New Works in the Field

From Turtle Bay to DC: The Transformation of American Human Rights Activism in the Long 1960s

Editors’ Note: Sarah B. Snyder discusses her new book, From Selma to Moscow: How Human Rights Activists Transformed U. S. Foreign Policy.

Americans and human rights have had a long, interconnected history.  After all, Thomas Jefferson used the language of “rights” in his 1776 Declaration of Independence.  And, Americans were active in shaping human rights commitments at the United Nations (UN) since its very beginnings.[1]  Yet, in the Eisenhower years,the project ofhumanrights was characterized by critics asaUN undertaking that threatened American sovereignty; this sentiment hung over all activism by groups such as Freedom House, the International League for the Rights of Man (ILRM), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  These organizations were largely headquartered in New York City, where beginning in the late 1940s, they often directed their attention at UN bodies and diplomats. The climate hostile to “human rights” persisted, ensuring that activists framed human rights as requiring international protection not domestic fulfillment.[2] There was considerable overlap in the personnel of these organizations, and many even set up their offices in the same building—the Wendell Willkie Building in midtown Manhattan.  Rather than organizations based on mass membership or engaged in political mobilization as would characterize later years, human rights work in these decades was largely a privileged affair.

As I detail in my new book, From Selma to Moscow: How Human Rights Activists Transformed U.S. Foreign Policy,the long 1960s, however, marked both a transformation and expansion of American human rights activism, shaped by transnational connections and reflected by a focus on Washington rather than New York, which led to new approaches to U.S. foreign policy.[3]  In these years, which have often been overlooked by historians of American attention to human rights, American activists increasingly focused on U.S. policymakers in Washington as the most effective avenue for affecting change.[4]

In the early 1960s, New York-based Freedom House, the NAACP, and the ILRM remained the most prominent NGOs focused on human rights. Yet, they were increasingly frustrated by the UN.  Roger Baldwin, the former executive director of the ILRM, repeatedly expressed disillusionment with the UN, writing, “We work against a difficult background – a dis-United Nations too preoccupied with nationalism and colonialism to consider international enforcement of human rights.”  Arguing for the need for the ILRM to intervene in instances of human rights violations abroad, staff wrote, “As long as international machinery remains rather impotent in confronting human rights violations, the [ILRM] and other such groups must accept a major responsibility for doing so.”  Thus it was notable that in July 1967, the ILRM outlined a new approach to interventions in human rights violations that moved away from a focus on diplomats or UN officials in New York.  Several years later, the ILRM sought to create a lawyer’s committee in Washington with the goal of enhancing the organization’s agenda.

In addition to existing human rights NGOs developing a new focus on Washington as the outlet for their pressure, the rise of new NGOs also transformed the character of American human rights activism. The most significant NGO to form in these years was Amnesty International; its innovations would make human rights activism into a mass movement.  Established in London in 1961, it initially faced challenges as it sought to expand to the United States.[5]  In 1965, however, some 750 people responded to a Reader’s Digest article on its work, which prompted efforts to establish a section of Amnesty International in the United StatesEventually Amnesty International – USA offered a meaningful outlet for the rising number of Americans who wanted to get involved in human rights advocacy.[6]

Other private groups organized around religion, nationality, or profession also played key parts in developing new approaches to human rights advocacy. For example, the American Association for the International Commission of Jurists saw its mission to be the “protection and independence of foreign lawyers who have been either arrested, incarcerated or intimidatedby their governments solely because they are rendering professional services to dissident or unpopular defendants.”  Similarly, lawyers in the International Law Section of the American Bar Association expressed concern about human rights violations, particularly of lawyers, in South Korea and Greece.   In just the case of Chile, one of five examined in the book, the Federation of American Scientists sponsored a mission to Chile in June 1974 to investigate the conditions of doctors there; andgroups such as the Emergency Committee to Save Chilean Health Workers and the New York-based Lawyers Committee on Chile formed as well.

Americans advocating for greater protection of human rights were primarily spurred by transnational connections forged during work or travel abroad.  Many were primed to care about human rights violations due to broader changes taking place internationally and within the United States in the long 1960s such as decolonization, the establishment of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) devoted to human rights, the achievements of the civil rights movement, attempts to address poverty in the United States, distress about the direction of U.S. foreign policy, and greater congressional activism in foreign affairs.

In the long 1960s, these existing and new groups who fought against racial discrimination, U.S. support for repressive regimes, and the use of torture came to embrace the lexicon of “human rights” to describe their activism. For example, Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America, which focused on changing U.S. policy toward Latin America, Joseph Eldridge, commented that until Congress released a key report on human rights in 1974 “I didn’t think of what I was doing as ‘human rights’ work.”  Congressional staff member John Salzberg, Eldridge remembers, “helped me to recognize that we were in a human rights struggle.”  Adoption of the language of “human rights” united many of these previously disparate efforts and enhanced these activists’ effectiveness.

In the long 1960s American human rights organizations helped secure congressional legislation that curbed military and economic assistance to repressive governments, established institutions to monitor human rights around the world, and shifted patterns of U.S. foreign policy making for years to come.  These connections in the long 1960s led to the creation of a broader transnational network.  By the mid to late 1970s, human rights organizations worked as part of a broad-based network along with labor unions, religious groups, State Department officials, members of Congress and their aides, as well as professional associations to advocate for a new U.S. approach to U.S. foreign policy.  In the years that followed, an international human rights movement eventually developed that included people who compiled information on human rights abuses, legal experts who acted as advocates for those whose rights are being abused, medical experts who treated victims, and supporters who offered financial, emotional, and other support.

Within the United States, at least, the key change was a flowering of nongovernmental activity surrounding human rights and the redirection of NGOs’ attention southward to the halls of the U.S. capitol and the State Department in Foggy Bottom. Armed with the belief that U.S. actions abroad should align with the country’s stated values, these activists transformed the content and institutions of U.S. foreign policy and stimulated public opinion to support championing and protecting human rights by the mid-1970s.  Their work with members of Congress and other actors in the U.S. governmentlaidthe foundation for key innovations that persist to today, including a bureau devoted to human rights within the State Department and annual monitoring of countries’ records on human rights.  These achievements represent a fulfillment of the belief espoused by Americans in the 1960s – that human rightswere universal, and thathuman beings, in places like the Soviet Union, Greece, Southern Rhodesia, South Korea, and Chile, deserved protection of their rights, regardless of their citizenship.

-Sarah B. Snyder

Sarah B. Snyder is a historian who teaches at American University’s School of International Service.  She is the author of From Selma to Moscow: How Human Rights Activists Transformed U.S. Foreign Policy (Columbia University Press, 2018) and the award-winning Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network (Cambridge University Press, 2011).


[1]Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House, 2001), 17.

[2]See Carol Anderson, Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[3]Here, and in From Selma to Moscow, I use the term “human rights” as activists at the time most often did – to signal support for the rights to due process, the practice of one’s religion, freedom of movement, participation in one’s own government as well as freedom from racial discrimination and torture. 

[4]See for example, Barbara J. Keys, Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) and Mark Philip Bradley, The World Reimagined: Americans and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[5]Sarah B. Snyder, “Exporting Amnesty International to the United States: Transatlantic Human Rights Activism in the 1960s,” Human Rights Quarterly 34:3 (August 2012): 779-799; and Tom Buchanan, “‘The Truth Will Set You Free’: The Making of Amnesty International,” Journal of Contemporary History 37:4 (2002): 575-97.

[6]Interestingly, Baldwin termed AIUSA’s work “international civil rights.”


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