a March toward WAR

Then "Echoes of MY LAI" capture media to shake
a U.S. comeback a quarter century
in the making
The Dangers of Human Rights Reporting


"Realpolitik," fueled by 9/11 and personal grudges,
colors latest chapter in history of
U.S. human rights journalism from
Nineteenth Century beginnings

Crushing the "Iraq buffer"
opens the door to fundamentalist Iran?


By Frederic A. Moritz

Bush and the language of "frontier nationalism"
Reshaping the Mideast to rebuild U.S. "sphere of influence"
Twenty years after expulsion from Iran, the U.S. "is back"
9/11: national security, new nationalism, and the "Savage Wars of Peace"
Oil: the muddy mix
Adding evangelical religion to the mix
Making the Mideast safer for Israel
Bitterness: the personal factor
The Kissinger symbolism

"I hate Saddam Hussein...
I don't hate easily,
but I think he's....a brute..."

Former president
George Bush
to CNN's Paula Zahn,
September, 2002


"There are times when words seem empty
and only actions seem great.
Such a time has come, and in the
Providence of God America will once more
have an opportunity to show the world that
she was born to save mankind."

Woodrow Wilson
Memorial Day address
May 30, 1917


"Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine,
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
(The end for others sought)
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hope to nought..."

Rudyard Kipling
McClure's Magazine
February 1899


The Bush Administration sounded the crusading bugle call of both antiterrorism and human rights - as it occupied Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein.

Yet riding harmoniously beneath the rhetoric of these twin crusades are the classic practices of great power "
realpolitik," realpolitik fueled by the trauma of 9/11.

This time it is an "Americanized realpolitik" voiced in the classic language of "frontier nationalism," proclaimed in the vernacular of the historic American
Indian fighter. Realpolitik cloaked in the idealistic rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson's call for global democracy.

A "magic mix" of many American motivations, both "defensive" and "offensive," helped seal Saddam's fate.

High on the list: Saddam Hussein was removed to prevent a rebellious and ruthless dictatorship from thumbing its nose at the world's only superpower. To send this message to other "rogue" nations which might defy the United States:

"Beware, we are armed to the teeth, a 'dragon,' not a 'paper tiger.' We will not hesitate to use force, if necessary. We mean exactly what we say."

(For an examination of the problems faced by the United States in overthrowing other sleazy, ruthless, defiant dictators in the past, see Eytan Gilboa on how the first President Bush overthrew, captured and imprisoned Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, "The Panama Invasion Revisited: Lessons for the Use of Force in the Post Cold War Era,"
Political Science Quarterly, v110 n4, p539, 1995).


The U.S. approach to classic power politics was to destroy Saddam Hussein's Iraq as an aspiring regional "hegemon" to maintain a dominant American foothold in the oil-rich Middle East.

This was "realpolitik" in the shadow of 9/11. It took aim at a defiant, unrepentant "loose cannon" with a history of unpredictability and a penchant for harboring anti-Israeli, anti-American terrorists. A man not likely to become a friend. A man no longer to be tolerated in a strategic, delicate part of the world where Washington has deep political and economic interests. A man who in the present or future might develop an alliance with Osama
Bin Laden's al Qaida.

The Bush approach has always concerned future possibilities, not simply existing
weapons of mass destruction. After 9/11 an American policy of preemptive attack was developed to take out bases for terrorist action before they became an imminent threat.

Yet when the second President Bush threw out of power Saddam's long-term aspirations to dominate the Middle East, he destroyed a "buffer" against
a revival of Iranian power as the newest potential regional hegemon.

With Iraq weakened by the resulting ethnic conflict and terrorism, Americans have directly taken over, for now at least, as the regional buffer against Shite Iran.

Only time will tell how much of a boost the Bush policy gives to the very same revived Shite fundamentalist militant Iran which President Reagan had built up Saddam to oppose -- way back during the Iran Iraq war of the 1980's. The very same Iran which had tossed out the American-backed Shah, held US hostages in late 1979, humiliated the greatest power on earth.


So almost a quarter century after the 1979 Iranian revolution traumatized Washington and threw out the Americans from that oil rich country, the U.S. is back, restoring and enlarging its Middle East "sphere of influence" -- this time in neighboring oil rich Iraq.

It was a shaky "comeback." American occupiers faced the danger of being drawn into prolonged combat with a growing insurgency if they stayed -- or the danger of a civil war or anti-American government in power if they left.

Then revelations of psychological and physical abuses by American military, intelligence officials, and civilian contractors in American run Iraq prisons caused global media shockwaves.

Whether directly ordered or informally occurring, American efforts to "soften up" prisoners for interrogation appeared a natural consequence of stepped up fighting with insurgents, which took an increasing number of American lives.

The revelations put Americans "in the dock" as accused violators of human rights. Deeply on the defensive was the American claim that dedication to human rights motivated its presence in Iraq. Major national and international human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch joined to
urge changed American policies.

Adding to the embarrassment was a symbolic link with the 1968
My Lai massacre by American soldiers during the Vietnam War.

A May 2004 article in
The New Yorker Magazine by Seymour M. Hersh, the very same American journalist who exposed the My Lai massacre, detailed prison abuses revealed by American soldiers and military investigators. As in the case of My Lai, American soldiers appeared to have "blown the whistle," then a journalist spread the word.

second May New Yorker piece by Hersh reported a decision approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld expanded a highly secret operation, previously focused on the hunt for al Qaeda, to interrogation of prisoners in Iraq.

This second report, strongly denied by the Pentagon, maintained the change expanded the power of American intelligence operatives in Iraq prisons and increased the use of psychological intimidation and sexual humiliation in efforts to squeeze fresh intelligence from detainees.

A September 24, 2005
report by Human Rights Watch based on allegations by American military officers suggested American military leaders had directly or indirectly encouraged beatings and other torture of prisoners in Iraq. The alleged violations in violation of the Geneva conventions were said to be aimed at softening up prisoners for interrogation.

Reported prison abuses hardly matched the death of over 300 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. Still, once again media reporting on human rights issues appeared to have rocked the American and international political scene.

The issue threatened to become a part of the American presidential election. Democrats seized on it to call for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a tactic designed to undermine President Bush in 2004 elections.


The current "war" against terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere can be seen as a "new" form of guerrilla war, a war without fronts, a war without rules. Where modern communications and even modern weaponry can be used by a weak "underdog" in surprise attacks aimed at punishing, terrorizing a modern Goliath.

When Americans think of guerrilla war, they are likely to fix on the Vietnam War which so expensively frustrated the United States. It is important to remember that guerrilla wars have come in many shapes and sizes, with differing outcomes. We are back to a form of conflict as ancient as war itself.

Geneva Conventions too rarely moderate this form of conflict, although that has long been a goal of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Taking hostages, extortion, summary executions and torture of prisoners have long been a hallmark of guerrilla war.

(See this writer's
A Century of Guerrilla War: the Human Rights Connection; see also a 2002 ICRC editorial on humanitarian law, terrorism, 9/11, and guerrilla conflict which argues civilians are increasingly the target of modern conflicts and that treatment of prisoners in these conflicts creates difficult new challenges).

Current American practices of removing suspected al Qaeda captives from coverage of the Geneva conventions and placing them in secret interrogation centers reflect the reality that the US is in a modern form of guerrilla war.

The same applies to the prison scandals. A form of "counter terror" -- vengeance, intimidation in the name of intelligence gathering -- is a frequent occurrence in guerrilla war, when the stakes appear to be life and death. Since good intelligence is essential to winning a guerrilla war, it can be tempting to think "anything goes."

It needs to be understood that this form of "counter terror" is deeply rooted in the nature of terrorism and guerrilla war. It is not simply the Americans who erode the rules. It is also the people who choose to launch this kind of combat, to organize and promote it on both a regional and global scale.


It "all began" when both the United States and the Soviet Union were reeling under the "threat" of militant Islam.

The rise of militant Iranian clerics, the overthrow of the Shah in January 1979 and the November 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy and hostages in Teheran humiliated Washington at the same time it raised concern in Moscow.

In late 1978 this correspondent interviewed in
Beijing, China a Soviet diplomat who expressed great fear of Islamic militancy spilling northward into the Soviet Union.

"They are dirty people," he said. "Only God knows if we will have world war."

It was in part Moscow's perception that Islamic militancy might spill over into its own southern minorities which triggered the
December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Moscow's expansive fear of Islam thus took it into direct confrontation with the U.S., which then chose under President Ronald Reagan to support Islamic guerrillas against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Meanwhile the U.S. threw its military backing to Iraq's Saddam Hussein hoping his
1980 invasion of Iran might undermine anti-American Iranian Islamic leaders. Then, after Iran and Iraq made peace in 1988, US-Iraq relations soured. Saddam Hussein began his long confrontation with the U.S. by invading Kuwait in 1990.

The Cold War is over. Islamic militancy is stronger than ever. Now, after taking out Saddam Hussein, the United States is back -- though not yet in Iran.

With an expansive fear of terrorism it conducts a costly comeback -- and hopes to shape the future of this oil rich region -- to build an ever larger "sphere of influence" extending right up into the oil rich states which once made up part of the southern Soviet Union.


The American approach in Iraq justified itself, in part, on Saddam's human rights abuses.

Indeed the Bush Administration has been deeply sensitive to human rights concerns of the "evangelical coalition."
The New York Times noted October 26, 2003 that these religious groups have driven aspects of foreign policy and won major appointments; that they were instrumental in making sure that the president included extensive remarks on sex trafficking in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, 2003.

Still the ouster of Saddam Hussein marked a sharp departure from the "universalistic" global moralism of the human rights movement.

It was instead a blending of many classic themes, including the time honored approach often identified as "born in Europe." The approach known as "realpolitik," popularized by former Secretary of State
Henry Kissinger, is the exact opposite of the moral crusade.

The language is similar, whether against al Qaeda's terrorists or Saddam Hussein's "rogue state."
Texan President George W. Bush uses the fighting words of what Walter Russell Mead calls the "Jacksonian tradition" in American foreign policy.

There need be "no quarter" for savages who break the laws of civilized war to pillage defenseless women and children. Today's version of "savage" is any state or movement which carries out or shelters international terrorism, including the spread of "weapons of mass destruction."

"Hunt 'em down...we're smoking 'em out...we have 'em on the run...dead or alive...we'll bring 'em to justice....victory under God."

Frontier General; Indian Fighter
Seventh President (1829-1837)


The flexing of American muscle was aimed against a distant "hypothetical:" a gradually rearmed Iraq, including possible future nuclear weapons, might eventually threaten America's power in the region by "forcing" Iraq's oil rich neighbors to accommodate with Baghdad. At the very least, Saddam's support for anti-Israeli terrorists challenged the deepening American-Israeli alliance against what both Tel Aviv and Washington define as their common enemy: "terror."


Here are some Bush Administration calculations on how the overthrow of Saddam Hussein will help reshape the Mideast in accordance with U.S. interests:

Inflammatory American bases in conservative Saudi Arabia will be less necessary with the end of no fly zones to contain Iraq. Post Saddam Iraq will itself also offer possibilities for American bases, thus increasing the range of strategic choices for U.S. planners. Washington's newly demonstrated willingness to use overwhelming military power may put pressure on neighboring Iran, strengthening its moderates and undermining its Islamic fundamentalists.

A dozen years of confrontation and sanctions against a defiant Saddam Hussein had closed off rich Iraq oil fields to full international and American oil exploitation. Without removal of Saddam, more aggressive exploration and use of Iraq's oil could strengthen the regime and increase its power and threat to the region .

Whatever the immediate uncertainties, the overthrow of Saddam will, over the long haul, open up those fields and reduce the comparative significance of Saudi and other oil resources. "Containment" of Saddam Hussein limited Iraq's oil production. "Regime Change" promises to expand it.

(On the implications of Saddam Hussein's defeat for Iraq oil, see the nuanced discussion by David Isenberg in
Asia Times, January 3, 2003. See The Guardian, January 23, for reports the U.S. military plans to seize Iraq's oil fields to protect them from destruction by Saddam Hussein, thus preserving them for future production.)

American leaders also hope the overthrow of Saddam help make the Middle East a safer environment for Israel, which enjoys strong support from both Left and Right of the American political spectrum.

Friends of Israel often felt the Jewish state could be threatened if Saddam were allowed to move toward nuclear armed hegemony in the Middle East. Iraq money helped support suicide bombings against Israel. With Washington now less dependent on Saudi Arabia for bases (and ultimately for oil), some of Israel's more hawkish supporters hope the U.S. will be freer to pressure the Saudis to clamp down on aid from its nationals to anti-Israel Palestinian terrorists.


The occupation and reconstruction of Iraq costs the U.S. government billions of dollars -- how much depending in part on how quickly Iraq oil production can be brought back on line. The sweeter side is that an American dominated postwar Iraq government can be hoped to give major contracts to U.S. companies in fields such as telecommunications. Americans can be expected to benefit at the expense of countries such as France. A U.S. Department of Commerce website outlines American business opportunities in Iraq and charts contracts already awarded. But all of this is still up in the air.

Since the late 1960's Paris has sought to build economic and political ties with Iraq, partly to counter the "Anglo-Saxon" influence of the U.S. and Britain in Mideast countries such as oil rich Iran. Almost a quarter century after the 1979 Iranian revolution threw out Americans, the U.S. is back, restoring and enlarging its "sphere of influence" -- this time in neighboring Iraq.


Little of the case for "regime change" is new. Yet before September 11 those in the American foreign policy establishment who favored Saddam Hussein's overthrow faced the hard reality that many Americans would not support war with Iraq. The destruction of the World Trade Center and the growing public fear of terrorism changed all that.

"Old threats should be looked at through new eyes," became the philosophy of the Bush Administration. "The best defense is an offense," "lean forward" to destroy any government which defiantly may provide a haven for people planning a repetition of terrorist attacks against the U.S.

Now the government could mobilize public support for a possible war with
emotional propaganda appeals to fan fear of terrorism and portray Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden as past, present, or future allies.

"What if Saddam should distribute weapons of mass destruction to terrorists targeting the United States?" advocates of overthrowing the Iraq President could "ask."

"Remember 9/11" could join "
Remember the Alamo," (Mexican War), "Remember the Maine," (Spanish-American War), and "Remember Pearl Harbor" (World War II) as rallying calls for the march toward war.

The ground grew fertile for a new generation of American nationalistic thinkers to join older "hawks" in embrace of war to expand a "Pax Americana." For a striking example of this fresh expansive nationalism see Max Boot,
The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (2003). (To form the title of his book Boot borrowed part of Rudyard Kipling's sardonic analysis of colonialism, an 1899 poem, "The White Man's Burden.")

"Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.....

"Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine,
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
(The end for others sought)
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hope to nought."

As the war progressed, a fresh wave of security conscious American pro war nationalism spread among undergraduates on American campuses -- sometimes to the chagrin of an older generation of antiwar professors with views shaped by the Vietnam war.

The Bush Administration's 31 page
National Security Strategy, released September 2002, provided the conceptual foundation for a strengthened "Pax Americana." It called for American dominance as the lone superpower - a status no rival power would be allowed to challenge. (See a Christian Science Monitor analysis by Gail Russell Chaddock, September 23, 2002.)


Stoking fuel on the fire is the deep seated animosity between the Bush family and Saddam Hussein more than a decade after the current president's father led a coalition in 1991 to drive Saddam's invading army out of Kuwait. A reportedly Iraq sponsored assassination attempt on the first President Bush in 1993 (after Bill Clinton replaced him in office) has left both father and son Bush making bitter public personal attacks on Saddam Hussein.

A May 30, 2004
news dispatch that the younger Bush proudly keeps the pistol Saddam carried when captured as a White House trophy to proudly show visitors underscores the "settling of old scores" character the war against Saddam has taken.

(For an attempt to unravel the "puzzling past" of the Bush Administration's decision to move toward possible war with Iraq see a January 12 account by Glenn Kessler in the
Washington Post.)


Encouraged by the American government, media coverage of Saddam Hussein's vast human rights abuses joined media-driven obsession with terrorism as vivid propaganda in the move toward war. Such "on-team" coverage fueled the patriotic mission, as an indirect tool of American foreign policy. It strengthened national unity and helped build popular support for possible sacrifices ahead.

Irene Khan, Amnesty International Secretary General, declared in a recent

"The human rights situation in Iraq is being invoked with unusual frequency by some western political leaders to justify military action. This selective attention to human rights is nothing but a cold and calculated manipulation of the work of human rights activists. Let us not forget that these same governments turned a blind eye to Amnesty International's reports of widespread human rights violations in Iraq before the Gulf War. They remained silent when thousands of unarmed Kurdish civilians were killed in Halabja in 1988."

While the Bush Administration exploited human rights issues to build sympathetic media coverage and rally popular support, Iraq countered American pressure by exploiting global human rights sensitivities over suffering of Iraq's civilians.

Bush Administration analysis of Iraq disinformation tactics exploiting human rights issues became part of the American propaganda war, with the January 21 release of an extensive study entitled
Saddam's Disinformation and Propaganda 1990-2003, downloadable in .pdf format.

"Saddam is almost certain to lay a trap for the world's media. He apparently believes that dead Iraqi civilians are his most powerful weapon in trying to create revulsion against any military action that might occur against Iraq," argued the White House report.


Under former President Bill Clinton human rights global "universalism" seemed to have the upper hand. In his early days the second President Bush seemed to tilt towards "realism." He placed less emphasis on universal human rights enforcement with a greater reluctance to commit troops for peacekeeping.

"Realists" reject unlimited pursuit of universal goals such as human rights or democracy as dangerous expressions of American religious zealotry and delusions of omnipotence. "Spokespersons" for this thinking in the 1950's were theologian
Reinhold Niebuhr (Niebuhr quotations), political scientist Hans Morgenthau, diplomat George Kennan, and Henry Kissinger, the immigrant German Jewish Harvard professor who was later to become President Nixon's secretary of state.

After 9/11 a fresh Bush-inspired "war on terrorism," seemed to veer back towards universalism and put the "realist" approach under further attack. Both human rights and antiterrorism crusades reject "realism" - which embraces the necessity of military violence in pursuit of limited national interests, and seeks a stable international structure where limited pragmatic solutions replace moral crusades.

Then, as the President moved to invade Iraq, nationalistic "realpolitik," disguised as a global crusade against terrorism, seemed to reemerge.

One "symbol" of the change: on November 27, 2002 President Bush appointed Henry A. Kissinger, the best known, most controversial symbol of the "realist" school to head a commission investigating the September 11 attack. Kissinger resigned the post December 13 on grounds controversy over possible conflicts of interests involving his many foreign clients might damage the consulting company he had build. The likelihood his appointment would spotlight charges he is a
war criminal was undoubtedly an important reason for his withdrawal.

The accusations against Kissinger spotlight a tendency: to judge as criminals foreign policy architects who see themselves as practitioners of realism in a world of inevitably violently competing national interests.

Still, the Kissinger appointment symbolized the abiding importance of "realpolitik." -- even when disguised in the traditional rallying language of American moral crusades.

(For a thorough discussion of the issues around realism and universalism in American foreign policy thinking, wee Robert D. Kaplan, "Kissinger, Metternich and Realism" in the
Atlantic Monthly, June 1999. See also Walter Isaacson's biography, Kissinger, 1992.)


The emergence of human rights issues as a propaganda tool in the American campaign to gather public support against Saddam Hussein leaves media human rights coverage far less an independent influence on policy -- compared to the situation which led up to the 1999 NATO bombing to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

Media images of human rights abuse in the former Yugoslavia functioned as a far more independent prod on the United States and its allies to use military force.

The debate over NATO bombing of Serbia over Kosovo illustrated how deeply the traditional distinctions between right and left in the United States were upended by the split over whether military force should be used against human rights abuses.

Some liberals, traditionally hostile to military force during the Cold War, openly espoused stern military action against Serbia. These included antiwar liberal intellectuals like Susan Sontag and Democratic lawmakers like Sen. Tom Harkin.

Right by their side were conservative stalwarts like William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, Republican Sen. John McCain, and Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former UN delegate during the Reagan administration.

Other conservatives such as Pat Buchanan and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said the United States should stay out. "Give peace a chance," said Lott. He sounded remarkably like former President Jimmy Carter and Tom Hayden, the former leader of the Students for a Democratic Society who became a California state senator.

David Rieff, a champion of human rights causes, argued in the New York Times Magazine of August 8, 1999 that the human rights movement is in trouble, despite its triumph in Kosovo. He argued some of the movement's frailty stems from the failure to tame China and from general compassion fatigue. He saw a major weakness in what he views as a failure by activists to generate popular support for human rights causes.

Still it seems clear that "watchdog" reporting on television and in print can stir public emotions with graphic images of human suffering. Graphic television and newspaper coverage provided graphic emotional support for NATO's decision to militarily intervene.

Once again, as with the
Spanish American War, media coverage of overseas human rights issues "set the stage" and "fueled the fires."

In 1898 human rights reporting justified a war which opened the door to American empire in Cuba and the Philippines. By 1999 human rights reporting opened the door to war and peacekeeping operations by international coalitions.

How did we get there?"


The relatively recent "explosion" of human rights reporting should not obscure its deeper historical roots in the growth of American journalism and the expansion of U.S. interests overseas. Early human rights journalism of the Nineteenth Century was directed toward readers who, to one degree or another, were influenced by values such as these:

Traditional American opposition to European empire, a bulwark of American thinking since the Revolution, expressed itself most pointedly in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. This warned European powers not to establish footholds in the New World.

Americans schooled in principles of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution and liberties, could feel an affinity with independence fighters such as Bolivia's Simon Bolivar - or to anyone else who invoked the principles of the American Revolution to justify opposition to the power of what was seen as a medieval and autocratic Spanish empire.

Thus even in the 19th Century advocates of expanded America's influence could use human rights principles to justify opposition to what was that day's counterpart to the Soviet antagonist President Reagan labeled "the evil empire."

There also was a human rights oriented sympathy for Republican based anti-monarchical movements in Europe, such as the revolutions of 1848 in France, Italy, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Margaret Fuller, the first great American woman foreign correspondent, passionately and sympathetically covered these upheavals for The New York Tribune of Horace Greeley.

Sympathetic coverage of these developments included the activities of refugees such as the Hungarian Louis Kossuth. When such revolutions failed, refugees received a sympathetic reception by American readers interested in seeing the principles of their own revolution accepted abroad.1)

Late nineteenth century American human rights coverage very often spotlighted instances in which "medieval" empires - sometimes seen as barbaric and "Eastern" - persecuted ethnic and/or religious groups with which Western readers could identify.

News accounts often based on Western diplomats and missionaries spotlighted the plight of Christian minorities such as the Armenians in the Muslim Ottoman empire and other groups which suffered repression in the Ottoman ruled Balkans. Persecution of Chinese Christians was also covered.2)

Emergence of the United States as a melting pot of immigrants and refugees indirectly increased interest in overseas human rights abuses. Newcomers entering beneath the Statue of Liberty on freighters and passenger liners often sought refuge from poverty, religious intolerance, and political tyranny overseas.

Some arrivals had a special interest in human rights abuses back home. Some organized resistance movements in the United States by soliciting money and even organizing military expeditions such as the "filibusters" who fought the Spanish in Cuba.3)


These concerns were highly compatible with a Victorian world view. This saw the Christian White West as bearer of civilization and progress against savage darker primitive tribes or medieval empires based on more primitive and non-Christian religion.

Anti-Catholic feeling in mostly Protestant nineteenth century America made it easier to view the Spanish Empire as an abuser. Victorians sometimes saw the "savage" oppressor as influenced by barbaric "Asiatic" traditions.

Thus reporting often spotlighted sensational abuses in the Islamic Ottoman Empire or in non-Christian China or by "medieval" Spain.

The affect of this reporting was to discredit old empires - be they Chinese, Russian, Spanish, or Ottoman. For the most part this did not profoundly embarrass the U.S. government which could sit on the sidelines, generally without being forced to decide with which empire to align itself.

The impact of human rights reporting in America was thus different than in Europe where it could embarrass diplomats seeking to justify alliances with sometimes repressive governments.

In England, for example, William Gladstone's Liberal Party could use reports of Turkish brutalities to criticize Benjamin Disraeli's Tory government policy of supporting the Ottoman Empire as an ally against Russia. Human rights reporting from the Ottoman Empire embarrassed the British alliance with what is now Turkey.

The deeply religious and idealistic Gladstone cited human rights abuses in his 1876 pamphlet, Bulgarian Horrors and the Questions of the East, which attacked the Disraeli government for its indifference to Turkish suppression of the Bulgarian rebellion.

Gladstone's attack on Disraeli's pro-Turkish policy in the Midlothian campaign of 1879-80 brought the Liberals back to power in 1880.) Allegations against Disraeli's ally Turkey thus foreshadowed embarrassment later human rights reporting on America's sometimes authoritarian Cold War allies could bring to Washington's efforts to contain the Soviet Union.

Victorian age newspapers could portray themselves as agents of civilized progress by focusing the spotlight of publicity on what were seen as holdovers from a barbaric past. As in the case of Cuba newspapers could sometimes portray and promote themselves as heroically prodding recalcitrant Western governments into humanitarian action.

Early American human rights reporting could thus strike a sympathetic intellectual and emotional chord among segments of American readership, even though the American public was far less international in its education and interests than it is today.

As education and literacy progressed, mass produced big city newspapers experimented with all kinds of self-promotion techniques ranging from solving crimes which had police stumped, to exposing corruption to exposing the practices of insane asylums by sending in feature writers disguised as patients.4)

One method of self-promotion was to scoop the opposition in exposing what could be portrayed as brutal and medieval overseas tyranny. In so doing a newspaper could boastfully demonstrate its "state-of-the-art" cable technology as one of the wonders of the scientific Victorian age.

Publishers and headline writers of the day were proud to trumpet details of some overseas massacre to the reading public even before the State Department in Washington officially learned of it.

A newspaper could boastfully take pride if its cabled dispatches forced public protest, a debate in Congress, an official American complaint, or even action by Western governments to punish outrages against foreign minorities or Western missionaries.5)

The abuses most frequently spotlighted were committed by peoples or nations different from Americans. A common view was these peoples had not yet been sufficiently learned what the civilized world and especially the American experience had to teach.

Very rarely would press accounts focus on abuses committed by Western powers or by American forces, for example in wars against American Indians.


However there was limited reporting on allegations of American atrocities against Filipino independence fighters when such allegations were made by Congressional and other critics of American pacification of the Philippines following the Spanish American War.

Such reporting could be cited by critics of jingoistic American imperialism as they waged a losing campaign against their country's Asian and Caribbean expansion. (See
Imperialism in the Making of America. For a discussion of opposition to imperialism in America see Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898-1935. For a prominent opponent of American imperialism see Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialism and Mark Twain on the Philippines. For a pictorial account of the Philippines war see Stereoscopic Visions of War and Empire. For a missionary account of American empire building in the Philippine see Stories of Benevolent Assimilation)

American correspondents covered the brutal campaigns of 1902, and there was press coverage of Congressional hearings in which critics of United States colonialism spotlighted some of these allegations. This debate and press coverage of it can be seen as a small scale precursor of the debate over the Vietnam War.

Commanders of the American pacification forces, such as Major General Adna Romanza Chaffee were often Civil War veterans steeled in bitter frontier warfare with the American Indian. In January 1902 Brigadier General J. Franklin Bell's force of 4,000 drove into Batangas province partly in retaliation for the brutal massacre of American troops a year earlier in Samar province.

Bell's forces took no prisoners and, according to an American correspondent, killed men, women, and children, active insurgents, and suspected people with "an idea prevailing that the Filipino was little better than a dog." It was not civilized warfare, the correspondent wrote, yet added, "We are not dealing with a civilized people. The only thing they know is force, violence and brutality, and we give it to them."

A select Senate committee on the Philippines opened hearings in January 1902 with a minority membership of Administration critics, usually Democrats, questioning the policies of Republican President Taft. Officers and men testified as to atrocities and newspapers covered the accounts, sometimes corroborated by letters American soldiers had sent to their families.6)

It is also important to understand American strategy placed major importance on "winning hearts and minds," that pacification efforts included civic construction, schools, and many other programs seen as both important to quiet rebellion and bring "civilization."

For the most part early human rights reporting was bolstered by the belief in superior White American values as bearers of progress and modern civilization. This sense of America's civilizing mission was largely untainted by a sense of guilt or "mea culpa" that was to later develop after World War II and especially after the Vietnam War.

The sense that American actions should be questioned or that America might be backing the "wrong side" could most dramatically be symbolized by John Hersey's account in the New Yorker Magazine of the suffering left by America's atomic bombing of Hiroshima and by Seymour Hersh's 1969 exposure in Dispatch News Service of the U.S. army massacre of civilians in the Vietnamese hamlet My Lai.7)


The "yellow journalism" which helped push President McKinley into war with Spain in 1898 is frequently viewed as irresponsible, jingoistic sensationalism rather than as human rights reporting. Many historians point out it grew out of the circulation war between the Hearst chain, especially the New York Journal, and the Pulitzer chain, especially the New York World. Such reporting did not use the term "human rights," which did not spring into full prominence until after World War II. Yet practitioners of "yellow journalism" could justify their craft with a view that it was an clarion call for reform and civilized progress, bringing public light to barbarism and corruption and thereby forcing governments to walk along civilization's path. James Creelman, a correspondent at different times for both Pulitzer and Hearst chains, defended yellow journalism against its critics in this way:

"How little they know of 'yellow journalism' who denounce it! How swift they are to condemn its screeching headlines, its exaggerated pictures, its coarse buffoonery, its intrusions upon private life and occasional inaccuracies! But how slow they are to see the steadfast guardianship of public interests which it maintains! How blind to its unfearing warfare against rascality, its detection and prosecution of crime, its costly searchings for knowledge throughout the earth, its exposures of humbug, its endless funds for the quick relief of distress."8)

Just as important, sensational reports of rapes, impaling, and burnings alive provided a violent, bizarre twist bound to make "good copy" at a time when circulation hungry publishers in the "yellow press" frequently spotlighted rapes, lynchings, suicides, and madness in domestic coverage. As today, graphic accounts of violence helped compensate for the abstract, remote quality of much overseas news. Accounts of such savagery became the international equivalent of crime reporting. They frequently spotlighted atrocities against what in Victorian thinking would be protected groups (women, children, and more broadly civilians. Press accounts might also spotlight uncivilized acts committed in war.9)

Such early human rights reporting got a boost in the "yellow press" because the barbarities it recorded were well suited to the sensational headlines and accounts of violence which might titillate readers and sell papers. Concern over human rights is often viewed as an idealistic and lofty preoccupation, but even today a reader interest oriented editor may see human rights reporting as "salable" precisely because it often contains shocking accounts of suffering and violence with an element of emotional human interest. Today, as in the past, the line between "serious" human rights reporting and entertainment oriented "sensationalism" may sometimes be uncertain.


Early American human rights reporting developed in the aftermath of the Civil War. Railroads, pioneers, and the U.S. cavalry gradually united, settled, and pacified the country's West. Smokestacks of a growing industrial economy supported growing commercial and missionary involvement throughout the world, especially in Asia and Latin America.

Reporting on overseas atrocities became an early way in which the American public - no longer preoccupied with the Civil War - could relate to the overseas world at a time when the United States had not yet embarked on overseas wars or alliances.

At times exposure of overseas brutality seemed to justify American noninvolvement in the cynical power politics that seemed to require cooperation with empires. At other times human rights reporting seemed to justify an expansion of American influence - even the use of military force if that were necessary to advance civilization or "take up the "White Man's Burden." - as during the Spanish-American War.10)

Major big city newspapers hungry for increased circulation and advertising revenue proudly tried to dazzle their readers with a sense of just how successfully they were using the fruits of that day's "hi tech" revolution to expose barbarities not yet ended by the spread of Christianity and scientific values. Subject matter for these reports came from a number of that era's broader historical developments:

The expansion of cable transmitted reporting on the wars of conquest European colonialists waged in Africa and Asia. Atrocities committed by tribes or armies opposing European colonialism in Africa and Asia - especially against women and children - were sometimes defined as newsworthy offenses against the advance of civilization even though the American revolutionary tradition was hostile to European empire. American readers could view with sympathy the plight of Europeans in areas such as "Darkest Africa" at a time when Americans watched their own cavalry putting down what were seen as savage Indian revolts against innocent pioneers.11)

The expansion of American missionary activities into areas such as China, the Ottoman Empire, and Africa meant readers could sympathize with the victims of savage attacks on such missionaries and their local converts. American missionaries overseas meant there were "American stories" overseas, stories inherently of interest to local readers. Overseas missionaries could alert foreign correspondents of brutalities. Returning missionaries could draw additional media coverage by speaking in American churches and meeting halls on the plight of overseas Christians. They could also lobby American and other governments for protection.12)

In Asia the vision of a great China market went hand in hand with the vision of saving souls. U.S. missionaries and trading ships penetrated a weakened China increasingly carved into "spheres of influence" by British, French, German, Russian, and later Japanese bankers, soldiers, and administrators. In the age of the transpacific cable American newspapers showed increased interest in Asia by running wire service news or accounts both cabled and mailed by American correspondents or part-time contributors.

As more Americans traveled to China to trade and proselytize, U.S. newspapers would cover Chinese brutalities against Chinese Christians or foreign missionaries, as well as efforts by America's European competitors to further carve up China into colonial enclaves that might restrict American activities.

This coverage, combined with accounts of returning travelers and missionaries, helped shape the American mind set of special support for China, leading eventually to siding with China against Japan's invasion in the 1930's and to war with Japan in 1941.13)


Issues of religious liberty were intensely involved in American coverage of two 1890's controversies involving anti-Semitism. One was the 1894 treason conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, in a trial involving alleged espionage for Germany. The case became an international scandal when evidence uncovered in 1896 suggested Dreyfus was innocent and had been improperly convicted because of anti-Semitism.

Some American newspapers gave heavy coverage to 1898 trial of Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, who was acquitted in a matter of minutes despite new evidence he, not Dreyfus, was the guilty party. American newspapers also covered the libel conviction of author Emile Zola, a staunch Dreyfus defender.

The upsurge of anti-Semitism in Czarist Russia following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 also drew American press coverage. Reports of pogroms, in addition to the flood of Jewish immigrants to the United States, created press interest in the United States - stimulated by outspoken criticism of Russian anti-Semitism by prominent Americans such as Theodore Roosevelt.

The issue of Russian anti-Semitism was tied in with the seesaw battle between reformist Czars and officials who periodically tried to bring Russia closer to Europe and the autocrats who repeatedly bounced back to block reform. In the fashion of the times this could be seen as a clash between champions of modern civilization and remnants of Asiatic medieval darkness. A number of U.S. papers covered reports of growing Russian anti-Semitism in 1891, including the New York Herald which dispatched then Europe - based correspondent James Creelman to investigate and the New York World which considered sending Russian expert George Kennan to do a special investigation.14)


Early consciousness of what might today be called human rights abuses got a boost from the growth of legal conventions such as the Geneva Convention of 1864. This granted medical workers the right to be treated as protected neutrals when they treated sick or wounded soldiers in time of war.

So began the modern effort to codify the "laws of war."

The group of Swiss citizens who brought about this agreement under the leadership of Henri Dunant ultimately became the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The International Red Cross Movement developed out of national Red Cross societies, numbering some 144 by 1988.

The 1864 treaty was revised in 1906. In 1929 a new treaty protecting prisoners of war was developed. In 1949 four additional treaties were created governing wounded and sick combatants, prisoners of war, civilians and internal wars. These were reaffirmed and supplemented in 1977. The Hague conventions of 1899 established an additional set of rules governing war. (Examine the documents

Such international conventions opened sensational reporting opportunities for correspondents who witnessed atrocities. Barbarities now were not only a violation of a Christian sense of natural "progress" but also a violation of international law. If a government had agreed to a convention, it could be humiliated by evidence of violation. Moral outrage could be both very sincere and very helpful in selling newspapers. War correspondent
James Creelman's reporting on Japanese atrocities at Port Arthur in 1894 is a classic example.

Modern day "laws of war" born of Victorian Christianity break drastically with deep centuries old traditions of medieval and tribal warfare. Going back to biblical times it was natural for "victors" to enjoy the spoils: to seal the humiliation of their defeated male enemies by enslaving, raping, or murdering women and children.

The ethos born of Victorianism raised women and children onto a pedestal as innocents to be protected in war. Such innocents should be spared, no matter what barbarities men must endure, .

The practices of pre-Victorian warfare have survived and repeatedly reappeared in modern times -- as in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990's where mass rape of women was deliberately used to humiliate male opponents as part of "ethnic cleansing."

Modern technology has also made the laws of war impossible to fully implement. World War II saw massive aerial bombardment, including nuclear bombs, once again make women and children vulnerable to mass killing. The development of highly accurate smart missiles and bombs has more recently made it easier to "spare the innocent."


The tie between early American human rights reporting and America's outward expansion is illustrated in the career of James Creelman (1859 to 1915), a Canadian-born correspondent for the Pulitzer and Hearst chains whose career stretched from reporting the aftermath of Custer's Last Stand to World War I. Creelman's reporting in Asia and Latin America demonstrated how a foreign correspondent acting as a "watchdog" could embarrass foreign governments, moderate their future behavior, as well as justify the expansion of American military power and colonial rule in the name of "progress" and "civilization."

Creelman's exposee of
Japanese massacres of Chinese civilians in the Manchurian city of Port Arthur during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 allowed Joseph Pulitzer's flagship the New York World to scoop the European competition and spotlight Japan's apparent failure to obey the rules of civilized warfare as set forth in the Geneva Convention of 1864 to which the modernizers who ruled Japan since the 1860's had subscribed. Japan's government ordered an investigation and by cable "apologized" to Joseph Pulitzer, who gained the proud satisfaction of having the apology run on page 1 of the World. Seven years later Japan made extra certain its troops would refrain from atrocities and looting when putting down (along with more rapacious European and American armies) the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion of 1900.16)

Creelman had earned such a reputation at Port Arthur that Joseph Pulitzer sent him to Cuba in 1896 to investigate and publicize the harsh repression of Cuban insurgents under Spanish General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau. Spanish authorities expelled Creelman and charged he had falsely reported starvations, executions and other hardships resulting from Weyler's policy of segregating civilians into guarded enclaves to prevent guerrillas from gaining popular support.

Creelman's reports fueled American indignation at what was seen as a brutal and medieval Spanish policy, indignation which made it easier for American "hawks" to push a reluctant President McKinley into war with Spain after the U.S. battleship Maine was blown up in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. Creelman's reporting thus had the on-team effect of justifying the American war with Spain, which opened the way for American colonies in Cuba and the Philippines.

American newspapers had long covered Latin American efforts to throw out foreign rule - whether it was the Mexican rebellion that led to a firing squad in 1867 for the French installed Emperor Maximillian or the "Ten Years War" Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule beginning in 1868.

Growing American commercial interests, the need for a secure trans-Panama portage and later canal to the Pacific (constructed 1904 to 1914), and the legacy of the Monroe Doctrine which opposed European intervention and colonization in the Americas made it natural that efforts to increase American influence to the South could be justified in terms of supporting liberation against European colonialism. It was natural an American journalist could thus appear both patriotic and progressive by spotlighting the abuses of European colonial rule.


The ingrained American commitment to independence and anti-imperialism was echoed in President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, announced to Congress in 1918 as a foundation for post World War I peace. Although these points, only partly enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles, principally concerned open diplomacy and the peaceful resolution of disputes, they provided for the redrawing of Italian frontiers and the division of Austria-Hungarian empire according to nationality lines.

Wilson's goal to guarantee rights of national self-determination for the ethnic groups which made up the old Austro-Hungarian empire was built into the postwar treaties of Versailles, Trianon, and Saint-Germain on the assumption discontent League of Nations which grew out of Versailles former colonial powers governed Mandated Territories with the theoretical obligation to guarantee peoples of these territories rights of national independence and well-being. Another major step separate from the League was the 1926 convention outlawing slavery spearheaded by a coalition of non governmental organizations constituting the Anti-Slavery League.17)

The United States refused to join the League and retreated into isolationism. Still, sympathy and some news coverage developed as newly independent countries such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary sought to establish Western style democracy and human rights after World War I. Yet for the most part the isolationism and economic depression of the 1920's and 1930's dulled public and media interest in the rise of fascism and Nazism. The American media played relatively little attention to the human rights issues which accompanied the failure of democratic self-determination in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Balkans.18)

It was not until after World War II that the number of refugees - this time from communist rule in Eastern European countries such as Poland - became a large audience with whom politicians and news media could boost their standing by stressing human rights repression in "captive nations." This coverage was "on-team" it that it tended to build public support for expanding America's political and military power around the world to "contain" a communist Soviet Union.

Although the flow of refugees was limited, American newspapers and journals of opinion had covered - or at least noted - the scattered repressions which cut through Europe in the last half of the nineteenth century. The ultimately unsuccessful republican revolutions which spread through France, Italy, and Austria-Hungary in 1848 had some "newsworthiness" for Americans - since they suggested that these European countries might be abandoning autocratic monarchies to follow the American "example" with its emphasis on individual liberties and rights.19)


Early human rights reporting paid little or no attention to issues of credibility. There was no real awareness of an issue which is second nature today: what one person sees as human rights reporting can be seen by another as propaganda. Indeed propagandists can fabricate or exaggerate abuses - or even emotionally exploit basically accurate accounts to manipulate public opinion and governments for their own ends.

It was not until after World War I that these pitfalls became apparent. In the disillusionment which followed the heady patriotism of 1914 to 1918 it became clear that both Allied and German governments had consciously and systematically spread false reports of rape, looting, and murder. Reporters and editors had willingly followed their governments' lead and published virtually any accusation without checking for credibility and balance. In time of war skepticism seemed tantamount to disloyalty or even treason.20)

It had seemed necessary for governments to "demonize" their enemies as the epitome of absolute evil. How else could a government justify the loss of hundred of thousands of lives in unending trench warfare often for only a few hundred yards of territory? One of the most flagrant examples was a British report under the chair of Lord Bryce alleging German soldiers had publicly raped twenty Belgian girls in Liege, bayoneted a two year old child and sliced off a peasant girl's breasts in Malines.

After the war it emerged the committee had not interviewed a single witness and that hearsay evidence was accepted at full value. A Belgian commission in 1922 failed to corroborate any major allegation in the Bryce Report. The "demonizing" of Germany served to build public support and helped make it possible for President Woodrow Wilson to reverse his opposition to war and lead the United States into a rescue effort on behalf of the Allies.21)

After the War, revisionist historians questioned the accuracy of wartime atrocity charges. The pacifist sentiment of "never again" grew and so did the mood of "never let the propagandists dupe us again." Editors and reporters who during the War might have run charges of cruelty and massacre without question were now more skeptical. What and how many were the sources? How credible were they? And could they be independently verified were now questions that professional journalists could be expected to ask.

In short, if journalists were to be truly professional, the "gatekeeper" who controlled access to news space would have to restrain the desire for sensationalism in favor of carefully filtering out reports which seemed excessive, exaggerated, from sources inherently biased. Indeed any person, group, or refugee who claimed to be a victim might be acting out of a desire to manipulate the press for propaganda reasons.

Thus by the 1930's the World War I practice of "the bigger the accusation the better" had become, "the bigger the accusation the more caution is needed before printing" - especially if there were no independent eyewitness to verify an accusation picked up from refugee or political opposition sources.

The exaggerations of World War I thus became one seed for perhaps the most conspicuous failure of human rights reporting in modern times. The demonizing of World War I led - with some important exceptions - to widespread complacent tardiness in assessing and reporting on the brutalities of both communist and fascist totalitarianism beginning in the 1930's.22)

If an accusation concerning Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia were really massive, might it not simply be overblown propaganda obviously designed to benefit ideological opponents of these regimes - especially since such accusations most often came from enemies of these governments? Could refugees really be trusted?

After all, correspondents attached long-term to these countries for the most part did not report such abuses - or did so very cautiously. Surely they would not "pull punches" simply to stay on good terms with local officials? If such massive abuses were real, wouldn't our own government and diplomats confirm them? And if we must be skeptical when massive, brutal abuses are charged, what about the smaller, more qualified charges? How much space can we give them without blowing them out of proportion, playing into the hands of propagandists, and neglecting the more positive things also happening in countries such as Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union?

In short World War I helped bring a decline of human rights reporting at exactly the time it was most needed. The Great War had demonstrated the danger of giving in to propaganda, but had set in place no strong procedures or organizations (either private or governmental) to help preserve human rights reporting as an effective and responsible way of alerting governments and peoples to overseas violations of what were coming to be seen as civilized norms.

So it was not until the aftermath of World War II etched memories of genocide and massacre in the collective minds of the victors that major efforts were made to encourage governments, private organizations, and the press to spotlight human rights violations in a timely fashion.


If World War I led to a skepticism toward human rights reporting, World War II led to the exact opposite. The war against what was seen as aggression by a totalitarian Axis - plus the coming Cold War to contain totalitarian communism - led to a revival of the Wilsonian thinking that governments repressive toward their own people were more likely to threaten aggression than democratic governments which honor human rights. The postwar order sought to set up early warning trip wires against both military aggression and violation of human rights.23)

By 1948 the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States had ended hopes that cooperation between the great powers on the United Nations Security Council could police the world against military aggression. Still the development of international human rights conventions under the auspices of the United Nations codified the concept of international human rights and provided a measuring stick by which governments could be judged.

The Geneva conventions governing the conduct of war among states, as first established in the 1864, were in effect extended to cover the conduct of governments toward their own citizens, thus implying that violation of human rights within any country was now subject to international regulation - not simply a matter of national sovereignty. Although there were few provisions for enforcement, any state which violated a human rights convention it subscribed to could be seen as having violated international law.

The United Nations Charter of 1945 contained few references to human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948 helped fill the gap by providing some 30 articles affirming a variety of rights. This defined more specifically Article 55 of the Charter which had in general terms endorsed "equal rights and self determination of peoples" and "human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

The Universal Declaration was recommendation, not binding law. The rights endorsed were sweeping: equality before the law regardless of race, color, sex and language; no arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile; no torture or cruel, inhuman punishment; freedom of movement; fair trial; governments based on genuine elections by universal and equal suffrage; an adequate standard of living; right to education; right to work and free choice of employment; freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of thought and religion; the right to form and join trade unions; and the right to marry and have a family, among others.24)

After nearly two decades of negotiation U.N. efforts produced two additional human rights treaties: the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). By 1988 90 states had ratified the first and 86 the second. The documents are considered legally binding for nations which have ratified them. There are procedures for petition and action.25)

These post World War II international conventions thus enshrined many of the familiar rights contained in the American Bill of Rights. They went beyond that to include social and economic rights of the kind often emphasized by communism and other authoritarianism as preeminent and sometimes requiring restrictions on political freedom.

Thus conflicting governments could cite different provisions of human rights conventions to justify their policies and criticize the actions of other nations. For example, a Soviet spokesman could declare in 1975, "The question of guaranteeing individual rights is of secondary importance as compared with social and economic consequences of scientific and technological progress for society in general."26)

The legacy of World War II was thus:

1) An international mind set sensitive to massive human rights violations as reminiscent of Axis practices seen as both savage and leading to aggression. This mind set, as absorbed by both media workers and consumers, made it more likely charges of human rights violations would be perceived as "news."

2) A set of international standards which could be invoked by human rights advocates, as well as by government propagandists, in speeches, government proclamations and United Nations debates. Charges of repression and atrocity could be couched in terms of legal violations, a familiar language for news media accustomed to following politics, law and government. The very existence of a legal charge can be seen as "news."27)

3) A set of international organizations where charges of human rights abuses could be filed, debated, and hence be covered as news. Even though countries might rarely agree on concerted international sanctions, complaints brought by governments and sometimes by individuals could focus media attention and public pressure on suspected offenders.28)

4) A "Cold War" struggle between noncommunist countries which stressed human rights involving political liberties and communist countries which frequently justified their policies on human rights to social and economic welfare.


As the Cold War began, the mind set and legal framework had thus been established for a higher profile for human rights issues in the public mind, in political debate and in the language governments used to defend their foreign policies. The way was open for domestic political parties such as the Democrats and Republicans to use human rights issues in bids for elections. Any nation - whether it be Western free enterprise, communist, or third world socialist - could use the language of human rights to defend its own policies while attacking its opponents Human rights was in the news!

The aftermath of World War II virtually guaranteed a higher media profile for human rights issues. Memories of the holocaust and numerous other massacres against civilians and prisoners of war hung like a ghost over postwar planners with visions of "never again!"

True, hopes for a collective security imposed by great powers cooperating at the United Nations Security Council gave way to Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. But even that new conflict elevated human rights into a major ideological, political, legal, and media concern.

Both sides in the Cold War and a Cold War frequently fought out a propaganda battle over human rights. Indeed the description of the Cold War as a contest between the "Free World" and the communist World indicated just how highly a kind of human rights lens had come to dominate the American world view.

The Truman Administration could rally Americans behind the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by pointing to harsh crackdowns on political and cultural freedoms orchestrated by communist governments installed in Central Europe by Soviet occupation forces. The successful Republican challenge to capture the White House in 1952 could cite the human rights plight of "captive nations" to charge Democrats had allowed communism to spread by being too soft on communism in World War II agreements between Roosevelt and Stalin.

The American self-image as protector of the world's human rights against an expansive tyrant received powerful reinforcement when Soviet tanks crushed Hungarian "freedom fighters" in 1956. Erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 to prevent the escape of East German refugees strengthened this perception.

Thus media coverage of communist repression could justify the expansion of American political, military, and economic power to contain communism. U.S. government pronouncements, the testimony of anticommunist refugees, the anti-communism of expert sources in the academic world, and the dispatches of correspondents based in communist countries reinforced an "on-team" message.

The investigations into alleged communist infiltration of government, universities, the entertainment industry, as conducted by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and others, enforced an atmosphere of anticommunist conformity and reduced the likelihood of media reporting which might embarrass the U.S. government by pointing to human rights abuses by overseas American allies. On-team exposure of human rights abuses by communist governments was less likely to embarrass or anger the American government and American readers.

By the 1950's and 1960's it was almost a badge of honor and a promise of professional advancement for a correspondent to be expelled from the Soviet Union. It was a far cry from the 1930's when some correspondents based in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union appeared to "pull their punches" to curry favor and gain access to news from their hosts, as well as to avoid the expense and embarrassment of expulsion.29) The Vietnam War changed all this.


The failed U.S. attempt to preserve a noncommunist South Vietnam encouraged a wave of skepticism at home and a lingering suspicion that American policies - not just the actions of a repressive enemy - might threaten human rights. The image of America as a global protector of human rights came under challenge from another image: an arrogant bully battling a Third World underdog, burning villages, and bombing civilians in rice paddies.

A growing sense of mea culpa found its way into a media covering an increasingly outspoken and disillusioned opposition, including campus demonstrators, academics, and members of congress.

As opposition to an unending war grew, an audience also grew for journalism to cover the words and actions of those poking holes in American military and political claims. "Off-team" dissent, sit-ins, Congressional debates, and youthful "counterculture" alienation culminating in police beatings of antiwar demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic presidential convention in Chicago all encouraged a more skeptical look by the press - even though vast amounts of reporting still reflected administration viewpoints as much as antiwar disillusionment.

Television news film showing burning Vietnamese villages raised questions about both the morality and winnability of the war. Accounts of American atrocities filtered into the mainstream U.S. media at about the same time coverage of North Vietnam's Tet Offensive undermined the Johnson Administration's confident pronouncements by giving the impression communists were were scoring military victories.30)

Lack of U.S. military censorship, the ability of American correspondents to travel widely in Vietnam and interview American soldiers who challenged the optimistic pronouncements at official U.S. briefings opened the way for coverage increasingly different from the official line. This high degree of "access" allowed both television and print reporters to transmit images of burning villages and civilian suffering so frequent in military pacification campaigns against guerrilla insurgents. The messy nature of guerrilla war with its inherent difficulties in distinguishing between civilians and combatants and the pressures to relocate or otherwise retaliate against civilians seen as supporting the enemy undermined any simple moral image of "good guys against bad."

This new, more complicated image shattered the simpler moral assumptions of both World War II and Korea. Reporters in those earlier wars for the most part did not write about American atrocities. These earlier reporters were subject to censorship, but even without that their identification with the war effort and with the soldiers fighting it inclined toward "supportive" coverage that could rally patriotic news consumers on the home front.

Reporters in those wars were less likely to dwell on the sufferings of civilians - even though the Allies had adopted a strategy of "total war" aimed at defeating the Axis by massive bombing of civilians in cities like Berlin, Dresden, and Tokyo. High civilian casualties were largely accepted - either as an inevitable part of winning a war or as justified given similar tactics already used by a brutal enemy.31)


In the aftermath of Vietnam, critics of American policies exposed instances in which U.S. government agencies supported violence which would be seen as terror if conducted by other nations. Activists and scholars pushed for release of secret government documents which might expose such actions - or even portray some Americans as war criminals.

Those who championed such causes frequently, but not always, were of the "Liberal/Left." They often combined human rights advocacy with criticism of America's Cold War anti-Communist policies.

According to The National Security Archive at George Washington University, an
instructional guide on assassination was among the training files of the CIA's covert "Operation PBSUCCESS" released by the Agency on May 23, 1997. The records concerned CIA involvement in a 1954 coup against the nationalistic left leaning Arbenz government in Guatemala.

According to the Archive, the CIA finally declassified some 1400 pages of over 100,000 estimated to be in its secret archives on the Guatemalan destabilization program, after years of answering Freedom of Information Act requests with its standard "we can neither confirm nor deny that such records exist."

More recently Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and Samantha Power called for a full congressional investigation into reports that former Senator Bob Kerrey committed war crimes by executing women and children during a February 1969 Navy SEAL commando raid at the South Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong. They argued the United States should use the same standards of international law on the conduct of its own combatants as it would on other military forces.


Perhaps the most controversial American target of charges of human rights violations is Henry A. Kissinger, the German Jewish born Harvard University professor who became National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon.

Admirers (a
Nobel Prize award in 1973 honored Kissinger for a Vietnam peace agreement) hail this historian of diplomatic "realpolitik" for brilliance in helping to build a bridge with China while promoting détente with the Soviet Union, and withdrawing American forces from Vietnam.

But critics have "elevated" Kissinger into America's number one defendant against charges of human rights abuse.

Some hold him directly or indirectly responsible for mass killings in Cambodia after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Critics also hold Kissinger at least partly responsible for the reign of terror that followed the CIA encouraged overthrow of Chile's elected President Salvador Allende Gossens in 1973. See William Shawcross
Sideshow on Kissinger and Cambodia and Christopher Hitchens Kissinger on Trial on Chile.

On May 28, 2001, French judge
Roger Le Loire formally asked former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger to appear as a witness in an ongoing investigation of the disappearance of five French citizens during the 1973 to 1990 regime of former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Kissinger, who was in Paris on a private visit, received the summons at his hotel but declined to appear and traveled to Italy.

Judge Le Loire was investigating the disappearances of the French leftist Jean-Yves Claudet-Fernández; activist Alphonse Chanfreau; Etienne Pesle, a priest; and Georges Klein, an adviser to Chilean President Salvador Allende Gossens.

While there was no charge Kissinger was responsible for the disappearances, William Bourdon, a lawyer for the families of the disappeared, had asked for Kissinger's testimony:

"A whole series of factors shows that the U.S. government watched very closely what was happening in Chile, especially the situation of foreigners who had disappeared, and therefore also the French," Bourdon told Agence France Presse. "Beyond the symbol that he represents, Kissinger is a person who can contribute to the clarification of the truth through his answers."


The aftermath of Vietnam left American politics and public opinion deeply divided over what "lesson" to learn from the war. Advocates in this debate often fought their battles over controversies involving human rights. The result: editors and reporters were more likely to recognize as "news" overseas developments involving human rights issues. This division over Vietnam's "lessons" - epitomized in the shifting foreign policies of the Nixon, Carter, and Reagan Administrations - laid the foundations for a surge in American "human rights" reporting in the 1970's, 1980's, and right up into the 1990's.

By the early 1970's liberals and some conservatives had adopted human rights arguments for "off-team" criticism of the Nixon Administration. They denounced the U.S. government from different directions for "selling out" on the moral justification for global American power.

The "Left" criticized the Nixon Administration for involvement in the overthrow of Chile's left-leaning President Salvador Allende by the repressive General Augusto Pinochet. They attacked American toleration of the "disappearance" and killing of thousands of Allende supporters as major insensitivity to human rights.

The "Right" used human rights issues to attack the Nixon-Kissinger team for its policy of détente toward the Soviet Union despite Moscow's repressive human rights policies including restrictions on Jewish emigration More ideologically minded conservatives were not comfortable with the Administration's real politick approach of selectively doing business with China and the Soviet Union in hopes of achieving a balance of power by playing off these competing communist powers against each other. One bipartisan human rights measure passed by Congress was the Jackson-Vanik amendment which denied Most Favored Nation status to communist countries denying reasonable emigration.

The administration of President Jimmy Carter raised promotion of human rights overseas into a central objective of American foreign policy. Standing for human rights was both morally correct and likely to increase American influence by attracting support and admiration, it was argued.

The Carter Administration extended the ethos of America's domestic civil rights movement into foreign policy. Former civil rights campaigner Pat Derian became the first head of the State Department's newly established Office of Human Rights. That office was charged with issuing an annual country by country evaluation of the world's human rights situation, a report to be taken into account in the allocation of American foreign aid.

Even before the Carter presidency, Congressional legislation aimed at what was seen as the human rights blindness of President Nixon's imperial presidency began to influence U.S. foreign policy. Legislation sometimes attached human rights requirements on issues such as the granting of foreign aid and trade concessions to both communist and noncommunist countries.

Those who viewed America's Vietnam failure as the result of support for an authoritarian South Vietnamese government were specially likely to raise human rights objections to U.S. backing of other repressive anticommunist governments. Arguments over human rights were thus sometimes a test of what post-Vietnam policy should be.


As both liberals and conservative began to adopt human rights slogans to advocate very different policies and embrace or reject very different governments, a new charge in the lexicon of political infighting emerged: "hypocrisy" and "double standard" on issues of human rights." If conservatives were so concerned about imprisoned dissidents in the Soviet Union, why did they look the other way at "disappearances" in Chile - not to mention hangings and police brutality against blacks in South Africa? If liberals were so concerned about pushing for an embargo against South Africa, why did they favor easing of trade restrictions against Cuba?

Thus in the late 1970's Carter's critics attacked him for downplaying communist human rights abuses as his administration prodded friends of America such as Chile toward human rights improvements. Reagan's critics in the 1980's could criticize him for attacking communist abuses while looking the other way from human rights violations by an anticommunist government in El Salvador and by anticommunist Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

The nature of these political debates served to increase the demand for coverage of overseas stories from a human rights perspective. A foreign news story couched around a human rights angle could be of interest to anyone following the home political debate. If carried in reputable media, politicians could seize on an emotionally compelling story to press their charge of hypocrisy toward any politician who appeared too tolerant of a particular strain of human rights offender.

Any media which broke a major human rights story with politically sensitive implications could find a willing audience and potentially wield power by providing information that gave one group or another political leverage in congressional debates and elsewhere.


The Vietnam War opened the way for a battle over America's future foreign policy often fought out in the language of human rights. The end of the Cold War guaranteed a new stage in the place of human rights issues in American thinking and politics. Just as the disintegration of Soviet communism opened the way for fresh debate on American foreign policy, it also opened the way for a new stage in how American editors and reporters cover human rights issues around the world.

The great consciousness of human rights issues ushered in by World War II and the Vietnam War seemed destined to linger. Newsday's graphic August 2, 1992 reporting on atrocities in Serb-run camps in former Yugoslavia once again demonstrated how quickly an "American angle" can turn overseas human rights issues into an "American story" and an American debate. The continued domestic impact of human rights reporting from overseas became clear when presidential candidate Bill Clinton called for for possible air strikes on Serbian forces and criticized President Bush for being too passive.

Reporting on human rights abuses overseas might be selective and sporadic. Editors might continue to look for clear "American angles," dramatic images of sympathetic victims, and tales of victimization with which the "average" American reader or viewer could identify. Debate over just what constituted a human right abuse might continue in times of flux when the identity of America's friends and enemies remained uncertain.

In the swirl of civil wars, famines, and political persecutions - amidst the high speed transmission of television images and printed "exclusives" - it seems most likely that reporting from overseas on abuses which appear to violate American values will continue to impact American life. The debate continually reemerges over what is often seen as America's moral mission in the world. In one shape or another human rights reporting from overseas constantly reappears as one set of eyes tugging at the hearts and minds of those who debate and act.


April 27, 2006

Copyright ©1997 Frederic A. Moritz
All Rights Reserved
Citation Permitted Only With Credit

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1) For an example of sympathetic coverage of the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi by an American newspaperwoman see Elizabeth Adams Daniels, Jessie White Mario: Risorgimento Revolutionary, Ohio University Press, Athens, 1972; on the correspondence of Margaret Fuller for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune during the revolutions of 1848 in Italy and France see Julia Edwards, Women Of The World: The Great Foreign Correspondents, Ivy Books, New York, 1988, pps. 6-19; also Maurine Beasley and Sheila Gibbons, Women in Media: a Documentary Source Book, Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press, Washington, D.C., pps. 15-20.; for a sympathetic treatment of Louis Kossuth, see an interview with him by the American journalist James Creelman conducted while European correspondent for the New York Herald's London and Paris edition, 1889 to 1893, reprinted in Creelman's autobiography, On the Great Highway, Lothrop Publishing Company, Boston, 1901.

2) For an example of the emotional tone of some of this reporting on persecution of Armenians, see "Scenes of Horror in a Turkish Jail: An American Citizen Who Was in the Sultan's Constantinople Prison Describes Murders Viewed By Him There on Oct. 2" the World, January 26, 1896, p. 20.

3) Hearst and Pulitzer papers such as the New York Journal and the New York World periodically covered efforts by Cubans to smuggle fighters or guns to fight the Spanish in Cuba in the period following the "Ten Years War" Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule beginning in 1868.

4) For early examples of news as titillation and entertainment see, for example, "Cads Do Not Mind Rain: Stand and Leer at Crossings," part of a series in the New York World on how "mashers" intimidate young girls, the World, January 18, 1895, p. 8; "What Goes On Inside of Bloomingdale," by a reporter for the New York World who gets a job inside an insane asylum, the World, January 19, 1896, p. 25.

5) For an example of the New York World taking proud credit for pushing governments to act to defend Western missionaries against massacre in China, see the World, September 26, 29, 30, 1895.

6) See Stanley Karnow, In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines, Ballantine Books, New York, 1989, pages 139 to 195, especially pages 187 to 195; Still, most American coverage of the war was from a patriotic viewpoint, stressing the role of Americans as either liberators or civilizers of Filipinos.

7) Reprinted in John Hersey, Hiroshima, The Limited Editions Club, New York, 1983; see David L. Protess, et. al., The Journalism of Outrage: Investigative Reporting and Agenda Building in America, The Guilford Press, New York, 1991, p. 48.

8) James Creelman reprinted in Creelman's autobiography, On the Great Highway, Lothrop Publishing Company, Boston, 1901.

9) See for example "True Life Story of Tombs Women: Read Them and You Will Never Wonder Again Why So Many Girls Go Bad," the World, February 2, 1896, p. 26; "Two Extraordinary Beautiful Women Criminals; The French Type of Dangerous Woman - The English Type of Dangerous Woman," the World, April 19, 1896, p. 21; "A Queer Miser's Suicide; He Dressed In His Wife's Clothes After Her Death and Thus Worked On His Farm," the World, April 9, 1896; "A Sorrow That Killed: Unhappy Woman's Three Methods," the World, February 3, 1896, p. 3; "Foot pad Felled a Girl; Miss Annie Hossie Clubbed Senseless at a Lonely Spot on Staten Island, the World, February 4, 1896, p. 1; Murder After A Chase; Mrs. Kippie's Savage Husband Hunts Her Down, Knife In Hand," the World, February 1, 1896, p. 16; "Stoned To Death By Angry White Men; The Stoning of Bob Chambers, a Colored Man," the World, May 3, 1896, p. 31.

10) See "Just How Well We Are Taking Up Our Share of the White Man's Burden," a two page opinion piece contrasting photos of a "savage" Filipino and a "civilized" American, New York Journal, March 5, 1899, pps. 8-9.

11) See Leslie A. Fiedler, Love, Death and the American Novel, Stein and Day, New York, 1982: develops a psychohistorical interpretation of American racial and cultural perceptions based based on encounter with the American Indian both as a threat on the frontier and as an inspiration to fantasies of sex and cultural liberation from the restrictions of White Judeo-Christian Culture; for overall histories of foreign correspondents covering colonial wars, see John Hohenberg, Foreign Correspondence; The Great Reporters and Their Times, Columbia University Press, New York, 1964, pps. 35-170.

12) On media "protection" of overseas missionaries see series of articles (supply headlines and page numbers here) in the New York World, September 26, 29, 30, 1895; see series of articles in the New York World reporting that missionaries in China first cabled the World for protection against Boxer Uprising (supply headlines, dates, and page numbers), May 16 to June 30, 1900.

13) On missionary thinking and its impact on U.S. foreign policy and thinking, see James C. Thomson, Jr., Peter W. Stanley, John Curtis Perry, Sentimental Imperialists: the American Experience in East Asia, Harper & Row, New York, 1981; James Reed, The Missionary Mind and American East Asia Policy 1911-1915, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1983.

14) Minutes of a July 13, 1891 meeting of the editors of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World considered the impact of sending a "first class man" such as Kennan, but noted Kennan had "practically declined to go" because he was on a Russian blacklist and would likely be expelled, The World Papers, Columbia University Library.

15) See David P. Forsythe, Human Rights and World Politics, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1989, pps. 7-8.

16) See "Japan Confesses; Her Government Makes an Official Statement to the World, the New York World, December 17, 1894, p. 1.

17) For analysis of Wilson's view of democracy, national self determination, and world peace, see Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis, Columbia University Press, New York, 1964; on human rights conventions see David P. Forsythe, Human Rights and World Politics, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1989, pps. 8-10.

18) On dulled American media interest in excesses of Nazis see Deborah E. Lipstadt, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, The Free Press, New York, 1986.

19) On sympathetic coverage of the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi by an American newspaperwoman see Elizabeth Adams Daniels, Jessie White Mario: Risorgimento Revolutionary, Ohio University Press, Athens, 1972; on the correspondence of Margaret Fuller for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune during the revolutions of 1848 see Maurine Beasley and Sheila Gibbons, Women in Media: a Documentary Source Book, Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press, Washington, D.C., pps. 15-20; for a sympathetic treatment of Louis Kossuth, see an interview with him by the American journalist James Creelman reprinted in Creelman's autobiography, On the Great Highway, Lothrop Publishing Company, Boston, 1901.

20) On World War I government exploitation of media for propaganda see Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty; From Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York, 1975, pps. 79-112.

21) See Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty; From Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York, 1975, pps. 83-84.

22) See Deborah Lipstadt, Beyond Belief; The American Press & the coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945, The Free Press, Macmillan, New York, 1986; an exception to this conclusion is the reporting of correspondent William Shirer from Berlin; see William L. Shirer, End of a Berlin Diary, A.A. Knopf, New York, 1947; William L. Shirer, 20th Century Journey: a Memoir of a Life and the Times, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1976.

23) For an analysis of the view that authoritarian states are more likely than democratic ones to instigate war see Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis, Columbia University Press, New York, 1964.

24) See David P. Forsythe, Human Rights and World Politics, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1989, pps. 11-12.

25) See David P. Forsythe, Human Rights and World Politics, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1989, pps. 265-272.

26) See David P. Forsythe, Human Rights and World Politics, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1989, pps. 271-305, See chapter 2 for enforcement.

27) Cited in David P. Forsythe, Human Rights and World Politics, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1989, p. 14.

28) For a discussion of enforcement methods ranging from national complaints to binding judgments by an international enforcement body, see David P. Forsythe, Human Rights and World Politics, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1989, pps.47-75.

29) For analysis of Walter Duranty's reporting from the Soviet Union, see James W. Crowl, Angels in Stalin's Paradise: Western Reporters in Soviet Russia, 1917-1937, University Press of America, Washington, D.C., 1982; Sally J. Taylor, Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Time's Man in Moscow, Oxford University Press, New York, 1990.

30) For a discussion of the impact of media coverage on the political consequences of the 1968 communist Tet offensive see Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, The Viking Press, New York, 1983, pp. 515-556; also Don Oberdorfer, Tet!, Doubleday, Garden City, 1971; Herbert Schandler, The Unmaking of a President, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1977; for a discussion of media-military relations in the Vietnam War see The Twentieth Century Fund, Battle Lines, Priority Press, New York, 1975; see also Peter Braestrup, Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1983.

31) An exception is the examination of the atom bombing of Hiroshima by John Hersey in the New Yorker Magazine; see John Hersey, Hiroshima, The Limited Editions Club, New York, 1983; Norman Mailer treats American atrocities in fighting the Japanese in his novel The Naked and the Dead, Rinehart, New York, 1948.