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Book Review: From Selma to Moscow...

Human rights in all its various definitions, manifestations, and historically-marked periods of victory and defeat has paradoxically been the bane of U.S. foreign policymakers for a good part of the 20th century, bleeding over into the 21st. According to recent scholarship, it was the inauguration of Jimmy Carter that signaled the beginning of administrative concern over the subject. However, Sarah B. Snyder’s From Selma to Moscow offers a compelling narrative identifying the threads of transformation which were spun by human rights activists themselves through the period Cold War historians have labeled “the long 60s”. With a hefty bibliography that takes up practically a sixth of the book, From Selma to Moscow appears to be soundly researched, drawing from a wide variety of sources including published and unpublished manuscripts, archival materials from various presidential libraries, credible non-American authors such as Andrei Sakharov, and government documents. Snyder makes a valid case against Henry Kissinger, the primary force behind U.S. foreign policy during the Nixon and Ford administrations, who did not hold human rights as a core component of American interests or security considerations. She substantiates her unveiled negative portrayal of this famed figure in Cold War White House history to where the reader is left with no doubt that Kissinger was all but outright against human rights. Snyder uses Kissinger to prove her point that U.S. human rights activism during the “long 1960s” had no encouragement from the Oval Office and rather grew from the nation as a whole which created a “congressional revolution” that “laid the foundation for the institutionalization of human rights” in the U.S.

While the title is catchy, it seems to direct the audience to assume that the Civil Rights Movement originating with the March from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery will somehow influence foreign policy and that cities such as Moscow will feel some magical pressure and in turn make strides to improve their human rights practices. However, with the exception of a few sections, the majority of the narrative focuses on activists and activity in the U.S. Even her introduction makes the book seem more global than it actually is. But misleading front matter aside, From Selma to Moscow delivers as a policy-oriented answer to the recent curiosity of the true origins of human rights activism in America. With much of the content focusing on the 70s, one wonders why she insisted on using the long 60s for her time frame in the introduction. This work isn’t exactly the most entertaining read of all time but it certainly has the clarity and coherence required for a field that’s only freshly being explored.

The main question that comes to mind is inspired by the title: how did the fight for African American rights in Selma, Alabama ultimately impact activists outside the U.S., particularly in the USSR, China, and other “red” or red-influenced countries? How did Snyder make her choices on which activism cases to focus on as surely there were many? Was it based on accessible sources only or on other considerations? It strikes me that this is a very U.S.-centric book which depicts America as the epicenter of human rights globally. But is this really the case, and how might a book written on human rights for a non-American audience be different?

The above was my honest review composed prior to meeting the author Sarah Snyder. Granted she was in the Middle East during our digitally-enabled conversation, but it was a very insightful hour of discourse. Mostly I was interested in understanding her process for going from research question to evidence gathering to writing and rewriting to finally reaching this end product. How did she decide what chapters to include? How did she decide which case studies to pursue? And as this was her second book, I thought surely the road to publication must have bean easier. My estimate, based on the fairly slender bundle of pages, was two to three years at the most from inception to the book appearing in the Amazon catalog. However, I was surprised, staggeringly so, to discover that I grossly underestimated. According to Snyder, this project had taken eight years to complete. Granted, during this time Snyder was a professor and her impressive curriculum vitae attests to her many activities and responsibilities. Whether or not Human Rights was her bag of choice, I have to doff my hat to her for sticking it out for eight years. Obviously, her patience, tenacity, and drive are deserving of high praise.

Despite knowing the long, hard road Snyder had to traverse, I stand by my initial review but with one addendum: much of what Snyder said in person lent greater clarity and meaning to her book. She defended the title, but not to my satisfaction. And her exclusions of certain case studies didn't quite make sense to me, especially since these may have helped to actually validate the internationalist tilt of the book. But perhaps, this won't matter in the long run. Perhaps, ten years from now this book will be the paradigm for literature on human rights and will be held as the scholarship that changed the direction of Washington foreign policy for the better. Who knows?

One thing is for sure, however: Snyder is an indefatigable scholar.

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