- Louis Johnson and the Arming of America: The Roosevelt and Truman Years
Keith D. McFarland published Harry H. Woodring: A Political Biography of FDR's Controversial Secretary of War in 1975. He then drafted a study of Louis A. Johnson, Woodring's assistant secretary and later secretary of defense under Harry S. Truman, but had to put it aside in the 1980s because of administrative duties (he is now the president of Texas A&M University–Commerce). In 2001 he joined with David L. Roll, a partner at Johnson's law firm, Steptoe & Johnson, to produce Louis Johnson and the Arming of America.
McFarland and Roll concisely cover their protagonist's early years in Virginia, his career as a West Virginia lawyer and state legislator, and his service in the American Expeditionary Forces, where he met Truman and became a military preparedness advocate and an internationalist. As a prominent interwar American Legionnaire and a shrewd, manipulative politico, Johnson adroitly solidified veterans' support for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In June 1937 he accepted the War Department subcabinet post with a supposed presidential promise of the top spot—a claim the authors judge unprovable.
Johnson's intense ambition, statutory responsibilities as assistant secretary, and passionate commitment to preparedness led to his infamous feud with the more budget-minded and isolationist Woodring. Roosevelt finally dismissed both of them in mid-1940. McFarland told this story well three decades ago, but he and Roll add new detail and credit Johnson, despite the turmoil he caused, with invaluable service in readying the nation for war.
After serving as the president's personal representative to India in 1942, Johnson ran an I. G. Farben affiliate under the alien property custodian until 1946. As Truman's campaign finance chairman in 1948, he performed such prodigious fund-raising feats that Truman "owed Louis Johnson his presidency" (p. 1). In reward, and because Johnson was experienced and tough, Truman named him Secretary of Defense in March 1949.
McFarland and Roll closely analyze Johnson's volte-face from a decades-long champion of military preparedness to an ardent defense budget cutter under Truman. They argue that Johnson and Truman, lacking a coherent strategic defense policy, sincerely believed that U.S. atomic power allowed significant defense budget reductions that would contribute to armed forces unification. They also point out the legitimate need for secretarial loyalty to the president and the popularity of Johnson's economy measures. But they conclude that Johnson's presidential ambitions ultimately outweighed everything else and led him to rationalize serious military deterioration. Those ambitions were crushed when Truman fired him in September 1950 because of his conniving against Secretary of State Dean Acheson, resistance on Asia policy, and political liability resulting from severe criticism of military unreadiness for the Korean War.
McFarland and Roll have two aims: to give a full, fair, and accurate assessment of Johnson and his career and thereby help to assess Roosevelt and Truman as political leaders. They succeed admirably in the first aim, with a well-paced account perceptively treating Johnson's motivations and actions on major issues, and it is the greater contribution. That Roosevelt [End Page 553] "skillfully exploited and manipulated Johnson's ambitions and talents to prepare the nation's military and industrial base for war" (p. 2) confirms, as they note, the dominant view of FDR. Their more controversial portrayal of Truman the cold warrior as a parochial nationalist deficient in understanding other nations and cultures is weakened (as are, somewhat, other parts of the book) by a spotty incorporation of newer secondary works into McFarland's 1980s manuscript. But Johnson's story, absorbingly told here, is worth the time of political, military, and diplomatic historians of mid-twentieth-century America and should be of interest to anyone concerned with the interplay of power-seeking, patriotism, and policy.