“In October of 1946, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio was the chief spokesman for the Republicans in Washington, the champion of his party in the national political arena and the likely Republican nominee for the Presidency in 1948. It was a time when even a Senator with such an established reputation for speaking his mind would have guarded his tongue, and particularly a Senator with so much at stake as Bob Taft…But Senator Taft was disturbed—and when he was disturbed it was his habit to speak out. He was disturbed by the War Crimes Trials of Axis leaders, then concluding in Germany and about to commence in Japan. The Nuremberg Trials…for ‘waging an aggressive war,’ had been popular throughout the world and particularly in the United States…But what kind of trial was this?…The Constitution of the United States was the gospel which guided the policy decisions of the Senator from Ohio. It was his source, his weapon and his salvation. And when the Constitution commanded no ‘ex post facto laws,’ Bob Taft accepted this precept as permanently wise and universally applicable. The Constitution was not a collection of loosely given political promises subject to broad interpretation. It was not a list of pleasing platitudes to be set lightly aside when expediency required it. It was the foundation of the American system of law and justice and he was repelled by the picture of his country discarding those Constitutional precepts in order to punish a vanquished enemy…

These conclusions are shared, I believe, by a substantial number of American citizens today. And they were shared, at least privately, by a goodly number in 1946. But no politician of consequence would speak out…none, that is, but Senator Taft…The Nuremberg Trials were at no time before the Congress for consideration. They were not in any sense an issue in the campaign…To speak out unnecessarily would be politically costly and clearly futile. But Bob Taft spoke out.

Judges sitting in Nuremberg, from left to right: Volchkov, Nikitchenko, Birkett, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence, Biddle, Parker, Donnedieu de Vabres and Falco. On Right: Senator Taft

 

On October 6, 1946, Senator Taft appeared before a conference on our Anglo-American heritage, sponsored by Kenyon College in Ohio…titling his address ‘Equal Justice Under Law,’ Taft cast aside his general reluctance to embark upon startling novel and dramatic approaches.

‘The trial of the vanquished by the victors,’ he told an attentive if somewhat astonished audience, ‘cannot be impartial no matter how it is hedged about with the forms of justice…In these trials we have accepted the Russian idea of the purpose of trials—government policy and not justice—with little relation to Anglo-Saxon heritage. By clothing policy in the forms of legal procedure, we may discredit the whole idea of justice in Europe for years to come. In the last analysis, even at the end of a frightful war, we should view the future with more hope if even our enemies believed that we had treated them justly in our English-speaking concept of law, in the provision of relief and in the final disposal of territory…’

Nuremberg, the Ohio Senator insisted, was a blot on American Constitutional history, and a serious departure from our Anglo-Saxon heritage of fair and equal treatment, a heritage which had rightly made this country respected throughout the world.

‘We can’t even teach our own people the sound principles of liberty and justice,’ he concluded…”

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Learn More About Germany’s War

 

END NOTES

Excerpts are from the book Profiles in Courage by U.S. President John F. Kennedy, New York: Harper & Row, 1961, pp. 215-219.