WASHINGTON -- Seymour Rubin, an enduring lawyer who arrived in Washington as a Roosevelt-era Wunderkind, gently sipped his martini, deciding how to defend his reputation in a controversy rooted 50 years deep in history.
"I've been here in Washington since 1939 and seen people come and go, seen people being praised, seen them being condemned," the 83-year-old international trade specialist said.
He was thinking back to 1946 when he was the Truman administration's deputy negotiator of what has suddenly become much criticized accord with Switzerland over the disposition of the gold of Nazi Germany's war machine.
"There was never any great controversy at all," Rubin said of that treaty's enactment. A new government study accuses Switzerland of grossly violating the accord and accuses the Truman administration of having engineered "a bad bargain" that covered only a minor amount of the total plunder.
On a luncheon break from his judicial duties with the Inter-American Development Bank's administrative tribunal, Rubin noted that in Washington, now as ever, there was nothing like hindsight. But as a capital survivor who swims daily to keep in trim, he hardly seemed haunted by history as he chose words somewhere between lawyerly precision and personal passion.
"The accusation now that we pooped out in a basic blunder on the part of Truman seems to me pandering to Al D'Amato and maybe to the Jewish organizations as well," said Rubin.
He referred to the U.S. senator from New York and to Jewish leaders who first pressed the indictment -- concurred with now by the Clinton administration -- that the Swiss government deliberately failed to return hundreds of millions of dollars in assets that Nazi Germany had looted from European banks and Holocaust victims while the United States stood by.
"Maybe 'pandering' is too strong a word," the lawyer amended in commenting on the critical report and its director, Stuart Eizenstat, undersecretary of commerce. "Basically I think Mr. Eizenstat took a look at what the public pressures are and then decided that one of the things he could do was to fault the U.S. delegation back in 1946."
Eizenstat responded that the pandering accusation was "an absurd proposition," particularly since critics such as D'Amato had been focusing on the actions of the Swiss, not of the Truman administration.
"We had to be willing to look at our position too," added Eizenstat, who emphasized that the report hardly found "moral equivalence" between Washington's position and the larger failures of other nations.
The searing 200-page report, involving 11 government agencies and thousands of pages of documents, examined the accord's history and concluded that Swiss bankers had been profiting richly from unreturned booty across decades of "indifference to the needs of the victims of the Holocaust and their heirs."
Further, the report accused the Truman administration of a tactical blunder in unfreezing Swiss assets shortly after the war ended and thereby losing the leverage to see that the Swiss properly returned war loot. Some critics in Congress raised objections at the time that the administration was too easily compromising its bargaining strengths, the report noted.
Eizenstat said the findings made clear that the problem was "not the shortcomings of Rubin himself." Rather, the accord's failure, he said, largely resulted from the "obdurate posturing" of the Swiss, the lack of Allies' support for any tougher U.S. stance, and the postwar shift in administration priorities to rebuilding Germany and the rest of Europe in the ensuing cold war.
"Mr. Rubin did the best he could under these limitations," Eizenstat declared.
Pub Date: 5/25/97