Columbians Ahead of Their Time
Telford Taylor

Telford Taylor

"The laws of war are not a one-way street."

Telford Taylor (1908-98)
Faculty 1962-94

The chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, Telford Taylor helped establish the guidelines for trying German war criminals after World War II, which became a model in future years for similar tribunals around the globe. As the Nation wrote in 1995, "the human rights movement owes much of its legal foundation to the work of Gen. Telford Taylor. . . . Nuremberg gave legitimacy to the concept that the world had something to say about how governments treat their own citizens." Educated at Williams College and Harvard Law School, Taylor worked in various federal offices for almost ten years before joining the Army in October 1942; at the war's end he was transferred to the International War Crimes Tribunal, where he worked closely with chief counsel and former U.S. Attorney General Robert H. Jackson. Even as revelations of Nazi atrocities mounted, Jackson and Taylor remained committed to conducting fair proceedings within a defined legal framework. In October 1946, Taylor succeeded Jackson as chief prosecutor and, over a two-year period, would obtain more than a hundred convictions—of government officials, SS officers, scientists, and others. (The trials were dramatized in the 1961 movie Judgment at Nuremberg, with the actor Richard Widmark portraying Taylor in all but name.) Upon returning to civilian life in 1949, Taylor worked in private practice before publishing his first book, Sword and Swastika: Generals and Nazis in the Third Reich (1952). He would go on to write eight more, among them the prizewinning Munich: The Price of Peace (1979). For the rest of his life, Taylor cautioned against the use of war as a policy instrument, opposing U.S. actions in Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Bosnia. He also stressed the need for integrity in government and was among the first critics of Senator Joseph McCarthy. A lifelong lover of music, he played both piano and clarinet. In his later years, he developed a practice in sports law and occasionally served as a special master to resolve disputes for the National Basketball Association.

Taylor taught at Columbia Law School for more than three decades. He became a full professor in 1962 and Nash Professor of Law in 1974, and his professional papers are now archived at the law library. (He also was a visiting professor both Harvard and Yale, and joined the faculty at Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University in 1976.) In 1981 he received the Friedmann Award from the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law for outstanding contributions to the field. He also received the ABA Silver Gavel award for "helping to foster the American public's understanding of the law and the legal system." Herbert Wechsler, a fellow law school professor who worked with Taylor at Nuremberg, said, "If I was asked to name the person of my generation whom I most admired, I would promptly answer Telford Taylor. . . . [W]ise counselor, persuasive advocate, careful scholar, all the qualities that signify distinction . . . were his in high degree."

Nominated by Robert Cherny, GSAS 1967, 1972 (MA, PhD in History)

Read more about Taylor in the Columbia Encyclopedia.

The International Red Cross salutes the man.

David Rudenstine of Cardozo Law School reminisces about Telford Taylor here.

Columbia's history, as seen by those who have studied, taught, and worked here.

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