Robert H. Jackson, Chief Prosecutor for the United States

Robert H. Jackson was a Justice of the United States Supreme Court when President Truman appointed him in 1945, at the end of World War II, to serve as chief prosecutor for the U.S. in the trial of top Nazi leaders to be held in the bombed-out city of Nuremberg, Germany.  It was in Nuremberg that Hitler had taken critical early steps in his rise to absolute power.  Justice Jackson played a leading role the course of the trial, and many of the findings and conclusions in the Tribunal’s Final Judgment reflect points that Jackson made in his opening statement and at other times.  The Tribunal, consisting of one judge each from the U.S., the U.K., the USSR and France, convicted 19 of  22 defendants. Of the 19, 13 were found guilty of Crimes Against Peace, specifically the crime of waging wars of aggression.  Most defendants were also convicted of  War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity.

The following quotations are excerpts from documents compiled in Justice Jackson’s book, The Nurnberg Case (Knopf, 1947).

“The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.” (Opening Statement, November 21, 1945.)

“What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. They are living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power. They are symbols of fierce nationalisms and of militarism, of intrigue and war-making which have embroiled Europe generation after generation . . .” (Opening Statement.)

“Doubtless what appeals to men of good will and common sense as the crime which comprehends all lesser crimes is the crime of making unjustifiable war.” (Report to President Truman, June 7,1945.)

“War necessarily is a calculated series of killings, of destructions of property, of oppressions. Such acts unquestionably would be criminal except that International Law throws a mantle of protection around acts which otherwise would be crimes, when committed in pursuit of legitimate warfare.” (Report to President Truman.)

“International Law as taught in the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth century generally declared that war-making was not illegal . . . This, however, was a departure from the doctrine taught by Grotius, the father if International Law, that there is a distinction between the just and the unjust war – the war of defense and the war of aggression.” (Report to President Truman.)

“After the shock to civilization of the [First] World War, . . . a marked reversion to the earlier and sounder doctrines of International Law took place. By the time the Nazis came to power it was thoroughly established that launching an aggressive war . . . was illegal . . . It is high time we act on the juridical principle that aggressive war-making is illegal and criminal.” (Report to President Truman.)

“The precise limits of [the defendants’] ambition we need not define for it was and is as illegal to wage aggressive war for small stakes as for large ones.” (Opening Statement.)

“The re-establishment of the principle that there are unjust wars and that unjust wars are illegal is traceable in many steps. One of the most significant is the [Kellogg-Briand] Pact of 1928 by which Germany, Italy, and Japan, in common with practically all the nations of the world, renounced war as an instrument of national policy . . .” (Opening Statement.)

“Any resort to war – to any kind of a war – is a resort to means that are inherently criminal. . . An honestly defensive war is, of course, legal . . . But inherently criminal acts cannot be defended by showing that those who committed them were engaged in a war, when war itself is illegal.” (Opening Statement.)

“The ultimate step in avoiding periodic wars, which are inevitable in a system of international lawlessness, is to make statesmen responsible to law. And let me make clear that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment.” (Opening Statement.)

“The real complaining party at your bar is Civilization.” (Opening Statement.)