We must not ignore Nuremberg’s lessons for today
Elie Wiesel once wrote: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Let history show that at this moment, we are failing that test.
Half a century before the most terrible attacks our homeland has ever known, my father, Thomas Dodd, reluctantly left behind my mother, my four brothers and sisters and me to confront unspeakable horrors of another time. Thousands of miles away from Lebanon, Conn., in the “dead city” of Nuremberg, Germany, he would serve as executive trial counsel under Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor at the trials of Nazi leaders.
Over the course of some 400 letters to my mother during those 15 months, my father wrote about the day-to-day happenings of the trial that included his horror of the death chambers and the banality of evil, as well as his pride in the establishment of America’s moral authority at a pivotal time in history.
He wrote about the smell of 30,000 bodies trapped under the rubble and the magnitude of the slaughter of millions of Jews and others in concentration camps. My father painted a bleak picture of war-torn Europe: Polish forced laborers still living in tents many months after the conflict had ended, never to return home; the spiritual “scars” Paris bore, and the “shabby dress” and notable absence of makeup worn by women in post-war Britain.
From the trial itself there was the cross-examination of Nazi leaders. Though some remained defiant, my father described how many once powerful, swaggering figures had become “Bowery characters” — small, broken men in the courtroom — as prosecutors presented them with overwhelming evidence of their guilt, from signed ledgers documenting millions of murders to macabre ornaments, such as lampshades made by the Nazis of tattooed human skin and the shrunken head of a prisoner who had fraternized with a German woman.
Reading my father’s letters, I could not help but imagine that the temptation to give in to vengeance must have been overwhelming. The very idea that justice would be served to the monsters who perpetrated such atrocities — to the likes of “Nazi big boy” Hermann Goering or Wilhelm Keitel, the Third Reich military commander who issued the “Nacht und Nebel” decree that made it possible for the Nazis to rid themselves of opponents without the benefit of trial (the name refers to how opponents would vanish “into night and fog”) — turned many a stomach among the Allied powers.
But the import of what took place at Nuremberg stretched far beyond the borders of the European continent. It was also about the moral authority with which America would lead the world in uncertain times.
The test at Nuremberg was one of principle over power, and we showed the resolve to pass that test.
It wasn’t easy, however. At the close of World War II, the Nuremberg trial was hardly the obvious option. At the time, Winston Churchill wanted to summarily execute the Nazi leaders. Stalin wanted show trials — and then to shoot them.
But America’s leaders understood something even Churchill did not: That what separated America from her enemies was how we led — not by the example of our force but the force of our example.
Jackson deemed the decision to grant those who had committed the most terrible crimes against humanity in all of history a trial “one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason.”
By marshaling wary allies to our side to respect the rule of law, America urged nations away from dictatorship and toward democracy at Nuremberg — away from vengeance and toward justice. Armed with these principles, America would go on to help create international institutions that would serve the common good and security of all nations for 60 years: the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the International Monetary Fund, among others.
But today, we see a U.S. administration oblivious to the lessons learned at Nuremberg and an America more vulnerable. The very abuses we rejected at Nuremberg we now see this president affirm in his prosecution of the war against terrorism, leaving America’s reputation in the world today in tatters and its security in question.
This administration would have the American people believe we can either protect America or uphold the basic tenets upon which the country was founded.
Nuremberg established that the choice between moral authority and security is a false choice — that it is our respect for the rule of law and justice that keeps America secure and our people safe.
Earlier this year, I introduced the Restoring the Constitution Act to reform the Military Commissions Act. If last century’s most heinous criminals could receive due process, this century’s most heinous criminals should, as well, if for no other reason than upholding the international credibility so critical to American security.
“If you are determined to execute a man in any case,” Jackson said on the eve of the Nuremberg trials in April 1945, “there is no occasion for a trial. The world yields no respect to courts that are merely organized to convict.”
And, I would add, no peace to those who organize them.
Sen. Christopher Dodd is the senior senator from Connecticut and a Democratic candidate for president. His book, “Letters From Nuremberg,” a collection of his father’s letters, was recently published by Crown Publishers.