Every Friday, we choose an alum who has been making headlines—for better or for worse.
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Nicholas Katzenbach ’47LLB: JFK, LBJ, MLK—he knew them all.

Nicholas Katzenbach ’47LLB left Princeton in the middle of his junior year to serve in World War II. After his plane was shot down in 1943, he spent 15 months as a prisoner of war, reading 400 books. Postwar, with no further coursework, he graduated cum laude from Princeton, en route to picking up his Yale law degree in two years—editing the Yale Law Journal along the way—and heading for Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

But that’s not why Katzenbach, who died May 8 at age 90, was famous. Rather, it was his years as a top aide to presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson that made Katzenbach a household name—a public career that one obituary likened to “a history of government in the 1960s.”

After practicing law and teaching at Yale Law School (where a professorship is named for him), Katzenbach joined the US Justice Department under his law school friend Byron “Whizzer” White ’46LLB. When White became a Supreme Court justice in 1962, Katzenbach took his place as deputy to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He became a lead negotiator and enforcer of civil rights, confronting Southern segregationists as black students integrated the universities of Mississippi and Alabama. Katzenbach eventually served as attorney general and then undersecretary of state. He worked on the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis; instigated the creation of the Warren Commission to investigate JFK’s assassination; acquiesced in the FBI’s wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr., but balked when the agency tried to blackmail King; successfully defended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 before the Supreme Court; and defended the legality of the Vietnam War.

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