In war-besieged London in September 1940, Harold Laski, a professor at the London School of Economics and a leading Socialist party official, thinker, and writer, penned a letter to Robert H. Jackson, Attorney General of the United States. Laski knew Jackson through their mutual friend, U.S. Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter. Laski wrote Jackson to introduce another friend, Professor Hersch Lauterpacht of the University of Cambridge:
My dear Jackson,
I should like to introduce to you my
friend Professor H. Lauterpacht, the Whewell
Professor of International Law at Cambridge.
You well know of his outstanding work in
his own field. I should like only to add
that there are few people for whom I care so
I think we stand up well to our siege; and
we have complete confidence in the outcome.
Few things will help so much as a third term [for President Franklin D. Roosevelt].
Yours very sincerely,
Harold J. Laski
The Hon. Robert Jackson.
Laski wrote his letter not to be mailed, but for Lauterpacht, who was spending Fall 1940 in the U.S., to use when he had an opportunity to introduce himself to Jackson.
That moment arrived at the end of the year. On December 23rd, Lauterpacht, living in the Bronx, wrote to Jackson in Washington to request a meeting:
Riverdale on Hudson
New York City
Dear Mr. Attorney-General,
I hope to be in Washington
between January 6-9, prior to my
departure for England. If you
can spare the time, I should
very much appreciate an oppor-
tunity of calling on you
and paying my respects.
I enclose a letter of introduction
from Professor Laski.
Yours very truly,
The Hon. Robert Jackson.
Lauterpacht’s letter, with the enclosed vouching letter from Laski, worked. Jackson wrote back promptly, telling Lauterpacht to contact Jackson’s secretary to schedule the meeting.
Robert Jackson and Hersch Lauterpacht met at the U.S. Department of Justice on January 8, 1941. They discussed Nazi Germany’s bombing attacks on the United Kingdom, U.S. military assistance to the U.K., and domestic and international law issues. And obviously they hit it off.
Over the next week, Lauterpacht stayed in downtown Washington and, at Jackson’s request, wrote him a thorough memorandum on international law issues. It addressed, in twenty-one pages, what Jackson had described in their first meeting as “the philosophy, in international law, of the policy of aiding the [anti-Nazi U.S.] Allies by all means short of war.” Lauterpacht sent the memorandum to Jackson on January 15th, and then they met the next day to discuss it.
Lauterpacht argued, then and later, that Nazi Germany’s military aggression, on the European continent and against the U.K., violated international law embodied in its own and in many nations’ treaty commitments. These arguments fit with and advanced Jackson’s own legal thinking. In the months ahead, Lauterpacht’s input contributed to some of Attorney General Jackson’s and then Justice Jackson’s—he joined the U.S. Supreme Court in July 1941—major public addresses attacking Nazi lawlessness.
And more than four years later, in circumstances that neither Jackson nor Lauterpacht could have envisioned when they first met in Washington, they worked together, in the U.K. and then in Nuremberg in the Allied-occupied former Germany, to hold Nazi leaders accountable for their illegal war-waging.
* * *
Justice Jackson and Professor Lauterpacht corresponded during the World War II years. They also saw each other occasionally, when Lauterpacht was visiting the U.S.
One such occasion was November 19, 1941, seventy-five years ago, when Lauterpacht visited Justice Jackson at the Supreme Court. Jackson asked Lauterpacht to stay over in Washington on that Wednesday night, and to join Jackson and his wife Irene the next day for Thanksgiving dinner at their home, Hickory Hill, in McLean, Virginia—“It will give Mrs. Jackson and me great pleasure if you will have dinner with us,” Jackson wrote when he communicated this invitation a few days beforehand, as he and Lauterpacht were finalizing their plans.
Alas, and to Lauterpacht’s regret, he could not accept this invitation.
He and Jackson did have later occasions to share meals, and to give thanks, including in Nuremberg.
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