Robert H. Jackson
Chief of Counsel for the United States
November 21, 1945
“May it please Your Honors:
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. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason…
In the prisoners’ dock sit twenty-odd broken men. Reproached by the humiliation of those they have led almost as bitterly as by the desolation of those they have attacked, their personal capacity for evil is forever past. It is hard now to perceive in these men as captives the power by which as Nazi leaders they once dominated much of the world and terrified most of it. Merely as individuals their fate is of little consequence to the world.
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. We will show them to be 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, crushing its manhood, destroying its homes, and impoverishing its life. They have so identified themselves with the philosophies they conceived and with the forces they directed that any tenderness to them is a victory and an encouragement to all the evils which are attached to their names. Civilization can afford no compromise with the social forces which would gain renewed strength if we deal ambiguously or indecisively with the men in whom those forces now precariously survive.”
An excerpt from Robert H. Jackson, the chief United States prosecutor as he opened the Nuremberg trials on November 21, 1945. This first and particularly visible trial was decribed by British barrister Norman Birkett as, “the greatest trial in history.” Read more about Jackson in Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis.
Jackson was also United States Attorney General and Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1941-1954, despite never having graduated from law school (he attended Albany Law School for one year before dropping out).
In a recent interview, Justice Antonin Scalia was asked which modern member of the Supreme Court he admired most. His immediate answer was Jackson, whom he said he admired for his ideological originalism (the Constitution is not a “living” document), his staunch defense of due process protections, and his literary technique — his ability to powerfully communicate as a master stylist. And you can see that unyielding force and consummate style above.
“We [the Supreme Court] are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.”
– Robert Jackson, writing in Brown v. Allen, February 9th, 1953