Today, the concept of universal human rights is a regular feature of U.S. political discourse. Americans frequently interpret overseas developments -- from religious discrimination and violence in Baghdad to the exploitation of factory workers in Bangladesh, kidnappings in Honduras, and immigration restrictions in Europe -- in relation to human rights (and, almost inevitably, in terms of “violations”), and look to U.S. foreign policy to protect those rights abroad. 

Yet the ubiquity of such rhetoric today obscures the relatively recent origins of the U.S. human rights movement. It wasn’t until the late 1960s and the 1970s that grassroots organizers, lobbyists, and members of Congress embraced human rights in reaction to the excesses of U.S. Cold War policies, namely Washington’s close ties to authoritarian anticommunist governments. Moreover, it is easy to forget the intense opposition that such advocates initially faced; after all, they essentially set out to challenge the core assumptions that had undergirded U.S. foreign policy for decades. The progress they achieved, in other words, was by no means inevitable, but rather the result of a hard-fought struggle to raise awareness, build political coalitions, and pass legislation.


In the aftermath of World War II, the United States trumpeted human rights as an essential part of the postwar order. Washington was a driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. But such values quickly took a back seat to the exigencies of a growing U.S.-Soviet rivalry. Over time, U.S. policymakers came to see pro-Western leaders -- no matter their human rights record -- as the most dependable bulwark against communism. And within just a few years, even the human rights declaration had become a mere tool of U.S. and Soviet propaganda.

But by the late 1960s, increasing disaffection with the rising costs of U.S. military intervention in Vietnam stimulated a broad reevaluation of U.S. foreign policy, spearheaded by antiwar advocates and their liberal allies in Congress. By the time Richard Nixon ascended to the presidency, Capitol Hill had begun to scrutinize U.S. military assistance programs -- a key means by which Washington supported and rewarded friendly anticommunist governments. Congressional amendments placed increasingly stringent limits on such initiatives, including those that brought foreign military officers from friendly governments to the United States for training. In 1970, Congress limited the number of foreign military trainees allowed under the program to the number of foreign students studying in the United States, and two years later, lawmakers banned the White House from deploying U.S. troops overseas without congressional authorization.

The congressional effort to wind down U.S. military support of repressive authoritarian governments reflected a parallel effort to link U.S. foreign policy to human rights. This development was perhaps most evident in the passage of the 1973 Foreign Assistance Act, which was amended to include a nonbinding declaration that “the president should deny any economic or military assistance to the government of any foreign country which practices the internment or imprisonment of that country’s citizens for political purposes.” Congress also used the bill to make additional demands on the White House -- that Nixon encourage the recently installed Chilean military junta to protect human rights, for example, and that the U.S. Agency for International Development’s foreign police training program, which had been connected with human rights–violating regimes overseas, be shut down.

Congressional action also gave activists outside government an opportunity to push the human rights agenda further. In August 1973, Donald M. Fraser, a democratic representative from Minnesota, used his chairmanship of the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Organizations and Movements to initiate an unprecedented series of hearings on human rights. In just four months, Fraser held some 15 hearings with more than 40 witnesses, including government officials, scholars, lawyers, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations. (Over the next five years, the tally of hearings grew to 150.) From the outset, the hearings reflected a remarkable degree of coordination with the human rights advocates outside government. Recently formed human rights groups such as the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) recommended hearings to Fraser as well as witnesses to give testimony. In turn, by preparing for and participating in the hearings, WOLA and its peer organizations became increasingly effective at collecting, analyzing, and distributing reliable human rights data, both as a means to generate wider participation in the human rights movement and to lobby members of Congress. 

Fraser also pushed forward a number of concrete policy proposals, which he outlined in a landmark report, Human Rights in the World Community. Among Fraser’s 29 policy recommendations was a plan for the State Department to create a bureau of human rights that would assign a Foreign Service officer to each of the department’s regional bureaus and would issue annual human rights country reports. Despite the Nixon administration’s intransigence, Fraser managed to keep human rights on the public agenda. He even successfully introduced an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974 that explicitly linked human rights to U.S. security assistance. “Except in extraordinary circumstances,” the amendment read, “the President shall substantially reduce or terminate security assistance to any government which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” Although it was nonbinding, Fraser’s insertion nonetheless provided a foundation for subsequent efforts to institutionalize human rights in U.S. foreign policy.


From the outset, the Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations fiercely resisted congressional action on human rights. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger consistently downplayed human rights as a viable U.S. foreign policy goal. “Human Rights advocates in Congress accused the administration of moving on human rights only in response to pressure,” Kissinger recalled in his memoirs. “We, in turn, believed that Congress was reflecting single-issue ideological and political agendas, pushed to a point that the administration considered inimical to broader United States strategic or geopolitical interests, or oblivious to them.” Reflecting on the issue more than two decades later, Kissinger conceded that “there was a measure of merit in both views.” In the mid-1970s, however, the Kissinger’s near-total dismissal of human rights infuriated liberal members of Congress and their supporters. “To describe the relationship between Congress and the executive branch at that time as adversarial would be an understatement,” Roberta Cohen, a human rights advocate, recalled years later. “It was an out-and-out war.”

That tension was especially evident in December 1974, when a small group of congressmen led by Fraser held a meeting with Kissinger. “Basically we feel it’s very difficult to continue to support foreign assistance programs to governments which oppress their own people,” Fraser told the secretary of state. In response, Kissinger expressed some willingness to discuss human rights with Congress. But he countered that quiet diplomatic discussions, not loud congressional legislation, should constitute the core of U.S. human rights policy. “I don’t mind requirements for reports of periodic progress,” he said, “but I feel very strongly that obligatory requirements are counterproductive.” When Alan Cranston, a democratic senator from California, pressed Kissinger to discuss foreign aid, which, he pointed out, seemed “to serve the people who are already powerful,” Kissinger responded by ending the meeting. 

That, of course, only strengthened the legislators’ resolve to enact binding legislation. By the mid 1970s, growing support for human rights in Congress prompted the State Department to act preemptively, assigning human rights officers to each of the five geographic bureaus, requesting that U.S. embassies in countries affected by congressional human rights legislation prepare human rights reports, and, in 1975, establishing an office of humanitarian affairs.

Yet Congress continued to push the issue. In September 1975, Tom Harkin, the democratic representative from Iowa, added an amendment to the year’s Foreign Assistance Act, stipulating that no U.S. aid could be provided “to the government of any country which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of international recognized human rights,” unless it could be shown that the aid would benefit the “poor and needy.” The Harkin Amendment, as the legislation became known, forced human rights considerations onto nearly every future foreign aid decision. As James Wilson, the state department’s new human rights coordinator, lamented to Kissinger in an internal memo, “We will get no respite from the Harkin Amendment.”

Human rights had thus become a significant force in U.S. politics. Over the course of 1976, Congress significantly strengthened human rights legislation, cutting off bilateral U.S. security assistance to Uruguay and Chile, enacting a legal obligation for the executive branch to terminate security aid to gross violators of internationally recognized human rights, and providing congressional legislators with the right to overrule the president. The month before the 1976 elections, 102 incumbent members of Congress signed a statement encouraging candidates for public office to promote human rights in U.S. foreign policy. 

Meanwhile, Fraser’s wide-ranging subcommittee hearings had continued to frustrate Washington bureaucrats unwilling to embrace the call for an infusion of morality in U.S. foreign policy. As one foreign service officer wrote in a memo in mid-July 1976, “there are some hearings coming up … which will undoubtedly result in adverse publicity, possibly be embarrassing to Departmental officers who testify, and almost certainly will be the forerunner to adverse actions under the new Foreign Assistance Legislation.”


In addition to the flurry of human rights activity on Capitol Hill, human rights advocacy blossomed into a major political movement outside the halls of power. The 1970s witnessed an explosion of activity and, by 1980, some 100 organizations were operating in the movement, ranging from faith-based groups to organizations advocating on behalf of individual nations.

Some of the groups worked to raise public awareness by generating popular opposition to repressive regimes overseas. Drawing on the experience of the Civil Rights and anti–Vietnam War movements, they aimed to use mass mobilization -- petitions, letter-writing campaigns, protests, and the like -- to shame the leaders of rogue nations into compliance with international norms. “We assumed that all governments wanted to be accepted in the family of civilized nations and that by publicizing information that was not generally known, we would bring the force of world opinion to bear on them,” recalled Jeri Laber, a founder of Human Rights Watch. Another set of U.S. human rights groups, however, focused entirely on influencing Washington’s policymaking elite, forging close relationships with sympathetic members of Congress.

The surge of popular interest in human rights also had a dramatic impact on the handful of longstanding human rights organizations, including the U.S. affiliate of Amnesty International. Originally founded in 1961 as a one-year campaign on behalf of two political prisoners in Portugal, the organization had subsequently developed into a permanent interest group, focused on obtaining the release of political prisoners. During the 1960s, Amnesty International’s actual influence, as one journalist accurately put it, was “almost imperceptible.” In the following decade, though, the group underwent an extraordinary transformation -- a development most clearly evident in the United States. Between 1970 and 1976, membership increased by roughly 10,000 new members per year. And by the middle of the decade, the organization boasted offices in Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and it was operating on an annual budget of nearly $1 million. 

At the same time, Amnesty International was becoming a powerful force for human rights. In addition to facilitating grassroots human rights advocacy, the organization also developed into an effective lobby for legislation on Capitol Hill. In 1973, its groundbreaking Report on Torture solidified the organization’s credibility as a global human rights watchdog. By the middle of the decade, representatives were not only serving as frequent witnesses in congressional hearings but also regularly feeding information to nearly 50 members of Congress. This kind of support significantly enhanced legislators’ ability to pressure the State Department to fulfill its new obligations under a growing body of human rights laws. It also underscored the close working relationship that developed between the human rights community and sympathetic lawmakers. As Senator Edward Kennedy informed a gathering of human rights advocates in 1978, “we are absolutely dependent on you for information. We are basically all generalists, and we depend upon you for information, for the trends, the movements, the opportunities for congressional action.”


By the time Jimmy Carter unexpectedly emerged as the front-runner for the Democratic Party nomination in the 1976 presidential election campaign, human rights had become a major political issue. Recognizing this, Carter embraced human rights as a way of appealing to both liberal internationalists and cold warriors. For liberals, Carter’s open criticism of U.S. Cold War policies represented an extraordinary opportunity in the ongoing struggle to weave human rights into the fabric of U.S. foreign policy. Yet Carter’s approach was also welcomed by cold warriors such as Senators Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who saw human rights as a means of indicting the communist world for its oppression of subject peoples. Appealing to a broad, bipartisan constituency, albeit for very different reasons, Carter effectively used the rhetoric of human rights to distance himself from the Ford administration, narrowly edging out his opponent by a mere two million votes.

The significance of Carter’s human rights rhetoric in the 1976 campaign became increasingly clear in the aftermath of his slim victory. “Judging from news articles and direct communications from the American people to me during the first few months of my administration, human rights had become the central theme of our foreign policy in the minds of the press and public,” Carter later wrote. “It seemed that a spark had been ignited, and I had no inclination to douse the growing flames.” Indeed, although the Carter administration significantly advanced the effort to institutionalize human rights in U.S. foreign policy, the formative struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s provided the necessary foundation.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now