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Authors: Stephen Drury Smith

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July 18, 1940, 11:30 a.m. (NBC Red and Blue Networks)

In 1940, FDR decided to seek an unprecedented third term in office. He was ambivalent about running again. He had spent eight grueling years in office leading the country through depression and preparing it to defend itself against the Axis. Roosevelt had told confidants that he wanted to retire to his country estate in Hyde Park, New York. But with war closing in, FDR felt both an obligation and a desire to stay in command. ER also had mixed feelings about spending another four years in the White House. She found the role of a political spouse both constraining and, at times, tedious. But she did not discourage FDR from running. With war on the horizon, she felt there were few people qualified to succeed him.

FDR chose not to attend the 1940 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. There was little doubt that he would be nominated, but many of the party faithful in Chicago were in a sour mood over how Roosevelt's political lieutenants tried to manage the convention. ER and
party chairman James Farley were at odds. The delegates were divided on a host of issues, including FDR's choice for a running mate, agriculture secretary Henry Wallace. A liberal idealist with shallow support in the party, Wallace was opposed by a variety of factions, including isolationists who feared that Wallace and FDR were keen to go to war.

The atmosphere at the convention grew increasingly ugly. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, who was at the event, phoned FDR and suggested that the first lady come to Chicago to help calm the waters. “I think she would make an excellent impression,” FDR replied. “You know, Eleanor always makes people feel right.”
1
ER thought the idea “utter nonsense” but she agreed to go.
2

ER found the convention in turmoil and confusion. To her surprise, she was asked to address the delegates. The rowdy convention delegates grew silent as ER approached the podium. It was the first time a first lady had addressed a political convention. She kept her remarks brief. She told the delegates they should set aside their individual interests for the good of the party and the nation. “This is no ordinary time,” ER said, as she encouraged the party faithful to come together. After she finished, the delegates nominated Henry Wallace for vice president.

ER: Delegates to the convention, visitors, friends: It is a great pleasure for me to be here and to have an opportunity to say a word to you. First of all, I think I want to say a word to our national chairman, James A. Farley. For many years I have worked under Jim Farley and with Jim Farley, and I think nobody could appreciate more what he has done for the party, what he has given in work and loyalty. And I want to give him here my thanks and devotion.

And now I think that I should say to you that I cannot possibly bring you a message from the president because he will give you his own message. But as I am here, I want you to know that no one could not be conscious of the confidence which you have expressed in him.

I know and you know that any man who is in an office of great responsibility today faces a heavier responsibility, perhaps, than any man has ever faced before in this country. Therefore, to be a candidate of either great political party is a very serious and solemn thing.

You cannot treat it as you would treat an ordinary nomination in an ordinary time. We people in the United States have got to realize today that we face a grave and serious situation.

Therefore, this year the candidate who is the president of the United States cannot make a campaign in the usual sense of the word. He must be on his job.

So each and every one of you who give him this responsibility, in giving it to him assume for yourselves a very grave responsibility because you will make the campaign. You will have to rise above considerations which are narrow and partisan.

You must know that this is the time when all good men and women give every bit of service and strength to their country that they have to give. This is the time when it is the United States that we fight for, the domestic policies that we have established as a party that we must believe in, that we must carry forward, and in the world we have a position of great responsibility.

We cannot tell from day to day what may come. This is no ordinary time. No time for weighing anything except what we can do best for the country as a whole, and that responsibility rests on each and every one of us as individuals.

No man who is a candidate or who is president can carry this situation alone. This is only carried by a united people who love their country and who will live for it to the fullest of their ability, with the highest ideals, with a determination that their party shall be absolutely devoted to the good of the nation as a whole and to doing what this country can to bring the world to a safer and happier condition.

25.

“Shall We Arm Merchant Ships?”

Over Our Coffee Cups
, presented by the Pan-American Coffee Bureau

Sunday, October 12, 1941, 6:45–7:00 p.m. (NBC Blue Network)

Eleanor Roosevelt began the most significant series of her radio programs in fall 1941, as the United States was gradually being drawn again into world war. A year earlier, Congress had passed the first peacetime draft in the nation's history. FDR had asked Congress to approve a massive armament-production program to build 50,000 airplanes a year and to greatly expand the Navy. On December 29, 1940, FDR used a Fireside Chat to persuade Americans that the United States should drop its pretense of neutrality and become an “arsenal of democracy” by ramping up war matériel production to support Great Britain. Roosevelt also made a pact with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill known as the Lend-Lease Agreement. America would lend World War I–era destroyers to Britain, and in return Britain would lease certain military bases to the United States.

Eleanor Roosevelt's
Over Our Coffee Cups
program was sponsored by the Pan-American Coffee Bureau, a trade group representing seven coffee-growing Latin American countries. On this Sunday-evening program, ER commented on the week's news and interviewed guests. War naturally dominated much of the discussion on the thirteen-week series. ER also returned to themes she had developed in earlier programs, columns, and articles. She stressed that tolerance was essential to a healthy democracy, especially in a time of crisis. She called for free speech, equal treatment regardless of race or gender, the right to dissent, and the obligation of citizens to serve their country. On October 12, ER opened her program with a response to a speech made the previous week by Charles Lindbergh to an anti-interventionist rally in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The aviator charged that FDR had taken on dictatorial powers and was determined to plunge the nation into war. Lindbergh alleged that the president might even suspend the 1942 federal elections to prevent his adversaries from winning seats in Congress. “Such a condition may not be many steps ahead on the road our president is taking us,” Lindbergh said.
1

War in the Atlantic was on the minds of many Americans in the fall of 1941. German submarines had sunk more than 1,000 Allied merchant ships. In May 1941, a U-boat, acting without orders, sank the American merchant ship
Robin Moor
in the South Atlantic. The United States did not retaliate, but that summer FDR approved a plan to have Navy ships escort merchant traffic as far as Iceland. In September 1941, FDR responded to a U-boat attack on the USS
Greer
, a destroyer, by ordering the Navy to shoot at German U-boats on sight.

In her October 12 broadcast, ER commented on the recent sinking of a Panamanian tanker owned by a subsidiary of Standard Oil. The ship was transporting petroleum to a British port. Many of the men on board the I.
C. White
were Americans. Three of the thirty-seven man crew died in the attack. ER gave her listeners a humanizing picture of American
merchant seamen risking their lives in the Atlantic. She said all Allied seamen, including two English boys she had met, “should be protected.”

On October 19, 1941, ER commented on a Senate subcommittee investigation, led by anti-interventionist senator Burton K. Wheeler, a Montana Democrat, into the alleged production of pro-intervention films in Hollywood.

Civilian defense was a frequent topic of the
Over Our Coffee Cups
program. President Roosevelt had appointed colorful New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia to head the recently created Office of Civilian Defense (OCD). The agency's mission was to lift home-front morale by enlisting local volunteers across the country to strengthen and defend their communities. OCD volunteers conducted blackout exercises, filled sandbags, and established air-raid response plans. ER was persuaded by La Guardia's aides to take a position as an assistant director for volunteer coordination in the OCD. ER was especially interested in using her authority to see that women had meaningful work to do defending the home front. It marked the first time a president's wife had been given a federal appointment. ER's job would produce a lot of headlines, many of them critical.

ER wanted to use the OCD to provide local communities with social services such as child care and health programs, in addition to training local airplane spotters and civilian firefighters. ER believed that civilian defense depended on healthy communities. Maurine Beasley argues that ER “saw civil defense as an instrument for the continuation of progressive social legislation, which she feared would be forgotten in the present emergency.”
2
On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, ER flew with La Guardia to the West Coast. They were there to inspect civilian defense preparations and to ease public fears about a rumored Japanese attack on Pacific Coast communities. During the tour, ER posed for news photos with Japanese Americans and used her newspaper column to say that the treatment of Japanese
citizens would be “perhaps the greatest test this country has ever met.”
3
ER opposed the internment of Japanese Americans and had tried to convince FDR privately it was a bad idea. But once his decision was made she supported it publicly. Historians have found curiously little in ER's paper trail to explain her relative silence on an issue that she clearly felt strongly about. Beasley asserts that ER stayed quiet because “Franklin probably demanded it.”
4

Eleanor Roosevelt kept her OCD post for five months. She outraged Congress and got attacked in the press for staffing some OCD projects with friends or celebrities—including film star Melvyn Douglas—who got handsome salaries and were said to have Communist ties. She was ridiculed for hiring a dancer named Mayris Chaney to develop recreational programs for children in bomb shelters. Under fire, ER resigned the OCD position and used her February 22, 1942,
Coffee Cups
program to fire back at her critics, including newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler.

When the thirteen-week series of radio programs ended, the Pan-American Coffee Bureau renewed for another thirteen weeks. In retrospect, it seems extraordinary that a president's wife would take pay from foreign governments—even friendly ones—in a time of war. The program's commercial segments made implicit reference to FDR's so-called Good Neighbor Policy of nonintervention and noninterference in Latin American affairs. The program also played off the recognition that, should the Axis powers seek a beachhead in the Americas, the first likely targets would be in Latin America.

ANNOUNCER: The Pan-American Coffee Bureau presents Eleanor D. Roosevelt's views on current events,
Over Our Coffee Cups.

VOICE 1: Get more out of your work!

VOICE 2: Get more glamour!

VOICE 3: Get more fun!

ANNOUNCER: Get more out of life with coffee! And here's how Miss Elvira Lane, alert and charming stewardess of American Airlines' famous flagship fleet, gets more out of life with coffee: Miss Lane tells us, and we quote:

VOICE FOR LANE: “An airline stewardess has to be a sort of flying encyclopedia, whether it's how to feed a six-week-old baby or explaining radio direction signals. It's important for us to know all the answers, just as it's important for us always to be cheerful, courteous, and levelheaded. That's why I'm sure we're all such coffee drinkers. We find that coffee steadies our nerves and actually gives us the extra energy we need for our jobs. When the job is done, naturally, there's nothing like a good cup of coffee to pep a girl up and start her off on a happy evening of pleasure and relaxation. We air stewardesses surely do get more out of life with coffee.”

ANNOUNCER: Another lovely lady, a motion-picture star, has a tip to give on how to be beautiful. We'll give you this glamour tip before the conclusion of this broadcast. But now the Pan-American Coffee Bureau's charming news analyst is ready to give you
Over Our Coffee Cups
, her weekly digest of world events. Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt.

ER: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Some of you may have read with tremors a speech made a short time ago in which it was suggested that in 1942 the citizens of this country would no longer be allowed to vote. As a consequence, of course, I suppose all rights and duties of Congress would have to be abrogated. So I am not surprised to see some dark hints here and there which suggest that the executive branch of the government will take all kinds of vital steps which in the past required the cooperation of the legislative branch, without that branch being given an opportunity to express an opinion.

On the other side of the ledger, in the hope that it may give some comfort to the worried souls, I should like to point out that the executive has just sent a message to Congress, and the sending of that message
to Congress, it seems to me, is an acknowledgment that Congress has an equal responsibility to carry certain burdens
with
the executive.

BOOK: The First Lady of Radio
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