The Power of the Home Front: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt
"This is no ordinary time," Eleanor Roosevelt proclaimed to the Democratic Convention of 1940.1 This quote is echoed throughout Doris Kearns Goodwin's aptly labeled chronicle, No Ordinary Time, which tells of the lives of President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on the American home front during World War II. Goodwin illustrates the powerful relationship between Franklin and Eleanor and their ability to work flawlessly as a team to guide America through a dangerous and costly war. Time and time again, Eleanor and Franklin proved to be different from their predecessors, identifying earlier on their ability to transform the nation into the great democracy that our founding fathers dreamed of. The two leaned on each other for support- physically, mentally, and politically, and because of this, the first family remained united and strong in the face of hardship and in the search for international peace.
In chapters one through seven, Goodwin provides insight into the first family, their close friends, and into America before it became embroiled in World War II. Specifically, the first couple of chapters explain the family histories of both Franklin and Eleanor, and the impediments that they have faced in their relationship together. Their marital relations had ceased to exist after Eleanor discovered the president's affair with Lucy Mercer, yet the two stayed together despite the anger and hurt between them. The affair and the damaged relationship that ensued allowed Eleanor to embrace an independence outside of her marriage that would guide her to immense power as the first lady. Franklin Roosevelt's intense political ability and endless self-confidence allowed him to become a very powerful president and an effective leader during World War II. Furthermore, these beginning chapters also depict America as it attempted to remain isolated from a war that was slowly engulfing other countries of the world. President Roosevelt made the choice to aid the Allies rather than focus on rearmament at home, a decision that would lead to friendly relations with the allied nations of Britain and the Soviet Union. The Destroyer for Bases Deal, which that was negotiated in 1940 between Britain and the United States, was among the first of Roosevelt's actions which initiated American involvement in World War II. Knowing the risk of this agreement, Roosevelt was not surprised when, "the news of the deal provoked harsh criticism in Washington."2 Despite the fact that the popular sentiment of American citizens supported an isolationist view towards the war, Roosevelt recognized the necessity to be involved in order to spread democracy and protect the United States.
Chapters seven through twelve start off by describing Eleanor's dedication to the end of racism. Goodwin uses this issue to compare and contrast Franklin and Eleanor's approach to issues brought to their attention, saying, "While Eleanor thought in terms of what should be done, Franklin thought in terms of what could be done."3 The president was much more cautious in his approach, because, as a leading government official, he would have to deal with the backlash of the nation if they did not agree with his actions. Eleanor, on the other hand, was free to do as she wished; often tackling problems that Franklin was unable to address, like race and gender discrimination. The two worked as a team, using each other's individual powers to shape the nation into a truly democratic country. The latter half of this section of the book deals with America's inevitable introduction into the theatre of war. Roosevelt's Lend-Lease Act, which he introduced in early 1941, lent necessary war materials to allied nations, pushing America into another step away from neutrality. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, however, the American public realized the extent of the threat of aggressor nations and, "Gradually, one step at a time, the war was brought home to the American people."4 The attack on the home front finalized the Unites States' involvement in the war, and strengthened the determination to spread democracy abroad.
The second half of the novel illustrates the American home front and the impact that the war had on society. Allied victories in North Africa and at the Battle of Midway reversed the declining morale of the citizens in the allied nations, but rationing and price control of goods to balance the shortages disrupted the daily pace of life for all Americans. A mass migration of women to the labor force was brought about when thousands of jobs were vacated by men who were drafted into the military. Women were brought in to take the place of the drafted male employees. Eleanor looked at this trend with pride, hoping that it would lead to a greater acceptance of women's widening role in society sometime in the future. While these major changes were being instituted at home, both Franklin and Eleanor began to take trips to observe how the nation was coping. They both recognized the declining support for the war, and wanted to repair the domestic scene that Eleanor described as, "anything but encouraging [...]"5 In September of 1942, they both departed on a two-week inspection tour of factories, army camps, and navy yards around the nation. Also in 1942, Eleanor was permitted to make a long-awaited visit to American troops in England. She spent her time touring hospitals and visiting the Red Cross Club in London where American soldiers greeted her. Here, she was able to see firsthand the destruction and pain that plagued the American soldiers. World War II had started to take a toll on the military and the American public, leaving President Roosevelt as the target of criticism.
The last couple of chapters in No Ordinary Time conclude the story of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt by recounting Roosevelt's last few years and his deteriorating health. The war was still underway when Anna Roosevelt, Franklin and Eleanor's daughter, began to notice the slow deterioration of her father's health. A check up revealed that the president was suffering from congestive heart failure and that a strict diet and a cutback on cigarettes, alcohol, and stress would heal the ailing president. He followed the doctor's orders but only temporarily recovered. He did, however, gain the strength to carry out the Allied invasion of France in 1944, known today as D-Day. Despite heavy casualties, the invasion was successful, and the war was slowly winding down to a close. Franklin won a fourth term in office in 1944, but his fluctuating health was a concern to everyone. His illness was taking a heavy toll on his body, and on April 12, 1945, the president died of a cerebral hemorrhage. The President's death had a severe impact on the American people, and even people of nations abroad. America was devastated, seemingly lost without its leader. Commenting on the President's death, Senator Robert Taft said, "[His death] removed the greatest figure of our time at the very climax of his career."6 Eleanor was deeply saddened by her husband's death, but she continued to work on issues that she was passionate about, soon becoming a member of the American delegation in the United Nations General Assembly in December of 1945. Eleanor Roosevelt continued her work with the United Nations, becoming a leading force behind the Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in 1948. She died in 1962 at the age of 77. Nonetheless, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt proved to be an effective leading team that successfully guided the American people through a major world war. They stand out among their dozens of predecessors and successors as the greatest first family to have ever led the American nation.
Doris Kearns Goodwin presents a very complex thesis in No Ordinary Time. It revolves around the central idea that the relationships between Eleanor and Franklin, Eleanor and the home front, and Franklin and the home front all influenced how the war was conducted abroad. President Franklin relied on Eleanor for her opinions and her willingness to take action on widely debated topics. Together, Franklin and Eleanor helped lead the nation like no previous first family had done, transforming the American people into a united front longing for peace and a healthier post-war world. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had a very close relationship with the home front. She felt a commitment to the New Deal Legislation and civil rights campaigns, pushing for the equality of African-Americans and the restoration of democracy at home. Her persistent voice on these issues put an emphasis on the improvement of the home front that would have been overlooked otherwise. She made sure that no aspect of the war abroad was deemed more important than the needs at home. President Franklin, however, was the guiding force of American involvement in World War II. His relationship with the home front was reflected in the way he conducted affairs abroad, keeping the happiness and safety of his people at the forefront of his priorities. His strong and unfaltering leadership allowed the United States to be victorious abroad. Goodwin states that Roosevelt's, "leadership of the home front was the essential condition of military victory."7 These three central relationships are interwoven into the telling of the story of the American home front in Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time.
A very well known biographer of American Presidents, Doris Kearns Goodwin is the author of No Ordinary Time, a Pulitzer Prize winning chronicle of the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on the home front during World War II. Goodwin graduated from Colby College in 1964 and became an assistant to the 36th president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, while he was in office. It was during her years with LBJ that Goodwin started her work as a biographer, her first major work being on Johnson himself. After her work with the president, she returned to Harvard University where she taught a course on the American Presidency. Her vast knowledge and familiarity with the American presidents allow for very in depth writing in her work on Franklin and Eleanor and in her various other biographies. With the exception of her biography of Abraham Lincoln, the majority of her biographies chronicle the lives of presidents who belonged to the Democratic Party or held liberal views. This fact indicates a partial bias toward her own political party. For example, in the preface, Goodwin praises the President, saying, "He kept the American people united in a single cause."8 This out-of-place admiration clearly exemplifies Goodwin's adoration of the late president. No Ordinary Time was published in 1995, exactly fifty years after the closing of World War II. It seems most appropriate that this chronicle of the war be published on the anniversary of its end, marking the final chapter of its story finally completed.
"[Eleanor] was more than an ordinary woman in an unordinary time," Allida M. Black declared in her critique of Goodwin's No Ordinary Time.9 Her analysis in "Reviews in American History" focuses on Goodwin's inability to accurately portray Eleanor Roosevelt as more than just an extension of Franklin's life. Black criticizes Goodwin for making Franklin the focal point and calls attention to the fact that nowhere in the reading, "does ER smile."10 She acknowledges that many other historians have depicted Eleanor in a similar light, but particularly focuses on Goodwin's especially somber and depressing portrayal. Black also assesses Goodwin's selective representation of certain events, affirming that, "she clearly prefers FDR."11 Goodwin carefully constructs certain events to make them seem more or less important than they were in actuality, often not mentioning certain aspects of history that might tarnish the reputation she creates for the first family. Black credits this misinformation on the author's dependence on sources housed only at the FDR library. Goodwin did not check her sources against others, providing for a very one-sided argument that depicts the first family in a perfect and unrealistic light. Another reviewer, Lois Scharf, in "The Journal of American History," holds a similar opinion to Black in regards to Goodwin's representation of the first family. Scharf disapproves of Goodwin's tendency to romanticize the family, showing clear admiration of the subjects. She breaks with Black on the subject of Eleanor, though, claiming that Goodwin overstated, rather than devalued, Eleanor's true involvement and commitment to the political agenda. Allida M. Black and Lois Scharf agree that Goodwin's depiction of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt certainly is popular, but both criticize the bias that impedes the true story of the first family during World War II.
No Ordinary Time is an excellent depiction of the strength of the Roosevelt family and its commitment to the American people. Goodwin clearly illustrates this fact in her writing, also showing the reciprocity of feelings of the American people towards the first family. While Goodwin shows a true dedication towards both Franklin and Eleanor, she slightly favors the president over the first lady. At times, it seems as though Eleanor disappears in the text or is overshadowed by an obvious emphasis on Franklin and his actions during this time. Some may argue that this is necessary, for Franklin was the more important of the two, but more attention should absolutely have been given to Eleanor and her political life outside of the White House. Additionally, Goodwin writes with a flattering and admiring tone that taints the factuality of her account. For example, when describing Franklin's calm attitude after the tragic bombing of Pearl Harbor, she states that he "[Earned] the deep respect of every single one of his commanders."12 While his commanders most likely did respect the president, Goodwin's overstatement and word choice in that sentence exemplify the heroic tone that is used to describe the president. Another aspect of No Ordinary Time that was not particularly pleasurable was Goodwin's intense focus on the early years of American involvement in the war. Not much backdrop was given as to the events that occurred in the opening years of the war, and it seemed as though the concluding years were rushed and overlooked, thus implying that they were not important. After Goodwin covered the President's death, the novel came to a close, and not much was said about how Eleanor felt during this time, once again calling attention to the emphasis put on the President. Goodwin could have enhanced the ending by using Eleanor's point of view to illustrate how the war actually ended, rather than merely summarizing it. Despite these rather trivial drawbacks, Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time gave a truly pleasurable insight into one of the most important families in American History.
The 1940s was a turning point in American History. It saw the end to a major world war that had affected over 100 countries and killed nearly 50 million people across the world. Doris Kearns Goodwin very much agrees with the perception that this period was a watershed in American History. As the author of a novel that chronicled much of American involvement in World War II, it is obvious that Goodwin thought that this decade was pertinent to American history and how it would play out in years to come. Goodwin acknowledges the effect that the war had on the country, saying, “No segment of American society had been left untouched."13 The outcome of World War II allowed for the United States' ascent to become one of the major world powers. In addition, the period of healing and recovery that ensued after the war caused tension between the United States and the Soviet Union to mount. These tensions would keep building until the late 1940s when the Cold War broke out. Both the end of World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War characterized the 1940s as a period of healing and new beginnings, a true turning point from preceding years.
Towards the end of the novel, Goodwin reflects, "The war had been [a] catalyst of unity."14 The Roosevelt's came into the White House amidst the worst financial crisis that America had ever faced; twelve years later they left behind a transformed country that held the position as one of the world's most powerful nations.
1. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 11. From Eleanor Roosevelt. Washington Post, July 19,1940, 1.
2. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1994. 147.
3. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 163.
4. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 315.
5. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 444. From Eleanor Roosevelt. My Day, June 20, 1943.
6. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 606. From Robert Taft.
7. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 10.
8. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 10.
9. Black, Allida M. "No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II." Reviews in American History 23.2 (1995): 311. Print.
10. Black, Allida M. 311.
11. Black, Allida M. 310.
12. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 609.
13. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 624.
14. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 629.