Biography and History

Freedom House was conceived in 1941 during a discussion between Herbert and Eleanor Agar, Dorothy Thompson, George Field and Ulric Bell, on how to merge several local organizations that were advocating an end to United States isolationism. Field offered a simple solution: house all the organizations in one building. A physical merger would take place, but administratively the organizations would remain separate. Hence on October 31, 1941 Freedom House was officially incorporated in the state of New York as a non-partisan democratic challenge to the Braunhaus in Munich, a center for Nazi propaganda. As stated in its bylaws Freedom House would:

...stand as a symbol and center for the two-fold fight for freedom; to define this two-fold fight both in terms of resisting the totalitarian movement now threatening civilization and in terms of aspirations of all peoples for a world of freedom, peace and security; to promote the concrete application of the principles of freedom and democracy in the everyday affairs of the U.S.A., governmental and otherwise, so that by sacrifice, intelligence and justice this country can be an example in both the present and post-war world of democracy at its best; to encourage all democracies, including captive countries, to look to Freedom House in the U.S.A. as a beacon lighting the struggle for a free world; to act as a headquarters and clearing house for organizations enlisted in the fight for freedom, whether at home or abroad; to disseminate literature bearing on the above aims; and to serve as a coordinating center for such subordinate centers as may be established anywhere, to make the symbolism of Freedom House plain to the world...

From the outset, Freedom House drew upon the resources of its founders. George Field headed the New York chapter of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, Herbert Agar was active in Fight for Freedom, Inc., while Dorothy Thompson was the founder of Ring of Freedom, all of whom served on the original Freedom House Board of Directors. Freedom House acquired a significant number of members when these organizations merged with it administratively in 1942.

The organization maintained an active pace throughout World War II. In its first year alone, it had arranged for more than 200 broadcasts over local radio stations and nation-wide networks; commemorated important anniversaries with various national groups; established a Labor-Industry Relations Bureau; coordinated meetings, exhibits and programs; provided a forum for exiled nationalists; and printed and distributed speeches and pamphlets. It served as a vocal proponent for racial integration of the U.S. armed forces, formal recognition of the Free French, an international commission on human rights, and the formation of the United Nations.

While Freedom House advocated collective social and political activism, it also sought to acknowledge individual contributions to the cause of freedom. The organization chose to honor those who acted on their wisdom and foresight. It bestowed the first Freedom Award in 1943 on journalist Walter Lippmann “for his outstanding clarity and vision in analyzing America's responsibilities toward the world of the future.” It became an annual award whose later recipients included men who jeopardized their lives and careers in the name of freedom. The Freedom Award was discontinued in 1977 only to be revived in 1991.

The organization's activities during World War II would establish its place in the American consciousness, attracting a wide variety of prominent Americans to its causes. Wendell Willkie and Eleanor Roosevelt were members of its board; screen and radio stars, such as Helen Hayes, Burgess Meredith and Tallulah Bankhead participated in its many programs; noted authors penned booklets, pamphlets, speeches and manifestos; and activists and politicians used its members to promote their platforms. Their celebrity provided Freedom House with national and international exposure.

Wendell Willkie's legacy had an enormous impact on the organization. Although he only attended one board meeting before his death in 1944, the board of Freedom House chose to honor him with a memorial. However, the memorial was not without controversy. Executive Secretary George Field suggested the creation of a Willkie Memorial Building, while President Dorothy Thompson was committed to the idea of an international library dedicated to Willkie's memory. The board supported Field's idea, and Thompson resigned as president in protest. The building would embody Willkie's “one world” concept by housing major non-profit organizations concerned with freedom, especially those whose goals were to advance the following objectives:

The Willkie Memorial Building of Freedom House, Inc. located at 20 West 40th Street was formally dedicated in October 1945. Its first occupants included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Anti-Defamation League and Metropolitan Council of B'nai B'rith, Common Council For American Unity, Public Education Association, Citizens' Housing Council of New York, World Student Service Fund, and of course Freedom House. With the establishment and administration of the Willkie Memorial Building, Freedom House was able to fulfill its function as a coordinator, clearing house, and meeting place.

After the defeat of Nazism and Fascism, Freedom House focused its attention on new foreign and domestic threats from the Left and the Right. Specific post-war issues included the reconstruction of Europe, the Marshall plan, control of nuclear arms, withdrawal of colonial powers, U.S. participation in the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, civil rights, and the spread of communism. Through its policy statements, forums, conferences, and publications, the organization helped to frame the national debate on these vital issues. It continued to voice its support and concerns throughout the years on a variety of issues that affected democratic principles and human rights at home and abroad.

The latter half of the 1960s had a pronounced effect on Freedom House, as the board was not immune to the differences dividing the country. Although it released statements supporting U.S. involvement in Vietnam, its board was deeply divided. Internally, an administrative change also altered the dynamics of the organization. George Field, a founding member, retired as its executive director and was replaced by Leonard Sussman. Although Field had selected Sussman as his successor, the two had different approaches to managing the organization. Field continued to serve on the board after his retirement but completely removed himself from the organization in 1970 after numerous disagreements with Sussman. Successive changes in the executive directorship occurred without animosity. Sussman retired in 1988 and was succeeded by R. Bruce McColm, who left in 1993. Replacing him was Adrian Karatnycky, who continues to serve as the organization's president, with Jim Denton becoming the executive director in 1997 when Freedom House merged with the National Forum Foundation.

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the organization continued to provide platforms for the oppressed people of the world and to call attention to decisions that affected U.S. foreign policy and human freedom. During this time, Freedom House also expanded its agenda to include election monitoring, an annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties throughout the world, participation in international controversies regarding the news media, assistance to democratic revolutions in former Communist countries in Eastern Europe, and international democratization training programs.

Source: From the finding aid for MC187

  • George Field Collection of Freedom House Files. 1933-1990 (inclusive), 1941-1969 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC048

    This collection contains George Field's files of the organization Freedom House (1933-1990; Bulk Dates 1941-1969). Freedom House was formed in October 1941 as an organization dedicated to the defense of freedom throughout the world--a cause perceived to be in great danger. Founding members included George Field, Dorothy Thompson, Wendell L. Willkie, Herbert Agar, Herbert Bayard Swope, and Rex Stout. These and other members had been involved in both Fight For Freedom and in the New York Chapter of the Committee to Defend America By Aiding the Allies. Freedom House carried on the spirit of these two organizations by acting as a clearing house of information. Its first agenda was to work, during World War II, to prepare the country for peace, and then after the war to continue to defend peace and freedom throughout the world. Throughout the period from 1941 to 1967 George Field was the Executive Director of Freedom House and was in charge of the day-to-day activities as well as the long-range planning for the organization. These records reflect Field's position in Freedom House during this time. The collection contains only the records that George Field retained from Freedom House, not the official records of the organization. Included in these records are Field's copies of Freedom House meeting minutes, correspondence, newspaper clippings, publications and writings, financial files, legal files, and photographs.

  • Freedom House Records. 1933-2016 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC187

    The Freedom House Records document the organization's activities in advocating freedom and democracy throughout the world. The records provide an invaluable insight into an organization that evolved from an answer to Hitler's Braunhaus to a diligent monitor of freedom worldwide.

  • Freedom House Records. 1933-2016 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC187

    The Freedom House Records document the organization's activities in advocating freedom and democracy throughout the world. The records provide an invaluable insight into an organization that evolved from an answer to Hitler's Braunhaus to a diligent monitor of freedom worldwide.

  • World Press Freedom Committee Records. 1921-2009 (inclusive), 1975-2009 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC241

    The World Press Freedom Committee (1976-2009) was an organization dedicated to monitoring threats to press freedom, focusing on major intergovernmental organizations, especially UNESCO. The WPFC served as a watchdog against limitations on press freedom and provided practical assistance programs to journalists abroad, especially in developing countries, to enable them to establish and maintain a free press. The World Press Freedom Committee Records document the administration and activities of the WPFC for its entire period of operations and include project files, meeting minutes, correspondence, and publications.