SIXTY YEARS AGO today, at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, the verdicts were read in a trial that will forever define the punishment of war criminals. One by one, the 22 top surviving Nazi officers of Adolf Hitler were sentenced. By the time the gavel sounded, three had been acquitted, seven sent to prison and 12 condemned to death.
One of the people in court that day was my father, 38-year-old attorney Thomas Dodd, who was the No. 2 prosecutor for the United States behind Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. My father always considered Nuremberg to be the most meaningful experience of his life.
My father wrote more than 400 letters to my mother from Nuremberg. Many are devoted to how much he missed his wife and children; others to the Nazis he had met.
But some of his harshest words were reserved for the Russians, who had little interest in a fair trial. In one letter, he tells the story of a toast offered by a visiting Soviet dignitary, who raised a glass and said: “May the road for these war criminals from the courthouse to the grave be a very short one.”
“I winced,” my father wrote, “and I could see that Judge [John J.] Parker, the American alternative, was certainly embarrassed.”
But of course, a quick trial that led to quick executions was the temptation. The world had seen a monstrous regime try to conquer the world. It had seen them take the lives of more than tens of millions of men, women and children.
Why not just give in to vengeance? Why not just shoot them, as Winston Churchill wanted to do? Why not just succumb to the law of power politics and impose our will without any regard to principle? Why not just give in to violence, which was certainly within our ability and, many argued, within our right?
Why not? Because the United States has always stood for something more.
When we entered World War II, we did not fight for land or for treasure -- we fought for an idea. The idea that laws should rule the land, not men; that the principles of justice embodied in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution -- of due process, of innocence until proven guilty, of the right to a fair trial -- do not get suspended for vengeance.
At Nuremberg, we rejected the certainty of execution for the uncertainty of a trial. The test was one of principle over power, and the United States passed.
President Harry Truman understood that our nation’s ability to bring about a world of peace and justice was rooted not in our military might but in our moral authority; not on the ability to compel people with our tanks and planes but to convince them that our values and our ideals were right. He understood that our ability to succeed in spreading American values of freedom and human rights are only as effective as our willingness to uphold them.
Over the last six decades, that moral authority helped persuade more than half the nations of the world to embrace freedom and free markets. But now that they are walking with us, why are we walking away from them?
Today, we debate secret prisons, suspension of habeas corpus, warrant-less searches and wiretaps. The president even asks us to reinterpret the Geneva accords to sanction the torture of enemy prisoners.
Just as the word “Nuremberg” once defined the United States’ moral authority and commitment to justice, what we risk today is that, one day, the loss of that moral authority and a commitment to injustice may also be defined by a single word: “Guantanamo.”
Once again, the question is being asked: Why not just give in to vengeance and show our enemies less mercy than they showed their victims? Why not just abandon due process and the rule of law and the right to a fair trial?
Because the United States stands for something more.
Now, as then, this nation should never tailor its eternal principles to the conflict of the moment, because if we do, we will be walking in the footsteps of the enemies we despise. By abandoning the rule of law, as Congress did last week, we will lose much more than what we gain.
In the end, it’s not about them -- it’s about us. It’s about staying true to the values and principles that have always made our nation unique.
We would do well to remember the words of Justice Jackson: “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”