Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

email signup Blog Video Facebook Twitter Instagram

Edward Bennett Williams

Edward Bennett Williams, a high-profile defense lawyer whose clients have included gambling czar Frank Costello, union boss Jimmy Hoffa, and Senator Joseph McCarthy, talks to Wallace about the United States justice system, civil liberties, the FBI, and the United States Supreme Court.

Watch Video

Guest: Edward Bennett Williams

ANNOUNCER: Before the Mike Wallace Interview begins, we present a statement by Oliver Treyz, Vice President in charge of the television network of the American Broadcasting Company concerning last week’s broadcast.

TREYZ: Last Saturday night, December 7th on this same program, Mr. Drew Pearson stated that Senator Kennedy’s book “Profiles in Courage” which won the Pulitzer Prize was not written by Senator Kennedy but was written by some other person and that Senator Kennedy had never acknowledged this fact. As Vice President in charge of the television network of the American Broadcasting Company, I wish to state that this Company has inquired into the charge made by Mr. Pearson and has satisfied itself that such charge is unfounded and that the book in question was written by Senator Kennedy. We deeply regret this error and feel that it does a grave injustice to a distinguished public servant and author, to the excellent book he wrote and to the worthy prize he was awarded. We extend our sincere apologies to Senator Kennedy, his publishers and Pulitzer Prize Committee.

WALLACE: Good evening, tonight on the eve of the Bill of Rights Day we shall interview perhaps the most controversial lawyer in the United States. He’s Edward Bennett Williams whose clients have included gambling czar Frank Costello, union boss Jimmy Hoffa, and the late Senator Joe McCarthy. Ed, in a moment I shall ask you why you defend such men as these, why you charged that the FBI sometimes acts illegally and I shall confront you with a charge made by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover that men with ideas like your own quote “Form the skirmishing lines of the Soviet conspiracy against our nation.” End quote. My name is Mike Wallace, the cigarette is Philip Morris.


WALLACE: And now to our story. Thirty-seven year old Edward Bennett Williams has had a remarkable law career. He’s defended Hollywood left wingers and the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, more recently he saved Frank Costello from deportation and he snatched Jimmy Hoffa out from under what seemed to be an air-tight bribery case. Mr. Williams has been hailed by some as a champion of the civil liberties which are guaranteed us by the Bill of Rights, others fear that his philosophy of civil liberties has led more to license than to liberty. Ed, first of all, let me ask you this if I may, why do you lend your obviously considerable talents to help men like Frank Costello and Jimmy Hoffa in their trouble with the law?

WILLIAMS: Well, let me answer that question completely apart from the personalities which you’ve mentioned, uh – and my answer to it probably is a hundred and sixty-six years old because way back in seventeen hundred and ninety-one the founding fathers of this Republic wrote the Bill of Rights annexed it to the Federal Constitution. In the Bill of Rights they provided that every accused has the right to the assistance of counsel. They didn’t say everyone except Mr. Hoffa or Mr. Costello or everyone except anyone. They said everyone. Now as I understand rights you can’t have a right without a correlative duty and someone to respect that right and I feel that the members of my profession have an obligation or a duty to respect the rights of all accused to counsel, so I suppose that’s the answer to your question.


WILLIAMS: Let me say this to you, no matter how socially or politically obnoxious the ideas of an individual may be, no matter how unorthodox his conduct or his thinking may be, no matter how unpopular he may be, he has the right to the assistance of counsel and this was very graphically and very eloquently stated recently by the president of the American Bar Association, Mr. Charles Rhyne in a wonderful speech that he made in West Virginia back in October. It isn’t entirely my idea, it’s the idea of the founding fathers of this Republic and one that’s been enunciated a thousand times by a thousand lawyers in the past few years.

WALLACE: Well, that’s a reasonable statement and certainly one worth considering. Let me ask you something more specific. Ed, in taking on the defense of a client, do you care whether or not he’s guilty?

WILLIAMS: Well, let me put it this way, of course I do but I don’t conceive it to be the function of an advocate or the function of a lawyer to make a moral judgment on the rectitude of an accused case. Fortunately, it isn’t expected or required of lawyers to make moral judgments, the guilt or innocence of the defendant is determined by the jury.

WALLACE: If a fellow comes in and says to you Ed….

WILLIAMS: Excuse me….


WILLIAMS: Excuse me, let me finish that, Mike, if I may….

WALLACE: Surely….

WILLIAMS: Everyone is entitled to be tried in court. Our philosophy of criminal jurisprudence is that the government of the state must prove the guilt or the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. If they fail to do this, then we leave the defendant to the majestic vengeance of God if he be guilty because of the basis philosophy of our criminal jurisprudence is that it’s far far better than ten guilty men go free that that one innocent man go to the penitentiary convicted of a crime of which he’s not guilty.

WALLACE: Let me ask you this, a man comes into you and says, Mr. Williams I want you to represent me. Look, I’m guilty but I want you to use your best efforts to get me off. What would you say to that man?

WILLIAMS: Well, let me pursue that. Of course uh – if he’s – if he’s guilty then he should plead guilty before the – the court if that’s the course of wisdom for him…

WALLACE: But if he doesn’t know….

WILLIAMS: Let me – let me – let me explain this to you. However, he has the right as does everyone in this country to have a jury find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt because our is a government of rules and laws, not a government of men and so if the government of the state cannot prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt then he’s entitled, under the system, to his liberty. Now, I mean by that this, this doesn’t mean that a lawyer can put in a false defense, it doesn’t mean that he can let that defendant take the stand and testify perjuriously, it doesn’t mean that he can put in – any evidence that isn’t’ founded in absolute fact. He must deport himself completely, and I’m speaking of both the lawyer and the defendant in the trial, within the limitations of honesty and decency and integrity and no lawyer can go into a courtroom with premises other than that. However, it’s basic that a defendant is entitled to have his guilt proven beyond a reasonable doubt and let me tell you – uh – at this time, Mike, that many people don’t know whether they’re guilty of the criminal charges that are leveled against them, because there are many technicalities with respect to some of the more complex criminal statutes federally and state wise no layman could – could know about.

WALLACE: But if a fellow comes in and says to you, Mr. Williams, I think I’m guilty, yes, I’m guilty, but I want to get our if I possibly can, would you lend you best efforts to trying to get him out?

WILLIAMS: It would all – it would depend upon the basic facts of the case of course. I would have to advise him if he were guilty and if the state had a case which demonstrated his guilt to go to the court to concede his guilt and I would make an argument to the court to extend its mercy to him on the ground that he had conceded his guilt before trial and had not put the state to the burden of proving his guilt. On the other hand, uh – of course, guilt is a legal concept, Mike, it is not a moral concept in the context in which we are using it….

WALLACE: I see….

WILLIAMS: … and guilt as a legal concept means that a court of competent jurisdiction, a jury finds a man guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on evidence presented in a court room and if the state or the prosecution doesn’t’ have that evidence then of course the defendant under the rules that apply to all men is entitled to his freedom.

WALLACE: Let me ask you this then, specifically. You helped Frank Costello beat the government’s attempt to deport him. Do you think that you did the country a service by helping Frank Costello to stay here in the United States?

WILLIAMS: What I think about the services I – render, Mike, really aren’t’ important. The basic fact…

WALLACE: The all important in the context of our conversation.

WILLIAMS: The basic fact is this, in that case there was uncovered the fact that the government had used wire tapped evidence in the initiation of the case. Now I don’t think it’s terribly important to the people of this country whether Mr. Costello is in Italy or in the United States or in New York or in the penitentiary. It’s important to him and his family but it isn’t’ really creating a ripple on the scene of America. However, I think it’s fabulously important that wire tapping which is a crime not be employed by any arm of the government. I think it’s fabulously important that the security of conversations telephonic in nature not be invaded by any arm of the government and I think when the government doesn’t play by the rules, when it uses wire taps that the government must be penalized and the only way the courts have found to penalize the government is to strike down the evidence which is illegally obtained so I think that the principle which came out of that case was of transcendent importance and I think whenever a blow is struck for an important constitutional principle that it far exceeds the significance of the individual result with respect to the individual defendant.

WALLACE: You talk about wire tapping. You say that occasionally the FBI wire taps illegally, acts illegally, is that correct?

WILLIAMS: No, I haven’t said that but – uh – tonight but – uh – you said it. I – I believe it to be the case and my authority for that statement, Mike, is the report of the Attorney General of the United States who concedes that – not the present Attorney General, but as a matter of fact, eight of the last nine of the Attorneys General of the United States have conceded that in certain cases the FBI does resort to wire tapping. Now I deplore this for the simple reason that there is a statute which was passed in 1934 which makes it a crime to wire tap. It makes it a crime for anyone to wire tap and divulge the information that he’s heard or to make use of the information and I think it’s a tragedy when a great institution like the FBI, and I have total respect for it and believe that it’s the greatest investigative agency in the history of the world but I deplore the fact and think it’s a tragedy when they resort to illegal activity in the name of justice and for the purpose of detecting crime. In other words, I – I philosophically do not accept the tenet that a worthy objective justifies an illicit means.

WALLACE: FBI chief, J. Edgar Hoover, disagrees with you. When I say he disagrees with you, he disagrees with this point of view and he cites a 1949 ruling of former Attorney General Tom Clark, that the courts prohibit wire tapping evidence in court. But, not the wire tapping itself. And an FBI man told us just yesterday, he said, “The guy who objects to wire tapping is the first man who wants it used. If his child is kidnapped, and if we have to catch the kidnapper fast.” Doesn’t that make any sense?

WILLIAMS: It … it makes this sense to me. There’s a the statute on the books which makes wire tapping and the use of wire tapped information – a crime. A crime whether the FBI does it, whether Mike Wallace does it or whether Ed Williams or anyone else does it. Now, I think – that if the FBI wants to tap wires or if any Federal Agency wants to tap wires the Chief of the Agency should go before the Congress of the United States and should ask for an amendment of that statute – to provide for wire tapping in certain types of cases, maybe kidnapping cases, maybe cases affecting the National Security. And I for one would be for such a modification of the act. I would be for a modification which permitted wire tapping, in national security cases, cases involving the national security, if – a warrant were issued out of a federal court authorizing the taps. Now, when you say, “Mr. Hoover disagrees with me,” I don’t understand that he as ever singled me out for disagreement.

WALLACE: I think I pointed that out.

WILLIAMS: I don’t understand that he’s singled me out for disagreement in the – uh – context in which you introduced me, namely the speech that he made at the American Legion. – I think he disagreed with some of the things of which we’re talking about tonight, which I’m expressing an opinion, but – uh – I have great respect for Mr. Hoover and I hope and think he does for me.

WALLACE: I’m sure that he does. Let’s talk about the Fifth Amendment, Ed. That controversial amendment which is so frequently used in trials, congressional hearings. When an alleged communist or an alleged labor racketeer does not want to testify frequently he simply takes the Fifth, says that he doesn’t want to incriminate himself, Dave Beck, Frank Costello have used it, many, many times over. Recently we interviewed Senator McClellan, for our newspaper column, and he told this, he said, “No one should have the right to take the Fifth Amendment, unless he’s willing to swear that if he answers – he honestly believes his truthful answer might incriminate him.” What do you think of that interpretation of the Fifth?

WILLIAMS: I – I think that no one should invoke the protection of the Fifth Amendment unless he honestly believes – that his answer might form a link in the chain of incriminating evidence. But, that does not mean Mike, that innocent men may not invoke the protection of the Fifth Amendment. The Supreme Court has said many times, that “The Fifth Amendment is designed for the protection of the innocent as much as for the guilty.” And while we’re on the subject let me say this, the Fifth Amendment is come – ah – under – uh – a great deal of attack by Congressional Committees recently, but we should never lose sight of the fact – that the Fifth Amendment is what differentiates our system of – Justice from the European system of Justice. Ours is an accusatorial system where the accused has the right to look at his accuser face to face. The European system is an inquisitorial system. This is the basic difference, namely the Fifth Amendment.

WALLACE: Let’s turn to another issue – based on the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment, guarantying freedom of speech. And the question of how much freedom you think we should give people. For instance, would you as a staunch defender of the Constitution, give communists the right to stand up in front of the White House – and advocate violent revolution.

WILLIAMS: Well, I don’t think it’s important what I would do, it’s important I think what the Supreme Court of the United States would do. If – uh – such a speech by a soapbox orator in front of the White House, constituted a clear and present danger to the security of the United States, of course, uh, he could be punished for it under the Smith Act. If on the other hand … hand, he was simply giving an exposition, a philosophical exposition of Marxism – and not inciting an extorting people to violent action, it would not constitute a violation of the Smith Act, under the Supreme Court’s interpretation. So that’s how I answer that hypothesis that you…

WALLACE: Well, the Supreme Court recently freed five communist leaders on a ruling that said, “A man could advocate violent overthrow, provided he didn’t incite outright violent action to achieve his ends,” but, two of the Supreme Court Justices, Justice Black and Douglas were even more extreme. They said, “That a communist should have the right even to try to incite violent revolution.” Do you disagree with that?

WILLIAMS: Uh – my feeling on that is this, I think that this decision should be – uh – translated into its simplest common denominator, you stated it in a rather complex way, what the Supreme Court really said on the Yates Case – and that’s the case to which you refer, is that mere membership in the Communist Part is not a violation of the Smith Act as it was written in 1941. It said, “that before a violation of the Smith Act could be perpetrated it was necessary that one exhort his fellow citizens – and incite them to the overthrow of the government.” That’s an interpretation of the Smith Act with which I agree, I think it’s a reasonable interpretation. I’m in good company, I’m in the company of the great majority of the Supreme Court which is – uh – very good for me. Uh – I don’t particularly agree – uh – Mike with the – uh – concurring opinions of the two Justices of whom you mentioned.

WALLACE: Black and Douglas. About…

WILLIAMS: Although they all agreed in the same result … in respect to the five communists in California.

WALLACE: Ed, in recent months the Supreme Court has handed down a series of controversial decisions. Communists can advocate revolution. FBI files were opened in some measure to defense lawyers. Congressional Committees were curbed in their power to demand answers from witnesses. At least partial to the cause of this Lloyd Wright the Chairman of the Commission of Government Security told us in our newspaper column, he said this, he said, “In light of present day dangers, I would like to see a Commission review the Constitution and its Amendments to see whether it over emphasizes or under emphasizes individual rights as against National Security.” And then he said, “It’s just possible that some of our freedoms may be out of date.” In just a minute – I’d like you to give me your opinion on that statement by Lloyd Wright. We’ll get the answer to that question in just one minute.


WALLACE: Now then. Do you want me to repeat the Wright statement, Ed Williams?

WILLIAMS: No, I think I understand what you said that – uh – that Mr. Wright said. I have great respect for Mr. Wright, he was past president of the American Bar Association. But I’m very surprised that he made the statement that you say he made. Wherein he said that it's possible that some of our freedoms may be out of date. I hope we never see the day when any of our freedoms are out of date or passé because – when that day comes it – it won’t be worthwhile to course all our energies and all our talents into the Cold War against international communism. Because if our freedoms become out of date we’ll – we’ll have yielded ideologically to the philosophy of communism. I think our freedoms as expressed in the Bill of Rights are just as fresh as tomorrow morning. I don’t think they’re passé, I don’t think they ever will be.

WALLACE: Perhaps he was suggesting that if the totalitarian state can surprise us – just because they can operate – under wraps more effectively than we can. Everything that we do more or less is out and on the table, and maybe he means that – for – for the pure sense of National Security – it is necessary that we – uh – consciously self consciously abridge some of freedoms….

WILLIAMS: Of course it’s a great paradox, Mike to say that we should give up the freedoms that we’ve cherished for 166 years – in the name of the fight against communism, because then we shall have done to ourselves what we fear so much from the Soviet Union.

WALLACE: Ed, what do you think of the current Supreme Court, the Eisenhower Supreme Court?

WILLIAMS: I think it’s the greatest Court of our generation – and I’m greatly thrilled every Monday when I read the decisions that come out of that Court, in the area of Civil Liberties and Human Freedoms.

WALLACE: You think then that – uh – Chief Justice Warren is operating in the finest of American traditions in spite of the fact that he has been taken to task by some people within our own government?

WILLIAMS: And surely the Supreme Court has come under attack. I think the Supreme Court – has in the past couple of years struck some of the great blows in the History of the Constitution for individual liberties and human rights. And some of those decisions which you mentioned a moment ago in context to the question about Mr. Wright, I think a great decision, I’m sorry that we don’t have the time tonight to discuss them. But – uh – it would be – uh – a great thing if we could talk about them because I think they were characterized inaccurately.

WALLACE: Ed, I want to know if you think this shoe fits. Recently, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover made a speech in front of the American Legion – which he called the deadly menace of pseudo liberals. He said this, he said, “The pseudo liberals claim to be anti-communists. But, they launch attacks against Congressional Legislation designed to curb communism. They distort and misrepresent and ridicule the Government Security Program. Sadly, the cult of the pseudo liberal continues to float about in the pink tinted atmosphere of patriotic irresponsibility.” And he concluded by saying this, he said, “Freedom divorced from authority and discipline is a frightening thing. And the first step to total moral degeneration.” Do you feel that any of that attack, Ed, is directed at you?

WILLIAMS: Are you asking me if I think that Mr. Hoover had Ed Williams in mind when he made that speech?

WALLACE: No. I think you know that’s ….

WILLIAMS: I’m quite sure he did not. I deplore pseudo liberalism just as much as Mr. Hoover does. I suppose we all deplore pseudo anything because pseudo anything is hypocrisy – and fakery. And when Mr. Hoover talks about pseudo liberals and those who take positions simply – uh – for the purpose of accomplishing illicit ends – uh – who were badly motivated, I agree whole heartedly with him. And I don’t find anything in that statement with which I disagree. I subscribe to it all the way, Mike.

WALLACE: Are you are convinced that J. Edgar Hoover is just as interested in protecting our individual liberties as is Edward Bennett Williams?

WILLIAMS: I certainly am. I disagree with him on questions of law. It would take us a long time to go into those but I think J. Edgar Hoover is an outstanding American. I have total admiration for him and for his agency.

WALLACE: Thank you, Ed, very much for coming and spending this … half hour on the eve of Bill of Rights Day. It’s been said that the worst enemies of our Civil Liberties as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights come not from without, but from within. You’ve just heard the word of a respected lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams on this issue. His word may not be the last, but none of us can afford to ignore it. I’ll bring you a run-down on next week’s special pre-Christmas guest, an eleven year old prodigy, who has made brains pay off, in just a moment. First, for the pipe smokers on your Christmas list, here’s a word about another fine Philip Morris product.


WALLACE: Next week for a special pre-Christmas program, we go after the story of one of the biggest money winners in Quiz Show history. His triumphs and perhaps his heartaches as a child prodigy. You see him behind me, he’s eleven year old Lenny Ross, who won a total of $164,000 with his amazing knowledge of the stock market. If you’re curious to know Lenny Ross’s opinions of quiz shows, recent stock market trends, American versus Soviet education, his friends, his teachers and Santa Claus, we’ll go after those stories next week. Till then for Philip Morris, Mike Wallace, good night.

ANNOUNCER: The Mike Wallace Interview is brought to you by Philip Morris, Incorporated. The Quality House.