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Detail, Joseph B. Keenan Papers, 1942-1947, Box 1, Folder 1, Seq. 20.

The Joseph Berry Keenan Digital Collection—comprising manuscript materials and photographs—offers researchers invaluable insight into the Japanese War Crimes Trial—one of the most important trials of the twentieth century.

The struggles of World War II did not end after the Japanese and German surrender to the Allied Powers; they merely shifted from land, air and sea battlefields to court rooms around the world. Thousands of defendants would be tried on various charges of conventional – and non-conventional – war crimes. The most famous of these trials were those held in Nuremberg and Tokyo. It was at these two trials, more than at any other, that a new chapter in international law would be written.

International law as it related to war crimes was not well established at the time of the Second World War. The Hague Conventions between 1899 and 1927 took steps to codify principles regarding warfare and established the Permanent Court of Arbitration in an effort to resolve international disputes. The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 formally renounced war, but it accomplished little in the way of establishing a legal structure for trying individuals accused of war crimes. On the whole, customary international law provided an inadequate framework for charging and trying individuals accused of crimes committed during the War.

The charges made by the Allies were more aggressive and comprehensive than those from any other time in modern history. Not satisfied with charging only military leaders, they also brought indictments against German and Japanese political and economic leaders. Examples of these charges include: preparing for, and waging a war of aggression; committing crimes against civilians for, among other reasons, religious or political beliefs; and the use of slave labor to support industry during the war. These crimes fell under new categories of war crimes – crimes against peace and humanity.

Military tribunals in Nuremberg and Tokyo were established by the Allies to hear the cases. The Japanese War Crimes Trial, commonly referred to as the Tokyo Trial was conducted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE). Though not as well remembered as the Nuremberg trial, The Tokyo Trial was no less important.

General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), established the IMFTE by Special Proclamation on January 19, 1946. The jurisdiction, functions, and constitution of the Tribunal were set forth in a Charter approved by MacArthur the same day. The Tribunal would oversee the trials of 28 high profile defendants charged with crimes against peace and humanity. The trial would last 2 ½ years and result in convictions for all of the defendants.

The Tokyo Trial was extraordinarily complicated. It was important to the Allies that convictions, if achieved, not be considered predetermined. Defendants were not to be denied basic due process rights. In Tokyo the International Defense Panel was established for the defense of those on trial. It included both Japanese and American lawyers. Prosecutorial resources were organized as the International Prosecution Section (IPS), and operated as a staff section of the SCAP. Overseeing the IPS was an American, Joseph B. Keenan, who would serve as both Chief of Council and Chief of Section.

Joseph B. Keenan was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island on January 11, 1888. He earned a B.A. and M.A. from Brown University in 1910, and a LL.B. from Harvard Law School in 1913. After serving in World War I he pursued a legal career. His prosecution of gangsters such as “Machine Gun Kelly” earned him a national reputation. Keenan was serving as Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice when he was selected by President Truman to lead the prosecution of the Tokyo Trial.

One of the most important results of both the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials was the creation of a permanent historical record of the events leading up to, and including, the trials. As one might imagine, these trial collections are enormous. Copies exist in repositories around the world, including Harvard. Unique to Harvard, however, is a collection of correspondence gathered by Joseph Keenan during his involvement with the trial.

The Joseph Berry Keenan Papers, 1942-1947, held by the Harvard law School Library, consists primarily of correspondence written during Keenan’s work as Chief Counsel in the International Prosecution Section. Most of the correspondence relates directly to the trial. There is a small subsection of letters between Keenan and colleagues from his Washington, D.C. law firm. Additional documents in the collection include: material relating to the court-martial of Major Walter V. Radovich; a three-page transcript of a 1946 interview with Madame Chiang-Kai-Shek; letters from Japanese and American citizens expressing their opinions on the war crime trials and the war itself; as well as some candid notes by Keenan on Japan and his work. The collection also includes newspaper clippings, photographs, business cards and notes.

The Joseph Berry Keenan photograph collection spans the years of 1945-1947 and consists primarily of unidentified black and white photographs collected by Keenan. Mostly personal in nature, the represented subjects include Keenan himself, military ceremonies and figures in Japan—including General Douglas MacArthur, banquets and celebrations, views of Japanese people and scenery, and aerial views of the Japanese landscape following the atomic bomb drops of 1945.

Digitization was provided by Harvard College Library’s Imaging Services.

Image credit: Detail, Joseph B. Keenan Papers, 1942-1947, Box 1, Folder 1, Seq. 20. Harvard Law School Library. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.