Born in 1884 in New York, Eleanor Roosevelt became one of the most remarkable figures of modern US history. She was an outspoken first lady who used the media in innovative ways. She held over 340 press conferences over the span of her husband’s 12-year presidency, writing widely syndicated columns throughout her permanence in the White House. Later, Roosevelt went on to not only moderate a TV show named Prospects of Mankind in the 1950s but also hosted a popular radio program.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s visibility and public prominence attracted wide criticism, too. Her activities and public opinions made her a natural target for politicians, citizens, and conspirators. Her chosen causes, especially her work with the young and her support for minorities’ civil rights, convinced many that she was radical, subversive, and perhaps un-American. J. Edgar Hoover shared this suspicion in the FBI and thus started to collect materials on Eleanor immediately after FDR’s election in 1933. Eleanor’s progressive views were seen by Hoover, who was well-known for his ardent anti-communist views and mistrust of civil rights advocates, as possible dangers to national security. Hoover oversaw the FBI’s painstaking documentation of her statements, affiliations, and activities. In particular, her interactions with groups and people suspected of having communist affiliations were closely monitored. Her trips to Russia in 1957 and outspoken criticism of racial segregation in the United States at the time further fuelled the FBI’s interest, leading to a comprehensive file that detailed her movements and interactions. Mr. A.H. Belmont is one such case, having filed the following complaint with the FBI in 1957, after Eleanor’s return from Russia:

“Mrs. Roosevelt’s visit and her description in glowing terms of the ‘holy city’ in the Soviet Union illustrates two important points: 1) Foreign ‘dignitaries’ are still given ‘guided’ tours in the Soviet Union designed to hoodwink them into praising the Soviet system; 2) Prominent American whose views are highly respected have a responsibility to the American public to present both sides of the wise, they become nothing more than dupes for communist propaganda ”

This surveillance reflected border societal anxieties during the Cold War era (1950s), where civil rights activism was often conflated with subversive communist activities. One individual wrote:

“She is the Commander-In-Chief of Communism in the USA. She is becoming overconfident in her power in the US and by clever investigation she may be exposed now.”

Hoover’s animosity towards Roosevelt amplified the scrutiny she faced, illustrating how political biases and fears can shape governmental actions against prominent public figures. This perception was further compounded by allegations of the existence of ‘Eleanor Clubs,’ said to be underground groups inspired by Roosevelt that aimed to eradicate segregation (ca. 1940). The alleged existence of these clubs was scrutinized due to fears of communist infiltrations, but no clear evidence was ever found. This is also evident in the FBI files, where individuals acknowledge that these rumours and accusations may be the product of outside parties seeking to incite turmoil:

“The FBI received an allegation that the rumors of the existence of ‘ Eleanor Club’ originated from Nazi sources for the purpose of causing dissention.”

These components came together to paint a picture of Eleanor as someone who, in the view of the FBI and her critics, might be pursuing a communist objective under the cover of social activism and civil rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt addressed the accusations with a mix of resistance and dignity, despite the widespread media coverage of the investigations. She publicly denied having communist sympathies and emphasized her commitment to social justice and democratic principles. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Eleanor was outspoken in her support of civil rights and frequently condemned the atmosphere of fear and paranoia that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI fostered. Her writings and speeches from this period reflect her determination to continue her advocacy work, viewing the FBI’s surveillance as a challenge in the struggle for equality and freedom. Eleanor’s resilience in the face of these allegations underscored her enduring commitment to her principles, and she remained an influential voice for social programs despite efforts to discredit her.

The FBI never discovered a good justification to take any significant action against Eleanor Roosevelt, even in spite of the copious surveillance and multiple accusations. The vast archive of documents, kept up until her passing in 1962, was unable to provide evidence supporting allegations of communist membership or subversive behavior. Currently valued historical records, these files provide an insight into the severe scrutiny that well-known civil rights activists endured throughout the Cold War. They draw attention to the general climate of mistrust and the extent to which the authorities watched after people who were thought to pose a danger.

Eleanor Roosevelt is still regarded as one of the most significant public figures in American history, and her unwavering support for social justice, human rights, and international diplomacy continues to influence and inspire the conversation about equality and civil rights. This is despite the unfounded accusations made against her. The FBI files show her unshakable commitment to her ideas and her significant influence on American culture, even though they also serve as a testament to the paranoia of the time.

This From the Vaults article was written using the following documents available at the RIAS:

FBI-Files on Eleanor Roosevelt, 1934-1965: Volumes 2,4,6,12 and 13.

The Papers of Eleanor Roosevelt, 1945-1962

And the following external sources:

Winfield, Betty Houchin. “The Legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt.” Presidential Studies

Quarterly 20, no. 4 (1990): 699–706.