For years, he was just down the hall. He taught his classes, attended meetings, and almost never attracted attention to himself. He was certainly not shy, but he was quiet, soft spoken, and, except in the classroom, a man of few words. If you had just met him, it is not likely that you would have an inkling as to what he had accomplished or for what he stood.
Telford Taylor joined the Cardozo faculty at the invitation of Monrad Paulsen, Cardozo's founding dean. They had been colleagues at Columbia, and Monrad invited Telford to enhance the new law school's public standing. Telford remained on the faculty for almost 20 years, teaching constitutional law, criminal law, regulation of electronic media, the law of wars, and a seminar on constitutional litigation. Although Telford had a great following as a teacher, he also contributed significantly to the development of the Law School in other ways. For years, Telford was our one main public presence. His writings and his lawyering, especially as the chief United States prosecutor of Nazis at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, had earned him international recognition. That made Telford distinctive and his contributions to Cardozo unparalleled at the time. Telford died in May at the age of 90.
Telford lived an extraordinary life. An amateur pianist, clarinetist,
composer, and conductor, he was a graduate of Williams College and the
Harvard Law School. After clerking for Augustus Hand of the United States
Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, he joined FDR's New Deal and worked
for the Department of Interior, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration,
the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee, and the Department of Justice.
In 1940, he became general counsel for the Federal Communications Commission,
where he remained for two years. During the war years, he led the American
group responsible for the analysis of information obtained from the cracking
of the German "Ultra" and other codes.
Telford Marched to His Own Beat
In 1953, when Senator Joseph McCarthy rode so high on the anti-communism wave that even the popular president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, cowered in his corner, Telford gave a speech at West Point in which he attacked McCarthy as a "dangerous adventurer" and described the then ongoing congressional investigations of the political left as "a vicious weapon of the extreme right against their political opponents." In the same speech, Telford criticized President Eisenhower and the Secretary of the Army, Robert T. Stevens, for not standing up "against the shameful abuse of Congressional investigatory power."
Before and after his West Point speech, Telford defended communists, accused perjurers, and other political defendants-the American lepers of the fifties-against the McCarthy witch hunts. In doing so, Telford was one of the few lawyers who regularly represented the new outcasts. Thus, Telford represented Harry Bridges, the Australian-born leader of the International Longshoreman's Warehouseman's Union, who was accused of lying when he swore in his 1945 naturalization hearing that he had never been a member of the Communist party. Bridges was sentenced to five years in prison in 1950, but the Supreme Court later voided his conviction. He also represented Junius Scales, who was tried three times and became the first American imprisoned for mere membership in the Communist party. Years later, Telford said of the Scales conviction: "Scales suffered an ordeal: I merely a disappointment. But it was a sharp one, the sharpest one of my career at the bar."
During the same period when the mere thought of an attack by Senator McCarthy was sufficient to silence would-be critics, Telford wrote Grand Inquest: The Story of Congressional Investigations, a vigorous assault on the investigations that had ruined lives in the name of making the nation safe from communism. Grand Inquest was probably the most courageous book Telford wrote, and it was likely the one that had the most immediate impact. After declaring in Grand Inquest that "we are approaching a condition in which political orthodoxy is scrutinized by roving inquisitions," and that in "a very real sense, we are living in a state of cold civil war," Telford named his own names:
To apprehend the danger, it is necessary only to scan the names of those who have been most prominently identified with these investigations. Martin Dies, Jack Tenney, J. Parnell Thomas, Patrick McCarran, Eugene Cox, William Jenner, Joseph R. McCarthy, Harold Velde, Carroll Reece-whatever one's personal estimate of these men, one thing is clear: they are not a representative group of American legislators. They are clustered at the extreme right end of the political color spectrum, where purple deepens into black.
Telford was convinced that the leaders of the congressional investigations, whom he labeled "blockheads," presented a fundamental threat to "our political and economic structure." Indeed, he thought that the danger was comparable to the threat Nazi "political hoodlums" presented to Germany in the early 1930s. Because he believed that the Nazis succeeded in grabbing power in Germany only because the "military, civil and cultural elite of remarkable ability and prestige . . . did not dar 1000 e to remain true to its own best traditions," he was not about to become part of the silent majority while the political hoodlums of his day smashed his cherished traditions. So Telford spoke up, pointed fingers, minced no words, and gave no quarter to his enemy.
Telford's insistence on listening to his conscience and not abandoning
his own judgment because of pressures and fashions also caused him to cut
his own patterns during the Vietnam War years. As many well remember, university
campuses were in turmoil during the war years, and Columbia was no exception.
In 1968, after students occupied some Columbia buildings, university officials
called in the police, who beat the students as they cleared the buildings.
The university eventually took disciplinary action against the students,
and senior law school faculty members threw their moral authority behind
the disciplinary action by signing a statement stating that the students
had exceeded the "allowable limits" of civil disobedience. Telford was
one of very few faculty members who refused to sign it.
Also during that war, Telford wrote a tightly argued, powerful book entitled Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy. He began by recalling the words of Robert H. Jackson when he spoke for the United States of America at the commencement of the war crimes trials of Nazi German leaders before the Nuremberg tribunal: "While this law is first applied against German aggressors, if it is to serve any useful purpose it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment." As Jackson spoke, Telford noted, many eyes in the courtroom shifted to the faces of the two Soviet members of the court, who represented a country that had invaded Poland in 1939 and Finland in 1940 and was believed responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Polish prisoners-of-war in the Katyn forest in 1941. Telford then continued:
But now the wheel has spun full circle, and the fingers of accusation are pointed not at others for whom we have felt scorn and contempt, but at ourselves. Worse yet, many of the pointing fingers are our own. Voices of the rich and poor and black and white, strident voices and scholarly voices, all speaking our own tongue, raise question of the legality under the Nuremberg principles of our military actions in Vietnam, and in Cambodia as well.
Telford did not believe that the courts could "reasonably be expected
to pass judgment on the legality of our Vietnam policies," nor did he think
it likely that "our leaders will be called upon to answer at the bar of
some future international tribunal" for alleged war crimes. But he made
it perfectly clear what he believed should and could happen: "As a nation
dedicated to liberty, justice and peace on earth it is surely incumbent
on us to engage in hard self-scrutiny, and conform our actions, as far
humanly possible, to the principle we profess." In that regard, Telford
voiced the view that "Congress cannot constitutionally require a man to
do combat duty against the dictates of his conscience." Perhaps in an effort
to emphasize that he took his patriotism and American traditions seriously,
especially as he criticized the United States government for smashing Vietnam
to "bits" and not taking the "trouble to clean the blood and rubble," Telford
astonishingly dedicated his book "to the Flag and The Liberty and Justice
for Which It Stands."
Two other moments in Telford's life make one wonder whether he did not consciously shape his life to some large extent in accordance with Ralph Waldo Emerson's advice: "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles." In the early 1970s, Telford visited Hanoi. By this time, his criticism of the American war effort in Vietnam was well known, as was his criticism of the bombing of Hanoi. Nonetheless, when he was asked at a Hanoi press conference whether the dreadful bombing of that city violated international law, Telford gave an answer few would dare to give in such a situation: "No." He went to the Eichmann trial in Israel as a semi-official observer. As the former Nuremberg prosecutor, he might have been expected to give a sympathetic appraisal of the Israeli trial. But no. Telford's commitment to fairness and fundamental due process took precedence, and he criticized the proceedings on the ground that the trial occurred pursuant to a defective statute.
In making his own distinctive career path, Telford walked away from many opportunities that would have been financially rewarding or given him a certain kind of conventional status but would have distracted from the issues that mattered to him. Instead, he defended his unpopular clients, attacked sacred cows, wrote books, taught hundreds of law students the meaning of the law, and set an admirable example of what an independent thinking person can achieve.
Telford and the War
In the very first sentence of his history of nazi defeat during the Battle of Britain, The Breaking Wave: World War II in the Summer of 1940, Telford wrote: "The Second World War, for most of its survivors, has remained the most intense experience of their lives and the source of their most vivid recollections." It seems almost certain that Telford was describing himself in that sentence. His experiences in army intelligence and as chief United States prosecutor at Nuremberg left indelible marks on Telford's life.
Just review Telford's nine books. All but two have an explicit link to war and Nuremburg. His first, Sword and Swastika, which challenged the apologetic writings of German generals, set out to answer the important question: "How did a nation such as Germany, with a history rich in the cultural achievement of the individual man, succumb to the Nazi wave of despotism and murderous superstition?" Telford's answer was pointed: "The alliance of the German military leaders with those of Nazi totalitarianism sealed the fate of Germany, cast the die for war, and turned the course of history. It was the direct cause of the desolation and devitalization of Europe, and a major determinant of the international crisis we face today." Two other books, The March of Conquest: The German Victories in Western Europe, 1940 and The Breaking Wave, traced the history of the war during its first year. Munich, which dealt with events leading to war, and The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials, which focused on the post-war trials, were Telford's bookends framing the war. The impact of the war and the Nuremberg trials was overwhelming in Grand Inquest and Nuremberg and Vietnam.
The war also obviously left its mark on Telford's public persona. No matter what else he did-and the magnitude and variety of hi 1000 s professional achievements are dazzling-he was always known above all else as the former chief United States prosecutor at Nuremberg. And in that capacity he was credited, perhaps more than any other person, with having translated the idea of crimes against humanity into a legal weapon that judicial tribunals could use to bring war criminals to justice. Thus, Telford was internationally recognized as an authority on the law of war and war crimes, and was regularly called upon to lecture on these subjects or to participate in investigations that concerned them. But more than anything, his experience in the war and especially at Nuremberg seems to have had a profound-no, something deeper, life changing-impact on his beliefs and his way of seeing the world. One cannot read Telford's books, review his career as a lawyer, especially during the '50s, or assess his opposition to the Vietnam War without continually running smack into political beliefs and personal values that seem directly traceable to his experiences during the war and at Nuremberg.
Telford as a Writer
One can't become familiar with Telford's life without thinking that his hand must have held a pen most of his waking hours. In addition to decades worth of legal memoranda and documents and law review articles, he wrote exceptional books. And the last two were truly extraordinary. Munich: The Price of Peace, the definitive study of that ignoble event-an event that Churchill, aptly mocking Chamberlain's cliche "peace with honor," piercingly characterized as resulting in "war without honor"-is 1,000 pages and won the National Book Critics Award. The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials is a magisterial, reflective history of one of the most significant episodes of the twentieth century, in which he portrays events as he "heard, saw, and otherwise sensed them at the time." Published when Telford was 84, the book, which was his last, was just shy of 650 pages.
To say that Telford wrote well is an understatement. His sentences were crafted with striking precision, clarity, and force. His arguments were powerful; his use of evidence compelling; his control over both his material and his feelings admirable. Rarely did he let his passions out of his grip, but when he did, it was a bolt that stunned the reader. A few lines in Munich make the point: "'Peace with honor' rang hollow the moment it was uttered, and 'peace for our time,' less than a year later, exploded in the most cataclysmic war of modern times. How could those men have been so blind? So cynical? So cowardly? Above all, so unctuous?"
Telford wrote his books mainly at home, using a yellow pad and a pencil. Unlike some authors, who begin with notes and bits and pieces of paragraphs and hammer them into some unified whole, when Telford wrote, according to his wife, Cardozo professor Toby Golick, he began at the beginning, writing in paragraphs as he went. To do this, he must have had an incredibly orderly mind capable of assimilating an immense amount of material into a coherent and comprehensive text with breathtaking facility. Writing was obviously meaningful to Telford, so much so in fact that even in his later years when he had trouble recalling particular words to express his thoughts, he wrote daily. Clearly, writing helped him organize not only what he thought, but what he believed.
Summing up the meaning of any life is presumptuousat best and foolhardy at worst. Those sentiments are deserving of special respect when the life was as rich, as accomplished, and as varied as Telford's. But a newspaper in Greensboro, North Carolina, ran a report when Telford died that caught a nugget. The old-fashioned headline read "An American Hero," and the report unselfconsciously stated that Telford was "a brave and solitary voice" who was "a true moral giant of our era."
The New York Times made a not dissimilar point: "For almost seven decades, from the days of FDR's New Deal through to the early 1990s, Taylor 24b embodied the best of American legal liberalism. At least two generations of postwar Americans looked to him, as they did to no other lawyer, for tough, outspoken criticism of public affairs, from McCarthyism to the Eichmann trial or even the Vietnam War."
Telford's rare grace and disarming modesty make his accomplishments awesome and inspirational. And just as surely as World War II and the Nuremberg trials left their imprints on Telford, Telford made lasting contributions to the liberty and security of peoples not only in his own country but around the world. 0