Hugh Johnson (August 5, 1882–April 15, 1942), head of the New Deal's National Recovery Administration (NRA), was born in Kansas and raised in Kansas and Oklahoma. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1903 and was commissioned in the cavalry. In the early stage of his military career, Johnson served with the First Cavalry Regiment in Texas, the Philippines, and California. During these years the essential elements of his personality emerged. A heavy drinker, he was pugnacious and ready to harshly criticize the transgressor of even the most minor army regulation. This gruff side later led a pundit to dub him "Old Iron Pants." Yet Johnson also had a sentimental side, and his quick mind for wisecracks and ability to tell good stories made him popular with messmates. From 1914 to 1916 he attended the University of California Law School, and immediately upon graduation he joined the Punitive Expedition in Mexico that was chasing Pancho Villa, serving as judge advocate.
During World War I, Johnson rose to the temporary rank of brigadier general while playing a major role in the mobilization of the nation's manpower and industry. Initially he was the principal assistant for Major General Enoch H. Crowder, head of the Judge Advocate General's Department and the Provost Marshal General's Office. In this capacity Johnson helped formulate and implement the selective service system. Transferred to the War Department General Staff in 1918, Johnson spearheaded the restructuring of the army supply organization to end the inter-bureau competition that had made a mess of procurement. He also represented the army on the War Industries Board (WIB), which was mobilizing the nation's industries for war through a program of industrial self-government. Through his stint with the WIB, Johnson acquired considerable knowledge of American industry and became good friends with many of the businessmen serving with the WIB, including Bernard M. Baruch, its chairman, and George N. Peek.
Disappointed by his failure to serve in France and anxious to make some "real" money, Johnson resigned his commission in 1919 and joined with Peek to take over the management of the struggling Moline Plow Company. Their efforts to turn Moline Plow into a profitable concern failed, and after an acrimonious break with Peek, Johnson supervised the company's liquidation during the late 1920s. In the meantime, Johnson became an associate of Baruch, a figure of great influence as a result of his success on Wall Street and his twin roles as a political strategist and publicist on national issues. Among other things, Johnson helped Baruch publicize the need for ongoing planning for economic mobilization and was an investigator on business and economic conditions. At Baruch's request, fueled by a sizable campaign contribution, Johnson was admitted to Franklin D. Roosevelt's "brains trust," an informal group of academicians who served as speechwriters and thinkers in his 1932 presidential race. As Baruch's man, Johnson saw that Baruch's views on recovery from the Depression were heard.
In 1933 Johnson emerged as a key figure in Roosevelt's New Deal. During the spring he participated in the drafting of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), an ambitious attempt to stimulate recovery through industrial self-government and public works spending that Roosevelt approved on June 16. Impressed with his vigor, knowledge of the industrial sector, and experience with the WIB, Roosevelt wanted Johnson to administer the act. However, after hearing from Baruch that Johnson was too impulsive to be "a numberone man," Roosevelt restricted him to the administration of the agency to implement industrial self-government, the NRA, and the president placed public works in a separate agency, the Public Works Administration.
Johnson's initial task was the drafting of the "fair codes of competition" that were at the heart of industrial self-government. Designed to minimize the cutthroat competition that many argued had weakened American industry and to bring a degree of social justice to labor, the codes were to include provisions for production, price, and marketing agreements; minimum wages; maximum hours; and the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. In each of the nation's industries, businessmen and labor representatives would draft a code that had the force of law once it received the president's signature. Through the codes, predatory practices would be extinguished and labor standards improved, increasing stability, employment, and investor confidence, and encouraging general economic progress and social harmony.
At the outset, Johnson concentrated on codes for the nation's largest industries, such as cotton textiles, steel, petroleum, automobiles, and coal. Fearing constitutional problems, Johnson eschewed the coercive features of NIRA, which included federal licensing of business and presidential authority to impose codes. Moreover, convinced that NRA could succeed only if he worked with business, Johnson generally relied on the voluntary cooperation of business and regularly made concessions to the dominant elements in an industry to get it codified. These actions often led to codes that included restrictive economic policies and gave short shrift to the aspirations of workers. When code drafting stalled, Johnson instituted a voluntary blanket code for all industries covering minimum wages and maximum hours that was to be in effect until the end of 1933 or until an employer's specific industry was codified. Employers who abided by the code would display the emblem of the NRA, the "Blue Eagle," in their windows or on their products.
Through the fall of 1933 Johnson presided over a massive publicity campaign to enlist public support for NRA. Marked by giant rallies and parades, the campaign made Johnson the nation's numberone Depression fighter, a status Time magazine confirmed by naming him its "Man of the Year" for 1933. Next to Roosevelt, he was the most talked-about man in Washington. His pithy quotes, tough talk, gravel voice, rugged looks, and military demeanor made him good copy for reporters. For weeks Johnson worked at a non-stop pace, at one moment bargaining with business and labor leaders to finalize a code and the next moment flying across the country to give a speech. Through a mixture of cajolery, pleas to patriotism, bluster, and horse-trading, he broke the logjam in code drafting. Eventually more than five hundred codes, covering twenty-two million workers, were implemented.
By 1934 Johnson and NRA were engulfed in controversy. Many complained that price-control devices in codes were hindering recovery by raising prices faster than wages. Labor leaders argued that business was undermining the right of workers to form unions by herding them into company unions. "Chiseling," or the refusal to abide by code provisions, was widespread. In response Johnson agreed to limit price-fixing arrangements, rushed into labor disputes to avert or end strikes, and threatened to "crack down" on "chiselers."
Under the stress of running NRA, Johnson made contradictory statements, lost his temper, branded criticism of NRA as "treason," and feuded with detractors. His self-control sapped by over-work, he drank too much, slept too little, and at times appeared on the verge of exhaustion. He permitted his secretary to become a power in NRA, and many speculated that there was something improper about their relationship because she always seemed to be at his side. Unwilling to delegate authority, he tended to run a one-man show and put off bureaucratizing the organization of NRA, resulting in low morale and administrative chaos. By the late summer of 1934 Roosevelt concluded that Johnson had outlasted his usefulness, and at the president's request Johnson resigned in September. Eight months later the U.S. Supreme Court declared NRA unconstitutional.
In March 1935 Johnson became a syndicated columnist for the Scipps-Howard newspaper chain. Still loyal to the president, he spoke out against Father Charles Coughlin and Senator Huey P. Long, two of Roosevelt's most vocal critics, and in June he became temporary director of the newly created Works Progress Administration (WPA) program in New York City. A massive federal public works program, WPA was intended to provide emergency public employment, and in his brief tenure as its head Johnson got WPA off to a flying start in New York City, hiring more than two hundred thousand people before he left the position in October 1935.
Over the next years Johnson turned against Roosevelt and the New Deal. In his columns and speeches he questioned the failure to balance the budget, charged that anti-business elements had too much influence on policy, and warned that Roosevelt was concentrating too much power in the White House. As war loomed in the late 1930s Johnson became an outspoken isolationist, and in 1940 he supported Wendell Willikie, the Republican Party candidate for the presidency. Johnson's isolationism and attacks on Roosevelt soured his relationship with the White House and cost him many readers, prompting Scripps-Howard to drop his column in 1941. After his column was picked up by King Features Syndicate, Johnson continued to be unrelenting in his criticism of Roosevelt and his policies until the United States entered World War II in December 1941. Despite failing health brought on by his drinking, Johnson continued with his column until his death.
Johnson's place in history rests on his leadership of NRA. Under his direction it provided a temporary psychological stimulus and brought several social innovations, like labor's right to organize, to the national scene. But ultimately NRA failed to spur recovery, floundering on its inability to get the various segments of the economy to look beyond self-interest and exhibit a concern for the national welfare. Johnson contributed to the failure of NRA. He was a poor administrator, was too pro-business, and let code-making become an end in itself. His personal excesses compounded these weaknesses. Yet for all of his failings, Johnson's frenzied direction of NRA and colorful style made him one of the most influential and memorable figures of the early New Deal era.
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Johnson, Hugh S. The Blue Eagle from Egg to Earth. 1935.
Johnson, Hugh S. Hell-Bent for War. 1941.
Johnson Papers. Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY.
Josephson, Matthew. "The General." New Yorker (18 August 1934): 21–25; (25 August 1934): 23–28; and (1 September 1934): 22–28.
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Ohl, John Kennedy. Hugh S. Johnson and the New Deal. 1985.
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John Kennedy Ohl