Mrs. R. and the American Association for the United Nations

In 1954, Eleanor Roosevelt was asked what life experiences gave her “the most satisfaction.” She answered that she “was part of a second great experiment to bring countries together and to get them to work for a peaceful atmosphere in the world.” Mrs. Roosevelt referred, of course, to her work for the United Nations (UN), an organization that officially had been founded seventy-five years ago, on 24 October 1945.

A couple of months earlier, in a tribute to her husband, five days after he passed away, Eleanor Roosevelt appealed to the people of the United States to unite and carry out his ideals. She wrote that “there is only one way in which those of us who live can repay the dead who have given their utmost for the cause of liberty and justice.” President Roosevelt’s vision was, of course, to create a new international order through a peacetime UN. It was now, however, Eleanor Roosevelt’s turn to take the lead in a people´s movement that had to ensure the success of this new international organization.

A widely analyzed topic among Roosevelt scholars is how she accomplished this as an official diplomat for the US mission to the United Nations from 1946 until she realized a Republican would take her seat following the election of President Eisenhower and resigned in 1952. Roosevelt publicly expressed her continued commitment in a 1954 New York Times interview by saying that in the case “you can’t work as an American delegate, I think the thing obviously to do is to strengthen the one organization in this country which is solely devoted to information on the United Nations and evaluation of programs and work that is done.” In Mrs. Roosevelt´s eyes, that one organization was the American Association for the United Nations (AAUN) for which she worked during a time when popular support for the UN fluctuated, from 1953 until her death in1962.

The AAUN, formally founded in February 1945, was an offshoot of both the League of Nations Association, a leading internationalist grassroots organization of the interwar period, and the United Nations Association, created in 1943 at the crest of the wartime internationalist movement. The latter sought a triumph of internationalism and an active American membership in a new to establish world organization that would guarantee international peace and security. After the UN charter was ratified, the AAUN carved out a roadmap to achieve its goals: to publicize and raise awareness of the UN among the American public, encourage an active membership by the US in the UN, and to mobilize politicians to get topics such as moral action, collective security, economic advancement, human rights, and universal membership on the UN agenda.

Mrs. Roosevelt first joined this bipartisan organization in 1947 as a board member and later became a volunteer in early 1953. A week after she was installed as a fundraiser, organizer, speaker, field reporter and educator, she reached out to AAUN chapters across the country and asked for their views and suggestions. Following their first contact, Mrs. Roosevelt formulated “a Plan of Work.” In this plan she urged for membership drives, the appointment of AAUN regional and state chairmen and the distribution of information by local chapters to cooperating organizations, all of which she deeply committed herself to.

The Eleanor Roosevelt oral history project contains anecdotes by, and personal experiences and memories of Mrs. Roosevelt’s AAUN colleagues and gives an insight in her various considerations, roles, and tasks. For example, vice chairman of the AAUN Oscar de Lima shared the main reason why Mrs. Roosevelt joined the organization. He argued that this was a direct consequence of her disappointment in the failure of the League of Nations to avoid another war, which in turn led to the apprehension of a new world organization by the American public. While most scholars and acquaintances consider Mrs. Roosevelt a multilateral internationalist, Mr. de Lima thought the contrary. He believed Mrs. Roosevelt to be “a patriotic American citizen. She wanted to do everything possible for America. She wanted America to give leadership in making the United Nations a success.” Above all, he asserts, “I don’t think at any time international activity was as important to her as doing the best she could for the United States of America”, prioritizing the national interest and placing international matters second.

Ms. Estelle Linzer, AAUN’s associate director, belonged to that first group and thought she was “a strong internationalist” and believed “she never wavered.” Linzer explained that she was one of the two assistants to executive director Clark Eichelberger and focused on program and chapter work (the regional and state AAUN chapters across the US), while Margaret Olson was his associate director for policy related work. Since Mrs. Roosevelt, known as ‘Mrs. R’ by AAUN staff, expressed that she was mainly interested in the development of “stronger community programs and organizations and to enlist more members,” Estelle Linzer automatically formed a close team with Mrs. Roosevelt, together with Patricia Baillargeon, her personal assistant. Mrs. Roosevelt hosted AAUN dinners, gave speeches around the country, chaired national conferences and organized fundraisers. According to Linzer, they became officemates and travel companions, while arranging and joining field trips with her around the country. Mrs. Roosevelt started with her travels and speaking tour in September 1953 and, according to Linzer, went “where there was no organization, no AAUN chapter; there was very little sentiment; or there was very heavy anti-UN sentiment; to where we had developed or at least corresponded enough to know that there was some local leadership we could call on.”

Patricia Baillargeon too, recalled why Mrs. Roosevelt began to travel and said that she took “every conceivable conveyance to almost every place you could name.” According to her, she wanted “to set up an AAUN chapter in every major city and in as many small communities as possible in every one of the states.” Moreover, she asserted that Mrs. Roosevelt focused on young Americans and, more specifically, students. Therefore, she worked closely with the Collegiate Council for the United Nations (CCUN) to double the amount of campus organizations around the country and actively participated in mobilizing students and teachers in high schools, their essay competitions, and Model United Nations activities.  When he was asked about her “methods and need to influence public opinion on the issue of the UN”, de Lima reiterated this,  “she traveled…..she knew the importance of just moving around and letting herself be seen and getting the message across,” and using the Roosevelt name, that would open up doors that would stay close for others. Executive director Clark Eichelberger described her personality that came forward during her time with the AAUN. He expressed that she was both a “practical politician” and an “idealist.” According to Eichelberger, Mrs. Roosevelt did not shy away from discussions with State Department officers and her idealism, he believed “showed up in the things she stood for.”

Robert Benjamin, who was appointed chairman of the AAUN in the early 1960s, shed light on Mrs. Roosevelt hope and active role in a merger of the voluntary AAUN and the U.S committee for the U.N. The latter was an official organization as the national chairman was a “presidential appointment position.” Their goal was “to stimulate support from the business community for the U.N”, to circulate factual information on the UN, and to publicize and contribute to the ceremony of the national UN day. The US committee to the UN was “against position-taking all together, being purely educational in their nature and with their constituency.” The AAUN, on the other hand, occasionally published its policy standpoints regarding UN related topics. This difference in philosophy, according to Benjamin, “didn’t disturb Mrs. Roosevelt”, but became the biggest obstacle for the merger. To navigate the merger successfully, Mrs. Roosevelt encouraged Benjamin to take up a dual role: chairman of the AAUN and chairman of the US committee. In both capacities, Mr. Benjamin echoed `Mrs. R´ desire for the merger.  Ultimately, it took four years for the inception of the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA), which was accomplished only in 1964, two years after Mrs. Roosevelt died. As Benjamin concludes “the UNA is today a vibrant organization and has all the business and community supporting it” and, moreover, it “has got the grass-roots support Mrs. Roosevelt generated”.

RIAS sources reveal that she, indeed, continued to lead a people’s movement to promote the UN after her tenure as an official delegate. Secondly, the documents confirm that her devotion for the UN was a monument to her husband and thirdly, it raises the discussion how she viewed the place of America on the world stage.

This piece was written using the Eleanor Roosevelt oral history project, the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, the New York Times, the Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia and the following two books:

– Baillargeon, Patricia. “Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Association for the United Nations.” In Jess Flemion and Colleen M. O’Connor eds. Eleanor Roosevelt: An American Journey. 1987.

– Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt Vol. 3: “The war years and after” 1939 – 1962. (New York: Viking Penguin, 2016), 543-544.