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Authors: Joseph P. Lash

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“I have cabled Mr. Lie that I would accept,” Mrs. Roosevelt informed Secretary Byrnes. “The cable stated that we would meet here in New York City and the meeting would last three weeks and my compensation would be $15 a day and travelling expenses.” Would the State Department provide her with an adviser and with secretarial assistance?

Finally catching up with Mrs. Roosevelt, Hendrick introduced himself as her adviser. “I was pretty scared. I didn’t know how she’d take to me personally. As an expert picked by the Economic and Social Council she was not under U.S. instruction—and my job was to see to it that she took the State Department line.” She quickly put him at his ease. “She was just as kind and hospitable as she could be, welcomed me, and said that what she needed was advice and I was her adviser from then on in human rights meetings.” They got along very well. She liked Hendrick, who was a quiet-spoken man of patrician background with a gentle sense of humor. “I don’t think there was any time when we had a serious disagreement over what the policy should be,” Hendrick asserted.

The meeting of the “nuclear” commission, as it was called, took place in makeshift quarters in the Hunter College library. The furnishings were of hewn oak, and the delegates sat around tables which had been arranged in the shape of a hollow square in the middle of which sat the interpreters and secretaries.

Henri Laugier, assistant secretary-general for social affairs, opened the meeting and Mrs. Roosevelt was promptly elected
chairman by acclamation. She accepted the post with obvious pleasure. “Although my knowledge of parliamentary law is limited, I shall do my best.” Fluent in both French and English, she kept the proceedings moving, on occasion even aiding the interpreters, some of whom at that time were not quite as accomplished as they were later to become. Prof. René Cassin, the French representative, a white-bearded jurist, voluble and swift in technical discussion, spoke once for twenty minutes without a halt and then with a courtly gesture to the interpreter said “traduction, s’il vous plaît.” The young woman began, stammered, flushed red, and ran from the room. When it became clear she was “gone for good,” Mrs. Roosevelt, hoping no one would say no, asked, “Did everyone understand what M. Cassin said?” When several said they had understood nothing, she undertook the translation. “I can’t give M. Cassin’s speech verbatim, but I can render the essential meaning.” She gave the commission a competent summary.

She was a vigorous, businesslike, although always gracious, chairman. She was four minutes late the second day. “I got mixed up on the subway again,” she explained to her colleagues, “but it won’t happen again.” The second week a case of the shingles, which explained why she had been wearing a gauze scarf, “got a little the better of me,” so she turned over the chairmanship to Professor Cassin. “But by Wednesday, I was able to start out again at 9:30, stay at Hunter College all day, and even keep my speaking engagement for the evening.” By the end of the three weeks the group had gotten through its agenda, which included proposals to the Economic and Social Council on the setting up of the permanent eighteen-nation Commission on Human Rights and on the drafting and implementation of an international bill of rights. At the very end of its deliberations, the Soviet delegate, a young man from the embassy, was replaced by the permanent representative on the commission, Alexander Borisov, who had just arrived. He asked Mrs. Roosevelt to fill him in and she carefully went over the points that had been accepted, with the concurrence of the Soviet delegate, and asked the interpreter to translate. He did, but Mr. Borisov said he did not understand and asked her to go over the
points again. She did so patiently and carefully. Again he claimed he did not understand. She made a third try but still without success, and it finally became clear to her that Mr. Borisov did not want to understand because not only did he refuse to join in the recommendations, but he wanted changed those records showing how his predecessor had voted on those recommendations. This, as chairman, she refused to do. She was “quite annoyed” with Borisov’s performance, she confessed a few months later.

No amount of argument ever changes what your Russian delegate says or how he votes. It is the most exasperating thing in the world, but I have made up my mind that I am going through all the arguments just as though I didn’t know at the time it would have no effect. If I have patience enough, in a year from now perhaps the Russians may come with a different attitude.

Borisov’s abstention was a portent of things to come, but did not affect the commission’s proposals. “I think we have done a helpful piece of work,” she summed up. “The real work, of course, remains to be done in the next series of meetings, when the actual writing of an international bill of rights will have to be undertaken.”

President Truman had said he wanted her to continue with the delegation when the General Assembly reconvened in New York City in October. She had a busy summer ahead. The estate was still unsettled. Tommy was not well. George Bye, her literary agent, was pressing her to go to work on her autobiography for the White House years. She worried about her children, all of whom faced problems of adjustment and settling down. She had financial problems. Her total income, including $30,000 from her husband’s estate, would come to $80,000 annually, she estimated, of which taxes would take $54,000. She needed $30,000 a year for living expenses, charities, pensions. She must not incur additional expenses, she told herself, and try somehow to bring her budget into balance.

She had kept her summer calendar free in order to work on the autobiography, but by Labor Day had managed to get drafts of only
two chapters written. It bored her to write about herself, she told friends. Her memory no longer was any good, she insisted. But basically what held her back was a fear she might not be able to do a good job. Many of FDR’s associates, meanwhile, were coming to her with their drafts of books and articles, asking for her help and imprimatur. Henry Morgenthau, Jr., wrote into his
contract that not one word should be printed without her approval. He did so out of loyalty to the president and Mrs. Roosevelt, but she did not wish to be saddled with such responsibility. And all the time she claimed she could not do a book, she was regaling guests and family with stories and evaluations of the White House years that seemed to them clearly to have the makings of a book. Labor Day week end she decided that it might be fun after all to go ahead. She had read Frances Perkins’s third installment of
Roosevelt I Knew
and felt it gave an inaccurate account of Franklin’s third-term decision and failed to do justice to the president’s background in economics. She began to see she had something to contribute toward history’s appraisal of her husband. She would get to work on it, she promised her household.

In August, 1946, she had an automobile accident while driving down from Hyde Park. It was a sign that even she was vulnerable to the ravages of age.

. . .I must have become drowsier than I realized and, before I knew it, I had come head on with another car in a collision and then sideswiped a second one. I was terrified to think that someone else might have been hurt.

There were some injuries but none serious. She had never had a motor accident before, she wrote in the column, which she insisted on filing, despite her shock and bruises. The sun, “together with the fact that I had no one sitting by to talk to me,” had combined to make her sleepy. “My eyes are black and blue. In fact, I am black and blue pretty much all over.” Her two front teeth had broken off about halfway. “Now I shall have two lovely porcelain ones, which will look far better than the rather protruding large teeth which
most of the Roosevelts have.”
She had to cancel several meetings and engagements, but by the end of October, when the General Assembly reconvened, she was ready again for the diplomatic fray.

Daily her tall, black-garbed figure could be seen at Lake Success and Flushing Meadow, slipping in and out of committee rooms, toting a worn briefcase, a fur scarf dangling over her arm, “the only delegate who is familiar with all the background material of her committees,” said a colleague. At lunch time she queued up in the large, noisy cafeteria, passing up the privacy and exclusiveness of the delegates’ dining room, talking animatedly with her State Department adviser on international law.

Again, as the U.S. representative on the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee of the General Assembly, she crossed swords with Vishinsky. Again, the issue was forced repatriation of refugees. There were still one million displaced persons in Europe, and Committee III debated the charter of an international refugee organization whose function it would be either to help repatriate, if that was what the refugees wished, or to resettle them. “Mr. Vishinsky’s view is that the problem is very simple and can be solved by repatriating all the displaced persons,” she said beginning her rebuttal. “This thesis ignores the facts of political changes in the countries of origin which have created fears in the minds of the million persons who remain, of such a nature that they choose the miserable life in camps in preference to the risks of repatriation.” Mr. Vishinsky wanted to know who these people were who, for political reasons, felt unable to return to their country.

I visited two camps near Frankfurt [she replied], where the majority of people had come from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. They did not want to return because their country no longer belonged to them. They did not appear to me to be fascists and Mr. Vishinsky’s assumption that all people who do not wish to return to the country of their origin because those countries are now under what is called “a democratic form of government” does not seem to allow for certain differences in the understanding of the word democracy. As he uses it, it would
seem that democracy is synonymous with Soviet. . . .Under that formula I am not very sure that he would accept some of the other nations in the world who consider themselves democracies and who are as willing to die for their beliefs as are the people of the Soviet Union.

The delegates from the non-Communist countries forgot diplomatic decorum to applaud her. The “Gibson girl” had again worsted the commissar, or so it seemed to one observer.

In January, 1947, the eighteen-nation Human Rights Commission held its first plenary session. Mrs. Roosevelt was the U.S. representative, appointed by President Truman to a four-year term. Again she was chosen chairman by acclamation. The other officers were a vice-chairman, Dr. Peng-Chun Chang, a scholarly Chinese diplomat, and the Commission’s
, Dr. Charles H. Malik of Lebanon, a Christian humanist with an ever-ready reference to Thomas Aquinas.

The initial debate was somewhat philosophical. There was a time, Dr. Chang challenged his European colleagues, when Chinese philosophic writings were well known to all the thinkers of Europe, but in the nineteenth century, Europeans became parochial and self-centered. Now, after the global war mankind must again think on a global scale. The Declaration should incorporate the ideas of Confucius as well as those of Thomas Aquinas. Later, when the professors tended to wander into the byways of abstraction and philosophic discourse, Mrs. Roosevelt would promptly call them back to the business that had to be accomplished, but at those first sessions, as she heard her learned colleagues argue the source and validation of human rights, she looked across at the visitors’ section, filled with high-school students, and wished she were “young again with years ahead of me to acquire knowledge!”

A more difficult task of intellectual reconciliation soon revealed itself in the remarks of the Yugoslav representative, who said that the emphasis in many of the bills of human rights that had been assembled by the Secretariat reflected the social and political ideals of the middle classes and were, therefore, obsolete. New trends in
the world made it impossible to consider individuals except collectively. In the modern world the social principle should have priority. Dr. Malik challenged the collectivist thesis with his own set of dicta: the “human person” is “prior” to any group to which he may belong whether it be class, race, or nation; his “mind and conscience” were the “most sacred and inviolable things about him”; the group “can be wrong, just as the human person can be; in any case it is only the human person who is competent to judge.” That touched off a philosophic Donnybrook Fair, with Russian Communist, British Socialist, and American democrat all entering the debate. “We’re living as individuals in a community and society,” protested the Soviet delegate, “and we’re working for the community and society and the community and society are providing the materials for existence.” The British spokesman, a trade-unionist, representing a Labor government, tended to agree:

There is no such thing as complete personal freedom. . . .If freedom or complete detachment from society were possible it would provide a very poor life indeed. We must all pay the price for advantages resulting from calling upon the state to safeguard our liberties both in the sense of personal freedom and also in the direction of the minimum degree of economic security.

Mrs. Roosevelt sided with Dr. Malik. She considered his statement “of particular importance. . . .It is not that you set the individual apart from society but that you recognize in any society that the individual must have rights that are guarded.” Malik got in the last word: “I’m not arbitrarily setting the state against the individual. But which, I ask, is for which? I say the state is for the individual.”

The debate had revealed two schools of thought within the Commission. “Our policy was to get a declaration which was a carbon copy of the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights,” said Hendrick. The Soviet stress was on the need to include all sorts of economic and social rights, “and the less said about freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, etc., the better.”
The State Department was lukewarm toward the inclusion of the newer rights. Mrs. Roosevelt, however, saw no reason why such rights should not be incorporated into the draft, and she succeeded in pulling the department along with her.

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