MY WASHINGTON — Summer 2007
   

 
Whitney R. Harris
Creating Peace Through Justice

Whitney Harris has dedicated his career to the practice of law and the elevation of human rights. As a prosecutor at Nuremberg in 1945, he participated in a watershed moment for international law, when the worst carnage in human history ended with "the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world."

These words, from the opening statement by Robert H. Jackson, U.S. chief of counsel, had a lasting impact on Harris. It was Jackson who called the tribunal at Nuremberg "one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason."

For more than 60 years, Whitney Harris has served as an eloquent advocate for the Nuremberg legacy and the cause of international justice. The Whitney R. Harris Institute for Global Legal Studies at the University's School of Law brings together experts from around the world to expand understanding of real-world issues and prepare lawyers for the professional challenges of the 21st century. The naming gift was announced on Pearl Harbor Day—December 7, 2001.

John O. Haley, the Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law and director of the Harris Institute, says: "In our global society, problems require international cooperation and international solutions. Thanks to Whitney Harris, today the Washington University School of Law is one of the world's leading centers for the study of international and comparative law."

The road to Nuremberg

The Palace of Justice in Nuremberg was the location of the Nuremberg trials.

Harris was born in Seattle in 1912 and graduated from the University of Washington, magna cum laude, in 1933. Jobs were scarce in the midst of the Depression, so he entered law school at the University of California, Berkeley, and graduated in 1936. He practiced law in Los Angeles until he entered the U.S. Navy following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Harris served as a line officer in the Pacific theater until 1945, when the Navy assigned him to the Office of Strategic Services. He was sent to London to investigate war crimes in Europe, working closely with British intelligence. Jackson, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, arrived in London to negotiate an agreement with the Allies for an indictment and trial of the principal leaders of Nazi Germany, and Harris was appointed to Jackson's staff as a prosecuting attorney.

The team of young prosecutors assembled at the cold, drafty Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, where the trial was to take place. Harris recalls: "I had a secretary and one typewriter. We set to work to develop evidence and gather incriminating documents." He was given primary responsibility for prosecuting Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief of the Reich main security office and two of its principal agencies, the Gestapo and the SD.

During Harris' interrogation of Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einsatzgruppen D, the witness admitted that his soldiers had murdered 90,000 men, women, and children during 1941. Harris recalls, "This broke the case against the Einsatzgruppen for their crimes against European Jewry."

Harris also questioned Rudolf Hoess, commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, and elicited his estimate that the death toll in Auschwitz alone was more than three million people. Harris attended the conclusion of the trial in October 1946 and served as Jackson's official representative at the execution of the condemned Nazi defendants. For his work at Nuremberg, Harris received the Legion of Merit.

Teacher, author, lawyer, philanthropist

In 1948, Harris was invited to join the faculty at Southern Methodist University by Robert Storey, dean of the law school, who had been Jackson's executive trial counsel at Nuremberg. In 1954, Harris' book Tyranny on Trial was published and acclaimed as the first comprehensive study of the Nuremberg trials. Harris also wrote the casebooks Family Law (1953) and Legal Services and Procedure (1955, with others), and he continued to write articles for legal journals throughout his career. Other publications include Law, Culture and Values (1989) and The Tragedy of War (2004).

"Peace and justice are the stanchions of humanity. The way to permanent peace is not through the power of the sword but through the precepts of the law." — Whitney Harris, The Tragedy of War

After six years as a law professor, Harris came to St. Louis as a corporate lawyer for Southwestern Bell. He later joined the St. Louis firm of Sumner Harris and Sumner and remained in private practice until his retirement. He is a member of the bar in California, Texas, and Missouri, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court bar, and he holds Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degrees from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and McKendree College. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the Order of the Coif.

Over the years, Harris and his late wife, Jane Freund Harris, were tireless supporters of Washington University and many other St. Louis institutions. In 1981, he donated his books and documents on the Third Reich to Olin Library, a collection that has grown to nearly 2,500 items housed in the Jane and Whitney Harris Reserve Reading Room. In 1998, an endowed scholarship was established at the School of Law in honor of the Harrises. A bequest by Jane Harris, who died in 1999, created the Jane and Whitney Harris Community Service Award. Administered by the University, it annually honors a husband and wife who have made an outstanding contribution to St. Louis.

Harris and his wife, Anna, are Life Members of the Danforth Circle. He continues to serve on the National Council for Washington University Libraries.

Hope for the future

In 1998, Harris served as a non-governmental delegate to the United Nations conference in Rome that resulted in a treaty calling for the establishment of a permanent international criminal court. Harris represented the Committee of Former Nuremberg Prosecutors for a Permanent International Criminal Court, of which he is the founder and coordinator. On behalf of the committee, he submitted a paper, "Aggressive War Is the Supreme War Crime," to the conference. The delegates could not agree on a definition of aggressive war, and it was not included in the final treaty, but the issue will be reconsidered at a review conference scheduled for 2009.

Harris spoke and wrote extensively on behalf of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and he was present in the Reichstag in October 2001 as Germany became the 23rd nation to ratify the treaty. In 2002, the ICC achieved ratification by the required 60 nations. The United States is not among the participating parties.

As a witness to the horror and destruction of war, Harris sees the international legal system as the best hope for the future of humankind. Without it, he says, "civilization may not survive."

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton says: "As a great friend of Washington University, Whitney shares our commitment to serving the greater good. We are very grateful to him and his family for their generosity in establishing the Harris Institute, which ensures that his lifelong commitment to justice will endure."

Looking back over a long and distinguished life, Whitney Harris says, "The protection and elevation of human rights—I can imagine no greater career."

Susan Wooleyhan Caine is director of university development communications.