The Orbits of Mrs. Universe

The Orbits of Mrs. Universe

Review of Eleanor Roosevelt's India and the Awakening East (1953).

The debate on the Children's Emergency Fund in the 1950 session of the UN General Assembly had a surprise ending. At the final vote the United States was the only nation to abstain, the others being unanimous. The Fund had been established in 1945 to help sick and destitute children suffering from war shortages in countries which had been "victims of aggression." It had distributed food, clothing, medicines, pencils, toys. In two or three years it had put the smiles back on children's faces in Europe and, impelled by its own vision, had begun to turn towards Asia and Africa.

Enthusiasm for it was somewhat marred when, in 1950, a proposal was put forward that the Fund should henceforth replace "supplies" by "technical advice" and should be financed from the general U.N. budget instead of from voluntary contributions made by governments specifically for the purpose. Administratively, its various activities should be split up and "coordinated" with the existing agencies of the U.N. Technicalities apart, this meant the death of the Fund as people had known it.

For many long days a number of the principal donor countries spoke in favour of the proposal. The American delegation announced that if the Fund was not thus reorganized, its government might not contribute. Their reasons were painstakingly explained by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. International programmes could deal with "emergencies," not with "chronic deficiencies," - the destitution in Asia, Africa, etc., was chronic; "the principle that field missions must be financed solely by voluntary contributions might set a dangerous precedent for some of the major enterprises of the U.N."; and so on. Convincing up to a point, but and this distinction must be made - not satisfying. Certainly not to the Asian and Latin American majority which pleaded that the Fund should operate in other continents as it had in Europe. For, these delegations argued, many of the children in underdeveloped areas needed medicines and milk now, as well as long-range plans for the future. In the end they won, but it was a tasteless victory. It "saved" the Fund, but it revealed great gaps in understanding. The isolation of the USA, the world's most! philanthropic nation and the Fund's greatest contributor, made everyone unhappy.

The arguments advanced by the Asians are a matter of record. But in political debates, truth is often condensed and adorned with dialectics, and becomes unrecognizable. Perhaps they feared that some of the donor nations wished to kill the Fund, being loath to make financial commitments in respect of a project that no longer dealt with a postwar urgency. For it would be difficult to have a Fund and not contribute to it. These were ruminations - gloomy, inconclusive, dispersed. There had been no "previous consultations" among the Asian and Latin American delegations, much less among their Governments. No one "led" them, any more than any one leaf leads the others when they rustle together in the same wind. What did bring the underdeveloped countries together were deep stirrings that have begun to be understood but recently. To them the Children's Fund was a symbol of genuine international cooperation, unhampered by politics, voluntary, generous, warm. They were beginning to step up their own contributions to it and the Fund's example was inspiring national programmes for the care of children. Here was being fulfilled a small part of the dream that is the of United Nations. And now someone was about to upset it all. In fighting for it so valiantly they were, according to their belief, fighting for the U.N.

The American delegation was visibly annoyed, attributing the opposition to hostility perhaps, or perversity. But this in time gave place to a more thoughtful approach. During 1951 and 1952 the "awakening East," to use Mrs. Roosevelt's own phrase, was felt in many debates and grew more articulate. "I begin to feel," she says "that we in the United States did not understand what created these tensions and emotions that crackled throughout the U.N. and we certainly lacked knowledge of the conditions out of which they grew." So, abjuring comfort and rest (does she ever rest?) she packed up her white tennis shoes, the better to tread the dusty villages of the East, and took off for the Middle East, Pakistan, and India, returning home by way of Indonesia and the Philippines.

She tells what she found in a book called India and the Awakening East. Of the more positive aspects of the awakening which she had begun to sense in the U.N. she found encouraging evidence: growing industries, land reforms, a fast developing social conscience among women, agricultural developments, power projects, courage, intelligence, vitality, and devotion. These would explain the verve but not the passionate impatience, the longings, and the frustrations that give many Asian speeches in the U.N. their unconventional and, to many well-bred ears, their unintelligible tone.

Perspective, however, is admirably achieved by Mrs. Roosevelt, for she wisely measures the small beginnings against the burdensome legacies of the past and the gigantic difficulties: the appalling poverty, the vast unemployment, chronic ill health, and the illiteracy of a multitudinous population growing at an enormous rate. Every now and then she wonders, as do the Asians themselves, whether their efforts will ever catch up with their problems.

International aid is the only remedy that suggests itself to her; and her insistence on it, born of personal observation and wide comprehension, will one hopes, carry more weight than if it came from an Asian. "The countries of the Middle East desperately need technical assistance from the United States and through the United Nations... our Point Four Regional Director was most optimistic about what Point Four could do in Pakistan... obviously India needs some outside help... we would be unwise not to cooperate to the best of our ability in the development of Indonesia in order to make life more worthwhile for the people." These observations are interspersed throughout the book. She notes with obvious satisfaction how international cooperation is visibly dramatized in India by the help India receives from the Colombo Plan, MSA, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, U.N. Technical Assistance Programme, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, UNESCO, and UNICEF - which, incidentally, would seem to belie Mrs. Roosevelt's fear that the Indians' belief in the virtue of renunciation might hinder their material progress.

The obstacle at least to aid operations as an instrument for achieving world stability is not philosophic detachment, but political skepticism the fear of economic domination. National pride is not itself a hindrance, for the pride is the pride of national independence and if independence is not hurt, neither is the pride. "They need our help but they're all too often afraid to take it," Mrs. Roosevelt notes of the Arabs, and the same point is developed at greater length and with greater insight in her chapters on India and Indonesia.

This outlook, we are encouraged to conclude, is something different from plain irrational hatred - racial, national, or religious - which she might once have thought to be the motive force of Asian solidarity in the U.N. Once in her book, on the second page, she remarks on being "fully-conscious of a certain amount of hostility." By the time she has travelled to Indonesia and page 214 she notes that "they are not antagonistic to us, but like other countries that have recently become free, they are: definitely wary of us."

In short, the East's memories of imperialism are too painfully recent. It does not quite believe, not yet, that in a world in which nationalism is such a strong, inflexible doctrine, its own nationalism can afford to relax. Its only salvation lies, it believes, in the redemption of democracy's pledge all over the world and in every field of international endeavour. Ironically, therefore, the Eastern nations, themselves struggling towards democracy with far to go, are more passionate guardians of the principles of international democracy and of the U.N. than some of the original founders.

Democracy cannot afford moral failure anywhere. If it fails in one place doubts and difficulties are doubled everywhere else. For the new countries it is a strange role to play that they should be exhorting the older democracies to mind their p's and q's, but history sometimes speaks through small voices and one must be indulgent. The responsibilities that are put upon the shoulders of the great democracies are undoubtedly onerous, but "if the salt have lost its savor, where with shall it be salted?" Mrs. Roosevelt’s own advice to her countrymen is really no different. "Somehow they [the Asians] must be brought to realize that our desire for material success is coupled with spiritual motivation as well and they must understand what these motives are. This may mean that we shall first have to clarify them ourselves…. An understanding of our own spiritual foundations may be one of the bridges we need to better understanding of the East and its people." For America, above all, such clarification should be easy and no less easy for her to be guided by her moral sense abroad, as at home.

During her travels Mrs. Roosevelt carried another question also in her mind: "Will Communism or Democracy be the choice of the awakening East?" That she has not found, or at least vouchsafed to us, a categorical reply was only to be expected, but her observations can be summed up in two words: "It depends."

There are matters in the book on which (one can be sure!) Mrs. Roosevelt will be interrogated. She will certainly be asked some day why as a strong supporter of the U.N., she did not attach more importance to U.N. decisions on the Israeli-Arab dispute, which are suffering from neglect. She will be sharply questioned, and not least by Muslim women themselves, on her statement that "women, by the teaching of the Koran, are lesser beings." Her character sketch of Mr. Nehru will be criticized for explaining Mr. Nehru's best deeds but not the rest. Some of her numerous hosts and hostesses will rush to explain their gaucherie where it annoyed or amused her - so difficult, you know, to tell when a Western guest wants to "go native" and when not. Non-Muslim countries which supported the Tunisian cause in the U.N. will feel hurt that the matter is dismissed as a manifestation of religious sentiment. But for her earnest desire to understand the East and for interpreting it sincerely, honestly, and with great percipience no one will feel less than grateful. Although the book is primarily addressed to the American public, it will attract many readers in the East who will be all the better for "seeing ourselves as others see us." For all her habitual courtesy, Mrs. Roosevelt never minces words when she feels she must speak out.

Mrs. Roosevelt had rare qualities for the task she undertook: world prestige without the encumbrance of official status, a peculiarly American (and most engaging) combination of curiosity, and humility, and a rich mental background and experience. Her book reflects all this and her great fund of goodwill besides. And, as with everything she undertakes, the predominant impression she leaves behind is that of her urbanity, energy, and intense activity: "One of the greatest problems on a crowded trip of this kind is to find time to do such simple things as getting one's hair washed." If the fashion of an earlier era could be revived, the book could aptly be called "An Intelligent Woman's Guide to Human Understanding." This might lose her some readers interested in the East, but might attract others now apathetic to it. That would be a great gain.

Published in The Saturday Review, Vol. 36, August 8, 1953, pp.13-14