The 1960s started 60 years ago, but the shadow cast by that decade in the US is long. It was a decade that fundamentally changed how the US treats our citizens and views our role in the world. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Sarah Snyder joins us to discuss the long 1960s and US human rights policy.
Snyder tells us how she defines the “long ’60s” (1:28) and explains how US human rights policy evolved over this time period (2:32). She also discusses John F. Kennedy’s potential, had he not been assassinated in 1963, to have been the first US president to prioritize human rights abroad (4:06).
Based on research she conducted for her book, From Selma to Moscow: How Human Rights Activists Transformed US Foreign Policy, Snyder explains how transnational activism during the long ’60s fundamentally altered US foreign policy related to human rights (7:35) and how the decade and a half set the stage for human rights policy today (9:20).
Is promoting human rights abroad a partisan issue (13:28)? Can we expect to see human rights return as a US foreign policy priority in the Biden administration (15:25)? Snyder answers these questions and discusses whether or not current activism for human rights reflects what we saw in the ’60s (17:20) and if the influence on US politics of that influential decade is beginning to wane (20:40).
During our “Take Five” segment, Snyder tells us five steps that a new presidential administration should take to signal that it prioritizes human rights (11:13).
0:07 Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. The 1960s started 60 years ago this year, but the shadow cast by that decade in the United States is long. Woodstock. Tie dye. War protests. Hippies. The Kennedy assassinations. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The Manson family. The Civil Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act. The apex of the Cold War.
0:40 KS: It was a decade unlike any other before or since, but all the turmoil led to big changes in how people view each other and how the US treats our citizens and views our role in the world. Today we're talking about the 1960s and human rights. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Sarah Snyder. Sarah is a professor in the School of International Service, and she's a historian who specializes in US human rights policy. She published a book in 2018 called, "From Selma to Moscow: How Human Rights Activists Transformed US Foreign Policy." Sarah, thanks for joining Big World.
1:15 Sarah Snyder: Thank you for having me.
1:16 KS: Sarah, we're going to be talking about a specific time period today that you and others call the "long '60s" as opposed to just the 1960s. Tell us, to get started, what exactly is the long '60s?
1:28 SS: For me, it's the years in between John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961 and Jimmy Carter's inauguration in 1977, and the reason that I think we have to talk about this decade in sort of expanded form is that so many of the issues that we think about as defining the 1960s didn't necessarily end in 1969. For example, the presidency of Richard Nixon, the war in Vietnam, movements for greater racial, religious, gender, and other types of rights, all of these issues and these movements spanned more than just the years that begin 196.
2:10 KS: We're talking about a little more than a decade and a half that represents some of the most seismic cultural and political changes the US ever saw. In your work, you look at that period through the prism of US foreign policy related to human rights activism and policy. To set the stage, can you walk us through how US human rights policy evolved over this time?
2:32 SS: Certainly. Well, I think that the biggest shift is in terms of the geographic or maybe institutional focus of human rights work. In that, from the late 1940s up until the 1960s, people who were focused on human rights saw the UN, whether in New York or in Geneva, as the most appropriate place to be campaigning for human rights, to be trying to influence state policy. And so most human rights organizations would seek observer status at the UN, their offices were based in New York City, and that is where the bulk of human rights work happened.
3:12 SS: Whereas what we see happening across the Kennedy through the Ford administrations is an increasing focus on Washington and on the US government as the most effective actor in shaping changes in human rights practices internationally. I think we still see that human rights activists are focused to a large degree on shaping US policy and on getting the United States on board for their agenda.
3:41 KS: In a recent article that you wrote Sarah, you said that John F. Kennedy had the potential to be the first US president to prioritize human rights abroad, that was a quote. But in office, he yielded to other foreign policy priorities, end quote. What does the record of the Kennedy administration reveal about human rights rhetoric versus policy during his term?
4:06 SS: Initially, the big shift that was happening between Kennedy and his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower was incredibly basic. It was just that Kennedy was willing to use the term human rights. Human rights had been successfully sort of made controversial during the Eisenhower years as potentially a project of the Soviet Union, of maybe suggesting that one was communist leaning, and Kennedy really took that term back and said, "No, this is something that the United States is committed to." He did it not only when talking about rights violations abroad, very often, American policymakers have been comfortable talking about human rights violations as something that happens outside of the country, but he also talked about human rights domestically.
4:53 SS: He talked about people who were facing denial of their rights to access to education or housing, et cetera, also framing them in human rights terms, and this was really a significant shift. But if we think about his policy beyond that, I would say that, like many US presidents, his implementation of this commitment to human rights was mixed. He really highlighted his opposition to human rights violations in communist countries. He talked about, say the plight of those who lived in East Berlin and the fact that they were denied the right to move freely by the construction of the Berlin wall.
5:33 SS: He also talked about colonialism, and he was particularly focused on Portugal that still retained colonies at this moment and about racial discrimination more broadly. He talked about Apartheid in South Africa and his opposition to this. In general, he wasn't as critical of US allies with the exception as I mentioned of Portugal and of South Korea, where my analysis is that he feared that the human rights abuses there could potentially be de-stabilizing and that this could lead to potentially a North Korean invasion or the fall of South Korea, which would have threatened US security interests.
6:15 KS: Sarah, would you say that the Kennedy administration then was when human rights first became a priority in US foreign policy? Was he the one that broke that ground?
6:25 SS: For me, the Kennedy administration is too early. I think if we look at the records of the Johnson and certainly the Nixon administrations, it shows that at the time of the Kennedy administration, human rights was something that he had personally chosen to champion and to talk about. But it wasn't institutionalized in any formal way, which meant that when leaders entered the White House who maybe didn't want to champion human rights or combat racial discrimination in the way that he may have wanted to that that emphasis eroded. For me, it's really not until the mid-1970s when you begin to see congressional legislation, but certainly from my point of view, the Kennedy administration is the beginning of that process.
7:11 KS: Shifting back to foreign policy and we know that one of the hallmarks of human rights and what brings about change tends to be activism and people willing to put themselves out there. How did transnational activism in the long '60s that you explore in your book, "From Selma To Moscow," fundamentally alter US foreign policy related to human rights?
7:35 SS: For me, what's most important about the transnational activism is that it was able to influence ... I often call them lower level actors in the book, so they're not completely outside of the government. They might be congressional staffers, they might be members of the House of Representatives, they could be Foreign Service Officers, people who don't necessarily make policy, not the Secretary of State, not the Speaker of the House, but people who can use their roles in small but meaningful ways to slowly change policy.
8:14 SS: I see a very slow process from the bottom up in which actors who have transnational connections that sort of activate them to care about human rights. Then they're able to sort of pivot, and this is what I was talking about earlier. Instead of taking these concerns to the UN in New York, they started to take them to policymakers in Washington, and slowly through these processes whether it's with people on the State Department or in the Congress, you begin to see that human rights is talked about more frequently, it becomes more controversial if human rights violations are ignored, and then finally building on that foundation, there are real achievements in terms of legislation that really enshrines or institutionalizes human rights as a priority in US foreign policy.
9:03 KS: Sarah, I talked about it in the introduction, the long shadow of the '60s and the long '60s and how influential it's been over every aspect of American life. To what degree would you say that the long '60s set the stage for US human rights policy today? What we're still doing.
9:20 SS: It absolutely set the foundation for the policy of what we're still doing today, and part of it is because, for one, the institutions that were created out of this, for example, what was at first called the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs in the State Department which is now DRL, the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, that bureau still exists. One of its most significant functions is writing annual reports on countries' human rights records, that also comes out of the long 1960s, that's the first time that these reports were mandated to be written.
9:55 SS: The idea that US economic assistance or security assistance would be limited by the records, the human rights records of foreign governments also comes out of this period. This is the first time that legislation was passed that still is adhered to, although I would say it's become even more sort of sophisticated over subsequent years. The idea that there would be human rights officers in the State Department. All of these ways in which the United States formally tracks human rights violations and sort of filters those reports up into US foreign policy formulation absolutely come out of the long 1960s.
10:41 KS: Sarah Snyder, it's time to Take Five, and this is when you, our guest get to blue-sky it a bit and change the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. New presidential administrations often telegraph a lot of their agenda and try to set their tone before they even take office, and we're looking at a new presidential administration coming in in January. What are five steps that a new presidential administration should take to signal that it prioritizes human rights?
11:13 SS: The first step I'd suggest that the new Secretary of State take is to disband Pompeo's Commission on Unalienable Rights, which has suggested that the United States needs to rethink the rights that it champions. Second, I would say that the United States should rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council. The United States can't have a voice in human rights issues internationally if it sits out of these important organizations and institutions. Third, the United States needs to end politicizing the ways that it researches and writes the annual reports on foreign countries' human rights records.
11:53 SS: Fourth, the United States should condemn human rights abuses by its allies, in particular, countries such as Saudi Arabia. The current administration has remained woefully silent on these issues. Finally, the United States needs to defend democracy around the world, and one of the places that it could quickly do this is by speaking out against threats against democracy in Hong Kong.
12:15 SS: But none of these steps ... Some of which I think could be accomplished relatively easily, none of these steps will matter if the incoming Biden administration doesn't forcefully address issues of human rights abuses at home. Whether they're issues around racial discrimination, gender discrimination, or other types of human rights abuses, the United States needs to get its own house in order before it can try to reclaim its moral leadership on these issues internationally.
12:43 KS: It's kind of like we live in a glass house and we really need to get out the Windex before we start telling other people what to do. I think that's great, thank you.
12:51 KS: Sarah, back in 2017, which was only three years ago though it feels a bit longer at this point, you wrote an article for the Washington post asking, "Is the Trump administration abandoning human rights?" A number of other observers have also argued that the Trump administration downgraded and downplayed attention to human rights. We are now coming to the end of the Trump administration as we record this. Is promoting human rights abroad a partisan issue or did we only see a lack of interest in this issue specifically from the Trump administration?
13:28 SS: I can't say that the lack of interest has been only from the Trump administration. I would say that the Nixon administration had a similar approach to Trump, which is that they both viewed the world in very transactional ways and that meant that human rights didn't figure as much in their assessment of how US foreign policy should be formulated, because they didn't think that values and ideals mattered as much. But that is not to say in any way that just because those two presidents happen to be Republican, that human rights is a partisan issue.
14:04 SS: Some of the greatest champions of human rights in US history have been Republicans. Thinking about people like John McCain or even more recently, Marco Rubio has been a very prominent voice on these issues, and if we look at the Trump years, I mean, some of the only moments in which we've been able to have sort of bipartisan support for issues have been on human rights, whether it's on China and say what's happening in Hong Kong or other places. I mean, this is often in opposition to the White House, rather than that the Republicans in Congress and the White House agree, but you see Republican pressure from the Senate and the House pushing the Trump administration to be more forceful in condemning human rights violations and in shaping US policy with an eye to these issues.
14:52 SS: I actually think that, one, they haven't been partisan in the past, but I also think that going forward, if there are efforts in this new administration to craft a more bipartisan foreign policy, the human rights issues should be at the top of the list, because there is such a strong record of collaboration on these issues.
15:11 KS: That pivots nicely to the next question. Everybody is prognosticating right now, do you think that we can expect to see human rights return as a priority in US foreign policy in the Biden administration?
15:25 SS: The president-elect has been very clear, saying that human rights will be at the core of US foreign policy in his presidency. I think what will be the challenge is how best to accomplish that. One among his other priorities, we've certainly seen in some of his early appointments that climate change is going to be very important. I think that that could be very effectively framed as a human rights issue, but I think there are other human rights issues that he needs to pay greater attention to.
15:56 SS: As in the 1960s, when the United States had a complicated record of observance of human rights domestically, that the president-elect and his administration will need to work hard to signal that the United States is aware of the challenges that it faces in its own domestic human rights record. It needs to be transparent about how it's going to work to address those, and I think that it needs to be humble when it talks to other countries about their records, given the very significant issues that we have in the United States.
16:32 KS: Right. Speaking of the issues that we have in the United States, the activism that we're seeing now, both against systemic racism and against climate change, represent perhaps the largest numbers of people taking to US streets in protest since the Vietnam war protests in the '60s and '70s. I mean, I think there were significant numbers of people protesting after the election in 2016, but that seemed to have a different flavor. It was a reaction to an individual and an election as opposed to these protests now against systemic issues in society, which more reflect what we saw in the '60s and '70s. I guess, how do you think that current activism for human rights reflects what we saw in the '60s, and what makes it different?
17:20 SS: I think that probably the strongest similarity is that I think that the social movements today and the social movements then, all wanted the US government and US society, American society, to live up to the ideals that are espoused in documents like the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. And so it was about fulfillment of rights that were being denied, and I think that that's a useful way of thinking about both of them.
17:52 SS: In terms of ways in which they're different, certainly in the 1960s, there were mass demonstrations on behalf of those who opposed the war, those who were fighting for greater rights based on their racial or even later on gender identity, but they weren't framing their issues around human rights. And the people who were using the language of human rights were operating in different ways. There are actually very few significant demonstrations on behalf of human rights in those years.
18:30 SS: There were, in New York and Washington, some demonstrations on behalf of Soviet Jews who faced religious discrimination, but you don't really see mass engagement with human rights issues until later, either the late 1970s or into the 1980s. Instead, a lot of the human rights activism in this long 1960s happened on a smaller scale. It would be people who were members of Amnesty International sitting around their kitchen table writing postcards to say the president of South Africa asking for someone to be freed.
19:04 SS: People who were trying to do direct mail fundraising or going to lobby a member of Congress, but it was by and large a more elite sort of character to these efforts, and they hadn't yet inspired mass demonstrations. And I think part of that is because Americans were very focused on these other issues of civil rights and the war, and they don't necessarily shift to having as strong of a focus on human rights violations happening elsewhere until after either some achievements desired by the Civil Rights Movement have been made or Americans across the sort-of spectrum of society, no longer fear that their sons, brothers, husbands, or themselves are going to be sent to fight in the war in Vietnam.
19:59 KS: Sarah, the '60s did cast that long shadow that we talked about over successive decades as in terms of politics, arts and music, pop culture, entertainment, fashion, everything, it's pervasive. I was born in the '70s and pretty much my entire life I've basically been told, "You missed it, you missed the best decade ever." That's just part of being part of Gen X I think, but the generation most associated with the '60s, the baby boomers, is aging. The oldest are in their mid 70s now. Do you think that the influence of that decade on US politics, at least politics, probably not the culture but the politics, is beginning to wane?
20:40 SS: That's a good question. I would say that during the Obama administration, I would have argued, yes, that that is the case. But when we think about the ways in which, for example, the current president's non-service in the war in Vietnam has been framed or some of the ways in which the election at least has been talked about, it makes me feel, and this may be due to the generation of the people who were running but that actually, that the significance of that decade has not receded as much as we might have imagined.
21:19 SS: I think in terms of cultural consciousness, thinking about the year of 2020, every time that my students would ask me, "Oh, has this ever happened before?" My reaction is, "Well, go back to 1968," right? I mean, in that year, you had the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, you had mass uprisings in opposition to systemic racism, and an incredibly sort of topsy-turvy political process to nominate the Democratic candidate. I was just watching a new film about demonstrations in the street around the convention in Chicago and so-
21:59 KS: Oh, the Chicago Seven?
22:00 SS: Exactly. I think that the pace of that year and sort of other aspects of it are also kind of coming up again in this 2020 sort of breakneck speed year in terms of domestic politics and foreign policy and everything else. I think it's not just the politics but much about the 1960s that are surprisingly relevant and resurgent.
22:27 KS: Sarah Snyder, thank you for joining Big World to talk about the 1960s, the long 1960s, and human rights. It's been great to speak with you.
22:35 SS: Thanks, this has been a lot of fun.
22:37 KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you'll leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like a bottomless plate of warm gingerbread cookies. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold" by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.