Our History | Freedom House

Our History

Freedom House was established in 1941 in New York City. Its creation was a result of a merger of two groups that had been formed, with the quiet encouragement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to encourage popular support for American involvement in World War II at a time when isolationist sentiments were running high in the United States.

From the beginning, Freedom House was notable for its bipartisan character. Its founders were a diverse group of prominent and influential Americans: journalists, business and labor leaders, academics, and former government officials. A key figure among its early leaders was Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential nominee in 1940. Eleanor Roosevelt was also an ardent supporter and served, along with Willkie, as the organization’s first honorary co-chair.

Having been created in response to the threat of one great totalitarian evil, Nazism, Freedom House took up the struggle against the other great twentieth century totalitarian threat, Communism, after the end of World War II. The organization's leadership rightly believed that the spread of democracy was the best weapon against totalitarian ideologies. Freedom House embraced as its mission the expansion of freedom around the world and the strengthening of human rights and civil liberties here at home. As a result, Freedom House strongly endorsed the post-war Atlantic Alliance, as well as such key policies and institutions as the Marshall Plan and NATO.

Since its founding, Freedom House has helped shaped the debate on the most pressing issues of its time. It was an aggressive foe of McCarthyism in the 1950s. It was also an early and strong supporter of the movement for racial equality. Throughout its history, Freedom House has included among its leadership prominent civil rights leaders, most notably Roy Wilkins, the director of the NAACP, and Bayard Rustin, a leading adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the 1970s, Freedom House turned its attention to the erosion of freedom in many parts of the developing world. With Marxist regimes, juntas, and military strongmen holding sway over swathes of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, Freedom House responded with programs that combined research and analysis, advocacy, and on-the-ground involvement in crisis areas.

In 1973, Freedom House launched what is now its flagship publication, Freedom in the World, an annual survey of global political rights and civil liberties. Employing a methodology devised by leading social scientists, the survey analyzes and rates every country in the world on a series of fundamental freedom indicators. Its results always highly anticipated, it provides policymakers, journalists, and the public a comprehensive view of the global state of freedom.

During that same period, Freedom House was involved in the defense of Andrei Sakharov and other Soviet dissidents. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Freedom House established the Afghanistan Information Center, a clearinghouse for information on the conflict. It was also among the earliest supporters of Poland's Solidarity trade union.

With the end of the Cold War, Freedom House evolved to meet the new challenge of expanding freedom to societies under dictatorship and helping to stabilize free institutions in new, fragile democracies. The 1997 merger with the National Forum Foundation substantially enhanced Freedom House's capacity to conduct on-the-ground projects in fledgling democracies in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. Freedom House assisted these post-Communist societies in the establishment of independent media, independent think tanks, and the core institutions of electoral politics.

Since 2001, Freedom House has established an increasingly global presence through its offices in some of the most difficult regions in the world. Our staff today consists of more than 120 experts and activists, with offices in a dozen countries. From South Africa to Tunisia, Kyrgyzstan to Indonesia, Freedom House has partnered with regional activists in bolstering civil society; worked to support women’s rights; sought justice for victims of torture; defended journalists and free expression advocates; and assisted those struggling to promote human rights in challenging political environments.

Freedom House has also expanded its analysis of various aspects of freedom: the annual Freedom of the Press survey examines global press freedom; Nations in Transit assesses conditions in the post-Communist world; and Countries at the Crossroads surveys governance, corruption, and transparency in sixty critical countries. Freedom House has also published several path-breaking studies including Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, an analysis of gender inequality in the region; Undermining Democracy, examining the methods used by authoritarian governments to subvert democratic standards; Freedom on the Net, a global assessment of internet and digital media; and How Freedom Is Won, identifying the strategies and forces which have most significantly contributed to democratic transitions over the past three decades.

Freedom House is a strong voice for a U.S. foreign policy that places the promotion of democracy as a priority. Its representatives regularly testify before Congress, provide briefings to high level Administration and State Department officials, and argue the case for freedom at conferences, in op-eds, and through media appearances. In 2004, Freedom in the World was chosen as a formal source for the determination of country eligibility for the Millennium Challenge Account, a foreign assistance program designed to provide additional aid to poor countries that, among other criteria, achieve certain democratic standards.

Freedom House continues to serve as a leading advocate for policies to advance the democratic idea. It was a founder of the Community of Democracies, an alliance of global democracies that seeks a greater voice for democracy at the UN and other international forums. It also supports critical reforms of the UN to make its work in human rights and democracy more effective.

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.






November 10, 1941

Freedom House founded by a group of prominent individuals, including journalists, scholars, political figures, and labor leaders. Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie serve as honorary co-chairpersons.

June 1942

Freedom House sends first appeal to President Roosevelt urging action against the Nazis for the "tragic increase in the brutalities perpetuated against the people of occupied Europe"


Freedom House Chairman William Agar proposes a formula for creating an enlarged UN and urges the formation of a commission on human rights to frame an international bill of human rights for all members of the UN


Freedom House urges NY Governor Dewey to take steps to combat discrimination by establishing a state university that would "accept all qualified students regardless of race, color or place of habitation"

December 10, 1948

The UN General Assembly adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was drafted under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, Freedom House’s first honorary co-chair.



Leo Cherne, an officer of Freedom House debates Senator Joe McCarthy on "Town Meeting On The Air," a popular radio forum, on how to deal with the communist threat

Freedom House issues a statement asserting that McCarthyism has created an "atmosphere of fear and uncertainty" that damages "free expression" in the U.S.


The Balance Sheet of Freedom provides geopolitical assessments of political trends based primarily on anecdotal analysis; the publication continues annually until the introduction of Freedom in the World


Eleanor Roosevelt presents the Freedom House Freedom Award to the Arkansas Gazette for reporting on U.S. civil rights issues

Freedom House sends a letter to Senator Lyndon Johnson supporting his civil rights legislation


Freedom House publishes a New York Times advertisement before the visit of Khrushchev urging citizens to not be naive, uninformed, or easily deceived by the Soviet leader

Freedom House publishes Soviet Crimes: A Chronological Record and Famous Words of Freedom

Freedom House Bookshelf is instituted - a program which will distribute 3 million books over 28 years to citizens in developing countries



Willy Brandt, Mayor of blockaded Berlin, receives the Freedom Award for his resistance to Nazism and Communism


Freedom House publishes What's "Right" and "Left?" which warns both ends of the political spectrum to recognize the dangers to democratic values posed by Fascism, Nazism, and Communism


Freedom House convenes 14 top Asian scholars to discuss issues related to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. The report is seen as "a clear call for moderation," and is said to have helped persuade President Johnson to reduce forces in Vietnam



Freedom House organizes international efforts to form a new organization, the International Council on the Future of the University (ICFU), focused on academic freedom, university governance and the role of universities in democratic societies

First issue of Freedom at Issue (later renamed Freedom Review), a bi-monthly magazine that contains discussions of public policy questions related to freedom


The inaugural publication of the Map of Freedom and the annual survey which becomes Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s flagship publication on the state of freedom


Freedom House is one of the first organizations to call attention to mounting genocide in Cambodia. Board member Leo Cherne unsuccessfully pleads with the UN Human Rights Commission to launch an investigation


Freedom House becomes engaged in the battle against New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO), an attempt within UNESCO by authoritarian regimes to authorize government control over the media

Freedom House representatives travel to South Africa to report on oppression of blacks under apartheid, focusing particularly on black journalists on the frontline of the struggle for equality. Anti-apartheid activist and politician Helen Suzman serves on Freedom House Advisory Board


First publication of Freedom of the Press, a global survey of media independence

Freedom House delegation headed by Trustee Bayard Rustin monitors the first nationwide multiracial elections in then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), pioneering U.S. NGO election monitoring efforts



Freedom House organizes a hearing in Washington D.C. for Andrei Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and other Soviet dissidents to testify about the fate of dissidents under the repressive Soviet system


Freedom House sends representatives across the Pakistan border into Afghanistan to assess and publicize the conditions of the Soviet soldiers being held prisoner. Twenty prisoners are subsequently released to U.S. custody

Freedom House Trustees urge increased funding for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, continuing Freedom House's support for international broadcasting


Freedom Appeals: Documenting the Universal Struggle for Freedom is launched. The publication includes texts written by political prisoners and dissidents whose voices are suppressed in their own countries


Freedom House observes elections in El Salvador, supports continued U.S. assistance, notes human rights abuses but also warns about the long term threat to freedom from communist insurgency


Freedom House sponsors a conference of Latin American leaders in Chile to take steps to open up the political systems in the region. Freedom House’s Executive Director is appointed as the only U.S. citizen to be a member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights


National Forum Foundation (NFF) sponsors only U.S. delegation to observe elections in Poland



NFF/FH brings first group of Visiting Fellows to the U.S. from Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia


The Dalai Lama receives the Freedom Award, a continuation of Freedom House’s relationship with the Tibetan struggle for freedom that began when Freedom House facilitated the Dalai Lama's first trip to the U.S. in the 1980s


Freedom House opens an office in Ukraine to work for free and fair elections and to strengthen civil society


First publication of Nations in Transit, an annual publication tracking democratic development in countries of the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

President Bill Clinton delivers a major address at a Freedom House foreign policy conference

Freedom House Budapest office begins work on cross-border networks to support democratic reform through Central and Eastern Europe and begins Cuba democracy programs to send books, medicine, and experts on democratic transitions to support democracy advocates

The Center for Religious Freedom becomes a self-sustaining division of Freedom House


Freedom House merges with the National Forum Foundation


Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom takes leadership role in pressing for enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act and begins Coalition for Southern Sudan.  In 2005, the Center's leadership in the Coalition for Southern Sudan helps lead to a peace agreement in that region, ending the longest running war in Africa

2000 - present


First Community of Democracies meeting held in Warsaw, Poland; Freedom House cosponsors non-governmental forum with the Stefan Batory Foundation


Freedom House, long active in supporting civil society efforts for democratic reform in Serbia, officially opens office in Belgrade


Freedom House opens offices throughout Central Asia, as well as in Nigeria, Jordan, Tunisia, and Mexico


Freedom House establishes a local non-profit organization in Kyrgyzstan providing a printing press for independent publications throughout Central Asia


First publication of Countries at the Crossroads, a new survey focused on democratic governance and rule of law in select countries

During the Ukrainian elections, Freedom House assists in coordinating the first ever large scale regional civic monitoring effort mobilizing 1000 representatives from reform-oriented monitoring groups


Freedom House's Citizenship and Justice: A Survey of Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa is published

How Freedom is Won, a study showing how nonviolent civil action had fostered successful transitions to democracy over the last three decades, is published


Freedom House sponsors conferences highlighting North Korea's human rights abuses in Washington, DC; Seoul, South Korea; Brussels, Belgium; and Rome, Italy.


Uzbek Court Suspends Freedom House Human Rights Programs in Uzbekistan for six months as part of a broader crackdown on civic activism and non-governmental organizations

Freedom House hosts a speech by President George W. Bush


Freedom House opens a new field office in Southern Africa

The first group of New Generation of Advocate Fellows arrive. The program expands the horizons of young civil society leaders in the Middle East and North Africa by offering visiting fellowships with counterpart organizations in the U.S.

Freedom House releases a report, Supporting Freedom's Advocates, analyzing the Bush Administration’s 2008 budget request for foreign operations and making specific funding recommendations based on urgent needs and opportunities


Freedom House and Human Rights First host a human rights summit bringing together human rights defenders from around the world to develop a Plan of Action to advance global human rights. They meet with President Barack Obama, US policy makers, and influential figures from the world of media, think tanks, universities, NGOs and other activists to shed light on the human rights situation in their own countries


Freedom House calls on President Obama to urge Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down and to urge a quick and peaceful transition to democracy

Freedom House celebrates its 70th anniversary with former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice serving as the honorary co-chairs of its gala dinner. The Freedom Award is given to Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.