Perspectives

Freedom House: 80 Years of Fighting Threats to Liberty

Today’s challenges are daunting, but this organization will remain steadfast in its support for democracy and opposition to dictatorship around the world.

This essay marks the launch of a series of dispatches from April through November to commemorate Freedom House’s 80th anniversary. To learn about key moments and figures in the history of Freedom House and turning points in history where we played a pivotal role in support of democracy, and to reflect on the state of democracy and freedom around the world, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

 

Last November, Freedom House completed its 80th year of operations. As the organization’s president, I am inspired by our history and founding story of shared democratic values overcoming partisan divides; by our impressive and eclectic cadre of trustees and supporters over the years, including civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, the famously independent Republican senator Margaret Chase Smith, and the outspoken filmmaker Orson Welles; and most of all by our fierce and enduring solidarity with the many victims of fascism, communism, and other forms of dictatorship that sadly persist to this day.

Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin was a key supporter of Freedom House.
Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, former member of the Freedom House Board of Trustees, visits Freedom House with Dr. Eugene Reed in 1964 (via Library of Congress).

Established in 1941 to counter Nazi propaganda and the America First isolationist movement at a time when many Americans still believed that their country should not send troops or equipment to support the Allied cause, Freedom House has demonstrated throughout its history the vital importance of acting on principle and defending democratic ideals, even when the political obstacles seem insurmountable. From our opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee’s “anticommunist” witch hunts in the 1950s to our ongoing collaboration with both Republican and Democratic policymakers on seminal prodemocracy legislation like the Global Magnitsky Act, Freedom House has worked to build the broadest possible coalition of support for a world in which all people can live freely.

Nonpartisanship for the greater good is in Freedom House’s DNA. Our most famous patrons at the very beginning were Democratic first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell L. Willkie, a Republican who had unsuccessfully challenged Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency in 1940. Whatever their partisan differences, Roosevelt and Willkie both understood that a threat to freedom anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere—a sobering truth that the world continues to confront today. In an era of destructive political polarization, in the United States and elsewhere, this legacy of far-sighted cooperation is more valuable than ever.

Perseverance in a long struggle

For 80 years, Freedom House has sought to counter the greatest threats to human liberty: mobilizing American public opinion in support of the Marshall Plan to aid war-ravaged Europe and contain the increasingly hostile Soviet Union, convening a historic conference on civil rights in the 1950s, helping to lead monitoring of human rights abuses under the Helsinki Accords of 1975, calling the US government’s attention to the “killing fields” of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge’s genocide was widely known, and supporting a wave of democratic advances after the demise of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Over much of our history, conditions for democracy and human rights around the world genuinely improved. In 1945, there were only 12 democratic states in the world, compared with 158 autocracies, according to retrospective data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project. By 1992, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that gap had closed dramatically: 71 democracies versus 105 autocracies. And in 2002, for the first time in history, democracies overtook autocracies as the majority regime type in the world. This long-term march of progress is reflected in Freedom House’s own findings: our flagship Freedom in the World report has been empirically tracking the state of political rights and civil liberties in real time for nearly 50 years, putting it in a class by itself in terms of duration and continuity. Since 2006, however, the report has documented a consistent year-on-year global decline, as authoritarian leaders exploited new opportunities—including changes in the global economy, the malleability of social media, and democracies’ complacency—to consolidate power and spread their influence and repression.

Ideally, an organization such as Freedom House would work itself out of a job, becoming redundant as respect for human rights and the principles of liberal democracy take root around the world, and as authoritarian practices are stamped out by the concerted efforts of democratic governments and international organizations. But as we have seen in Ukraine, where a powerful dictatorship is waging a war of conquest unlike any since the Second World War, and in China, where an increasingly totalitarian one-party state is committing genocide in full view of the international community, the spread of tyranny and oppression remains as urgent a challenge as it was in 1941.

LaGuardia_Willkie_Knudsen_Agar_Landis_Freedom_House_rally_1941
From left: Freedom House cofounder Herbert Agar, Freedom House honorary co-chair and 1940 Republican presidential nominee Wendell L. Willkie, automotive executive William S. Knudsen, former New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and movie star Carole Landis attend the Fight for Freedom Rally at Madison Square Garden in October 1941.

In fact, the global retreat of freedom over the past 16 years has not been limited to traditional autocracies like Russia and China. In India, for example, virulent nationalism, religious persecution, and crackdowns on free expression have caused a precipitous decline in the world’s most populous democracy. The United States itself has suffered significant declines—under Democratic and Republican administrations alike—as chronic problems including partisan polarization, racial inequality and injustice, and the undue influence of money in politics sap our country’s democratic strength.

An enduring demand for freedom

While it will require enormous effort to reverse the current global decline in democracy, my experience at Freedom House has given me ample cause for hope. One of the best parts of my job is the opportunity to meet with human rights activists and dissidents from around the world and hear their stories directly. They reassure me not only through their own commitment to their work, but also by providing compelling evidence of our organization’s impact.

Prior to the pandemic, an activist from the Republic of Congo approached me at a conference in Europe to tell me, “When I advocate for freedom, I use the Freedom House scores. You are helping me to make the case for freedom and democracy in my own country.” Nikola Dimitrov, a human rights lawyer and diplomat who eventually became the foreign minister of North Macedonia, memorably challenged us not to let up on our criticism: “You are pushing governments to be accountable to their people, and you should not stop when I’m in government.” More recently, I met with a delegation of Venezuelan human rights defenders who risk their lives to uphold their fellow citizens’ rights under the repressive regime of Nicolás Maduro, in what was once among the most democratic countries in the Americas.

I have the privilege of working with incredibly idealistic individuals who have dedicated their careers to expanding human rights and democracy. Freedom House staff members and partners in every region of the world fight each day for good governance in their own countries and for a rising tide that could lift all nations toward liberty, peace, and prosperity.

I fervently believe that the defense of democracy the pivotal issue of our time. Will we live in free countries and elect leaders who deliver for their people and work together to address global challenges like climate change, displacement, food insecurity, and gender and racial inequality? Or will we live in a world dominated by self-serving despots who are willing to use any and all means to accumulate and retain power, even if they leave whole societies in ruins?

Despite recent setbacks, or perhaps because of them, the human desire for freedom is only increasing. Over the last few years, we have seen it in the three million Hong Kongers who took to the streets to protest the demolition of their civil liberties; the movement of young Sudanese teachers, doctors, and lawyers that pushed out a genocidal dictator; and the stunning bravery of the Ukrainian people in resisting a brutal Russian invasion. But to succeed against the ruthless forces of oppression, these movements need tangible, meaningful support from democratic powers and international organizations.

Freedom House has provided such support, in one form or another, for more than eight decades, and we will continue our work for as long as it takes to achieve the dignity and self-government that all people deserve.