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Book Review


Mark Philip Bradley, The World Reimagined: Americans and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xviii + 306. Index. $29.99 (cloth).


     In The World Reimagined, Mark Philip Bradley seeks to understand the origins of global human rights language, its contentious believability among Americans, the ways in which Americans contributed to a transnational human rights debate and lexicon, and the ultimate limits of language and enforcement. Bradley eschews the futile seesaw debate among diplomatic historians as to whether human rights first emerged on the American scene in the 1940s or the 1970s, and he instead treats these seminal decades as "contrapuntal moments" that help us see US engagement with global human rights as much richer and deeper than merely the purview of the state.

     Bradley's emphasis on "Americans" rather than "America" sets The World Reimagined apart from much previous scholarship on the history of human rights in the US. Rather than situate human rights solely within the confines of the state and international diplomacy, Bradley deftly demonstrates how non-state actors, namely "amateurs" that included lawyers, artists, doctors, physicists, writers, activists, and many others, shaped the transformation of human rights from mere aspirational language to "an everyday vernacular" (3, 125). Critically though, Bradley does this with the recognition that this vernacular emerged within the context of and thus helped transform the "global ruptures" that took place in each decade. As more Americans came to see the world through the lens of human rights work, this work and the language that described it held the capacity to dramatically alter US engagement with the rest of the world.

     The book's two parts are framed by the 1940s and 1970s respectively. In Part I, Bradley reminds readers of just how revolutionary the concept of human rights was during and immediately after World War II. The League of Nations Covenant contained no such language, for example. But rather than follow the trajectories established by previous scholars of human rights that flow seamlessly from the 1941 Atlantic Charter to the 1945 UN Charter and then to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Bradley digs deeper to uncover how ordinary Americans understood, crafted, and utilized a language of human rights to at once advance domestic causes and to articulate a vision of US involvement in the world.

     Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Tina Modotti, Walker Evans, and other "reportage" photographers of the decade captured the plight of the economically and socially marginal in ways that transcended national borders and connected US human rights campaigns to those in Cuba, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere. Similarly, legal activists from organizations ranging from the American Jewish Committee to the NAACP to the Commission to Study the Organization of the Peace asserted that human rights encompassed a higher moral and legal realm than domestic law. In doing so, they challenged the bounds of state sovereignty and private contracts. African, Native, and Japanese Americans all mobilized these new expressions to situate their shared plights of segregation, redlining, and dispossession within a broader international context of individual human rights to which prominent US state representatives were now committing themselves. This would not happen again after the 1940s.

     Challenges emerged from both the right and left. As human rights language based on individualism gained traction, so too did collectivist, self-determinative decolonization movements swiftly spreading throughout the Global South. European colonial powers worried that talk of human rights would undermine their flagging claims to foreign territory and markets. And as Red-baiting took hold of US politics in the early 1950s, human rights became a euphemism for the triumph of global communism for many on the political right.

     Ultimately, Bradley asserts, the human rights moment of the 1940s was revolutionary and widespread in US culture and beyond, but its advocates failed to present a formidable alternative to the emerging Cold War international order that subsumed and then marginalized the language of human rights except when mobilized as an "ideological polemic." From the early years of the Eisenhower administration through the fall of Saigon in 1975, Americans seemed to have forgotten a language so ubiquitous during the 1940s.

     Part II accounts for the comeback of human rights in the 1970s American imagination. The "global rupture" in this case was globalization itself, particularly the combined forces of "borderless capitalism," market-oriented individualism, and mass transnational labor migration. These developments weakened state power, or rather enlisted states in privatizing much of the post-war social welfare order. And shifts toward the individual and away from the collective ushered in a new era of moral witness and individual testimony to advance human rights. Pioneering NGOs that included Greenpeace and Amnesty International tapped Quaker notions of witness to call attention to moral crimes. In the process, these organizations challenged the decades-old rule of experts that had shaped political and economic authority.

     Critical to American reception to moral witness was the focus of testimonials on individual victims, which emerged out of what Bradley calls "the growing primacy of the self" (157). Americans prone to caring about human rights in the 1970s, Bradley argues, tended to grasp for the particularities of singular, even if also numerous and repetitive, human rights violations rather than to frame calls to action in terms of collective social and economic rights protections.

     Nonetheless, or perhaps because of the emphasis on the individual, the "vernaculars" of human rights originating outside the United States abounded in the American consciousness. From the Soviet Union, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago and Czech playwright Václav Havel's co-authored Charter 77 offered Americans vivid expressions of how the Kremlin punished political dissent. In South America, Amnesty International and its many US progeny painstakingly compiled country reports that documented the human rights crimes of South American authoritarian governments, including that of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the Argentine military junta. All of these testimonials, combined with the rich cultural production of human rights language, created, Bradley argues, a full-fledged human rights movement in the US by the late 1970s. The math is staggering: there were 403 US-based human rights groups in 1980, up from just 20 in 1970. Consequently, teachers will find throughout The World Reimagined a rich and largely accessible (published) cache of primary source options with which to craft analytical, creative, and comparative assignments.

     The movement in the 1970s was not without its limitations and contradictions. Bradley aptly points to geographic blinders (Asia, Africa, the Middle East), the singular emphasis on civil and political (rather than social or economic) rights, the almost complete absence of human rights language to address domestic abuses, and above all, the "conscious indifference to the political and social contexts that produced human rights violations in the first place" (201). Despite the bottom-up approach to and development of impassioned human rights work in the US during the 1970s, the primacy of protecting individual human rights, the embrace of professional standards of impartiality among practitioners, and the absence of context meant that most acted as observers, documentarians, and post-crime advocates rather than reformers of repressive systems. Instead of preventing the worst crimes, US human rights workers too often responded to them after they occurred. And more often than not, "it was the suffering of strangers, rather than one's neighbors, that animated the [US human rights] movement" (224). Perhaps relative anonymity made it easier to walk away.

     As any useable work of history that claims relevance for contemporary concerns ought to do well, The World Reimagined concludes with a meditation on the place of human rights in the American imagination on the cusp, as it turns out, of an American presidency potentially hostile to human rights. Preceded by the egregious violations of human rights on display in the US's declared and undeclared wars, and a repeated aversion to global human rights law and language from many US politicians who prefer the supposed omniscience of the US Constitution, Donald Trump's ascension might signal to skeptics that human rights are in a death spiral.

     Bradley is more cautious and thus more optimistic. He posits that the flowering of human rights in the 1940s and 1970s – however garbled, hypocritical, or limited at times – means that Americans are today well equipped with the rhetorical, legal, and practical tools with which to advance human rights. Moreover, much of the rest of the world has carried on with this business without US leadership or all too often, in the face of US opposition. "With or without the global human rights imaginary and its American vernaculars," Bradley concludes, "the moral politics of the twenty-first century will unfold" (240). It remains to be seen whether or not Americans will commit themselves to the movement or remain passive and potentially complicit bystanders.

Clif Stratton is Assistant Clinical Professor of History and Assistant Director of the Roots of Contemporary Issues Program at Washington State University. In 2016, he published Education for Empire: American Schools, Race, and the Paths of Good Citizenship with University of California Press. He can be reached at


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