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The Essential Role of Human Rights in the Cold War

The Essential Role of Human Rights in the Cold War


While the military and geostrategic aspects of the decades-long Cold War were critical, a third factor was essential—human rights.

The Cold War was about far more than nuclear missiles and military alliances. It was in fact the greatest war over the cause of human rights in modern times. America and her Western allies were fighting not merely to contain the Soviet threat but to assert that the communist domination of the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe and beyond was unjust and unacceptable. From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, American presidents affirmed the centrality of human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

Western leaders were obliged to consider a fundamental question: Would they defend a pre-political concept of human dignity that the only legitimate government was that which drew its authority from the consent of the governed? Or would they allow the iron law of collectivism that placed every individual under the state to become the new global norm?

After nearly a half century of conflict, cold and hot, strategic and ideological, freedom and the cause of human rights prevailed.

Since the beginning of the fight against communism, America has been guided not only by pragmatic self-interest, but the ideals of freedom and human dignity. “Let us remember,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared in the first Captive Nations Week proclamation in 1959, “that only as all men are free can liberty be secure for any, and that only as all prosper can any be content in their good fortune.”

President John F. Kennedy, who declared his solidarity with Berliners on either side of the infamous wall, maintained in a Captive Nations Week declaration that “it is in keeping with our national tradition that the American people manifest its interest in the freedom of other nations.” The 35th president stated plainly that “justice requires the elemental right of free choice,” most especially the choice of one’s own government.

Ronald Reagan, the president most associated with the fight against global communism, forcefully articulated the stakes of the Cold War:

America continues to be dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. If we are to sustain our commitment to this principle, we must recognize that the peoples of the Captive Nations are endowed by the Creator with the same rights to give their consent as to who shall govern them as those of us who are privileged to live in freedom. For those captive and oppressed peoples, the United States of America stands as a symbol of hope and inspiration. This leadership requires faithfulness towards our own democratic principles as well as a commitment to speak out in defense of mankind’s natural rights

Reagan and other presidents saw that in our war against communism, the United States could not be just stronger than the Soviet Union, it had to be better than the Soviet Union.

After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, U.S. Presidents continued to use Captive Nations Week to draw attention to the dire condition of human rights in many countries around the globe—and to note the encouraging progress of former captive nations. Bill Clinton said: “Nations once dominated by the Soviet Union and its satellite governments have blossomed into new democracies, establishing free market economies and free societies that respect individual rights. Families and countrymen once divided by walls and barbed wire now walk together in the fresh air of liberty.” Clinton also recognized that “authoritarianism still wields an iron grip over the lives of millions[,] and in this new time we are confronted by the alarming specter of” renewed types of violence and oppression.

The United States could not be just stronger than the Soviet Union, it had to be better than the Soviet Union.share quote on Twitter

In the same vein, George W. Bush declared that “no nation can evade the demands of human dignity.” Singling out countries like Iran, North Korea, Belarus, Burma, and Syria, as well as post-communist countries still struggling with the legacy of lawless government, Bush said that “the desire for freedom is written in every human heart,” and that governments must respect that innate desire.

America’s firm defense of human rights is not a footnote to history but has been a basic element of U.S. foreign policy. Any record of the Cold War that leaves out human rights leaves out an essential part of that conflict.

Let us pause, then, on this, the 56th Captive Nations Week, to remember the basic principles that sustain and animate our republic:

‘That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Let us rededicate ourselves to these timeless ideas this week and in the weeks and months and years to come.