Eleanor Roosevelt and the Beggining of World War II for Peoria

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The 1940s began with a dark omen over the world. Nazi Germany occupied France, most of Europe, and was effectively attacking and weakening Britain. Japan was expanding its war machine to its neighboring countries.

President Roosevelt faced an American public weary of European wars after the traumas of World War I. Isolation made a lot of sense to most people. But Roosevelt knew the very existence of a free western civilization was at stake. He began a program to "lend" our fighting allies arms and food. His entire administration began to plan for war at every level of government.

The most important task he faced was to persuade and ease an anxious American public to support Europe. He asked first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to travel the nation, under the auspices of the United War Relief Association, to make it easier for Americans to accept the upcoming war efforts.

Eleanor Roosevelt arrived in Peoria at the Rock Island Train Depot on a beautiful sunny morning on April 21, 1941. She had traveled from Chicago in the Peoria Rocket. At a press conference, reporters were very complimentary towards her gracious demeanor and bubbling personality. Every outfit she brought to Peoria was blue and written about in minute detail in the social pages.

After the press conference she was given a tour of the newly built Warner Homes by Peoria Housing Authority director Nathan Straus. Warner Homes opened on February 9, 1941, and Harrison Homes followed on June 15, 1941.

Mrs. Roosevelt was pleased to see the vast area of slums cleared for the new three-story apartments and two-story houses, all with reasonable rents. She repeatedly emphasized the construction jobs created during the depression years. She also met with the staff at the new Peoria Workers Service Project, which re-educated and retrained workers for new job opportunities.

In the afternoon, she received visits from her personal central Illinois friends, notably the Kemps and the Baileys of Delavan, whom she had enjoyed many challenging all-night card games when she was on the campaign trail. She also enjoyed two British girls wearing Scottish kilts who wished her well.

That night at the Peoria Armory, a crowd of 3,500 people roared with excitement when the first lady took the stage. Her flowing blue gown and exquisite pearl necklaces draping her neck were dwarfed by the enormous spray of yellow-crimson orchids she wore on her left shoulder.

Her speech was covered by the Peoria Journal Transcript and is excerpted here:

"Advocates of isolationism are advocates of lower living standards for the people of the United States. Foreign trade is largely responsible for the high living standards we now enjoy, and any discontinuance of that trade would bound to be reflected in our daily existence.

Those who build a wall around this country should study the history of the last 20 years. The cost of isolating ourselves, of cutting ourselves off from commercial intercourse with other nations, must be carefully considered.

It is the next generation, not the present one, which must be depended upon to cement a real and permanent friendship between the two continents. It is a great opportunity. It requires prayer – a prayer for wisdom and a prayer for courage.

Cultural ties in themselves are more important than business or political ties because they lead to these in a more lasting manner when taken first, and specifically, instead of only business and politics. As a nation, we are very slow to realize this. Other nations have grasped it and have taken advantage of it. Things have taken a turn for the better, however, for just a few years ago the United States woke up to the fact it was not particularly liked by some of its neighbors, and began doing something about it."

The crowd gave her a thunderous applause. After a small reception, Eleanor boarded the train at midnight. She optimistically wrote in her diary "Arriving in Chicago early this morning. The sun is shining and we look out of our windows at a very calm lake with ships passing in the distance. I always enjoy this view and the sight of the gardens and the trees along the drive with the incessant stream of cars going past. We start across the continent toward Los Angeles."

Eleanor Roosevelt did her part to help Peoria begin to meet the challenges of World War II.

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