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The third United Nations Assembly, at the close of which, on Dec. 10, 1948, was adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris.Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
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The End of the World That 1948 Made

Seven decades later there are still lessons to be learned about history, politics, and human nature from that pivotal year

Yehudah Mirsky
January 02, 2019
Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
The third United Nations Assembly, at the close of which, on Dec. 10, 1948, was adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris.Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

The span of our life is but seventy … (Psalms 90:10)

2018 was, on top of everything else, one long procession of 70th anniversaries of the raft of monumental events of 1948. Those 70-year-old decisions were critical in creating the historical reality we have been living in for two generations, and, taken together, they comprise a set of ideas about what it takes to make a decent, livable world. Looking at those anniversaries together helps us better understand how and why that world is now coming apart, and what it might take to put at least some of it back together, and maybe even move forward.

1948 saw the creation of Israel; the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention; the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade; the Berlin airlift and the desegregation of the U.S. military.

Each one of these events was a different facet of the Herculean postwar efforts to create a new global structure that would not only overcome, if such a thing were possible, the horrors of the Second World War but also hopefully prevent the Third. And each expressed a different, large idea—sometimes hanging together in a common and reinforcing framework, while at times pulling one another apart.

Let’s start with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, enacted at year’s end, on Dec. 10, 1948. At its heart, the declaration enshrines the individual human being. By its terms, each and every person is meant and entitled to be free and secure in their own bodies and minds, as sovereign states are free and secure in theirs. This basic sovereignty of the individual over their own life and conscience necessarily entails, in turn, a string of rights of speech, association, religion and more.

The Genocide Convention, by contrast, speaks on behalf, not of individuals, but of groups. The convention, enacted two days before the declaration, on Dec. 9, declares as a matter of law that the destruction of groups is, among the many forms of collective violence undertaken by states, uniquely awful, illegitimate and no act of state, but a crime.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention share the conviction, born out by the horrors of World War II, that there must be limits imposed on what states are allowed to do. But while the declaration goes wide, announcing a series of individual rights (and presumably, for states, obligations) the convention in effect says “let’s focus on this one uniquely modern horror and take it off the table, not by declaration, but by law.”

While the declaration and convention share a great suspicion of states, the postwar partitions, first in the South Asian subcontinent in 1947, and then the Middle East in 1948, by contrast, positively affirmed, not only the idea of statehood, but of the nation-state. Both partition efforts, of Israel/Palestine and India/Pakistan, reflected the idea that nation-states were a just and effective answer to protecting the rights of persecuted religious and ethnic minorities hitherto at the mercies of whichever state’s boundaries they happened to find themselves in.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which went into force on Jan. 1, 1948, proceeded from the recognition that societies do not live by values, group belonging, or ethnic and religious ties, alone. The ways in which we satisfy material needs through exchange of goods and services decisively shape our world; and open trade, the thinking went, would foster cooperation, create an economic bloc that would compete with Soviet totalitarianism, and sooner or later lead the world over to open societies.

But all these arrangements—moral, political, legal, economic—depended, as all high-minded principles do, on the willingness of those who hold them to uphold their most basic precepts, which, when the going gets rough, inevitably requires the use of force.

So it was that when, on June 24, 1948, Soviet forces blockaded the parts of Berlin under Allied control in order to forestall the emergence of an independent West Germany, the U.S. and U.K. began a massive airlift. It continued until the spring of 1949 when the Soviet blockade ended and NATO was created. Harry Truman, then the commander in chief of the American military, which then as now formed the backbone of NATO, understood that it would be a cruel and self-defeating joke to preach freedom abroad while denying it at home. And so on July 26, 1948, Truman signed Executive Order 9981 ending segregation in the American Armed Forces.

Taken together, these decisions of 1948 yielded the building blocks of an international order arranged, on the Western side of the Iron Curtain and that bloc’s allies, by nation-states organized along the lines of national, ethnic and religious identities, where goods trade freely across borders, basic norms safeguard the well-being of minority groups, and of individuals, irrespective of their group identity or whether they belonged to any group at all. While not every state adhered to this model, those that did were committed to enforcing it; when necessary by force.

That, in outline, is the essential worldview emerging from the anniversaries of 1948 and the argument for that vision’s preservation. This is what we mean when we talk about the liberal international order now so desperately under siege. The reality, of course, has been far, far messier, from the beginning. Not only because the Soviets worked overtime to undermine this order, and managed to become patrons and shapers of decolonization, but because structural tensions within these foundational postwar ideas were, to borrow a line from one of their key advocates, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, present at the creation.

First, and most obviously, the boundaries of those nation-states and the congruence of those bodies with the people making up those national groups is by no means a given. The bitter and continuing conflicts arising from the creation of Israel and of India and Pakistan, and the displacement and suffering those partitions caused, painfully show how difficult it is to line up the tangles of memory, history, religion, and culture, with the neat borders of statehood.

Second, frictionless trade is of course more easily said than done. The inhumanly cool logic of rational utility maximizing and reaping profit is regularly in tension with the political imperatives of states, foreign and domestic, and the needs of human beings for thicker, more blood-and-bone kinds of belonging than trade blocs and regulatory bureaucracies can bring.

Third, the very ideas of human rights for individuals on the one hand, and group rights on the other can pull against one another. Who decides who is out of the group and who is in? Who decides when individuals can override a group, when they must they submit to it, and how? What happens when furthering individual freedoms seems to run counter to long-held moral principles and understanding holding society together?

The discrepancy between the abstract legal formulations of human rights and anti-genocide campaigns and actual practices on the ground can be a spur to change for the better as it was for racially segregated America. But that split can also hollow those concepts out, turning them into weapons of conflict, into cruel empty jokes, or, as so often happens at the United Nations, both.

At a practical level, universal human rights crucially depend on the political wills of states–not their decisions about how many covenants and protocols they sign, but about the domestic political and legal orders they keep.

And, of course, at the end of the day, the whole structure, international as it aimed to be, depended on American power, both military and diplomatic, hard and soft, and the willingness and credibility to use it. That credibility took body blows in Vietnam, and after recovery, sank again in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Forty-one years after 1948, the Berlin Wall fell and the self-evident truth and worth of the underlying ideas of the postwar order seemed to Western opinion plain to see and unstoppable. Even those of us who said that, of course, Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis was wrong, had a hard time imagining what came next. Samuel Huntington’s idea of “clash of civilizations” attempted the largest pushback and dose of cold water in Western discussions, but his wedging together the very disparate civilizations of Hinduism, Confucianism, and Islam (not to mention using the slightly arch and archaic term “civilization”) lent itself to seeing his theory as offering less a warning than a call to arms.

Today as the wheels are coming off all over, we need to examine what aspects of the world of 1948 are still working and where it has gone wrong. Then we can ask to what extent the various parts of 1948 need to come as a package and, if they can they be separated from each other—how?

But we also need to ask something else, and ask it hard: What is it that we failed to understand, what are the realities to which we blinded ourselves? It’s a question that will take decades to answer but I think we can point to several sets of errors. This list is not exhaustive, but you have to start somewhere.

First, we assumed that people all over the world want the same things; that mix of individual, civil and political freedom plus regulated free market capitalism characteristic of America and the states of Western Europe. Relatedly, we believed that when pressed to choose between prosperity and freedom, people everywhere would choose freedom. Moreover, we thought that one couldn’t go without the other, an error that China is proving more and more wrong with each passing day.

Second, we thought human rights and nationalism were antithetical and that promoting the former meant pushing back on the latter. The architects of the world of 1948 understood better. As historian James Loeffler has shown in his remarkable new book, Rooted Cosmopolitans, so many key figures in the human rights revolution of midcentury were not only Jews but Zionists. For them, an international regime of protecting individual human rights as well as nation-states for persecuted minorities were both necessary to overcome the Holocaust’s ghastly trauma of statelessness. The deep structural suspicion of the idea of state sovereignty woven into the human rights framework, it seems, has unwittingly fostered the legalistic abstraction and airy disregard for political realities that has made that framework such a supple tool in the hands of dictators who couldn’t care less.

Third, we assumed that with proper incentives greed and competition could be channeled towards the common good. Not that human nature could be changed, as Marx thought, but that human nature’s darker sides could themselves serve society, per the ideas of Adam Smith. The exuberant celebrants of free market capitalism conveniently forgot Smith’s addendum that the invisible hand of capitalism will run amok without the equally invisible but no less important heart of beneficence and justice. The darker angels of our nature are real and need to be reckoned with.

Fourth, we underestimated the role of religion not only in people’s lives but in human rights and liberalism’s own foundations. Religion is about the search for the absolute and how that ultimate truth shapes what it means fully to be human. Liberalism and human rights are understood by many people in different ways, but there is no denying they make serious claims about the ultimacy of human dignity, so ultimate that there are certain things that no state, or collective body of any kind, can do to harm human dignity. (Samuel Moyn, perhaps today’s preeminent historian of human rights, has shown just how much of our human rights concepts were rooted in mid-20th century Catholicism.) And not only among Catholics, as the connections between religion and liberalism were plain to see in the work of Martin Luther King, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Fifth—and ringing it all together—whatever concrete political and economic objectives nationalism, populism, and authoritarianism aim to reach, they are also, for their adherents, searches for meaning. In pretending that they are nothing but systems of oppression or bundles of grievances, liberalism has done itself no favors. Not least because it is, in its way, and no matter how much the seemingly value-neutral ethos of free markets tries to turn choices into preferences, a search for meaning too.

There is no simple return to the world of 1948. Nor should there be. But taking the measure of the vision that animated that remarkable postwar year will help us better understand what is coming apart now and how and what we must rebuild. Perhaps the first thing it teaches us is that there is no magic bullet, no elusive international consensus, no escape from human capacities for greed, violence, and hatred. There is finally no way to combat those ills but through principled commitment to benevolence and justice, and to the grimy work of politics.

Yehudah Mirsky is a former US State Department official. He teaches Judaic and Israel Studies at Brandeis University, and is the author of Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution. His twitter feed is @YehudahMirsky.

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