Freedom House is the oldest American organization devoted to the support and defense of democracy around the world. It was formally established in New York in 1941 to promote American involvement in World War II and the fight against fascism.
From the beginning, Freedom House was notable for its bipartisan support. Freedom House's founders were prominent and influential leaders from the fields of business and labor, journalism, academia, and government. A central figure among its early leaders was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential nominee who ran against President Roosevelt in 1940, was also an ardent supporter and served as honorary co-chair along with Mrs. Roosevelt.
Initially, the mission of Freedom House was to counter isolationism, a powerful force promoted by the America First Committee. At the time, ninety percent of American citizens were opposed to involvement in the European war, even as Nazi tanks rolled across the continent and concentration camps began to fill with people. The leaders of Freedom House argued that Hitler posed a grave threat to American security and values.
Freedom House believed that American leadership was crucial if the post-war world were to evolve into a place where democracy was the normal state of affairs, and not an exception. After the war, Freedom House supported the creation of the institutions that were critical to the promotion of peace, human rights, and cooperation between nations. Freedom House supported the Marshall Plan, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Atlantic Alliance.
Alarmed at the imposition of Soviet satellite regimes in Eastern Europe and beyond, Freedom House supported an American policy that was meant to counter Moscow’s expansionism and encourage an American foreign policy that placed the promotion of freedom at its core.
Freedom House also devoted its attention to two domestic problems during the 1950s. The first was the struggle for racial equality. Freedom House worked closely with Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins, and other prominent civil rights leaders. Bayard Rustin, a leading adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was an active member and leader of the Freedom House Board of Trustees.
A second cause was the struggle against McCarthyism, which at the time was shattering the lives of entertainers, government officials, and educators who were accused of Communist involvement. Freedom House recognized that McCarthyism was both a threat to domestic civil liberties and to America’s credibility as world leader. It urged President Eisenhower and Congress to safeguard the rights of citizens "on the home front from probes which slander the innocent."
In 1973, Freedom House launched an entirely new initiative, a report that employed the methods of social science analysis to assess the level of freedom in each country in the world, with a numerical score and ranking as Free, Partly Free, or Not Free. The report is known as Freedom in the World. Through the years, Freedom in the World has gained attention and influence in the media, the policy world, among foreign governments, and among educators and scholars. Freedom in the World has been called the “Michelin Guide to democracy’s development” and “essential reading for policymakers and political leaders.”
The Freedom in the World template has been used as a model for other democracy analysis reports published by Freedom House. Currently, Freedom House publishes an annual report on new media freedom, Freedom on the Net, which reaches critical audiences in the tech world and in policy circles. Freedom House also issues a highly respected report on political reforms in the post-Communist sphere, Nations in Transit, and an annual media freedom assessment, Freedom and the Media. Freedom House analysts regularly issue interpretive assessments on repressive techniques employed by leading autocracies, including China, Turkey, and Russia.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Freedom House was involved in the defense of Andrei Sakharov and other Soviet dissidents. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Freedom House established the Afghanistan Information Center, a clearinghouse for information on the conflict. It was among the earliest supporters of Poland's Solidarity trade union. Responding to growing strife in Africa, Freedom House sent study missions to Zimbabwe and South Africa led by Bayard Rustin.. It also sent missions to assess conditions in Central America during the 1980s, as part of an ongoing project to support centrist democratic forces under siege from the Marxist left and the death squad right.
In 1997, Freedom House expanded its involvement in democracy support work in a wide series of regions, including Latin America, Eurasia, East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Freedom House has earned a reputation for taking on freedom causes in some of the most difficult environments, such as Venezuela, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Egypt, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. In addition, Freedom House provides assistance to embattled human rights defenders, including many who face arrest, beatings, and death threats for their work.
Freedom House has taken a leading role in the development of new initiatives to counter the growing global trend towards authoritarianism. Freedom House played a central role in the adoption of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which called for sanctions on individual Russian officials implicated in the death of an anti-corruption lawyer and a subsequent broader law, the Global Magnitsky Act, which took the principles of the original law and gave them global reach.
Much has changed in the world since Freedom House was founded in 1941, but much has remained the same, including the lure of isolationism in times of change. Thus the need to protect democracy and to act as a clear voice for freedom remains as strong as ever. Freedom House began with that purpose and today again finds itself called to its original mission.
Additional information on Freedom House and its history can be found at the Freedom House Archives of the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton University.