Barbara Keys, Reclaiming American Virtue:
The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s
During the 1970s, political liberalism in the United States embraced the notion of international human rights as a priority consideration in shaping American foreign policy. The liberal argument that gained traction during the latter portion of the decade was that the United States should not support or provide assistance to governments that engaged in practices violating international human rights norms, particularly torture and repression of dissent. But this liberal argument could gain its traction only after the end in early 1973 of America’s role as a belligerent in the Vietnam War. Such is the premise which Barbara Keys, a Harvard-educated Senior Lecturer in American and International History at the University of Melbourne, Australia, expounds in her thoroughly researched and solidly written work, Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s.
Human rights as a “liberal foreign policy paradigm” was an “intellectual impossibility” while America was mired in Vietnam, Keys contends, and therefore “unthinkable in the circumstances of the war” (p.53). As long as the war continued, a “profound fatigue with and abhorrence of the very idea of intervention precluded the development of any new, systematic effort to inject American power or values abroad . . . Only once the war was over would American liberals feel they could credibly moralize to the world” (p. 53-54). What Keys describes as the “human rights revolution” of the 1970s in the United States was for American liberals an “emotional response to the trauma of the Vietnam War” (p.8) – or, as Keys’ title indicates, a means to reclaim American virtue.
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The term “human rights” came into vogue only after World War II, with the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or UDHR, which established norms defining the basic rights that all humans were entitled to demand from their governments. Arising out of the destruction and devastation of World War II, the UDHR was one of the first international instruments to refer to human rights in general, rather than to the rights of specific groups. But the UDHR was mostly aspirational, a document “intended to be a beacon, not a guide to actual behavior” (p.22). It contained no enforcement mechanisms and numerous clauses indicated that it did not seek to infringe upon state sovereignty.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the term “human rights” was largely dormant in the United States, except as associated with the ineffectual UDHR, and played little discernible role in American foreign policy. These were also the decades when the term “civil rights” became part of the national vocabulary. Although civil rights might be thought of as the specific name for the movement for human rights for African-Americans, the two terms have different lineages. The notion of human rights Keys emphasizes, seeks “legitimacy and solutions in international law resting above the authority of the nation-state,” whereas the civil rights movement in the United States above all sought “American remedies to American injustice” (p.33-34).
When American involvement in the war in Vietnam ended in 1973, “emotions spilled into new areas, casting old questions in fresh light and creating novel possibilities for action. Slowly, as a process of accumulation rather than epiphany, human rights became one of those possibilities” (p.127-28). The end of combat activities in Vietnam “opened the way for members of Congress to vent long-brewing anger at the conduct and content of U.S. foreign policy” (p.133-34). A loose group of Congressmen dubbed the “new internationalists” pursued support for human rights abroad as part of an American foreign policy orientation that also prioritized economic cooperation, cultural exchanges and support for democracy, with less emphasis upon military assistance.
Among the new internationalists, a now-obscure Democratic Congressman from Minnesota, Donald Fraser, more than any other national official, was “responsible for creating a framework that linked disparate global problems under the heading of human rights” (p.76). In the House of Representatives, Fraser led hearings in late 1973 that are “often regarded as the moment when a movement for international human rights in the United States began to take off,” generating a “blueprint for much of the congressional human rights efforts of the next few years” (p.141). The blueprint included several changes to the administration of American foreign aid that made it more difficult for the United States to provide assistance to foreign governments that engaged in human rights abuses, especially torture and detention of political prisoners. Section 32 of the 1973 Foreign Assistance Act, which came to be known as the “Fraser Amendment,” provided for “reductions (or, more often, the threat of reductions) in security aid for gross violations such as torture, coupled with the requirement that the State Department issue reports critiquing foreign countries’ human rights records” (p.165).
In the aftermath of the Fraser Amendment, Congress used country-specific public hearings to “shape public opinion and signal concern about human rights abuses”(p.176). It focused on “sensational abuses, torture above all,” and made cuts in aid to “friendly but strategically expendable governments” (p.176). The results were “inevitably ad hoc and inconsistent, with some countries and some abuses drawing attention and sanctions while others were largely ignored” (p.176). Liberals hoped that cutting aid would stimulate reforms and reduce repression but, as Fraser and others admitted, they had “little evidence that targeting aid would work as planned” (p.160). Tangible effects were not, however, the measure of success. The crucial task was to “restore a commitment to American values by dissociating from regimes that tortured and murdered political opponents” (p.160) – and thereby reclaim American virtue.
In Paraguay, for example, a country with “little significance to the United States,” human rights abuses were met with a “solid front: diplomatic isolation, total cutoffs in aid, and blocked loans in international forums” (p.257). Between 1974 and 1976, liberals also pushed through aid measures that reduced or cut off aid to South Korea, Chile, and Uruguay. Allies in these years included conservatives who supported dissidents in the Soviet Union, mostly Jewish, who wished to emigrate, most frequently to Israel.
The spokesman for this group was another Democrat, albeit one considered highly conservative, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson from the State of Washington. Joining his cause were several intellectuals who were later labeled “neo-conservatives,” including Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol and Daniel Moynihan. With Senator Jackson leading the charge in Congress, “unrepentant Cold Warriors took the rhetoric of human rights newly popularized internationally by Soviet dissidents and fashioned a straightforwardly anticommunist policy around the universalist language [of the UDHR]. It was a stunning shift in the rhetoric of conservative anticommunism, which in the 1950s and 1960s had been overtly hostile to the UN and . . . had seen UN human rights instruments as a dangerous threat to American values” (p.104).
But this neo-conservative embrace of human rights was driven by a fervent rejection of the shame and guilt that had characterized the anti-Vietnam War movement and the campaign rhetoric of 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern. For the conservative proponents of Soviet Jewry, the Vietnam War “required no apology;” it had been not immoral but rather an “admirable expression of the nation’s moral principles, as well as a strategic necessity, and consonant with America’s consistently beneficent role in the world” (p.116). Jackson and his cohorts believed that the “self-doubt provoked by the Vietnam War threatened to weaken America’s resolve in what remained a life-or-death struggle against communism” (p.104).
The cause of human rights in the Soviet Union pulled liberals in two directions. While sympathetic to Jews who wished to emigrate, they also “strongly supported improved U.S.-Soviet ties, reduced tensions, and the broad aims of détente” which the Nixon and Ford administrations were pursuing. Their aims therefore “diverged from those of hardliners like Jackson who sought to derail détente” (p.125). The foil to this odd liberal-conservative alliance was Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State to Presidents Nixon and Ford.
Kissinger expounded a realpolitik approach to foreign policy, which gave priority to America’s geo-political interests and allowed little room for judgments about a country’s internal human rights record. Kissinger argued that it was dangerous to “make the domestic policy of countries around the world a direct objective of American foreign policy” (p.133) at a time when the administration was seeking to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union and thereby reduce the risk of nuclear war. Although Kissinger believed that human rights initiatives would hurt relations with America’s allies, what most spurred his opposition was resentment at what he considered congressional intrusions into executive branch prerogatives to shape the nation’s foreign policy.
For 1970s liberals, Kissinger was the personification of all that was wrong with the way American foreign policy was conducted. But neither did he have many fans among the neo-conservatives pushing the Soviet Union on Jewish emigration. They regarded détente with the Soviet Union, pursued by both the Nixon and Ford administrations, as wrong headed and dangerous. Kissinger’s adamant defense of realpolitik and executive prerogatives backfired, playing a “pivotal role in moving human rights from the sidelines to the center of American diplomacy,” Keys argues. Ironically, Kissinger would be a serious contender for designation as the person “most responsible for advancing the cause of international human rights in the mid-1970s” (p.153), she writes.
Jimmy Carter, who won the presidency in the 1976 election, is often thought of as the catalyst for bringing human rights into the mainstream of American foreign policy. As a presidential candidate, however, Carter had been skeptical about elevating human rights to a foreign policy priority position. He did not share the deep emotional concern of Jackson and his cohorts for Soviet Jews, “nor was it his instinct to identify with political prisoners around the world” (p.236). His embrace of human rights was “both late and serendipitous” (p.215). But Carter “eventually came around to the issue because it resonated with his theme of restoring morality and, more pragmatically, because it would enhance his standing among Jewish voters” (p.236).
Discovering what human rights promotion meant in practice was for the Carter administration “far more complicated than anyone had anticipated. The difficulties the administration encountered in formulating a human rights agenda attest both to a lack of specific planning and the sheer novelty of a human rights based foreign policy. There were no precedents to draw on, no prior models from which to borrow,” leaving the impression of “incoherence and muddle” (p.250). Given inflation, gas lines and above all the 444-day hostage crisis in Iran, which the Carter administration was unable to resolve, Carter’s four-year term was frequently viewed as a failure.
Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential election, explicitly disavowed human rights as a priority consideration in the foreign policy of his administration. But, thanks especially to a credible human rights lobby that had taken shape during the Carter administration, Reagan could not ignore human rights entirely. In particular, Keys emphasizes how the American branch of Amnesty International, AI USA, evolved during the Carter administration into an organization with serious clout on Capitol Hill and with the State Department.
AI USA focused initially on political prisoners, lobbying for aid cuts to regimes that tortured and jailed opponents in large numbers, a narrow focus “ideally suited to the Zeitgeist of the seventies” (p.181), Keys argues. Rather than seeking to effectuate wholesale structural changes within selected governments, AI USA aimed more modestly at making specific and targeted changes to practices and individual behavior within those governments. Amnesty “resolutely portrayed itself as nonpartisan – indeed as beyond politics” (p.192). But despite its apolitical mantra, its “most prominent activities and the majority of its leaders and grassroots members were on the left of the political spectrum” (p.192). Charitable tax law enjoined the organization from directly lobbying the government and AI rules prohibited it from taking a position on foreign aid. The office nonetheless worked closely with State Department officials and sympathetic members of Congress, providing information, requesting action, and prodding them to ask questions.
Keys concludes that in light of the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001, and the United States’ protracted military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, “Americans seem to be losing interest in the idea [of human rights] as a guide to U.S. foreign policy” (p.277). While American public sentiment could well be turning inward, repudiation of human rights in the formulation of American foreign policy would be far more difficult today than in the Reagan administration. Several other human rights organizations have cropped up beside AI USA, such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, to convey human rights concerns to Washington policy makers and the public. The clout of these organizations alone would make a repudiation of human rights unlikely. Moreover, the State Department is required to address human rights in a multitude of contexts.
The Department’s annual country-by-country human rights report, coordinated by a vast bureaucracy within the State Department, the Bureau of Democracy, Rights, and Labor, details individual countries’ human rights records in a strikingly broad array of areas. The report is read closely and taken seriously around the world. Further, the United States’ anti-human trafficking legislation requires the State Department to produce another report, coordinated by another bureaucracy within the Department, which sets forth individual countries’ progress in curtailing human trafficking. The legislation provides for sanctions for those countries deemed to be making insufficient progress. During my career working in U.S. Embassies, I was frequently involved in the preparation of these reports.
I was even more involved in what is termed “Leahy Vetting,” a process established by an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 sponsored by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. Leahy Vetting mandates a formal State Department determination that any specific instance of U.S. assistance to overseas law enforcement and security units will not include officers or units that had engaged in serious human rights abuses. Although realpolitik of the Kissinger variety has hardly disappeared from the United States’ foreign policy formulation process, today it competes with human rights and a wide range of other institutionalized considerations in determining that policy.
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As a means of “coming to terms with the Vietnam War” and a “way to heal the country” (p.3), the human rights revolution of the 1970s which Keys depicts represents still another legacy of the traumatic Vietnam conflict. But Keys also demonstrates that human rights rose to its prominent position as a result of diverse pressures and motivations, which she methodically ties together. Writing in straightforward if not quite riveting prose, Keys casts incisive light on an often overlooked aspect of modern American liberalism, now thoroughly mainstream; and on how and why the human rights records of other governments came to play a prominent role in defining America’s relationship with the rest of the world.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
November 3, 2015