Nicholas Katzenbach, whose government service (mostly in the Justice Department) encompassed much of the major issues of the 1960s, from civil rights to Viet Nam to the Kennedy assassination. He famously encountered George Wallace at “the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama, and was in Oxford with the Marshalls to assure James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi.
Folks who have read Robert Caro’s latest installment on Lyndon Johnson would have encountered him.
He was first headed the Office of Legal Counsel (at the request of his friend Byron White), and was later Robert Kennedy’s number two until replacing Kennedy in 1964 when Kennedy ran for Senate.
From his New York Times obituary:
Perhaps his most tense moment in government 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, 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 like a traffic cop.
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 hockey goalie, was dismissive. “I’m not interested in this show,” he said.
The students were registered about four hours later. …
He was important in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (which he helped draft).
In September of 1962,
in the face of riots, he was dispatched to the University of Mississippi to enforced 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, according to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in “Robert Kennedy and His Times.” “The president needs a moral issue.” …
After President Kennedy was assassinated, Mr. Katzenbach ran the Justice Department as Robert Kennedy grieved at home. He also took steps that have intrigued students of the assassination ever since.
In a memo to the presidential aide Bill Moyers, dated Nov. 25, 1963, three days after the shooting in Dallas, Mr. Katzenbach proposed that an independent national commission be established to investigate the killing. Conspiracy buffs have long interpreted the memo as explicitly calling for such a panel to come to a predetermined conclusion.
The memo 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.”
Mr. Katzenbach maintained later that his goal had been to gather, not cover up, evidence against Lee Harvey Oswald, who he was convinced was the lone assassin. …
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 King’s phones in the face of Hoover’s accusations that King was associating with Communists. Mr. Katzenbach said that he and his boss believed the taps would clear 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 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 put a stop to it,” Mr. Katzenbach wrote in The Los Angeles Times in 2006. “I think he did so, 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.
As under secretary of state, the No. 2 post at State, 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 play the role Mr. Ball had — as a devil’s advocate challenging 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.