George F. Will, the pseudo-don of political punditry, began to unravel last year when faced with Donald Trump’s candidacy, nomination, and electoral victory. Inasmuch as I don’t read Will as religiously as I used to — when he had sensible things to say about Barack Obama — I failed to witness the point at which he became unhinged. But unhinged he is, as evidenced by a recent column in The Washington Post. It’s about the possibility of a Trump-ordered first strike against North Korea:
A U.S. war of choice against North Korea would not be a pre emptive war launched to forestall an imminent attack. Rather, it would be a preventive war supposedly justified by the fact that, given sophisticated weapons and delivery systems, imminence might be impossible to detect.
Will ends the column with this:
It would be interesting to hear the president distinguish a preventive war against North Korea from a war of aggression. The first two counts in the indictments at the 1946 Nuremberg trials concerned waging “aggressive war.”
The counts refer to the aggression against Poland. There is no parallel between Poland, with its relatively primitive armed forces and lack of bellicosity, and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea.
Further, though there was moral justification for war-crimes prosecutions of Nazis after World War II, the legal footing of the Nuremberg trials is on shaky ground. Here are some passages from the Wikipedia article about the trials:
Critics of the Nuremberg trials argued that the charges against the defendants were only defined as “crimes” after they were committed and that therefore the trial was invalid as a form of “victor’s justice”. The alleged double standards associated with putative victor’s justice are also evident from the indictment of German defendants for conspiracy to commit aggression against Poland in 1939, while no one from the Soviet Union was charged for being part of the same conspiracy. As Biddiss observed, “the Nuremberg Trial continues to haunt us. … It is a question also of the weaknesses and strengths of the proceedings themselves.”…
Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Harlan Fiske Stone called the Nuremberg trials a fraud. “(Chief U.S. prosecutor) Jackson is away conducting his high-grade lynching party in Nuremberg,” he wrote. “I don’t mind what he does to the Nazis, but I hate to see the pretense that he is running a court and proceeding according to common law. This is a little too sanctimonious a fraud to meet my old-fashioned ideas.”
Jackson, in a letter discussing the weaknesses of the trial, in October 1945 told U.S. President Harry S. Truman that the Allies themselves “have done or are doing some of the very things we are prosecuting the Germans for. The French are so violating the Geneva Convention in the treatment of prisoners of war that our command is taking back prisoners sent to them. We are prosecuting plunder and our Allies are practising it. We say aggressive war is a crime and one of our allies asserts sovereignty over the Baltic States based on no title except conquest.”
Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas charged that the Allies were guilty of “substituting power for principle” at Nuremberg. “I thought at the time and still think that the Nuremberg trials were unprincipled,” he wrote. “Law was created ex post facto to suit the passion and clamor of the time.”
U.S. Deputy Chief Counsel Abraham Pomerantz resigned in protest at the low caliber of the judges assigned to try the industrial war criminals such as those at I.G. Farben.
Will himself has questioned the legality of the Nuremberg trials. It was an act of intellectual desperation to bring them into the discussion.
All in all, Will’s recent column is weak on the facts and weak as a matter of historical analysis. The main impetus for the column seems to be Will’s fixation on Trump. His doubts about Trump’s stability and soundness of judgment may be justified. But Will ought to have stuck to those doubts, and elaborated on them.