London: Picador, 2023
892 pp. $29.77 (paperback)

After Germany’s defeat in May 1945, leaders of the victorious Allies convened a trial in Nuremberg to prosecute Nazi leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity. That trial lasted eleven months, and although prosecutors blundered in some ways—most infamously, bungling Hermann Göring’s cross-examination so badly that Göring used the opportunity to simply lecture the courtroom about Hitler’s greatness—it became one of the most dramatic episodes in legal and political history.

That much is well known. What’s less remembered—at least in the United States—is that a similar trial started in Tokyo in April 1946, to prosecute the leaders of the Japanese empire for their part in the war. The work of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East took more than twice as long as the Nuremberg proceedings and, as Princeton professor Gary Bass explains in this extraordinary feat of scholarship, the legacy it left is more complicated, and more troubling, than that of the noble—if flawed—prosecution of the Nazis.

Allied war planners had sketched ideas for post-war tribunals as early as the autumn of 1942, but it was not until late in the war that they started seriously making arrangements. As late as the 1943 Tehran Conference, in fact, Joseph Stalin told Franklin Roosevelt—apparently in all seriousness—that, after winning the war, they should summarily execute fifty thousand German officers. Roosevelt jocularly replied that only 49,000 would be necessary. Winston Churchill, to his credit, was so disgusted by this that he stormed out of the room. Yet Churchill’s own government was actually planning summary executions at that very moment. It was only in late October 1944 that his staff decided to hold a trial—and then, ironically, at Stalin’s behest. “[He] took an unexpectedly respectable line,” Churchill told Roosevelt after a Moscow meeting with the communist dictator. “There must be no executions without trial otherwise the world would say we were afraid to try them.”1

Thus began the task of haling Göring and other Nazis before a panel of four judges—one each from France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the USSR—to answer not only for long-recognized war crimes such as massacring civilians and abusing POWs, but also for “crimes against peace.” That concept was intended to implement the principle that waging “aggressive” war—that is, initiating hostilities—is not merely immoral, but a literal crime for which political leaders can be personally punished.

That was a controversial idea . . .

As Princeton professor Gary Bass explains in his extraordinary feat of scholarship Judgment at Tokyo, the legacy of the Toyko trials is more complicated, and more troubling, than that of the noble—if flawed—prosecution of the Nazis.
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1. Telford Taylor, The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2013), 31.

2. Ann & John Tusa, The Nuremberg Trial (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2010), 101.

3. Robert Jackson, Opening Statement before the International Military Tribunal, Nov. 21, 1945, https://www.roberthjackson.org/speech-and-writing/opening-statement-before-the-international-military-tribunal.

4. IMTFE, Opinion of Mr. Justice Rolling, November 12, 1948, https://www.legal-tools.org/doc/fb16ff/pdf/, 11.

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