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The life of Louis Johnson is in many ways a Washington parable. Fired by two presidents, Johnson did what any self-preserving lawyer would do after a high-level but bruising government stint — he returned to his namesake law firm and reeled in blue chip clients. Johnson founded Steptoe & Johnson in the rough West Virginia mining town of Clarksburg in 1913. When he died in 1966, the firm was well on its way to the powerhouse status that Johnson himself never achieved. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s assistant secretary of war and President Harry Truman’s secretary of defense, Johnson won some of the political success he craved. But in Louis Johnson and the Arming of America: The Roosevelt and Truman Years, Johnson emerges as an impolitic, imperious, and humorless man with few strongly held personal convictions. Johnson was as happy building the apparatus of wartime industrialization as he was aggressively dismantling it. Hardly a candidate for political hagiography, Johnson receives unbiased treatment from authors Keith McFarland and David Roll. Frank appraisals of Johnson’s temper and self-importance abound. But McFarland, president of Texas A&M University at Commerce, and Roll, a Steptoe partner in Washington, never fully flesh out Johnson’s demons, drive, or the reasons for his relative success. In this portrait, Johnson emerges as a man who went about his work with nearly blind ambition and ham-fisted alacrity, with little reflection on his role in the broader sweep of history. Nonetheless, McFarland and Roll praise him as a capable administrator with admirable loyalty to the two presidents who let him down. Johnson lobbied bluntly for the job in Roosevelt’s administration and was FDR’s most effective advocate of air power in the lead up to World War II. But his tenure in politics was marked by several bitter disappointments. Johnson firmly believed that FDR had promised him the job of secretary of war. As assistant secretary, Johnson made no secret of his ambitions and developed a bitter feud with acting Secretary of War Henry Woodring. After FDR’s death, Truman ultimately chose Woodring over Johnson for the permanent slot and again passed on Johnson when Woodring resigned. A former boxer and wrestler who worked his way through the University of Virginia by selling newspapers he wrote and edited, Johnson fought often and hard throughout his life. But again and again, Johnson seemed to have a knack for picking fights he couldn’t win. For instance, Johnson developed a deep animosity for Secretary of State Dean Acheson while working in the Truman administration. They were unsurprising adversaries, and if history’s assessment of the two men is any guide, mismatched. The battle was partly a turf war between State and Defense: Johnson thought Acheson was meddling in Pentagon business, and Acheson felt Johnson was trying to dictate foreign policy. But the fight with Acheson illustrates many aspects of Johnson’s life. He came from humble beginnings and unlike many in Washington he never learned the balance of restraint, calculation, and bonhomie necessary to successfully negotiate the trappings of power. Acheson had a Yale and Harvard pedigree, Johnson was the son of shopkeepers. And to Acheson’s sophisticated (and roundly criticized) ideas on the containment of communism, Johnson offered an alarming protectionist stance. The two dueled over China policy, but ultimately Johnson was his own undoing. When Truman discovered that Johnson was scheming to oust Acheson, the president chose his secretary of state over Johnson. Truman fired Johnson in September 1950 after just 18 months on the job. Johnson was shocked. To be fair, from his perspective, he had been betrayed. As finance chair of the Democratic National Committee in 1948, Johnson raised the money that allowed Truman to carry out the whistle-stop campaign partly responsible for his victory. And when Truman wanted to slash the defense budget to the bone, he called on Johnson for the thankless job, telling the crowd at his swearing-in ceremony he had tapped the “toughest, meanest SOB around.” While working for Truman, Johnson continued to help run his law firm. There were obvious perks. In 1949, Laidler Mackall, a Steptoe associate (and former World War II bomber pilot) “borrowed” a military DC-3 transport from the Air National Guard at Andrews Air Force base and flew a handful of Steptoe associates to the firm’s conference in Clarksburg. This is the story of a man with unyielding political aspiration and intense insecurity — in other words, a parable about some of the pitfalls that face Washington strivers.
Lily Henning, a former Legal Times reporter, is a writer and researcher with the Institute for Judicial Studies in New York City.

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