Fact Check

Did Eleanor Roosevelt Say Marines Have 'The Cleanest Bodies, the Filthiest Minds'?

A popular and colorful quotation has been attributed to the former first lady for many years. Is it authentic?

Published May 28, 2021

 (Library of Congress)
Image Via Library of Congress
Eleanor Roosevelt once said U.S. Marines have "the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals," or words to that effect.

In May 2021, readers asked Snopes to look into a popular and colorful quotation, widely attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, in which the former first lady supposedly said the U.S. Marines have "the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen."

Over the years, the quip has appeared in various places of prominence: in countless memes and in books about the history of the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC). In many cases, the quotation was dated to 1945, including a widely shared 2013 post by the official USMC Facebook page:

"The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!"

—Eleanor Roosevelt, 1945

Despite its prevalence, and despite what could be regarded as an official endorsement from the USMC itself, it remains uncertain whether Roosevelt ever actually wrote or spoke those words, and we found a few indicators that the attribution to the former first lady might well be erroneous. Until or unless definitive evidence becomes available, we are issuing a rating of "Unproven."

Snopes asked the USMC and the FDR Presidential Library and Museum to look into the provenance of the quote. Despite what appeared to be extensive research efforts, neither could locate the original source, or find evidence to support the attribution to Roosevelt.

Kirsten Carter, supervisory archivist at the FDR Library, told Snopes the quote was "out of character," but could not necessarily be dismissed as something Roosevelt may have said:

We have been asked many times to verify this quotation, but after surveying many of her writings have not as yet identified any direct source for the attribution. This is not to say Mrs. Roosevelt never uttered these words, as they may have been overheard in conversation, paraphrased, or recorded in some other manner. We simply cannot confirm it with a traceable citation.

Generally speaking, while this particular quote seems out of character for Eleanor Roosevelt and bears no similarity to other statements she made publicly about the Marines (for which one of her sons served), we can neither confirm nor disprove it.  

Furthermore, we found extensive evidence of the same quotation being used in reference to the U.S. Navy and American sailors. For example, in his 1996 memoir, former Naval Commander Edward Raymer wrote:

I wondered what she thought about my enlisting in the navy. Did she hold me in the same low regard that so much of society held for the American sailor? Perhaps she had heard the comment President Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, had made about sailors: "The cleanest bodies and dirtiest minds in the world."

The existence of this naval variant on the Roosevelt quote does not mean she never said it, or never said it about Marines, but it does raise the possibility of an old anonymous saying, popular among both sailors and Marines, later being attributed to a prominent public figure.

And finally, we found definitive proof that the quotation existed before 1945. In October 1942, a group of Marine sergeants and corporals commissioned during World War II wrote a colorful letter to the editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. In it, they included the following observation:

It has been said that, "The Marines have the neatest uniforms, cleanest bodies, dirtiest minds, and are the best fighters in the world." That is what we try to live up to.

Since most examples of the Roosevelt quote have been dated to 1945, and we know for sure she didn't say it for the first time then, it does give cause to doubt the veracity of other aspects of that citation, including the attribution to Roosevelt.

Several possibilities exist. It could be that Roosevelt did come up with the phrase, first said it before 1942, and the 1945 date is the only inaccurate component of the citation that has become popular in recent years. Equally, Roosevelt may have used the saying in a speech or letter, but she didn't invent it, and was simply repeating an already-popular quip about Marines, only for the quotation to be incorrectly attributed to her alone. Alternatively, it may have been a popular, humorous saying about Marines and or the Navy, which was later attributed to Roosevelt in order to lend credibility and prominence to it.

As of now, we don't have enough evidence to reach a conclusion about which scenario is true. Until such time, our rating remains "Unproven."

Dan Mac Guill is a former writer for Snopes.