With the defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan, the United States stood militarily triumphant and economically prosperous in 1945. Whereas the rest of the world's powers had suffered from the fighting, the United States possessed a combination of military, economic, and political power that, when combined with strong moral leadership, meant that its pronouncements on human rights could, if provided with sufficient backing, carry real weight.
In the place of Wilson's failed League of Nations came the United Nations, and prominent amongst its considerations was the issue of human rights. In 1948 the United Nations issued its Declaration of Human Rights, which listed, among others, the right to life, liberty, security of person, nationality, recognition before the law as a person, and freedom of movement, including leaving one's country of residence. People had the right to marry, own property, think freely in conscience and religious beliefs, have an opinion and express it freely, assemble peacefully, and take part in the functioning of government—thirty articles in all. It stated that people shall have the right to a free education, at least at the elementary level; people shall have the right to work; they shall have the right to "rest and leisure," and the right to "a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being" of the individual and family, "including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services." Playing a crucial role in the adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights was Eleanor Roosevelt.
President Harry S. Truman offered his strong support for the UN's human rights work. At the same time that he spoke out in favor of protecting human rights worldwide, the president experienced political disappointment domestically. He failed in his effort to secure passage of a federal antilynching law. In many parts of the South, white citizens took matters into their own hands when it came to offering justice to African Americans who had either committed crimes or were simply thought to have committed them. Many times a mob hunted down the alleged perpetrator and executed a swift form of punishment, which usually involved hanging without the benefit of the legal proceedings. That this practice still existed in postwar America, and that certain senators refused to allow the passage of federal legislation outlawing it, spoke all too chillingly to the failure of the United States to practice what it espoused in the field of human rights.
Truman pressed ahead just the same. At a ceremony for laying the United Nations building's cornerstone on 24 October 1949, he spoke of the link between individual human rights and security: "The member nations have learned from bitter experience that regard for human rights is indispensable to political, economic, and social progress. They have learned that disregard of human rights is the beginning of tyranny and, too often, the beginning of war." Truman indicated that the success of the UN would be "measured by the extent to which the rights of individual human beings [were] realized," and he also included "economic and social progress" in the equation for determining success in realizing those goals.
The next year at Gonzaga University, Truman brought his message of individual human rights into the domestic sphere, speaking of the need to prevent "discrimination in our country because of religion, color, or national origin," all three of which were basic tenets of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Truman then indicated that "the same moral principles that underlie our national life govern our relations with all other nations and peoples in the world." Domestically, the president backed up his talk with action. He appointed a presidential Committee on Civil Rights to investigate the domestic situation; asked Congress in February 1948 to pass legislation to address the recommendations made by the committee; barred discrimination in federal employment that July; and moved to end discrimination in the armed forces, though the last of those would not be accomplished until the Korean War.
Much of what Truman did in the area of civil rights was politically motivated, to be sure, but Truman also worried about the ability of the Soviet Union to exploit America's racial problems internationally. His administration decided to support, through a legal brief, the effort to overturn the Supreme Court–sanctioned discrimination against African Americans as set forth in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The president and many of his staff recognized the problems created internationally by the country's hypocritical position: publicly advocating human rights for peoples worldwide, while systematically denying those very same rights at home to some of the nation's citizens because of their skin color.
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