An unwavering believer in international law

Detlev Frederick Vagts ’51, a renowned international law scholar and an expert on transnational business problems and the laws affecting international commerce, died Aug. 20.

Vagts began his career at Harvard Law School as an assistant professor in 1959, receiving tenure in 1962. He was named the Bemis Professor of International Law in 1984. During his tenure at Harvard, he ran the J.D./M.B.A. joint-degree program from its inception in 1969 until 2005.

Dean Martha Minow said: “We will always remember Det’s contributions to the worlds of public international law, international (and transnational) business transactions, corporate law, comparative lawyering, and legal ethics; his leadership of the law and business joint-degree program; and his kindness to colleagues and students over the past 50 years.”

Described by a former student as a “formidable generalist,” Vagts addressed the full spectrum of issues related to international law. He wrote or edited more than 50 books and was the co-author of two casebooks, “Transnational Legal Problems” and “Transnational Business Problems.” When Vagts and HLS Professor Henry Steiner ’55 wrote the first edition of “Transnational Legal Problems,” published in 1968, the collaboration marked a milestone in the field of international law. The casebook, currently in its fourth edition, is widely regarded as the leading compendium of materials for scholars and students in the field.

From 1976 to 1977, Vagts was a counselor on international law for the Department of State, where he worked at the Office of the Legal Adviser helping to negotiate treaties during the transition period between former Presidents Ford and Carter. He served as an associate reporter of the Restatement (Third) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States. Issued in 1987 by the American Law Institute, the restatement has been widely cited by the courts.

Vagts wrote dozens of articles, including “The International Legal Profession: A Need for More Governance?,” which addressed problems pertaining to professional behavior in international litigation and advocated for regulating international lawyers, and was published in the American Journal of International Law in 1996. For several years, he served as that journal’s editor-in-chief, with Theodor Meron LL.M. ’55 S.J.D. ’57.

In a tribute on the blog Opinio Juris, Harold Hongju Koh ’80 and two co-authors wrote: “Quietly, and through many channels, Vagts asserted enormous influence over what Oscar Schachter once called ‘the invisible college of international lawyers.’” That influence was visible in the Festschrift “Making Transnational Law Work in the Global Economy,” published in 2010 by Cambridge University Press. It brought together contributions from colleagues at HLS and at the American Society of International Law, as well as from other academics, judges and practitioners, many of them his former students. The collection, edited by Pieter Bekker LL.M. ’91, Rudolf Dolzer LL.M. ’76 S.J.D. ’78 and Michael Waibel LL.M. ’08, covers the spectrum of modern transnational law, from international law in general to transnational economic law to transnational lawyering and dispute resolution.

Vagts was born in 1929 in Washington, D.C., to an American mother, Miriam Beard Vagts, a historian and journalist for The New York Times, and a German father, Alfred Vagts, a German military historian. The family fled Nazi Germany in 1933 for the United States. Vagts’ maternal grandparents, Mary Ritter Beard and Charles Beard, renowned historians, played an influential role in his life. (In 1979, Vagts co-wrote with his father a historical study of ideas about “balance of power” in international law.) Vagts’ daughter Karen said, “Dad was from a dynasty of historians and inherited the gene.”

At the age of 16, he entered Harvard College, and he earned an A.B. in history in 1948. After graduating from law school, he practiced at Cahill Gordon & Reindel in New York City and served as judge advocate in the United States Air Force.

Vagts retired from the HLS faculty in 2005. In a tribute published in the Bulletin, his former student Pieter Bekker wrote that Vagts’ works and teachings show the marks of a fine comparative law tradition: “In the face of strong U.S. unilateralist and even isolationist tendencies, Vagts displays an unwavering belief in the rule of international law, and the notion that no nation can claim to be above it.”