"I see Carter as a watershed moment in the evolution of the human rights movement. He didn't invent human rights, but he made that arguably the centerpiece of his effort to redefine U.S. foreign policy."

Anyone old enough to remember Jimmy Carter's presidency probably has an opinion on it. Revered for bringing peace to the forefront of the nation's agenda - he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 - and ridiculed as a sweater-wearing wimp who encouraged energy conservation, Carter capitalized on growing worldwide concern about human rights. After three decades of Cold War policies that attempted to eradicate communism at any price, the mid-1970s saw a shift in U.S. strategy.

"I see Carter as a watershed moment in the evolution of the human rights movement," says Assistant Professor of History William Michael Schmidli. "He didn't invent human rights, but he made that arguably the centerpiece of his effort to redefine U.S. foreign policy." Three decades of efforts to contain Soviet expansion, Schmidli argues, resulted in the United States talking about democracy and individual rights at the same time it was supporting repressive regimes. In Argentina, for example, an estimated 30,000 people were killed by the U.S.-backed military dictatorship, Schmidli says. He is writing a history of Cold War policy toward Argentina, considering perspectives from the United States, Argentina and transnational human rights advocates, such as Amnesty International, and others.

Schmidli has loved history ever since his childhood dream was to be a Civil War re-enactor — a phase he outgrew long ago — but one personal experience cemented his passion for understanding U.S. foreign policy. Before entering graduate school, Schmidli taught at a bilingual school in Honduras. One weekend, his fellow teachers arranged a bus trip to the village of El Mozote, El Salvador, which was the site of the 1981 massacre of 800 villagers by U.S.-trained El Salvadoran soldiers.

A young boy, perhaps 8 years old, gave the teachers a tour of his hometown, pointing out bullet holes and the church that was burned with women and children inside. At the end of the tour, the boy dug in the dirt, then offered what looked like a small stick to Schmidli. The "stick" was a huesito — a small bone fragment from one of the massacred.

 "It was one of those moments where you don't have that academic wall where you can say, 'I'm going to intellectualize this.' You are forced to really engage it on its terms," Schmidli says. "That is really what nailed it for me. From that point on, I was really just thinking about understanding more clearly the Cold War in the Third World, the U.S., and the relationship with American traditional values."

Schmidli's work stems from a love of his country. "I'm a very strong believer in the U.S. as sort of sitting on a hill as a beacon of liberty, but I think that telling these stories is a way for us to reflect and hopefully move closer to realizing those ideals," he says. "I see myself as part of that tradition of raising the warning flags in the attempt to better ourselves and our nation."

Posted Sept. 22, 2009

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