First Lady of the Media: Eleanor Roosevelt and her TV-show ‘Prospects of Mankind‘.

Eleanor Roosevelt is best known as the longest-serving First Lady of the United States, a diplomat at the United Nations, a determined champion for human rights, devoted peace advocate, radio host and widely published writer. However, in the ‘50s she added ‘television anchor’ to her extensive list of careers.

Prospects of Mankind was “a public affairs documentary series” and one of the three TV programs that featured the former First Lady as host and moderator during her career as a journalist. Largely recorded at Brandeis University, the series premiered on Eleanor Roosevelt’s 75th birthday, the 11th of October 1959 and ended in June 1962, just a couple of months before she passed away. Its executive producer, Henry Morgenthau III, developed the program for the WGBH- TV, which was monthly telecasted at the National Educational Network, “the forerunner of public broadcasting”. The show, consisting of three seasons and 29 episodes, was widely viewed by Americans as well as the international public.

The Prospects of Mankind series was styled as a roundtable discussion between Mrs. Roosevelt and three to five distinguished guests, on global problems relevant to the US. The guests included UN diplomats, journalists, professors, politicians or key figures in American public life,  such as Henry Kissinger, John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson. They discussed topics ranging from the future of television and American propaganda capabilities, international arms control, capitalism, the status of Women to US foreign policy, America’s image abroad, and the future of democracy (see 3.17 – 3.45 in the Roosevelts Collection).

The three seasons of the prospects of mankind show illustrates the sensitive debates and complex situations of the ‘50s and early ‘60s and could be exemplary to present-day discussions. Therefore, the documentary can be relevant to policymakers, students and history scholars as a significant source of information. This is precisely why the RIAS acquired the complete Prospects of Mankind with Eleanor Roosevelt DVD collection. The collection is part of 350 visual materials regarding the Roosevelt family and the United States that are available at the RIAS for students to consult.  This particular DVD collection consists of twenty-nine 60-minute long, black-and-white episodes and gives key insights in how Mrs. Roosevelt used the media to establish a dialogue, provoke a discussion among her viewers and educate the public on a variety of crucial issues she was interested in. Furthermore, it provides a deep understanding of her thinking on an array of national and international concerns.

One of the widely discussed items on the show was the United Nations (UN). Eleanor Roosevelt was no stranger to the international organization as she served as a diplomat for the American Delegation to the UN from 1946 until 1952. In the course of her life she developed a profound commitment to internationalism and, therefore, served the postwar world by publicizing the image of the UN both at home and abroad. As one of the most influential public figures of her era, who happened to be the widow of one of the architects of the UN, Eleanor Roosevelt volunteered at the American Association to the UN (AAUN) from 1953 until her death in 1962. Additionally, she employed the media as a tool for mass communication to inform the public on the significance of the UN system, expounding her views in her widely syndicated newspaper column “My Day” and in her various radio programs. Fully aware of its possibilities, especially to reach the lives of the elderly and the younger generation, she expanded her media platforms when the TV came into existence.

Although the UN was brought up frequently throughout the documentary series, Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry Morgenthau III dedicated three full episodes to the workings, challenges and promise of the international organization.

In November 1960, the episode titled “The Changing Shape of the United Nations”  aired as part of the second season of the series. Mrs. Roosevelt conversed with Lawrence Fuchs, Dean of the Faculty at Brandeis University, Raymond Aron, France’s leading political writer, General Carlos Romulo, Philippines Ambassador to the US and Senator Michael Mansfield. The discussion revealed “the internal and external pressures” that caused the UN to change. Such internal and external pressures included the increased membership of the UN due to the vast wave of decolonization which, in turn, altered the dynamics of voting within. Also significant was the expansion of the role and responsibilities of the position of Secretary-General during the tenure of Dag Hammarskjöld. In the introduction of the program Mrs. Roosevelt highlighted that the UN suddenly became one of the most frequently discussed subjects in conversations both at home and abroad. After she asked her guests to elaborate on this, Senator Mansfield stressed that the visit of the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, to the UN headquarters had “a great deal to do with making this 13th meeting of the General Assembly the important one that it really is.” Mrs. Roosevelt agreed when the Senator remarked that “the people of the United States and the world in general are beginning to take a more clear view of just what the United Nations stands for, a recognition of what it has done and a realization of what it might do.” She added that the spreading of information was precisely what they worked so hard on at the AAUN.  Ambassador Romulo emphasized that another reason for the newly gained interest in the UN was due to “the intensification of the Cold War” and the Congo mission, “which showed to the world the effectiveness of the UN to prevent other nations from intervening in a matter that is important to the whole world.” In episode 17, on the 9th of April 1961, the Congo crisis was the main subject matter during an hour-long discussion on “Congo: Challenge to the United Nations”, which was recorded at the United Nations Headquarters a week earlier.  In the opening segment, Eleanor Roosevelt stated that the Congo was one of the most challenging topics discussed during the 15th session of the UN General Assembly and that we have to “take a long look at the problem to understand what its meaning is for us.” She analyzed the political instability of the African country following its independence from Belgium with her guest, Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, United Representative to the United Nations. “One of the great difficulties”, Mrs. Roosevelt emphasized “is the whole financial problem of the carrying of the United Nations situation in the Congo”. Ambassador Stevenson readily agreed, and stressed that it will become “precarious” to continue the UN’s first peacekeeping mission as more and more member states refused to raise funds and contribute to the situation.

The other guests, G. Mennen Williams, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Ambassador Rajeshwar Dayal, U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative in the Congo, Jaja Wachuku, chairman of the Nigerian delegation to the UN and William Frye, U.N. correspondent of the Christian Science  Monitor,  weighed in on the discussion and provided the viewers with a detailed view on the UN’s duties and tasks in the Congo and how to prevent similar financial constraints in future peacekeeping missions. To Eleanor Roosevelt, it was clear that “outside intervention must be, under the resolution which the UN passed, eliminated as much as is humanly possible” and reiterated the importance of the UN in the Congo. In her eyes, the UN was the only machinery that could “try and keep as peaceful an atmosphere in which to carry out their negotiations.”

Later that year, Eleanor Roosevelt and her program guests were less optimistic about the UN. Following the untimely death of the Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN was ravaged as a result of “ideological divisions and problems of geographic distribution.” The episode, “United Nations: Future Endangered” brought Harlan Cleveland, the Assistant Secretary of State, C.S. Jha, Indian Ambassador the UN, Stanley Hoffman, Professor of Government at Harvard University and William Frye, UN correspondent, together to evaluate the present and future of the organization in the final season of the series. The participants of the show considered the exploitation of national interests, “the terror tactics of the Soviet Union” and the rising nationalism to be threats to the structure of the UN. Mrs. Roosevelt emphasized that the effectiveness of the UN will be in danger if we only think about our national interests instead of looking at the context of the world’s interests first.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Prospect of Mankind confirmed her commitment to the UN and shows that she, as a television personality, continued to expand her public outreach in the last three years of her life.

This article was written using the following collection:

Prospects of Mankind

And the following books:

– Maurine H. Beasley, Holly Cowan  Shulman, and Henry R. Beasley, eds., The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001), 509-512.

– Maurine H. Beasley, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Media – a Public Quest for Self-Fulfillment (University of Illinois Press, 1987), 183.

And the following Prospects of Mankind episodes:

– “The Changing Shape of the United Nations”. Eleanor Roosevelt’s Prospects of Mankind, DVD collections, RIAS, Program no. 3.28 (20 November 1960).

– “Congo: Challenge to the United Nations”. Eleanor Roosevelt’s Prospects of Mankind, DVD collections, RIAS, Program no. 3.32 (9 April 1961).

– “United Nations: Future Endangered”. Eleanor Roosevelt’s Prospects of Mankind, DVD collections, RIAS, Program no. 3.36 (12 November 1961).