy’s open challenge for her, as a “victim of misinformation”, to demand of his slanderers ”concrete evidence” of their “gossip and speculation”. Though her first retort ended with an admonition that “building and organization is permissible but giving too lavishly may seem to indicate a desire to influence through money”, Eleanor offered to give voice to Kennedy’s rebuttal, which she did in the January 6, 1959 edition of her syndicated column My Day.

Kennedy was grateful but pressed the advantage. At the risk of seeming “overly sensitive”, he wondered whether “the fairest course of action would be for you to state that you had been unable to find evidence to justify the rumors.” He dismissed her proposal of a follow-up article and hoped that they might get together in person to hash out their differences and make amends.

Eleanor got the last word on the matter by way of a haughty Western Union Telegram which said “My dear boy, I only say these things for your own good. I have found, in a lifetime of adversity, that when blows are rained on one, it is advisable to turn the other profile.” Her intentional wording of the concluding adage is an obvious reference to Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage.


1960 Election

Knowing all too well that devotion dies hard, Eleanor remained steadfast in her fidelity to Adlai Stevenson, the two-time loser who most party faithful conceded was the best candidate but simply unelectable. “For my part,” Eleanor recalled, “I believed the best ticket would be Stevenson and Kennedy, with the strong chance that the latter would become president at a later time.”                                                      Despite the concerns of Eleanor’s associates that Kennedy was “making a political football of your husband’s noble experiment”, to say nothing of the tragic death of her twelve year-old granddaughter Sally following a horse-riding accident two days prior, Eleanor agreed to meet with the Senator at her home in Val-Kill before his visit to the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York that August to commemorate the 25th anniversary of FDR’s Social Security Act. As the personal and philosophical breach between the two narrowed enough for a mutually navigable bridge to be erected over the remaining chasm, Eleanor confided to a friend that she now found Kennedy to be “so little cock-sure” and possessed of a “mind that is open to new ideas”. Civil rights, which was a cause near and dear to her heart and on which she had seen her own husband flounder so feebly in spite of her aggressive efforts, was one of the discussion’s central topics. Her final analysis (to borrow from Kennedy terminology) was that “here is a man who wants to leave a record (perhaps for ambitious personal reasons) but I rather think because he is really interested in helping the people of his own country and mankind in general.”

The eager candidate drafted a letter only two weeks later to Eleanor who was in Warsaw, Poland on behalf of the United Nations Association. In it, he regrets the failure of the Senate to pass the proposed medical care, minimum wage, and housing legislations but promises to “take this fight to the people during this campaign” and that, if elected, he will “make the most of those first 100 days to bring about these and other measures which the country needs so badly.” Kennedy also made sure to extend his gratitude to Eleanor and Franklin’s grandson Curtis Roosevelt, acting Vice Chairman of the Democratic Advisory Council whose “reform clubs are beginning to galvanize into action”, he assured the presidential candidate.

In response to Kennedy’s October 21 statement in the New York Times amenable to pledging financial and military aid to “non-Batista forces in exile and in Cuba itself, who offer eventual hope of overthrowing Castro”, Eleanor took it upon herself to chastise the president-to-be less than a fortnight preceding the election. “I thought I understood you to say during the last debate that you did not intend to act unilaterally but with the other American states,” she wrote in a letter drafted three days after Kennedy's piece in the Times. “I think it would be unwise for people to have the impression that you did expect separately to interfere in the internal affairs of Cuba.”

“Things at present look as though they are going pretty well,” Eleanor ends cheerily, albeit offset by an added sense of disquiet regarding his opponent. “I cannot, of course, ever feel safe till the last week is over because with Mr. Nixon I always have the feeling that he will pull some trick at the last minute.”


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You can also read earlier articles by Chris on the visits of Elvis (link here) and Johnny Cash (link here) to Richard Nixon’s White House. 



  • The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (1961, Harper and Bros.).
  • Kennedy and Roosevelt: An Uneasy Alliance by Michael Beschloss (1980, WW Norton & Co.).
  • Kennedy by Theodore Sorensen (1965, Harper & Row).
  • Papers of John F. Kennedy (with relation to Eleanor Roosevelt) from the Archives of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

In this article, Wendy S. Loughlin tells us about the results of a recent poll of first ladies. And discusses possible reasons why Jane Pierce came last in the poll and Eleanor Roosevelt first. 


Eleanor Roosevelt and Jane Pierce walk into a bar…

Well, maybe not. While Eleanor Roosevelt would have been more than comfortable walking into a bar (or a coal mine) and talking with whomever she met, Jane Pierce probably would have preferred to spend her time in isolation. Which, during her first two years as first lady, she did. 

A portrait of Jane Pierce.

A portrait of Jane Pierce.

It comes as no surprise that Eleanor Roosevelt takes the top spot in a recent ranking of first ladies. She always has. The ranking, based on a survey of historians, scholars and political scientists, has been conducted five times in the past 31 years. It evaluates first ladies based on 10 criteria: background; value to the country; being the White House steward; courage; accomplishments; integrity; leadership; being her own woman; public image; and value to the president.

Jane Pierce, wife of 14th president Franklin Pierce, comes in last.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a sentient American adult who isn’t aware of Eleanor Roosevelt and the multitude of reasons she is considered the best first lady. But most people don’t know much - or perhaps anything - about Jane Pierce, and why history does not look kindly on her.

Jane Pierce did not attend her husband’s inauguration in March 1853, nor did she preside over any inaugural balls, because there were none. Franklin Pierce moved into the White House directly following his swearing-in, but his wife took more than two weeks to join him there, and would inhabit the place almost like a ghost for the four years of his administration. The author Nathaniel Hawthorne, a close friend of Franklin Pierce, once referred to her as “that death head in the White House.”

And no wonder. By the time she became first lady, a week before her 47th birthday, Jane Pierce had lived through the deaths of all three of her sons. The first, Franklin Jr., died three days after birth in 1836. The second, Frank Robert, died of typhus in 1843 at age four. The loss of her third son, eleven-year-old Benjamin, was perhaps the most devastating. Born in 1841, “Benny” was just two years old when Frank Robert died, and became the sole focus of his doting mother. In January 1853, after Franklin Pierce’s election but before his inauguration, the family was involved in a train accident while traveling to Washington from Boston. Benny’s head was crushed and partially severed in the crash, and he died on the spot, his parents as witnesses.

Deeply religious, Jane Pierce hated politics and had prayed that her husband would lose the election, a sentiment apparently shared by Benny. Now, on the verge of becoming first lady, she believed God had taken her child because he would have been a distraction in the White House. When she finally joined the new president in Washington, she retreated to the upper rooms of the executive mansion and shirked all duties usually required of the first lady, spending her time instead writing sorrowful letters to Benny. She had the White House decorated in the black bunting of mourning. Her health, always uncertain, continued to suffer. Historian Richard Norton Smith calls her “the most tragic of the first ladies.”


Jane Pierce with her son Benjamin.

Jane Pierce with her son Benjamin.

Quiet in the White House

Washington has always been a social town and the position of first lady has always been primarily a social role. To some extent, the political (albeit indirect) contributions of many of the first ladies have come through their prowess as hostesses, through which they have created the social settings that allowed for political relationships and agreements to flourish. Franklin Pierce took office at a time when such agreements were sorely needed - on the eve of the civil war, the country was deeply divided over slavery - but Jane made no public appearances for the first two years of the administration.

Eventually, she came around… kind of. She attended a reception on New Year’s Day 1855, her first public appearance, and sporadically served as hostess for the remainder of her husband’s term. But when she did, she usually wore black and had “a sad, distracted look.”

Like Calvin and Grace Coolidge, Franklin and Jane Pierce were a classic case of opposites attract. It has been speculated that “Silent Cal,” famously dour and taciturn, may have achieved the presidency in part because of Grace, who had such an ebullient personality she was nicknamed “Sunshine” by the White House staff. Similarly, the outgoing Franklin and the withdrawn Jane were a seeming mismatch. And while they were purportedly devoted to each other, Jane may have done as much to hurt her husband’s presidency as Grace did to help hers.

Or maybe Franklin Pierce did enough damage on his own. Regarded by historians as one of the worst presidents in history, Pierce pursued policies that likely perpetuated the breakdown of the union and led to war. Though he had been elected in a landslide, he failed even to win the nomination of his party for a second term.

And therein lies a kind of conundrum regarding the first ladies ranking. To a certain extent, the reputation of the president’s wife will always be inextricably tied to that of her husband.  Before you compare Jane Pierce to Eleanor Roosevelt, compare the abysmal presidency of Franklin Pierce to that of Franklin Roosevelt, a four-term president who led the country through World War II, died in office a hero and is still remembered as one of the best presidents in U.S. history (In C-SPAN’s 2009 Historians Presidential Leadership Survey, Roosevelt is ranked third from the top, and Pierce third from the bottom).

Of course, Eleanor Roosevelt was a great first lady in her own right. Her contributions to human rights, to international relations and to the role of first lady remain unmatched, and her work continued even after she left the White House. She is one of the most admired women in American history. But how would we regard her today if she had come into the White House grieving the loss of a child, or if her husband had been a failure?


Tell us what you think. Do you have a favorite first lady? Share your thoughts below…


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  • Siena Research Institute/C-SPAN First Ladies Study: http://www.siena.edu/sri/firstladies
  • National First Ladies Library, Jane Pierce biography: http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=15
  • C-SPAN, “First Ladies: Influence & Image” – Jane Pierce: http://firstladies.c-span.org/FirstLady/16/Jane-Pierce.aspx 
  • Anne Middleton Means, “Amherst and Our Family Tree”: http://books.google.com/books?id=Zcw0AAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Amherst+and+Our+Family+Tree&hl=en&sa=X&ei=MNwcU6OuC8emygGw2oGwBw&ved=0CEQQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Amherst%20and%20Our%20Family%20Tree&f=false
  • New Hampshire Historical Society – manuscript collection: http://www.nhhistory.org/libraryexhibits/manuscriptcollection/manuscript.html
  • Philip B. Kunhardt III & Peter W. Kunhardt, “The American President”: http://books.google.com/books?id=m-pNPgAACAAJ&dq=Kunhardt+american+president&hl=en&sa=X&ei=57YcU4ysH4TuyAHX-YHIBA&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAA 
  • C-SPAN 2009 Historians Presidential Leadership Survey: http://legacy.c-span.org/PresidentialSurvey/Overall-Ranking.aspx
  • Burlington Free Press, “Burlington-born first lady Grace Coolidge was happy to ‘talk for two’”: http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/article/20130224/ARTS/302240006/Burlington-born-first-lady-Grace-Coolidge-was-happy-to-talk-for-two-
  • The White House, Franklin Pierce biography: http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/franklinpierce
  • The New York Times, Eleanor Roosevelt obituary: https://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1011.html