A human rights protester in Washington, D.C., 2011.
Jonathan Ernst / Courtesy Reuters

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

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