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The Example of Private Slovik
Of the thousands of American soldiers court-martialed for desertion in World War II, Eddie Slovik was the only one put to death. One of the judges who convicted him looks back with regret.
September/October 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 6
At the time, Huie had first-rate conservative credentials as former editor of the American Mercury and as a national news commentator. During our conversation in my office before we met at dinner, this slight, tired-looking ex-naval officer from Alabama let some dire hints drop. Hostile questions were beginning to be asked by a conservative congressman from Slovik’s district, among others, about Elsenhower’s role. For example, why was a Catholic white boy the only man to be executed by the U.S. Army for desertion since Abraham Lincoln’s time? What seemed to disturb Huie—or perhaps what he wanted to have disturb us—was the political hate that the extreme right right wing felt for Elsenhower, whom they saw as a soft middle-of-the-roader. These were the times of McCarthy, and it was not fanciful to imagine a new storm center building.
The legal inexperience of his defense counsel amounted to a failure to grant Slovik the full benefit of his day in court. He did not get a fair trial.
There was a certain brutal directness about Huie, possibly a profesional trait of the investigative journalist. He had told Slovik’s widow—unaware till then—exactly how and why Slovik had died eight years before. He gave her a sum of money to talk with him and permit him to write the story. At dinner he asked us some challenging and personal questions. But he did not try to corral the answers he wanted. All those around the table, with the exception of Huie, knew one another, several as close friends. We were generous with our recollections and opinions. A few undertook to put Huie in touch with others who had had firsthand contact with Slovik or the case.
A few months after the meeting, true to his word, Huie sent me the pre-publication script of my remarks for review. The comments he attributed to me were not what I remembered and had noted. What appeared in the book was this corrected version:
Doctor Kimmelman: “A few weeks after I had voted for the death sentence for Slovik as a member of the court, I was captured in the Bulge battle, and didn’t know of his execution until after my release from a German prison camp. In prison, we often talked about the case. I can’t say positively what I would have done if I had still been with the division in January, 1945, but the experiences in the Battle of the Bulge altered my views. I came to believe front-line offenses ought to be judged only by front-line personnel. At trial time we had not been a court of front-line personnel. He got a fair trial under the circumstances, but in retrospect, the circumstances were not fair. I believe I would have tried to do whatever was in my power to get the entire case reviewed on this basis.”
The one part of my statement in Huie’s book with which I do not agree today is the next-to-last sentence: “He got a fair trial under the circumstances, but in retrospect, the circumstances were not fair.” I meant to make plain by the term fair trial that no one had attempted to feed us inside information or influence us in advance. The statement otherwise is a contradiction in terms, like that bromide of vigilante justice “Give him a fair trial and then hang him.” I should always have known that there cannot be a fair trial under unfair circumstances.
It all had begun for me late in the afternoon of November 10, 1944, when a Captain French and I were handed orders to report for a court-martial the next day. We were just returning to the bivouac area after a long, silent hike from the clearing company hospital, where we had learned that our best buddy, Captain Rokey, had died of his wounds. He had volunteered three weeks before to go forward to command a line company. I cannot know just what Captain French or any of the others assigned to the court were thinking as we took our seats at that judgment table the next morning. I do not even know that I succeeded in making my own mind and feelings neutral. After all, I was hearing the case of a deserter who had not been hurt and who refused to return to the line. However, there were no challenges by the defense. Captain Woods, the routinely assigned defense counsel, was good enough at his various jobs but was young like the rest of us and had no legal training. Even with the best will and devotion, he had to be out of his depth.