Johnson, Hugh Samuel

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Few have the opportunities to serve as did Hugh Samuel Johnson (18821942) in war and peace, in the military and in public service. And few who have served did so with as much distinction and universal praise. General Hugh Johnson served in the Army in the first great world war and in the government as an administrator, a critical position during the beginnings of the recovery from the Great Depression.

Hugh Samuel Johnson was born on August 5, 1882, at Fort Scott, Kansas. His father, Samuel Johnston, and mother, Elizabeth Mead, had moved to Kansas from Pontiac, Illinois, in order for the elder Johnston to practice law. Before Hugh's birth, his father dropped the "t" from his last name in an effort to separate himself from another lawyer with a similar name. Shortly after his birth, Hugh Johnson's family moved to Greensburg, Kansas, and the family was to continue moving regularly until 1893 when they moved to Cherokee Strip in the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Johnson's father was appointed the postmaster of Alva, and there he remained for the rest of his childhood. Johnson rode horseback, hunted, and studied at local schools. He rubbed shoulders with frontiersmen and Indians.

Johnson studied at Northwest Normal School (later to be Oklahoma Northwestern Teachers College) until the start of the SpanishAmerican War, when he ran away to enlist in the Teddy Roosevelt's (18581919) Rough Riders. Brought back home by his parents, Johnson extracted a promise of an appointment to West Point, and his father was able to deliver, having become active in Democratic Party politics. Johnson did not have a very distinguished career at West Point, finishing in the middle of his class and graduating in 1903. After West Point, Johnson entered the cavalry service in Texas.

Immediately after the great San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906, Johnson's 1st Cavalry was ordered to the area to administer relief. By coincidence, the two officers above him in the chain of command were transferred or taken ill, and he was left to feed, shelter, and cloth seventeen thousand destitute people. He did the job well. In addition, Johnson spent two years in the Philippine Islands from 1907 to 1909, was executive officer at Yosemite National Park from 1910 to 1912, and was superintendent of Sequoia National Park in 1911. After a short tour on the Mexican border in Arizona, Johnson received orders to Harvard Law School. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, Johnson was transferred to the University of California, where he finished a three year course of study in 19 months. Johnson received a Bachelor of Arts in 1915 and his Doctor of Jurisprudence in 1916 with the highest honors.

Armed with his law degree, Johnson reported to General John Pershing's command in Mexico. While there, he studied the problems of Mexico's form of government, and according to Johnson, he was to study "the whole body of constitutional, administrative, State and municipal law of both the United States and the Republic of Mexico." This study "soaked me through with the theory and practice of Federal, State and municipal political structure in the United States." This formed the basis for his next big assignment: the establishment of the Selective Service Administration.

Hugh Johnson was next ordered to Washington to serve as the assistant to the law officer of the Bureau of Insular Affairs. In this post, he prepared briefs for cases in the Supreme and Circuit courts. His superior, General Crowder, was assigned by President Woodrow Wilson (19131921) to draw up a bill for organizing a large army in preparation for joining the war in Europe. Johnson was assigned the task, and wrote the draft version of the bill that would establish the draft in 1917. Moreover, as Deputy Provost Marshal General, he wrote the rules and policies under which the draft would be implemented, and was the executive in charge during 1917 and early 1918. Johnson established a draft system that was decentralized, placing much authority on local draft boards while making the entire system far more fair than draft systems had been before. Johnson's accomplishment was considered brilliant and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

Johnson wanted to serve in combat, however, and he made several attempts to see action in France. Appointed Colonel on March 20, 1918, however, he took over the Purchase and Supply Bureau of the General Staff as a Brigadier General just the following month. Johnson did another brilliant job of bringing order to chaos in the Army supply system. During this time, he also served on President Wilson's War Industries Board, where he made friends with an important person, Bernard Baruch. Yet Johnson still itched for combat, and on September 1, 1918, he was able to take command of the 15th Brigade, 8th Division, at Camp Fremont in California. Before he was able to get to France, however, the Armistice was signed and the war was over. Disappointed, Johnson resigned from the military and assumed a career in the civilian world of business.

During the 1920s, Johnson worked with the Moline Plow Company and the Moline Implement Company. He remained close to Bernard Baruch, and they worked together on plans for an economic crash they saw coming. Together they joined President Franklin Roosevelt's (19331945) "New Deal" brain trust. When Roosevelt was elected in 1932, Johnson was credited with many of the planks in Roosevelt's New Deal platform. General Johnson helped draft the National Industrial Recovery Act, and when it was passed into law, Johnson was appointed as the first head of the National Recovery Administration (NRA). As such, Johnson was in charge of establishing codes of fair practice for business (companies who complied were awarded the "Blue Eagle"), and in organizing industry throughout the country to create jobs. Sincerity, energy, and skillful administration characterized his work at the NRA and he was credited with creating nearly 2.8 million jobs worth about $3 billion in payroll. The NRA had a major role in abolishing child labor and sweatshops, and in regulating hours, wages, and working conditions. He resigned from the NRA on October 15, 1934, and the Supreme Court overturned the NRA law shortly thereafter.

Hugh Johnson served as Works Progress Administrator in New York City from August to October, 1935, but never again held a position in public service. He increasingly broke ranks with the Roosevelt administration until ultimately he supported Wendell L. Willkie in the election of 1940. Johnson's opposition to involvement in the coming war in Europe and to Roosevelt stemmed from his belief that the United States military was unprepared for entry in World War II (19391945) and for what he termed "amazing blunders and failures" by the New Deal brain trust.

Johnson continued to be constructive, typically, even as the advent of the war approached. He wrote columns in the ScrippsHoward newspaper chain from 1934 until his death. He applied for reinstatement into the Army Reserve, and was saddened when the appointment was declined.

Hugh Johnson married Helen Kilbourne on January 5, 1904. They had one child, Kilbourne Johnston (who resumed using the "t" in the last name). Besides his service medals, Johnson was affiliated with both Phi Delta Phi and Phi Beta Kappa fraternities. He was an Anglican Catholic by religion. Johnson died on April 15, 1942, in Washington, D.C. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

See also: National Recovery Administration, New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt


Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, s.v. "Johnson, Hugh."

Observer, Unofficial. The New Dealers. New York: The Literary Guild, 1934.

Ohl, John Kennedy. Hugh S. Johnson and the New Deal, available On Line @

Perkins, Francis. Roosevelt I Knew. New York: Viking, 1946.

Time Magazine's Man of the Year: "Recovery: Hugh S. Johnson."Time, January 1, 1934.