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Louis Johnson and the Arming of America: The Roosevelt and Truman Years. By Keith D. McFarland and David L. Roll ’62. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. 452 pp. $35 harcover.

Who was Louis Johnson, and why would anyone write a 450-page book about him? Or why would anyone want to spend hundreds of hours reading about him in Keith McFarland and David Roll’s Louis Johnson and the Arming of America?

Even students of defense policy (like me), who were aware that Johnson had served as secretary of defense from the spring of 1949 through September 1950, wrote him off as a political hack who got the job primarily because he had served as chief fundraiser for Harry S. Truman’s presidential campaign and was summarily dismissed when the Korean War required that Truman put a grown-up in the position. (Truman replaced Johnson with General George Marshall, who, as army chief of staff, was the architect of victory in World War II and, as secretary of state in the late 1940s, was the author of the Marshall Plan, which saved Western Europe from falling into the Soviet orbit.)

But these assumptions about Johnson could not be further from the truth. As this book makes clear, Johnson was anything but a political hack. Yes, he was Truman’s fundraiser in the 1948 campaign, but it was a job he took on reluctantly, at a time when few people thought Truman had much of a chance of defeating Dewey.

Louis Johnson was a man of many accomplishments. In fact, he was one of the most qualified people ever to be appointed to the post of secretary of defense. In his 18 months in office, he played a significant role in the formulation of the national security strategy that guided this nation to victory in the Cold War.

Unlike some of the most powerful secretaries of defense—including Robert McNamara (1961-68) and Caspar Weinberger (1981-87)—Johnson had prior service in the national security establishment. From 1937 to 1940, Johnson was assistant secretary of war. At that time there was only one assistant secretary, and Johnson regularly met with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. More importantly, it was Johnson who laid the groundwork for the industrial mobilization and procurement reform that enabled the United States to win World War II. Johnson also was responsible for promoting Marshall to Army chief of staff, over several more senior generals.

Unlike secretaries of defense including James Schlesinger (1973-75) and Dick Cheney (1989-93), Johnson had served in the military. In World War I, he was an infantry officer who participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive and rose to the rank of major. Moreover, after the war, he remained in the Army Reserve, eventually rising to the rank of colonel.

Johnson also brought to the secretary’s post significant diplomatic experience. In 1942, President Roosevelt dispatched Colonel Johnson to India to facilitate an agreement between the British and India over the terms of Indian independence.

Nor were Johnson’s accomplishments in his brief tenure in office insignificant. In fact, he established the principle that the secretary of defense was in charge of the military services, even quashing the “revolt of the admirals,” who became so upset at his cancellation of the supercarrier USS United States that they organized a public campaign to overturn his decision.

Johnson also played a significant role in crafting NSC 68, which laid the groundwork for the military build-up that persisted throughout the Cold War, creating NATO, making the Korean War a U.N. action and establishing the alliance with Formosa (Taiwan).

But like many individuals who rise to high positions in government, Johnson was also an incredibly ambitious man. As the authors note, Johnson was driven by “politics, power and personal ambition, but rarely by principle.” These traits led him to anger President Harry Truman by openly struggling with Secretary of State Dean Acheson over control of foreign policy, and by supporting the call of General MacArthur and Congressional Republicans for military aid to Formosa. Ironically, he tried to curry favor with Truman by following the president’s orders to slash the defense budget. But this made Johnson a symbol of the nation’s lack of preparedness for the Korean War and a political liability for the president.
One should read this book not just to learn more about Louis Johnson, but also for insight into how Roosevelt and Truman made critical decisions. Roosevelt emerges as a political genius with a firm grasp of geopolitics, while Truman appears to be a person with limited strategic vision. Particularly disturbing is the analysis of how the United States stumbled into the Korean War without realizing the implications of what it was doing. As the authors note, “Truman’s decision to enter the Korean War and protect Formosa are evidence that he and his principal advisers had little grasp of the real threats to U.S. national security. By turning the attack by the North Koreans into an issue of U.S. global security and by alienating mainland China for generations to come, Truman doomed the military economic program he had imposed on Secretary Johnson and committed the United States to a Cold War build-up that would drain the nation’s economy for the remainder of the century.” They conclude that if Truman had a broader and more nuanced understanding of the relationship between Communism and nationalism he might not have initiated military and economic assistance to Vietnam and may have forestalled the intervention of Chinese troops into Korea.

—Lawrence J. Korb
The reviewer, who served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration,
is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior adviser
to the Center for Defense Information

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