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Louis Johnson and the Arming of America

The Roosevelt and Truman Years

Keith D. McFarland and David L. Roll

Publication Year: 2005

"Without question this is an important new addition to World War II and Cold War historiography.... Highly recommended." -- Douglas Brinkley, author of Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years and The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey beyond the White House

"A remarkably objective, yet sympathetic, study of Louis Johnson's life and career. Now only half-remembered,... Johnson was a major national figure. Colorful, aggressive, independent-minded, egotistical, his strong views and conflicts with Dean Acheson proved to be his undoing. All in all, a fascinating tale." -- James R. Schlesinger, former Secretary of Defense

"McFarland and Roll have performed a real service in rescuing from obscurity this Democratic mover and shaker. Their account of the rise and fall of Louis Johnson provides us with the fullest depiction yet of an important Washington figure employed for better or worse as a blunt instrument of policy change by both Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman." -- Alonzo L. Hamby, author of Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman and For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s

"[Johnson's] career is a cautionary tale of how even the most ruthlessly effective men can become pawns in the Washington power game. McFarland and Roll bring Johnson to life in this thorough and well-told history." -- Evan Thomas, Newsweek, author of Robert Kennedy: His Life and The Very Best Men: The Early Years of the CIA

Louis Johnson was FDR's Assistant Secretary of War and the architect of the industrial mobilization plans that put the nation on a war footing prior to its entry into World War II. Later, as Truman's Secretary of Defense, Johnson was given the difficult job of unifying the armed forces and carrying out Truman's orders to dramatically reduce defense expenditures. In both administrations, he was asked to confront and carry out extremely unpopular initiatives -- massive undertakings that each president believed were vital to the nation's security and economic welfare. Johnson's conflicts with Henry Morganthau, Secretary of War Harry H. Woodring, Winston Churchill, Harry Hopkins, Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, and Paul Nitze find contemporary parallels in the recent disagreements between the national defense establishment and the State Department.

Published by: Indiana University Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

Our first debt is to serendipity—the unexpected confluence of individuals and events which made this book possible. Keith McFarland began this project nearly thirty years ago, early in his career as a history faculty member. With two books completed and this project well under way, Keith got sidetracked into university administration, beginning as an assistant dean and ...

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pp. 1-3

Was it happening again? Louis Johnson, nervously tapping his pipe in the ashtray beside him, could hear what the feisty and fastidious man behind the big desk in the Oval Office was saying, but he had difficulty comprehending the meaning of the words. As he began to process what was being said, Johnson’s mind flashed back ten ...

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1. Bedford Blood

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pp. 4-10

Twenty-six-year-old Marcellus Alexander Johnson paced through the dimly lit rooms above the grocery store in the grimy working-class neighborhood. Outside, a cold wind was blowing sleet through the streets, weather which normally would have distressed the young merchant because it was bad for business. However, on that gray morning of January 10, 1891, the store-keeper ...

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2. Foot in the Door

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pp. 11-29

The powerful Baltimore & Ohio locomotive chugged its way through the rugged mountains of north central West Virginia toward the city of Clarksburg in Harrison County. The September sun shone brightly on the leaves that were just beginning to turn. On board were two recent graduates of the University of Virginia law school, Louis Johnson and John Strode Rixey. ...

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3. Like Feuding Schoolboys

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pp. 30-46

From the front porch of his home on Main Street, Louis Johnson picked up the morning newspaper to give it the usual scan before going to the office. As his eyes raced over the front page on that August 28, 1936, morning, he saw an item that riveted his attention. The evening before, Secretary of War George H. Dern had died, following a lengthy illness, in a Washington hospital.1

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4. “Basic Shift in Mobilization Planning”

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pp. 47-56

The debate about FDR’s policies and politics on the eve of World War II, when Louis Johnson was responsible for wartime mobilization planning, continues to rage among historians. Was the president essentially an isolationist who was driven by events to finally take sides in Europe’s wars?1 Was he, as James MacGregor Burns has suggested, beguiled by public opinion ...

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5. Understanding FDR

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pp. 57-74

On a cold weekend in January 1938, French senator Amaury de la Grange, President Roosevelt’s old friend from World War I days, was a guest at the White House. A distraught La Grange gave a dismal appraisal of the situation in Europe, expressing alarm over the extent of German air strength and the complete lack of French air power.1 Throughout the spring and into the ...

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6. Surviving FDR

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pp. 75-90

Although the early summer heat was as stifling as ever in the nation’s capital, officials there were breathing much easier than they had been several months earlier—not because of the weather, but because of the political situation. It was June 1939, and the tension that followed the Munich crisis the previous fall was quickly dissipating. The war clouds that had seemed so ...

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7. “But You Promised Me”

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pp. 91-110

The spring of 1940 was as hectic for Louis Johnson as any period since his arrival at the War Department. In addition to the normal procurement and planning problems and countless meetings with the army chief of staff and the general staff, the assistant secretary found himself heavily involved in lobbying for the appropriations bill, an expansion in the number of aircraft plants, and ...

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8. Personal Representative of the President

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pp. 111-132

Although it was light, the September sun had not yet risen over the mountains surrounding Clarksburg. “Good morning, Colonel Johnson,” said the elevator operator as the large, trim, balding man stepped on. Not another word was spoken as they rode to the tenth floor of the Union Bank Building, the floor entirely occupied by the firm of Steptoe & Johnson. It was six o’clock, and ...

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9. Long Shot Pays Off

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pp. 133-152

Jean Kearney was an attractive, fun-loving, and irreverent young woman when she worked for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the summer and fall of 1948. Remembering Louis Johnson in those days, Ms. Kearney said, “He was a gambler.” “Colonel Johnson,” she went on, “got into the business of raising money for the 1948 campaign in a cold-blooded, ...

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10. Inside the Pentagon

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pp. 153-167

“I am the resurrection and the life. . .. Death is swallowed up in victory,” intoned the white-robed Episcopal priest. Thus began the burial service for the first U.S. secretary of defense in the marble-columned Arlington amphitheater. As the marine corps honor guard fired three sharp volleys and a bugler sounded taps, James Forrestal finally found peace in a sailor’s grave beneath ...

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11. Revolt of the Admirals

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pp. 168-187

In stepping into the secretary of defense position in early 1949, Louis Johnson acknowledged, as did his friends and enemies, that he was assuming what was clearly, next to the presidency itself, the most difficult job in Washington.1 The scope and complexity of the tasks facing him were beyond the comprehension of most experienced administrators. Both at the Pentagon and on ...

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12. “Like a Meatchopper on Roundsteak”

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pp. 188-204

Louis Johnson’s accomplishments in gaining control over all of the armed services and making unification work were the successes as secretary of defense that he would have most liked to have been remembered for. Unfortunately, he is most identified with a scorched-earth economy program that ended up weakening the military strength of the United States. That Johnson’s successes in unification should go largely unnoticed while his ...

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13. “My God, the Russians Have the Bomb”

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pp. 205-233

Louis Johnson’s ability to fight so successfully for austerity in the defense budget, especially during his first six months in office, was due to the fact that in the tension-filled conflict with the Soviet Union the United States held the trump card: it had the atomic bomb. In early 1949, even the most pessimistic U.S. officials were predicting that the USSR would not be able to detonate ...

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14. Entangling Alliance

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pp. 234-249

The military transport plane carrying Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson touched down at Washington’s National Airport at about 4:45 p.m. on April 4, 1949. The flight from Philadelphia, where just several hours earlier the secretary had commissioned the cruiser USS Roanoke, had taken nearly an hour. After threading his way through rush-hour traffic, Johnson’s driver dropped him off at the Commerce Department auditorium on Constitution ...

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15. “Till the Dust Settles”

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pp. 250-274

It was mid-afternoon on December 22, 1949. Laidler Mackall, who had been a World War II bomber pilot and was then a young associate at Steptoe & Johnson, had “borrowed” a military DC-3 transport from the Air National Guard at Andrews Air Force Base and was flying a handful of Steptoe associates to the firm’s conference in Clarksburg. As he was landing at the small airport nestled in the mountains, Mackall could see that another olive-drab DC-3 had landed just ahead of him so he knew ...

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16. Last Week in June

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pp. 275-302

Shortly after 10 p.m. on Saturday, June 24, 1950, the phone rang in Louis Johnson’s Mayflower apartment. It was a United Press International reporter who had questions about a dispatch just received from correspondent Jack James in Seoul reporting that North Korean troops had launched a broad-based early morning attack against South Korea all along the 38th parallel.1 The ...

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17. “Give Me Two American Divisions and I Can Hold Korea”

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pp. 303-319

When President Truman made his fateful decision during the last week in June 1950 to commit the United States to the defense of the Republic of Korea he could not possibly have realized the magnitude of what he had done. Events occurred so rapidly during those seven days that there was no time to reflect on consequences. The carefully considered Far East policies developed by the State and Defense Departments and approved by the National Security ...

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18. Means of Descent

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pp. 320-338

Louis Johnson’s fall from grace with Harry Truman had nothing to do with his principal responsibility of running the Pentagon. Indeed, as the Korean crisis deepened in the summer of 1950, Johnson, ever the great organizer, did a superb job of orchestrating the buildup and seeing that General MacArthur got everything he needed to win the war. Johnson’s descent instead had everything to do with his growing and deeply held conviction that the president was being ill served by his secretary of state, a ...

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19. “Lou, I’ve Got to Ask You to Quit”

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pp. 339-351

If President Truman is to be believed, he first gave serious consideration to removing Louis Johnson as early as June 1950, even before war came to Korea. Those thoughts crossed his mind because, as he wrote later, “Louis began to show an inordinate egotistical desire to run the whole government. He offended every member of the cabinet. We never had a cabinet meeting that he ...

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20. “Lest Darkness Come”

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pp. 352-358

Louis Johnson was tough and resilient. The blow Harry Truman delivered in September 1950 was devastating, but Johnson had always been a fighter. He would survive. Johnson returned to preside over the law firm he had built. Like Elihu Root, John W. Davis, and Henry Stimson who preceded him and Dean Acheson, Robert Patterson, Warren Christopher, Lloyd Cutler, James Baker, and others who would follow him, Louis Johnson would emerge again from the revolving ...

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pp. 359-364

Louis Johnson was an instrument of confrontation. Playing him with consummate skill, President Roosevelt encouraged Johnson to confront and run roughshod over his isolationist secretary of war. He deployed Johnson to fight against and overcome the army’s resistance to sales of the latest warplanes to the Allies. FDR set up his assistant secretary of war to take the heat from the ...


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pp. 365-426

Select Bibliography

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pp. 427-436


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pp. 437-452

E-ISBN-13: 9780253111647
E-ISBN-10: 0253111641
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253346261

Page Count: 464
Illustrations: 24 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2005