(Editor’s note: The following is an expanded version of an interview published in the Jan. 23, 2008 issue of PAW. For the print version, click here.)
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 Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War – he also shaped them immeasurably, through his advice and counsel. He spoke with PAW contributor Merrell Noden ’78.
It was interesting to see that you and [civil rights campaigner] John Doar ’44 were at Princeton at the same time.
He was one of my roommates. I had 14 roommates on the top floor of Witherspoon. John was a class behind me.
If we’d eavesdropped on your late-night conversations, would we have had any sense that the two of you would go on to do the groundbreaking civil rights work that you did?
No. I think at that time most of the talk was about whether we were going to go to war, at least before I left. John Douglas [’43] was another [roommate]. He won the Pyne Prize and was president of the class. He later worked with me in the Justice Department. His wife Mary was one of the first two woman trustees.
Were the seeds of your own interest in politics to be found in your parents?
Oh, I don’t know. Could be. My father was a lawyer. He died when I was quite young, 12. He was attorney general of New Jersey. My mother was on the state board of education for years, and the state legislators named the state school for the deaf for her. She was a very liberal person, I think. I suspect my father was, too, though at age 12 I don’t know that that’s the way you think about it.
I was always interested in politics and government. That was always a strong interest that I had. I had my father and my uncle, who was mayor of Trenton for a long time. He was beaten out for governor of New Jersey by Woodrow Wilson in the Democratic primary. So I had some interest in politics from a family point of view.
Did you ever run for office yourself?
There wasn’t much point in running for office. In Trenton there wasn’t. If you wanted to run as a Democrat, you had to be a Catholic. And Frank Thompson was a very good congressman. I couldn’t have run against him. At one time they wanted me to run for the state Senate or something – soon after I came back from law school, they wanted me to do that. I didn’t. I don’t remember why.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 probably influenced me more than Princeton or anything else. 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. They didn’t have anything to give us, and what they had they wanted to keep to themselves because they were starving, too. But it was influential [for me] because you realized what it is not to be free, not to have liberty.
Also, I had really loafed in college, loafed in high school. I was bright enough to get through without doing much work. And I just resolved when I was in prison camp that I was going to turn over a new leaf. I was going to work and I was going to do well. In prison camp I read four or five hundred books and tried to lay out what I would have done my last two years at Princeton in terms of course work. When I got out I came to Princeton and asked if I could take my exams and write a thesis and get a degree without residence. At that time the returning soldiers — they’d have promised you anything. So they let me do that. My mother lived in Princeton, so that was easy enough. I just took the exams here. I had a 60-day leave. Dean [Robert] Root was very kind. He said if I could pass the exams and write a thesis, there was no reason why I shouldn’t get my degree.
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. [laughs]
We are constantly being told that we are facing a different kind of enemy in the war on terror.
There’s certainly been a lot of talk from the White House about terrorists, and I don’t doubt that 9-11 was a tragic event. I’ve never doubted it. When I was in the government, even back in the Sixties, [terrorism] was something we worried about. And we worried about people like that getting hold of a nuclear bomb. So it’s not a new problem. To me, it’s something that you have to live with.
But I have no idea what this war [on terror] is about, in the sense that I don’t know what steps the government is taking to prevent this war. I don’t even know what terrorists it’s against. It’s not against all terrorists. I know it’s against Al Qaeda. It seems to be against the Taliban, too, because they supported Al Qaeda. It may be against some others. We have terrorists attacking the troops in Iraq, yes, but they don’t seem to be the same terrorists that could attack us here in the United States. I think they are attacking us for a rather different reason. We’ve had nothing to show us who the terrorists are, why it is they feel as they feel, what it is we can do about them, what steps we ought to be taking. We had that ridiculous [color] code for a while. It seems to me the obvious way in which you try to prevent terrorism is the way the British are doing it, through intelligence, through informers, and you hope that you can find them and stop it before it happens. You’re not going to be successful all the time.
I read that President Johnson came to you at one point and, sounding genuinely troubled, asked, “Don’t I need more authority for what I’m doing [escalating the Vietnam War]?” And you told him he didn’t. He had all the authority he needed through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
Maybe I have a different, maverick view of it. I think the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was one of the great mistakes that Johnson made. It had nothing to do with the fact that he did get the authority. He had it. He could have invaded Russia with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution! It was the broadest thing I ever saw in my life. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was a totally political act. It was done because Goldwater was running and was talking about more troops here, more action in Vietnam. So Johnson took advantage of what I think he really believed were real incidents in the Tonkin Gulf. And it doesn’t really make any difference if they really were or not. He didn’t need them; it was just a convenient hook to put a resolution in to show that [the Democrats] were just as tough as Goldwater on all these things: “Look what we voted for!” But it gave him all this authority. He kept saying, “I want to have the Congress with me, I want them to know what’s going on, I want to have them with me.” Every time he wanted more authority people advised him, just as I did, saying, “No, you can’t go back for more. You won’t get it because they’ll just say he’s got all the authority he needs through the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.” And that made it Lyndon Johnson’s war. It wasn’t because he wanted it that way, I don’t believe.
When I hear that, I think of Dick Cheney and his crusade to restore to the executive branch the power it lost through Watergate. It’s interesting that even a tough arm-twister like LBJ felt uncomfortable with too much power.
He didn’t like having that power. He wanted the Congress with him. And he was right. He’d been in the Congress for a long time. He respected them. He wasn’t looking for power in the presidency. And of course the Democrats resented giving him that power because they felt they had been conned because it was just a political [maneuver]. That’s true. They were. But if he’d gone back for another resolution, he’d have been voted out. But that’s not what was needed. And what I think is still needed is, you have to have some kind of public understanding of what your objectives are and how you expect to go about getting there, and what are the risks we’re going to meet on this, how serious are they, so at least if you vote to take them and they foul up, at least you’ve been honest about it.
An old-fashioned word – honor – comes up in watching members of the current administration, who some critics say have failed to say what they mean and stand by it.
I don’t think it’s possible to fight a war without telling people what it’s all about and keeping everything secret. I don’t think it’s possible to get support. We used to say that politics stopped at the water’s edge. Probably that was said more for chauvinistic reasons than anything else. But when you stop to think about it, it means that the American people – both parties – have to be in some agreement about what you’re doing abroad. I don’t think you can do very much unless they are. You can’t flip-flop with every election and have a different foreign policy. It doesn’t work that way. You have to have something that’s reasonably long-range. We did have that in the Cold War, with all its problems. At least we understood that we didn’t want communism to spread to other countries, to neutral countries, to aspiring countries. We could have aid programs that helped them with that.
And then at that time we also had dirty tricks from the CIA, and I think that was a very bad policy. I wrote back in 1972 in Foreign Policy that I thought that was a terrible policy. And the reason I thought it was a terrible policy was that I thought our greatest asset abroad was what you call honor: some sort of principle that we had and that was what attracted people to us. And when we abandoned that, we lost.
But not only that: If you can fix a foreign election to get the government you want and that’s OK because it’s a government you like, what’s wrong with doing it here? You can carry that anywhere you want. Look at torture: If you think you can torture people in the thought that you might get useful information about a terrorist attack, why not torture to get a confession about rape? It’s hard for me to see the difference.