Press release

Remembering Leonard R. Sussman, Former Freedom House Executive Director

Freedom House mourns the death of Leonard R. Sussman, who led Freedom House for 21 years. 


Freedom House mourns the death of Leonard R. Sussman, who as executive director of Freedom House established the organization’s signature report on the state of world freedom.  Sussman, 94, died March 29 at his home in Craftsbury, Vermont.  

“Leonard was a vital, important figure in promoting democracy and fundamental human rights,” said Mark P. Lagon, president of Freedom House. “He was involved in the creation of important instruments and ideas behind democracy promotion:  the use of scholarly research to highlight threats to freedom, and democracy assistance as an integral part of American foreign policy.”

Sussman was executive director of Freedom House from 1967 to 1988, a period of significant growth for the organization. He was the driving force behind the creation of Freedom in the World, the survey of political rights and civil liberties that has been issued annually by Freedom House since its introduction in 1972.  Freedom in the World was the first serious measurement of global freedom and remains the most widely-cited and influential report of its type.  

Sussman was also a leading figure in promoting press freedom, writing widely on its history and developing Freedom House’s annual global survey, Freedom of the Press.   

He served as the United States representative to UNESCO at its annual conference in 1983.  He played a leading role in the struggle to prevent multilateral institutions, especially UNESCO, from adopting a global communications policy that Sussman and other press freedom advocates saw as a potential form of international censorship. The concept, formally known as the New World Information and Communication Order, failed to gain passage at UNESCO, in large part due to the efforts of Sussman and other anti-censorship advocates. 

“Leonard was a militant on the subject of censorship and press freedom,” said Arch Puddington, Freedom House vice president for research.  “He was especially sensitive to the kind of sophistry that invoked curbs on information or ideas as steps towards peace and international harmony. Leonard invariably recognized such arguments as justifications for intellectual suppression.” 

During his tenure as Executive Director for Freedom House, he involved the organization in causes that defined the era, including Poland’s Solidarity movement, the efforts of Soviet dissidents to challenge their government, the struggle against South Africa’s apartheid system, and the fight for democracy in Chile, Argentina, and other South American countries. Under his leadership, the organization consistently supported the democratic opposition in countries under authoritarian rule, from Chile to East Germany to South Korea.  

After hiring Ludmilla Thorne, who had wide-ranging contacts with the dissident community, Sussman also made Freedom House a center for work on behalf of Soviet dissidents.  Thorne later launched a project to gain the release of Soviet POWs who had been captured by the Afghan mujahidin, whom she brought to the United States under Freedom House auspices.  

Under his leadership, Freedom House also undertook an advocacy campaign to encourage Congress and successive presidents to integrate democracy promotion policies into the United States’ broad foreign policy goals.  Sussman was among a group of democracy promotion supporters who publicly urged the creation of a formal democracy assistance institution, which emerged with the establishment of the National Endowment for Democracy in the mid-1980s.  

Sussman was the author of numerous books, including three on press freedom themes. Freedom House honored him in 2014 with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

His family has announced that a memorial service will be held in New York at a future date.