Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights

Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights

by James Peck

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From a noted historian and foreign-policy analyst, a groundbreaking critique of the troubling symbiosis between Washington and the human rights movement

The United States has long been hailed as a powerful force for global human rights. Now, drawing on thousands of documents from the CIA, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and development agencies, James Peck shows in blunt detail how Washington has shaped human rights into a potent ideological weapon for purposes having little to do with rights—and everything to do with furthering America's global reach.

Using the words of Washington's leaders when they are speaking among themselves, Peck tracks the rise of human rights from its dismissal in the cold war years as "fuzzy minded" to its calculated adoption, after the Vietnam War, as a rationale for American foreign engagement. He considers such milestones as the fight for Soviet dissidents, Tiananmen Square, and today's war on terror, exposing in the process how the human rights movement has too often failed to challenge Washington's strategies.

A gripping and elegant work of analysis, Ideal Illusions argues that the movement must break free from Washington if it is to develop a truly uncompromising critique of power in all its forms.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429991568
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 03/15/2011
Series: American Empire Project
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 865,745
File size: 557 KB

About the Author

James Peck is the author of Washington's China. Founder of the Culture and Civilization of China project at Yale University Press and the China International Publishing Group in Beijing, he has written for The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Ideal Illusions

How the U.S. Government Co-Opted Human Rights

By James Peck

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2010 James Peck
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-9156-8



There is an oft-told, much-cherished story of how in the early Cold War years Washington's wise and talented national security leaders, confronted with a war-ravaged world, put together a sweeping and magnanimous program to transform Europe and much of the rest of the globe. World War II had created an unmatched opportunity. The old colonial empires were crumbling. Britain, previously the center of the world's largest trading bloc, was bankrupt. Germany and Japan were defeated and occupied, their economies in ruins. The Soviet Union was economically weak and faced the immense task of rebuilding. Alert to the possibilities at hand and drawing on the reforming ethos of the New Deal, Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, Robert Lovett, John McCloy, and other colleagues dedicated themselves to a dynamic internationalism, advocating the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Having emerged largely from the financial and business elite, these moderate, practical men, the story continues, rallied themselves to this near-Herculean task, steeling their nerves to wage Cold War against a Communist foe that sought to stymie their every effort, an enemy so relentless and so ideologically adept at stoking the widespread embers of hatred and conflict that it took utmost vigilance and dedication just to "contain" it.

Not since the Founding Fathers, the tale goes on, had America been so providentially blessed with such a surplus of political talent. With greatness thrust upon them, they brilliantly seized the moment, bringing together the best wisdom of their era to create a new, progressive international order. They treated the Germans and the Japanese with unstinting evenhandedness, reforming their societies and leading them toward democracy. They recognized the cost of America's isolationist retreat after World War I and vowed that the nation would never again abdicate its global responsibilities. Having witnessed the devastating economic protectionism of the Great Depression and the discrediting of capitalism — disasters that had spawned the virulent nationalisms of Nazism and Japanese Fascism — they were determined to prevent such calamities from happening again. Whatever criticisms their policies garnered later on, "at the creation" (as Acheson liked to say) these leaders skillfully laid the foundation for America's globe-spanning power and provided the ideas and the vision to fight for it.

Of late, a somewhat mournful series of questions has been added as a coda: Where are the comparable wise men today? Where are the leaders innovative enough to guide an America-centered world in ways that would make us truly respected, if not always loved? Where, in short, is that saving touch of moderation untainted by hubris and the arrogance of power that would enable leaders to wage fierce struggles against frightening foes while upholding the Constitution and building a world order in which freedom, democracy, and human rights might flourish?

* * *

Augustus Caesar, Edward Gibbon wrote in the opening pages of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was wise because he "relinquished the ambitious design of subduing the whole earth," introduced "a spirit of moderation into the public councils" of Rome, and limited the size of the empire. Such was not the case with the "wise men," as Acheson and his colleagues were called by later generations. Notwithstanding the popular myth, they introduced policies that constituted one of history's most audacious and astonishing imperial undertakings. At the center of U.S. foreign policy making, enshrouded in the often obfuscating ethos of national security, labored men whom Dean Acheson described without embarrassment in biblical language: in the beginning was chaos, out of which the Americans would create a global order unlike any ever seen before.

In reality, the wise men were anything but the moderates they saw themselves as. Nor did their views reflect an emerging consensus in America about the nation's post–World War II international role. They well knew that there were strong opposing conceptions of the national interest, and they saw their situation as precarious — a minority undertaking widely popular neither at home nor abroad. Yet they triumphed by claiming that they embodied the national interest for the presidents they served. What they sought and, to a remarkable extent, managed to do was capture the pinnacle of the American state for their own distinct vision of the world — one that has evolved but still holds sway.

Their approach was fervently visionary, using anticipation and prediction as a way of guiding forces and bureaucracies toward their objectives. Though sometimes inchoate as a source of policy, their intensely felt and intuited globalism — visionary globalism, in short — nevertheless offered a coherent faith that has provided the context for international policy discussions ever since.

Toward the end of his life, George Kennan, looking back on this emerging Cold War globalism, commented: "Do you know what Acheson's problem was? He didn't understand power." In Kennan's eyes, Acheson and the other wise men's mistake — and their extraordinary hubris — lay in their conviction that Washington could actually fashion and coordinate a global system that would leave it as capable of controlling its allies as of confronting its enemies. Instead, Kennan said, they would find in the end that Washington was no more able to prevent the emergence of independent centers of power than the Russians were in Eastern Europe. Refusing to understand the limits of power, as Augustus perceived several millennia ago, was not to understand power at all.

What made the wise men extremists was what made their visionary globalism so total: they anticipated a complete reorganization of the globe from the top down, as opposed to the traditional American expansionism that moved from the bottom up. The notion George Washington laid out in his Farewell Address of "extending our commercial relations" with other countries while having "as little political connection as possible" was turned upside down: commercial relations were to become dependent on a new global politics centered on American power. America's long tradition of expansionism also came in for serious revision. For expansionism proceeds incrementally, as the state adds on pieces of territory and military bases; there is no direct path from this process to a doctrine of organizing the globe from the top down. Visionary globalism came about when American elites utilized the highly centralized system of presidential power that emerged out of World War II to order the world around the needs and interests of the United States. As President Harry Truman put it in a talk to the CIA: "You may not know it, but the Presidential Office is the most powerful office that has ever existed in the history of this great world of ours. Genghis Khan, Augustus Caesar, great Napoleon Bonaparte, or Louis XIV — or any other of the great leaders and executives of the world — can't even compare with what the President of the United States himself is responsible for when he makes a decision." Or as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told the Senate in 1955: "One man, and one man alone is so situated as to have the complete, overall picture. He is the President of the United States. He comprehends both the domestic and the international aspects of the problem."

The national security establishment rapidly grew under this presidential aegis, its authority expanding into a wide network that came to include the National Security Council (NSC), the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the State and Defense departments, among other groups. The new national security managers fervently believed that only presidents and their advisors really had enough information to consider the national interest as a whole, and their task, as they saw it, was to rise above bureaucratic and parochial battles in order to formulate the real national interest for the president. Their mission was to help the president stand above special interests and limited ways of thinking, to bear in mind the big picture, the global perspective. And presidents, of course, came and went. In emphasizing the president's centrality, the managers reinforced their own, for their power flowed directly from his.

The globalism the national security managers embraced did have its ideological precursors — in Wilsonian rhetoric about the League of Nations, in the one-world vision of Wendell Willkie, in Henry Luce's American Century, in the financial "internationalism" of corporate circles in the 1920s — but never before had there been an opportunity to transform them into a comprehensive mission for the American state. This globalism did not develop "in a fit of absence of mind," as the British sometimes viewed the rise of their own empire. Wartime planning was meticulous and ongoing. Franklin Roosevelt's vision of the postwar world has often been interpreted as an extension of his New Deal to the world at large, but more accurately it was a response to the New Deal's weaknesses at home: the way to go about countering the Depression and possible economic and social turmoil was to restructure the world capitalist system via the international institutions that were designed to reinforce American interests. Dean Acheson exhorted conservative businessmen during the war that they had it all wrong when they denounced the coming postwar globalism he advocated. Such "global responsibility," he told them, was precisely the way to undercut the statist economic tendencies of the New Deal and protect their corporate power in the coming world.

Yet the gap between their fervent aspirations to build a new America-centered global order and the ideological means to justify it was enormous. At home, the national security managers confronted the withering criticism of numerous opponents — from conservatives such as Senator Robert Taft of Ohio and former President Herbert Hoover to ardent New Deal advocates still fighting for major social and economic changes — whom they regarded as isolationists at heart, preoccupied with their own problems. The country "was being flooded with isolationist propaganda," Truman wrote in his memoirs; it was "going back to bed at a frightening rate," lamented Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in October 1945.

The idea of using American power to impose order on a chaotic world also confronted frightful obstacles abroad. The burgeoning decolonialization movement and revolutionary upheavals were largely hostile to Washington's global agenda. Even in Europe, the United States confronted nationalist resentment from leaders who criticized the "assertion of U.S. world hegemony" that would make them "protectorates of the United States, deprived of some of the traditional attributes of sovereignty and equality." The disintegrating British Empire was torn between its need for American financial assistance and opposition to American plans to destroy its system of preferential trade. Most critically, the Soviets, though war-weary and devastated, offered a military and ideological alternative in a tumultuous world, their developmental strategies increasingly resonant with the desperate needs of emerging new nations.

The ethos of World War II (the era of the "common man," the four freedoms, the four policemen of the world) provided no ideological weapons potent enough to promote American globalism against these obstacles. Such slogans had been fine for waging a world war in alliance with the Russians, but for the new tasks at hand they were hopelessly inadequate. Nor was there any equivalent of the French mission civilatrice or the British Imperial ethos available to Americans searching for a vision to draw on — as one CIA memo later put it — to "steady the nerves" and provide "the hardness and decisiveness" their mission required. "Political warfare is foreign to our tradition. We have never done it before. We are not skilled in this. Many of our people don't understand it," George Kennan told the National War College.

To the wise men the task was clear: A great power needed "a persuasive ideological ethos" of worldwide significance, a "global psychological strategy" to rally support at home and win the "war of ideas" abroad. The country required a "firm, well defined ideology which must be messianic and scientific at the same time — not purely nationalistic." Communists were "providing the people of all parts of the world with a fighting faith." The United States might stand for freedom, but how could we present our political philosophy in a way that could compete favorably with Communism's appeal?

Not easily. "Take a look at our propaganda apparatus — and our ideological message. It is pitiful. It is really appalling," said Kennan, then head of the Policy Planning Board of the State Department, in 1947. In particular, he added, "we should cease to talk about vague and — for the Far East — unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistics slogans, the better."

Kennan need not have worried. In State Department deliberations during World War II, the term "human rights" played only a modest role, usually appearing in discussions of the rule of law, a new internationalism, and the United Nations. FDR's New Deal, with its concern for social and economic problems, was occasionally evoked as contributing to human rights, but rights remained largely cast in the language of the individual — and rarely placed in the world of revolution or the desperation of the have-nots. One notable exception came from Gandhi, who wrote to Roosevelt in July 1942 that "the Allied Declaration that the Allies are fighting to make the world safe for freedom of the individual and for democracy sounds hollow, so long as India, and for that matter, Africa are exploited by Great Britain, and America has the Negro problem in her own home."

Though historians often focus on the importance of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in reality human rights played virtually no role in American strategic policy in the early Cold War years. When the concept did appear, it was usually in the context of relatively secondary discussions over how to handle the internationally embarrassing problem of Southern segregation. So, for example, Truman administration leaders told Eleanor Roosevelt, who was chairing the UN Commission on Human Rights, that it was all well and good to produce a list of rights to inspire Americans so long as she made sure they could not be invoked on behalf of African-Americans. Truman feared that if the UN Declaration of Human Rights were to be used to challenge Jim Crow laws (as W. E. B. Du Bois, in fact, tried to do), he would be faced with a rebellion by Southern senators over a host of his other policies.

For a brief moment the Eisenhower administration looked for a way to charge the Soviets with human rights violations without appealing to the United Nations Declaration. UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. asked the Psychological Strategy Board (PSB), a group that had been set up to devise psychological warfare strategies against the Soviets, for "hot journalistic items," "sensationalistic individual compelling stories of human rights violations" in which "factual certainty is desired, but should not be made a fetish." But like Truman, Eisenhower and Dulles became alarmed at the domestic risk of having foreigners "prying around in human rights conditions in the United States" and quickly put an end to any ideological warfare involving the UN human rights protocols.

Even setting aside the civil rights problem, there is little to indicate that human rights were ever intended to be a central weapon in the American ideological arsenal. They smacked too much of a "flabby, defenseless idealism." Speaking of political morality and "fuzzy minded rights," Senator J. William Fulbright remarked, was seen as "a sure sign that you didn't have the hard edged ferocity to fight communism" or to deal with other sources of global disorder. The language might be fine for Eleanor Roosevelt, but not for the battle against the Soviets. Something fiercer, more aggressive was required to build the new global order. That was anticommunism.


What anticommunism offered was a nearly instantaneous rationale for globalism. The connection is clear in a top-secret 1950 National Security Council document that bluntly summed up the ensuing Cold War outlook: "In a shrinking world, which now faces the threat of atomic warfare, it is not an adequate objective merely to seek to check the Kremlin design, for the absence of order among nations is becoming less and less tolerable. This fact imposes on us, in our own interests, the responsibility of world leadership." While anticommunism focused on the immediate confrontation with the Soviets, the globalist commitment emphasized the "absence of order" that imposed the task of "world leadership." The national security managers understood the difference between the two. "Since the Free World does not yet exist as a political or even a psychological community," went a typical 1952 pronouncement, one of our major objectives "should be to create it, and then give it the leadership it needs to survive."


Excerpted from Ideal Illusions by James Peck. Copyright © 2010 James Peck. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
1. Washington's World Before the Rise of Human Rights,
2. The Carter Years: American Foreign Policy Finds a Soul,
3. The Reagan Administration: Democratization and Proxy Wars,
4. Human Rights and China,
5. Post-Reagan: Humanitarianism Amid the Ruins,
6. Terrorism and the Pathology of American Power,
About the Author,
The American Empire Project,
Also by James Peck,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Chomskyesque . . . A useful, thought-provoking challenge to the Western human rights consensus."

Publishers Weekly

"An engaging and original look at America's foreign policy, accessible and well researched."

Library Journal

"A prodigiously researched, provocative critique."


"Ideal Illusions forces us to confront a great contradiction: how the noble vision of human rights has been compromised and manipulated to serve the purposes of the national security state and divert attention from deep economic, political, and military pathologies. James Peck's work, based on a rigorous examination of an enormous collection of official and archival documents, is essential, sobering, and eye-opening."

—John Dower, author of Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

"This incisive and sophisticated analysis exposes the 'hidden history that once again reveals just how tied into U.S. national security concerns the evolution of human rights attitudes has been.' Ideal Illusions is a well-documented, impressive account and a timely warning to seek the interests that lie behind appealing rhetoric."

—Noam Chomsky, author of Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy

"In this searing book, James Peck strips away the comforting illusion that, give or take a mistake or two, U.S. foreign policy for the past thirty years or more has been shaped by a dedication to the principles of human rights. He demonstrates how, on the contrary, successive administrations have captured the language of human rights and bent it to America's purpose. In clear and compelling prose, Peck calls on the human rights community to understand the dangers of its reliance on American power—and on American citizens to address the contradictions between a genuine dedication to the rights of humanity and prevailing definitions of U.S. national interests."

—Marilyn Young, author of The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990

"Ideal Illusions is both a devastating book and a deeply disturbing one. James Peck lays bare any lingering illusions that human rights concerns seriously influence U.S. policy. Yet he goes further: showing how Washington has consciously and cynically manipulated the very concept of human rights to serve the interests of American power."

—Andrew J. Bacevich, author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War

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