Professor Robert Turner, First President of U.S. Institute of Peace, Retiring

War Expert Served as Associate Director of Center for National Security Law
Robert Turner

Professor Robert Turner, a distinguished fellow and associate director of the Center for National Security Law, and a member of the general faculty, retires this month. Photo by Jesús Pino

January 27, 2020

University of Virginia School of Law professor Robert F. Turner, the cofounder and associate director of the Center for National Security Law at UVA, will retire at the end of this month after more than 32 years at the Law School. He previously served as the first president of the congressionally established U.S. Institute of Peace, which works to promote the prevention and resolution of conflicts worldwide.

“I’ve been so lucky,” Turner said. “I’ve had incredible jobs working for bosses I deeply admired.”

Turner has served alongside Professor John Norton Moore, the center’s director, since they founded the center in 1981, but has taken breaks for government service and to serve as the Charles H. Stockton Professor of International Law at the Naval War College in 1994-1995.

Having earned his J.D. and S.J.D. from the Law School, he is wrapping up his academic career at the same time as Moore, who also retires this month.

Turner is a former Army captain who served two voluntary tours of duty in Vietnam.

“I went to Vietnam as an idealistic young kid who had watched every John Wayne movie ever made and was really excited about serving my country and going to war,” he said. “When I got there, I witnessed the realities of war and developed a great fondness for peace.”

He added that war, however, is sometimes a necessary evil. Turner and Moore were both active defenders of the Vietnam War at “teach-ins,” debates, and in the pages of law reviews and major newspapers during the war.

Robert Turner stands in front of the U.S. Institute of Peace
Turner stands in front of the U.S. Institute of Peace in 1987. Photo courtesy of Robert Turner

After initially serving as an infantry reconnaissance platoon leader, Turner was tapped to work directly for Lt. Gen. William P. Yarborough, who had commanded the Green Berets under President John F. Kennedy. (Turner and the general became lifelong friends, until Yarborough’s death in 2005.)

Upon leaving the Army, Turner served as public affairs fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace — where he authored the first major book in English on Vietnamese Communism.

He then spent five years in the mid-1970s as national security adviser to U.S. Senator Robert P. Griffin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was during his time on the Hill that Turner met Moore, who was serving as ambassador to the Law of the Seas conference. They knew of each other’s writings on the war, and quickly struck up an enduring friendship.

“We’ve been best friends since early ’74,” Turner said.

Turner, like Moore, served in the executive branch under President Ronald Reagan. Turner was a member of the Senior Executive Service — first in the Pentagon, as special assistant to the undersecretary of defense for policy; then in the White House, as counsel to the President's Intelligence Oversight Board; and finally at the State Department, as acting assistant secretary for legislative affairs.

At the end of that service, Turner turned down a job from one of D.C.’s premier lobbying firms to teach at UVA, a decision he says he’s never regretted; he wasn’t interested in a life as a Washington insider.

Turner co-taught National Security Law and advanced national security law seminars on the Indochina War, and on war and peace, with Moore at the Law School. In addition, he taught undergraduate courses at Virginia on international law, U.S. foreign policy, the Vietnam War, and foreign policy and the law in what is now the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics.

He is the author or editor of 17 books and monographs, including co-editor of the center's 1,600-page “National Security Law & Policy” casebook, and has penned scores of articles, essays and op-eds.

Over the decades, he testified before more than a dozen congressional committees.

Robert Turner with Arlen Specter
Turner, having testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, shakes hands with Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the committee, with Sen. Patrick Leahy standing behind him. Photo courtesy of Robert Turner/U.S. Senate

A former three-term chairman of the ABA Standing Committee on Law and National Security (and for many years, editor of the ABA National Security Law Report), Turner also chaired the Executive-Congressional Relations Subcommittee of the ABA Section on International Law and Practice.

Laura K. Donohue, a law professor who directs the Center on National Security and the Law at Georgetown University, said Turner’s contributions have been critically important to the field.

“Bob is one of the foremost national security experts of our time,” Donohue said. “He brings the careful eye of an historian, and a lifetime of experience, to the field. His encyclopedic knowledge of American history and past crises has, time and again, provided a critical lens for helping us to understand contemporary challenges. We are indebted to him for his exemplary scholarship and service, and for helping to develop the field.”

In addition to his contributions on national security law, Turner has written and lectured widely on UVA founder and America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. In 2000-01, Turner chaired the Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission, which challenged conventional thinking on Jefferson’s alleged paternity of children with the enslaved Sally Hemings.

Turner said he hasn’t hesitated to take unpopular positions, in government or in academia, when he felt he had truth on his side.

Throughout much of his time at the University, Turner juggled his job responsibilities with being a single dad: “The best job I ever had.”

He is also a cancer survivor.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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