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82. Memorandum From William Odom of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Weekly Report

[Omitted here is a summary of activities and accomplishments.]

Human Rights

This week, Huntington advanced the view that increasing the human rights policy has been reduced to “exhortations” and “penalties” in dealing with the rest of the world.2 That means the President will not be able to talk as much about human rights in 1978 as he has in 1977. To avert a reaction of cynicism by the public, Huntington proposed that some kind of human rights organization be established, which can carry the human rights policy for the President. He asked for my critique of his proposal, both the concept and three alternatives for the organization.3 The concept is an excellent one, which I fully support, but I am not convinced that the President should talk less about human rights. He should talk more but differently on the subject. The case for this approach follows.

Although it is probably going to be true that the President will talk less about human rights in 1978 and 1979, it also is possible for him to talk more about the policy in a more flexible and effective way. It is true that two main methods have become the essence of our promotion of human rights: exhortation and penalties.

The policy is doomed to become a millstone if these remain the main methods. Three other ways, far more important and effective, are (1) the mere presence of the U.S. example, (2) creating cooperative and constructive international relationships, such as those in the tri-lateral area, which provide a climate in which human rights flourish, and [Page 273](3) preventing war and aggression which threaten and lessen human rights.

In dealing with governments where human rights are grossly violated, it is not useful for the U.S. either to exhort or penalize as the main effort to execute a human rights policy. Rather it is crucial that we do not condone or approve the behavior of those governments although we find it necessary and useful, in the search for peace and prevention of aggression, to make deals, supply arms, sign treaties, and so on. Morality in foreign policy is a matter of taking responsibility for the real choices we have. We do not have the choice, short of initiating a major world war, to free all the political prisoners in the USSR. We do have the choice, however, to make it known that while we are abiding by agreements and seeking new ones with the USSR, we are not, through silence, accomplices to the crimes of that regime. If the Shah of Iran buys our arms, we can justify that as a measure toward stabilization of the region, (certainly a gain for some human rights) but we should not let anyone believe that such sales mean U.S. moral approval of SAVAK’s actions.

We got into trouble in Vietnam precisely because at each decision point we did not make explicit to ourselves and the public where we stood on the iniquities of the Saigon regime. Very soon, our own iniquities and those of the Saigon regime were sufficiently gross to rival the VC and NVA crimes and to undercut domestic U.S. support.

Many cases will not be clear. The overall advantages for human rights to be gained from a security arrangement with a repressive regime versus the improvement in the rights of subjects of that regime through U.S. leverage on its leaders—e.g., South Korea—must be reassessed from time to time by public debate. The mood of the country must govern here. Unpopular security commitments are unviable commitments in the event of war.

The same kind of periodic reassessment of every formal or tacit arrangement we have with the Soviet Union is equally essential. Any SALT treaty, trade agreement, or cultural agreement with the Soviet Union which is achieved through calculated silence and thus tacit approval of Soviet repressions of individuals and nations is of no value to this country unless the popular sentiment understands and supports it as a pragmatic step taken in full consciousness of the moral implications.

In many respects, Lenin solved this problem for Soviet policy with his treatise, “Left Communism: An Infantile Disorder.” Both the cynics and the crusaders for the President’s human rights policy are guilty of the ideological confusion which Lenin pointed out in the ranks of the Left Communists. There is an ironic symmetry here: the U.S. like the USSR, must have correct interstate relations but also pursue the interna[Page 274]tional human rights struggle. We must do it because that is the dynamic nature of this society; and we must do it because the Soviet Union accepts us only in this broader context of the international class struggle. As every Leninist knows, revolution cannot be exported. As every clear-minded human rights supporter should know, human rights cannot be exported. Revolution and human rights thrive only on the domestic conditions and dynamics of a society. That does not, however, relieve either the Soviets or us of cheering for the social values and forces we prefer in the other’s society. And it obligates us to use our power—military, economic, political, and moral—in pursuit of our ideological ends with the greatest skill and pragmatism possible.

There is no reason why the President cannot continue to talk about human rights as the backdrop for pragmatic conduct of our foreign policy. The establishment of an “agency” strikes as a very important tactic for extracting the President from the “exhortation and penalty” syndrome. Such an agency could take that role. But the President, if he is to avoid the reaction of cynicism in the country to his policy, must continue to talk about it, to relate it to our foreign commitments and to the East-West competition. Given our power, our values, and our choices, does it make sense to continue to defend South Korea? That is a fair question, and it can be answered, “yes” even if Park puts innocent people in jail. But the “yes” is never final. It must be answered again periodically, and the answer may be reversed.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, General Odom File, Box 26, Human Rights: 10/77–6/78. Secret. Odom did not initial the memorandum.
  2. Reference is to Huntington’s paper proposing a human rights agency, which is printed as an attachment to Document 81.
  3. Odom offered Huntington his comments on the proposal in an October 17 memorandum, noting: “I am compelled by your case for an agency to keep the human rights policy alive. Among your alternatives for an agency, the third, an independent executive organization, is the best choice.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Defense/Security—Huntington, Box 38, Human Rights: 10–12/77)