Primary Sources

Reagan's Support for Human Rights


By the summer of 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev's reform policies, glasnost' (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), had begun to change the political landscape of the Soviet Union. When President Ronald Reagan visited Moscow in the summer of 1988 for a political summit, he gave a series of speeches applauding the progress of Soviet reforms but also demanding further achievements. In this speech to a group of Soviet political dissidents, President Reagan presented the three most important human rights for future progress: freedoms of religion, speech, and travel. In each case, Reagan pointed to the inclusion of these freedoms in the Helsinki Declaration, which the Soviet Union had signed in 1975. In this way, the President was not asking for innovations in the Soviet Union, but instead calling for Soviet compliance with a longstanding international treaty.


Ronald Reagan, "Remarks to Soviet Dissidents at Spaso House," Moscow, Soviet Union, May 30, 1988, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Public Papers, Reagan Library (accessed May 15, 2008).

Primary Source—Excerpt

In one capacity, of course, I speak as a head of government. The United States views human rights as fundamental, absolutely fundamental to our relationship with the Soviet Union and all nations. From the outset of our administration, we've stressed that an essential element in improving relations between the United States and the Soviet Union is human rights and Soviet compliance with international covenants on human rights. There have been hopeful signs; indeed, I believe this a hopeful time for your nation.

Over the past 3 years more than 300 political and religious prisoners have been released from labor camps. Fewer dissidents and believers have been put in prisons and mental hospitals. And in recent months, more people have been permitted to emigrate or reunite with their families. The United States applauds these changes, yet the basic standards that the Soviet Union agreed to almost 13 years ago in the Helsinki accords, or a generation ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, still need to be met. If I may, I'd like to share with you the main aims of our human rights agenda during this summit meeting here in Moscow.

Freedom of religion—in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.'' I'm hopeful the Soviet Government will permit all the peoples of the Soviet Union to worship their creator as they themselves see fit, in liberty.

Freedom of speech—again in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression." It is my fervent hope for you and your country that there will soon come a day when no one need fear prison for offenses that involve nothing more than the spoken or written word.

Freedom of travel—I've told the General Secretary how heartened we are that during the past year the number of those permitted to emigrate has risen. We're encouraged as well that the number of those permitted to leave for short trips, often family visits, has gone up. And yet the words of the Universal Declaration go beyond these steps: "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his own country." It is our hope that soon there will be complete freedom of travel.

How to Cite this Source

President Ronald Reagan, "Reagan's Support for Human Rights," Making the History of 1989, Item #67, (accessed October 20 2021, 6:23 am).

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