This is the final installment of my trilogy of posts about the Roosevelts and Buddhism. Although the connections are rather slight, I feel they are intriguing. As I wrote on Sept. 30, the primary link with Buddhism for Franklin and Eleanor was Tibet.
In 1923, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an article titled “The Women of Tibet.” I have not been able to find the piece or gather much information about it. There is, though, a rather well known quote from the article that biographers take to be a subtle jab at husbands (hers in particular) and their “betrayals.”
It has been brought to my attention that the wives of Tibet have many husbands. This to me seems a good thing, since so many husbands have so many wives.”
It is true that Tibetan tradition allowed a man or woman several spouses (most Tibetan marriages are monogamous nowadays). I suspect though that this information, and nearly everything Eleanor knew about Tibet came to her second-hand, because as far as I can determine she did not ever visit there, although she went to India in 1952. Of course, she was no doubt very aware of the dispute between Tibet and China since that had been an issue FDR had to deal with early in his administration.
In the 1950s ER became an ardent supporter of the Tibetan struggle for freedom. She wrote about the Tibetan situation a number of times in her “My Day” syndicated newspaper column (published 6 days a week from 1935 to 1962, the year she died).
Earlier that decade she exerted influence that went beyond simply trying to mold public opinion. In a book on Theos Casimir Bernard, the self-proclaimed “White Lama,” Paul G. Hackett reports that “Acting along the line of one of the suggestions made by Eleanor Roosevelt years earlier, the CIA decided to train and arm Tibetan fighters from Kham (Eastern Tibet), who had already gained notoriety for their fighting against the Chinese.” Even though something she had said was the genesis of the plan, apparently ER was unaware of this action taken by the Eisenhower Administration.
In October 1959, the Dalai Lama’s brothers came to the United States to speak before the United Nations. ER met with one brother, Gyalo. She wrote about their meeting in her Oct. 16 column in which she also expressed these thoughts:
I am glad that the situation is being brought before the U.N. and I hope that the nations of the world will give help to these refugees and bring the weight of world opinion to bear on the entire situation. Only thus can peace come to Tibet and the traditional ruler returned in peace and be allowed to try to work out the problems of modernization and contact with the outer world, which now becomes necessary in spite of the remoteness of the people in that country.
It points up to us that there is no area of the world that is remote any more and that all of us are going to feel whatever happens, no matter how far away it is.
Five days later, on October 21, 1959 the UN passed a resolution calling “for respect for the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people and for their distinctive cultural and religious life.” Eleanor Roosevelt urged the Chinese to appear before the UN to “justify [their] actions before a world body.”
What is most interesting, and remarkable, about her is that when people think of Eleanor Roosevelt, it is not just for her role as an exceptional and transformational First Lady, but also for her outstanding achievements in promoting universal human rights and peace. She was our country’s first delegate to the United Nations and chaired the committee that drafted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document praised by many, also criticized by many, but which Roosevelt herself said “may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.”
“It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”