Executive Order 9547 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On May 2, 1945, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9547. At the time, World War II was ending in Europe, and representatives from dozens of nations were meeting in San Francisco to draft the United Nations Charter. President Truman himself had just taken office, following the death of his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a few weeks before. He had inherited a world war to finish and an international peace to negotiate. He had also inherited the new mantle of American world leadership. With this executive order, President Truman appointed a US official to prosecute international war crimes and dedicated the United States to a prolonged engagement in international affairs.

Summary Overview

On May 2, 1945, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9547. At the time, World War II was ending in Europe, and representatives from dozens of nations were meeting in San Francisco to draft the United Nations Charter. President Truman himself had just taken office, following the death of his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a few weeks before. He had inherited a world war to finish and an international peace to negotiate. He had also inherited the new mantle of American world leadership. With this executive order, President Truman appointed a US official to prosecute international war crimes and dedicated the United States to a prolonged engagement in international affairs.

Defining Moment

On May 8, 1945, Germany signed an unconditional surrender at Reims, France, thus ending the war in Europe. World War II had begun, officially, with the invasion of Poland in 1939 and raged across multiple continents and oceans. However, the aggression of Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler and the Axis allies had begun much earlier. In Europe alone, millions of men and women had died in combat as well as in bombings and air raids. However, beyond the casualties of the fighting, more than six million Jewish people and other Europeans had perished under Nazi persecution. They had died from mass shootings; from forced marches; from violence in ghettoes; from starvation, disease, and exhaustive labor in concentration camps; and from extermination policies carried out in gas chambers in Nazi death camps.

The systematic murder of so many civilians led to an unprecedented international response. As early as December 17, 1942, the leaders of the Allied Powers condemned Nazi extermination policies and promised retribution. As the war progressed, the Allies began planning for the conclusion of the war and its aftermath. In October 1943, the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China issued a joint declaration known as the Moscow Declaration, in which they stated that all persons guilty of “atrocities, massacres and cold-blooded mass executions” would be sent back to the countries of their crimes for trial or would be tried by joint decision of the Allied Powers at the end of the war.

In 1945, with the surrender of the Axis powers in Europe, the Allies followed through on the promises of the Moscow Declaration. Even before peace was declared, the United States had begun to plan for the postwar trial of designated war criminals. Some debate had occurred among leaders of the Moscow Conference nations, as some Soviet officials preferred to forego trials and immediately execute members of the Nazi leadership. Others, including President Roosevelt, insisted on public trials to establish a new international precedent for the illegality of atrocities such as those committed by the Nazis. Truman inherited this charge.

To that end, on May 2, 1945, the newly sworn-in President Truman issued Executive Order 9547, by which he appointed US Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson the chief prosecutor for the United States in the war crimes trials that would follow an armistice in Europe. By this order, Truman committed the United States to the conduct of an international tribunal.

A few months later, on August 8, 1945, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union signed the London Agreement to establish the International Military Tribunal “for the trial of war criminals whose offenses have no particular geographical location whether they be accused individually or in their capacity as members of the organizations or groups or in both capacities” and to begin the Nuremberg Trial Proceedings of those identified as war criminals. Under the charter of the tribunal, each signatory nation had to appoint a member and an alternate to serve on the tribunal, to hear the evidence, and to render a decision. Truman's Executive Order 9547 had already designated the official for the United States.

Historical Document

By virtue of the authority vested in me as President and as Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, under the Constitution and statutes of the United States, it is ordered as follows:

1. Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson is hereby designated to act as the Representative of the United States and as its Chief of Counsel in preparing and prosecuting charges of atrocities and war crimes against such of the leaders of the European Axis powers and their principal agents and accessories as the United States may agree with any of the United Nations to bring to trial before an international military tribunal. He shall serve without additional compensation but shall receive such allowance for expenses as may be authorized by the President.

2. The Representative named herein is authorized to select and recommend to the President or to the head of any executive department, independent establishment, or other federal agency necessary personnel to assist in the performance of his duties hereunder. The head of each executive department, independent establishment, and other federal agency is hereby authorized to assist the Representative named herein in the performance of his duties hereunder and to employ such personnel and make such expenditures, within the limits of appropriations now or hereafter available for the purpose, as the Representative named herein may deem necessary to accomplish the purposes of this order, and may make available, assign, or detail for duty with the Representative named herein such members of the armed forces and other personnel as may be requested for such purposes.

3. The Representative named herein is authorized to cooperate with, and receive the assistance of, any foreign Government to the extent deemed necessary by him to accomplish the purposes of this order.

HARRY S. TRUMAN

THE WHITE HOUSE,

May 2, 1945.

Glossary

hereunder: subsequent to this; below this

Document Analysis

Executive Order 9547 is a fairly direct document. It signifies the executive power of the US president in appointing federal officials and in navigating international affairs and treaties. The document's first line cites this executive authority—“the authority vested in me as President and as Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, under the Constitution and statutes of the United States”—to give credence to the terms of the order that followed. Although not a treaty approved by Congress, the document obligates the United States to an international standard of justice and sets a precedent that remains a source of debate today.

The primary provision confirms the appointment of Robert H. Jackson as the US representative and chief counsel “in preparing and prosecuting charges of atrocities and war crimes against such of the leaders of the European Axis powers and their principal agents and accessories.” Provision 1 goes on to state that the US counsel will serve on an international military tribunal to hear the charges against those brought to trial. With this provision, Truman formalizes American support not only for prosecution of war crimes but also for the conduct of trials by a joint body, an international military tribunal.

The second and third provisions of the document give added substance to Jackson's appointment. Truman is not just appointing an official representative, he is putting the full force of the executive branch of the US government behind that representative and his work for the tribunal. With Provision 2, Truman commands all executive agencies as well as the armed forces—which fall under his authority—to make available any personnel and resources needed by the representative to fulfill his duties to the tribunal. In a similar vein, Provision 3 vests the representative with the power “to cooperate with, and receive the assistance of” foreign governments in order to “accomplish the purposes of this order.” By this provision, President Truman gives Jackson the authority to treat with representatives of other nations to accomplish an international charge.

However, the document is not merely an order intended to authorize a new appointment and to command executive agencies and armed forces to support that appointment. It is not just a structural and legal tenet. The order is also an ideological statement. On August 24, 1941, British prime minister Winston Churchill referred to Nazi atrocities in Europe as “a crime without a name.” This document, and the trials that followed, signaled the effort made by the international community to name and respond to those crimes.

Essential Themes

The underlying theme of Executive Order 9547 is a new move toward international collaboration and standards. As President Truman took office and issued this order, officials from fifty nations were meeting to form an international body, the United Nations, to promote and protect global peace. Although separate from the United Nations, the International Military Tribunal served a similar purpose. The tribunal and the Nuremberg trials of Nazi officials that followed set a new precedent for international affairs. Just as the United Nations signaled a collective will to pursue international security and cooperation, the war crimes trials indicated that nations and their citizens could be called to account for what became known as “crimes against humanity.” Executive Order 9547 signified US support for a standard of international justice and a system of international collaboration. The United States was poised to emerge from World War II as a world power, and Truman's order served as yet another mark of the rise of American world leadership.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Donovan, Robert J. Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1945–1948. New York: Norton, 1977. Print.
  • Ferrell, Robert H., ed. Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman. New York: Harper, 1980. Print.
  • Kochavi, Arieh J. Prelude to Nuremberg: Allied War Crimes Policy and the Question of Punishment. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1998. Print.
  • Rice, Earl, Jr. The Nuremberg Trials. San Diego: Lucent, 1997. Print.
  • Tusa, Ann, & John Tusa. The Nuremberg Trial. New York: Skyhorse, 2010. Print
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