Statement by Justice Jackson on War Trials Agreement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The four main victorious Allied powers in World War II—the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France—spent much of the summer following the surrender of Nazi Germany in April 1945 determining how the surviving Nazi leaders would be brought to justice. Issued only four days after the publication of what became known as the Nuremberg Charter, which set out the parameters and mechanisms for the trials of Nazi war criminals in the aftermath of World War II, Supreme Court justice Robert H. Jackson made a statement about the agreement and upcoming trials that cogently presented his justifications for the trials themselves, for the form agreed upon by the four Allies, and for the precedent being set for the future trials of war criminals or those in power who would initiate aggressive wars. Jackson had been appointed by the American president Harry S. Truman to be the prosecutor for the United States in the trials that would follow.

Summary Overview

The four main victorious Allied powers in World War II—the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France—spent much of the summer following the surrender of Nazi Germany in April 1945 determining how the surviving Nazi leaders would be brought to justice. Issued only four days after the publication of what became known as the Nuremberg Charter, which set out the parameters and mechanisms for the trials of Nazi war criminals in the aftermath of World War II, Supreme Court justice Robert H. Jackson made a statement about the agreement and upcoming trials that cogently presented his justifications for the trials themselves, for the form agreed upon by the four Allies, and for the precedent being set for the future trials of war criminals or those in power who would initiate aggressive wars. Jackson had been appointed by the American president Harry S. Truman to be the prosecutor for the United States in the trials that would follow.

Defining Moment

Many of the conferences held between the leaders of the “Big Three” Allied powers during World War II—Franklin D. Roosevelt (followed upon his death in 1945 by Truman) of the United States, Winston Churchill of Great Britain (followed by Clement Attlee for the last months of the war), and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union—had addressed the problem of what to do with Nazi war criminals after the defeat of Nazi Germany was finally achieved. Over the course of three meetings—at Tehran, Iran, in December 1943; Yalta, the Soviet Union, in February 1945; and Potsdam, Germany, in July and August 1945—the Allied leaders articulated a common vision for bringing those who had started such a devastating war to justice.

As the Allied armies liberated the Nazi concentration camps, in which millions upon millions of Jews, Romani (Gypsies), political opponents, captured Soviets, disabled people, and homosexuals were killed, the determination to bring the Nazi leaders to justice became even stronger. Shortly after Franklin D. Roosevelt's death and the final surrender of Nazi Germany, President Truman appointed Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson chief prosecutor for the trials that were to be held. Shortly after his appointment in early May 1945, Jackson traveled to London to meet with representatives from Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France, in order to come to an agreement as to how to proceed with the trials that were to achieve justice for the millions that had died during the war, but that would have the virtue of being a fair trial, in order to avoid the charge of “victors' justice,” of killing the Nazi leaders out of vengeance.

Coming to consensus on how to try the Nazi leaders was not easy. Each of the four nations represented had its own legal system and acknowledged very different rights granted to the accused. During the negotiations, there were a number of dissenting opinions on how to stage the trials, or even if trials were necessary. Churchill was said to have favored summary execution. However, the Americans were able to persuade the doubters of the virtue of holding trials as a means of legitimizing the punishment of the Axis leaders.

The Nuremberg Charter established the International Military Tribunal, made up of representatives from all four of the signing nations, and listed three types of crimes with which the defendants would be charged: crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Crimes against peace and crimes against humanity were new categories of war crimes designed specifically to deal with the actions of the Nazi leaders, especially regarding the Holocaust. Once the charter was agreed upon, Jackson moved to convince the American people that such trials were the appropriate actions for a civilized nation to take at the conclusion of such a war.

Author Biography

Robert H. Jackson, associate justice of the United States, was a well-respected American jurist. Jackson was a lifelong Democrat, and though Truman appointed him America's chief counsel for the war crimes trials that would follow the war, he had been groomed for the role in part by his friendship with Truman's predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Jackson had served as a US attorney, as solicitor general of the United States, and as attorney general of the United States before being appointed by Roosevelt to the Supreme Court in 1941. By the time he arrived in London in June 1945, Jackson's views—favoring war crimes trials that would set an international precedent for trying war criminals—were well known, and Truman had no hesitation about appointing him to represent the interest of the United States.

Historical Document

There are some things I would like to say, particularly to the American people, about the agreement we have just signed.

For the first time, four of the most powerful nations have agreed not only upon the principles of liability for war crimes of persecution, but also upon the principle of individual responsibility for the crime of attacking the international peace.

Repeatedly, nations have united in abstract declarations that the launching of aggressive war is illegal. They have condemned it by treaty. But now we have the concrete application of these abstractions in a way which ought to make clear to the world that those who lead their nations into aggressive war face individual accountability for such acts.

The definitions under which we will try the Germans are general definitions. They impose liability upon war-making statesmen of all countries alike. If we can cultivate in the world the idea that aggressive war-making is the way to the prisoner's dock rather than the way to honors, we will have accomplished something toward making the peace more secure.

This, too, is the first time that four nations with such different legal systems have tried to knit their ideas of just criminal procedure into a cooperative trial. That task is far more difficult than those unfamiliar with the differences between continental and Anglo-American methods would expect. It has involved frank and critical examination by the representatives of each country of the other's methods of administering justice. Our discussions have been candid and open-minded.

The representatives of the United Kingdom have been headed by the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General. The Soviet Republic has been represented by the Vice President of its Supreme Court and by one of the leading scholars of Soviet jurisprudence. The Provisional Government of France has sent a judge of its highest court and a professor most competent in its jurisprudence.

It would not be a happy forecast for the future harmony of the world if I could not agree with such representatives of the world's leading systems of administering justice on a common procedure for trial of war criminals.

Of course, one price of such international cooperation is mutual concession. Much to which American lawyers would be accustomed is missing in this instrument. I have not seen fit to insist that these prisoners have the benefit of all of the protections which our legal and constitutional system throws around defendants.

To the Russian and French jurist, our system seems unduly tender of defendants and to be loaded in favor of delay and in favor of the individual against the state. To us, their system seems summary and to load the procedure in favor of the state against the individual.

However, the continental system is the one the Germans themselves have employed and understand. It does not seem inappropriate that a special military commission for the trial of Europeans in Europe, for crimes committed in Europe, should follow rather largely although not entirely the European procedures. The essentials of a fair trial have been assured.

Another price of international cooperation is slow motion. No doubt Russia acting alone, or the United States, or any one country acting alone, could try these defendants in much shorter time than we can do it when we consult with each other and move along together. Our associates, for example, have a claim as good as ours to have the trial proceed in a language which they understand.

This requires a trial rendered into four languages-German, Russian, French, and English. This will be a dreary business, and there is no use trying to dodge that fact. It is a tedious prospect for me and for representatives of all the governments which will engage in it.

But I do not think the world will be poorer even if it takes a month or so, more or less, to try these men who now are prisoners and whose capacity for harm already has been overcome.

I do think the world would be infinitely poorer if we were to confess that the nations which now dominate the western world hold ideas of justice so irreconcilable that no common procedure could be devised or carried out.

The danger, so far as the moral judgment of the world is concerned, which will beset these trials is that they come to be regarded as merely political trials in which the victor wreaks vengeance upon the vanquished. However unfortunate it may be, there seems no way of doing anything about the crimes against the peace and against humanity except that the victors judge the vanquished.

Experience has taught that we can hardly expect them to try each other. The scale of their attack leaves no neutrals in the world. We must summon all that we have of dispassionate judgment to the task of patiently and fairly presenting the record of these evil deeds in these trials.

We must make clear to the Germans that the wrong for which their fallen leaders are on trial is not that they lost the war, but that they started it. And we must not allow ourselves to be drawn into a trial of the causes of the war, for our position is that no grievances or policies will justify resort to aggressive war. It is utterly renounced and condemned as an instrument of policy.

I therefore want to make clear to the American people that we have taken an important step forward in this instrument in fixing individual responsibility of war-mongering, among whatever peoples, as an international crime. We have taken another in recognizing an international accountability for persecutions, exterminations, and crimes against humanity when associated with attacks on the peace of the international order.

But I want to be equally clear that to make these advances fully effective through international trials is a task of difficulty and one which will require some public patience and some understanding of the wide gulf which separates the judicial systems of the nations which are trying to cooperate in the effort.

Document Analysis

On August 12, 1945, only four days after the four Allied nations signed the Nuremberg Charter, Jackson wrote a statement in order to briefly outline the processes that would be observed in the war crimes trials that would be held to bring the Nazi leaders to justice. Jackson's statement is factual in nature, aimed at conveying to the American people that the proposed trials were the most appropriate way to impose punishments on the German war criminals.

Jackson begins by asserting that this agreement represents the first time that four victorious nations after a war had come to an agreement on “the principle of individual responsibility for the crime of attacking the international peace”—in other words, there would be criminal responsibility for starting a war of aggression, and it would fall not just on the aggressor nation as a whole, but on the individual leaders who orchestrated the conflict and any other criminal acts that took place during it. Jackson argues that the definitions included in the Nuremberg Charter—including the ideas of crimes against peace and crimes against humanity, which had been formulated for the first time—were designed with the idea of dissuading nations from pursuing policies that lead to aggressive wars in the future.

The statement acknowledges that the four nations have very different legal systems, and that these differences made the task of coming to an agreement on the legal proceedings difficult. Though the agreement required concessions on all sides, Jackson asserts that they were necessary if this effort were to set a precedent for future war crimes trials. Jackson acknowledges, for example, that the accused war criminals would not have “the benefit of all of the protections which our legal and constitutional system throws around defendants.” He argues that this is because Russian and French law does not extend the same rights to defendants as the American and British systems do; however, he notes that since a European continental system is a more familiar one to Germans, and this is to be a “trial of Europeans in Europe, for crimes committed in Europe,” the influence of continental law is appropriate.

Another impact of international cooperation that might bother Americans is the fact that the trials might not be speedy. This is a result, among other things, of needing to translate all the proceedings into four different languages. However, Jackson argues that he does “not think the world will be poorer even if it takes a month or so, more or less, to try these men who now are prisoners and whose capacity for harm already has been overcome.”

Essential Themes

Jackson's efforts were largely successful in convincing most Americans that the war crimes trials that would take place before the International Military Tribunal were the best and most effective way to bring the Nazi war criminals to justice. Though most Americans agreed that the trials were fair, some, such as Chief Justice of the United States Harlan Stone, stated that the lack of legal protections mentioned by Jackson—along with the fundamental issue of creating categories of crime for acts that were not necessarily defined as criminal at the time they were committed—made the proceedings a legal charade that only served to give the execution of Nazi leaders a veneer of legal authority. However, Jackson's interpretation of the proceedings would largely inform American views on the trials and how well they served the cause of international justice.

It was not only the American public that Jackson was able to convince. The International Military Tribunal that Jackson and the representatives of the other Allied governments set up was seminal, in that it established the model on which other war crimes trials would be based in the future. After the defeat of Japan in September 1945, similar rules were used in the Tokyo Tribunal that brought the Japanese leadership to justice for waging a war of aggression. After the establishment of the United Nations in October 1945, the world body committed to preventing wars and creating a forum for the peaceful resolution of disputes between nations would lend its international credibility to the process of trying war criminals, though no further such trials would take place for almost fifty years.

After the Cold War, the dissolution of Yugoslavia would reignite ethnic rivalries in the Balkan region and lead to ethnic cleansing. In 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia would use similar processes to those employed after World War II to try war criminals. The following year, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda again led to war crimes trials before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Finally, in 1998, the Rome Statutes established the International Criminal Court, which would be the locus for individuals accused of war crimes to be tried in the future.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Gerhart, Eugene C. America's Advocate: Robert H. Jackson. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958. Print.
  • Ginsburgs, George, and V. N. Kudriavtsev. The Nuremberg Trial and International Law. Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1990. Print.
  • Hirsch, Francine. “The Soviets at Nuremberg: International Law, Propaganda, and the Making of the Postwar Order.” American Historical Review 113.3 (2008): 701–30. Print.
  • Kelly, Michael J., and Timothy L. H. McCormack. “Contributions of the Nuremberg Trial to the Subsequent Development of International Law.” The Legacy of Nuremberg: Civilising Influence or Institutionalised Vengeance? Ed. David A. Blumenthal and Timothy L. H. McCormack. Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 2007. Print.
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