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.
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?
Interesting story on that. 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 that Wallace wanted to do. And he 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. And we put the state guard into national service and Gen. [Henry] Graham was the state guard commander. And he knew Wallace very well; in fact they were quite good friends, I think. He came to Gen. Creighton Abrams [then commander of the federal troops], who was with me – Abrams, who was a great general. He 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 of Alabama, 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.”
You were deputy attorney general under Robert F. Kennedy when President Kennedy was assassinated. Where were you when you heard that news?
I’d just gone to lunch at a restaurant near the Justice Department with one of my assistants, Joe Dolan, who later worked for Bobby [Kennedy] as his administrative assistant. They had a radio on behind the lunch counter. Before we ordered, they said President Kennedy had been assassinated. They’d shot him. So Joe and I jumped up and left the restaurant and went back to the Justice Department, to Bobby’s office. Bobby was down at [his estate] Hickory Hill. So I went and talked to his secretary. She said it was hopeless. Bobby was in touch with the Bureau. People started coming in to my office. I got some phone calls. Oh, I called Bobby first, I think. He said, “I just heard from [FBI head J. Edgar] Hoover that the president’s dead. I think Hoover enjoyed telling me.” And then about five minutes later, it was Bobby again. It was sort of appalling to me in a way that Johnson’s people were calling Bobby for advice as attorney general. He said, “He doesn’t have to be sworn in in Texas, does he?” I said no. Bobby just couldn’t stand the idea of his being sworn in in Texas. Actually I thought it was a pretty good idea – the faster they could do it was a good idea. I think the next call I got was from [Johnson friend and assistant] Jack Valenti, saying they wanted to swear the president in down there, but they didn’t have a copy of the oath. What was the oath? It’s one of the two oaths in the Constitution of the United States! I thought they might have known that. But not even Judge Sarah Hughes [who swore LBJ in] knew that, apparently. So I dictated it over the phone to them.
Three days after the president’s death, you wrote a memo to Bill Moyers, who was working in the White House, urging the creation of what became the Warren Commission. That memo has proved to be catnip to conspiracy theorists, since it seems to argue for speed over thoroughness.
Badly written memo. It seems to me the answer to those who think it was a whitewash is: How on earth could you appoint a commission like that and then shut them up? But there was so much potential for conspiracy around: Oswald’s visit to Russia, his Russian wife. … And if you look back on Abe Lincoln’s assassination, right up to this day you have people talking about a conspiracy there. And it’s not very satisfactory to have some nut shoot the president without having a conspiracy. My purpose was to try to gather all the evidence and get it out and tell people it’s going to be out. That was what I wrote that memo to try to say, and I didn’t say it very well.
It’s probably impossible to satisfy anyone who’s eager to see a conspiracy. I think it was naïve to think it could. What was Johnson’s alternative? He wanted attorney general Wagner Carr of Texas to do the investigation. Think how well that would have stood up! Carr was a perfectly good attorney general. I think he would have done as well as he could have done. But a Texas investigation of a Texas killing of a president?
It’s been reported that the day before you wrote that memo, you and Hoover spoke about the importance of creating a commission. Did your relationship sour after that?
I don’t think our relationship was good, bad, or indifferent. It was very formal. He was always very pleasant to me. He hated Bobby. I’m sure that rubbed off on me. [Cartha] DeLoach, one of his assistants there, lied to me on more than one occasion. But I don’t know that he ever did. I used to go to his office rather than have him come to mine, because I knew how to get out of his office but I couldn’t figure out how to get him out of mine. He used to talk and talk and talk.
Was Hoover’s decision to bug Martin Luther King Jr. the reason you stepped down as attorney general?
Not really. I think I was tired of it. The president called me on the phone one day. He had three candidates to succeed George Ball, who was getting out of there. I didn’t like any of them, and I told him so. I said, “I have a suggestion for you.” He said, “Who’s that?” I said, “Me.” And he said, “No, I don’t want you to do that. I can’t lose you as attorney general.” I thought that was probably the end of it. He called me back a few weeks later and asked if I was still interested. I said, yes.
Now, why was I interested? I don’t think it was Hoover. Part of it was the bugs on King and so forth, which I don’t think he was doing any more. I think we had that mare settled. I think more than that was, with the war in Vietnam, Hoover was now unleashed. He had investigators looking at every youth movement in the country. He was bringing cases for draft-card burning. Those were not cases I wanted. I didn’t get any kick out of them. I thought they were stupid cases.
But didn’t you have to deal with a lot of the same issues in your new job? As undersecretary you visited Vietnam on several occasions.
Yes, I did. I had a rather quixotic idea. I thought I could get rid of Vietnam. I didn’t see why we couldn’t get negotiations in Vietnam that would end that war there. It was probably just my own ignorance. I had gotten several civil rights bills through. I thought that was tougher than getting a peace in Vietnam. And that’s what Johnson said he wanted.
Did you oversee the writing of the Voting Rights Act?
Yes. The VRA was written by Archibald Cox. It was his idea, a great idea, of having a presumption of discrimination if you had less than a certain percentage of voters registered. It picked up everybody we wanted to pick up. And it picked up Alaska and some far Western state, I’ve forgotten which one – Arizona, I think. I thought they were probably discriminating against Indians. I argued that case in Supreme Court. South Carolina brought – very interesting – a regional case to the Supreme Court, regional jurisdiction. Highly unusual; I don’t think there’d been one in a century. It was a very exciting case to argue. I like arguing and am really fairly good at oral argument. Having worked that act through on the draft day and the Congress, I felt I could recite it backward. South Carolina v. Katzenbach. It has one very interesting thing in it. I said to [Solicitor General] Thurgood [Marshall], “I should think the note of saying who argued it should say that Mr. Katzenbach argued pro se.” And Thurgood said, “No, you can’t have that. It’s a case against the United States. It’s just a formality to name you because they’re saying it’s unconstitutional and you’re acting unconstitutionally. That’s why you’re named. I’m not going to do anything like that. It would be improper.” If you look at it, it will say Mr. Katzenbach argued the case pro se.
What was Thurgood Marshall like?
Thurgood had wonderful stories. I can’t repeat any of them. He used to tell them all the time. As a solicitor general and, I think, as a Supreme Court judge, he was very good and shrewd — he was a bright guy — but he was such a contrast with Archie Cox, who was a professor at Harvard. Archie would work until midnight and keep changing the language in a case, changing a phrase in a brief, turning a sentence around, making it more persuasive. Thurgood had no interest in that whatsoever. His interest in cases was, what was the general thrust of the case, what was the argument you were making. “OK, fine. You bright guys fill in all the footnotes in all the cases. I’m going to go home and play with my kids.”
I was very, very fond of Thurgood. He was a good solicitor general. He argued well. He liked it. But Thurgood was not a Harvard Law professor. He had all these very bright kids. [He thought] They can do all that work. Why should I do it? Whereas Archie thinks he can do it better than anyone else anyhow, so he’d better redo what they’d done.
… Thurgood was not a great justice, but he was a perfectly good justice. He might have been great if he’d gotten there younger, I don’t know. I think his clerks did more of the writing of his opinions than the clerks for some of the other justices. Thurgood was less heavy-handed.
In 1998, at the request of the White House, you testified during the hearings on the Clinton impeachment. What did you think about the hearings?
It was absolutely silly. And it was silly for this reason, if no other: It was silly because I don’t think that the lie Clinton told had anything to do with being president; it had much more to do with being a husband than it had to do with being president. But even if you ignored that, nobody in the House or the Senate could conceivably have thought that Bill Clinton was going to be convicted. And why on earth do you go through that process if there’s no possibility of conviction? I hated testifying for the simple reason that the committee was torn apart. Republicans on the committee were just so damn impolite. I had never had that experience before in testifying.
What was it about Bill Clinton that made his opponents on the right see red?
I don’t know. If I had to make a guess I’d say that he was so good at what he did and so persuasive, so good in his relationships with people, that when they found a weakness, any weakness, they wanted to exploit it from here to hell and gone. The only weakness they ever found was that.
When you were in the inner circle with Johnson, was there the same antagonism for the other side that we now see?
Money. There are certainly a lot of people out there who had animosity toward me. There may have been some in the House, I don’t know. I don’t remember being disliked. I was liked by many Republicans.
Wasn’t there a respect for the other side? Somehow that’s changed.
I don’t know how much it’s changed. When I said “money,” what I meant was today a good part of the president’s power comes from his ability to raise money for candidates and the party, and his ability to control how much money candidates get. One result is that candidates themselves are persuaded both by that and the interest groups that provide them with money. So they’ve pulled way away from their constituents on many issues, and I think the animosity often comes from the same reason you and I might get mad if you did something and somebody accused you and you didn’t want to admit it was wrong. I think a lot of it is because they know they’re wrong about something. They just don’t want to be told that. They’d rather make another accusation against the person talking to them.
I always felt you could go to anybody and you could argue rationally with any of the legislators, and that’s what I tried to do. I didn’t conceal it from anybody. On the Civil Rights Act we put together a huge book — it may have been 200 pages — in which we put every question we could think of, and we wrote the answer and we wrote the reasons for the answer. … We gave that to a Southerner. If [members of Congress] wanted a copy of it, they got it. How influential was it? I don’t know.
That implies a faith … in listening to argument and thinking as honestly as you could.
I think that’s right. I didn’t talk to all the Southerners very much. I think I talked to all the Republicans in the Senate. I doubt I talked to all of them in the House — too many. But if I didn’t, other people did for the other stuff. You’d listen to what they had to say, what their problems were. You answered their problems if you could. Some of the points they made were good points; some were terrible. I can’t tell you how many senators said, “I don’t know that you’re right about that. I talked to my maid about that. People aren’t really treated that way.” You’d get that kind of thing. But you didn’t get mad. The main argument that I had that I think was successful [in the] argument on cloture [was] “You people voted for cloture on the Satellite Communications Act. I don’t see how you can think that civil rights is not as important as satellite communications to give an up or down vote.”
I think the most moving thing in that whole cloture move was when they brought in — what was his name, a California senator [Clair Engle] who was dying of brain cancer who died shortly after that … But he insisted he wanted to vote. He was a liberal Republican. They carried him in on a litter. The clerk called his name to vote and he couldn’t speak. And with enormous difficulty he finally got his hand up for his aye. The clerk said, “The senator votes ‘aye’.” It really was the most emotional thing.
In a recent interview, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean ’57 spoke about recent political events and said, “This is not my Republican party.”
I think you’d find a lot of senators who’d say that. They don’t know what to do on some of these things. And the Democrats tend to try to exploit them more than they should. It’s hard for the Democrats the way things run today. You used to be able to have a voice because the president was interested in getting something done, and he’d listen to you. This president won’t do that. He’s the most in-your-face president I’ve ever seen. It’s incredible.
What was Martin Luther King like?
He was a great man. I didn’t know him particularly well. I got along better with some of the other people than I did with him, but I didn’t see him as much as I did with some of the others. … King was a very brave man. What he did in the South was wonderful. I think it was unfortunate he decided to move up North. He didn’t know anything about Chicago or Detroit as compared to the South. And he didn’t really know anything about war as compared to civil rights.
What might he have accomplished if he had lived another 20 or 30 years?
Well, King probably accomplished what he was going to accomplish. I doubt very much if King had lived and had not been assassinated, he would have been a great public figure for years to come. I just doubt it.
Do you feel that way about Malcolm X, too?
Malcolm X had more drive, and he understood the problems of more black people. Dr. King was a person of the South. … They were both brave, there’s no question about that. In fact, one of the things that irritates me about civil rights today, or really since the Sixties and particularly in the Eighties with the Reagan administration, [is that] Dr. King talked about a color-blind society, and they seized on that phrase and turned it upside down. He was talking about the future and they talked about being color-blind as “We mustn’t help the blacks.” That’s not what Dr. King meant. He meant, “You won’t see us as blacks.” And I think one of the unhappy things was the Supreme Court succumbing to that argument and finally saying that the equal-protection clause applied to whites as well as blacks. That’s the most ridiculous thing, really.
Do you feel as if the great achievements of the civil rights movement have been undone?
Not really. They’ve been slowed down from what they ought to be. But I don’t think we’ve gone backward. I don’t think anybody could turn them around. We could have done much better than we’ve done. But when you think about it, I don’t think some in the Congress and the people really appreciated what they were doing. I don’t think they really appreciated the change [they were making] in the social life in this country. We’ve done well in terms of making a black middle class. Universities have been very helpful in this. In the [early] Sixties, you couldn’t have seen a black face on television. But the poor have not benefited, and there’s still a lot of bias. It’s in politics all the time. It’s subtle. It’s gone underground. It’s not as venal as it was. It’s rarely articulated, but it exists.
Have you written a memoir?