Conversation with Louis D. Brandeis about World War II

Conversation with Uncle Louis, Friday September 15, 1939

After ascending to the Supreme Court in 1916, Brandeis rarely gave interviews. As a result, it is difficult to discern how Brandeis felt on many issues of the day. His letters give some insight into his opinions and his personality, but by the 1920's his letters became shorter and more business-like. As a result they give almost no hint of Brandeis' personality. The charm of this transcription is that it provides a rare glimpse of what Brandeis was like when he was relaxed. Throughout his life, Brandeis was sought out by the luminaries of the day for his company. This transcription gives a brief impression of what one of those conversations was like.

The transcription was presumably made by Brandeis' niece Fanny (identified as "F".) The other two participants are Brandeis' wife Alice ("Aunt Alice") and British economist Redvers Opie, who was attached to the British Embassy at the time. The setting is probably Brandeis' apartment in Washington. The punctuation and notation of the original has been retained which may make for confusing reading, but with a little work it should not be too difficult to determine which quotes are Brandeis'.

"Louis [Wehle?] would change the Neutrality law if he were in Congress, how would you vote?"

I don't know, but perhaps the next few weeks will show how to vote.

"It's the same war, isn't it?"

"Well it's certainly the same people making war; from what we know of 25 years ago we know what to expect."

(Redvers) "I have no patience with those who blame this one the Treaty of Versailles."

"Oh--the Treaty of Versailles has little to do with this war. There were injustices, but it is the same thing in the German people which provoked the other war that has brought this one -- in that sense it is the same war. And assuming that the Allies win, what hope is there for the next peace?"

(F.) That's what I say -- the war depresses me, but the peace treaty depresses me even more.

"What can be done with such a people? Even if the treaty were the best that the wisdom of man and virtue of man can devise, what can be done with the German people? If it were the Germans to treat with them, they would kill every one." (Then a long sentence about - not verbatim)  No other such situation in the history of the civilized world. Nations have waged war on a grievance, sometimes manufactured, but to evict a whole group of people, robbing them at the same time shows a reversion to the Iroquois. If the Germans had followed the benign custom of Governments in invoking the right of eminent domain and arrived at a just system of recompense, the incensed feelings against them would have been largely reduced.

Redvers thinks the Special Session is to decide if America will go to War. Aunt Alice emphatically says No. Uncle Louis says it is impossible to tell what this country will do, as it is impossible to tell what will happen in Europe.

Redvers says when Hitler has cleaned up Eastern Europe and pretty well flattened out France and England, America will go into the war. As a Britisher, he wishes we would now: as an American he thinks we will on purely sentimental reasons, without rationalizing, and he thinks the neutrality legislation is beside the point.

Uncle Louis said one man close to the President told him he is apt to get his neutrality revisions through. LDB said "You mean you think he will?" "No - I said he is apt to." However, another, very close says he will get it. The Republicans will be with him. LDB doubts if it can be a short session.

All I can do is let people talk to me and imagine I help them. I don't - but...

No - the fifties are the best years - Justice Holmes didn't agree, he thought the seventies, but then, for all his philosophy, Justice Holmes worried.

"Did you ever worry?"

No, never - not even when I had the trouble with my eyes. That was when I was about nineteen. The doctor told me I had better give up all idea of the law. I told Father and he said to try another doctor (I had been to one in Boston and in Cincinnati) so I went to Dr. Knapp (?) in New York. And he said to go on - if I were a nervous woman it would be different, but with my temperament I could go on. It was a strain from too much use with the wrong kind of light, probably, flickering, uncertain light - there was never anything organically wrong with my eyes.

I sometimes think I might have had more education - eighteen and nineteen when I was in Law School. But I am a great believer in starting young. The enthusiasm and fire of youth means more than maturity.  So I think the fifties are the best. By that time I had been working thirty years and the experience of those years was there. I never worried.

"If you didn't worry about yourself, didn't you worry about the world or about people you cared about?"

I always went on the principle of 'Do what you can and hope for the best' - I worked on the problem at hand. All those years before I went on the Court, that was my philosophy.

"Did you ever expect you'd go on the Court?"

I never thought about it - I never worked for anything. I merely went ahead with what I had to do.


Ten years is very little time in which to accomplish anything. President Eliott always said twenty years - twenty years would show what had grown and developed.

Re-typed from transcription found in Brandeis Collection folder A1-7


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