WASHINGTON - W. Willard Wirtz, a lawyer and labor arbitrator who was labor secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations but broke publicly with Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam, has died.
Wirtz, 98, died Saturday of natural causes at his home in Washington, his son Philip said Sunday.
Wirtz left a Chicago law firm to join the Kennedy administration as undersecretary of labor in 1961. President John F. Kennedy promoted him to the top job in 1962 just one day after naming Labor Secretary Arthur J. Goldberg to the Supreme Court.
Wirtz continued in the post after Johnson succeeded Kennedy in 1963 and stayed on until Johnson completed his term in January 1969. He remained in Washington and resumed the practice of law, often serving on boards and pursuing labor-related projects. His wife, Jane, who died in 2002, was a prominent Washington socialite who was active in political and social organizations.
In step with the social and economic goals of Johnson's Great Society initiatives, Wirtz's department directed numerous training and education programs aimed at furthering opportunities for workers, particularly the undereducated and the underemployed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 spurred the department to pursue an equal-opportunity agenda, including nondiscriminatory practices by contractors and equal pay for women.
The first Johnson cabinet member to support halting the bombing of North Vietnam, Wirtz said in September 1968 that he would have voted in favor of a proposed plank in the Democratic Party platform to stop the bombing. Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the party's presidential nominee, had opposed the plank.
Wirtz had become increasingly vocal in his opposition to the war by the time Johnson called him to the White House in October 1968 to discuss a departmental reorganization plan the president had not approved. The meeting grew heated, according to an account published in 1970 by Johnson press secretary George Christian, with the president questioning whether Wirtz actually wanted to be fired.
Johnson demanded and received Wirtz's resignation, Christian wrote. Concerned with how such dissension could affect Humphrey's campaign against Republican Richard Nixon with the election just two weeks away, Johnson sent two aides to persuade Wirtz to withdraw the resignation before the day was over.