From Selma to Moscow
How Human Rights Activists Transformed Foreign Policy
Columbia University Press 2018
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in National SecurityNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in World AffairsNew Books Network July 3, 2018 Zeb Larson
Human rights as a concern in U.S. foreign policy and international politics has been well-documented, particularly in studies of the Carter Administration. However, how human rights emerged as an issue in U.S. domestic politics has received less attention, which is what Sarah Snyder’s From Selma to Moscow: How Human Rights Activists Transformed Foreign Policy (Columbia University Press, 2018) studies and illuminates. Snyder’s research draws on both traditional diplomatic source material from the State Department, but also materials from NGOs and the papers of a number of congressmen who were involved in these issues. Using the framework of the “long 1960s,” Snyder lays bare some of the issues that sparked and sustained growing interest in human rights as a global issue, and the role that Americans ought to play in protecting human rights around the globe.
Snyder points to a variety of factors that cultivated U.S. attention to human rights, particularly transnational connections between foreign and domestic actors, as well as the broader context of the 1960s in the United States, particularly the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement. She draws on five case studies to lay bare these connections: the Soviet Union, Rhodesia, South Korea, Greece, and Chile. Some of the activism in these case studies was sustained by citizen groups and NGOs such as churches, while in other instances academics, officers within the State Department, or members of Congress directed much of the attention. Snyder then concludes by showing how Congress evolved in this period too, as hearings on human rights led to a number of important institutional changes in government.
Snyder concludes by noting that while interest in human rights surged by 1976, attention has in many respects waned since the 1980s. Attention to these issues is not inevitable and it cannot be sustained without continuing participation from different sectors of civil society. Paying close attention to the ways that these interests were cultivated in the 1970s is one way that the activists of the 21st century might try cultivating awareness of the problems confronting the world today.