Starting a New Career

Benjamin B. Ferencz

Before embarking upon my new career, it behooved me to discuss my thinking with others who might have some less grandiose and more intelligent thoughts. The idea that wisdom comes with age is something that never dawned on me while I was young, but the thought became more attractive with each passing year. Never having taken a course in international law, it occurred to me that before displaying my ignorance to my elders I should do some exploratory work in a good library. I did not wish to appear like a chick coming out of his shell and announcing that he has discovered the world. Fortunately, there was no shortage of books written by distinguished authors who could find solutions for every problem and problems for every solution. Perusing such volumes convinced me that it would be prudent to focus my attention on subjects that related to work I had already done. I would pick up where Nuremberg left off. I could begin my new endeavors by seeing what needed to be done to establish a permanent international criminal court to hold the leading planners and perpetrators of the supreme international crime—aggressive war—to personal account.

One of the first persons with whom I discussed my new plan was Dr. Jacob Robinson. He was a very distinguished elderly jurist who, among other scholarly pursuits, represented Israel on the Legal Committee of the United Nations. After discussing my thinking, he recognized that what I was seeking was a new calling that could absorb my energies and mind and still serve a useful social purpose. He expressed some regret that I was drawing away from the very useful work I had been doing, but concluded that what I had in mind was a worthwhile goal even if its achievement would be very difficult. He cautioned that while the subject of an international criminal jurisdiction had been on the UN agenda since the organization was founded, it was nowhere near acceptance by the world community. He gave me his blessing and wished me luck.

I also had occasion to meet Rene Cassin, a leading proponent of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for which he had received a Nobel Peace Prize. Cassin was a distinguished Jewish lawyer who had escaped from Paris with General de Gaulle when German armies invaded France. He was being honored by a luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, and there, Faut de mieux, I served as his translator. We remained in touch for many years. I admired his persistence and courage, and his example encouraged me in my decision to work for a more humane world. Of course, I also discussed my plans at length with my friend and law partner Telford Taylor. He too had been drifting away from the practice of law in New York and teaching part-time at various universities. He suggested that I consult with Professor Myres McDougal of Yale.

Professor McDougal, of Mississippi, was one of the most outstanding legal scholars in the world. “Mac,” as he was known to his friends, was quite exceptional. His focus was on human rights. Most international law teachers were stodgy ex-diplomats dealing with the law of treaties and the protection of sovereign states. “Human rights” was not in their job description. They seemed to forget that, in a democracy, governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. McDougal was part of a new breed of law teachers who recognized that law was not static, but had to adapt to meet the needs of a changing society. Other professorial pioneers included Louis Sohn at Harvard, who wrote the classic World Peace Through World Law, Lou Henkin and Oscar Schachter at Columbia, as well as Tom Franck at New York University. They advocated the revolutionary notion that all human beings were endowed with fundamental rights that should be protected by the rule of law. I liked that idea. I think that a fellow named Thomas Jefferson had liked it too.

In January 1970, I wrote to Professor McDougal, and told him that I wanted to devote the rest of my life to the quest for world peace. He was rather surprised by my particular interest in preventing the crime of aggression and creating an international criminal court. He explained that he, and his co-author of Law and Minimum World Public Order, spent at least a year’s time on their chapter dealing with aggression, that it was their best intellectual work, and that no other reader had ever commented on it. He invited me to visit him at Yale. Since no one but me had noticed the profound analysis by this great professor I began to suspect that my work would not meet with widespread public acclaim. Since I had already concluded that stopping war-making was the most important problem in the world, I would not be not deterred by the anticipated difficulties and indifference.

I do not mean to suggest that I was alone in my determination to seek a more humane world. Quite the contrary, there were countless individuals and organizations concerned with peace and human rights. I wanted to find the most effective way that I could apply my experience in advancing the common goal. At first, I thought it might be best for me to go back to school to learn what I had missed while away fighting the war and setting up restitution programs. McDougal suggested that I had enough education with my Harvard doctorate and that I was probably too old to be accepted for a teaching career. He did not indicate how uneducated or young you had to be to qualify for such positions. Instead, he suggested that I think, read, and write on the subject. I followed the learned professor’s advice. I had already thought about it, but I figured it wouldn’t do much harm if I thought some more. I had already read quite a number of books dealing with related topics, and I was prepared to read many more. I was, however, not prepared to write about anything until I knew more about what I was supposed to be writing about.

My next step was to sink myself in additional studies. I went underground, so to speak. The best source for information about world peace could be found in books stored in the locked basement three stories under the main library of the United Nations. In order to gain access, I managed to get a pass as a member of a Non-Governmental Organization accredited to the UN. The Coordinating Board of Jewish Organizations was happy to list me as one of their representatives. Many agencies are delighted to accept your services if you are willing to work for nothing. Later, I represented the American Society of International Law (ASIL), which was a much more neutral and less provocative affiliation. It did not take long for me to discover the old League of Nations archives. I managed to be entrusted with a key to the vast treasure trove, and the librarians allowed me to remain in the cellar alone studying the dusty archives to my heart’s content. In my long hours of toiling amidst the musty records, I learned what plans were made to maintain peace after about 20 million people had been killed in World War I. I read all the minutes of all the meetings and all the related books and articles I could lay my hands on. It was like being in Paradise—with books instead of apples.

In addition to my intensive research, I attended lectures, meetings, and conferences at the UN and elsewhere dealing with related topics. I joined many organizations dedicated to creating a more peaceful world. Since these were all non-remunerative, I also had to keep up with the paid assignments I had from The Claims Conference and the United Restitution Organization which required me to attend meetings in Europe. At no expense to my old organizational clients, some of my time abroad was also spent studying at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg and at UN meetings in Geneva. I justified such diversions by rationalizing that if I could help build a world free of Holocausts, it might be more valuable than trying to squeeze additional reparations from Germany. Some of my former colleagues thought I had gone nuts.