Europe Again: A Magna Carta for All Mankind (1948)

In the fall of 1948 Eleanor Roosevelt traveled to Paris with a two-fold mission.  Her first objective was to do everything she could to ensure the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)  by the United Nations General Assembly. Her second task, assigned by President Harry Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall, was to give a major address stressing the centrality of human freedom to world peace. The stakes were high.  The Cold War had taken an ominous turn the previous spring when the Soviets had blocked land and water access to Berlin which lay deep in their sector of occupied Germany. French and Italian communists and their supporters had further inflamed the situation by organizing a series of strikes, street demonstrations and other disturbances in their respective countries.  Meanwhile in Greece a two-year-old civil war continued between government forces and a local communist army aided by Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania. In Korea two rival governments---a democratically elected government in the south and a Soviet-supported group in the North---eyed each other suspiciously.  Over all these problems loomed the larger issues of the arms race, and control of atomic energy.  The ability of the United Nations to address all these concerns was also in question.

Conscious of the “considerable responsibility” Truman and Marshall had given her, ER drafted her speech using a detailed outline prepared by the State Department. While she incorporated many of the department’s suggestions, the final product was her own.

ER’s speech was favorably received.  More than two thousand people crowded into the university amphitheater on September 28 and many more were denied entry.   Speaking in French to an audience that included Marshall and members of the French government ER declared that “the basic problem confronting the world today …is the preservation of human freedom for the individual and consequently for the society of which he is a part.” Totalitarian governments like that of the Soviet Union she said, “typically place the will of the people second to decrees promulgated by a few men at the top. “ Democracies, on the other hand, she argued are based on freedom which was “not only a right but a tool…with which we create a way of life in which we can enjoy freedom.” A US Foreign Service officer reporting to the State Department afterward said her words made the audience “feel that the fundamental principles of our civilization were still…being defended by the United Nations.”  (Predictably the Soviet press was less impressed, calling ER “a hypocritical servant of capitalism.”)  

While ER’s speech created a positive climate for consideration of the UDHR, its passage was far from certain.  Despite the painstaking work of the Human Rights Commission over the previous two years, the commission’s larger parent group, the United Nations’ Committee III, insisted on a general discussion of the entire document followed by a debate on each of the articles. At every stage of the process which lasted until early December, the Soviet delegates and their allies sought to delay or postpone passage by proposing additional amendments or opposing specific articles.  However ER and her allies on the Human Rights Commission ultimately prevailed. Committee Three recommended submission of the UDHR to the General Assembly on December 7.  Three days later the General Assembly approved the UDHR by a vote of forty-eight to zero with eight abstentions (the Soviet Union, Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Ukraine, Yugoslavia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia. Honduras and Yemen were not present).   Following a tribute from Herbert Evatt, president of the General Assembly, the delegates gave ER a standing ovation.  

Although preoccupied with the UDHR debate, ER nonetheless found time to engage in a wide array of non-UN related activities, as the documents in this section show. At the invitation of a German women’s group, she traveled to Stuttgart in October to speak and visit nearby refugee camps. In mid-November she went to England where she attended a ceremony in Westminster Abbey to mark the unveiling of a memorial plaque to FDR. She then journeyed to Oxford where she received an honorary degree.  At the end of the month she toured the French city of Amiens, which had been heavily bombed by British Royal Air Force during World War II, and received another honorary degree---this one from the University of Lyon in Lyon, France.

Many details of these trips turned up in the scripts of a new radio program ER and her daughter, Anna, began on November 8. The program which aired on the ABC network featured “a combination of forum and commentary, mixed with recollections and everyday personal happenings.”  ER used her segment broadcast from Paris to discuss the work of the United Nations and comment on events at home including the 1948 presidential election.  

ER had reluctantly participated in the presidential election which pitted Truman, the incumbent,  against Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, Progressive Party nominee Henry Wallace, and the Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond.  Troubled by what she perceived to be Truman’s weakness and “poor” cabinet appointments, she tried to avoid endorsing his candidacy before she left for Paris. She only did so after pleas from other prominent Democrats including former Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins and former Democratic Party chair, Edward J. Flynn.  The president’s subsequent surprise victory “stunned” her.  “I can’t tell you how many of the UN delegates have congratulated me,” she wrote Flynn. “They all seem to have confidence in the Democrats.” While pleased about Truman’s win, she had no illusions about the difficulty she and other liberals would face with the president. “The work of keeping him up to his progressive statements will be quite a task!” she wrote her friend Lorena Hickock.    

Despite her concerns ER left Europe buoyed by the successful passage of the Declaration. As she wrote to Helen Keller, “the first step has been taken.”



ER's Sorbonne speech and related documents
ER on the Dixiecrats
Introducing the UDHR to the General Assembly
ER at the Eiffel Tower (image)


ER's speech to the women of Stuttgart


ER's speech at the University of Lyon (in French)


ER's speech at Oxford University
Program for the convocation


ER discussing her trip to Amiens


Allida Black et al, The Papers of Eleanor Roosevelt: The Human Rights Years, 1945-1948, Vol. 1 (Farmington, MI, Thomson Gale,  2007) Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House, 2001); Richard S. Kirkendall, ed. The Harry S. Truman Encyclopedia (Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1989); Joseph  P. Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone (New York: W.W. Norton &Co, 1972); Eleanor Roosevelt, On My Own (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958) Eleanor and Anna Roosevelt Radio Program, 8 November 1948, AERP, FDRL.