Nicholas Katzenbach: US official who helped end segregation

 

Nicholas Katzenbach's career in government was the history of America's turbulent 1960s in miniature.

From the civil rights struggle to the Warren report into the assassination of President Kennedy, from the Cuban missile crisis to the failed efforts to end the Vietnam war, Katzenbach was involved, as adviser, policy-maker or policy implementer – in this latter role never more so than in June 1963 when, as deputy US attorney general, he faced down Alabama's governor George Wallace in a confrontationthat provided one of the enduring images of the fight to bring racial justice to the South.

Already, the year before, in October 1962, Katzenbach had been sent to the University of Mississippi to oversee the admission of James Meredith, its first black student. The atmosphere was incendiary: "Shoot anyone who lays a hand on him," attorney general Robert Kennedy told him, as John F Kennedy despatched federal troops. There were violent clashes, but thanks in large measure to Katzenbach's mixture of determination and restraint, the worst was avoided and Meredith was enrolled.

The following June he was back in the South on a similar mission, this time to force the arch-segregationist Wallace to accept two black students at the University of Alabama. Once again Katzenbach succeeded. "I'm not interested in the show," he declared to the segregationist governor stood at a lectern blocking the university's main entrance, flanked theatrically by police officers, and delivering a tirade against the iniquities of the central government. In the end the two students were admitted and Katzenbach cemented his reputation as a man who could hold his nerve and get things done – as an admiring profile described him, "a courageous egghead".

Both parts of that description were true. Born to a prominent political family in Pennsylvania, he enrolled at Princeton University only to leave and join the air force as a navigator when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. In 1943 Katzenbach's plane was shot down, and he spent two years as a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany. Twice he escaped, twice he was recaptured.

At war's end, he quickly completed his studies at Princeton and took a law degree at Yale where he edited the law review, before attending Balliol College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. When JFK won the 1960 election Katzenbach, like many of his friends, went to Washington. He was a perfect specimen of "the best and the brightest", a talented young lawyer recruited to the Justice Department by the new attorney general, Robert Kennedy.

Like most of that breed he was idealistic but no ideologue. He was unswerving on basic principle, but with a good lawyer's ability to see where the other side was coming from. Katzenbach's intelligence was matched by his lack of pretension. Stooped and balding, and invariably clad in a crumpled suit, he won RFK's trust because he was reliable, dependable and unflappable. The admiration was mutual: Robert Kennedy, he said decades later, was "the most honest person I ever met. Had he lived, he could have been one of America's greatest presidents."

By 1962, Katzenbach had been named deputy attorney general, not onlythe department's point man on civil rights but a counsellor on other important matters. In 1962 he wrote a brief supporting Kennedy's decision to blockade Cuba during the missile crisis, and helped secure the release of prisoners captured during the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Then on 22 November 1963, John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It was Katzenbach who dictated over the phone to one of Lyndon Johnson's aides the text of the oath of office before the new president was sworn in on Air Force One. Three days later, he sent a memo to the White House urging a full public inquiry into the killing: "The public must be satisfied that [Lee Harvey] Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large," Katzenbach wrote.

By the time Robert Kennedy stepped down to campaign for the US Senate, Katzenbach had won Johnson's trust as well for his work on the historic1964 Civil Rights Act. Not only was Katzenbach Kennedy's obvioussuccessor; informally he played a no less vital role on occasion, as emissary between Johnson and RFK, whoseconsuming hatred of each other was a subplot of American government in those years.

In 1966, remarkably, Katzenbach proposed himself not for promotion but demotion – suggesting to Johnson that he leave the job of attorney general, one of the "Big Four" cabinet posts, to take the No 2 job at the State Department, of Under Secretary below Dean Rusk. The reasons were several; a lifelong interest in foreign affairs, a fraying relationship with the immovable J Edgar Hoover at the FBI, and a perhaps naïve belief that his skills could find a negotiated settlement to the Vietnam War, by then starting to engulf Johnson's presidency.

LBJ took him up on the offer, but Katzenbach's spell at State was the least satisfying part of his eight years in government. There proved no way out of the war and in January 1969 he left Washington, in his own words "broke and tired, and feeling I'd been something of a failure at the State Department." Afterwards Katzenbach became general counsel at IBM, and retained a keen interest in Democratic politics to the end of his life. In 2008 he published a well-received memoir, Some of It Was Fun: Working with RFK and LBJ. Fun or not, almost all of it was history.

Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach, lawyer and US government official: born Philadelphia 17 January 1922; US deputy attorney general 1962-65, attorney general 1965-66; Under Secretary of State 1966-69; married 1946 Lydia Phelps Stokes (two sons, two daughters); died Skillman, New Jersey 8 May 2012.

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Plans to decriminalise non-payment of television licence fees would cost the BBC £500m according to estimates drawn up within the Corporation
people
News
people
Life & Style
The new low cost smartphone of Motorola, 'Motorola Moto G', is displayed in Sao Paulo, Brazil on November 13, 2013. The smartphone, with dimensions 65.9mm W x 129.9mm H x 6.0 - 11.6mm D is equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 with quad-core 1,2 GHz CPU, a 4.5-inch display and Android Operating System 4.3 and a suggested price of $ 179 USD.
techData assessing smartphones has revealed tens of millions of phones are at risk of being harvested
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Pare as Megan Draper and Jon Hamm as the troubled, melancholy Don Draper
tvAnd six other questions we hope Mad Men series seven will answer
Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Senior Infrastructure Consultant

£50000 - £65000 Per Annum potentially flexible for the right candidate: Clearw...

Public Sector Audit - Bristol

£38000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have experience of ...

Day In a Page

Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
Supersize art

Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
James Dean: Back on the big screen

James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
10 best activity books for children

10 best activity books for children

Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

Politicians urged to find radical solution
Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

Ukraine crisis

How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

A history of the First World War in 100 moments
Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?