May 9, 2012

"Katzenbach finally interrupted and said he knew about the Constitution, but a man could be a damn fool and be constitutional."

From David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" (p. 345), reporting what the Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach said when Secretary of State Dean Rusk, not wanting to pressure LBJ about Vietnam, "gave Katzenbach a long dissertation on the constitutional prerogatives of the President."

Nicholas Katzenbach died yesterday. He was 90.

There was speculation that Mr. Katzenbach left as attorney general [in 1966] in part to make way for Ramsey Clark, an assistant attorney general. President Johnson, it was said, wanted to make a historic appointment to the Supreme Court, choosing Thurgood Marshall to become the first black justice. Appointing Mr. Clark would prod his father, Justice Tom C. Clark, to resign from the bench to avoid a conflict of interest with his son. Ramsey Clark was appointed, Justice Clark did resign and Justice Marshall did succeed him.

As the No. 2 official at State, Mr. Katzenbach defended the legality of United States involvement in Vietnam, appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in August 1967 to argue that the Tonkin Gulf resolution, passed by Congress in 1964, had given the president the authority to widen the war.

Opponents of the war had hoped that he would follow in [the footsteps of the man he replaced, George W. Ball,] and challenge the administration’s policies from within. Mr. Katzenbach took a quieter tack, setting up a secret working group — “the Non-group,” he called it — to pursue ways to end the war. Mr. Katzenbach later said the group had added shades of gray to policy discussions and had contributed to bombing halts.
Another passage from "The Best and the Brightest" (pp. 420-421):
For Lyndon Johnson, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was a victory, but like so many things he was to do in the coming year, it produced short-range gains with far more serious long-range problems. (However, ironically, the lack of legal authority for the war continued to bother not just the critics of the war but the President as well, and in 1965, as the escalation mounted, he turned to Nicholas Katzenbach, the Attorney General, and asked, “Don’t I need more authority for what I’m doing?” Katzenbach assured him that he did not, that on a legal basis he had all the authority he needed with the Tonkin Resolution. But Johnson was still bothered by the idea, and he raised the same point with his congressional liaison people and his friends on the Hill, and they told him not to go for more legal justification, that he would get hit from two sides: by the people who opposed him on the war, and by those who supported him but thought they had given him enough authority already.)

17 comments:

ndspinelli said...

Dead Bureaucrat Attorney. What's the big deal. Vidal Sasson just died, that's a much bigger deal.

edutcher said...

That's why the flags are at half mast.

Who knew a former AG rated it?

dreams said...

I read "The Best and Brightest" when it came out, he made it interesting. I remember in the eighties reading David Halberstam's brother Dr Michael Halberstam's syndicated column on medical issues. They both died unnatural deaths, David Halberstam was killed in car accident and Dr Michael Halberstam was killed by a home intruder.

Lem said...

..a man could be a damn fool and be constitutional.

That, to me, speaks to the quality of the ideas the constitution promotes.. as opposed to a reliance on the quality of the man the constitution guides.

dreams said...

"..a man could be a damn fool and be constitutional."

I'll just say then that Obama is just a damn fool because we know liberals don't believe in the constitution, not really.

glenn said...

Well lemme see. "The Best and the Brightest" Huh. Aren't the Kennedy/Johnson guys the ones who got us neck deep in Vietnam without a viable exit strategy? And made the 4 going on 5 generation welfare establishment possible when even a bunch of Dems like Pat Moynihan knew it would be a disaster for poor families.

dreams said...

"Well lemme see. "The Best and the Brightest" Huh. Aren't the Kennedy/Johnson guys the ones who got us neck deep in Vietnam without a viable exit strategy? And made the 4 going on 5 generation welfare establishment possible when even a bunch of Dems like Pat Moynihan knew it would be a disaster for poor families."

Yeah.

FrankN said...

Stalag Luft III, the very camp where the "Great Escape" occurred, eventually became a mostly American camp, setup a number of schools for its POWs, including a law school, and Nicholas Katzenbach earned his law degree while a POW there.

Dick Stanley said...

Interesting that the former AG's son, John, has become an author of popular crime novels.

holdfast said...

"..a [state] could be a damn fool and be constitutional."

Wasn't that essentially the Thomas dissent in Lawrence?

traditionalguy said...

Katzenbach had an unusual courage that spoke up when laying low would have been an easier act. Therefore he is one of the few men who is worthy of honor in my book.

Dean Rusk was a smooth talker from Atlanta who kept LBJ's head in a bubble about the profound lessons learned about appeasement in Europe in 1938.

The actual facts existing in the former French colony of Viet Nam, that the French had tried in vain to re-take after a five year Japanese occupation, had little or nothing to do with European nation states or their world hegemon called the USA.

The Viet Namese had fought several resistance wars to Chinese domination over thousands of years, and the new comers from Europe were not going to win just because Dean Rusk said it would happen.

But the idiot Rusk convinced LBJ that he was preventing WWII again by committing to fight in an easy to win Asian land war of attrition.

dreams said...

I remember Halberstam portraying George Ball as a hero and Robert McNamara as the bad guy. I was young when I read the book and I've become more conservative so I'm not sure how I would feel about the book today. George Ball came across as a stand up guy willing to buck popular opinion to make the case for what he thought was right according to Halberstam. McGeorge Bundy didn't fare very well either. Much like today the "Best and Brightest" aren't so bright.

phx said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark O said...

He was the greatest of all the Civil Rights lawyers and did more for civil rights save only MLK and LBJ.

glenn said...

They had some "Best and Brightest" guys in Great Britain in the thirties as well. Some of us know how that worked out. Only cost us 500,000 of our best to bail 'em out for their stupidity.

Unknown said...

Katzenbach's best work came as assistant AG under Kennedy, where he was instrumental in civil rights enforcement in recalcitrant southern states. In his later years, Katzenbach was an arbitrator with the American Arbitration Association. I tried a case in front of him. He was a smart guy and very much on his game.
Sadly, like everyone in office during the time, he gets charged with the Vietnam War mess. Having lived through the period, I don't think a final decision as to whether it was "right" or not will ever be reached. At the time, "indigenous" Communist movements were challenging post-colonial regimes throughout SE Asia, which was a matter of legitimate concern. Where LBJ got off track, IMHO, is that he ran for re-election in 1964 as the "peace candidate" portraying his opponent, Barry Goldwater, as a warmonger. Promptly after being re-elected, LBJ Americanized the Vietnam War, sending in large numbers of combat troops to engage the VC and NVA directly, and he did so without telling anyone in advance. When the war started going badly, much of the public was unhappy with the idea of a President holding a "blank check" to initiate a large-scale and sustained military operation at any time.

$9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

Reminds me of the cop in Everett Washington, right before he shot up some Wobblies, who reportedly said: "To hell with the Constitution, you're in Everett now."

My senior thesis led with that quote, do undergraduates still write senior theses?