Telford Taylor, 90, the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II and a pillar of the American legal profession, died yesterday at St. Luke's Hospital in New York after a stroke.
Mr. Taylor was a historian, scholar, teacher and civil libertarian. He was in the vanguard of the able young lawyers and intellectuals who flocked to Washington in the early 1930s to join the New Deal administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In the aftermath of the historic -- and sometimes controversial -- Nuremberg trials, which sought to hold Nazi leaders legally responsible for the crimes of World War II, Mr. Taylor was in the forefront of those enunciating the lessons of the proceedings.
"There are some universal standards of human behavior," he wrote, "that transcend the duty of obedience to national laws."
When the victorious allies put their vanquished Nazi foes on trial, historians called the practice unusual, and Mr. Taylor noted that there were "widely divergent views" of the precedent.
But it now appears commonplace to recognize that "I was only following orders" may fail as an effective defense to the gravest charges.
"The notion of individual accountability before the bar of international law lies at the heart" of the verdicts reached at Nuremberg, Mr. Taylor wrote.
At the first of the trials, which began only months after Germany surrendered in 1945 and lasted into the next year, Mr. Taylor was one of the senior deputies to Robert H. Jackson, the American chief prosecutor. Subsequently, Mr. Taylor as a U.S. Army brigadier general became chief prosecutor for later trials held from 1946 to 1949 by the U.S. military government.
In the words of Jonathan Bush, a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, who was working on a book with him, Mr. Taylor viewed the Nuremberg verdicts as challenges, as strict standards that victors as well as vanquished must adhere to. "The laws of war are not a one-way street," he once said.
At home after the trials, Mr. Taylor returned to the public eye as one of the leaders among the lawyers who stood up for politically unpopular defendants in the 1950s. At the time, it seemed that civil liberties were being ignored amid the anti-communist furor aroused by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.).
"Grand Inquest" (1955), one of several well-regarded works Mr. Taylor published, was viewed as an eloquent and constitutionally founded challenge to McCarthy's investigative techniques.
While a law school teacher at New York's Columbia University, Taylor was prominent as a critic of the Vietnam War. A descendant of the 17th century settlers of Massachusetts, Mr. Taylor was born in Schenectady, N.Y., where his father was a physicist for General Electric. He graduated from Williams College, and Harvard Law School before coming here to work before World War II in the New Deal and as a top aide to a major Senate investigating committee.
When World War II broke out, he was involved in intelligence work, playing an important diplomatic role with the Allied effort to break and make use of German codes.
His marriage to Mary Walker Taylor ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife, Toby Golick; six children; and eight grandchildren.