Taylor was born in Schenectady, New York; his parents were John Bellamy Taylor (a relative of Edward Bellamy) and Marcia Estabrook Jones. He attended Williams College in Massachusetts before enrolling at the Harvard Law School in 1928, where he received his law degree in 1932.
During the 1930s, Telford worked for several government agencies. By 1935, he headed legal counsel (assisted by Max Lowenthal among others) on the U.S. subcommittee to Senate Interstate Commerce Committee, chaired by Burton K. Wheeler and whose members included the newly elected Harry S. Truman. In 1940, he became general counsel for the Federal Communications Commission.
Following the outbreak of World War II, Taylor joined Army Intelligence as a Major on October 5, 1942, leading the group that was responsible for analyzing information obtained from intercepted German communications using ULTRA encryption. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1943 and visited Bletchley Park in England, where he helped negotiate the 1943 BRUSA Agreement. He was promoted to full Colonel in 1944, and was assigned to the team of Robert H. Jackson, which helped work out the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), the legal basis for the Nuremberg Trials.
At the Nuremberg Trials, he initially served as an assistant to Chief Counsel Robert H. Jackson and in this function was the U.S. prosecutor in the High Command case. The indictment in this case called for the General Staff of the Army and the High Command of the German Armed Forces to be considered criminal organizations; the witnesses were several of the surviving German Field Marshals. Both organizations were acquitted, though.
When Jackson resigned his position as prosecutor after the first (and only) trial before the IMT and returned to the U.S., Taylor was promoted to Brigadier General and succeeded him on October 17, 1946, as Chief Counsel for the remaining twelve trials before the U.S. Nuremberg Military Tribunals. In these trials at Nuremberg, 163 of the 200 defendants who were tried were found guilty in some or all of the charges of the indictments.
While Taylor was not wholly satisfied with the outcomes of the Nuremberg Trials, he considered them a success because they set a precedent and defined a legal base for crimes against peace and humanity. In 1950, the United Nations codified the most important statements from these trials in the seven Nuremberg Principles.
After the Nuremberg Trials, Taylor returned to civilian life in the United States, opening a private law practice in New York City. He became increasingly concerned with Senator McCarthy's activities, which he criticized strongly. In a speech at West Point in 1953, he called McCarthy "a dangerous adventurer", branding his tactics "a vicious weapon of the extreme right against their political opponents" and criticizing president Dwight D. Eisenhower for not stopping McCarthy's "shameful abuse of Congressional investigatory power." He defended several victims of McCarthyism — alleged communists or perjurers — including labor leader Harry Bridges and Junius Scales. Although he lost these two cases (Bridges' sentence of five years in prison was later voided by the Supreme Court and Scales' six-year sentence was commuted after one year), he remained unfazed by McCarthy's attacks on him, and responded by writing the book, Grand Inquest: The Story of Congressional Investigations, which was published in 1955.
In 1961 Taylor attended the Eichmann trial in Israel as a semi-official observer, and expressed concerns about the trial being held on a defective statute.
Taylor became a full professor at Columbia University in 1962, where he would be named Nash Professor of Law in 1974. In 1966, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was one of very few professors there who refused to sign a statement issued by the Columbia Law School that termed the militant student protests at Columbia in 1968 as being beyond the "allowable limits" of civil disobedience. Taylor was very critical of the conduct of U.S. troops in the Vietnam War, and in 1971 urged President Richard Nixon to set up a national commission to investigate the conflict. He strongly criticized the court-martial of Lt. William Calley, the commanding officer of the U.S. troops involved in the My Lai massacre, because it did not include higher-ranking officers. Taylor regarded the 1972 bombing campaign targeting the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, as "senseless and immoral"; in December 1972, he visited Hanoi along with musician and activist Joan Baez and others, among them also Michael Allen the associate dean of the Yale Law School.
Taylor published his views in a book entitled Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy in 1970. He argued that by the standards employed at the Nuremberg Trials, U.S. conduct in Vietnam and Cambodia was equally criminal as that of the Nazis during World War II. For this reason, he favored prosecuting U.S. aviators who had participated in bombing missions over North Vietnam.
In 1976, Taylor, who had already been a visiting professor at Harvard and Yale, accepted a new post at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, becoming a founding member of the faculty while continuing to teach at Columbia. His 1979 book, Munich: The Price of Peace, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for the "best work of general nonfiction". In the 1980s, he extended his legal activities into sports and became a "special master" for dispute resolution in the NBA. His 700-page 1992 memoir of the Nuremberg trials (see bibliography) revealed how Nazi leader Hermann Göring had "cheated the hangman" by taking smuggled poison.
Telford Taylor retired in 1994. He died in 1998 at the St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan after having suffered a stroke. He was survived by his second wife Toby Golick and six children: Joan, Ellen, John, Ursula, Ben, and Sam.
Here is the list of his decorations: