David P. Forsythe has argued that not much with respect to human rights happened during the 1960s, largely because the Kennedy administration was cut short by assassination and the Johnson administration became preoccupied with Vietnam. Yet however brief his time in the White House, President John F. Kennedy recognized the problem created by opposition to civil rights at home for the nation's international standing. Speaking before the United Nations in 1963, nearly fifteen years after the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Kennedy remarked, "The United States of America is opposed to discrimination and persecution on grounds of race and religion anywhere in the world, including our own nation. We are working to right the wrongs." Indeed, Kennedy, who argued that the competition with the Soviet Union was moving from Europe to the countries of the Third World, where mostly darker-skinned peoples lived, understood the need to address prejudice at home in order to appeal effectively to those peoples abroad. For his part, Lyndon B. Johnson ushered through two of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in American history: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson brought the power of the federal government to bear so as to ensure that the states could not continue discriminating against African Americans. The United States was finally beginning to act in the domestic sphere in accordance with its proclamations internationally.
Human rights lost ground as a matter of importance in the nation's diplomacy under President Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser (and, later, secretary of state), Henry Kissinger. The two emphasized geographical, political, and strategic considerations. Human rights, whether individual or collective, were of little concern to them. In his rush to embrace Communist China in a geostrategic partnership against the Soviet Union, for example, Kissinger basically cast aside the collective rights of the Taiwanese, who had been America's ally in the Pacific against communist aggression since 1949. Kissinger's disdain for human rights came through clearly at other times, too. From the administration's support for the military overthrow of the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 to the secret bombing of Cambodia from 1969 to 1973, the Nixon White House valued anticommunism, the exercise of power, and promoting stability over human rights.
Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974 and his successor, Gerald Ford, did not exhibit any greater concern for human rights. Later, Ford would claim credit for supporting human rights by virtue of his signing the Helsinki Accord, also known as the final text from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was signed by thirty-three nations in Helsinki, Finland, in 1975. At the time, however, the Ford administration thought of the agreement as more of a strategic pact than as one that brought a new human rights emphasis to U.S. diplomacy. It was the western European nations that insisted on the insertion of Breadbasket Three, which asserted that "the participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion." Since the Soviet Union also signed the agreement, this language later became useful in criticizing Soviet practices in Eastern Europe.