Freedom House Statement on the Passing of Penn Kemble
Over the course of four decades, Penn played a vital role in the struggle for freedom, both in the United States and in those parts of the world where dictatorship and repression hold sway. His career as a political activist was remarkably diverse; indeed, his life encapsulated the history of political struggle in America from the civil rights era up to the contemporary movement for the expansion of democracy around the world.
As a young radical, Penn engaged in civil disobedience for the rights of African-Americans. His early socialist convictions drew him to organized labor; his democratic convictions inspired in him an unrelenting opposition to all forms of dictatorship. He rejected the proposition that only the peoples of the prosperous developed world were capable of appreciating and sustaining democracy, and he therefore championed the democratic aspirations of workers in Poland, campesinos in Nicaragua, and, more recently, ordinary men and women in the Middle East.
Penn worked closely with two of America's most distinguished senators: Henry Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Penn was a leading voice in the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, which worked for an assertive U.S. stance in the Cold War. He worked to strengthen the instruments of public diplomacy through his service as head of the U.S. Information Agency, as an official in the State Department and as a member of the Board for International Broadcasting. He also was involved in peace-making efforts in Sudan and was a key figure in the emergence of the Community of Democracies.
Despite suffering from a debilitating illness, Penn devoted the last year of his life to the promotion of a trans-Atlantic movement that would link Americans and Europeans in a common agenda of pressing for free institutions and democratic rights around the world, including in the Middle East.
Those who were committed to global democracy, whether liberals or conservatives, respected Penn and valued his contribution. His death is especially felt at Freedom House, where, during the 1980s and early 1990s, he worked to mobilize support for freedom struggles in Poland and other Communist countries and, after Communism fell, for an American policy that would support fledgling democratic institutions in Eastern Europe and Central America. During this same period, he was an early advocate of a policy of American assertiveness in the former Yugoslavia. He returned to Freedom House after distinguished service in the Clinton Administration, serving as senior scholar, and focusing on building a global alliance of democracies. Those who were fortunate enough to have collaborated with Penn saw their own efforts enriched by his energy, strategic wisdom, and optimism,often in the face of daunting odds.
Penn sought to bridge ideological divides and foster consensus, thereby strengthening efforts for an engaged and assertive American policy for freedom and democracy.
Penn Kemble was an unsung hero of the struggle against tyranny of the far left and right and of the movement for global democracy. He leaves an impressive legacy, and a vacuum that will be impossible to fill.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.