As a key member of the administrations of both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach found himself involved in many of the most significant political and social events of the turbulent 1960s. He died Tuesday at his home in Skillman, New Jersey at the age of 90.
Born in 1922 in Philadelphia to Edward and Marie Katzenbach--his father a lawyer and one time attorney general for the state of New Jersey, his mother a long serving member of New Jersey's State Board of Education--Nicholas Katzenbach pursued a degree in international relations and public affairs at Princeton University before the outbreak of World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army Air Force as a navigator on B-25 bombers. Achieving the rank of second lieutenant, he became a prisoner of war in Germany after his plane was shot down in 1943. Returning to Princeton after the war, he graduated in 1945 before obtaining a law degree from Yale in 1947. He also studied at Balliol College at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
The 1950s found Katzenbach as a member of his family's law firm and teaching law at both Yale and the University of Chicago. After John F. Kennedy's victory in the 1960 presidential election, Katzenbach joined the Department of Justice at the behest of his friend, Byron R. White, Attorney General Robert Kennedy's deputy. Katzenbach was given the title of Assistant Attorney General and put in charge of the Department's Office of Legal Counsel, serving as an advisor to Attorney General Kennedy. In March 1962, he was elevated to Deputy Attorney General after White’s appointment to the Supreme Court.
As Deputy Attorney General, Katzenbach continually found himself thrust into the midst of the many flash points of the civil rights movement. He urged Alabama Governor George Wallace to protect the freedom riders in May 1961. He traveled to Mississippi to ensure a federal court order was followed granting James Meredith admission to the University of Mississippi. On 11 June 1963, in perhaps his most recognizable moment, he confronted Governor Wallace on the steps of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama over the admission of Vivian Malone and James Hood. Despite the Governor's promise to block the students "at the schoolhouse door," Katzenbach escorted the two African American students to register later that day. In Washington, D.C., Katzenbach was instrumental in winning Republican support to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which he helped draft.
Following the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, Katzenbach drafted a memo to President Johnson calling for an independent commission to investigate the killing. The resulting committee, the Warren Commission, concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
President Johnson tabbed Katzenbach in January 1965 to become Attorney General filling the hole left when Robert Kennedy resigned in September 1964 in order to run for the Senate seat of New York. As Attorney General, he successfully defended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 before the Supreme Court and secured a federal court order preventing Alabama officials from interfering with the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. Katzenbach also took on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover over the FBI's expanded and intrusive bugging of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After a long running battle with Hoover, Katzenbach stepped down as head of the Department of Justice in 1966 citing the FBI Director's "obvious resentment of me." President Johnson appointment him under secretary of state, a position he would hold until Richard Nixon's assumption of the presidency in 1968.
After leaving the Johnson administration, Katzenbach joined corporate giant IBM as a senior vice president and general counsel. One of his first tasks with the company was representing it in an anti-trust lawsuit filed by the federal government in the final days of the Johnson administration. The suit lasted thirteen years before President Ronald Regan dropped the case in 1982. Katzenbach left IBM in 1986 for the private New Jersey firm Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti.