A Look Back … Arthur Goldberg: Fighting for Justice
Arthur Goldberg is probably best known for his involvement in civil rights and labor law during his appointments as U.S. Secretary of Labor and Supreme Court Justice under President John F. Kennedy. However, Goldberg also spent a short time of his career working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the predecessor to today’s Central Intelligence Agency.
An Unusual Childhood
Goldberg was born on August 8, 1908, on the west side of Chicago. He was the youngest of eight children. His parents—Joseph and Rebecca—were Jewish Russian immigrants. Goldberg’s father sold produce from a horse-drawn wagon.
When Goldberg’s father died in 1916, the older siblings were forced to quit school and go to work to support the family. Since Arthur was the youngest at 8 years old, he was allowed to stay in school.
Goldberg demonstrated his extraordinary work ethic by going to work at the age of 12. He worked odd jobs, such as wrapping fish, selling shoes, and working on a construction site—anything to earn money to help support his family.
An Education in Justice
When he was 16, Goldberg graduated from Benjamin Harrison Public High School. By then, he had decided to study law.
At DePaul University, Goldberg excelled in the classroom. In 1926, he attended Northwestern University School of Law, where he established an impressive academic reputation. While studying at Northwestern, Goldberg edited the university’s law journal—the Illinois Law Review. He graduated in 1930.
In 1931, Goldberg married Dorothy Kurgans. The couple had two children: a daughter and a son.
Goldberg began a successful career as a civilian lawyer.
Serving the Country
In 1943, Goldberg decided to join the U.S. Army. He was recommended by a legal associate involved with the OSS to serve as the chief of the OSS Labor Desk. Later, OSS Director Gen. William J. Donovan assigned Goldberg to the Secret Intelligence Branch.
Goldberg’s job was to contact labor groups and organizations with the potential to act as the voice of dissent against the Nazi party in enemy-occupied and enemy countries. He was posted in London and managed to organize a group of anti-Nazi transportation workers into an extensive intelligence network. His contacts included a leftist labor group in France, anti-Vichyites in French North Africa, dissidents in Hungary, and factory workers in Sweden. Goldberg was able to gather intelligence and information from them and encourage resistance.
Life After the War
After Goldberg’s brief stint with the OSS, he went back to his career as a lawyer, working as partner of Goldberg and Devoe.
In 1948, Goldberg was appointed general counsel to the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the United Steelworkers of America. He participated in and was the chief legal adviser on the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the CIO in 1955.
By the early 1960s, Goldberg had established a solid reputation in the Democratic Party. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Goldberg as Secretary of Labor. Goldberg held the position for nearly two years and was nominated by President Kennedy to fill Felix Frankfurter’s empty seat as Supreme Court Justice. Goldberg accepted.
During his time on the bench, Goldberg was involved with many important Civil Rights movement cases, including:
- Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Committee (1963)
- Escobedo v. Illinois (1964)
- Zemel v. Rusk (1965)
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Goldberg to resign as Supreme Court Justice and become the United States Ambassador of the United Nations. Goldberg agreed. He hoped to be an influence in keeping peace in Vietnam.
Goldberg resigned from the ambassadorship in 1968. He returned to his law career and worked for a New York law firm for a short period. In 1970, Goldberg ran for Governor of New York and was defeated by Nelson Rockefeller.
President Jimmy Carter appointed Goldberg to serve as the United States Ambassador to the Belgrade Conference on Human Rights in 1977. In 1978, President Carter presented Goldberg with the Presidential Medal of Freedom—one of the highest civilian awards in the United States.
Goldberg died of a heart attack on January 19, 1990. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.