“The Soviets can’t want their destruction any more than we want ours...”
“The H-Bomb is apparently the bomb that the scientists feel is the greatest menace to mankind...”
“I do not think that we need feel we are going to fall behind the Soviets in research simply because we can’t take the final step of testing an instrument which is already poisoning the atmosphere…”
A DETAILED, IMPASSIONED LETTER ILLUSTRATING ROOSEVELT’S PROMINENCE IN PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS AND HER POSITION ON BANNING NUCLEAR TESTING.
An important, lengthy letter signed by Eleanor Roosevelt, with numerous autograph corrections, written to an important political figure eleven days before the 1956 presidential election in which she campaigned for Adlai Stevenson, expressing the importance of a nuclear test ban. The letter reads (in full):
My dear Friend:
I was very sorry to get your letter and also sorry to see your statement in the paper. I feel it was a mistake for Mr. Stevenson or Mr. Finletter not to have explained to you long ago what they were actually proposing, as you have evidently accepted the Republican interpretation of Mr. Stevenson's suggestion. I grant you his first speech was not sufficiently explanatory but since then he has made very clear what he is trying to do and more than 270 scientists have agreed with his position.
The administration tries to say that tests of the H-Bomb must go on or we would be set back two years should the Soviets decide to have the tests after agreeing not to. They also say that after all they have been working patiently to abolish all nuclear weapons and the only real way to have safety is through disarmament with inspection. I will agree entirely on this and so would Mr. Stevenson. This is the ultimate goal but we need badly a gesture to gain the confidence of countries of the world who can't possibly afford a war, since it now appears that we are always saying "No" and the Soviets are always making proposals which we are obliged to refuse.
The H-Bomb is apparently the bomb that the scientists feel is the greatest menace to mankind and at the same time the explosion of this bomb is the one thing so far we have always been able to detect. The administration says that it is possible the Soviets may find some place in central Siberia where they can make explosions without our knowing about it, the Soviets could, on the other hand, be saying we may find such a place also. We would have to weigh the risk, between at some point destroying the human race, and the possibility of not detecting experiments on the H-Bomb and finding ourselves behind [the next two sentences are crossed out]. Our scientists would certainly continue all research up to the point of testing for they would know that this danger always existed.
In recounting his achievements, the President did not mention his greatest achievement—the actual coming into being [?] the use of atomic energy for peacetime purposes to which 82 nations agree. This is a real historic step, and even though there was the greatest difficulty trying to insure that fissionable materials would not be used for military purposes, they found a way to do it. We might say there was a risk in this but the President must believe it is one of his greatest achievements, though he forgot to mention it when he was mentioning others that did not seem to me to be really valid.
I know you know more about the need for inspection and control and have made a greater study of this question than anyone else and I could not agree with you more that this is a necessary step to reach a real disarmament in this whole nuclear field, but it may take a very long time to get there and at the present moment with the troubles multiplying for the Soviet Union and the explosion of the H-Bomb menacing all the human race (and the Soviets can't want their destruction any more than we want ours), it seems to me a reasonable risk to try to emphasize our desire for peace by making, within the disarmament conference this proposal. I do not think that we need feel we are going to fall behind the Soviets in research simply because we can't take the final step of testing an instrument which is already poisoning the atmosphere in many areas of the world. I was just told the other day of one area where it has affected the milk production, and this can be multiplied by effects which are being reported every day.
I will be glad when you are back again, though I will be away the first four days of November. I will hope to see you, however, on the 5th if you are feeling well.
I am glad that Camelback Inn proved a lovely place
[signed] Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt and the 1956 Presidential Campaign
Written just eleven days before the 1956 presidential election, the letter offered here expresses Eleanor Roosevelt’s grave concerns about nuclear testing, an important issue during the election. Roosevelt actively campaigned for Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, who lost the election in a landslide to incumbent Dwight Eisenhower. During the month of October alone Roosevelt campaigned in California, West Virginia, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, Delaware, and of course her home state of New York. Furthermore, she continued her work with the United Nations during this time. On the day of this letter, 26th of October she traveled from Delaware to New York. In the letter, she tells her friend that she will not be around again until the 5th of November (one day before the election), suggesting that she will be back on the campaign trail until election day. Indeed, she was in California, Kansas, Illinois, and Washington in the last few days before she returned home on November 5.
Nuclear Testing: A Prominent Issue in the 1956 Presidential Election
Between 1945 and 1956, over one hundred nuclear tests were conducted, and by the mid 1950’s the concern was growing over the environmental impacts of the testing. In May, 1954, the United States tested a hydrogen bomb in the Marshall Islands, which created a significant radiological disaster, contaminating civilians and servicemen in the area, as well as marine life.
As the letter reveals, Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson campaigned in favor of a nuclear testing ban, a position that the Republicans argued would weaken the United States since there were no guarantees that the Soviets would adhere to such a ban. In the letter, Roosevelt effectively deconstructs the Republican arguments in favor of continuing testing using a variety of strategies, perhaps most importantly by reminding the reader that the threat nuclear testing poses to human life far outweighs the possible risk of the Soviets potentially conducting secret tests.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s Role in Public Life and Nuclear Testing
Following the 1945 death of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt remained active in public and political life. Both Presidents Truman and Kennedy appointed her to the United Nations General Assembly, where she chaired the Human Right Commission. Roosevelt used her pen to great effect in advancing her ideas through her “My Day” column, which ran from 1936 to 1962. At its peak, she wrote six columns each week for over 70 syndicated publications with an estimated readership of over four million people. While of course her interests changed over the nearly three decades of the column, she used “My Day” to spread her political and social ideas. During the mid 1950’s many of her columns implored her readers to support the banning of nuclear testing. Often, she appealed directly to women, as in her column of October 27 (the day following the letter offered here) where she wrote: ”I feel very strongly that the women of this country, who are fundamentally the conservers of human life, will want to think seriously about the risks involved. Whatever one does involves some risk and I prefer to take what seems to me the smaller risk of not creating an explosion rather than the one of continuing to do something which might, at a given point we cannot yet ascertain, destroy the human race without a war.”
Aftermath of the Election & Nuclear Testing
Although the election results were a disappointment to Roosevelt, with Stevenson losing in a landslide to incumbent Dwight Eisenhower, she and Stevenson ultimately won the battle over nuclear testing. Seven years later, in 1963, atmospheric nuclear testing was banned by the Partial Test Ban Treaty. And ultimately, all nuclear testing was banned. Roosevelt, arguably, was a principle force in swaying public opinion against testing. With her daily column, she was able to popularize the issue by reaching and educating countless citizens. While Roosevelt arguably succeeded in her work against testing, many newspapers dropped her column following the 1956 election, concerned that her writings were too political. Despite losing nearly two-thirds of the newspapers, she ignored demands to be less overtly political, and continued to write her column and express her views as she saw fit. Eleanor Roosevelt was not one to be bullied by the newspapers.
The letter presented here illustrates so much about Roosevelt in the 1950’s. We see the passion she feels against nuclear testing, we see her role in campaigning for a presidential candidate, and we see her unflagging willingness to simultaneously engage in political battle with the recipient of this letter, and embrace them with affectionate terms and a desire to meet up.
Note: Although the letter was written on her personal letterhead from New York City, she was traveling between Delaware and New York on the date she wrote the letter. She may have been in Delaware, en route to New York, or in New York when she penned the letter.
FAZZI, DARIO. “A Voice of Conscience: How Eleanor Roosevelt Helped to Popularize the Debate on Nuclear Fallout, 1950–1954.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 50, no. 3, 2015, pp. 699–730.
“My Day Index: Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project: Columbian College of Arts & Sciences: The George Washington University.” Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project.
October 26, 1956. Four pages of 6.5 x 10 inch sheets of Roosevelt’s personal letterhead from 211 East 62nd Street, New York 21, NY. Dated October 26, 1956. Usual folds and staple holes in the top left corner. Otherwise fine condition. Housed in a custom presentation folder.
AN IMPORTANT LETTER REVEALING ROOSEVELTS THINKING ABOUT ONE OF THE MOST CRITICAL ISSUES OF THE TIME.
Price: $6,500 .