In Memoriam: Detlev F. Vagts (1929-2013)

by Harold Hongju Koh, William S. Dodge and Hannah L. Buxbaum

[Harold Hongju Koh is Sterling Professor of International Law, Yale Law School. William S. Dodge is Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Hannah L. Buxbaum is Interim Dean and John E. Schiller Chair in Legal Ethics at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. They are the co-authors of Vagts, Dodge, Koh & Buxbaum, Transnational Business Problems (5th ed., forthcoming 2014).]

Our friend and esteemed co-author Detlev F. Vagts, Harvard’s Bemis Professor of International Law Emeritus, quietly passed away earlier this week. Although Det was a deeply modest man, exceedingly gentle and hardworking, his legacy as a scholar and teacher is far too great for him to pass without fanfare among international lawyers. We three had the great privilege of carrying on the work that he and his friend and co-author Henry J. Steiner began. Steiner and Vagts’ Transnational Legal Problems evolved from the path-breaking Harvard casebook first developed by Milton Katz and Kingman Brewster. From Transnational Legal Problems grew Transnational Business Problems, which Vagts authored alone in 1986. Koh joined Transnational Legal Problems in 1994, Dodge and Koh joined Transnational Business Problems in 2003, and Buxbaum has added her pen for the fifth edition due out in 2014. But although we styled ourselves Det’s co-authors, in truth, we always considered ourselves, first and foremost, Det’s students.

The son of a lawyer who had fled Nazi Germany, Vagts was a studious man: an expert on international and corporate law who spent countless hours sitting in his office deep in the stacks of Langdell Library, with his door open, writing thoughtfully or absorbed in a book he had pulled from the library shelves. He was a man of great moral fiber, unafraid to preach at Memorial Church or to speak with passion at contentious faculty meetings. In the flesh, Det surprised us by being supremely gentle, wise, and gracious. He revealed a wry sense of humor and an unshakeable sense of decency. Each of us corresponded with Det in different ways, but we invariably learned from the example of his humanity and his daunting work ethic, which regularly led him, even in the later years of his life, to send us extensive comments on whatever we had sent him.

But Det’s modesty should not overshadow his stature. Quietly, and through many channels, Vagts asserted enormous influence over what Oscar Schachter once called “the invisible college of international lawyers.” He wrote regularly in the American Journal of International Law and for a number of years, served as Editor-in-Chief with Theodor Meron. He was Counselor on International Law at the State Department and Associate Reporter of the historic Restatement (Third) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States. And long before the term became politically controversial, Vagts was a committed transnationalist. All transnational legal issues, he and his co-author Henry Steiner once wrote, “occupy different positions on a spectrum between the extremes of ‘national’ and ‘international’ law, or on one between ‘private’ and ‘public’ law.” Accordingly, Steiner and Vagts’ Transnational Legal Problems spanned virtually the entire spectrum of public and private international law, international dispute resolution, comparative law, military law, the law of development, professional responsibility, securities regulation, and corporate law.

After September 11, Vagts’ scholarship reaffirmed his unwavering commitment to the rule of international law even in times of crisis. He drew cautionary lessons from the role of international lawyers in Nazi Germany to challenge overly expedient resort to the military paradigm in a time of terror. Some of his last works reminded us of the critical role of international lawyers as guardians of ethical professional behavior in international dispute resolution.

By the end of his career, Vagts was acknowledged as one of the fathers of transnationalism. As proof of his legacy, one need only leaf through the pages of his sweeping Festschrift, edited by his devoted friends Pieter Bekker, Rudolf Dolzer, and Michael Waibel, which unites the varied subject matters of Vagts’ life’s work. Under the title Making Transnational Law Work in the Global Economy, this collection of essays brings together works by many of Vagts’ most illustrious colleagues and students under four headings: International Law in General; Company & Commercial Law; Investment; and Dispute Resolution. The essays together highlight key leitmotifs of Vagts’ career: his reflections on the critical role of the transnational lawyer, the function of transnational law in the global economy, and the value of transnational law and institutions as tools for the peaceful resolution of disputes.

Detlev Vagts was a practical yet idealistic man, never one to toot his own horn, or to complain when life took a difficult turn. He lived and died quietly, but throughout his life, he was the supreme gentleman, scholar, and teacher. He should be remembered with deep admiration and gratitude for all he taught us.

http://opiniojuris.org/2013/08/23/in-memoriam-detlev-f-vagts-1929-2013/

2 Responses

  1. Prof Vagts had also served as an Air Force judge advocate in the mid-50’s for three years.  When I was doing my LLM at Harvard, once Prof Vagts discovered I was an AF JAG, he regularly sought me out to discuss national security and military law.  I wonder if many people knew how proud he was of his service in uniform?
    Such a remarkable scholar; such a generous and kind man.  We will all miss him greatly.

  2. My JD-MBA advisor from79-83. Advisor on my Third Year Paper on the Lois Auroux. His invite to speak to the JD-MBA’s in the late 80’s or early 90’s started me thinking about the teaching life. Reference in the AALS process. Colleague at ASIL meetings with his little hat. A genuinely sweet man.
    Rest in Peace,
    Ben

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