1970s-style human rights revisited

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 29, 2014 - 7:04 PM

Don Fraser’s foreign-policy ideas are still relevant.

Centennials and half-century anniversaries get all the ink, it seems. But 40-year lookbacks have an advantage those markers generally lack. Often, people who made history 40 years earlier are still around to help tell their own stories.

That’s one of the virtues of a book that was on the Editorial Board’s summer reading list: “Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s,” by Barbara J. Keys (Harvard University Press, 2014). A leading source for Keys was Don Fraser, who before he became the longest-serving mayor of Minneapolis (1980 through 1993) was an eight-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1963 through 1978).

Fraser is also a leading figure in Keys’ story about how America’s rebound from the Vietnam War led to the election in 1976 of a presidential candidate — Jimmy Carter — who put human rights at the center of his foreign-policy principles.

Fraser “was the national politician most closely and consistently associated with the liberal international human rights agenda” before Carter came to prominence, Keys wrote. “More than anyone else, Fraser is responsible for creating a framework that linked disparate global problems under the heading of human rights.”

He was among the first in Congress to speak out not only against communism, but also against anti-communist dictatorships around the globe — many of them U.S. allies — who denied their populations’ basic human rights. He turned the obscure House subcommittee he chaired in the early 1970s into a spotlight on political imprisonment and torture in places like Chile, Greece and Spain. Those hearings began to bend U.S. foreign policy in a post-Cold War direction.

As Keys acknowledges, human rights has lost prominence as an American policy guidepost in this century. She predicts that it will rise again. But the voices of 40-plus years ago calling this nation to higher moral ground in foreign policy are still relevant. “We know very little about nation-building,” Fraser said in 1967. “There is as much risk — yes, even greater risk — in overestimating our capacity to be helpful in this respect rather than underestimating it.”

That warning still rings true.

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