Major events of 1947 and 1948 nearly defy comprehension. Much of the world was still slowly recovering from the ravages of World War II. Cold War developments entailed: the final Soviet communist takeover of East European countries, including Czechoslovakia; Greece trying to repel communists who were backed by Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Albania; the Truman Doctrine dispensing political, military, and technical aid to Greece and Turkey; France and Italy facing serious communist infiltration in politics, economics, and media; the Marshall Plan starting recovery assistance to Western Europe (after the USSR would not permit its East European satellites to accept); further communist gains in China moving that country closer to the Eastern Bloc; the breakdown of US-Soviet talks in Korea, resulting in opposing democratically elected and communist regimes on a divided peninsula; and the Berlin Blockade, with the communists aiming to cut off and absorb West Berlin from free Europe. This period also witnessed the independence of India and Pakistan and the establishment of the state of Israel. Many doubted that the United Nations—a fledgling organization in which the Soviet Union was already known for saying “Nyet” to and undermining real freedoms—could make any meaningful difference.
In this context, prospects for what would become the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) appeared dim. But President Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt were committed to human rights, and he appointed her in 1946 as the sole woman in a six-person bipartisan US delegation to the United Nations, where she landed on its Third Committee on Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Affairs. Whether she was placed on the committee because of her sex or because of her former occupation as first lady and her ongoing work for justice, her newspaper column, and her radio program, she ended up in the single place in the UN Charter that pertained to human rights. Perhaps it was Providence. After the UN Commission on Human Rights (CHR) was established, Roosevelt was named chairman and headed the drafting group of the UDHR. She retained her position on the Third Committee, which would scrutinize the Universal Declaration before its submission to the UN Economic and Social Council to decide if it should advance to a vote in the UN General Assembly.
Although he believed that his Baptist faith offered the best, most direct way to the Lord, Truman was ecumenical, both religiously and personally. Independence, Missouri, where he lived for much of his life, was a crossroads for many faiths (including the Church of Latter-day Saints, as its members journeyed west and left behind a significant presence in Truman’s hometown). As “Captain Harry” of a majority Catholic field artillery battery in World War I, Truman led his men in battle and befriended Protestants, Catholics, and Jews alike. An early adopter of the United Nations, Senator Truman participated in a bipartisan speaking tour in 1943 to promote the postwar organization and resolutely backed legislation to support its creation. He thought the United Nations was the international vehicle to prevent a third world war, and he viewed the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and other Western examples such as the Magna Carta as important models for the UN. While no advocate of world government, Truman expressed hopes for a “Parliament of man”—in the same vein as Winston Churchill—and carried in his wallet a copy of Lord Tennyson’s famous poem “Locksley Hall.” For President Truman, the Universal Declaration upheld individual rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of worship.
Some have claimed Roosevelt was agnostic; others deem her a fairly standard Episcopalian, and still others contend that she created her own Jesus-centered spirituality. Given her faith flexibility and New York cosmopolitanism, Roosevelt was well suited to work on an international commission with atheists and believers of various stripes, some of whom opposed any mention of God making its way into the UDHR. One of two females on the Commission, she was the “world’s most admired woman,” yet was underestimated. Over the course of almost two years, she employed her considerable political and social skills—including hosting meals and teas—to steer the UDHR discussion and decisions in the direction that she wanted. As Charles Malik, who also served on the CHR and was the UN ambassador from Lebanon and future president of the General Assembly, expressed, “I do not see how without her presence we could have accomplished what we actually did accomplish.”
Although graciousness is associated with Roosevelt in her interaction with Truman after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, theirs was a complicated relationship. FDR had not prepared Truman for the presidency, even though he was aware that his health was failing. Henry Wallace, not Harry Truman—aka, the Missouri Compromise—had been both Roosevelts’ choice in 1944. Yet, President Truman knew Eleanor Roosevelt was both a dedicated voice for human rights and a strong force within the Democratic Party, which was headed toward further division in 1948, the same year as the planned vote for the UDHR. The Dixiecrats walked out of the party with Strom Thurmond, while the Progressives departed with Wallace. Meanwhile, Republican presidential nominee Thomas Dewey thought he had already won the election, and his lackluster, non-travel campaign underscored his disdain for Truman.
Principled and practical, Truman let Roosevelt fly. He did not back down when they clashed—for example, over the Truman Doctrine—and he encouraged her to get the job done at the United Nations. In 1947, he appointed a well-respected Republican, who was early to internationalism, to serve as US ambassador to the United Nations. When the timing and votes were right, Truman turned to the new UN to help force the USSR to withdraw from northern Iran in 1946. He avoided the United Nations when the United States and its allies would be vetoed by the Soviet Union in the UN Security Council. Down the road when the Soviets were boycotting the Security Council on behalf of the People’s Republic of China, Truman used the United Nations as the instrument for the US-led response to North Korea’s 1950 invasion—in terms of territory and sovereignty—of South Korea.
In the end, Roosevelt had to bend to Truman’s view of the Cold War. When she started at the United Nations, she voiced an erroneous moral equivalence: the Soviets’ ideological expansionism caused problems as much as the Americans’ supposed inflammatory response. Over time, however, she admitted that the USSR was the main obstacle to human rights. After convincing Truman and the State Department to include basic economic rights in the Universal Declaration to meet Soviet demands, she realized that the USSR still blocked whatever, wherever, and whenever it could. In response, she redoubled her efforts to craft a UDHR with a core of principles that were so fundamental that no nation would overtly disclaim them. She became a reluctant cold warrior by 1948, when she also, at the last moment, endorsed Truman for president. For the fate of the Universal Declaration, the timing in her own political development was a godsend.
What does this important moment in history mean for today? First, human rights and democracies ultimately go together. Whether in the 1940s or now, revisionist powers reject this political marriage. Russia and China today are abetted by regional yet still hostile powers such as North Korea and Iran. Despite recent declines in democracy around the world, numbers are still historically high: according to Freedom House, there are 88 Free countries (45 percent of countries and 39 percent of the world’s population), 58 Partly Free countries (30 percent and 24 percent, respectively), and 49 Not Free countries (25 percent and 37 percent, respectively). If liberal democratic leaders such as the United States abandon the primacy of human rights and their protection in constitutional, open, representative regimes, they contribute to a future of fewer electoral and liberal democracies.
Second, and related to the first point, right-minded actors should remain focused on human rights in their political sense. Such rights accord with God-given or natural rights—i.e., rights that pre-exist government and are inherent in the individual. In 1948, the Soviets wanted to remove political rights and instead sought to elevate economic and social rights that were collective in kind and could only be granted and guaranteed by the state. Truman strongly resisted the communist definition of rights, and Roosevelt concurred even as she remained more progressive than him overall. Her speech before the UN vote on the UDHR endorsed their common understanding of human rights.
Third, effective political relationships are essential. Even though they never fully agreed about the Cold War—with Truman focused on the nature of the regime and thus more staunchly anticommunist than Roosevelt—and Roosevelt never thought Truman was the right heir to FDR, together they defended and got the United Nations to endorse every individual’s human rights. Key were Truman’s willingness to allow Roosevelt access to him and his trust that she would be herself and yet also pursue his policies. “I have been able, because the President has always been willing to see me, to discuss with him at the end of every meeting or of any mission which I undertook, everything that had occurred,” Roosevelt wrote in explaining her resignation from the Commission on Human Rights after the election of Dwight Eisenhower. Also regarding a close, working rapport, Roosevelt showed time and again that personal connections—from philosophical discussions at dinner or tea to open communications at formal meetings—resulted in diplomatic successes. This model should be reintroduced in today’s climate.
Fourth, abstentions may be viewed as positive votes in the United Nations. There were none opposed to the General Assembly’s 48 votes approving the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, although there were eight abstentions and two absent countries. Five of the abstentions came from the USSR and its Soviet-bloc satellites: Czechoslovakia, Belorussia, the Ukraine, and Yugoslavia. Throughout the process, the communist delegates aimed to block or redefine human rights. When the Soviets highlighted America’s racial problems, Roosevelt responded that the USSR could send a team of observers to the United States if the United States could do the same in the Soviet Union. Knowing that the UDHR was a permanent rebuke to all totalitarianism, including communism, Soviet delegates insisted that the state was the sole guarantor of rights, while Roosevelt tried to sway them toward approving a mix of public programs and policies, market dynamics, and voluntary private initiatives. Moscow would not accept any compromise but also did not walk out, and the result was their bloc’s abstentions on the final vote.
Finally, a declaration can be a prudent end. Along with Truman and top advisors at the State Department, Roosevelt came to see that a declaration—which promoted unity on meaning and purpose—was superior at the time to a covenant, convention, or treaty. “Essential in present day consideration of human rights,” she said, was “to secure publicity” in cases of serious violations. A “standard of achievement” to which nations should aspire, as Roosevelt put it, the Universal Declaration can be properly viewed as the founding document of the modern human rights movement, which eventually helped defeat the USSR, its main opponent.