With the passing of Louis Sohn, we have lost almost the entire cohort of international lawyers who were “present at the creation.” This phrase, which is the title of Dean Acheson’s autobiography,1 refers to the lawyers having been involved in the planning, drafting, and implementation of the post–World War II international system. This was an exhilarating achievement after the gloom of the international anarchy of the 1930s and the horrors of World War II. The founding of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and other organizations gave participants the satisfaction of having done something truly constructive. It left that cohort with a sense of accomplishment and great optimism about the future. The cohort comprised both veteran international lawyers and recent law school graduates. Louis was in an excellent position to observe and provide research support for these projects as the following autobiographical passage illustrates:
Dr. Ricardo J. Alfaro . . . was asked by William Draper Lewis, the Director of the American Law Institute in 1942, to participate in drafting a statement on essential human rights that would implement President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. Alfaro was a friend of Manley O. Hudson, Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard Law School, and came to see him about it. During the conversation, he asked whether Hudson knew about any previous drafts of international declarations on human rights. I was Hudson’s assistant at that time and was sitting across the table from them working on the book on international tribunals. Hudson looked at me and, in his usual style, said: “Louis, find one for him.” . . . I glanced behind me, and there was a collection of the Hague Academy’s Receuil des Cours. [I found a reference to the 1929 declaration of the Institut de Droit International] and in a few minutes was able to hand Alfaro the text of the declaration. He took notes, thanked us and departed. Of course, this visit stimulated my interest in human rights. . . .2
These internationalists thereafter worked to maintain the institutions thus created, despite the difficulties they encountered. Louis focused on the United Nations, where he became the expert. Those who survived into the 1990s saw their optimism vindicated by the end of the Cold War and the development of cooperation between the former “evil empire” and the Western community. Events beginning with the attack on Iraq in 2003 without the blessing of the Security Council have been devastating to that optitism. A new generation of international law scholars has emerged that welcomes the destruction of all obstacles to the United States’ exercise of its hegemonic powers. One rather hopes that Louis never really absorbed the degree to which his system was shattered by those events.
Louis Sohn played an active role in public affairs and saw success come to several ventures. He was able to make headway on political fronts in alliance with various charismatic people. His work was important in the creation of the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act of 1976, with the principal public role played by Monroe Leigh, the Legal Adviser, who had finely honed Washington bureaucratic and congressional skills. Louis contributed significantly to the formulation of a text for the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, though the bureaucratic and political work fell to the lot of John Stevenson, a polished Wall Street lawyer. In his less successful efforts to build a more effective United Nations, Louis was associated with Grenville Clark, whom he characterized in his memorial address as “a patrician gentleman.”3 Louis, as co-reporter, was also a major participant in the work of the American Law Institute on the Restatement (Third) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States. Louis was elected to such important posts as the presidency of the American Society of International Law (1988–1989) and chair of the international law section of the American Bar Association (1992–2003). One of the topics Louis dedicated his pioneering efforts to was the law of human rights. While it would have appealed to him in any case, his own experience in escaping Poland in 1939 on the last boat from Gdansk coupled with what happened to those who could not leave must have given him an added impetus. In this, his experience paralleled that of Thomas Buergenthal, with whom he collaborated extensively. It was a major innovation in international law to think that a state has duties to treat its own nationals humanely, and it is much to Louis’s credit that he saw the possibilities and challenges so early.
As a teacher, Louis remained in a European mode. He was not a charismatic teacher in large classes, although he delivered clear and precise lectures. His outstanding impact was on graduate students with whom he acted as a Doktorvater. He sympathized with their struggles, doubtless remembering his rather difficult early years at Harvard Law School when he arrived in Cambridge without any resources or backing. He pressed his students hard and led them deep into the world of learning that he had accumulated. Louis and I supervised a student’s thesis having to do with the exploitation of mineral resources in the deep seabed when the boundaries were in dispute between two nations. Louis pressed him so hard in his research of the maritime boundary issues that the student had trouble fitting in the reading on issues of oil and gas law that he needed to complete my part of the research. In any case, the student, now an important public servant in his home country, became a loyal devotee of Louis, as did an impressive string of doctoral degree holders. It is significant that when the shadows lengthened on Louis’s life, it was these graduate students who communicated their concern, who visited Louis when that seemed to be useful, and who passed on the news about his situation. One of Louis’s most passionate relationships was with books. He was, in a sense, the ultimate international law scholar of the Gutenberg epoch with a voracious appetite for reading and a tenacious memory. For one thing, he had an enormous collection of U.N. documents, a body that grew relentlessly from its modest beginnings in the 1940s to a mountain of paper thirty years later. Colleagues were surprised when he could reach into the mountainous pile and pull out exactly the document that they needed. When he left Harvard to go to Georgia in 1981, the Mayflower moving company summoned its largest sixteen-wheeler to move that collection. When I asked the driver if he could handle the challenge, he said that the truck could manage it, but expressed some concern about one or two bridges near Athens, Georgia.
The roll of honors that Louis accumulated during his career includes almost every award available in the field, and he deserved them all. They included the Manley O. Hudson Medal of the American Society of International Law, the Leonard Theberge Award from the American Bar Association, and enough honorary doctorates to entitle him to write, as some German dignitaries do, “Dr. h.c. mult.”4 But his real prize was the esteem and affection with which his students and colleagues regarded him. We will not see his like in the years to come.
1 DEAN ACHESON, PRESENT AT THE CREATION: MY YEARS IN THE STATE DEPARTMENT (1969).
2 Louis B. Sohn, How American Lawyers Prepared for the San Francisco Bill of Rights, 89 AM. J. INT’L L. 540, 546–47 (1995).
3 Louis B. Sohn, Memorial: Grenville Clark, 61 AM. SOC’Y INT’L L. PROC. 216, 217 (1967).
4 “Many honorary doctorates.”