- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006


By Keith D. McFarland and David L. Roll

Indiana University Press, $35, 452 pages, illus.


Gratitude is a very rare virtue in democratic society, especially in the world of elected politics. Nowhere can this axiom be seen more vividly than in this major biography done by Keith McFarland of Texas A&M; University at Commerce and David Roll of the firm of Steptoe and Johnson.

Louis Johnson started out as a law school graduate from the University of Virginia and with an older friend, Philip Pendleton Steptoe, founded Steptoe, Rixley, and Johnson which became one of the best known law firms in Clarksburg, W. Va. and then in the United States.

Johnson was not content to focus only on his law practice, but became a figure in American Legion veterans politics. He wisely supported the rising Franklin D. Roosevelt, and eventually was rewarded with the assistant secretary of war position. Under U.S. statutes, the assistant secretary had direct responsibility for procurement, and Johnson used that power in the most expansive ways.

The authors point up Johnson’s continual insubordination toward Secretary of War Harry Woodring, but his behavior was no more egregious that FDR’s own actions as assistant secretary of the Navy earlier in World War I. In fact President Roosevelt encouraged the competition between Woodring and Johnson, swinging himself between military preparedness and isolationism until the Nazis came perilously close to overrunning all of Europe.

Also, FDR had repeatedly promised Johnson that he would soon become secretary of war, but as the years passed by he decided to bring in Republican Henry Stimson to convey a sense of a bipartisan wartime coalition. Johnson was deeply offended, and rightfully so, for he remained loyal to a president for whom deviousness was a way of life. As one of Roosevelt’s whiz kid advisers told a bitter Johnson — in politics, promises are made to be broken.

Johnson returned to his old law firm and made it a major player in Washington DC national politics. But FDR had some pangs of conscience and appointed Johnson as his personal representative to India. There the take-charge envoy brokered an intelligent settlement that would peacefully end British imperialism in that subcontinent.

But Churchill rejected it, and FDR was forced to side with the prime minister during the war despite the president’s own disdain for imperialism. Johnson had been let down again.

Johnson had been mentioned as a possible vice president candidate in 1940 and FDR encouraged his ambitions (and those of a half dozen others). But as the authors relate, again and again, Johnson remained loyal to the president and the Democratic party.

In 1948, he almost singlehandedly raised the money that allowed Harry S Truman to barnstorm America to such effect. And Truman in return named the management-oriented Johnson to run the newly organized Defense Department and demanded that the secretary cut the defense budget down to post war size.

It was his task to take the heat from the military and Congress after such decisions — this he did routinely and became of course controversial in the process. After 18 months, Truman asked for his resignation. It is not uncommon for change agents to be deemed dispensable once they have accomplished the very tasks they were hounded to do by their superiors.

This study of Louis Johnson is one of a dedicated and intensely ambitious man who was generally correct in the need to rearm America and to trim down later the peacetime armed forces. Korea and the Cold War meant a new scenario was in order.

But as with all of us his virtues became his vices. He was self assured and a bully; honestly determined and pigheaded; hardworking and singularly driven. Still Johnson emerges as a man who at times exhibited more personal loyalty than the better known men he served.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of a two volume history of the American presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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