Race and Ethnicity - Human rights, racism, and the un charter

U.S. commitment to the ideals incorporated in the principles of the United Nations symbolized the change in attitude toward race that marked postwar foreign policy. A legacy of Wilsonian diplomacy, the impetus for a United Nations developed during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. The charter of the world organization was written by Roosevelt's aides, and it came into existence in October 1945 largely because Roosevelt made it a centerpiece of his postwar diplomacy.

The charter provides evidence of how postwar U.S. diplomacy identified with policies of fundamental human rights, and had taken a step back from policies that were influenced by racist attitudes. The UN Charter "reaffirm[s] faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small." Pledging its member nations to "practice tolerance and live together in peace," the charter promotes the development of "friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples" and "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all."

Although this ideal was not necessarily always adhered to, the concepts noted above became major elements in the message that America presented to leaders, governments, and populations throughout the world. Policies of the United States were to be based on fundamental human rights and an acceptance of the nationalistic strivings of underdeveloped, largely nonwhite populations. It was never an option in diplomacy to revert to the ideological racism that for so long had been one of the factors shaping the making of policy.

The continued overt existence of racism within American society, and the increasing attention that was drawn to it by the civil rights movement, posed problems for Washington. It made it more difficult to assure others that the racism that had marked American diplomacy for so long was gone for good. News reports of racial discrimination, violence against peaceful civil rights activists, and growing white resistance to integration undercut the message of equal rights and tolerance abroad. When violent protest blocked the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, President Eisenhower commented that it was "a tremendous disservice…to the nation in the eyes of the world." When dark-skinned diplomats were refused service in segregated restaurants, it was reported around the world.

The passage of time brought success for much of the civil rights agenda at home, which was reported the world over. The United States has identified with many of the third world nationalist movements, and it has opposed its European allies when they moved toward policies that could be interpreted as a reassertion of colonial-style conduct. A good example of the latter was the blunt warning given in 1956 by President Eisenhower to Britain and France during the Suez crisis. In effect the American president said that if these two European allies did not end their military campaign in the Suez region, swift economic and political retaliation from the United States would result.

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