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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Australia vs New Zealand live
cricket Follow over-by-over coverage as rivals New Zealand and Australia face off
News
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
Life and Style
Researchers found that just 10 one-minute swill-and-spit sessions are enough to soften tooth enamel and make teeth vulnerable to erosion
health
News
i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
The Regent Street Cinema’s projection room in the 1920s
film
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing