A genealogy of America’s crusade to advance human rights in the world, its origins “an antidote to shame and guilt.”
The idea of human rights went beyond sloganeering and mere diplomacy, writes Keys (American and International History/Univ. of Melbourne; Globalizing Sport: National Rivalry and International Community in the 1930s, 2006). In the years following the Vietnam War, it reinforced ideals that had been compromised by the war and the Watergate scandal. One facet was the reframing of foreign policy to reward those few nations that were generous with human rights, particularly with respect to dissidents, and to exert pressure on those that were not. Détente between the Soviet Union and the United States helped open the discussion from the old Cold War tensions to new concerns, just as, thanks to advances in communications, “[i]t became possible to collect information about victims of repression abroad more cheaply, easily, and rapidly than before.” The presidency of Jimmy Carter became known for the centrality of human rights, if rather vaguely defined and with a moral dimension that verged on idealism; Keys wonders whether that emphasis favored building civil liberties at the expense of other considerations, such as feeding the population. In whichever instance, the late 1970s saw the establishment or flourishing of many human rights organizations that pressed specific causes, such as the Human Rights Watch, “founded in 1978 to monitor Soviet-bloc adherence to the human rights and human contacts provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords.” Interestingly, the cause of human rights was slow to catch on among leftist and even liberal groups—Morris Udall scarcely mentioned the matter when he was running for the presidency—while neoconservatives began to cloak their arguments for intervention in places like Iraq in the language of civil liberties.
An accessible, searching study of an idea that seems to have been forgotten in favor of the steely, cost-cutting pragmatism of today.