Obituary: Telford Taylor

Patrick Maguire
Sunday 24 May 1998 23:02 BST

ALTHOUGH Telford Taylor will best be remembered for his work as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, it was only the highlight of a remarkable 70-year career as a lawyer, public servant, scholar and teacher. From West Point to The Hague, Taylor was America's independent voice of moral authority.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Taylor entered government service in 1933 and served in a number of President Roosevelt's New Deal agencies. During the Second World War, he rose to the rank of Colonel in the Office of Strategic Services, and spent most of his time at Bletchley Park in England where he served as a liaison between American and British intelligence.

Taylor was responsible for the secure distribution of decoded German war plans (Magic and Ultra) to American military commanders in the field. In spite of the strain of wartime, he enjoyed these years immensely and remained lifelong friends with a number of former British colleagues, among them Peter Calvocoressi, Jim Rose and Eric Jones.

By the end of the war Taylor had learned a great deal about the inner workings of the Nazi dictatorship. In the Spring of 1945, the Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson asked the 37-year-old lawyer to serve as an American war crimes prosecutor in Germany. Taylor accepted the job and emerged during the pre-trial debates as a voice of moderation who warned his superiors about the implications of their proposed actions.

The Americans did not plan to follow tradition by holding summary trials and executing a handful of especially odious war criminals. Instead, Nazi political and military leaders like Herman Goering, Rudolf Hess, Admiral Karl Doenitz and Joachim von Ribbentrop were held personally accountable for the acts of the German state under a radical indictment that included charges of aggression, conspiracy, and crimes against humanity. Although Taylor wanted to see Germans punished for their atrocities, he warned about the dangers of guilt by association.

At the International Trial in 1945, he ably served the prosecution staff and drew praise for his withering cross-examination of General Erich von Manstein. In late 1946, the International Military Tribunal sentenced 14 men to death and acquitted three. Due to US-Soviet tensions, Robert Jackson advised President Truman not to participate in another international trial.

Instead, Truman asked Taylor to create and staff American courts in Nuremberg to try the remaining high-level war criminals. The defendants faced the same unprecedented standards of international conduct as the IMT. The accused included the industrialist Alfried Krupp, the diplomat Ernst von Weizsaecker, and the execution squad leader Otto Ohlendorf, Field Marshal Wilhelm von List, Judge Rudolf Oeschey, and many other high ranking Third Reich officials. Each case produced a voluminous historical record of documentary evidence and testimony. Originally, Taylor had hoped to try as many as 300 individuals. However, by 1949, it was clear that these punitive policies did not concur with the new American plan for West Germany.

Unlike many of the early Nuremberg supporters who revised their views on the controversial trials once the Cold War began, Telford Taylor's commitment to Nuremberg never wavered. During the 1950s, when the US State Department began to parole convicted war criminals, Taylor defended the embattled courts with a clarity and accuracy that was often lacking in his critics.

By the late 1950s, the US government was prosecuting American Communists for little more than party membership. At a time when President Harry Truman refused to defend General George Marshall from the baseless political attacks of Senator Joseph McCarthy, Taylor defended hundreds of McCarthy's victims.

In a 1953 speech to West Point cadets, Taylor attacked McCarthy as a "dangerous adventurer" and described the congressional investigations on Communism as "a vicious weapon of the extreme right against their political opponents".

The former Nuremberg prosecutor objected to the Cold War assumption that membership in a political organisation was a criminal act. For more than a decade, Taylor defended Communists, accused perjurers, and other political defendants. He represented Harry Bridges, the leader of the International Longshoreman's and Warehouseman's Union accused of membership of the Communist Party.

His most famous case from this period, one that he took all the way to the US Supreme Court, was the Junius case. Junius Scales was tried three times and became the first American to be imprisoned for mere membership in the Communist Party. Years later Taylor described the loss: "Scales suffered an ordeal; I merely a disappointment. But it was a sharp one, the sharpest one of my career at the bar." However, it was a sign of the times.

Taylor spent the last third of his career writing about and teaching the laws of war at Columbia Law School, where he was Professor of Law 1963-74 and Nash Professor 1974-76. In the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, he took a hard look at the American massacre at Mai Lai and concluded that it had been a war crime. When it came to American policy in South- east Asia, he described it as "worse than a crime, it is a blunder".

Although his book Nuremberg and Vietnam: an American tragedy (1970) was not as scholarly as his studies on German history - Munich: The Price of Peace (1979) and Sword and Swastika (1952) - Nuremberg and Vietnam touched a nerve. Taylor's honest and even-handed criticism of the American war effort cut through the rhetorical excesses of both the Left and Right and helped to solidify his reputation as one of America's truly independent sources of moral authority.

Taylor continued to write and teach well into his eighties. In 1992, he published his final book, a critically acclaimed, personal account of the Nuremberg Trial, The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials.

When Richard Goldstone first assumed the job of chief prosecutor for The Hague tribunal for Bosnian war crimes in the early 1990s, one of the first people he contacted was Telford Taylor. Two years ago, I interviewed Otto Kranzbuehler, the former German naval judge who successfully defended both Admiral Karl Doenitz and Alfried Krupp at Nuremberg. While Kranzbuehler ridiculed many of his former courtroom foes, he described Telford Taylor as "a man of high moral standards".

Telford Taylor, lawyer: born Schenecktady, New York 24 February 1908; married 1937 Mary Walker (deceased; one son, three daughters), 1974 Toby Golick (two sons); died New York 23 May 1998.

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