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Jan.23, 2008

Vol. 108, No. 7

A Moment With...
A moment with...

NICHOLAS KATZENBACH ’43 (No. 16)

By Merrell Noden ’78
Published in the January23, 2008, issue


Frank Wojciechowski

Nicholas Katzenbach ’43 was a key member of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, serving as deputy attorney general, attorney general, and finally undersecretary of state. Katzenbach was not merely present for many of the watershed events of the turbulent 1960s — integration in the South, the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy, the Vietnam War — he also shaped them immeasurably, through his advice and counsel.


You were a prisoner of war for two years, in Italy and Germany. What was that like?

It was probably the most influential experience that I had. It was not pleasant, though we were really well treated throughout. At the end it got very rough because they didn’t have any food and we didn’t have any food. So things were difficult. But it was not because they were being mean. It was influential because you realized what it is not to be free, not to have liberty.

As a former POW, where do you stand on the question of torture and whether it’s acceptable?

It’s not acceptable. Of course it isn’t acceptable. The Geneva Convention was important as far as we were concerned. [Our captors] didn’t comply with the Geneva Convention in every respect. But they complied with it in general terms. We were never tortured or abused, even including questioning in Italy at a special camp. There were just questions. You refused to answer them, and you got away with it. They had the room bugged. We knew that because the guard at the door said, “I lived in Boston 17 years — there’s a bug in the ceiling.” He let us know.

Many people have commented on the famous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” in which you confronted Gov. George Wallace over the integration of the University of Alabama. Was it an orchestrated confrontation, as it’s been described?

It was not [orchestrated] at all. That story comes from a very good reporter who later was editor of the [New York] Times, who was covering civil rights at the time. He confused two things. We went down there and made an initial stand in the schoolhouse door. And Wallace turned us down and said he wasn’t going to let the kids register. We stayed on the campus; I’d gotten the dorm keys. We put the state guard into national service, and Gen. [Henry] Graham was the state guard commander and a close friend of Wallace. He came to Gen. [Creighton] Abrams [then commander of the federal troops], who was with me, and said that Gov. Wallace wanted to stand in the door again and make a very short speech. And if we permitted that, he would go away and he would leave all the law enforcement people to be sure there were no problems. And I said, “That’s a good deal. As long as you don’t talk over two minutes, it’s OK with me.” That was the only orchestration.

That was the second time?

That’s right. The Times reporter asked me about it, and he confused the two. I said, ‘Well, we knew he [Wallace] was going to leave.’ Well, we did. But it was not a put-up job. Gov. Wallace had painted positions where we should stand. I got furious and I told Frank Rose, the president of the university, that I wanted them all removed, and he did remove most of them, though he didn’t get all of them quite wiped out. I was sufficiently annoyed. There was a line I was meant to stop at. I just didn’t stop.

Were you frightened?

I was scared to death. The only thing that scared me was I’d make a fool of myself. I wasn’t scared physically about anything. With all those television cameras, I couldn’t have felt safer. Bobby [Kennedy] said beforehand, “What are you going to say?” I said, “I don’t really know.” He said, “The president says he wants you to make Wallace look foolish.” I said, “Well, thanks a lot. How do I do that?” He said, “Oh, I don’t know. You’ll do just fine.”

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