When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech on “unalienable human rights” on Thursday, he made sure to wade into the so-called culture wars his boss frequently harps on, blasting protesters for tearing down statues and criticizing an expansive New York Times project on slavery for espousing a “Marxist ideology” and “dark vision of America’s birth.”
The New York Times ’ “1619 Project,” which examines the role of slavery in U.S. history, was not the central focus of his speech, nor of the new draft report that his controversial Commission on Unalienable Rights produced.
But his comments have sparked fresh debate and criticism among diplomats who continue to raise alarm bells over long-standing issues of systemic racism and diversity challenges in the State Department. Five officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity described a reaction of shock and fury.
“Pompeo made it very clear where he stands and reaffirmed the purpose of the commission by denigrating the movement for equal justice and the call for racial reckoning and healing in America,” said one State Department official. “Everyone that I have spoken with is horrified and disgusted by the commission, his press conference, and (the) attack on 1619,” said the official.
“Every public appearance since George Floyd’s murder has been to shore up the admin(istration)’s position, no matter how inappropriate the venue,” said another.
These officials described portions of Pompeo’s remarks as unusual for a secretary of state, and they perceived it as a domestic political stump speech aimed at rallying President Donald Trump’s base ahead of the November election. (Pompeo spent Friday in Iowa in closed-door meetings with local officials and was scheduled to give a speech at the Family Leaders Summit.)
“The New York Times’ ‘1619 Project’—so named for the year that the first slaves were transported to America—wants you to believe that our country was founded for human bondage,” Pompeo said in his speech in Philadelphia on Thursday. “They want you to believe that America’s institutions continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding.”
“They want you to believe that Marxist ideology that America is only the oppressors and the oppressed. The Chinese Communist Party must be gleeful when they see the New York Times spout this ideology,” he added. “This is a dark vision of America’s birth. I reject it. It’s a disturbed reading of history. It is a slander on our great people.”
The “1619 Project,” published in August 2019, is an award-winning historical analysis of how slavery drove and shaped the United States. The project immediately sparked debate among historians, some of whom lauded the efforts as a sorely needed reappraisal of American history. It also prompted backlash from some historians and conservative scholars who characterized it as a cynical and incomplete version of America’s history.
Pompeo’s comments drew swift condemnation from many within the State Department, including from many diplomats of color, just as the department was emerging from difficult internal conversations about its own issues with racism.
“In order for something to be slander, the statement has to be false. Just because the truths outlined in the ‘1619 Project’ may be tough for some people to swallow doesn’t make them any less true,” said a third State official.
“The Secretary drew a sharp distinction between the view of the 1619 Project—that America was founded on repression—and his own view that America, uniquely, was founded on a then-new conception of universal unalienable human rights,” a State Department spokeswoman told Foreign Policy by email.
“Secretary Pompeo is fully committed to building a diverse and inclusive workforce representative of America’s devotion to the principle of equal opportunity. This commitment to diversity and inclusion reflects the Department’s professional ethos.”
Pompeo established the Commission on Unalienable Rights a year ago, hoping the commission and newly unveiled draft report would help influence U.S. and international policies on fundamental human rights, at a time when U.S. soft power is wilting around the world. Some human rights groups and other scholars have been critical of the endeavor, arguing it was surreptitiously trying to narrow down how the U.S. government defines fundamental human rights with an eye toward excluding LGBTQ and sexual and reproductive rights.
The public will have two weeks to offer comment to the commission on the draft report before it is finalized.
Pompeo’s defenders say the commission will help policymakers better understand the country’s founding principles and, in their minds, counter the growing narrative that the United States’ human rights track record is comparable to autocracies and other nondemocratic regimes.
“If American history is reducible to racism, and the principles of the Declaration of Independence are simply high-toned hypocrisy, why should other countries pay attention to U.S. human-rights advocacy?” wrote the scholar Walter Russell Mead in a Wall Street Journal op-ed defending the commission.
Pompeo’s Democratic critics, meanwhile, saw his speech as a sign that Trump was using his top diplomat to sow division amid an uphill reelection battle.
“Everyone who works for Trump is under instructions to ramp up the culture war,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Foreign Policy in an interview. “I think Secretary Pompeo has been a loyal servant of Donald Trump for his entire tenure and he is following instructions.”
The State Department declined repeatedly to say whether Pompeo had read the “1619 Project.”
Update, July 17, 2020: This article was updated to add further comment from a State Department official.