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Robert A. Taft by Rudolf Anton Bernatschke

Summary of Robert Taft (Chapter IX) from Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy

Robert A Taft, the son of William Howard Taft, was known as "Mr. Republican": a conservative's conservative, with presidential aspirations. Taft made a speech at Kenyon College in October 1946 called "Equal Justice Under Law" in which he strongly opposed the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials that were just ending. The defendants were the architects of the Nazi regime who had been found guilty of waging a war of aggression and had been sentenced to death. To Taft, the defendants were being tried under ex post facto laws (laws that apply retroactively, especially those which criminalize an action that was legal when it was committed). These laws are expressly forbidden in the U.S. Constitution (Article I, section 9 and section 10). Taft viewed the Constitution as the foundation of the American system of justice and felt that discarding its principles in order to punish a defeated enemy out of vengeance was a grave wrong. Speaking out against the Nuremberg Trials seemed quixotic at best and unpatriotic at worst. He was pilloried in the press, by his constituents, by legal experts, and by his fellow Senators on both sides of the aisle. The fallout from the speech may have also played a small part in his unsuccessful presidential bid in 1948. However, Taft so strongly believed in the wisdom of the Constitution that speaking out was more important than his personal ambitions or popularity. Many years later, William O. Douglas of the Supreme Court agreed with Taft's view that the Nuremberg Trials were an unconstitutional use of ex post facto laws.

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