How Eleanor Roosevelt Helped Found the United Nations

Eleanor Roosevelt was an outstanding political figure, publicist, and diplomat who played an important role in the creation and successful functioning of the United Nations.

Aug 15, 2023By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations

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The first lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by American president Harry S. Truman in 1946. During World War II, her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, intended to establish a system of collective security among nations aimed at achieving lasting world peace. After the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the former First Lady followed her husband’s visions and significantly contributed to the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, while serving as the first Chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights at the United Nations. Eleanor Roosevelt used her status and credibility to steer the drafting process toward its successful conclusion during a time of rising East-West tensions.


Early Years of Eleanor Roosevelt & as the First Lady

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Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s first child and only daughter, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, 1906, via Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library


Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, in New York City. She was the oldest child of Elliot Roosevelt and Anna Hall. Eleanor Roosevelt lost both parents by the age of 10, and she was raised by her grandmother, Mary Hall. She attended a private London school called Allenswood Academy. In 1902, Eleanor Roosevelt returned to the United States and joined the Junior League, starting her career in social work, teaching immigrant children at the Rivington Street Settlement House.


In 1902, she met her distant relative, her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1903, they were engaged and married within two years. Her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, walked her down the aisle.


Eleanor supported Franklin in his efforts to further his political career and assisted him in accomplishing his goal of becoming a successful politician. After Franklin D. Roosevelt became ill with poliomyelitis in 1921, Eleanor became his eyes and ears, a reliable and relentless partner, helping him to build support for the political comeback in the upcoming 1922 elections.

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In 1928, Franklin was elected governor of New York. This marked the period when Eleonor became more engaged in politics and social issues. She took an active part in the movement for women’s rights. Eleanor became a board member of the New York State League of Women Voters and managed the League of Women Voters’ national legislation committee. She played a central role in some of New York’s most influential organizations, including the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee, and the Women’s City Club.


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Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his first campaign for President, 1932, via The New Yorker


Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1933. When Eleanor arrived at the White House as the First Lady, she already knew social and economic conditions better than any of her predecessors. This contributed to transforming the traditional role of the First Lady as, unlike previous instances, Eleanor always welcomed guests with charm and friendliness and never shied away from formal entertaining. She also defied traditions by holding press conferences, touring, giving speeches and radio interviews, and being open and honest in her daily syndicated newspaper piece, My Day, founded in 1935, where she discussed social problems of American society.


In 1936, she became a member of the American Guild of Journalists and became the first First Lady to have her own press conferences for women reporters, holding more than 300 throughout her 12 years in the White House.


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Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, via The White House Historical Association


In 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed Deputy Secretary of Defense, and during World War II, in this capacity, she visited American military bases in England, as well as American bases in the Pacific, Australia, and New Zealand.


After President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in 1945, Eleanor returned to a cottage at his Hyde Park estate. She told reporters, “The story is over.” Within a year, however, she began her work as a representative of the United States in the United Nations, as asked by President Harry S. Truman. He later called Eleanor Roosevelt the “First Lady of the World” in tribute to her humanitarian achievements through the United Nations.


Becoming Chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission at the UN 

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Eleanor Roosevelt at the United Nations meeting in London, England, 1946, via National Archives Catalog


Eleanor Roosevelt’s husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, strongly advocated for the creation of a universal, international organization that would work to achieve and maintain world peace and security. In 1941, Roosevelt and the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, issued the Atlantic Charter. It officially declared support for “the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security.” The outline of a United Nations took shape over the next few years as the Allied forces—the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union—discussed the idea during different conferences, including the Teheran Conference in December 1943, and in Yalta in February 1945.


The Teheran Conference was significant because Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill were meeting together for the first time. Right from the beginning, it was clear that Stalin dominated proceedings, trying to play Roosevelt and Churchill off against each other to push through his own agenda regarding the timing of opening a second front in Western Europe to defeat Germany. Broader international cooperation also became a central theme of the negotiations in Tehran. Roosevelt outlined his vision of the proposed international security organization, which would be managed by “four policemen” (the United States, Britain, China, and the Soviet Union) who “would have the power to deal immediately with any threat to the peace and any sudden emergency which requires action.” Despite Stalin’s concerns about the prospect of China’s importance in a post-war order, all three leaders ultimately came to the understanding that the United Nations should be created.


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My Day by Eleanor Roosevelt column in New York World-Telegram newspaper, 1940, via Dorothea Lange Digital Archive at Oakland Museum of California


The Yalta Conference played an important role in finalizing the establishment of the United Nations. The discussions to carve out the post-war world order during the Yalta Conference were tense. Each leader had their own agenda: Stalin wanted a Soviet sphere of political influence in Eastern and Central Europe, Churchill pushed for free elections and democratic governments in Eastern and Central Europe (particularly Poland), and Roosevelt was aiming for both Soviet support in the Pacific War against Japan and Soviet membership in the UN. These tensions hinted at the start of the Cold War. Nevertheless, Stalin agreed to Soviet participation in the United Nations, and the leaders agreed to attend a conference in San Francisco beginning on April 25, 1945, to create the United Nations organization. This was successfully implemented, and fifty nations unanimously signed the United Nations Charter on June 26 of the same year. Just before that, in his Annual Message to Congress on January 6, President Roosevelt stated,


After the last war, we gave up the hope of achieving a better peace because we did not have the courage to fulfill our responsibilities in an admittedly imperfect world. We must not let that happen again.”


Unfortunately, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died before the San Francisco Conference was held. He was succeeded by Vice President Harry Truman, who continued Roosevelt’s foreign policy of international cooperation and took an active part in the San Francisco conference.


In her regularly published newspaper column, My Day, Eleanor Roosevelt applauded the charter, acknowledging that she had been disappointed by previous instances of international cooperation, adding, “But I want to try for a peaceful world.” Soon, President Truman personally asked Eleanor to represent the United States at the UN General Assembly.


Yalta Conference, February 4-11, 1945, via National Museum of the US Navy, Washington DC


Even though Eleanor was not confident in her abilities to help organize the United Nations initially, she still accepted the offer and attended the first meeting of the UN General Assembly in London in January 1946.


Article 68 of the Charter stipulated the creation of commissions regarding economic and social issues and the promotion of human rights. The Nuclear Commission on Human Rights was established in February 1946 by Committee Three (Committee on Humanitarian, Social, and Cultural Concerns) to make recommendations on how to structure the work of a permanent Human Rights Commission (HRC). The first session was held on April 29, 1946, and after it successfully established the HRC with 18 members, Eleanor Roosevelt was nominated to chair it. She outlined the importance of the task with the following words:


We are all conscious of the great responsibility which rests upon us… to help the United Nations achieve its primary objective of keeping the peace of the world by helping human beings to live together happily and contentedly.”


The Commission had the main goal of creating a draft of the International Declaration of Human Rights, a draft covenant, and provisions for its implementation. The declaration should have outlined the fundamental liberties for everyone, regardless of where they resided or what kind of government they had. For the next two years, Eleanor Roosevelt worked to achieve these goals with patience and fierce determination. Drafting and agreeing on legally binding protocols that would be acceptable to all the UN member states in the tense environment created by the start of the Cold War seemed almost impossible.


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Eleanor Roosevelt by Clara Sipprell, 1949, via National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC


Eleanor Roosevelt faced significant challenges trying to first, draft the Human Rights Declaration and then, push the states to adopt it. Particularly problematic was the matter of defining when the HCR should dictate to the UN to protect the human rights of the people of sovereign states.


In response to these challenges, Eleanor Roosevelt developed a particular vision of how the Declaration should be written. It should have countered the fear and horrors of previous world wars and be written in clear, simple words so that the people could easily understand its essence and importance for achieving lasting peace and preventing future conflicts. The lack of basic standards for safeguarding human rights caused “friction among nations.” According to her vision, crafting the Human Rights Declaration was a political task, and the “recognition of human rights might become one of the cornerstones on which peace could eventually be based.”


Eleanor Roosevelt’s status and influence in the United States also helped her put pressure on the State Department to introduce the document within American society not as something dominated and dictated by powerful western states but as a universal document created to serve the whole world. As a result, she managed to convince world leaders that the Declaration should be expanded to include not only political or civil rights but also economic, social, and cultural rights such as poverty alleviation, access to education, conflict resolution, and civil rights, as well as refugee concerns, humanitarian relief, and the reconstruction of war-torn Europe.


Adopting the Universal Human Rights Declaration

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Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Lake Success, New York, 1949, via National Archives Catalog


Eleanor Roosevelt’s keynote address at the Sorbonne University in Paris in September 1948 marked a turning point in the adoption of the Universal Human Rights Declaration. She had two missions: first, she needed to persuade the UN General Assembly to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and secondly, both the President of the United States, Harry Truman, and Secretary of State, George Marshall, had tasked her with launching a moral offensive against the Soviet Union. Post-World War II international security was at risk due to the latest developments on the European continent.


Namely, the Soviet Union cut off land and water access to Berlin, which was located in their area of occupied Germany. The situation had been made worse by strikes, public protests, and other disturbances in France and Italy by communists and their supporters. The greater challenges of the arms race and atomic energy control were rising. These developments questioned the United Nations’ credibility and effectiveness.


Eleanor Roosevelt was given a thorough outline developed by the State Department to write her address, considering the responsibility it bore for the future of the United Nations. The speech, entitled “The Struggle for Human Rights,” touched on the issues of totalitarianism and democracy, individual freedom, and how in democratic countries, it is a tool to achieve a free society. Afterward, a Foreign Service Office of the United States reported to the State Department that her words gave the audience the impression that “the fundamental principles of our civilization were still defended by the United Nations.” On the other hand, the Soviet press labeled Eleanor Roosevelt “a hypocritical servant of capitalism.”


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Eleanor Roosevelt at the New York Historical Society exhibit Votes for Women, 1952, via National Park Service


Even though Eleanor Roosevelt’s speech at the Sorbonne helped create a favorable environment for Declaration’s adoption, it still confronted obstacles, particularly from the Soviet Union.


The Human Rights Commission’s supervisory body, Committee Three, insisted on a thorough discussion of the entire document, including going through each of its articles. Through the submission of additional amendments and opposition to specific articles, the Soviet delegates and their allies attempted to postpone the passage of the Declaration, saying that it was “overly juridical” and potentially infringed on national sovereignty. As a result, the adoption procedure was extended until the beginning of December 1948.


Many details of Eleanor Roosevelt’s trip to Europe were described in her new radio program, which had begun on November 8 on the ABC network. Eleanor Roosevelt used her broadcast segment to discuss the work of the United Nations. At the same time, she was actively using her column, My Day, to increase public awareness about the functions and purposes of the United Nations and the importance of the Universal Human Rights Declaration to achieve and maintain world peace. As she was feeling frustrated with the Soviet’s delaying tactics, she made her thoughts public, telling her readers, “One would admire Soviet persistence in sticking to their point if it were not for the fact that so often the point is not worth sticking to.”


Eleanor Roosevelt’s persistence eventually won. On December 7, Committee Three suggested presenting the Universal Human Rights Declaration to the General Assembly. By a vote of 48 to zero and with eight abstentions (the Soviet Union, Belarus, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia), the General Assembly adopted the Declaration three days later.


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Eleanor Roosevelt receiving the Mary McLeod Bethune Human Rights Award from Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women at the Council’s Silver Anniversary Dinner in New York, November 12, 1960, via National Archives Catalog


Besides drafting the Universal Human Rights Declaration, “the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere,” as she called it, Roosevelt was one of the first individuals to promote the creation of a UN agency that focused on food and nutrition-related matters. Australian nutritionist Frederick L. McDougall authored the “Draft memorandum on a United Nations Programme for Freedom from Want of Food” in 1942. McDougall was convinced that addressing the problem of hunger required international collaboration and that a newly-established international organization was a good place to start. After learning about the memorandum, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged a meeting between McDougall and her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The discussions were successful, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) was established on October 16, 1945. It plays a crucial role in alleviating hunger and improving food security and nutrition to this day.


Even after resigning from her position as the Human Rights Commission’s chair in 1951, Roosevelt continued to represent the United States until 1953. For her efforts, the UN honored Eleanor Roosevelt with one of its first Human Rights Prizes in 1968. As the famous human rights advocate and Eleanor Roosevelt’s colleague, John Peters Humphrey, stated,


“Mrs. Roosevelt was one of the greatest personalities ever to be associated with the United Nations, and her great prestige was one of the chief assets of the Human Rights Commission in the early years.”

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.