President John F. Kennedy Establishes Human Rights As the Cornerstone of U.S. Foreign Policy

He equates human rights with American goals: “The national interest and the human interest come together in our fundamental objectives as a nation.”

This is the only letter of Kennedy on the subject of the core place human rights holds in U.S. policy we have seen reach the market

John F. Kennedy’s administration established human rights as the foundation stone of U.S. policy, both domestically and abroad. That was his goal from the first minute...

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President John F. Kennedy Establishes Human Rights As the Cornerstone of U.S. Foreign Policy

He equates human rights with American goals: “The national interest and the human interest come together in our fundamental objectives as a nation.”

This is the only letter of Kennedy on the subject of the core place human rights holds in U.S. policy we have seen reach the market

John F. Kennedy’s administration established human rights as the foundation stone of U.S. policy, both domestically and abroad. That was his goal from the first minute of his presidency. As he said at the start of his famous inaugural address, leadership was passing 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.” He continued, saying “For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

At home, in November 1962, Kennedy sent federal marshals to the South to confront governors and institutions dead set against integration. After the 1963 March on Washington, in one of the last acts of his presidency, he sent the bill to Congress that became the 1964 Civil Rights Act, one of the most important pieces of legislation in the 20th century.

In the foreign policy sphere, he wished to resume America’s old mission as the first nation dedicated to the promotion of human rights. In doing so, he would take up the work of Woodrow Wilson almost a half century earlier to encourage human rights around the world. Kennedy defined this in a 1962 speech, stating that he aspired to “a world of law and free choice, banishing the world of war and coercion.” To him, deprivation of human rights was coercion, and that was something the U.S. would stand against and try to eliminate. But Kennedy was practical and went beyond philosophizing; he took action. With his signal programs, the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps, he quickly brought American idealism to the aid of developing nations.

His administration thus saw the beginning of new hope for both peace and the equal rights of Americans and others around the world. In his noted speech at American University in June 1963, which led to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and a reduction in Cold War tensions, he equated peace with human rights. “Is not peace”, he said, “in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights – the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation, the right to breathe air as nature provided it, the right of future generations to a healthy existence.” He went on to state, “While we proceed to safeguard our national interests, let us also safeguard human interests. And the elimination of war and arms is clearly in the interest of both.”

Norman Cousins was the Editor-in-Chief of the Saturday Review, a widely read and well respected weekly magazine of the arts and sciences. He also became a leading advocate for world peace and nuclear disarmament, and was co-chairman of the Citizens Committee for a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Cousins began his efforts to end nuclear weapons explosions in the 1950s. In 1957 Cousins established a major nuclear disarmament organization: the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. SANE became the key player in the anti-nuclear testing firmament. President Eisenhower’s correspondence with Cousins led to suspension of U.S. nuclear testing. Later Cousins served as intermediary between Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and was instrumental in engineering the Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

Cousins had been approached by Father Felix P. Morlion in early 1962, who related that Pope John XXIII wished to provide any assistance he could in relation to the Cold War. The Pope inquired whether a statement from him on the matter would be well received by the American people. The Cuban Missile Crisis in October of that year prompted the Vatican to reach out to Cousins and ask if he would serve as an intermediary in communications between Rome and Moscow. Cousins contacted Kennedy to ask permission to work with the Vatican. Kennedy seized on the opportunity to relay a message to both the Vatican and the Kremlin. He urged Cousins that during these meetings he was to emphasize the United States’ desire for a peaceful resolution of differences. While on his trip, Cousins sent back reports to the White House. Cousins’ contacts were critical in establishing communications that led to the Test Ban Treaty.

In this letter to Cousins, Kennedy articulates the centrality of human rights in American foreign policy. Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, Washington, January 31, 1963, to Cousins. “I want to thank you for keeping me informed so fully about your trip to Rome and Moscow. It has been a most interesting and fruitful journey. Certainly the results so far have been promising.

“As you know, any betterment of the human situation in this world – whatever the country involved – is of importance to the United States. The national interest and the human interest come together in our fundamental objectives as a nation. I an certain you have reflected this approach in this important undertaking.”

This is the only letter of Kennedy on the subject of the core place human rights holds in U.S. policy that we have ever seen. A search of public sale records going back 40 years fails to disclose any other on the subject.

Many presidents after Kennedy either followed his example and made human rights a keystone of their policy (such as Carter), or adopted portions of that policy and melded it into their worldview. It remains deeply influential today.

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