Reflecting on a Critical Year in Social Revolution
Published: Friday, January 31, 2014
Updated: Friday, January 31, 2014 02:01
At the Mortara Center for International Studies on Thursday, Sarah Snyder discussed the United States’ relationship with human rights during the latter half of the 20th century as a driving force of change for U.S. policy, spurred in part by a host of uprisings in the late 1960s.
The University College London lecturer, who is currently on sabbatical at American University, discussed human rights in relation to her latest published work, “1968 as International Year of Human Rights,” and her upcoming book “Human Rights before Carter.”
Georgetown University professors John McNeill and Aviel Roshwald moderated the event, which drew a mix of university professors, doctoral candidates and visitors.
“The early idea was that human rights were of limited consequence in policy making during the 1960s and the early 1970s,” Snyder said. “Some have gone so far as to characterize the years from 1953 to 1974 as marking a period of U.S. neglect for human rights.”
He asserted that human rights were not prominent issues before the Carter administration.
“Human rights violations are certainly penetrating the top layers of power, although clearly they don’t end up shifting U.S. policy in a fundamental way,” Snyder said regarding the administrations before Carter. “But I think that this is more than people have necessarily recognized was going on previously.”
When asked why 1968 and the time period before Carter had not been heavily covered, Snyder pointed to events that occurred during the year.
“We have to acknowledge that 1968 was an incredibly tumultuous and momentous year, both within the United States and in international politics,” Snyder said.
“To name just a few of the big events, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, Johnson’s withdrawal from the presidential race and I think it has to be likely that these hugely enormous events that really captured the American public meant that human rights was crowded out of the picture.”
Snyder’s work, however, goes against these claims.
“In contrast to this interpretation, the book I am writing, ‘Human Rights before Carter,’ will advance a new interpretation of U.S. foreign policy during these years,” Snyder said.
The event, part of the Georgetown Institute for Global History’s International History Seminar, additionally focused on the influence that non-state actors — rather than leaders driven to action — exerted on the importance of human rights in U.S. policy.
Snyder illustrated these claims by speaking about the presidencies spanning the period between the administrations of Kennedy and Carter.
Snyder concluded her talk by expressing her hopes for the influence her books will wield.
“I hope that the book will illuminate debates over human rights in the NSC [National Security Council], the State Department and other policy-making circles to show that both Congressional and nongovernmental activism over the 1960s laid an important foundation for Carter to build upon.”
Students in attendance believed the seminar to be an engaging way to discuss a particularly tumultuous time in history.
“I thought that event was great,” Jesse Sargent, a doctoral candidate from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, said. “I come from a school where, in the International History Program, we have seminars like this all the time, where you have people from many different disciplinary views come together and talk about a global issue. I thought today’s was a very engaging discussion.”
The collaboration between students proved helpful for those in attendance, as well as for Snyder.
“I thought it was very interesting,” history department doctoral candidate Eric Gettig said. “As someone who is engaged in some similar types of pursuits, I think this is a really valuable opportunity to be able to listen to and learn from someone who is doing some of the same kind of work. I think this a really valuable forum, actually, for graduate students here.”
The International History Seminar series meets on Tuesdays from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the Mortara Building, and continues next Tuesday, Feb. 4, with Tara Zahra of the University of Chicago speaking on “Jews & International Population Politics in the 1930s.”