• History

Why Eleanor Roosevelt Insisted: "Tomorrow Is Now"

As relevant and influential now as it was when first published in 1963, “Tomorrow Is Now” is Eleanor Roosevelt’s manifesto and her final effort to move America toward the community she hoped it would become.

In bold, blunt prose, one of the greatest first ladies of American history traces her country’s struggle to embrace democracy and presents her declaration against fear, timidity, complacency, and national arrogance.

An open, unrestrained look into her mind and heart as well as a clarion call to action, Tomorrow Is Now is the work Eleanor Roosevelt willed herself to stay alive to finish writing. For this edition, former US President Bill Clinton contributes a new foreword, and Roosevelt historian Dr. Allida Black provides an authoritative introduction focusing on Eleanor Roosevelt’s diplomatic career.

Scroll down for the original introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt, and the introduction to the current edition by Dr. Allida Black, former editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers at George Washington University.

Opening image by wikipedia.org.

By Eleanor Roosevelt
Hyde Park
August 1962

“‘Tis dangerous to take a cold, to sleep, to drink; but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” — Shakespeare

In the past I have written on the era in which I grew up and of the experiences which shaped my life, from a lonely childhood in a caste-bound society with narrow traditions, through the crowded years of my husband’s Presidency, in which a great depression and a major war brought sweeping changes to the whole world; and finally, of the years in which I came to know a great part of that world firsthand and, through my work with the United Nations, to learn that its destiny, like the tainted winds now blowing over it, is common to all.

More recently, I tried to set down in “You Learn By Living” what I had reaped from that long and varied experience.

Now, however, I have come to see that nothing of what has happened to me, or to anyone, has value unless it is a preparation for what lies ahead. We face the future fortified only with the lessons we have learned from the past. It is today that we must create the world of the future. Spinoza, I think, pointed out that we ourselves can make experience valuable when, by imagination and reason, we turn it into foresight. It is that foresight we must acquire. In a very real sense, tomorrow is now.

So, while this is a book about today as it will affect and shape tomorrow, it is also a book about yesterday, about our beginnings, about the history of the great nation we carved out of a wilderness, about our history, that we are making it now — today — by the choices that shape our course.

It is essential that we remind ourselves frequently of our past history, that we recall the shining promise that it offered to all men everywhere who would be free, the promise that it is still our destiny to fulfill. But to fulfill that promise we must be ready, like the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, to pledge our lives, our sacred honor, and all our worldly goods.

It is essential to turn back to our history now and then to remind ourselves of the principles on which this nation is based, to read once more the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. There are people who claim that, today, the Bill of Rights would never get out of committee. I cannot accept so shameful a suggestion; we must turn back to re-examine our faith and see that, once again, we make it bright and strong.

It is essential that we cast out fear and face the unknown, as our ancestors faced the unknown, with imagination and integrity, with courage and a high heart.

It is essential that we re-examine our country and our world and their relationship; that we reconsider our personal strength as well as our political and military strength, and see how they affect each other.

It is essential, above all, that in making history we do not forget to learn by history, to see our mistakes as well as our successes, our weaknesses as well as our strengths.

In this book I want to talk to that spirit of America which is in each of us. But it is to the young, particularly, that I want to speak; to remind them of the background of our nation; to remind them that we could never have conquered the wilderness, never have built the foundations of a country and a new concept of life, based on the fullest and freest development of the individual; never have overcome vast difficulties and dangers, if we had not had a new idea, an idea so noble in concept that it gave us confidence in ourselves and gave us the strength to build this new nation, step by step.

Once more we are in a period of uncertainty, of danger, in which not only our own safety but that of all mankind is threatened. Once more we need the qualities that inspired the development of the democratic way of life. We need imagination and integrity, courage and a high heart. We need to fan the spark of conviction, which may again inspire the world as we did with our new idea of the dignity and worth of free men. But first we must learn to cast out fear. People who “view with alarm” never build anything.

I have seen, over and over during recent years, the results that have come in Israel because the young were fired by the idea of building a new country. Here in America, I would like to see people fired by the vision of building a new and peaceful world.

In the following pages, I have set down one woman’s attempt to analyze what problems there are to be met, and one human being’s bold affirmation, that with imagination, with courage, with faith in ourselves and our cause — the fundamental dignity of all mankind — they will be met.

By Dr. Allida Black
Former editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers
Washington, DC, 2012

Eleanor Roosevelt knew she was dying when she began this book.

Yet she so wanted to complete it that she endured dangerously high fevers, tremors and persistent fatigue, a raw throat, and bleeding gums to dictate the first draft. Although she eventually yielded to family and friends who pressed her to “slow down” and cancel appointments and public appearances, ER kept working on Tomorrow Is Now — even when she grew too weak to hold a teacup and her voice dropped to a whisper.

She would apologize to Elinore Denniston, whom her agent had sent to take her dictation, for how much harder it made Denniston’s work as ER continued whispering her thoughts, pushing herself so hard that Denniston sometimes grew so concerned that she made excuses to cut the sessions short.

Why did ER press so hard to finish this book?

She already had a voluminous written record by the summer of 1962. She had written almost 30 books and more than 550 articles. Her nationally syndicated column “My Day” had appeared in papers since 1936, generating a record of more than 8,000 political commentaries. Ladies Home Journal and McCall’s magazines carried her monthly question and answer column “If You Ask Me” for 21 years, leaving more than 250 advice columns for her public to consult. She could have dedicated her last energies to an anthology of her most important works, or she could have delegated the task to a trusted confidant to complete after her death. But she did not. She chose to start and finish this book because, as she told Denniston, “I have something that I want terribly to say.”

ER firmly believed America’s greatness rested upon the power of its ideas, not upon its economic and military might. And now in this new period of dangerous uncertainty, as the world reeled from the atomic bomb, an escalating Cold War, and rapid social, technological and economic change, it “waited for [America] to provide an example of dynamic drive.”

But, to ER’s immense frustration, America was sliding downhill at the exact time the world needed America to lead. The nation had abandoned curiosity, sidelined diplomacy, and accepted an outlook governed by fear rather than boldness. It had forgotten that it could set its own course and “make [its] own history.” Its citizens had forgotten the history already made — not the dry dates and policies that filled textbooks and encyclopedias — but the daring imagination and conviction that inspired its revolution against tyranny and slavery and comforted the nation through wars, civil and foreign, and depressions, great and small.

In short, ER contended, America could not lead because it was not ready to lead. For America to regain its leadership and confront the challenges tomorrow presents, “We must learn to think freshly, to reexamine our beliefs, to see how many of them are living and real.”

Socratic discussions of politics and governance might make us sound smart, ER wrote, but they could not penetrate our dreams.

Americans might be told over and over that we stood on the shoulders of giants, but until we internalized the founders’ courage and made it our own, we remained detached observers … watching others act for us … and ceding control of our hopes and fears to them.

Only a real understanding of the past, ER argued, could give America the insight it needed to summon the imagination, courage, and “high heart” the founders used to create democracy and that which the nation must now use to sustain it. Only when Americans can break free of the restraints fear imposes on their minds and hearts can they be free to find the courage to envision a new world and the skill required to build it.

But as much as this book is about Eleanor Roosevelt’s past and the lessons American history taught her, it is about what ER learned from her own observations of politics and policy. In particular, it reveals how Eleanor Roosevelt could continue to believe in democracy despite almost daily excruciating evidence of its shortcomings and the political animosity she encountered day after day throughout her almost-50-year career.

Readers accustomed to ER’s more famous works — “The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt” or “You Learn By Living,” for example — will meet a different woman as they read this book. She is assertive, direct, and confrontational. She recommends policy and criticizes both political parties. She praises American values while she criticizes American conduct and challenges Americans to abandon the fear and self-absorption she believes undermines the nation.

Some may interpret her dedication to American democracy as simple blind allegiance. Others may interpret her commitment as an act of faith. Cynics may discount it as unthinking liberalism or unquestioned devotion to a progressive past. Liberals may recoil at her unabashed patriotism. All such quick and easy reads not only show little understanding of ER’s life, but also miss her basic point: Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run, it is easier.

“Tomorrow Is Now” is what Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to tell us before she died. It is, she wrote in the introduction: “One woman’s attempt to analyze what problems there are to be met, one citizen’s approach to ways in which they may be met, and one human being’s bold affirmation that, with imagination, with courage, with faith in ourselves and our cause — the fundamental dignity of all mankind — they will be met.”

It is her final and most powerful manifesto.

Don’t stop now! Click here to buy the book.

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