Testimony of Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Assistant Director, Office of Civilian Defense, (14 January 1942) Washington D.C.


Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, in New York City to the wealthy Roosevelt family. After attending secondary school, she became involved with social reform work for the first time at age 18 by teaching children who were part of poorer, immigrant communities and working with the National Consumers League to end dangerous working conditions in factories.1 When Roosevelt was 20, she married Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a distant cousin. After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, she volunteered with the American Red Cross.2 After the war, Roosevelt worked with activist organizations, taught at a private girls’ school, founded a non-profit furniture factory, and helped her husband return to politics after he was paralyzed by polio in 1921. She used her influence within the New York State Democratic Party and campaigned throughout the state to help Franklin become governor of New York in 1928.3

Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady of the United States after Franklin was sworn in as president in 1933. She served in the position until Franklin’s death in 1945. Although originally reluctant to be First Lady,4 Roosevelt soon transformed the position from a ceremonial, hostess-type role to one more involved in policy.5 As First Lady, Roosevelt championed the rights of the poor and the disadvantaged. She advocated for civil rights, women’s rights, and for migrants and refugees. She traveled frequently around the country to inspect Great Depression living conditions and New Deal relief projects. She was often referred to as the President’s eyes, ears and legs, and “sometimes even his conscience.”6 In 1933, she was the first First Lady to hold her own press conference,7 allowing only women journalists, typically barred from press conferences, to attend.8 She was also the first First Lady to write a syndicated daily column, entitled “My Day,” and host a weekly radio show where she recounted her activities and shared her political views.9 Roosevelt was also the first First Lady to receive a federal appointment, to address a national convention, and to testify before Congress.10 She did so twice, in 1940 and 1942, both times to advocate for improved conditions for migrant populations.11

During World War II, Roosevelt served as the Assistant Director of Civilian Defense.12 The Office of Civilian Defense was established by Executive Order on May 20, 1941. Although FDR declared the country’s neutrality in the war during 1939, he also emphasized the need to strengthen the country’s national defense because of threats to American cities from the Japanese and the Germans. He accordingly directed the OCD to coordinate defense activities between federal, state, and local governments via nine regional offices. It aimed to to protect American life and property, as well as to recruit and train auxiliary teams of volunteers in the case of emergency.13 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt expanded the OCD’s mission to focus on improving social conditions by expanding citizen participation among women and African Americans in particular. Director Fiorella LaGuardia put First Lady Roosevelt in charge of such social outreach, after FDR appointed her as assistant director in September of 1941, because he considered this work to be “sissy stuff.”14 After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the OCD took on renewed importance.15 On the day after the attacks, Roosevelt flew to the West Coast to oversee civilian defense preparations and reassure the public, taking the “unpopular stand of calling for tolerance toward Japanese Americans and the maintenance of civil liberties during wartime.”16

Eleanor Roosevelt testified before Congress in her capacity as Assistant Director before the Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration on January 14, 1942. The Committee was chaired by Representative John H. Tolan of California and sought to analyze the interstate movement of people looking for employment due to the Great Depression. It evaluated the problems faced by migrants as they moved from the Dust Bowl to the West. By 1941, the OCD had changed its scope to focus on the war and the workers moving across the country to military production jobs.17 These specific Washington hearings related to the “maintenance of civilian morale,” and Roosevelt spoke of the workings and structure of the civilian defense office, with a particular emphasis on the problems faced by migrant workers and minorities.18 Press coverage of Roosevelt’s testimony at the time emphasized her focus on meeting human needs and her advocacy for greater opportunities for minority groups “in the defense of the country.”19 Chairman Tolan also referred to her as “Migrant No.1” due to her work on behalf of migrant populations.20

In February of 1942, after just five months in the position, Roosevelt chose to resign.21 She reportedly knew that a complete overhaul of the office was necessary and her involvement would only enhance the controversy that swirled about it. She described her time as Assistant Director as “one of the experiences she least regretted putting behind her.” She believed that as First Lady, she was not fairly judged on her own individual merits because her position made her an optimal target for FDR’s critics.22 The OCD was closed in 1945, with the end of WWII. Although its domestic drills and services were largely unnecessary, the office did create valuable civil defense measures that were later used during national disasters (such as sandbag stockpiling during hurricanes).23

Following Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed by President Truman to the U.N. General Assembly, where she served as chair of the Human Rights Committee and helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.24 Eleanor Roosevelt died on November 7, 1962. She left behind a “great legacy,” with a simple goal of “dignity and decency for all.”25


  1. Eleanor Roosevelt, The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (New York: Harper Perennial, 2014), 39-40.
  2. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, 91.
  3. Betty Caroli, First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 192-193.
  4. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, 163.
  5. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, 173-184.
  6. Geoffrey C. Ward, “First Among First Ladies,” New York Times, June 13, 1982, https://www.nytimes.com/1982/06/13/books/first-among-first-ladies.html.
  7. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, 171.
  8. Shawn J. Parry-Giles and Diane M. Blair, “The Rise of the Rhetorical First Lady: Politics, Gender Ideology, and Women’s Voice, 1789-2002,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 5, no. 4 (2002): 582.
  9. Robert P. Watson, First Ladies of the United States: A Biographical Dictionary (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002), 221-222.
  10. Stephen Smith, “The Roosevelts as a Political Team,” APM Reports (Minnesota Public Radio, August 26, 2020), https://www.apmreports.org/episode/2014/11/12/the-roosevelts-as-a-political-team.
  11. Parry-Giles and Blair, “The Rise of the Rhetorical First Lady,” 579.
  12. Matthew Dallek, Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 4.
  13. “Records of the Office of Civilian Defense,” The National Archives and Records Administration, August 15, 2016, https://www.archives.gov/riverside/finding-aids/rg171-civilian-defense.html.
  14. Donald A. Ritchie, “Office of Civilian Defense,” in The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: ABC-CLIO, 2001), 387-388.
  15. Ritchie, The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia, 388.
  16. Ritchie, The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia, 389.
  17. National Archives and Records Service, “Records of the Select Committee of the House of Representatives Investigating National Defense Migration, 1940-43,” National Archives Preliminary Inventories 71 (1954).
  18. National Defense Migration: Pursuant to H. Res. 113, Hearings before the Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration, 77th Cong., 2nd sess., 9766 (1942) (statement of Eleanor Roosevelt, Assistant Director, Office of Civilian Defense).
  19. “Conferees Return OCD to La Guardia,” New York Times, January 15, 1942.
  20. “Refers to First Lady As Our ‘Migrant No. 1,” New York Times, January 15, 1942.
  21. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, 230-231.
  22. Ritchie, The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia, 388-390; Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, 226.
  23. Homeland Security National Preparedness Task Force, “Civil Defense and Homeland Security: A Short History of National Preparedness Efforts,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, September 2006, http://training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/edu/docs/DHS%20Civil%20Defense-HS%20-%20Short%20History.pdf.
  24. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, 314.
  25. Blanche Wiesen Cook, “Woman of the Century: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Biographer Assesses the Legacy of a First Lady Who Sought Justice for All,” The Woman’s Review of Books 17, no. 10/11 (2000): 22-23.