Nicholas Katzenbach, 90, Dies; Policy Maker at ’60s Turning Points
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
New York Times
May 9, 2012
Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, who helped shape the political history of the 1960s, facing down segregationists, riding herd on historic civil rights legislation and helping to map Vietnam War strategy as a central player in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, died Tuesday night at his home in Skillman, N.J. He was 90.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Lydia.
Mr. Katzenbach was one of the “best and the brightest,” David Halberstam’s term for the likes of Robert S. McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow and other ambitious, cerebral and often idealistic postwar policy makers who came to Washington from business and academia carrying golden credentials. Mr. Katzenbach, an attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson, was the son of a New Jersey state attorney general, a Rhodes scholar, a law professor at Yale and the University of Chicago and a war hero.
His six years in government put him in the thick of some of the major events of the ’60s. He advised President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, negotiated the release of Cuban prisoners captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion and pushed for an independent commission to investigate the Kennedy assassination. He was Robert F. Kennedy’s No. 2 in the Justice Department and took on J. Edgar Hoover, the pugnacious F.B.I. director, over his wiretapping of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As an under secretary of state, he defended Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War before Congress.
“Few men have been so deeply involved in the critical issues of our time,” Johnson wrote to him when Mr. Katzenbach left government in 1968.
Perhaps his tensest moment came on June 11, 1963, when he confronted George C. Wallace in stifling heat on the steps of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Mr. Wallace was the Alabama governor who had trumpeted “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and vowed to block the admission of two black students “at the schoolhouse door.”
Mr. Katzenbach, in front of television cameras and flanked by a federal marshal and a United States attorney, approached Foster Auditorium, the main building on campus, around 11 a.m. Mr. Wallace was waiting behind a lectern at the top of the stairs, surrounded by a crowd of whites, some armed. “Stop!” he called out, raising his hand.
Mr. Katzenbach read a presidential proclamation ordering that the students be admitted and asked the governor to step aside peacefully. Mr. Wallace read a five-minute statement castigating “the central government” for “suppression of rights.”
Towering over Mr. Wallace, Mr. Katzenbach, a 6-foot-2-inch former college hockey goalie, was dismissive. “I’m not interested in this show,” he said.
About four hours later, with the acquiescence of the governor, Mr. Katzenbach escorted the students to register.
Mr. Katzenbach was known for reconciling differences and cooling tempers. In the Alabama confrontation he had the idea of defusing the situation by leaving the aspiring black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, in a car while he approached Governor Wallace.
Steering Civil Rights Bills
On Capitol Hill, Mr. Katzenbach, a Democrat, cultivated the good will of Republican senators in 1964 to help pass the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which he also helped draft, ending a century of discrimination at the polls. In an interview with The New York Times for this obituary in 2006, he contrasted his even-tempered style with that of his predecessor, the often brutally straightforward Robert Kennedy. He said his own way was to be “less than direct.”
His unflappability was on display early on, when as a bomber’s navigator in World War II he heard the bombardier announce over the intercom that the plane was on fire. “That’s too bad,” Mr. Katzenbach replied.
Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach was born on Jan. 17, 1922, in Philadelphia, the younger of two sons of Edward Lawrence Katzenbach and the former Marie Louise Hilson. His father was a corporate lawyer and New Jersey attorney general from 1924 to 1929. He died when Nicholas was 12. His mother was a member of the New Jersey State Board of Education for 44 years and its president for a decade. His brother, Edward Jr., died in 1974.
Mr. Katzenbach was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he played hockey, and Princeton, where he majored in international relations and public affairs. As a 19-year-old junior he drove to New York to enlist after the Pearl Harbor attack. A month later he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Forces and became a navigator on B-25 bombers. On a mission in 1943, he was captured when his plane was shot down. (He was awarded an Air Medal and three clusters.) As a prisoner of war in Germany he read, by his count, 400 books in 15 months.
After the war Mr. Katzenbach convinced Princeton that his reading qualified him for an undergraduate degree. The university had him take nine examinations and write a thesis, and in two months he graduated cum laude, in 1945. Two years later he graduated from Yale Law School, where he was editor in chief of The Yale Law Journal. On a Rhodes scholarship, he studied at Balliol College at Oxford.
In the 1950s, Mr. Katzenbach worked at his family law firm, advised the general counsel of the secretary of the Air Force and taught law at Yale and the University of Chicago. In 1961, he and Morton A. Kaplan wrote “The Political Foundations of International Law.”
Mr. Katzenbach joined the Kennedy administration after many of his friends had signed on. In his book “Kennedy Justice,” Victor Navasky described the recruits as living by the “code of the Ivy League gentleman,” believing “in the notion that reasonable men can always work things out.”
One friend was Byron R. White, the newly appointed deputy attorney general under Robert Kennedy. Mr. White made Mr. Katzenbach an assistant attorney general, putting him in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel, a post some call “the attorney general’s attorney general.”
After Mr. White was named to the Supreme Court in March 1962, Mr. Katzenbach replaced him as Robert Kennedy’s deputy. That September, in the face of riots, he was sent to the University of Mississippi to enforce a federal court order requiring the university to admit its first black student, James Meredith.
“If things get rough, don’t worry about yourself,” Robert Kennedy told him jokingly, according to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in “Robert Kennedy and His Times.” “The president needs a moral issue.”
After rioting began at Ole Miss, the president called in federal troops. “A bone-weary Katzenbach was talking with President Kennedy when joyous shouts went up that regular troops had been sighted” outside the administration building, Taylor Branch wrote in “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63.” Mr. Meredith was ultimately admitted.
That fall, during the missile crisis, Mr. Katzenbach wrote a legal brief supporting President Kennedy’s decision to blockade Cuba.
After Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, Mr. Katzenbach read the words of the oath of office to a Johnson aide, Jack Valenti, as Johnson prepared to be sworn in aboard Air Force One. And on Nov. 25, three days afterward, he sent a memo to the presidential aide Bill Moyers proposing that an independent national commission be established to investigate the killing.
The memo, released by the National Archives in 1994, began, “The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at a trial.”
Four days later, Johnson appointed the Warren Commission to investigate the killing; it concluded that Oswald had acted alone.
Conspiracy buffs have interpreted the Katzenbach memo as calling for such a panel to come to a predetermined conclusion. But Mr. Katzenbach maintained that he was simply convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin.
Mr. Katzenbach witnessed the famously tempestuous relationship between Johnson and Robert Kennedy. In his interview with The Times in 2006, he recalled the time Johnson angrily summoned him and Kennedy to the Oval Office to discuss reports that Kennedy had leaked a story to the press about a “peace feeler” from North Vietnam in 1967. Though Kennedy denied the accusation, the president was “absolutely insulting to Bobby” as well as himself, Mr. Katzenbach said, and both left in anger
When Kennedy resigned as attorney general to run for the Senate from New York in September 1964, he recommended that Mr. Katzenbach succeed him. Johnson first offered the job to Clark M. Clifford, a consummate Washington insider, who declined. After months of speculation that Johnson was wary of naming someone so close to Kennedy as attorney general, the president, partly on the advice of his friend Abe Fortas, a future Supreme Court justice, summoned Mr. Katzenbach and his wife to the White House on Jan. 28, 1965. Greeting them in his pajamas — he had a bad cold — Johnson offered him the job.
Drawing the Line on Hoover
As attorney general, besides helping to draft and steer civil rights legislation through Congress, Mr. Katzenbach defended the 1964 Civil Rights Act before the Supreme Court, winning a 9-0 ruling. In 1965 he had the Justice Department seek a federal court order barring Alabama officials from interfering with the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, which was led by Dr. King.
He also tried to navigate a treacherous course between King and Hoover at the F.B.I. He had agreed with Robert Kennedy in 1962 that it was necessary for the F.B.I. to tap Dr. King’s phones in the face of Hoover’s accusations that King was associating with Communists. Mr. Katzenbach said he and Kennedy believed the tapes would clear Dr. King.
But when he learned that the F.B.I. was doing far more than tapping phones, that it was bugging hotel rooms to record Dr. King’s extramarital sexual encounters, then trying to blackmail him, even suggesting that he commit suicide, Mr. Katzenbach drew the line.
“I flew to President Johnson’s Texas ranch to ask him to help put a stop to it,” Mr. Katzenbach wrote in The Los Angeles Times in 2006. “I think that he did, but such was Hoover’s power, I cannot be sure that even the president had the courage to do so.”
Mr. Katzenbach resigned in 1966, stating that “he could no longer effectively serve as attorney general because of Mr. Hoover’s obvious resentment of me.” Johnson appointed him under secretary of state, replacing George W. Ball, who had resigned.
There was speculation that Mr. Katzenbach left as attorney general in part to make way for Ramsey Clark, an assistant attorney general. 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 to avoid a conflict of interest with his son. Ramsey Clark was appointed, Justice Clark did resign and Marshall did succeed him.
From Public to Private Sector
As the No. 2 official at the State Department, 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 Mr. Ball’s footsteps 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.
After Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, was elected president in 1968, Mr. Katzenbach resigned from the State Department and joined I.B.M. as senior vice president and general counsel. He soon found himself in the role of adversary of the federal government.
Three days before Nixon took office, the Johnson administration filed an antitrust suit against I.B.M., seeking to break it up. I.B.M. admitted it was a monopoly but argued that its actions were legal and did not suppress competition. Mr. Katzenbach represented the firm in a 13-year war of attrition, including a trial of more than six years. In the end, the administration of President Ronald Reagan dropped the case, in 1982, saying it was without merit.
Resigning from I.B.M. in 1986, Mr. Katzenbach went into private practice at the New Jersey-based firm of Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti.
Besides his wife, the former Lydia King Phelps Stokes, Mr. Katzenbach’s survivors include his sons Christopher and John, the novelist; his daughters Mimi and Anne deBelleville Katzenbach; and six grandchildren.
While in private practice Mr. Katzenbach often took on special assignments for the public and private sectors, in one instance serving as chairman of the troubled Bank of Credit and Commerce International in 1991.
The appointments flowed from his reputation for loyalty and competence. Johnson often asked top officials, “Why can’t you be like Nick Katzenbach?”
Mr. Katzenbach had his own standards for judging government officials.
“The problem with that man is that he thinks government is just a game,” he once observed about a White House aide. “He doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions.”