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date: 14 December 2019

Johnson, Hugh Samuelfree

(05 August 1882–15 April 1942)
  • Ellis W. Hawley

Johnson, Hugh Samuel (05 August 1882–15 April 1942), army officer and government administrator, was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, the son of Samuel L. Johnson (originally Johnston), a lawyer and rancher, and Elizabeth Mead. Seeking better economic opportunities, his family moved successively to Greenburg, Emporia, Greenwich, and Wichita, Kansas, before finally settling in 1893 in Alva, Oklahoma, in the newly opened Cherokee Strip. There Johnson grew up on the “frontier,” attended Northwestern Normal School (1897–1899), and in 1899 won admission to West Point.

Commissioned in 1903, Johnson served with the First Cavalry in a variety of assignments, including disaster relief following the San Francisco earthquake, a tour in the Philippines (1907–1909), and national park duty in Yosemite and Sequoia. While in service, he also wrote and published two boys’ adventure books (Williams of West Point in 1908 and Williams on Service in 1910) and some thirty short stories about military life. The latter appeared in popular magazines such as Century, Collier’s, Everybody’s, Scribners, and Sunset and for a time earned Johnson substantial financial rewards. In 1914 he was selected for legal training at the University of California Law School and, following his graduation in 1916, served briefly with the John J. Pershing expedition to Mexico before being transferred to the legal staff of the Bureau of Insular Affairs. In 1904 he married Helen Leslie Kilbourne; they had one child.

During World War I Johnson rose to the rank of brigadier general and became an important figure in war mobilization. In 1917 he worked with General Enoch Crowder to develop and implement the Selective Service System, taking credit particularly for the decisions to involve local voting precincts in a mass registration process and to establish broad classifications concerning availability for induction. For these contributions he later received the Distinguished Service Medal. In 1918, as army representative on the War Industries Board (WIB) and head of a new Purchase and Supply Branch, he helped to organize the institutional network coordinating military procurement with WIB operations. In this regard, he was particularly responsible for regularized consultation and increasingly efficient interaction between the WIB’s commodity sections and the army’s newly established commodity committees, an arrangement that not only epitomized the war-induced intertwining of the military and industrial sectors but also pointed toward the kind of corporatist economic planning that Johnson would espouse later.

In 1919 Johnson resigned from the army and became an executive with the Moline Plow Company. Subsequently, he also worked with George Peek to develop and promote the McNary-Haugen scheme of agricultural relief, under which farm surpluses were to be dumped abroad to guarantee American farmers fair or “parity” prices in domestic markets. A law to implement the scheme was blocked by presidential vetoes in 1927 and 1928. In 1927 Johnson became Bernard Baruch’s economic investigator and assistant, a position that he held in 1932 when he became the “Baruch man” on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s brain trust.

In 1933 Johnson helped to write the National Industrial Recovery Act and was chosen by Roosevelt to administer the system of fair-trade codes to be developed under the law. In part, the program was an attempt to resurrect the system of business-government cooperation once administered by the WIB, utilizing it in particular to curb the “destructive competition” thought to be undercutting business profitability and mass purchasing power. In the economic and political conditions of 1933–1934, the resurrected system worked badly and tended in practice to produce market restrictions that delayed recovery rather than promoted it.

Of the New Deal’s top administrators, Johnson was one of the most colorful. Powerfully built, brusque in demeanor, skilled in vituperative invective, and given to fits of “demonic activity,” he tried to invoke the war spirit of 1917 and project the image of a tough-minded troubleshooter cutting through the “guff” to get things done. Yet “Old Iron Pants” was also capable of imaginative theorizing, emotional evangelism, and maudlin sentimentality. Baruch had warned that Johnson was too “dangerous and unstable” to be a “number-one man,” and this proved prophetic. As administrator of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), charged with resolving its confusing contradictions and policy conflicts, he swung from excitement to despair to escape into alcohol, all the while demonstrating a striking incapacity to sustain decisions or develop coherent policies. On minimum price fixing, for example, he endorsed directives seeking to eliminate it as bad policy but then ruled that codes already containing such a provision were exempt from the directives. On labor policy, he vacillated between support for collective bargaining and support for a labor-management partnership implemented through company unions. In September 1934, as criticism of the new code system mounted and disillusionment with its brand of “industrial self-government” became widespread, Roosevelt eased Johnson out, replacing him with an administrative board.

Following his departure from the NRA, Johnson wrote his memoirs, served briefly as head of the Works Progress Administration in New York City, and began a new career as a syndicated columnist and radio commentator. Initially he supported Roosevelt, but he was not happy with the policy changes of 1935 and 1936, especially with the revival of an antitrust approach, the mounting federal deficit, the resort to “made-work,” and the restriction of agricultural production. These policies, he believed, were misguided departures from the New Deal as originally conceived. After mid-1937 his “Hugh Johnson Says” became increasingly critical of the president, the “dictatorship” he was allegedly trying to establish, and his “entanglement” of the United States in foreign affairs. In 1940 Johnson worked to elect Wendell Willkie and helped to launch the America First Committee, and as war approached Roosevelt saw to it that Johnson’s reserve commission was not renewed. Johnson’s death came shortly thereafter. Ill with pneumonia, he died in his apartment at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.

In histories of the New Deal, Johnson is remembered chiefly for his colorful invective, personal peccadilloes, and an administrative performance that helped to discredit the ideas of industrial self-government and business-government partnership. Seen in longer perspective, his career also reflected the emergence of an American corporatism, which, by consigning social duties to business organizations and helping them to cooperate for public purposes, could allegedly combine the virtues of free enterprise and national planning. From 1917 through 1934 he participated in both the successes and failures of this project and thus helped to shape what would become a new but unsettled component of U.S. political economy.


The bulk of Johnson’s personal papers was destroyed by a storm, and those surviving are privately held. His memoirs, useful but sometimes misleading, were published under the title The Blue Eagle from Egg to Earth (1935). A competent, full-scale biography is John Kennedy Ohl, Hugh S. Johnson and the New Deal (1985). See in addition the character sketches in Unofficial Observer, pseud. (John F. Carter), The New Dealers (1934), and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Coming of the New Deal (1959); the appraisal by Matthew Josephson, “The General,” New Yorker, 18 Aug. 1934, pp. 21–25; 25 Aug. 1934, pp. 23–28; and 1 Sept. 1934, pp. 22–28; and Ohl, “General Hugh S. Johnson and the War Industries Board,” Military Review 55 (May 1975): 35–48. An obituary is in the New York Times, 16 Apr. 1942.