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Nicholas Katzenbach’s Enduring Service
ormer Under Secretary of State
Nicholas Katzenbach, who died
in May at the age of 90, stood near
the center of presidential power
throughout some of the tensest moments
in his country’s history. What lessons
does his public service ofer to Americans
joining the ranks of the State Department
An accomplished lawyer, deco-
rated World War II veteran and Rhodes
Scholar, Katzenbach guided foreign
policy decision-making at the highest
levels in Washington with exceptional
precision and prescience. While serving
at the Justice Department, he advised
President John F. Kennedy as the Cuban
Missile Crisis unfolded and drafted a
memo supporting a naval blockade of
Cuba. Following Katzenbach’s advice, the
president averted nuclear war with the
Soviet Union.
Katzenbach later relinquished his
Cabinet-level position leading the Justice
Department in 1966 to fll the sub-Cab-
inet-level position of under secretary at
the Department of State. He moved to
Foggy Bottom at the behest of Lyndon
Johnson, who was eager to fnd a replace-
ment for outgoing Under Secretary
George Ball—someone who would be
capable of bringing American involve-
ment in Vietnam to a close.
Ever loyal to the leaders he served,
Katzenbach stayed on as the deputy to
Secretary of State Dean Rusk through
the end of the Johnson administration,
even as the war consumed the energies
of both men and irreversibly diminished
the public support of the president. Dur-
ing his tenure, he identifed a handful of
young Foreign Service ofcers to work on
his staf, including Lawrence Eagleburger,
Anthony Lake and Richard Holbrooke.
Each went on to fll senior-level posi-
tions in the department and at the White
House over the ensuing four decades.
Despite his contributions to foreign
policy, Nicholas Katzenbach is most often
remembered for his work at home to
advance the cause of civil rights, such as
confronting recalcitrant Alabama Gov-
ernor George Wallace during his defant
1963 “stand in the schoolhouse door.” Kat-
zenbach’s symbolic triumph over steadfast
and often violent resistance to desegrega-
tion in the South was accompanied by
long hours of work behind closed doors
on Capitol Hill to pass groundbreaking
legislation of the Great Society era.
After helping to secure the landmark
victories of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
and Voting Rights Act of 1965, he success-
fully defended the constitutionality of the
latter before the Supreme Court.
“Leadership in a democracy does not
equate with the power to decide, but the
power to persuade,” Katzenbach refected
in his memoirs, published in 2008.
His departure from the scene comes
at a time when those joining the U.S. gov-
ernment agencies that he once helped
lead, this author included, face signif-
cant challenges around the world. At the
same time, widening political, socioeco-
nomic and cultural divisions at home
exert an increasingly negative infuence
on the ability of public institutions to
formulate and implement solutions.
Nicholas Katzenbach’s career reminds
us that these challenges are neither
unprecedented nor insurmountable. His
remarkable intellect, unwavering patrio-
tism and persistent pragmatism allowed
him to shape the events during an
equally tumultuous era—from the civil
rights movement to the Cuban Missile
Crisis and the war in Vietnam—and have
a lasting positive impact on the values
and future of his country. His life should
inspire new generations of American dip-
lomats to aspire to achieve the same.
An accomplished lawyer, decorated
WorldWar II veteran and Rhodes Scholar,
Nicholas Katzenbach guided foreign
policy decision-making at the highest
levels inWashington with exceptional
precision and prescience.
Rennie A. Silva is a Presidential Management Fellow in the Ofce of eDiplomacy at the State
Department. Te views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily refect those of the
U.S. government.