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The Papers of George Lister: "Mr Human Rights"

  The Papers of George Lister > Cold War Diplomacy Before the Bureau

Cold War Diplomacy

Before the Bureau

George Lister's anti-Communist credentials were solid and were connected to his diplomatic strategies during the Cold War. Lister began his career at the State Department in 1941, the same year the U.S. entered World War II and long before the institutionalization of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. Lister joined the State Department before both the formation of the United Nations (1945) and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

Lister's training and field experience were focused on fighting the Cold War and the Soviet threat, not on human rights. In 1945, after four years of serving as a relatively low-level bureaucrat in Colombia, Lister was selected for the Foreign Service. His first assignments were in Eastern Europe, where he became schooled in Russian, Polish, Soviet area studies, and Cold War diplomacy.

Understanding the Soviet way of life and attempting to exploit it to the advantage of the U.S. was one of Lister's primary aims throughout the Cold War. In 1953, he wrote a paper as a part of his Foreign Area Specialist Training Program on Russia entitled, ''How Soviet Careers are Made or What Makes Ivan Run,'' which concludes with a discussion of the importance of understanding the ''average Soviet success story,'' in part because ''it would bring greater awareness and clearer perception in the Free World of the very real threat to what we loosely call Western Civilization which is inherent in the Soviet system and which requires that that system be opposed with all possible speed and force.''

Lister's anti-Communism did not fully define him. As the Cold War progressed, Lister began to part ways with those who failed to distinguish between Communism and the democratic left. In particular, he believed that equating all leftist movements with Communism would ultimately have the effect of increasing Soviet power. Lister's fondness for the democratic left seemed to be guided both by Cold War strategy and a true admiration for and belief in the importance of the democratic way of life.

Between 1957 and 1961, Lister served as the First Secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Rome. There he displayed some of the boldest initiative of his career, leading Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., later to call him ''a hero of [the] struggle.'' As Schlesinger recalled, until 1957 the Rome Embassy had avoided contact with the Italian Socialist Party, which was loosely aligned with the Italian Communist Party. But Lister, who was aware ''of the vast differences between democratic socialism and totalitarian communism,'' believed that by building relationships with democratic elements in the Socialist Party, the U.S. could help to isolate the Communists.

Initially with embassy approval, Lister developed an extensive network of Socialist contacts in Italy. However, when a new Deputy Chief of Mission ordered Lister to cease contact with the Socialists, Lister declined to do so, which led both to a commendation and a recommendation of termination. W. Averell Harriman, who had visited the U.S. Embassy in 1961 as Roving Ambassador, helped save Lister's job after claiming that ''the only officer in the Rome Embassy who understood the Communist problem was George Lister.''

Lister carried his skepticism of blanket anti-Communism and his support for democracy to his work on Latin America, the region on which he focused after moving back to Washington in 1962. In 1966, he published a pamphlet in Spanish, entitled ''¿una politica anticomunista estéril?'' (with an English translation entitled ''U.S. Foreign Policy: Sterile Anti-Communism?'') in which he attempted to dispel the notion that the U.S. government's approach to Communism was ''sterile.'' In doing so, he argued that ''the United States Government is motivated by a clear and positive democratic ideology.'' ''True democracy,'' he continued, ''means economic and social democracy as well as political democracy,'' insisting that the U.S. was ''not trying to impose a way of life, a political dictatorship, or an economic blueprint on other countries.''

Lister was working on and writing and speaking about Latin America at a time when the Alliance for Progress, initiated by President Kennedy in 1961, was in full swing. Lister's various presentations to Latin American audiences of the time spoke about economic and social issues-from poverty, lack of educational resources, and concerns about the roles of U.S. companies in Latin America-as well as democracy and right-wing dictatorships.

When the human rights bureaucracy began to develop in the 1970s and the concern turned more centrally to the violence caused by right-wing governments, some of the economic and social issues seemed to take a back seat. As other parts of this web site demonstrate, civil and political rights became the central focus of human rights legislation and of the bureaucracy that eventually formed in the State Department.

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