SKILLMAN, N.J. — While researching his epic series on Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro found himself again and again calling upon Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, the former Justice Department and State Department official.
“He was a key figure in so many of the most crucial moments in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations,” says Caro, whose fourth Johnson volume, “The Passage of Power,” was recently released. “And he was so careful about making sure that I truly understood them.”
The Bay of Pigs. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Integration of schools. The Warren Report. The Civil Rights Act. Vietnam. In some ways, the history of Katzenbach’s time in government was itself a history of government in the 1960s.
Katzenbach died Tuesday night at age 90 at his home in Skillman, N.J. His career was praised by Princeton University scholar Sean Wilentz as “long and singular” and defined by a “bedrock devotion to principle.”
Katzenbach’s son, John, said his father “passed away with the same quiet dignity that he displayed throughout his life.” He noted that although his father had accomplished much in his career as a lawyer, statesman and as a father and grandfather, “he never thought any battle was fully won until hearts and attitudes followed the law.”
Katzenbach was in his early 40s when he joined the Justice Department in 1961 under Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The graduate of Princeton and Yale and former prisoner of war had the intellect and resolve that the Kennedys valued. He soon joined Burke Marshall, future Supreme Court justice Byron White and future Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox among others during what is regarded as a brief, golden era for the department.
Katzenbach wrote a legal brief in support of President John F. Kennedy’s decision to blockade Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis and helped secure the release of prisoners captured during the disastrous Bay of Pigs raid on Cuba in 1961. He became a deputy attorney general in 1963 and, after Kennedy’s assassination, served as attorney general and an undersecretary of state under President Lyndon Johnson.
Katzenbach, who helped Johnson pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, had been the Kennedy administration’s point man when James Meredith became the first black to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962. The following year, he was the federal official on hand when segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace made his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” — symbolically attempting to block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from entering the University of Alabama.
Looking businesslike in a suit and tie, his bald head sweating under the Alabama sun, Katzenbach walked up to the school’s entrance and handed Wallace, who stood in the shade, a presidential proclamation saying he must obey the law. The nation watched on television, including a nervous Robert Kennedy at his office in Washington.
It was a historic confrontation, but resolved in advance. President Kennedy had federalized the Alabama National Guard and ordered some of its units to the university campus. An agreement was then reached between the White House and Wallace’s aides, and Malone and Hood enrolled at the school after Wallace read a proclamation to Katzenbach and left.
A few months after the face-off in Alabama, Katzenbach again stepped up, in the days following Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. On Nov. 25, three days after the slaying, Katzenbach sent a memo to Johnson aide Bill Moyers urging that results of the FBI’s investigation be made public to combat any notion that Lee Harvey Oswald had not acted alone.
“The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large,” Katzenbach wrote.
Four days after the memo, Johnson appointed some of the nation’s most prominent figures to the Warren Commission, which ultimately concluded that Oswald acted alone, a theory still disputed. Skeptics and conspiracy theorists have often cited Katzenbach’s memo as a sign of a government cover-up.
In February 1965, Johnson picked Katzenbach as his attorney general, but he held the post for less than two years, feuding with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and others before stepping down in October 1966. A short time later, he was named an undersecretary of state, a post he held for the remainder of the Johnson administration and which led to an unhappy entanglement with the Vietnam War.
In testimony before the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee in 1967, Katzenbach made a controversial defense of the war’s legality, citing the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which allowed the U.S. to repel attacks and prevent further aggression. The committee’s chairman, Sen. J. William Fulbright, had disputed that the Tonkin resolution — passed before the U.S. had sent ground troops to Vietnam — was a formal declaration of war.
“What could a declaration of war have done that would have given the president clearer authority?” Katzenbach responded. “It would not, I think, reflect correctly the very limited objectives of the United States with respect to Vietnam to use an outmoded phraseology, to declare war.”
Katzenbach believed his testimony was accurate, but acknowledged its unpopularity. Philip Roth and Jules Feiffer were among the artists who took out a full-page newspaper ad condemning his remarks. Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota would cite Katzenbach as a reason for running for president in 1968 as an anti-war candidate, a decision that helped convince Johnson not to seek a second term.
In 1969, after the Johnson administration ended, Katzenbach was appointed IBM’s general counsel and helped represent the computer giant in its long fight against an anti-trust lawsuit filed by the government and eventually dismissed. He also served on prison reform panels and remained active in national Democratic politics and constitutional issues. In December 1998, he took part in a protest in Princeton against Republican efforts to impeach President Clinton and also spoke as a witness for the president.
Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach was born in Philadelphia in 1922 to a family of politicians. His middle name, with the unusual abbreviation deB., came from a forebear who had served as physician to Napoleon’s brother before emigrating to the U.S.
Katzenbach served in the Army Air Force during World War II and spent two years as a prisoner of war in Italy. He later graduated from Princeton and the Yale Law School and studied at Oxford University for two years as a Rhodes Scholar.
For much of the 1950s, Katzenbach was a professor of law, first at Yale, then at the University of Chicago. He was on a leave of absence, in Switzerland, when John F. Kennedy received the Democrats’ nomination for president, in 1960.
His eight-year career in presidential administrations started the following year.
It was an exciting time,” Katzenbach told the AP. “There were lots of young people who got themselves involved in civil rights, and later in protesting the Vietnam War, feeling involved in the government and what’s going on in their own future. To my mind that’s what makes this a great country.”
AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.