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date: 01 October 2022

Katzenbach, Nicholas

(17 Jan. 1922–8 May 2012)

Katzenbach, Nicholas

(17 Jan. 1922–8 May 2012)
  • Philip A. Goduti Jr.

Katzenbach, Nicholas deB. (17 Jan. 1922–8 May 2012), lawyer, civil rights advocate, and federal worker, was born Nicholas deBellville Katzenbach in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Edward L. Katzenbach, a lawyer and attorney general for New Jersey from 1924 to 1929, and Marie Louis Hilson, who served on the New Jersey Board of Education as an official and president. In 1939 Katzenbach graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he was a goalie on the hockey team. He went on to attend Princeton University, majoring in International Relations.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Katzenbach left Princeton to enlist in the Army Air Force, where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He piloted B-25 bombers in combat and was shot down over the Mediterranean in 1943. He spent two years as a prisoner of war in a German prison camp. He escaped twice and was recaptured both times. He was awarded the Air Medal with three clusters. When the war ended, he convinced Princeton to give him credit for that time in captivity, during which time he had read four hundred books. He passed several exams and turned in a thesis, graduating cum laude in 1945.

After Princeton Katzenbach attended Yale University Law School and served as editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal. During his time at Yale he married Lydia King Phelps Stokes on 8 June 1946. They had four children.

He graduated Yale in 1947 with his Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree and from 1947 to 1949 attended Balliol College at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He was admitted to the New Jersey Bar Association in 1950. He served in the Office of the General Counsel for the United States Air Force from 1950 to 1952. Katzenbach went on to teach law as an assistant professor at Yale University from 1952 to 1956 and an associate professor at the University of Chicago from 1956 to 1960. In 1961 he wrote a book with Morton A. Kaplan, then a professor at the University of Chicago, titled The Political Foundations of International Law.

Byron White, a friend from Katzenbach’s time at Yale who was deputy attorney general in the Kennedy administration, recruited Katzenbach to work in the Justice Department in 1961. When White was appointed to the United States Supreme Court, Katzenbach became deputy attorney general in 1962, ushering in a period in his life in which he would be involved in some of the major historical events of the 1960s.

Katzenbach’s first major crisis occurred in September 1962. After weeks of sparring with Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent Katzenbach to enroll James Meredith, an African American, at the all-white University of Mississippi. From 30 September to 1 October 1962 Katzenbach directed U.S. Marshals who were charged with maintaining order and protecting Meredith as a riot engulfed the campus throughout the night, killing two people. Katzenbach stayed in constant communication with the White House throughout the crisis from a telephone booth in a main building on campus. President John F. Kennedy ordered the 2nd Infantry to intervene and stop the violence. On 1 October 1962 Meredith was registered as the first African American to attend the university.

When Nikita Khrushchev challenged the Kennedy administration during the Cuban Missile Crisis from 13 to 26 October 1962 Katzenbach wrote the legal brief on the legality of the U.S. naval blockade of Cuba, which led to a resolution. He later negotiated the release of the Cuban prisoners from the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Katzenbach also led the initiative to enroll African Americans Vivian Malone and James Hood into the University of Alabama on 11 June 1963 as the truculent Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the university, blocking their entry. Learning from the violence that had occurred at Ole Miss, Katzenbach left with Malone and Hood to avoid a confrontation. President Kennedy federalized the National Guard and ordered them to remove Wallace from the doorway. Katzenbach returned and enrolled the students, making way for the integration of the university. Later that night Kennedy gave an address that defined civil rights as a moral issue and proposed legislation to outlaw segregation.

When President Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963 an advisor to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson reached out to the Justice Department for the exact wording of the oath of office over the phone. Still mourning from the tragic loss of his brother only hours earlier, Robert Kennedy handed the phone to Katzenbach so Johnson could be sworn in on Air Force One. In the wake of the assassination Katzenbach lobbied for a full investigation, which would eventually become the Warren Commission. Both he and Robert Kennedy worked on the passage and language of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

When Kennedy resigned as attorney general to run for the Senate, President Johnson appointed Katzenbach attorney general in 1965. Katzenbach helped craft the language for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As attorney general Katzenbach served on The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (known as the “Katzenbach Commission”) and attempted to curtail FBI surveillance of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saying that the wire taps on the civil rights leader were an overreach of power. Frustrated that he was not effective in this effort, and being subjected to resentment from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, he moved to the state department where he served as undersecretary of state from 1966 to 1969.

In his new position Katzenbach investigated U.S. efforts in South Vietnam. He hoped to negotiate an end to the war. He was also appointed to a three-member commission that reviewed CIA activities, particularly concerning the questionable use of funds. The commission’s findings led Johnson to prohibit covert government aid in certain cases.

When Richard Nixon was elected president Katzenbach resigned. He went on to become vice president and general counsel for International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). Interestingly enough, in 1969 the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against IBM, and Katzenbach served as lead counsel in his new position at the company. The suit lasted thirteen years with a six-year trial. It would eventually be dropped by the Ronald Reagan administration. At IBM he was elected a director in 1970 and went on to become a senior vice president in 1979; a member of the Corporate Management Board in 1983; and senior vice president, law and external relations in 1985.

Katzenbach left IBM in 1986 and went into the private practice of law in New Jersey, but he did not shy away from public life. He was commissioned by the New York Stock Exchange to investigate the causes of the 1987 stock market collapse, worked with former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh in the 1990s to negotiate the release of Chinese dissidents Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan, gave testimony for the “Historical Precedents and Constitutional Standards” panel in the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton in 1998, and filed an amicus brief defending Microsoft in an antitrust suit by the Department of Justice in 2000. In 2002 he was part of a committee that investigated the reorganization of WorldCom after the company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

He wrote in his memoir “I hope young people will have the passion for government I had so many years ago (and still have). It is, after all, their future that is at stake.” Katzenbach died at his home in Skillman, New Jersey of natural causes while recovering from hip surgery. Serving in Washington during the turbulent 1960s Katzenbach leaves a legacy that influenced landmark civil rights legislation, crises in United States foreign policy, and interpretations of justice that shaped American society and culture for generations.


Katzenbach completed oral histories in 1964 on JFK and 1969 on RFK for the John F. Kennedy Library. Additionally, he completed oral histories for the Lyndon Johnson Presidential library in 1968. The majority of his papers are at the JFK library with some other materials at the LBJ library. Kennedy Justice (1970) by Victor S. Navasky has biographical information as well as his work in the Kennedy justice department. The Civil Rights Era: Origins and Development of National Policy (1990) by Hugh Davis Graham has extensive information on the civil rights initiatives where Katzenbach played a role. Robert Dallek’s Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and his Times 1961–1973 (1998)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat is a good source for his time with President Johnson. Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–1963 (1988)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat, Pillars of Fire: America in the King Years 1963–1965 (1998), and At Cannan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965–1968 (2006) highlight some of Katzenbach’s work in the Justice Department. David J. Garrow’s Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (1978)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat, The FBI and Martin Luther King (1981), and Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986) are also great resources for Katzenbach’s work as attorney general. An obituary appeared in The New York Times on 9 May 2012.