OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Sarah B. Snyder

Portrait of Sarah B. Snyder

Sarah B. Snyder is a historian of U.S. foreign relations who specializes in the history of the Cold War, human rights activism, and U.S. human rights policy. She is the author of two award-winning books. From Selma to Moscow: How Human Rights Activists Transformed U.S. Foreign Policy (2018) explains how transnational connections and 1960s-era social movements inspired Americans to advocate for a new approach to human rights. Her first book, Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network (2011), analyzes the development of a transnational network devoted to human rights advocacy and its contributions to the end of the Cold War. She is also the co-editor with Nicolas Badalassi of The CSCE and the End of the Cold War: Diplomacy, Societies and Human Rights, 1972-1990 (2018). In addition to authoring several chapters in edited collections, she has also published articles in Diplomatic History, Cold War History, Human Rights Quarterly, Diplomacy & Statecraft, Journal of Transatlantic Studies, European Journal of Human Rights and Journal of American Studies. She previously served as a Lecturer at University College London and as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Throughout its history, the U.S. government has been largely consistent in minimizing attention to human rights concerns in its policy formulation. The two exceptions to this low level interest have come when championing human rights aligned with the government’s existing foreign priorities or when nongovernmental activists successfully pressured branches of the U.S. government to take human rights violations into greater account. The talk analyzes six distinct periods of U.S. attention to human rights since 1945 and reveals the means by which activists can shape government policy.
In this lecture, Snyder examines how 1960s-era social movements and experiences abroad spurred Americans to become active on human rights violations in the Soviet Union, Greece, South Korea, Southern Rhodesia, and Chile. Their efforts fundamentally altered U.S. foreign policy, and we live with the legacies of their activism today.
Snyder answers the question, how did the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which was a voluntary agreement quickly dismissed by many international participants and commentators, come to play such an influential role in the end of the Cold War? She shows how several structural aspects of the document led to its surprising strength, and a number of developments in the years that followed fostered a process that offered opportunities to use the Helsinki Final Act to realize change in Europe.
This lecture will show that the traditional distinction between official and unofficial diplomats misses the complex roles that American expatriates play in their host communities. It explores the ways Americans living abroad enhance, muddle, and damage the United States’ relations with foreign governments and their peoples. Private Americans living abroad influence U.S. foreign relations in myriad ways, including serving as informal diplomats to foreign communities, serving as resources for U.S. officials, and even precipitating diplomatic crises. American expatriates can enhance American “soft power” in a country, particularly by offering access to advanced medical care, specialized training, and English-language lessons. When they are kidnapped, murdered, or arrested, however, these Americans can shape U.S. foreign policy in unexpected and potentially damaging ways. Snyder will describe the broad history of Americans living overseas through deep research that reveals the distinctiveness of individuals’ experiences and their significance for U.S. foreign policy.
The lecture makes American expatriates and their significance to U.S. foreign policy and American society more visible to broader audiences. Through the construction of formal and informal communities abroad, Americans have retained and potentially even strengthened their national identity through, among other ways, continuing to use English in many of their daily interactions. By studying the geography of American communities overseas, Snyder sheds more light on the elasticity of Americans’ identity, the parameters of citizenship, and other measures of belonging.