“The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!” The admiration and wit embodied in this quote have fueled the pride and motivation of the Marine Corps for years. And though the wisdom of the words uttered would make it seem like it came from some grizzled vet, the quote is actually attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. This unexpected quote underscores a lifetime of unexpected actions. Born into a wealthy family and eventually marrying into politics, Eleanor Roosevelt defied what was expected of her and instead became a leader this country needed.
Despite her wealth, Eleanor Roosevelt was no stranger to difficult times. Both her parents died before she reached the age of 10, but even in that short time, they instilled the important family value of community service. In 1905, Eleanor married Franklin Delano Roosevelt and through his rise to New York state senator and, later, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Eleanor performed her duties faithfully as a politician’s wife. She hobnobbed with other politicians at formal parties and played the part. Though she was born into this type of social scene, she found these events boring.
When the US entered WWI in 1917, Eleanor Roosevelt seized the opportunity and continued the volunteer work that saw her through her early years. In addition, it was here that her familiarity and support for the military, particularly the Marine Corps would begin. Eleanor began working for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and visited wounded soldiers. In addition, she volunteered in a Red Cross canteen, serving refreshments to Soldiers heading to or coming back from the front in Europe.
When the war was over, Eleanor Roosevelt’s own rising interest in politics mirrored her husband’s rise to political prominence. Although, this time, instead of being a politician’s wife, Eleanor was right out in front as a leader. She became an active member of the Women’s Trade Union League, the New York Democratic party, and the League of Women Voters. During that time, Franklin Roosevelt continued his rise through politics and, in 1933, he became the President of the United States. During her twelve years as First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt solidified herself as a crusader for rights and a critical part of the war effort.
In December of 1941, the United States was plunged into World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor and Eleanor Roosevelt sprang into action. She traveled to California and Oregon to start organizing the Offices of Civilian Defense, which were set up in preparation for an attack on the home front. But Eleanor had the consistent feeling that she needed to do more.
The following year, she was given that opportunity. She was asked if she would go to the European war front and visit Soldiers in England. While German bombs were falling and air raid sirens rang out through the night, Eleanor Roosevelt was undeterred. Given the code name “Rover,” the Secret Service and the military shuttled her between a packed schedule of engagements. Every day from 8 a.m. to midnight, she spent time with wounded Soldiers, visited military bases and clothing distribution centers, and even took down the names and addresses of soldier’s loved ones and promised to write to them.
A year after her British visit, she was back at the war front, this time in the Pacific. Initially asked to visit wounded Soldiers in Australia and New Zealand, Eleanor Roosevelt pushed back. She wanted to travel to the islands where Soldiers were still fighting, where she might make the biggest impact. Upon arriving, she was greeted by a skeptical Admiral Halsey, who oversaw the region. He did not like the idea of Eleanor being anywhere close to the fighting or being forced to give up any planes or Soldiers for her protection. Eventually, she was allowed into Guadalcanal and nearby islands, and after Admiral Halsey saw firsthand the effect Eleanor had on the 400,000 Soldiers she visited across 17 islands, he changed his tune, saying “she had accomplished more good than any other person or any group of civilians that had passed through my area.”
Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts during WWI and WWII were only some of the amazing fights she was a part of. As an anti-segregationist, she helped bring African-Americans into the political process. She set up regular White House press conferences exclusively for female correspondents, forcing news outlets to employ women when they had previously been reticent to do so. Even after her husband’s death in 1945, Eleanor continued to serve, first as a delegate to the UN, and later as the chair of the Commission on the Status of Women.
Through tireless efforts and the natural-born need to serve, Eleanor Roosevelt gave support where it was needed most, bucking the trend of what was expected and proving herself an indispensable leader of our country.
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