Human rights “are the birthright of all people,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in a speech before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Dec. 6, 2011. “It does not matter what country we live in, who our leaders are, or even who we are. Because we are human, we therefore have rights. And because we have rights, governments are bound to protect them.”
Along the same lines, Secretary of State Colin Powell said on March 31, 2003, that “where human rights and freedoms flourish, terrorists and tyrants do not thrive, and conflict and chaos do not reign. America’s democratic values, our national interest and our obligations to the international community demand that the defense and promotion of human rights are an integral and active part of our foreign policy.”
In sharp contrast, other stewards of American foreign policy did not make the safeguarding of human rights a priority. Two 20th- century secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and Cordell Hull, both of whom were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, belong in this latter category.
Kissinger earned permanent notoriety with his inexplicable 1973 observation to President Nixon that “the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
In his superb recently published book, “America’s Soul in the Balance, The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy,” Gregory J. Wallance chronicles the conscious and often nefarious maneuverings by Hull’s State Department bureaucrats to thwart efforts to come to the aid of European Jewry for the longest time. Wallance also gives due credit to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and members of his staff for attempting to chart a radically different course.
Wallance tells us that throughout his tenure as secretary of state, Hull, whose wife was the daughter of a Christian mother and a Jewish father, “generally shunned Jewish issues such as the plight of refugees from Nazi Germany,” and describes how, after Gerhard Riegner, the director of the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress, had sent a telegram through U.S. diplomatic channels in Switzerland in January 1943 reporting on the slaughter of Jews in Poland and Romania, Hull instructed the American legation in Bern not to accept such “private messages” in the future.
On Jan. 16, 1944, Morgenthau and two other senior Treasury Department officials personally delivered a report to President Roosevelt in which they warned in no uncertain terms that, “there is a growing number of responsible people and organizations today who have ceased to view our failure [to save European Jews] as the product of simple incompetence on the part of those officials in the State Department charged with handling this problem. They see plain anti-Semitism motivating the actions of these State Department officials . . ..” The report concluded with a devastating indictment: the “matter of rescuing the Jews from extermination is a trust too great to remain in the hands of men who are indifferent, callous, and perhaps even hostile.”
My thoughts turned to Hull when I was invited to take part in the fourth Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, an annual event that brings together hundreds of Jewish leaders and activists from around the world. During the opening plenary session on June 19, the e-mailed invitation read, President Shimon Peres “will present the ‘President’s Award’ to Dr. Henry Kissinger.”
Come again? Imagine the outrage from the Jewish community if the President of Israel had announced that he would posthumously honor Cordell Hull, a man whose considerable accomplishments have been forever tarnished by what many consider to be his abandonment of European Jewry. Kissinger’s record is likewise flawed, even if he eventually did apologize for his “if they put Jews into gas chambers” statement, calling it “a kind of shorthand that, when read 37 years later, is undoubtedly offensive.”
Actually, Kissinger’s words were just as “offensive” in 1973, but so was his asking, “Why is it our business how they govern themselves?” when confronted in 1971 with a suggestion that the Nixon Administration should support domestic reforms in Pakistan. And Kissinger never expressed any remorse for his role in the killings of hundreds of thousands in East Timor or in the violent overthrow of the Allende government in Chile.
This week, President Obama is presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our government’s highest civilian honor, to Shimon Peres, who richly deserves it.
I recently was at the White House when President Obama also awarded the Medal of Freedom posthumously to Jan Karski, the Polish underground resistance fighter who “was among the first to relate accounts of the Holocaust to the world,” and presented the Medal to, among others, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for advancing “human rights around the world”; the legendary civil rights giant John Doar who, as assistant attorney general in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, “fought to protect the core values of liberty, equality, and democracy;” labor organizer Dolores Huerta who “fought to secure basic rights for migrant workers and their families;” and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens for “applying our Constitution with fidelity and independence.”
Would that President Peres had found an individual of similar caliber and moral fiber to honor, rather than a man whose attitude toward human rights has always been “indifferent, callous, and perhaps even hostile.”
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. He teaches about the law of genocide and World War II war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.