Commentary Magazine

The Memoirs of Earl Warren, by Earl Warren

Justice Remembered

The Memoirs of Earl Warren.
by Earl Warren.M
Prologue and Epilogue by the Editors. Double-day. 394 pp. $12.95.

Heinrich Heine once observed that the reason no one had written a biography of Immanuel Kant was that he did not have one. It would be unjust to say the same of the late Earl Warren—his “memoirs” do have their moments—but on the whole this book is bland reading.

As Warren tells it, his life followed a straight-line development. Generous, hard-working, morally upright, he was a man who never changed his vision of things or altered his sense of right and wrong, good and evil. The world of characters in this book neatly divides into conscientious public servants on the one hand, and self-seeking enemies of society on the other. (Warren tells us that early in his life he formed a view of corporations as evil and monopolistic; later in his career, the list was expanded to include Southern Congressmen, detractors of the Court, and other “reactionaries.”) Throughout, there is no doubt about the motives and failings of those whom Warren opposes, be they criminals or conservatives, as there is no doubt about his own virtues and right opinions.

Though possessed, he tells us, of a pure heart and a clear vision, Warren does not lay claim to great intellectual gifts; his grades in college were strong in history, political science, and English, but very low in foreign languages and mathematics. He was not a man inclined to learning, and his memoirs are empty of reference to any of the great Western ideas in philosophy, history, politics, or law. But if not a man of learning, he was, he avers, a man of sense, and also of sentiment. In the army, when asked by the captain of his company to grade candidates applying for officer-status, Warren demurred: he did not want to be “the means of anyone failing.” As a district attorney, he fought hard for guilty pleas in the cases he prosecuted, but always felt bad whenever such a verdict was given. His account of the murder of his own father is almost unbelievably placid.

In short, the story of Earl Warren—district attorney, attorney general and governor of California, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, chairman of the Warren Commission—sounds like nothing so much as a modern-day Pilgrim’s Progress, in which Christian, as an optimistic Californian, makes his stalwart way through the 20th-century Slough of Despond. Certainly there is a great distance between this book and the sorts of books by and about Justices of the Supreme Court that have become common nowadays, such as the recently published memoirs of Felix Frankfurter1 and the new biography of Justice Black.2 In Warren’s account of his life there are no personal scandals or transgressions, no history of membership in unseemly organizations, not a hint of deviation from the path of dedicated public service, scarcely a hint of bad judgment.

The most interesting parts of the book are Warren’s descriptions of the bunko artists, corrupt politicians, racketeers, and other criminals he and his raiders pursued when he was a district attorney and then attorney general of California. There are good stories here, and a good account of the tenacity of a small but energetic staff dealing effectively with organized crime.

Students of the Supreme Court, on the other hand, will find little new or arresting in the book. There are the familiar words of praise, including self-praise, for Brown v. Board of Education, where praise is deserved, and for Baker v. Carr, the “one man, one vote” decision Warren regards as his most important, where praise is not so clearly deserved. Warren does confess to being completely unprepared for his work on the Court at the time he was named Chief Justice, and in this unprepared state he was thrown into the deliberations of Brown. But throughout his Court cases, he was sure enough of his ground always to stand against “hysteria” and “overzealousness”—by which he appears to mean any opposition to or criticism of the Warren Court’s decisions. Paul Freund has said that Justice Brandeis joined morality of heart to morality of mind. On the Warren Court, morality of heart was predominant.



We are told by the anonymous editors of this book that Warren wrote his “memoirs” when he was over eighty years old, and the book is hence an apology in the root sense—a justification of his actions throughout his life. During his term on the Court and later, as chairman of the Warren Commission, Warren was strongly and stoically silent in the face of criticism, some of it vicious. Given the opportunity to speak for himself and against his critics, he understandably does just that, attempting, on the whole quite successfully, to convince the reader that he was a decent and well-intentioned man.

But his editors cannot leave it at that. In a prologue and epilogue, they identify Warren with everything they appear to think he would have approved of, and they even provide a check-list. Thus, we are told that Warren “felt the freshening winds of rebellion when they began to blow with the student movement of the “60s”; that “he was resolute in bringing about improvements in the protection of the consumer at the mercy of monopolistic corporations,” and of “the non-religious at the mercy of organized religion,” and of “the protester at the mercy of whatever forces would suppress his or her [sic] small voice.” He supposedly did all this, moreover, with a stolidity made possible by “his basic beliefs, which were rooted in his hardworking, injustice-hating proletarian childhood.” Even on those few occasions when he failed to decide “correctly,” as when he sided with a Board of Regents (in Barsky) against an individual, his editors assure us that “he adjusted, as if with the aid of a humanistic gyrocompass, to a more liberal course soon after.”

This editorial remolding of Warren raises a suspicion. The book bears an announcement that “a certain amount of editorial tinkering and checking was required” on the memoirs themselves before they were ready for public consumption, but that “the original manuscript can be made available for inspection.” After four months and several phone calls and letters, my request to be allowed to inspect the manuscript was finally answered by a letter that said Mrs. Warren would be asked to give me permission to review the manuscript if I had “plans to come to Washington.” Why this runaround from Double day? Is it conceivable that the Earl Warren on whose memoirs these “memoirs” are based was different from the paragon of piety presented here? Exactly who wrote these “memoirs,” and what are we reading when we read them?


1 From the Diaries of Felix Frankfurter, edited by Joseph Lash, Norton, 356 pp., $12.50.

2 Hugo Black and the Judicial Revolution, by Gerald T. Dunne, Simon & Schuster, 492 pp., $12.50.

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