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A Most Uncertain Crusade

The United States, the United Nations, and Human Rights, 1941-1953

Rowland Brucken

Publication Year: 2013

A Most Uncertain Crusade traces and analyzes the emergence of human rights as both an international concern and as a controversial domestic issue for U.S. policy makers during and after World War II. Historian Brucken focuses on officials in the State Department, at the United Nations, and within certain domestic non-governmental organizations, and explains why, after issuing wartime declarations that called for the definition and enforcement of international human rights standards, the U.S. government refused to ratify the first U.N. treaties that fulfilled those twin purposes. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations worked to weaken the scope and enforcement mechanisms of early human rights agreements, and gradually withdrew support for Senate ratification. A small but influential group of isolationist–oriented senators, led by John Bricker (R-OH), warned that the treaties would bring about socialism, destroy white supremacy, and eviscerate the Bill of Rights. At the U.N., a growing bloc of developing nations demanded the inclusion of economic guarantees, support for decolonization, and strong enforcement measures, all of which Washington opposed.

Prior to World War II, international law considered the protection of individual rights to fall largely under the jurisdiction of national governments. Alarmed by fascist tyranny and guided by a Wilsonian vision of global cooperation in pursuit of human rights, President Roosevelt issued the Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter. Behind the scenes, the State Department planners carefully considered how an international organization could best protect those guarantees. Their work paid off at the 1945 San Francisco Conference, which vested the U.N. with an unprecedented opportunity to define and protect the human rights of individuals.

After two years of negotiations, the U.N. General Assembly unanimously approved its first human rights treaty, the Genocide Convention. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), led by Eleanor Roosevelt, drafted the nonbinding Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Subsequent efforts to craft an enforceable covenant of individual rights, though, bogged down quickly. A deadlock occurred as western nations, communist states, and developing countries disagreed on the inclusion of economic and social guarantees, the right of self-determination, and plans for implementation.

Meanwhile, a coalition of groups within the United States doubted the wisdom of American accession to any human rights treaties. Led by the American Bar Association and Senator Bricker, opponents proclaimed that ratification would lead to a U.N. led tyrannical world socialistic government. The backlash caused President Eisenhower to withdraw from the covenant drafting process. Brucken shows how the American human rights policy had come full circle: Eisenhower, like Roosevelt, issued statements that merely celebrated western values of freedom and democracy, criticized human rights records of other countries while at the same time postponed efforts to have the U.N. codify and enforce a list of binding rights due in part to America’s own human rights violations.

Published by: Northern Illinois University Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-2

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Introduction: The Origins of a Crusade

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pp. 3-13

As the Christmas-time chill of the 1948 winter descended upon the city of Chicago, a middle-aged man with spectacles and a high forehead, looking appropriately professorial, addressed the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. James Simsarian, a State Department liaison to the American delegation at the United Nations, delivered a summary of recent United Nations work in the field of human rights. He began with the most recent accomplishment: the unanimous approval of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which he described as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” ...

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1. Defining a Crusade, 1941–1943

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pp. 14-49

On January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a somber State of the Union address to a concerned Congress that had witnessed Nazi Germany’s conquest of most of Western Europe and Japan’s occupation of Indochina and parts of China. Ever the careful politician, Roosevelt wanted to rally the public behind expanded aid to Great Britain without fueling isolationist sentiments that such assistance would ignite war with Germany. He turned to the rhetorical language of freedom to achieve his twin goals...

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2. Implementing a Vision, 1943–1945

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pp. 50-89

After securing agreement among the Big Four in the Moscow Declaration to establish an international peacekeeping organization, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt spent the next eight months in deep planning for its creation. The final provisions of the United Nations Charter, signed by almost 50 nations on June 26, 1945, reflected inter-Allied bargaining, Roosevelt’s own strong predilections, and pressure from American lobbying groups...

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3. A Conservative Revolution Begins, 1945–1948

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pp. 90-131

A month after Senate ratification of the United Nations Charter, P. Bernard Young, Jr., the editor of the Norfolk Journal and Guide, an African American newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia, telegraphed President Truman. He endorsed Truman’s call for free elections in Bulgaria, but asked if the president’s comments applied to the disenfranchisement of blacks in the American South...

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4. Opposition at Home and at the United Nations, 1948 –1951

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pp. 132-170

The passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights marked the apex of American influence within the United Nations Commission for Human Rights (UNCHR). Immediately after approving the historic document, the General Assembly gave Eleanor Roosevelt a standing ovation. Herbert Evatt, its president, proclaimed, “It is particularly fitting that there should be present on this occasion the person who, with the assistance of many others, has played a leading role in the work, a person who has raised to greater heights even so great a name—Mrs. Roosevelt, the representative of the United States of America.”...

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5. United Nations Success Breeds Failure at Home, 1945–1950

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pp. 171-209

As the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and early versions of the covenant, other agencies pieced together the organization’s first human rights treaty. Memories of the Holocaust and of other atrocities committed during World War II led member states to draft an agreement to punish those who tried to destroy religious, national, racial, or ethnic groups...

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6. The End of a Crusade, 1951–1953

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pp. 210-247

The rising domestic and international backlash against the Genocide Convention and the human rights covenant soon forced Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower to change policy at the United Nations. The victorious struggle against the convention waged by conservative senators and leaders of the American Bar Association had generated the publicity, legal arguments, and political connections that they now used to attack the human rights covenant...

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Conclusion: The Impact of a Crusade, 1953–2011

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pp. 248-260

Between 1941 and 1953, the United States government, often prodded by non-governmental organizations and in response to perceived diplomatic and domestic political interests, led a worldwide crusade for the international protection of human rights. The campaign, launched by President Franklin Roosevelt in the dark days of World War II as the British and the Chinese directly faced the forces of Fascism alone, derived as much from current events as from an American ideology as old as the Puritans...


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pp. 261-326


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pp. 327-348


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pp. 349-362

E-ISBN-13: 9781609090913
E-ISBN-10: 1609090918
Print-ISBN-13: 9780875804712
Print-ISBN-10: 0875804713

Page Count: 450
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 879551928
MUSE Marc Record: Download for A Most Uncertain Crusade

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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Politics and government -- 20th century.
  • United Nations. General Assembly. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Human rights -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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