After a stint in the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he served in India as a staff sergeant, in 1946 Bernstein went to work at publisher Simon & Schuster — as a junior office boy. After learning the trade over the next 10 years he moved to Random House, where he rose to succeed founding publisher Bennett Cerf: as President of the company in 1966, CEO in 1967, and Chairman in 1975. In 1973, Bernstein was invited to be part of a delegation from the Association of American Publishers to travel to the Soviet Union. There, he met with the Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov, a nuclear physicist who campaigned for disarmament, peace, and human rights. Bernstein learned that many top international authors were being held back by their governments, so Bernstein published Sakharov Speaks in 1974, bringing much more attention to the dissident, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.
To keep things going, Bernstein founded the Fund for Free Expression, a group of writers, editors, publishers, and attorneys concerned with human rights abuses, which helped other dissident authors’ works reach international audiences, including Czech Václav Havel, Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman, and Wei Jingsheng of China — all of whom Bernstein published. Bernstein then founded Helsinki Watch in 1978 to monitor the Soviet Union’s compliance with the Helsinki Accords. Americas Watch followed in 1981 to monitor Central America. Then there was Asia Watch (1985), Africa Watch (1988), and Middle East Watch (1989), but by then it was clearly better to have one organization than scores with similar missions, so the various “Watch Committees” were joined together into Human Rights Watch in 1988, which continues today to oppose violations of human rights. When Bernstein retired from Random House in 1989 he became Chairman of Human Rights Watch, retiring from that in 1998. “Bob Bernstein thought big,” said Human Rights Watch’s executive director, Jeri Laber, herself a writer who helped Bernstein form the organization. “He believed that private citizens could take on entrenched dictatorships and get them to change their ways.” Bernstein’s memoir, Speaking Freely: My Life in Publishing and Human Rights, was published in 2016, and he died in Manhattan on May 26, at 96.