Born in Roanoke, Virginia, he earned a law degree from the University of Virginia. After graduation he practiced law in Clarksburg, West Virginia; his firm, Steptoe and Johnson, eventually opened offices in Charleston, West Virginia, and Washington, DC. Elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1916, he served as majority floor leader and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. During World War I, Johnson saw action as an Army officer in France. After the war he resumed his law practice and was active in veterans' affairs, helping to found the American Legion and serving as its national commander in 1932-33. As assistant secretary of war between 1937 and 1940, Johnson advocated universal military training, rearmament, and expansion of military aviation. He practiced law from 1940 to 1949, except for several months in 1942 when he served as the president's personal representative in India.
During 1948 Johnson acted as chief fund-raiser for President Truman's election campaign. After Truman chose him to succeed James V. Forrestal early in 1949, there were allegations that his appointment was a political payoff, but his experience in veterans' affairs and as assistant secretary of war strengthened his credentials. Johnson entered office sharing the president's commitment to achieve further military unification and to control costs while maintaining adequate defense forces. These commitments insured Johnson, an outspoken and forceful leader, a stormy term in The Pentagon. At a press conference the day after he took office, Johnson promised a drastic cut in the number of NME boards, committees, and commissions, and added, "To the limit the present law allows, I promise you there will be unification as rapidly as the efficiency of the service permits it." Later, in one of his frequent speeches on unification, Johnson stated that "this nation can no longer tolerate the autonomous conduct of any single service . . . . A waste of the resources of America in spendthrift defense is an invitation to disaster for America."
Johnson welcomed the passage of the 1949 amendments to the National Security Act of 1947, telling an American Legion convention that he was "happy to report . . . that 80 percent of the problems that beset unification immediately disappeared when the President signed the bill increasing the authority and the responsibility of the Secretary of Defense." Believing that the amendments would help him promote economy, he estimated that one year after their passage the Defense Department would be achieving savings at the rate of $1 billion per year, and he later claimed that he had attained this goal. One of his slogans was that the taxpayer was going to get "a dollar's worth of defense for every dollar spent" by the Pentagon, an approach that Truman approved. For FY 1951, Johnson supported Truman's recommendation of $13.3 billion, but a month after the fighting in Korea started, the secretary proposed a supplemental appropriation of $10.5 billion, bringing the total requested to $23.8 billion. Johnson told a House subcommittee when recommending the supplemental that "in the light of the actual fighting that is now in progress, we have reached the point where the military considerations clearly outweigh the fiscal considerations."
It took a war to divert Johnson from his economy drive, which began on April 23 1949, when he announced cancellation of the 65,000-ton flushdeck aircraft carrier USS United States. The United States Navy had been planning this ship for several years and construction had already begun. Johnson, supported by a majority of the JCS and by President Truman, stressed the need to cut costs. At least by implication, Johnson had scuttled the Navy's hope to participate in strategic air operations through use of the carrier. Abruptly resigning, Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan expressed concern about the future of the United States Marine Corps and naval aviation and about Johnson's unprecedented and arbitrary action so drastically affecting the Navy's operational plans without consulting it.
The cancellation of the supercarrier precipitated a bitter controversy between the Navy and the US Air Force, the so-called "Revolt of the Admirals." The Navy reacted to Johnson's action by questioning, in congressional hearings and other public arenas, the effectiveness of the Air Force's latest strategic bomber, the B-36. The Air Force countered with data supporting the B-36 and minimized the importance of a naval role in future major wars.
Subsequently declassifed material proved the USAF correct in its assessment of the capabilites of the B-36 at the time of the Revolt of the Admirals. It was indeed virtually invulnerable to interception and shooting down due to the great height at which it flew. However, in the long term, the views of the USN were shown to be more correct, as the B-36 became obsolete within a decade due to advances in air defence systems, whereas supercarriers that are derivatives of the Forrestal class, which was itself somewhat derived from the cancelled USS United States, continue in service in the USN into the 21st century.
In June 1949 the House Committee on Armed Services launched an investigation into charges, emanating unofficially from Navy sources, of malfeasance in office against Secretary Johnson and Secretary of the Air Force W. Stuart Symington. The hearings also looked into the capability of the B-36, the cancellation of the super-carrier, and JCS procedures on weapon development, and ultimately examined the whole course of unification. Besides disparaging the B-36, Navy representatives questioned the current U.S. military plan for immediate use of atomic weapons against large urban areas when a war started. The Navy argued that such an approach would not harm military targets, and that tactical air power, ground troops, and sea power were the elements necessary to defend the United States and Europe against attack. The Air Force countered that atomic weapons and long-range strategic bombers would deter war, but that if war nevertheless broke out, an immediate atomic offensive against the enemy would contribute to the success of surface actions and reduce U.S. casualties. Strategic bombing, the Air Force contended, provided the major counterbalance to the Soviet Union's vastly superior ground forces.
In its final report, the House Armed Services Committee found no substance to the charges relating to Johnson's and Symington's roles in aircraft procurement. It held that evaluation of the B-36's worth was the responsibility of the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group, and that the services jointly should not pass judgment on weapons proposed by one service. On cancellation of the supercarrier, the committee questioned the qualifications of the Army and Air Force chiefs of staff, who had testified in support of Johnson's decision, to determine vessels appropriate for the Navy. The committee, disapproving of Johnson's "summary manner" of terminating the carrier and failure to consult congressional committees before acting, stated that "national defense is not strictly an executive department undertaking; it involves not only the Congress but the American people as a whole speaking through their Congress. The committee can in no way condone this manner of deciding public questions."
The committee expressed solid support for effective unification, but stated that "there is such a thing as seeking too much unification too fast" and observed that "there has been a Navy reluctance in the interservice marriage, an over-ardent Army, a somewhat exuberant Air Force . . . . It may well be stated that the committee finds no unification Puritans in the Pentagon."
Finally, the committee condemned the dismissal of Admiral Louis E. Denfeld, the chief of naval operations, who accepted cancellation of the supercarrier but testified critically on defense planning and administration of unification. Secretary of the Navy Francis P. Matthews fired Denfeld on October 27 1949, explaining that he and Denfeld disagreed widely on strategic policy and unification. The House Armed Services Committee concluded that Denfeld's removal was a reprisal because of his testimony and a challenge to effective representative government.
Although Johnson emerged from the Revolt of the Admirals with his reputation intact, the controversy weakened his position with the services and probably with the president. Notwithstanding Johnson's emphasis on unification, it was debatable how far it had really progressed, given the bitter recriminations exchanged by the Air Force and the Navy during the controversy, which went far beyond the initial question of the super-carrier to more fundamental issues of strategic doctrine, service roles and missions, and the authority of the secretary of defense.
Momentous international events that demanded difficult national security decisions also marked Johnson's term. The Berlin crisis ended in May 1949, when the Russians lifted the blockade. Johnson pointed to the Berlin Airlift as a technological triumph important to the future of air cargo transportation and as an example of the fruits of unification. A week after Johnson took office, the United States and 11 other nations signed the North Atlantic Treaty, creating a regional organization that became the heart of a comprehensive collective security system. After initial reservations, Johnson supported the new alliance and the program of military assistance for NATO and other U.S. allies instituted by the Mutual Defense Assistance Act of 1949.
In August 1949, earlier than U.S. intelligence analysts had anticipated, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic device. This event and the almost concurrent retreat of the Kuomintang regime from mainland China hastened debate within the administration as to whether the United States should develop a hydrogen bomb. Conceiving the bomb as a deterrent rather than an offensive weapon, Truman decided on January 31 1950 to proceed; Johnson supported the president's decision. Truman at the same time directed the secretaries of state and defense to review and reassess U.S. national security policy in the light of the Soviet atomic explosion, the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, and the hydrogen bomb decision. Johnson went about this task reluctantly, presumably because the State Department took the lead and heavily influenced the contents of the resultant report NSC 68. Although Truman took no immediate formal action on the large rearmament effort proposed in NSC 68, the report became more pertinent when the North Koreans attacked South Korea on June 25, 1950. Johnson's obstinate attitude toward the State Department role in the preparation of this paper adversely affected his relations with both Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Truman. Although he publicly professed belief that "the advance guard in the campaign for peace that America wages today must be the State Department," his disagreements with Acheson and his restrictions on DoD contacts with the State Department persisted until the exigencies of the Korean War moderated them.
Although he had followed faithfully President Truman's lead in imposing economy measures on the armed forces, Johnson received much of the blame for the initial setbacks in Korea. U.S. involvement in the war and the continued priority accorded to European security necessitated rapid, substantive changes in defense policy including a long-term expansion of the armed forces and more emphasis on the military buildup of U.S. allies. Truman decided that these tasks required new leadership in the Department of Defense. When Johnson resigned at Truman's request on September 19, 1950, the president replaced him with General George C. Marshall.
Johnson was a controversial secretary of defense. Considered a purely political appointee by some, and trying to follow in the footsteps of a highly respected predecessor, Johnson became embroiled in controversy almost immediately. Once he had weathered the super-carrier storm, other problems bore down on him; continued interservice quarreling, differences with Acheson, and above all the Korean War. At the time of his appointment Johnson met the president's needs; by September 1950, with the Korean conflict in full swing, he had become a liability. He returned to his law practice, which he pursued until his death in Washington at the age of 75. In his last speech as secretary of defense the day before he left office, Johnson observed: "When the hurly burly's done and the battle is won I trust the historian will find my record of performance creditable, my services honest and faithful commensurate with the trust that was placed in me and in the best interests of peace and our national defense."