Eleanor Roosevelt was the longest serving First Lady in US history.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in November 1932. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1933. He was subsequently reelected and then elected again to unprecedented third and fourth terms. Throughout his long presidency, Eleanor was "the President's eyes, ears, and legs."
Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved into the White House five weeks after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. President Roosevelt's primary preoccupation during his first term was the impact of the Great Depression on the country and its people.
Nevertheless, the new President and First Lady were well-informed about the anti-Jewish policies of the Nazi regime. They recognized that the persecuted people needed safe havens to which they could immigrate without delay. However, immigration to the United States for German Jewish refugees would prove very difficult for a number of reasons.
The Immigration Act of 1924 had established a quota system for obtaining visas based on country of birth. Moreover, in 1930, US consuls and immigration authorities had been instructed by President Herbert Hoover to enforce the ban instituted in 1917 on those visa applicants judged “likely to become a public charge,” that is, persons who were unlikely to find employment under Depression conditions, or did not possess transferable skills.
President Roosevelt was also acutely aware of Congressional opposition and public antipathy to large-scale immigration. During his second term (1937–1941), Roosevelt faced increasingly bitter and effective criticism in Congress to the New Deal policies of his first term and to his support for supplying Great Britain with war material, especially since much of the country still favored neutrality and isolationism. He also confronted almost uniform hostility among his political opponents and in the general public to relaxing immigration quotas for European refugees.
Even as the refugee crisis deepened and the situation for Jews in Europe deteriorated, Roosevelt lacked sufficient public support to defy Congress.
As First Lady, Eleanor used her social and political influence where and when she could to bring the crisis before the American people and to intervene on behalf of refugees. In the mid-1930s, she supported organizations aiding Spanish refugee children during the Spanish Civil War. In February 1939, she joined the growing list of prominent Americans who favored passage of the bill sponsored by Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Representative Edith Rogers of Massachusetts to permit the entry of 20,000 German refugee children, ages 14 and under, into the United States over the course of two years. At a press conference Eleanor told reporters the bill was “a wise way to do a humanitarian act.” But despite her vigorous support, the Wagner-Rogers bill died in committee.
In the spring and summer of 1940, German forces invaded Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and France. Britain stood alone, facing the very real possibility of invasion. Despite a restrictionist Congress, many Americans favored the rescue of European children, especially those from Britain, which was suffering under the Blitz.
In June, Eleanor formed a committee to coordinate rescue efforts for the children. She called a meeting at her New York residence with representatives of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the German-Jewish Children’s Aid, and other organizations, many of whom had been involved in promoting the Wagner-Rogers Bill, to form the US Committee for the Care of European Children (USCOM). Chicago department store magnate and philanthropist Marshall Fields was asked to chair the committee and oversee fundraising, but the driving force behind its work was Eleanor.
The first task of the committee was to figure out how, logistically, the children could enter the United States outside of the stringent immigration quotas. Eleanor and the other members of USCOM recognized that the fastest way to admit refugee children to the United States was on temporary visitor visas, which could be issued as long as the children planned to return home when it was safe again, and exempted the children from needing individual financial affidavits. Since the children were all under the age of fourteen, the State Department could not reasonably claim that any of them could be spies or saboteurs.
Between June and September 1940, when conditions in occupied Europe and the dangers of crossing the Atlantic caused the committee to suspend its evacuation efforts from Great Britain, just over 800 children were rescued and resettled in American homes.
With Eleanor's continued support, USCOM continued their work, refocusing from Great Britain to western Europe, particularly on children in Vichy France. The AFSC chose children, both Jewish and non-Jewish, from children's homes and refugee camps in southern France for transfer to the United States. By 1943, the committee had succeeded in rescuing several hundred Jewish children from western Europe.
In August 1940, the SS Quanza, a ship bound for Mexico with over 300 passengers on board, mostly refugees fleeing Europe, arrived in New York. Nearly 200 passengers with US visas were permitted to land. When the ship arrived in Veracruz, Mexican officials denied entry to 85 of the Quanza’s passengers, claiming their paperwork was invalid. These passengers desperately began contacting friends in the United States, who in turn contacted leaders of Jewish organizations, government officials—and Eleanor Roosevelt—for help.
The passengers sent a telegram to Eleanor directly, signed by the “Women Passengers,” and it is likely that Eleanor asked the President to assist the refugees on the Quanza. A representative of Roosevelt’s President's Advisory Committee on Refugees interviewed the passengers. Based on his recommendations, the State Department allowed five children to land using the USCOM procedures, liberally interpreted the qualifications for a “non-quota” immigration visa for 41 passengers, and granted the remainder temporary transit visas. All of the passengers were permitted to disembark in Norfolk, VA.
In June 1944, President Roosevelt announced his plan to create an emergency refugee shelter at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York. Under this plan, 982 refugees from eighteen different countries were selected and transported from Italy to upstate New York. Roosevelt circumvented the rigid immigration quotas by identifying these refugees as his “guests,” a status that gave them no legal standing and required their return to Europe once conditions permitted their repatriation. In September 1944, Eleanor made a well-publicized visit to the camp and as she did so often to rally support for her husband's policies, wrote about her visit in “My Day.” The refugees who did not wish to return to Europe after the war were admitted to the United States in 1946.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, at his Warm Springs, Georgia retreat. Later that day, Eleanor met with Vice President Harry S. Truman. “Harry,” she said, “the president is dead.” When Truman asked if there was anything he could do for her, she famously replied, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”
After Franklin's death, Eleanor retreated to Hyde Park. “The story is over,” she told reporters. Little did she know that within a year she would begin what was perhaps the most influential period of her life when President Truman appointed her as part of the first American delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, where she served until 1952. There she became Chair of the UN Human Rights Commission and worked to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted by the General Assembly in December 1948. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy reappointed her to the US delegation to the UN and later, to chair the President's Commission on the Status of Women.
In her last years, Eleanor was active on behalf of the civil rights movement, calling for an end to segregation in education as well as for equal opportunities in employment and housing. She continued to write her column “My Day” until 1962. She passed away on November 7, 1962, in New York, New York. She is buried beside her husband in the rose garden at Hyde Park.