Travel Was a Driver of Eleanor Roosevelt's LeadershipHistorians/History
tags: Eleanor Roosevelt, World War 2
Shannon McKenna Schmidt is the author of The First Lady of World War II: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Daring Journey to the Frontlines and Back (Sourcebooks/May 2). She is also the co-author of Novel Destinations: A Travel Guide to Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West (National Geographic).
Eleanor Roosevelt speaks with an American serviceman near a downed Japanese fighter plane on the island of Guadalcanal, 1943.
“MR. PRESIDENT WOULD YOU PLEASE SUGGEST THAT MRS. ROOSEVELT CONFINE HER DUTIES MORE TO THE WHITE HOUSE.”
The couple from Atlanta who sent the demanding telegram to President Franklin D. Roosevelt weren’t alone in their criticism of the First Lady.
From the time Eleanor Roosevelt entered the White House in 1933, she sharply divided public opinion. Traditionally, First Ladies were supposed to be discreet figures in the presidential background. They stayed close to the White House, primarily overseeing social functions, and took no active part in public life. When Eleanor stepped into the role, she was well established as a writer, educator, political advocate, and traveler. And yet even she, a daring early advocate of commercial air travel and a frequent flier who wanted to become a pilot, was expected to stay grounded at the White House.
Instead, travel became a key factor in Eleanor’s success as First Lady.
Within days of FDR’s inauguration, she flew from Newark, New Jersey, to Washington, D.C., on a bumpy flight buffeted by strong winds, and was officially on record as the first president’s wife to travel by air. The next year, she took a flight from Miami to Puerto Rico at her husband’s behest to report on labor and living conditions on the island. The fact that she flew over water enhanced her reputation as fearless and unconventional.
All the while, the nation, unused to First Ladies “darting about,” watched her “with mingled admiration and alarm,” stated a news reporter. When Eleanor wasn’t taking to the skies, she was often traveling by train or behind the wheel of her car. (She won a showdown with the Secret Service over driving her own car and going about unaccompanied.) Gas station attendants between the capital and New York City kept an eye out for her famous blue roadster, while a man in Maine refused to believe she was the president’s wife because she drove her own car.
But Eleanor didn’t travel merely for the thrill of it. An innate love of the road inherited from her adventurous father, who once spent part of his inheritance on a trek to India and the Himalayas, melded with a curiosity for knowledge and a desire to get to know people from all walks of life. “Instead of going in search of beauty or remarkable artistic collections, or any of the things for which we usually travel to strange places,” she said, “I traveled to see and meet people.”
To the dismay of traditionalists like the Atlanta couple, it was outside the White House where Eleanor decided that she could best help her husband, by being his “listening post.” It was vital, she believed, for politicians, and especially the president, to keep in touch with public opinion, “the moving force in a democracy.” It was also difficult for the commander-in-chief, siloed in Washington, to achieve this. And so she did it for him.
Eleanor’s self-made role fueled her strong sense of social responsibility and satisfied her wanderlust. “I want to know the whole country,” she said, “not a little part of it.” She earned a reputation for wanting to see things for herself, ceaselessly crisscrossing the United States giving speeches and inspecting New Deal initiatives. She visited factories, schools, hospitals, homesteads, and migrant camps. One morning, Americans opened their newspapers to find out their First Lady had descended two and a half miles beneath the hills in rural Ohio to explore a coal mine. A longtime advocate for the rights of coal miners and other workers, she seized this chance to learn about their livelihood firsthand. She saw how coal was mined, entering a chamber where minutes earlier coal had been blasted from the walls, and discussed wages and working conditions with hundreds of miners.
Eleanor was famous for her travels, or infamous depending on the perspective, and she routinely made headlines for them. She averaged an astounding 40,000 miles on the road each year seeking out Americans in their own communities. Everywhere she went, she asked people what they thought and what they needed. The information she gathered was used to exact change through her own means and platforms, as well as to aid the president and his policy advisers.
“You know my Missus gets around a lot,” Franklin boasted in a cabinet meeting. “She’s got great talent with people.”
Despite having the president’s backing, Eleanor’s intrepidness and independence continually created controversy. During the 1936 presidential election, as Franklin sought a second term, her travels were wielded as a political weapon by the opposition. Voters were assured that the Republican candidate’s wife, Mrs. Alf Landon, was a traditional wife and mother who would stay at home. Franklin won re-election in a landslide.
Five years and another successful re-election later, the United States officially entered World War II. With the onset of war, many Americans found themselves in far-flung locales well beyond the country’s borders, among them hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and marines serving in the Pacific. Just as Eleanor had been doing for a decade, she would go to them, venturing into a theater of war unlike any other in history—one where fighting took place across great distances on water and in places with harsh, unfamiliar surroundings.
All of Eleanor’s fact-finding expertise and travel savvy culminated in a precedent-breaking trip to the Pacific theater in August 1943. And yet even for an experienced traveler like Eleanor, this undertaking was further, longer, and more arduous than anything she had previously done. And it was more dangerous. During the five-week trip, she covered 25,000 miles trekking to Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia, through the South Pacific and into territory still under enemy air attack. Along the way she thanked hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops for their service, bolstered diplomatic ties with Allied nations New Zealand and Australia, and linked the fighting front with the home front by reporting the unvarnished truth about what she encountered to the president and to the American people.
A reporter at the time described Eleanor’s trip to the Pacific theater—and I believe this still stands—as “the most remarkable journey any president’s wife has ever made.”