I came to Harvard to do my graduate work in international law because that is where Professor Louis B. Sohn taught. Already in my days as a student at the University of British Columbia we had used his casebook, then known as Cases on World Law. The idea that there could be such a thing as “World Law” inflamed my imagination and ignited a passion that has never quite subsided. Much later, when I became Sohn’s research assistant, I was proud beyond words to be assigned the task of helping prepare the next edition, though it was assigned the more sober-sounding title of United Nations Law.
Fifty years later, I have finally had the courage to publish my own course book entitled Constitutional Law of the United Nations. Until now, I have used the Sohn book with suitable supplemental materials, not feeling it either possible or necessary to replace the earlier masterpiece. Anyway, who could possibly attempt to provide students with the densely reasoned, copiously citation-filled essays that accompanied each Chapter? Who could aspire to the obscure but apposite historical references that filled the footnotes?
It was not only a privilege but also a delight to work with Sohn. My desk faced his in the cavernous Langdell office, which was opposite the redoubt of the venerable, but rather deaf, Judge Manley O. Hudson. As Hudson would roar peremptory orders to his research assistant—the doors of our offices were always open—Sohn would smile at me and say, “Aren’t you glad you work for me?” Indeed, I was.
Louis’s generosity extended to treating me as a full-fledged member of the little chowder-and-marching society that consisted of him, Richard Baxter, and, on occasion, Arthur von Mehren. We would go off to lunch together for intellectual discourse, gossip, and, thanks to Baxter, outrageous humor. It was all very heady for a mere doctoral candidate, and it has shaped my approach to my own research assistants, hopefully making me a humane enabler and role model for other generations. If so, it is the spirit of “Uncle Louis”—we all called him that, although not to his face—that inspires and informs my own deportment.
When I came to study with, and do research for, Sohn, he was working with his friend and mentor, Grenville Clark, on the influential World Peace Through World Law. I read it, of course, admiring it for the breathtaking sweep of its vision and the optimism which permeated its every assumption about the future possibility of genuine global governance. Only in my second year with Sohn did I have the courage to ask him whether he was being unduly optimistic about the human potential for creative change.
“Yes, I am,” he replied,
I believe that the best way to make incremental progress is to have a bold vision for the perfect future toward which incremental progress is to be made. If you don’t have the ultimate goal of progress clearly fixed in your vision, you won’t know in which direction to take the little steps that will eventually get you there. It’s the task of the scholar to imagine perfection and of others to find ways to get there.
His pride in being a visionary is evident, of course, in his writings, but also in a huge collection of giraffes that cluttered up his and his wife Betty’s apartment on the Charles River. As Sohn gravely explained, the giraffe is the patron symbol of the international lawyer. It demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to have one’s head in the clouds while keeping one’s feet firmly planted on the ground.
Many years later I acted as legal adviser to a group of “landlocked and geographically disadvantaged states” during the decade of negotiations on the law of the sea. Sohn, as a U.S. delegate, organized what amounted to a continuing seminar on peaceful dispute resolution at that conference. Many of the representatives of states who for years religiously attended its meetings were former students like me. Out of that informal seminar came Annex 7 of the Law of the Sea Convention, which established a model for the mandatory peaceful resolution of disputes. No one else could have invented Annex 7 or have persuaded states to adopt it. It was a glimpse of the visionary future in which Louis lived his professional life. It is sad that he did not live to see the United States join the Convention and thus to have made possible what ought to have been inevitable: his election to the Law of the Sea Tribunal.
But join the Convention we will. And, meanwhile, this former student is currently sitting as an arbitrator, under Annex 7, in an important case between Guyana and Suriname. The future Louis Sohn imagined, and the vision with which he inspired so many of his students, is happening. I can see it.
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