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.
Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s is a vigorous and engaging account of the emergence of the concept and its non-linear journey from lip-serving political piety to an integral, if contradictory, component of the foreign policy of the U.S.
An accessible, searching study of an idea that seems to have been forgotten in favor of the steely, cost-cutting pragmatism of today.
This timely, well-reasoned study demonstrates why Americans from across the political spectrum embraced international human rights as a foreign policy goal.
A genuine masterpiece of the historian’s craft, Reclaiming American Virtue shows how human rights were a tonic for the country’s self-confidence. America’s fusion of moral principle and global violence in today’s world no longer looks the same after this revelatory book.
The most comprehensive account of a central issue of U.S. foreign policy during an exceptionally important decade, Reclaiming American Virtue is clearly a major achievement.
Today, human rights and global interdependence are accepted as an essential basis for national and international affairs. Barbara Keys shows precisely when, where, and how this complete reconceptualization of America’s role in the world came about. A major contribution to the growing body of literature in human rights history.
- 368 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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