Arthur Joseph Goldberg was born on August 8, 1908, on the west side of Chicago. He was the youngest of eight children born to Russian immigrant parents, Joseph and Rebecca Perlstein Goldberg. Goldberg's father was a peddler, delivering produce by horse-drawn wagon until his death in 1916. After his death, the older children were forced to quit school and go to work to support the family. As the youngest, Arthur Goldberg was able to continue his education.
By the age of twelve, he was working at odd jobs, such as wrapping fish, selling shoes, and, his favorite, selling coffee to Cub fans at Wrigley Field during the prohibition years. By the time of his graduation from Benjamin Harrison Public High School at age sixteen, Goldberg had determined to study law. His interest in legal matters was prompted by the well-publicized 1923 murder trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.
Goldberg accepted a scholarship to Chicago's Crane Junior College and also enrolled in classes at DePaul University. In 1926, he began his study of law at the Northwestern University School of Law, where he achieved a distinguished scholastic reputation. John Henry Wigmore, dean of the Northwestern School of Law, selected Goldberg to assist in the preparation of the third edition of his celebrated treatise on evidence. Goldberg also became the editor-in-chief of the_Illinois Law Review_, the Northwestern University law journal. He received a Bachelor of Science in Law from Northwestern, magna cum laude, at age 19 in 1929. Goldberg applied for admission in October, 1929, into the Illinois Bar Association. Disinclined to accept so young an applicant, the IBA admitted Goldberg only after a successful litigation of the issue. In 1930, Northwestern awarded him the JSD (Juris Scientiae Doctor) degree.
On July 18, 1931, Goldberg married Dorothy Kurgans, an art student at Northwestern University. They had two children: Barbara in 1936, and Robert in 1941.
Goldberg began his legal career in 1929 as an associate in the firm of Kamfner, Horowitz, Halligan, and Daniels. Prior to joining the firm as an associate, Goldberg was employed as a clerk to that firm. In 1931, he joined Pritzker and Pritzker. As he saw the Great Depression taking its toll on the working American, Goldberg's interest in labor law increased. He left Pritzker and Pritzker in 1933 and opened his own law practice under the name of Arthur J. Goldberg. In 1938, on behalf of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), Goldberg represented the Chicago newspaper employees striking for higher wages and better working conditions. During World War II, Goldberg served from Captain to Major in the United States Army. From 1945 to 1947, Goldberg was a partner of Goldberg and Devoe. Then in 1947, he became senior partner of Goldberg, Devoe, Shadur, & Mikva in Chicago. In 1948, Goldberg was appointed general counsel for the CIO and the United Steelworkers of America. He participated in and was a legal advisor on the merger of American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the CIO in 1955.
Goldberg was senior partner of Goldberg, Feller & Bredhoff in Washington from 1952 to 1961. He was active in the Civil Liberties Committee and served as a public director of Chicago's Amalgamated Labor Bank. He was briefly a member of the National Lawyers Guild.
By this time, Goldberg had established a name for himself in the Democratic Party and was becoming an important figure in national politics. It was no surprise when President John F. Kennedy appointed him to be Secretary of Labor in 1961. Then, just twenty months later, after Felix Frankfurter resigned from the Supreme Court because of poor health, Kennedy nominated Goldberg to fill the empty seat. Such an appointment had been a dream of Goldberg's since law school, and he was deeply honored when the Senate confirmed his nomination. Goldberg took his place on the bench in September 1962.
Goldberg joined the Court just as the Civil Rights movement was beginning to shake America, and many of the decisions made by the Court were related to this issue. Among the noteworthy cases argued before the Court during Goldberg's tenure were Escobedo v. Illinois (1964), Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Committee (1963), and Zemel v. Rusk (1965).
Three years after Goldberg took his seat on the Supreme Court, President Lyndon Johnson asked him to step down and accept an appointment as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. At first, Goldberg declined the offer, but after much prodding by Johnson, he finally accepted. Goldberg's change of mind was prompted by his sense of duty to the country during the war in Vietnam. He said, "I thought I could persuade Johnson that we were fighting the wrong war in the wrong place, [and] to get out…. I would have love to have stayed on the Court, but my sense of priorities was [that] this war would be disastrous" (Stebenne, 348). On July 26, 1965, Goldberg assumed the responsibilities of Ambassador to the UN.
The ambassadorship proved frustrating for Goldberg, involving many confrontations with Johnson concerning the war in Vietnam. Goldberg came to believe that he could affect American foreign policy better as a private citizen than through a governmental position, and on April 23, 1968, he resigned from the ambassadorship. He returned to the practice of law in New York City from 1968 to 1971 with the firm of Paul, Weiss, Goldberg, Rifkind, Wharton, & Garrison.
In 1970, he ran for Governor of New York against the incumbent Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller won re-election by a sizeable margin, about 700,000 votes out of 3.5 million cast. After his humbling loss, Goldberg eventually returned to his farm in Marshall, Virginia, and to the private practice of law in Washington, DC.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter called upon Goldberg's abilities as a diplomat and negotiator and appointed him United States Ambassador to the Belgrade Conference on Human Rights. For his distinguished service to the nation, Goldberg received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1978.
Goldberg wrote two books, AFL-CIO: Labor United (1956) and Equal Justice: The Warren Era of the Supreme Court (1972). A collection of his papers was published as Defenses of Freedom: The Public Papers of Arthur J Goldberg, edited by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1966). He also wrote numerous articles concerning legal matters, foreign affairs, and diplomacy. He received several awards and honors from a variety of organizations and institutions, including his alma mater, Northwestern University. Goldberg also participated in many different advisory committees, community groups, and legal organizations, such as the American Bar Association, the American Jewish Committee, the Illinois State Bar Association, the Jewish Center for the United Nations, and the International Judicial Conference.
Goldberg died of a heart attack on January 19, 1990. This was his second heart attack since the death of his wife in 1988. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery next to his wife and near his friend, Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Note: This biography is based largely on David L. Stebenne's Arthur J. Goldberg: New Deal Liberal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).