A Life Devoted to the Cause of Global Freedom

Arch Puddington, who retired last month after 50 years in the struggle, shares insights from his remarkable career.

Arch Puddington Speaking at Freedom House

Arch Puddington discusses findings from the Freedom in the World report at Freedom House. 


Beginning in 1994, Arch Puddington was a leader and mainstay of Freedom House’s research and analysis division, overseeing the flagship publication Freedom in the World as well as more specialized reports including Freedom on the Net and Nations in Transit.

He began his career as a journalist, and went on to work with civil rights icon Bayard Rustin at the A. Philip Randolph Institute from 1971 to 1976. From then until 1985, Arch campaigned for the international free trade union movement as part of the League for Industrial Democracy. Finally, before joining Freedom House, he served as a deputy director at the New York bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

In the interview below, Freedom House’s Nate Schenkkan and Tyler Roylance ask Arch about his experiences, motivations, and thoughts on the future of the cause.

The views offered by the interviewee are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House, which does not endorse any candidate or political party.

You’ve devoted your working life to the cause of global freedom and democracy. What do you think led you down this path on a personal level? Do you consider it a vocation?

I would point to two things: One is my upbringing. I was born in 1944 and grew up in the postwar years. Discussing politics and civic affairs was normal in our house, and the same was true for my friends and their families. Television was new, and that just made everything more interesting. I watched the 1952 Republican presidential convention all day and all night. In 1954, I watched the Army-McCarthy hearings with my mother; mom regarded Joseph McCarthy as a bully and knave, and so of course did I.

I grew up in Texas, in Fort Worth and Dallas. Racial segregation and the legal repression of Black people was hands down the issue that galvanized people, more so than the Cold War or our nuclear rivalry with the Soviets. At the same time, network television news became widely available and popular. My family watched the civil rights protests, as did pretty much everybody. You couldn’t avoid the race issue, especially when it was an issue in your own hometown. And of course television influenced our attitudes. Dr. King and his people were inspiring and courageous. And the defenders of Jim Crow in the Deep South came across as a lower form of humanity. Later, the Vietnam War became issue number one, especially since practically every young man was subject to the military draft and the prospect of being sent to Vietnam. It was important that everyone got their news from a limited number of common sources: the local newspapers, television news, and the major weekly magazines, like Time. There was plenty of polarization—remember, the Goldwaterites took over the Republican Party in 1964. You could debate and argue, but everyone was arriving at their opinions from pretty much the same sources.

The second thing that shaped my political views back in the day was involvement in a left-wing political movement. This was in the early 1970s, and the organization was called Social Democrats USA. It was a legacy of the old Socialist Party that Eugene Debs led during much of the 20th century. It was one of a number of splinter groups—Bernie Sanders was in a different group. Social Democrats USA believed in a social democratic transformation of the American economy. It was also very strongly anticommunist. It believed in the American labor movement as the engine of political and social change.

Bayard Rustin was a leader of Social Democrats USA, and I went to work for him at the A. Philip Randolph Institute. The institute had two principal missions: One was the promotion of Black workers in their unions—we urged trade unions, some of which still resisted integration, to encourage Black workers to join and to rise to leadership positions. The second mission was Bayard’s own work as a civil rights and human rights leader. In his early life, Bayard had traveled widely to promote pacifism. During the 1970s, he was increasingly committed to the promotion of human rights, freedom, and majority rule in Southern Africa, and to African democracy. He went on speaking tours and observation delegations to Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Thailand. He led a delegation right up to the border of Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge were already on a rampage of mass murder. His international trips were not universally popular in the Black community. Some Black nationalists actually admired African dictators like Idi Amin, while Bayard understood the damage the Big Men were doing to these postcolonial societies. Bayard had the courage to stand up to his critics and insist that the United States, even with its unhappy history of racial inequality, had an obligation to support the spread of freedom in Africa.

To your question about the work at Freedom House being a vocation, I know this sounds like a cliché, but I have always told younger staffers that Freedom House is a cause, not a job. It’s not a place for the detached or those given to irony. I had similar feelings about RFE/RL when I worked there.

How have your personal political views evolved over time?

My father was an Eisenhower Republican; there was actually a painting of Ike on our wall. I, like most college students, was influenced by the Vietnam War and the race crisis, and I found Democratic politicians much more attractive than Republicans—men like Hubert Humphrey, Scoop Jackson, even LBJ. In the 70s I became more interested in the struggle for global democracy. And I was concerned about certain political trends. After 1968 the Democratic Party underwent a major transformation in its attitude toward America’s role in the world. Liberal anticommunism had declined precipitously as the Vietnam War shook the faith of many Democrats. And many of liberalism’s foreign policy experts were arguing that it was not enough for the United States to withdraw from Vietnam; America, it was said, needed to disengage from the Cold War struggle, make peace with its adversaries, accept that most of the Third World would embrace either Marxism or some form of authoritarianism, and abandon a policy based on what many described as imperialism and militarism. I did not find this argument persuasive, to put it mildly.

The crucial development in my evolution was Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1980. He called for a more assertive and confident American policy and for a stronger stance against Moscow. I had voted for Carter in 1976 but embraced Reagan and tended to vote Republican thereafter. That is, until recently, when the deterioration of the Republican Party, pretty much across the board, became evident. Even before Trump emerged, it was clear that conservatism was becoming more insular, more nationalist in a profoundly unhealthy way, more willing to tolerate autocrats, and uninterested in America’s growing domestic problems—from unaffordable medical care to the flawed immigration system and racial inequality. At the same time, the Democratic Party has moved in a healthy direction on key global issues. It is today the internationalist party and the party that is more likely to stand up for human rights and democracy.

MLK and LBJ shake hands
President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. | Image credit: U.S. Embassy New Delhi / Flickr

Your work must have brought you into contact with some fascinating people, for better or worse. Who stands out?

Mainly for better! I was fortunate enough to be able to meet a number of dissidents from all corners of the world. One of the most impressive groups of democratic oppositionists was the leadership of the Baltic independence movements from the late 1980s leading up to 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart. The Baltic movements declared their countries free of Moscow’s control around 1987 or 1988, and Gorbachev’s liberalization meant that the leaders of these movements could visit the United States. Quite a few came to visit us at RFE/RL. Their message was “We live like free people.” It’s hard for those who didn’t experience the Cold War to understand how radical that statement sounded. This was remarkable for people who had lived their entire lives in the nerve center of global repression, many of whose relatives had been sent to the gulag. It was quite bracing to hear them insist that they had no intention of backing down and would soon enjoy independence and freedom. Some of these Baltic visitors ended up as prime ministers, as ministers of education, foreign ministers, leaders in parliament. In a way we were being introduced to a kind of a democratic government in waiting.

I want to mention my fellow staffers at RFE/RL. Under normal conditions, the correspondents in New York would have been top journalists in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, and so forth. But these were not normal times, and had they remained at home, they would have been working as night watchmen or stokers, or may have found themselves in some gulag prison. Day in and day out they came to the office, filed excellent reports on American politics and how it affected the Cold War, and made commentaries about how democracy worked in America. And they did this even during times when it seemed that nothing was changing in the communist zone, that everything had been frozen and the prospect for democratic openings had been extinguished. I learned quite a bit from these exiled journalists, both about their home countries and about America as well.

What have been some of the greatest highs and lows you’ve seen over the course of your career, in terms of gains and setbacks for democracy and human rights?

The highs were in 1989. I don’t think I need to elaborate. The lows were in the 70s, a time that in some respects was more disturbing than things are today. For America, the 70s were a time of confusion and self-doubt. And it was a grim time for global freedom, with most of the world dominated by totalitarian regimes, old-fashioned dictatorships, and military juntas. It’s worth noting that Freedom House launched its Freedom in the World report in 1972 in part to inject a dose of alarm into American policymakers about the state of liberal democracy. Because while Freedom House was deeply worried about global trends, America itself had turned insular, hostile to foreign involvement, and divided over whether it should remain the leader of the free world. We, that is those involved in Social Democrats USA, were also concerned about the Nixon administration’s approach to the Soviet Union and China. Under Nixon’s détente policy, the United States not only refrained from actions that irritated Moscow; it also refrained from language about the repressive nature of the Soviet system and its role as an imperial power. Likewise, Nixon moved quickly to treat Mao’s China as something akin to an ally even as the Cultural Revolution had yet to wind down. Furthermore, the United States had intensified its alignment with dictators throughout Latin America and Asia. And when Portugal threw off its military dictatorship, Secretary of State Kissinger opposed using our diplomatic influence to stimulate a democratic outcome when it appeared that leftists were on the rise. Fortunately, social democratic parties in Europe filled the vacuum, and democracy prevailed in one of Western Europe’s last dictatorships. While Nixon pursued a policy of super realism, the Democrats were divided between traditional liberals and those further to the left who favored a more neutral approach to Moscow.

And then, in the midst of a pretty depressing period, a Polish trade union called Solidarity emerged to remind us that freedom was a universal value that appealed to ordinary people everywhere.

A good portion of your career was dedicated to free trade unionism. How did this fit into the broader democracy effort?

So keep in mind that the Social Democrats movement always looked to the working class as a major instrument of political change. Beyond that, the American trade union movement was probably the most important prodemocracy institution of American civil society at the time. The AFL-CIO worked to assist democratic unions in the developing world and was a bulwark against the spread of communist influence in the global labor movement.

American labor’s Cold War commitment reached a culmination with Solidarity. There was an expectation that developments in Poland would be replicated elsewhere, that the industrial working class would be the driving force behind movements for democratic change. And even that labor’s triumphs in the struggle against autocracy would galvanize a revival of its strength in the United States, at a time when unions here were clearly in decline due to technological changes, globalization, deindustrialization, and the Reagan administration’s hostile policies. American labor did play a noble role in enabling the Polish opposition to sustain itself through a decade of state repression. And in so doing, unions can be credited with a role in democracy’s victory in the Cold War. In the end, however, this international success did not translate into a domestic revival. Instead, the decline in the United States accelerated. And while American conservatives were generous in their praise for labor’s commitment to freedom abroad, they worked doggedly to ensure that unions were reduced to what is today a state of enfeeblement in the private sector.

Just as an aside, it is now clear that some of the seeds of the current American political malaise were sown by the Reagan administration’s failure to put forward policies to ameliorate the impact of deindustrialization on American workers, especially male workers. Both parties failed to recognize that the declining prospects of the traditional working class would come back to haunt the country. In fact, I was amazed that it took until 2016 for the whirlwind to hit. Neither party made much of an attempt to develop the kinds of transitional measures that made economic change more acceptable in Europe, but the Republicans went further by doing everything possible to weaken the labor movement.

You worked for RFE/RL for about a decade. Lately there have been concerns about politicization of the US Agency for Global Media, the institution that oversees RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and the Open Technology Fund. Do you share these concerns? Why is this important?

RFE/RL was one of America’s greatest Cold War weapons. Of course, its adversary was a political system that was notorious for total censorship and official media marked by turgid language, boring content, and massive falsification. RFE/RL drew a large and loyal audience because it earned a reputation for accuracy and avoided propaganda. The radios, as they were popularly known in Washington, functioned like an opposition press whose orientation was not toward this or that political party but rather in favor of democracy, as opposed to the repressive status quo.

America has always been properly uneasy with the idea of propaganda. Transforming RFE/RL or the Voice of America into shills for the American government would be the quickest way to strip them of credibility. When I was with RFE/RL, there was no censorship of broadcasts, but everything that we broadcast was reviewed by a unit whose sole purpose was to ascertain whether what went out on the air was in keeping with mainstream media standards, and if it wasn’t, the editors of the language services would hear about it. RFE/RL really does try to adhere to the standards of ethical journalism as you learn them in journalism school.

This is an impressive achievement, a wonderful instrument to promote democratic values and counter state propaganda. And not terribly expensive! But it can easily be destroyed if your management lacks respect for the standards of responsible journalism. This is what bothers me about the new leadership. I’m not familiar with the regime in place now. But certainly the firing of highly respected chief executives almost immediately after Michael Pack took over is a cause for serious concern. Beyond that, Trump has a history of ruining or corrupting American democratic institutions that have taken many years to build. The onus is on the new management to prove its bona fides.

Voice of America US sign
Voice of America headquarters in Washington, D.C. | Image credit: Jer123 / Shutterstock

Just to play devil’s advocate, do you think there’s any merit to the argument that they’ve got their propaganda, so we should have our own?

There’s no reason to have American-funded media if the purpose is propaganda, because in the audience countries, you already have a distorted media that is there to aggrandize the leadership and to slander democracy, to slander the internal opposition. RFE/RL is what you call a surrogate media. The radios’ express mission is to function as a genuine free media, a democratic media that adheres to democratic standards. To transform American international media into a propaganda mouthpiece would be playing in the autocrats’ arena. In a propaganda war, Putin will always win and the United States will always lose. When the Cold War ended and RFE/RL journalists returned to their home countries, people there treated them as heroes. They were trusted as honest voices who explained how democracy worked, warts and all. And not because they were shills for Washington.

What do you think is the best approach when it comes to the US relationship with China? Can we be realistic about the prospects for democracy in China without giving up on the Chinese people?

Let me give a Freedom House example just to get into this discussion. In 2000, we conducted a review meeting for Freedom in the World to discuss the China score. There were analysts who advocated for a modest improvement in the score; others were opposed. But everyone present agreed that China’s score would improve substantially within the next five to 10 years. People felt that even if China did not adopt multiparty democracy, the country would make real progress on freedom of speech, the rule of law, and civil liberties.

I think some of us believed that a crucial year for China was 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics. We were hopeful that the Olympics might trigger domestic reform and a new openness to the world. In fact, the run-up to the Olympics was marked by the persecution of dissent, crackdowns on minority groups, and the state’s use of its power to arbitrarily bulldoze entire neighborhoods and uproot hundreds of thousands of people. Indeed, the leadership was announcing, with its policies surrounding the games, that liberalization was not on the agenda.

Since then, we’ve come to realize the mammoth fix the United States is in due to its deepening economic dependence on China. This has national security implications, public health implications, and serious implications for global democracy. With China’s government having embraced a semi-totalitarian and highly militarized system, serious measures will have to be taken that do involve some “decoupling.”

A number of diplomats have made a strong case for cultural and educational exchange as a positive instrument in relations with adversaries. Thoughtful students who are exposed to our democratic system, flawed as it is, can’t help but compare our free institutions with the restrictive environment in China. The leadership in Beijing understands this, which is why they pay so much attention to the political behavior of Chinese students who are studying here.

Are you concerned about programs that might fall under the category of cultural exchange but could be used to exert malign influence in the United States?

We should be vigilant. But I’m sufficiently confident about the appeal of our free society to support a continuation of cultural exchanges, as long as the rules apply equally to both sides.

We made a major mistake by adopting a policy that treated China differently from every other country that did not share our democratic system, but whose economy and society in general were joining the world. We allowed business practices that we would have never tolerated from other countries. We allowed Chinese authorities to humiliate and browbeat American corporations and American sports federations with hardly a word from our government, and we made one concession after another. Just to bring the relationship to the point where we treat China the way we would treat other undemocratic countries will require changes that Beijing may interpret as hostile. But we have to make those changes for our own national interests.

Keep in mind what the Communist Party has done in Xinjiang. The regime took millions of its own citizens, put them in reeducation camps, dispersed many to other parts of China, and is even working on ways to sterilize Uighur women. These are atrocities on a Hitlerian level, a Stalinist level, a Maoist level.

The Communist leadership is very aggressive, very confident, very much aware of the dynamics that destroyed other dictatorships, and it is determined to avoid a similar fate in China. This regime is also determined to avoid the kinds of sanctions that the Kremlin was hit with after the occupation of Crimea. The Chinese Communist Party is a dangerous adversary—patient, strategic, and fundamentally hostile to democracy.


CCP leader and state president Xi Jinping
Chinese Communist Party leader and state president, Xi Jinping

What do you think the Freedom in the World map will look like 10 years from now? You joined Freedom House 26 years ago, so what about 26 years from now?

I’m going to punt on 2046. As for the next decade, my guess is that the map will look more purple [Not Free] than it is now, and less green [Free] than it is now. And what worries me more than anything else is the growing willingness of governments to use extreme measures to control and repress minorities. After the Cold War and especially after the Balkan wars, there was serious pressure on governments to treat minorities with humanity and as equal citizens, to strive for improvement in their status, to include minorities in political representation, in the economy, and so forth. And to avoid the terrible crimes of the 20th century. Some progress was made. Just recall the emergence of the concept known as the Responsibility to Protect, R2P. The proposition that all states had an obligation to prevent crimes against humanity anywhere in the world was regarded as a serious step forward for human rights.

I’m very concerned that what Beijing has done in Xinjiang with the Uighurs will stand as a template for other governments looking around for ways to deal with inconvenient groups. Look at the medley of tactics the state there has made use of: in-migration of Han Chinese, cultural and religious repression, persecution of the Uighur intellectual class, a massive reeducation campaign featuring concentration camps, population dispersal, high-tech and highly intrusive surveillance, and forced birth control. I’ve always felt that cultural genocide is a concept much misused. But the phrase certainly describes what Beijing is doing to the Uighurs.

And the worst part is that the Communist Party leadership is getting away with it. A few democracies have offered up some powder-puff objections. Muslim countries have utterly failed to protest. The United States has, to its credit, imposed some sanctions, but apparently President Trump’s only personal comments have been something to the effect that Xi Jinping did what he had to do. It’s very likely that these experiences helped encourage India’s government to take measures against its own Muslim minority, including experiments with policies that could render many Muslims there stateless.

The Chinese and Indian examples may be multiplied over the next decade. And let’s keep in mind that the persecution of minorities often involves truly horrible actions: mass murder, concentration camps, killing off clergy, huge population transfers, the singling out of women for abuse, the killing of children to prevent the target population from regenerating. This is a different level of humanitarian crime than jailing civil society activists or state capture by corrupt oligarchs.

A core part of Freedom House’s mission since its founding has been to ensure that the United States plays a leadership role in the cause of global democracy and human rights. Why is this so important? Does it even make sense anymore?

Since World War II, American leadership has been essential in the struggle for human rights and democracy. This is true despite the interventions, the wars, the alliances with “friendly dictators,” and our own domestic failings. Despite all our deficiencies—which are today being magnified on social media and television news reports day in and out—it was American leadership that propelled the transformation from a world that was dominated by totalitarian powers, old-fashioned dictatorships, and colonial rule to a much different world, a world that,  even after recent setbacks, remains largely democratic.

America has experienced declines in the past and made impressive recoveries. It’s a dynamic society. Eventually, a comeback is likely. Ten years ago Freedom House was sounding the alarm about the expansion of authoritarianism, and few were listening. Things have changed. The decline of democracy is acknowledged today, as is the rise of a new form of authoritarianism and a new generation of autocrats. We now understand that China represents a major challenge, not just economically but politically as well, and is perfecting a system of repression that in some respects is as dangerous as the old totalitarian systems. Figures like Putin and Orbán are pushing ahead to create forms of one-party rule that are meant to be rivals to liberal democracy. At least we now recognize the nature of the challenge, which is a major step forward. 

What advice would you offer to young people considering a career like yours?

The staff is more educated and more familiar with the methods of social science than when I came to Freedom House in 1994.

I went to a university with a renowned journalism school. But I decided against that and studied liberal arts instead. And I’m glad I did. I would encourage young people to not focus on career-path studies. Young people who are interested in politics and the study of freedom should learn history and the rudiments of political science. Familiarity with 20th century history is much more valuable than expertise in human rights law. I would also encourage young people to familiarize themselves with the studies of dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. Everyone should have read Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler, Anne Applebaum’s account of the subjugation of Eastern Europe, Frank Dikötter’s trilogy on the formation of Mao’s China. And literature too: Trollope for his accounts of parliamentary politics; Balzac for corruption; Kundera and other Czech writers for life under communism; Orwell and Koestler for the totalitarian temptation.

They should also read American history, especially about the founding fathers, the establishment of the republic, the debates over the nature of the American system, and the Civil War. And finally the history of slavery and the modern civil rights movement. Among other things, studying the civil rights movement will teach you the potential of protest and organized civil society, and also the limitations of protest.

How is freedom won? How is freedom kept? Who are its enemies? How have they gained power? How can their rule be undermined and overthrown? Much of this will be learned on the job. But an intellectual grounding is essential as well.

What should such young people expect their lives to be like?

A thick skin and the ability to withstand a lot of frustration are essential. Because there are going to be times, like now, when setbacks come like clockwork and gains are few.

When I was at RFE/RL, my exile colleagues sent broadcasts day in and out to their audience back home. Year after year, decade after decade passed, and it seemed that nothing was happening to encourage optimism, that the status quo might last forever.

At the same time, our work can be highly enriching. You meet dissidents, leaders of the democratic opposition from countries under repressive conditions, and they can be unforgettable. And if you work for Freedom House, you’ll have the experience of your analysis being quoted in the Economist or the Washington Post—about Hungary slipping into the Partly Free category or the reasons why the United States has suffered the worst decline among established democracies. Or you’ll hear how important your work has been from protest leaders in Belarus, or the families of imprisoned Uighur scholars, or leading figures in Taiwan’s impressive democracy.

Minsk Belarus Lukashenka protests 2020
Protest in Minsk, Belarus against Lukashenka's 2020 presidential election win | Image credit: Hairem / Shutterstock

Several years ago we had a stream of visitors from Belarus, all very committed to democracy. They were fighting a very tough adversary. Listening to them was an inspiration. But it was also frustrating given the power of President Lukashenka. Democracy’s champions weren’t winning the struggle. They weren’t even making much progress. At the same time, it was important to recognize that because of Freedom House’s credibility, what we said about conditions in Belarus, our scores and ratings for Belarus, had some sort of impact in the world outside Minsk, and that these beleaguered oppositionists gained a measure of solace from our work. All this made an affiliation with Freedom House worthwhile. And now, perhaps some of this work is playing a modest role in inspiring the new possibilities for change.

Freedom House is not a nine-to-five job. It is much better than a nine-to-five job.

Arch Puddington

The Arch Puddington Fund for Combating Authoritarianism

The Puddington Fund will allow Freedom House to carry on Arch's work by pursuing innovative research and advocacy on the greatest challenges to freedom around the world.