Postwar justice

February 4, 2021

Alumni, BackThen

Approximately 75 years ago, David Nelson Sutton, a 1915 graduate of the university’s law program, wrote the editor of UR’s Alumni Bulletin to describe his ongoing work as a prosecutor during the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, the Pacific theater’s counterpart to the Nuremberg Trials. The following is an excerpt from that 1946 letter:

By Matthew Dewald

We are now in the midst of the trial of 27 top-ranking Japanese. The indictment returned after some months of investigation and intensive study charges them with planning, initiating, and waging wars of aggression and wars in violation of treaties, agreements, assurances, and of international law. It charges the defendants with crimes against peace, conventional war crimes, and crimes against humanity. …

In addition to working with other counsel on several different phases of the war against China, I am solely responsible for the section dealing with “Atrocities against Civilians and Others by Japanese Troops in China.” I have already put on the stand some of the witnesses who have described the conduct of Japanese soldiers in Nanking following the fall of that city on December 13, 1937, commonly called “The Rape of Nanking.” Other witnesses … as well as evidence of alleged atrocities in all parts of occupied China covering the period from 1937 to 1945 will be introduced next week. One witness has also testified to the shooting of prisoners of war by Japanese at Hankow in October 1938.

The proceedings are necessarily slow. Seventy copies of each document offered in evidence must be made and copies served on the defense counsel 24 hours before it is offered. When a witness testifies in the Chinese language, the question is asked in English, repeated in Japanese and then in Chinese. The answer is in Chinese, and then is repeated in English and then in Japanese.

There is enough hard work to keep you out of mischief, but it is intensely interesting.

We are trying to get the facts straight and are more interested in what historians a century hence will say of the trial than what the American people and some of the citizens of the other countries taking part in the trial may say of it at this time. We hope to establish as a precedent the principle that a person or group of persons who lead a nation into a war of aggression or a war in violation of treaties and assurances is an ordinary criminal and may be dealt with as such. We also cherish the hope that this cooperative effort on the part of many nations seeking to administer equal justice under law may prove one step forward in the closer cooperation of all nations in the maintenance of world peace and order. It is the long view that keeps the daily task from being tedious and routine.

How long will the trial last? No one can say, but it will very likely be in progress the remainder of this year.

I was walking along a street in Shanghai, China, one afternoon the first part of June when a familiar voice called out, “Nelson Sutton, what are you doing here?” It was Jesse M. Johnson, ’22, of Richmond, then an officer in the Army on duty in China. You find Spiders everywhere.