Written by Michael Head

Essentially, human rights were so contested during the Cold War because their intangible nature was ‘complimentary to sound realist policies.’1 Intersecting a bipolar ideological conflict, human rights debate reinforced a centuries-old struggle between contrasting social systems and worldviews. Micheline Ishay argues that, historically, human rights have served to privilege a specific status quo or legitimate the claims of neglected agents of history.2

In the context of the Cold War, human rights promotion served as a key component of American exceptionalism and the maintenance of Western-centric free market capitalism, aimed at mitigating the consequences of Soviet expansionism within Europe and the Third World. The individualistic principles of liberalism underpinning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) were therefore at odds with the emerging nationalism and superpower tension which imbued the development of the Cold War.

As such, it can be restated that human rights were contentious during this period as their new-found prevalence emerged in the context of a collapsing and transforming idealism.3 By the height of the Cold War, human rights were able to support the geopolitical aims and interests of superpowers engaged in ideational conflict. This contributed to disagreement amongst US policymakers throughout the Cold War and also established a partial cleavage between the United Nations (UN) and the establishment of new Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

Human rights – due to their interaction with a ‘collapsing and transforming idealism’ – were contested at the levels of domestic US policy making, the bipolar dimensions of an ongoing Cold War and at the site of divergence between institutions designed to promote human rights. When isolated from their historical basis, human rights shall be understood in this essay as they are within the preamble of the UDHR. This suggests that “the recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”4

The Cold War gradually eroded post-1945 consensus surrounding this universalistic ethic of human rights and complicated its implementation. However, to conclude that this erosion was without historical basis is to ignore antecedent developments which are reflected within the realist application of human rights philosophies at the three levels of domestic policy making, international conflict and institutional dispute during the Cold War. 

To begin, this essay will outline the 18th and 19th century intellectual struggle between socialist and liberal conceptions and rights which underpinned the bipolar nature of the Cold War. Given Jimmy Carter’s affinity with human rights during the 1970s, this essay will also discuss their uneasy position within US Cold War grand strategy, a tension which appears to be at odds with the centrality of Enlightenment thought within America’s founding documents.5

It will also be demonstrated that the apparent tensions between the UN and Amnesty International during the 1970s on the matter of human rights implementation should not obscure the fact that both were reacting to the failure of the League of Nations after 1919. This served to uphold the primacy of Western liberalism and US promotion of inherent individual rights throughout the Cold War.

Justice versus Liberty: Human Rights in the 19th Century 

Paul Betts conceptualises the historic debate between socialist and liberal visions of rights as a contest between a communist “empire of justice” and a capitalist “empire of liberty.”6 Throughout the nineteenth century, various critiques of the liberal vision of rights were established. Friedrich Engels famously contended that moral theories of rights are the product of the dominant class at any given stage of economic development, reflecting Ishay’s comments on the matters of privilege and status quo.7

Socialist proponents of human rights during the nineteenth century eagerly followed suit. In his 1839 work ‘The Organisation of Labour,’ Louis Blanc argued that unless rooted in material well-being, civil and political rights were devoid of substance.8 As such, class antagonisms had to be transcended in both ideological and material terms if an “empire of justice” was to prevail.9 For radical figures like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, full political equality amongst humanity would require repudiating the sacrosanct right to property, a right which would ultimately figure as Article 17 of the Universal

Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.10 For socialists such as Proudhon, capitalism may have advocated personal liberty but its historic restriction of improved working-class conditions and legal rights served to actually preclude the achievement of the universal political equality advocated by the creed of liberalism.11 For Marxist-Leninists, therefore, personal liberty was an ‘unaffordable luxury’ in the search for socio-economic justice.12

The articles of the UDHR reflect, to some extent, an appreciation of this economic critique. Many of Karl Marx’s provisions – the right to the limitation of the working day, freedom of association and universal health care – form key elements of modern human rights documents, including the UDHR and 1966 Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.13 The common point of international reference for matters of human rights during the Cold War was therefore conditioned by the socialist and liberal visions of rights which grounded intellectual debate in the two centuries prior.

Cold War Superpowers and Human Rights

As a result, human rights were highly contested between the superpowers of the Cold War. The United States believed the personal liberty enshrined within the prevailing 20th century understanding of human rights served as moral justification for the prevailing liberal capitalist order, whilst the Soviet Union believed territorial expansion would legitimise materialist conceptions of rights which had been central to the rise of Bolshevism in the first instance, yet somewhat neglected by the international community.14 This contributed to highly overt examples of state actions which sought to undermine the basis upon which citizens – both behind the Iron Curtain and under the umbrella of American influence – were granted their civil and political rights.

As Noam Chomsky asserts, ‘the human rights campaign is a device to be manipulated by propagandists to gain popular support for counter-revolutionary intervention.’15 Jimmy Carter’s interaction with Soviet dissidents appears to support Chomsky’s conclusion. In a direct letter to nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov, Carter expressed his support for the latter’s stand on human rights:

“We shall use our good offices to seek the release of prisoners of conscience, and we will continue our efforts to shape a world responsive to human aspirations.”16

The emphasis on dissidence ‘conscience’ reaches back into the historic intellectual debate surrounding rights. An official endorsement of individual liberty fundamentally challenged the collectivist approach to human rights taken by Leonid Brezhnev, yet was legally supported by the 1975 Helsinki Accords, to which both the United States and Soviet Union were signatories, agreeing to further global protection and monitoring of human rights.17 The international nature of such agreements gave greater credence to public criticism and denunciation of Soviet repression.18

Andrei Sakharov’s efforts to illustrate the lethal potential of Soviet nuclear capability also reiterated the threat posed by such technologies to the right to life, a cornerstone of the UDHR.19 This moral critique greatly undermined the viability of the Soviet Union as a Cold War competitor, due to a weak economic base which provided no alternative methods with which to wage ideological conflict against American capitalism other than the unsettling logic of Mutually Assured Destruction.20

Embedded within the rhetoric of human rights promotion, therefore, lay an international standard that would inhibit Soviet repression of dissidents and revolutionaries, moderate Soviet conduct in Europe and ultimately accelerate the collapse of the Soviet Empire through discrediting the weak, coerced consent upon which its authority rested.21 Thus, contrasting visions of rights were ‘manipulated by [US] propagandists,’ in line with international agreements, to achieve the national policy goal of halting Communism’s spread. Human rights were, for a short while, complimentary to realist policies of containment.

Naturally, the US was not alone in applying this strategy. Indeed, the Soviet Union attempted to demonstrate the staying power of materialist conceptions of human rights through suppressing attempts to give greater personal liberties to the citizens of Eastern Bloc satellite states. As Samuel Moyn indicates, growing dissidence in the Communist bloc emerged following the de-Stalinisation policy of Khrushchev.22 This was given greater visibility as the uprisings of 1956 and 1968 made clear the implausibility of reform Communism.23

In Hungary, popular demands for greater personal freedoms – to be symbolised by the removal of Budapest’s statue of Stalin – would lead to the release of Catholic dissident Cardinal Josef Mindszenty in October 1956. The aggressive response of Soviet forces to this aimed to defend the primacy of “social rights.”24 These are defined by T. H. Marshall as the ‘right to a modicum of welfare and security… to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in society.’25

This socioeconomic conception of rights was instrumental in combatting American-centric liberalism and the perceived inequality it had created. As such, this was fiercely defended by Moscow.26 This was articulated in the aftermath of the 1968 Prague Spring. Following Alexander Dubcek’s attempt to introduce “socialism with a human face,” essentially a promotion of personal liberties, the Brezhnev Doctrine was established.27 At its core, the Brezhnev Doctrine placed a premium on the ‘indivisibility of the socialist commonwealth’ in light of the threat posed to socialist self-determination by world imperialism.28 Human rights were therefore highly contested throughout the remainder of the Cold War due to their flexible application to the dichotomy between the social systems which had underscored superpower competition since 1945.

US Liberalism and Human Rights

Interestingly, the ‘commonwealth’ envisaged by Brezhnev was not as easily articulated by the West. Human rights were highly contested amongst US policymakers, particularly as Jimmy Carter’s championing of human rights contrasted so sharply with the realpolitik of prior administrations. In his 1977 Commencement Address at Notre Dame University, Carter boldly asserted that his administration would be free of the “inordinate fear of Communism.”29

Diminishing the threat posed by the Soviet Union, Carter called for “a [foreign] policy based on constant decency in its values and on optimism in our historical vision,” distancing himself from the “secret deals” and alignment with dictators, also fearful of Communism, which had characterised the policy of previous administrations.30 Admitting a quiet confidence in America’s democracy, Carter reiterated the nation’s responsibility “to inspire, to persuade, and to lead.”31

Perhaps inspired by his tenure as Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger argues that this trapped US policy ‘between undifferentiating moralism and overemphasis on geopolitics’ by the beginning of

Carter’s presidency in 1976.32 In his 1978 speech commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the UDHR, Carter appeared to challenge this sceptical view of human rights and its place within Cold War strategy:

“The Universal Declaration – and the human rights conventions that derive from it – do not describe the world as is. But these documents are very important nonetheless. They are a beacon, a guide to a future of personal security, political freedom and social justice.”33

Carter’s use of the word ‘beacon’ reflects a virulent idealism, whereby the philosophy of liberal rights could end superpower competition, despite shifting away from the primacy of national interest. Interestingly, he was not alone in using this term. Commenting on the Helsinki Accords during his tenure as Secretary of State from 1973-76, Kissinger argued:

‘The conference put forward our standards of humane conduct, which have been – and still are – a beacon of hope to millions.’34

Here, Kissinger’s perception of human rights promotion was not focused upon universal optimism but the potential opportunities for US strategic advancement therein, given America’s embodiment of the liberal values promoted by international institutions such as the UN.35 Therefore, when human rights policies failed to provide tangible results, the Carter Administration was increasingly targeted by moralistic criticism. Such critiques likened a reliance on international human rights agreements to the appeasement of an oppressive Soviet Union which generally ignored the provisions of said agreements.36  By 1981, this culminated in the Reagan Doctrine, a commitment to provide direct assistance to anti-Communist freedom fighters, regardless of where they happened to be fighting.37 Evidence therefore suggests that human rights, whether discussed in positive or negative terms, served to revitalise post-war US exceptionalism, a key source of the ‘tension between sovereign realities and universal rights aspirations.’38

For a brief period during the 1970s, human rights captured the attention of the US electorate. This was because the notion of inherent individual rights played a historic role in forming American national identity.39 Conditioned by the highly ideological nature of the Cold War, debate surrounding human rights forced a reconsideration of the applicability of the natural laws underpinning America’s founding documents to modern foreign policy. The Declaration of Independence’s reference to the ‘unalienable Rights… [of] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,’ in step with Lockean fundamentals, arguably permeated the 1948 UDHR.40 For Cold War warriors like Kissinger, therefore, America’s primary foreign policy goal throughout the 1970s should not have been the global promotion of human rights, but thestrengthening of national security and strategic advantage over the Soviet Union, which would in turn render radical alternatives to Western liberalism unviable.

Institutional Cleavage and Cold War Human Rights Discourse

H.G Nicholas unintentionally provides a scathing attack of Kissinger’s implicit reliance upon the UN, describing it as a ‘cowardly conspiracy developed to gloss over the inherent absurdity of an organisation of governments dedicating itself to protect human rights, when, in all ages and climes, it is governments which have been their principal violators.’41 This incendiary language can to some extent be justified by the limitations of the League of Nations between 1919 and the turn of the 1930s, particularly with regards to minority protection.42

Carole Fink argues that the Minorities System was designed to provide minimum enforcement of protective treaties without inciting minorities or alienating governments.43 As such, the League was reluctant to invoke unilateral judicial decisions on the matter of rights protection. The intricacy of this was emphasised by Germany’s admission to the League in 1926, at which point German post-war national revival intertwined with the plight of German Poles who were often deprived of their citizenship and property rights.44 With the United States declining League membership, such notions of domestic sovereignty within Europe were reinforced, rendering the League of Nations a highly ‘uncertain guidepost as to how to balance the [Wilsonian] principle of national self-determination against the claims of minorities.’45

By the 1960s, the intractable nature of state interest demonstrated in the wake of the Great War encouraged NGOs like Amnesty International to distance themselves from international institutions, which, to borrow Morris Abram’s words, were ‘great on production but poor in distribution.’46 In other words, the United Nations was central to defining principles of human rights but less effective in their global implementation.47

Using an article in the Observer in May 1961, Peter Benenson unreservedly defended Prisoners of Conscience, offering practical Christian responses to the persecution of minorities during the Cold War, pledging to “save the world one individual at a time.”48 Rather than an emphasis on coordinated state action, Benenson argued that the force of public opinion – provided this was ‘broadly based, international, nonsectarian and all party’ – would secure the release of dissidents like Cardinal Mindszenty.49

The reference to the events of the Hungarian Revolt here is more than mere coincidence. Through publicising the suffering of Catholic clerics, Amnesty International was associated with the immediate postwar shaping of human rights.50 Although Benenson argued Amnesty was established for humanitarian purposes rather than the advocation of the political views of the imprisoned, its emphasis on individual conscience and its founder’s use of UDHR Articles 18 and 19 – the freedoms of thought, religion and expression – as justification, inadvertently served to buffer state-centered promotion of Western liberalism.51


Ultimately, human rights were so contested during the Cold War as their intangible nature aligned comfortably with Western-centric realist policies aimed at containing the spread of Marxist-Leninism. It can be concluded that the universalistic ethic underpinning the UDHR was hijacked – and distorted – by the exigencies of an ideological Cold War guided by core realist principles.

Between the mid-1950s and early 1980s, historic tensions between socialist and liberal visions of rights, as well as the centrality of Enlightenment liberalism to American national identity and the limitations of the League of Nations all served to render human rights promotion and rhetoric a crucial component of superpower competition. In particular, relationships between human rights organisations throughout this period ought to be discussed with greater conviction. These were conditioned by – and therefore reinforced – the domestic and international factors which moulded the broader post-War development of human rights.

Closer integration of institutional agency into the analytical frameworks tasked with explaining the rise of human rights during the Cold War will therefore assist in elucidating the structural tensions upon which the plight of minorities and American hegemony have historically rested.


Primary Sources

  • Jimmy Carter, Excerpts From Carter’s Speech on Anniversary of Human Rights

Declaration, December 7 1978. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1978/12/07/archives/excerpts-from-carters-speech-on-anniversary-of-human-rights.html (Accessed 28th December 2019).

  • Jimmy Carter, University of Notre Dame Commencement, May 22 1977. Available at:

https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/may-22-1977-university-notre-dame-commencement (Accessed 28th December 2019).

  • The New York Times, February 18 1977:

https://www.nytimes.com/1977/02/18/archives/sakharov-receives-carter-letter-affirming-commitment-on-rights.html, (Accessed 20th December 2019).

Secondary Sources

  • Daniel Sargent, “Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy in the 1970s,” Societa Italiana, Vol.3, No.2, (2011).
  • Donald S. Lutz, “The Declaration of Independence as Part of an American National Compact,” Publius, Vol.19, No.1, (Winter, 1989).
  • H. G. Nicholas, The United Nations as a Political Institution, 5th edn, (Oxford, 1975).
  • Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, (Simon & Schuster, 1994).
  • Howard Schwartz, Liberty in America’s Founding Moment: Doubts About Natural Rights in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, (Other Ideas Press, 2011).
  • John L. Gaddis, We Now Know, (Oxford University Press, 1997).
  • John M. Howell, “The Carter Human Rights Policy as Applied to the Soviet Union,”

Presidential Studies Quarterly Vol. 13, No.2, The Institutional Presidency, (Spring, 1983).

  • Louis Blanc, “Organisation of Labour,” in Socialist Thought: A Documentary History, Revised Edition. Edited by Albert Fried and Ronald Sanders, (Columbia University Press, 1992).
  • Micheline R. Ishay, “Challenging the Liberal Vision of Rights,” in The Human Rights Reader, 2nd edn, (2007).
  • Micheline R. Ishay, “What are human rights? Six historical controversies,” Journal of Human Rights, 3:3, (2004).
  • Morris B. Abram, “The U.N. and Human Rights,” Foreign Affairs, Vol.47, No.2 (Jan, 1969).
  • Paul Betts, “Socialism, Social Rights, and Human Rights: The Case of East Germany,”

Humanity, (Winter, 2012).

  • Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and Government, translated by Benjamin R. Tucker, (Humboldt Library of Science, 1902).
  • R. Judson Mitchell, “The Brezhnev Doctrine and Communist Ideology,” The Review of Politics, Vol. 34, No.2, (Apr, 1972).
  • Samuel Moyn, ‘The Purity of This Struggle’, in The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, (Harvard University Press, 2010).
  • T. H. Marshall, Citizenship and Social Class, (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • W. von Leyden, “John Locke and Natural Law,” Philosophy, Vol.31, No.116 (Jan, 1956).

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