by Rafael Medoff
As debate mounts over whether the U.S. should take military action in response to human rights abuses in Syria, a scholar has uncovered surprising new evidence about an effort to give the fledgling United Nations strong powers to enforce human rights around the world.
Writing in the September 2013 issue of the Journal of American History, Prof. James Loeffler reveals that a virulently antisemitic adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt undermined attempts by Jewish activists to insert strong human rights provisions in the UN charter at its founding conference in 1945.
Loefler, an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, describes the behind-the-scenes role played at the UN conference by the controversial Isaiah Bowman.
Dr. Bowman, who was widely known as “Roosevelt’s geographer,” was a longtime adviser to FDR on worldwide territorial and population settlement issues. He strongly opposed admitting Jewish refugees to the United States, and was also against creating a Jewish state in Palestine.
Bowman’s private correspondence also reveals him to have been profoundly antisemitic. He imposed a quota on Jewish students and faculty at Johns Hopkins University, of which he was president from 1935 to 1948. Bowman once told a colleague it was necessary to limit the hiring of Jewish faculty because “Jews come to Hopkins…for two things: to make money and to marry non-Jewish women.”
President Roosevelt appointed Bowman to be part of the State Department’s delegation to the United Nations founding conference, which opened in San Francisco on April 25, 1945.
Prof. Loeffler, in his Journal of American History article, describes how Jewish organizations sent representatives to San Francisco to lobby on various issues. Zionist groups, for example, worked to make sure that the wording of the UN charter would not undermine the longstanding British promise to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine.
This infuriated Bowman, who feared that recent Congressional expressions of support for Jewish statehood would embolden the Zionist representatives in San Francisco. Loeffler quotes Bowman writing in his private diary: “The professional agitators and leaders, [American Zionist leader Rabbi Stephen] Wise and all of the rest, are learning how powerful they are in Congress…Thus the Jews have tasted blood and are going to push in every possible way for preferment…[T]he situation is a dangerous one since it means our introduction into Near East policies with Congress bludgeoned into an active participation on the side of the Jew–right or wrong.”
The American Jewish Committee, which opposed Zionism, also sent representatives to the UN conference. Together with the NAACP, church groups, and the AFL-CIO, the AJCommittee focused on the issue of human rights. They lobbied for language in the UN charter that would obligate member-states to observe human rights, and wanted to create a commission or other mechanism to enforce it. But the State Department, anxious to avoid conflicts with the Soviet Union, resisted those demands.
Standard historical accounts, such as Naomi W. Cohen’s history of the AJCommittee, Not Free to Desist, report that a spontaneous, passionate appeal by AJC president Joseph Proskauer moved State Department officials to change their minds.
Proskauer, in his autobiography, claimed that he turned the tide at a “tense and dramatic” meeting between the human rights activists and the State Department delegation on May 2. With his “heart pounding,” Proskauer delivered an appeal that supposedly completely changed the mind of Secretary of State Edward Stettinius. The secretary “rose to his feet impulsively” and “exclaimed that he had no idea of the intensity of the feeling on this subject” and would take the requested steps, Proskauer wrote.
But Prof. Loeffler found internal State Department records and other documents that reveal a very different story.
As Loeffler describes it, Proskauer and the other human rights advocates became upset over media reports that the U.S. delegates intended to compromise with the Soviets and back down on the human rights language.
To calm the critics, Secretary Stettinius asked Proskauer and his colleagues to prepare a formal petition explaining their position, and to present it to him at a meeting on May 2. But Stettinius “knew in advance what [they] would propose on May 2,” because he sent Bowman “to help draft the group’s petition.” Bowman “then briefed Stettinius and helped prepare the secretary’s remarks” that would be made after they presented the petition. Proskauer went along with the charade because “he reveled in the chance to demonstrate his close relationship with the secretary [of state],” Prof. Loeffler writes.
“Stettinius and Proskauer effectively calibrated their messages before the public event,” Loeffler notes. “The AJC even choreographed the meeting down to the order and roles of speakers.”
Proskauer acceded to the State Department’s insistence that a compromise on the human rights issue was unavoidable. The final version of the UN charter included language requiring member-states to respect human rights, but no mechanism was created to enforce it. Secretary Stettinius insisted it was “a good beginning.”
Not everyone agreed with that assessment. Many human rights advocates feared that the principle of human rights would be overridden by the language in Article 2(7) of the UN charter, which prohibited other countries from “intervening in matters which are essentially in the domestic jurisdiction of the State concerned.”
Walter White, executive director of the NAACP, warned: “Unless we have a real international organization where we have the power to be able to stop a Hitler in his tracks before he uses racial bigotry to create hate and thus create war, it would mean that most of the fine phrases, admirable phrases…would be made ineffectual.”
White’s prediction came true. Although a UN Commission on Human Rights was created, throughout its first 20 years in existence (1947-1967), it refrained from investigating human rights abuses or criticizing perpetrators. Later, the Commission adopted a more activist posture, but by then the UN was dominated by Arab, Soviet-bloc, and militant Third World regimes that steered the commission to focus largely on Israel.