Born in Chicago in 1908 to immigrant parents (his father was from the Polish town of Oswiecim, later known to the world as Auschwitz), Arthur Goldberg was one of the most prominent labor lawyers of his day. During World War II he joined the OSS as chief strategist of clandestine U.S. contacts with labor groups in occupied Europe. He became general counsel of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1948, where he was known as an opponent of communist influence and was the architect of its 1955 merger with the American Federation of Labor to form the AFL-CIO. Joining John F. Kennedy’s cabinet in 1961 as secretary of labor, he was elevated a year later to the Supreme Court, taking the so-called Jewish seat from the ailing Felix Frankfurter.
Goldberg’s most important act on the court involved the death penalty. He argued in a 1963 internal Supreme Court memorandum that the death penalty was condemned by the international community and should be regarded as “cruel and unusual punishment,” violating the Eight Amendment. Goldberg was the first to argue this position: prior to his memo, no Supreme Court case had addressed the question of whether the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment. Subsequently, with support from fellow liberals William Brennan and William O. Douglas, Goldberg wrote a dissenting opinion to the court’s denial of certiorari in a case, Rudolph v. Alabama, involving the death penalty for rape. Goldberg noted that a UN survey had found only five nations allowed imposition of the death penalty for rape, including the United States, and that 33 American states had already outlawed it.
Goldberg’s dissent sent a signal to lawyers across the nation to challenge the constitutionality of capital punishment in appeals. As a result of the influx of appeals, the death penalty effectively ceased to exist in the United States for the remainder of the 1960s and 1970s, and the Supreme Court considered the issue in the 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia, where the justices voted 5-4 to effectively suspend states’ death penalty laws nationwide on grounds that they were inconsistently and capriciously applied. The court restored the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia in 1976.
Goldberg’s tenure on the court ended unhappily when he resigned in 1965 under pressure from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who wanted to appoint his friend Abe Fortas to the court. Johnson named him U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Goldberg wrote in his memoirs that he resigned the court in order to have influence in keeping the peace in Vietnam and that after the crisis had passed he expected he would be reappointed to the Supreme Court by Johnson. “I had an exaggerated opinion of my capacities. I thought I could persuade Johnson that we were fighting the wrong war in the wrong place [and] to get out.” Disappointed on both scores, he left the UN in 1968 and returned to private practice, in addition to serving briefly as president of the American Jewish Committee. In 1970 he mounted an unsuccessful campaign for governor of New York, losing to Republican Nelson Rockefeller.
Goldberg’s best-known achievement at the UN was the drafting of Resolution 242 in November 1967, calling for a compromise peace in the Middle East following the Israeli-Arab Six-Day War the previous June. Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister at the time, later spoke of Goldberg as a historic figure in Jewish history for his role in defending Israel’s interests during and after the war. In particular, Goldberg was responsible for ensuring that the English version of Resolution 242, the official version, called on Israel to withdraw “from territories occupied in the recent conflict” — and not from “the” territories, thereby preserving Israel’s legal right to negotiate adjustments in the pre-1967 lines.
While serving on the Supreme Court, Goldberg took an interest in the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union. In September 1963 he invited the Senate’s two Jewish members, Abraham Ribicoff and Jacob Javits, to meet with him to discuss consider strategy. The three met with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and then in late October with President Kennedy, who displayed considerable familiarity with the situation, Goldberg later said. Kennedy arranged for the three to meet with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, who denied any problems. After Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, their access to Dobrynin ended. Goldberg then turned to the leadership of the Jewish community, convening a meeting with several organizational heads on December 19 and declaring that the time for silence was over.
In April 1964, working with New York-based Israeli diplomats attached to the clandestine Prime Minister’s Liaison Bureau for Soviet Jews, Goldberg chaired a national conference in Washington with several hundred representatives of Jewish organizations in attendance. The gathering voted to establish a permanent structure, the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry, later renamed the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, with representation from the three dozen national organizations represented on the Conference of Presidents and close to 100 local Jewish community relations councils and federations. The conference became the Jewish community’s main advocacy and negotiating agency on behalf of Soviet Jewish emigration.
Goldberg’s last stint in public service was as U.S. ambassador to the Belgrade Conference on Human Rights in 1977. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter in 1978.
In September 1981, back in private law practice, Goldberg agreed to chair an American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust, with Javits and Ribicoff as vice chairs, to examine the American Jewish community’s response during the Holocaust. The commission was the brainchild of Jack Eisner, a wealthy Holocaust survivor. It met several times over the next year and disbanded in August 1982, after Goldberg charged in a letter that Eisner had “not made available the full grant which was promised.”
As historian Lucy Dawidowicz documented a year later in a scathing, lengthy account in Commentary, “Indicting American Jews,” the main driving forces behind its activities were surviving activists from the old Bergson group, followers of Zionist Revisionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, who had been working since the early war years to tar the liberal mainstream Jewish community leadership and its allies, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Palestinian Labor Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion, with betraying the Jews of Europe. The activists have claimed ever since that the commission was undermined, “sabotaged from within,” one journalist wrote, by the unwillingness of American Jewish liberals to confront their weakness.
Goldberg died in 1990 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery as a veteran of the wartime OSS.