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Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970sby Barbara J Keys
Synopses & Reviews
The American commitment to international human rights emerged in the 1970s not as a logical outgrowth of American idealism but as a surprising response to national trauma, as Barbara Keys shows in this provocative history. Reclaiming American Virtue situates this novel enthusiasm as a reaction to the profound challenge of the Vietnam War and its tumultuous aftermath. Instead of looking inward for renewal, Americans on the right and the left alike looked outward for ways to restore America's moral leadership.
Conservatives took up the language of Soviet dissidents to resuscitate a Cold War narrative that pitted a virtuous United States against the evils of communism. Liberals sought moral cleansing by dissociating the United States from foreign malefactors, spotlighting abuses such as torture in Chile, South Korea, and other right-wing allies. When Jimmy Carter in 1977 made human rights a central tenet of American foreign policy, his administration struggled to reconcile these conflicting visions.
Yet liberals and conservatives both saw human rights as a way of moving from guilt to pride. Less a critique of American power than a rehabilitation of it, human rights functioned for Americans as a sleight of hand that occluded from view much of America's recent past and confined the lessons of Vietnam to narrow parameters. It would be a small step from world's judge to world's policeman, and American intervention in the name of human rights would be a cause both liberals and conservatives could embrace.
"This timely, well-reasoned study demonstrates why Americans from across the political spectrum embraced international human rights as a foreign policy goal. Historian Keys (Globalizing Sport) argues that timing was everything; Americans needed a way to move beyond the drama and the trauma of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. The promotion of human rights provided a moral, idealistic way for Americans to accomplish something positive in the world while making them feel good in the process. The 1976 presidential campaign publicly foregrounded the issue; the victor, Jimmy Carter, had insisted on making human rights a core component of his foreign policy agenda. But years before, liberal Democratic congressman Donald Fraser had been working to promote the idea that the way a government treated its citizens was more important than whether or not that government was communist. The U.S., he believed, should help other countries achieve democracy by establishing governments that acknowledge human rights. During the early 1970s, conservative Sen. Henry Jackson, a staunch anticommunist, also supported human rights as a way of destabilizing the Soviet regime. Unfortunately, for all the important ideas and background Keys offers, her book lacks an engaging narrative thread to sustain the interest of nonacademic readers." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Human rights emerged as a reaction to the Vietnam trauma, Barbara Keys shows. Instead of looking inward for renewal, Americans looked outward for ways to restore their moral leadership. From world's judge to world's policeman was a small step, and intervention in the name of human rights became a cause both the left and right could embrace.
About the Author
Barbara J. Keys is Senior Lecturer in American and International History at the University of Melbourne.
University of Melbourne
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History and Social Science » Politics » Human Rights