Defining International Aggression
The Search for World Peace

Report of Jackson to President

VIII. Report to the President by Mr. Justice Jackson, June 6, 1945

Note: Upon his return from Europe, Mr. Justice Jackson made a report to the President. It was released to the press by the White House with a statement of the President's approval and was widely published throughout Europe as well as in the United States. This report was accepted by other governments as an official statement of the position of the United States and as such was placed before all of the delegations to the London Conference. It follows:

June 6, 1945.

The White House,
Washington, D. C.


I have the honor to report accomplishments during the month since you named me as Chief of Counsel for the United States in prosecuting the principal Axis War Criminals. In brief, I have selected staffs from the several services, departments and agencies concerned; worked out a plan for preparation, briefing, and trial of the cases; allocated the work among the several agencies; instructed those engaged in collecting or processing evidence; visited the European theater to expedite the examination of captured documents, and the interrogation of witnesses and prisoners; coordinated our preparation of the main case with preparation by Judge Advocates of many cases not included in my responsibilities; and arranged cooperation and mutual assistance with the United Nations War Crimes Commission and with Counsel appointed to represent the United Kingdom in the joint prosecution.

The legal position which the United States will maintain, being thus based on the common sense of justice, is relatively simple and non-technical. We must not permit it to be complicated or obscured by sterile legalisms developed in the age of imperialism to make war respectable.

Doubtless what appeals to men of good will, and common sense as the crime which comprehends all lesser crimes, is the crime of making unjustifiable war. War necessarily is a calculated series of killings, of destructions of property, of oppressions. Such acts unquestionably would be criminal except that International Law throws a mantle of protection around acts which otherwise would be crimes, when committed in pursuit of legitimate warfare. In this they are distinguished from the same acts in the pursuit of piracy or brigandage which have been considered punishable wherever and by whomever the guilty are caught. But International Law as taught in the Nineteenth and the early part of the Twentieth Century generally declared that war-making was not illegal and is no crime at law. Summarized by a standard authority, its attitude was that "both parties to every war are regarded as being in an identical legal position, and consequently as being possessed of equal rights." This, however, was a departure from the doctrine taught by Grotius, the father of International Law, that there is a distinction between the just and the unjust war-the war of defense and the war of aggression.

International Law is more than a scholarly collection of abstract and immutable principles. It is an outgrowth of treaties or agreements between nations and of accepted customs. But every custom has its origin in some single act, and every agreement has to be initiated by the action of some state. Unless we are prepared to abandon every principle of growth for International Law, we cannot deny that our own day has its right to institute customs and to conclude agreements that will themselves become sources of a newer and strengthened International Law. International Law is not capable of development by legislation, for there is no continuously sitting international legislature. Innovations and revisions in International Law are brought about by the action of governments designed to meet a change in circumstances. It grows, as did the Common-law, through decisions reached from time to time in adapting settled principles to new situations. Hence I am not disturbed by the lack of precedent for the inquiry we propose to conduct. After the shock to civilization of the last World War, however, a marked reversion to the earlier and sounder doctrines of International Law took place. By the time the Nazis came to power it was thoroughly established that launching an aggressive war or the institution of war by treachery was illegal and that the defense of legitimate warfare was no longer available to those who engaged in such an enterprise. It is high time that we act on the juridical principle that aggressive war-making is illegal and criminal.

The reestablishment of the principle of unjustifiable war is traceable in many steps. One of the most significant is the Briand-Kellogg Pact of 1928, by which Germany, Italy and Japan, in common with ourselves and practically all the nations of the world, renounced war as an instrument of national policy, bound themselves to seek the settlement of disputes only by pacific means, and condemned recourse to war for the solution of international controversies. Unless this Pact altered the legal status of wars of aggression, it has no meaning at all and comes close to being an act of deception. In 1932, Mr. Stimson, as Secretary of State, gave voice to the American concept of its effect. He said, "War between nations was renounced by the signatories of the Briand-Kellogg Treaty. This means that it has become illegal throughout practically the entire world. It is no longer to be the source and subject of rights. It is no longer to be the principle around which the duties, the conduct, and the rights of nations revolve. It is an illegal thing. ... By that very act, we have made obsolete many legal precedents and have given the legal profession the task of re-examining many of its codes and treaties."

This Pact constitutes only one in a series of acts which have reversed the viewpoint that all war is legal and have brought International Law into harmony with the common sense of mankind, that unjustifiable war is a crime. Without attempting an exhaustive catalogue, we may mention the Geneva Protocol of 1924 for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, signed by the representatives of forty-eight governments, which declared that "a war of aggression constitutes ... an international crime". The Eighth Assembly of the League of Nations in 1927, on unanimous resolution of the representatives of forty-eight member nations, including Germany, declared that a war of aggression constitutes an international crime. At the Sixth Pan-American Conference of 1928, the twenty-one American Republics unanimously adopted a resolution stating that "war of aggression constitutes an international crime against the human species."

The United States is vitally interested in recognizing the principle that treaties renouncing war have juridical as well as political meaning. We relied upon the Briand-Kellogg Pact and made it the cornerstone of our national policy. We neglected our armaments and our war machine in reliance upon it. All violations of it, wherever started, menace our peace as we now have good reason to know. An attack on the foundations of international relations cannot be regarded as anything less than a crime against the international community, which may properly vindicate the integrity of its fundamental compacts by punishing aggressors. We therefore propose to charge that a war of aggression is a crime, and that modem International Law has abolished the defense that those who incite or wage it are engaged in legitimate business. Thus may the forces of the law be mobilized on the side of peace.

Any legal position asserted on behalf of the United States will have considerable significance in the future evolution of International Law. In untroubled times, progress toward an effective rule of law in the international community is slow indeed. Inertia rests more heavily upon the society of nations than upon any other society. Now we stand at one of those rare moments when the thought and institutions and habits of the world have been shaken by the impact of world war on the lives of countless millions. Such occasions rarely come and quickly pass. We are put under a heavy responsibility to see that our behavior during this unsettled period will direct the world's thought toward a firmer enforcement of the laws of international conduct, so as to make war less attractive to those who have governments and the destinies of peoples in their power.

Source: Report of Robert H. Jackson, United States Representative to the International Conference on Military Trials : London, 1945, International Organisation and Conference Series II, European and British Commonwealth 1, Department of State Publication 3080, Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1949, pp. 42, 51-53.
Editorial Note: This is a true copy of an extract (pp. 42, 51-53) of the "Report of Robert H. Jackson, United States Representative to the International Conference on Military Trials", as referenced above. This document is reproduced in Benjamin B. Ferencz's work "Defining International Aggression - The Search for World Peace", Vol. 1, as Document No. 18 (b).

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