Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 867

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 867


This is the grave of Arthur Goldberg.

Born in 1908 in Chicago, Goldberg grew up as the son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. His father died in 1916. He didn’t have any money to begin with. He was just a produce peddler. Goldberg was too young to go to work but his older siblings had to drop out of school to support the family. He managed to avoid having to drop out. He graduated from high school in 1925 and went on to a couple of junior colleges, then DePaul, and finally Northwestern, working to put himself through school. He finished a first law degree at Northwestern in 1929 and then a law doctoral degree in 1930. His talents were obvious to his Northwestern professors, who named him to key positions among students and promoted his career to a significant extent.

Goldberg never forgot how he grew up. He knew the poor of Chicago and of the nation. And he dedicated his life to fight for them, using the law. He was deeply affected by the Leopold and Loeb case, which helped convince him to go into the law. He went into labor law and was a very important figure in the early years of the CIO, working for the new federation beginning in 1938. He had initially worked for some prominent Chicago firms, but opened his own practice in 1933 that specializing in representing workers and unions.

During World War II, Goldberg joined the Office of Strategic Services and finished the war as a major. His particular job was working with the underground labor movement in western Europe, building contacts between them and American officers for sabotage. Right guy for that job.

After the war, Goldberg started his own firm, which became pretty prominent. Then he went back to the CIO in 1948, when he became the federation’s general counsel, replacing Lee Pressman, who was the most important legal figure in the federation’s first decade. Increasingly, there was no reason for the CIO to exist as an independent federation, not after the communists were evicted and the mass organizing faded. So in 1955, Goldberg was the critical figure negotiating the merger of the CIO with the AFL. He was also the general counsel for the United Steelworkers of America, which in many ways was the most important union in the 1950s because unlike the United Auto Workers, which came to a relatively peaceful agreement with the Big Three in 1950, engaged in total war with still bitter and recalcitrant steel companies through the 50s who wanted to take the industry back to the 20s, leading to two massive strikes.

In 1961, when John F. Kennedy became president, he named Goldberg Secretary of Labor. He was quite effective in a short time at moving policy forward. This was the period when the public sector began organizing and Goldberg was a major supporter of this. He also pushed to increase the minimum wage, involved himself personally in strike negotiations to help settle them, created the White House Conference on National Economic Issues, and reorganized the Office of Manpower Administration. He was also deeply committed to fighting racism in discrimination. An excellent choice in an often marginal position in the Cabinet, Goldberg did a great job making the Department of Labor an important part of Kennedy-era policy.

But Goldberg remained in the job for only about 18 months because when Felix Frankfurter retired (hey Stephen Breyer pay extra attention here) due to poor health, Kennedy named Goldberg to replace him. He was of course a strong liberal. He was the critical figure in expanding the right to privacy through the Ninth Amendment, something that conservatives have always rejected. His concurrent opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut pushed this idea hard and laid the groundwork for Roe v. Wade eight years later. He despised the death penalty, going back to his initial Leopold and Loeb days, and argued strongly that it violated the Eighth Amendment. He wrote the dissent in Rudolph v. Alabama that pushed this idea, though only Douglas and Brennan supported his position. But what Goldberg’s dissent did was to lay the groundwork for appeals to rule the death penalty unconstitutional. Lawyers picked up on this quickly and flooded the court system with appeals based on Goldberg’s ideas. Again, he laid the groundwork for another key Court decision, Furman v. Georgia, which effectively ended the death penalty in 1972. Unfortunately, the Court changed its mind under a new composition in 1976, but this doesn’t take away from Goldberg’s importance.

Remember what I said about Stephen Breyer before. Well, Breyer should be paying attention because he clerked for Goldberg. Now, I don’t think Goldberg made a very good move in 1965 when LBJ, who didn’t trust him, convinced him to resign in 1965 so he could name Abe Fortas (huge eyeroll) to replace him. He worried the Court would rule big parts of the Great Society unconstitutional and believed Fortas would let him know ahead of time. This was very stupid, a sign of the frankly unprofessional nature that most presidents had toward Court appointees through most of American history. But LBJ offered Goldberg something pretty sweet: UN Ambassador. So I can’t really blame Goldberg here, though he would have been a lot more valuable on the Court. Johnson had early offered Goldberg a Cabinet slot at Health, Education, and Welfare but he wasn’t going to leave for that. Later, in his memoirs, Goldberg claimed that he took the position in order that he could work out peace in Vietnam and believed that once that was done, LBJ would put him back the court. Wow, that’s a lot of naivete on both ends of said equation by a really smart and fine man. He knew it too, by the time he wrote said memoirs. He really thought he could convince Johnson to end the war. That…did not work out as planned.

Anyway, as UN Ambassador, Goldberg played a key role in ending the 1967 war between Israel and Palestine, largely to Israel’s benefit. In fact, after Robert Kennedy, Goldberg evidently was next on Sirhan Sirhan’s assassination list. Goldberg had absolutely no success with Johnson on Vietnam and resigned in 1968, going back into private practice. He really wanted Johnson to name him as Chief Justice in 1968, but again he went with Fortas, which backfired big time and is really, really disappointing given what Goldberg would have done in that position.

By 1969, Goldberg was marching against Vietnam and speaking at protest rallies. The next year, he ran against Nelson Rockefeller for governor of New York. But being a great lawyer and judge is a very different skill set than being a great campaigner and Goldberg was very much not the latter. Rockefeller easily defeated him. He went back to private practice, argued Curt Flood’s case before the Supreme Court in 1972 (I did not know this before writing this post and that’s pretty cool), and then Jimmy Carter named him United States Ambassador to the Belgrade Conference on Human Rights in 1977. The following year, Carter gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Later in life, Goldberg was a member of Council on Foreign Relations.

Goldberg died in 1990. He was 81 years old.

Arthur Goldberg is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

Also buried here of course is Goldberg’s wife Dorothy Kurgans. Just a few notes about her. Despite the clear gender equality of the gravestone, there’s not tons of information easily accessible, though she did have a very brief New York Times obituary on her death. They married in 1931 and had a couple of kids. She kept her name, at least professionally. She was also from Chicago, an artist with a doctorate in the field from the University of Chicago that she earned in 1932. She was deeply committed to building local arts programs in the cities where they lived, mostly Washington but also New York and had some one-woman shows of herself on the stage. She wrote a few books on the arts, worked with her husband at the Belgrade conference, and was involved as an observer in human rights issues through the 1980s. An impressive woman who was in the background of her husband’s career, like so many impressive women of the era.

If you would like this series to visit other Secretaries of Labor, which I certainly would like myself, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James Mitchell, who preceded Goldberg, is in Colonia, New Jersey, and George Shultz, recently deceased and who everyone forgets held the job under Nixon because he was later Secretary of State, is in Cummington, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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