In October 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower made a trip to Red Wing, Minn., to open a new bridge over the Mississippi River. He spoke about human rights.

Eisenhower most likely accepted the invitation to Red Wing because it was the hometown of his military colleague Lauris Norstad, who followed him as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.

Furthermore, Eugenie Anderson from Red Wing was Eisenhower’s ambassador to Denmark.

Red Wing was also the home of William C. Christianson, who left the Minnesota Supreme Court to become a judge at Nuremberg, where Adolf Hitler’s cabinet questioned whether Christianson was sophisticated enough to judge them — and where, in his final judgment of them, he stood firmly for the common decency of ordinary people.

I was a kid of 7 in the crowd that day with my dad, a Red Wing man who had been wounded in World War II. I am sure Eisenhower’s human rights message made sense to him and to all the local men and women who had lived through the war.

Red Wing was and is a typical small town. Everyone knew that human rights were why we fought the war. Everyone knew human rights were the reason for heroes.

Three months later, in Washington, D.C., America’s new president, John F. Kennedy, spoke of the founders and declared: “We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

Down through the decades, we remember the torch being passed and we revere Kennedy’s “new generation” as the “greatest generation.” But we have forgotten that at their core was a commitment to human rights.

The U.N. General Assembly in Paris adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on Dec. 10, 1948, making today its 70th anniversary.

On adoption, the United States promised to teach it everywhere and always. We have not kept that promise. Few of us know anything about the history of the UDHR or its bold assertion that respect for human rights is the only bulwark against tyranny, oppression and war. Respect for human rights is proving to be even more necessary now in a rapidly changing climate.

Legal scholars argue that international human rights laws are ineffective. American politicians fall for arguments that international human rights treaties threaten our sovereignty, though no other nation has ever had its sovereignty threatened by human rights treaties.

Our senators look cowardly when they are willing to take the position that the modern conventions negotiated to clarify the universal declaration threaten our sovereignty — the argument of someone who feels he has something to hide.

The U.S. has no reason to back away from international discussions about the human rights of children, women or people with disabilities, but we stand alone as the only advanced democracy unwilling to ratify these conventions.

We can leave it to lawyers and politicians to argue about sovereignty and to make international human rights law more effective. But the value of the UDHR itself is unarguable, and worthy of our collective awareness, courage and protection.

It begins: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity in rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

This is not a commitment only for governments. It is a commitment for each of us.

The UDHR is available online. It is surprisingly easy to understand. As plain, ordinary American citizens, we are free to understand. We are free to aspire to strengthen the common, ordinary decency we hold so dear.

President Eisenhower made a special trip to say so. He was right.

No one can make you understand and respect human rights, but no one can stop you, either.

 

Sue Dahl Swenson is a former education official in the Obama administration. She is president of Inclusion International.