A Historian’s Quest in the Archives: How to Study Controversy around a Controversial President

Currently, I am in Hyde Park, New York, combing through the archives of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Have you heard of him? Of course you have! He was a pretty big deal. Not only was he elected when over a quarter of Americans were unemployed during the Great Depression – pulling them out of their collective misery through massive public works projects and reviving America’s trust in the economy through weekly radio broadcasts called “Fireside Chats”– but he also held office during one of the deadliest wars in American history. Oh, and he was crippled too. Having contracted polio in his 30s, he was the only physically disabled president to be elected to office. Ever.

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FDR served as US President from 1933 to 1945. Here’s a flattering photo, courtesy of Densho Encyclopaedia

Considered the most influential president of the 20th century, FDR’s impact has been felt ever since. Under his watch, unions were given the right to form. His government was the first to provide old-age security, unemployment benefits and disability and single-parent allowances. He introduced the American public to a new relationship with its government by calmly discussing the issues of the day over the radio while they sat comfortably in their homes. He declared that the role of the central government was to secure the material well-being of the American people.   Having enacted the Executive Reorganisation Bill in 1939, he broadened and increased the presidency’s overall responsibilities. He supported the United Nations and ensured the US had a key role in the UN’s Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (and thus, a key role in reshaping post-war Europe). FDR substantially changed America, and its position in the world.

But FDR also had major flaws. Politically, he broke the no-third-term rule in 1940 and sought to centralise the power of the presidency, leading some to question if he would become a dictator. Under his command, he allowed the harsh internment of Japanese-Americans on the west coast. After his death, many questioned why Roosevelt never took a leading role in helping the Jews of Europe, leaving their welfare instead to private organizations and charities. Some claimed he was a racist. Others said he was just a narcissist.

FDR also had an unusual personal life. He was a proper Mama’s boy.  The closeness to his mother created a toxic atmosphere, leaving little emotional room for anyone else. Despite his mother’s fierce opposition, he married his rather remarkable wife, Eleanor. They were cousins, albeit distant. But Eleanor was unusual too; she was an independent thinker and terribly clever, likely a lesbian, and eventually became a politician in her own right in the 1950s.

FDR Mom Eleanor

Sarah Roosevelt was a clever and educated woman who apparently doted on her son. At age 26, she married FDR’s father, James, 52 years old. The birth was difficult and she bore no other children. After James’ death in 1900, she held the majority of the Roosevelt fortune. Sarah died in 1941.

The Roosevelts had an odd relationship, which historians have commented served political ends rather than being a romantic union. But, they did produce six children! While Eleanor advocated for women’s rights and various social reforms, FDR pushed his own career towards vice presidency then eventually presidency. He dealt with a painful disability daily and he adequately “overcame” the perception of it (apparently, people didn’t realise the extent of his immobility because he was so excellent at hiding it in public). He even created a foundation and rehabilitation park for other polio victims in Well Springs, Georgia.

Roosevelt warm spring

FDR had contracted polio while at his summer home in Campobello, Canada, in July 1921. He was just 39 years old. He eventually founded a home for other polio victims in Warm Springs, Georgia, depicted here in 1924.

Affairs were rampant in the Roosevelt household. FDR kept close company with Eleanor’s secretary, Lucy Mercer and, later, his own personal secretary, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand.  Meanwhile Eleanor formed “close” relationships to like-minded women, going on holidays with them regularly, all with FDR’s blessing. He even built a small cottage for Eleanor and her friends to have sleepovers just two miles from the family home in Hyde Park. After her husband’s death, Eleanor became a chief philanthropist in post-war Europe, advocating for human rights (and especially children’s rights) in the new United Nations. Evidently, the Roosevelts lived remarkable and unusual lives, both together and apart.

Eleanor

Eleanor Roosevelt is celebrated as one of the most influential women of the 20th century. She pushed for social reforms, women’s rights, and human rights,  offering her help and influence to marginalised groups and fringe societies. Notably, Eleanor was chair of the United Nation’s Human Rights Commission and, in 1948, was the chief proponent of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1941, just a few years before FDR died, he oversaw the construction of the FDR Library and Archives on his family estate in Hyde Park. Not long after his death, his immediate family relinquished their rights to the estate and, at FDR’s request, it became a national park. Today it houses multiple series of the Roosevelt’s papers, with over 20,000 boxes of documents.

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The FDR Library. Critics claimed FDR’s library was a shameful display of self-promotion, but he claimed it accomplished two goals: preserve documents and provide transparency of all his actions to the American people.

This brings me back to why I’m here. Considering the complexity of these multi-faceted pillars of American history, it is important to approach the Roosevelts with caution and respect, right?

But it’s tricky. As a historian, it’s hard to remain objective when you want certain things to be true. Or, when your research subject is just as controversial as the Roosevelts.

While Eleanor intrigues me, I am actually here for FDR alone. I want to discover why FDR was an obstinate and obstructive SCHMUCK to his closest ally, the British, during the Second World War. Let me explain…

During the Second World War, one of the most powerful weapons the Allies held against Nazi Germany was the economic blockade of Nazi-controlled continental Europe. ALL trade, including relief, sent by the Allies to Germany OR German-occupied countries was strictly forbidden during the war. This prevented Germany from plundering relief, while also forcing Germany to take full responsibility for the territories it conquered. Over time, the blockade would apply considerable pressure upon Germany and strain its resources and, thus, its ability to win the war. Seems logical, right?

The blockade policy was one of those items that was constantly discussed by all levels of multiple governments. I’ve witnessed this in the German, British, Swiss and now American archives. It’s incredible. And surprisingly, very rarely discussed by historians in any great detail (see Meredith Hindley or Jean Beaumont’s “Starving for Democracy”).

Public pressure from various groups (for example, thousands of letters written by concerned Yorkshire women’s groups or Pennsylvanian famers or Belgian mothers or various Red Cross branches) meant that governments were always rejecting pleas for relief from well-meaning citizens, large reputable charities, or governments in exile. And, due to Germany’s considerable exploitation of its conquered territories, the list of those governments begging for relief was very long: Polish, Belgian, Norwegian, Dutch, French, Yugoslav…

But blockade policy remained practically unyielding. (The single exception during the entre war was Greece because of a massive famine, but you can read about that here). So long as the Allies could hold it together, maintain unity on this key war policy, then the blockade have the strongest effect on the enemy.

But humanity is cunning. Swiss charities sought to overcome the blockade by relocating children to Switzerland instead. Massive child evacuations, which is the core of my research, successfully relocated Belgian, French and Yugoslav children to Switzerland for three month periods of recuperation. And the Germans allowed it! No great inconvenience to them, because it removed many mouths to feed and pacified parents. Over 60,000 children were successfully evacuated in this way during the war, and another 100,000 in the post-war period. Impressive, eh?

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Swiss Red Cross nurses prepare to receive thousands of French and Belgian children at a train station in 1942 in Basel, Switzerland.

However, this changed in August 1942. Hitler’s armies invaded southern, unoccupied France and, soon after, began large round-ups of Jews. Initially, Jewish children were not included in the deportations to the East, which meant that thousands of children were abandoned and parentless. (A few weeks later though, the Germans rounded them up too).

Belgian Child

A Belgian child (4 years old) with severe malnutrition at a Swiss train station, 1942.

Due to this invasion and deportation, thousands of French children now needed immediate relief. Swiss charities grappled with how to help. They approached the Allied governments that perhaps these Swiss-run evacuations could be increased – possibly to over 100,000 children!  But, crucially, Switzerland too was experiencing war shortages – it could not adequately provide for all the children of Europe.  So perhaps the Allies would send relief (food, medicines, vitamins) directly to Switzerland for all these children?  Of course, the Swiss emphasised, they were neutral, not Nazi-controlled, so they were excluded from the Allies’ blockade policy.

It all sounds very logical. A clever and elegant solution to a major humanitarian crisis. While memos shot excitedly across the Atlantic between the US State Department and the British Foreign Office, dear President Roosevelt was having informal meetings with the Ambassador to Norway, Wilhelm Thorleif von Munthe af Morgenstierne. According to strongly-worded and angry British documents, in late October 1942, FDR promised the Ambassador – without consulting the British – that the US would send relief to Norway!

When the British heard of FDR’s assurances, they insisted that there was no way that relief could be sent to Norway without it being allowed also to Belgium, France, Poland, etc, thus breaking the blockade! Also, FDR’s promises complicated the possibility of sending relief to children evacuated to Switzerland, which would both relieve children while also respecting the blockade. Therefore, the British emphatically conveyed their absolute rejection of FDR’s promises to Norway in November 1942 and keenly awaited the American reply.

However, no reply was given. British documents reveal acute frustration and abhorrence that the US would ignore the British regarding such an important subject, to such an extent that Churchill himself was lobbied to become involved. And although Churchill and FDR met at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, the British government still received no official reply. WHY?

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FDR and Churchill were close allies during the war. The complete (and overwhelmingly detailed) correspondence was compiled by Warren F Kimball in THREE volumes. Notably, when writing informally, Churchill was referred to as “Former Naval Person.” Only in official correspondence was his title “Prime Minister,” indicating the intimacy of their relationship.

By August 1943, the Americans finally gave a half-hearted, vague and conditional reply that they might support extra provisions to Switzerland, but the British, Swiss and Americans took no action. Allied support for child evacuations was not raised again between the British and US until May 1944, just one month before the Allied invasion of Europe on DDay. Of course, by that point, a humanitarian mission for children was hardly as important as the rapid liberation of oppressed nations by the largest invasion in history.

BUT.

Why did FDR promise such a thing to Norway? Was it during a schmoozy, drunken lunch or a formal high-level meeting? Was the promise conditional or was it a blank cheque? Did the Norwegian Ambassador perhaps misunderstand FDR’s “promise” and in fact, no promise was made? Or was FDR’s “promise” actually hollow – perhaps a vain attempt to get the insistent Norwegian off his back – and the British were just overreacting? But then, if that was the case, why would FDR not reply immediately to his ally? Why ignore their determined attempts to find out what happened? WHY? Why, oh President Roosevelt, why?

Meanwhile, let’s all remember: children are starving, being rounded up and sent to concentration camps, experiencing violence and bombings and general oppression. This makes any bureaucratic error or deliberate avoidance all the more inexcusable.

This is the purpose of my research visit. To discover the answer to these questions. My current historical opinion of FDR is not too complimentary. But even I know it’s not fair to FDR, his legacy, or the study of history to jump to conclusions. Which brings me back to my original assessment of FDR…

President Roosevelt was obviously a brilliant politician and, in many ways, a great strategist. His lasting legacy is a testament to his commendable, practical approach and determination to improve American lives. But he also prioritised certain lives over others, and was a blatant narcissist. FDR liked being in control – to such an extent as being classified as a dictator – and sought personal validation from various audiences.  Some legitimate, and some behind closed doors.

A large part of good historical research is accurately determining the motives, personalities, and fears of major historical figures. Both the problem and beauty of studying FDR as a historical topic is that he was just as flawed as he was extraordinary. Throughout his remarkable but challenged life, he engaged with a broader spectrum of victory (and failure!) than others, so predicting his motivations will be exceptionally difficult. He is an infinitely complex character.

My hunch about the whole promising-relief-to-Norway thing? Based upon all the research, documentaries, articles and books I’ve had to read about the man, FDR was NOT impulsive. FDR was deliberate and purposeful.  Everything he did was meaningful and goal-oriented. He was an impeccable strategist. Therefore, I truly think that President Roosevelt had a reason behind his promise to Norway. Now, I just need to figure it out…

Wish me luck!

Why Save the Children’s Graphic Photos Still Work Today

There is a massive famine and outbreak of cholera currently in Yemen. The United Nations recently calculated that over 20 million Yemenis are in need of immediate assistance. To put this in perspective, Yemen is a country with only 28 million people. That means that two thirds of an entire country are suffering to such a degree to require international assistance. Incredible.

In the background of this massive crisis is a civil war. In January 2015, decade-long tensions erupted between a separatist group named the Houthis (a Zaidi Shia Muslim minority) and the authoritarian president Mr. Hadi. After the Houthis surrounded the presidential palace and placed the government under house arrest, Saudi Arabia intervened and is now leading another eight Sunni Arab states in a bombing campaign to restore power back into the Yemeni government’s hands. And civil war continues to this day.

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The city of Taiz has been ravaged by two years of battles between forces loyal to President Hadi, Houthi rebels and al-Qaeda

Importantly, a major port in the south called Hodeidah was seized by the Houthis. This port supplies Yemen with over 80% of its food imports. The Saudis won’t let relief ships dock there because the supplies would fall into the Houthis’ hands. This has delayed life-saving supplies for months.  Currently, the UN Security Council is trying to intervene to claim the port as strictly neutral. Let’s hope they can succeed.

In the last two years, hospitals and clinics have been destroyed. Government health officials have not been paid in a year. The basic necessities of life, like clean water and food, are a daily struggle to obtain. Cholera, which is spread by contaminated water, can kill within hours if untreated. By August 2017, it has infected more than 425,000 Yemenis and killed 1,900. And the situation is growing so severe that Oxfam calculates those infected with cholera could rise to more than 600,000 (which would exceed Haiti in 2011). The situation is obviously very grim.

Yemen Cholera Water

These Yemeni women queue for clean water. Rowa Mohammed Assayaghi, a medical microbiologist at Yemen’s Sana’a University is teaching people how to wash their hands. “Focusing on health awareness is one of the most important measures to follow,” she says.

Calls for relief from various NGOs and charities are spreading throughout the West. I’ve noticed it more recently, even on my Facebook feed. But with more than one million malnourished children under the age of 5 living in areas with high levels of cholera, charities are getting desperate. Pictures of emaciated Yemeni children are now popping up repeatedly on news websites and social media everywhere. It’s heart-breaking to watch, and uncomfortable to see (especially after I Instagram my latest foodie pic).

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A mother carries her son Imran Faraj, 8 year-old, who is suffering from malnutrition at a hospital in the port city of Hodeidah. This photo is from an Independent article in June.

When inundated with these grim photos, it sadly echoes so many other previous campaigns we may remember from past: AIDS orphans, Rwandan genocide victims, displaced children in the Sudan, starving children in Somalia, and so many others. But it’s effective. By pushing the suffering and starvation of the world’s absolute poorest children upon the western world, charities are using a remarkable game-changing strategy first used by Save the Children in the early 1920s. It changed both how we perceive children, and how we perceive ourselves. But first, the history…

Immediately after the First World War began, the Allies/Entente Powers blockaded Germany and Austria, meaning they did not send supplies, exports or any traded goods to their enemy. Much like Saudi Arabia is doing to Yemen today, blockading supplies was an effective economic weapon, especially against countries (like Germany) that depended heavily upon imports to feed its citizens.

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A Berlin butcher’s shop is looted in 1919. A combination of bad harvests and incompetent regulation of food distribution, in addition to the British blockade, made the situation far worse.

The First World War was slow-moving, hard-fought and resulted in massive causalities. An estimated 10 million people were displaced during the war. And despite the Armistice in November 1918, the food blockade against Germany and Austria continued and did not end until Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. That eight month period between the “end of war” and the “start of peace” resulted in mass starvation among the children of Germany and Austria.

For example, a Swiss doctor of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Dr. Frédéric Ferrière, reported that out of nearly 60,000 children examined in 1918 in Vienna, only 4,637 had been in good health. In other words, 93% of children were in bad health. (For more, see André Durand’s History of the International Committee of the Red Cross from Sarajevo to Hiroshima).

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Eglantyne Jebb (1876-1928) spent many years working for charities before founding Save the Children. Despite her good education and well-to-do British background, Jebb found that she was a poor teacher and not fond of children. Ironically, she became one of their chief champions in modern history.

Meanwhile, one of the first women educated at Oxford, Eglantyne Jebb, had worked for charities for years and was growing concerned about the fate of German and Austrian children under the blockade. We must remember that Germans (“the Huns”) were Britain’s national enemy for four long years. Thus, to overlook this and consider the suffering of the Germany and Austria’s children was quite remarkable. Jebb formed the Famine Council on 1 January 1919 with the direct desire to end the British blockade.

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The front page of the Detroit Sunday News on 29 June 1919

But Jebb soon discovered that her new council was not very effective. Numerous British charities were pleading for donations for various causes in 1919, such as for veterans returning home who were disabled and jobless, or countless families that fell into poverty after the war. Distributing leaflets with dense information, and by collaborating with churches and clubs to get members to donate, these various charities relentlessly campaigned for vulnerable groups. Jebb’s message was not only drowned out by the various other charities, but people were not rising above their national interests, their national prejudices, their national perspectives, to care for foreign children. Children, especially foreign ones, were often the last priority.

But Jebb and her sister, Dorothy Jebb Buxton, found a remarkable solution. They took to the streets of London and circulated a graphic “Starving Baby” leaflet. Instead of using dense text to explain her campaign to readers, Jebb plastered a large photo of a starving, desperate and pitiful 2-and-a-half-year-old Austrian baby on her leaflet. This image was haunting and even caught the attention of the local police. Although they were both arrested for spreading “unpatriotic propaganda,” Jebb (acting as her own attorney) argued the leaflets were not political, but humanitarian. The judge gave her a light fine of £5 and she reportedly felt victorious.

This was the beginning of a new type of campaigning. This was a new type of humanitarianism.

Starving Baby Leaflet

This leaflet was an unconventional way to provoke attention and revolutionised how charities campaigned for children. You may notice that Jebb does not identify the child as Austrian.

On 15 April 1919, Jebb founded the Save the Children Fund. This charity was the first to promote an abstract image of a “child.” It was the first charity to present children a symbol, an universal archetype, which were worthy of humanitarian relief, irrespective of race, nationality or creed.

Meanwhile, various noteworthy international organisations gathered in Switzerland.  They adopted neutrality and impartiality as a key strategy to facilitate relief and prevent further war. Even Save the Children moved its headquarters from London to Geneva symbolise its separation from political powers. Humanitarian historians Emily Baughan and Juliano Fiori claim that Save the Children’s apolitical approach meant that the “innate innocence and value of children (prevented) popular opposition to its humanitarian activities.” (“Save the Children, the humanitarian project, and the politics of solidarity,” in Disasters, 39 (S2): 132). For who, indeed, would oppose such humanitarian action for children?

Herbert Hoover’s relief programs, which had been incredibly successful in Belgium, also provided American food aid to Austrian children. However, relief was given in exchange for gold in 1919, which drained what little remained in Austria’s coffers in the aftermath of the war (see William E. Leuchtenburg’s Herbert Hoover). But Save the Children channelled its relief towards those same children without compensation or political gain.

Save teh Children Russia

By 1921, when the Russian Civil War had produced countless refugees and starving children, the Save the Children Fund had found it’s stride. It campaigned on the big screen by showing films of the conditions children faced to British audiences. It was unlike anything else seen at the time.

By depoliticizing the Save the Children charity and the concept of suffering children, the response for famine relief for children was considerably successful, especially in Russia. Although no humanitarian organisation can ever be entirely apolitical (!!!), Jebb and Save the Children had found a way to overcome the nationalist and prejudiced perceptions of its donors. The archetypal child had been born.

The idea of the “universal child” was also strongly defined by the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1924. Much like Moses descending from the mountain, the story goes that Eglantyne Jebb returned from a walk in the hills around Geneva and wrote five famous articles:

  1. The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.
  2. The child that is hungry must be fed; the child that is sick must be nursed; the child that is backward must be helped; the delinquent child must be reclaimed; and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succoured.
  3. The child must be first to receive relief in times of distress.
  4. The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood and must be protected against every form of exploitation.
  5. The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow men.
Declaration of Rights of the Child

Jebb’s Declaration (1924), pictured here, also formed the basis of the ten-article Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the United Nations on 20 November 1959, some 40 years after the foundation of the Save the Children Fund.

On 26 November 1924, this Declaration was approved by the League of Nations. The members of the League were not obligated to integrate the Declaration into their own national legislation, so it did not guarantee any changes to national laws. But historian Bruno Cabanes (The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, 1918-1924) argues that the 1924 Declaration singled out the protection and welfare of children as priorities for the international community and, ultimately, was more significant for its moral import than for its legal weight.

So what?

The methods of Save the Children really has saved the children. Due to the Jebb’s honest, graphic but highly impartial approach, children from all over the world are valued, regardless of their race, class or religion. Although this may not guarantee that everyone generously donates to children’s charities, it does, at the very least, overcome many nationalist and racial prejudices. And, what’s incredible is that it’s still effective today! Whether it’s a starving Austrian child due to a blockade, a African orphan of AIDS,  a drowned Syrian child on a beach, a war-stricken bombed out boy in an ambulance in Aleppo, or now Yemeni children with cholera in the midst of civil war, we can go past many labels and prejudices to see them for what they are – children.

To a certain extent, this also changes how we perceive ourselves. By promoting the concept of the “universal child” it also simultaneously reinforces the concept of a “universal guardian.” Human cultures fundamentally protect and provide for society’s most vulnerable members.  By reacting to these images of starving children with dismay and shock, and by feeling a sense of injustice, then the viewers are also imparted with a sense of responsibility. Children cannot protect or provide for themselves so we – the guardians – must intervene.

Children’s rights today are still evolving world-wide. Over 100 million children work in hazardous conditions and have no access to education. Thousands are child soldiers. Some states imprison children as young as 12 years old. Over half of today’s 65 million refugees are children.

Although Eglantyne Jebb may have been discussing starving German and Austrian children, her words are still present in today’s campaigns for Yemeni children: “The only international language in the world is a child’s cry.”