TRENTON, N.J. — While researching his epic series on Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert Caro found himself again and again calling upon Nicholas Katzenbach, the former Justice Department and State Department official.
"He was a key figure in so many of the most crucial moments in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations," says Mr. Caro, whose fourth Johnson volume, "The Passage of Power," was recently released. "And he was so careful about making sure that I truly understood them."
The Bay of Pigs. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Integration of schools. The Warren Report. The Civil Rights Act. Vietnam. In some ways, the history of Mr. Katzenbach's time in government was itself a history of government in the 1960s.
Mr. Katzenbach died Tuesday night at age 90 at his home in Skillman, N.J. His career was praised by Princeton University scholar Sean Wilentz as "long and singular" and defined by a "bedrock devotion to principle."
John Katzenbach said his father "passed away with the same quiet dignity that he displayed throughout his life." He noted that although his father had accomplished much in his career as a lawyer, statesman and as a father and grandfather, "he never thought any battle was fully won until hearts and attitudes followed the law."
Mr. Katzenbach was in his early 40s when he joined the Justice Department in 1961 under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The graduate of Princeton and Yale and former prisoner of war had the intellect and resolve that the Kennedys valued.
He soon joined Burke Marshall, future Supreme Court Justice Byron White and future Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox among others during what is regarded as a brief, golden era for the department.
He wrote a legal brief in support of President John F. Kennedy's decision to blockade Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis and helped secure the release of prisoners captured during the disastrous Bay of Pigs raid on Cuba in 1961. He became a deputy attorney general in 1963 and, after John Kennedy's assassination, served as attorney general and an undersecretary of state under Johnson.
Mr. Katzenbach, who helped Johnson pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, had been the Kennedy administration's point man when James Meredith became the first black to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962. The following year, he was the federal official on hand when segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace made his infamous "stand in the schoolhouse door" — symbolically attempting to block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from entering the University of Alabama.
Looking businesslike in a suit and tie, his bald head sweating under the Alabama sun, Mr. Katzenbach walked up to the school's entrance and handed Wallace, who stood in the shade, a presidential proclamation saying he must obey the law. The nation watched on television, including a nervous Robert Kennedy at his office in Washington.
It was a historic confrontation, but resolved in advance. President Kennedy had federalized the Alabama National Guard and ordered some of its units to the university campus. An agreement was then reached between the White House and Wallaces aides, and the two black students enrolled at the school after Wallace read a proclamation to Mr. Katzenbach and left.
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