Small of physical stature but Herculean in drive and devotion to the ideals to which he was committed, Hugh Samuel Johnson grew up on the Oklahoma Territory prairie, but rose to the heights of national power during the Great Depression. During the early 1930s, he played crucial roles both in Franklin Roosevelt’s first election campaign then as a member of FDR’s famed “Brain Trust” during his historic New Deal.
Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, Johnson moved at 11 years of age with his family to the High Plains of present northwestern Oklahoma at the time of the great 1893 Cherokee Strip land run. His father had won appointment as postmaster of the new town of Alva. Earning his spurs as a true Oklahoma pioneer, the pre-teenaged Johnson temporarily remained behind in Wichita while his family moved, before joining them in Oklahoma Territory.
Donovan Reichenberg, longtime historian at Northwestern State University in Alva, recounts that the boy then brought “the family's mule team, wagon, horse, and surrey overland to Alva. He reached Kiowa, Kansas, eighteen miles northeast of Alva, on the afternoon of September 15. He spent the night sleeping on the railroad station platform among hundreds of home seekers waiting at Kiowa to make the land run. By noon on September 16 the boy had found a spot on a railroad flat car from which he observed the ‘great horse race’ as the train slowly made its way to Alva.”
Johnson’s father spearheaded development of Alva’s public school system. The town’s first high school graduating class included sixteen-year-old Hugh and one other student. The younger Johnson attended the new Northwestern Normal School the next year, before winning admission to the United States Military Academy. Initially a runner-up for the opportunity, he learned the appointee exceeded the institution’s age limit, and persuaded him to step aside. In 1903, Johnson became the first Oklahoman to graduate from West Point—four years before statehood. Douglas MacArthur graduated with him.
Commissioned a second lieutenant, Johnson served stateside until posted in the Philippines from 1907-1909 as the U.S. replaced Spain as imperial occupier of that benighted country. He later earned his Bachelor Laws degree and Juris Doctorate from the University of California in Berkeley. He graduated with honors in the former and doubled up his courses to finish the latter in half the normal time.
Then Johnson accomplished a meteoric rise through army ranks, to Captain, Major, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel, and Brigadier General, all in less than two years between 1916 and 1918. The last promotion made him the youngest West Point grad since the War Between the States to reach general rank and the youngest ever to reach it after continuous military service.
During that short span, he first served as Judge Advocate under General John Pershing during the 1916 American expedition into Mexico against the revolutionary forces of Pancho Villa. When the United States entered World War I, he moved to Washington, D.C., where his co-authoring the Selective Service Act, which opponents contended conflicted with the Constitution’s outlawing of involuntary servitude, mandated forced conscription of millions of American young men for service in the “Great War.”
Exhibiting the fierce initiative that both fueled and ended his ascendance to the most elite corridors of government power, Johnson rammed through without the required Congressional approval several actions that could have cashiered him from the service had Congress not passed the conscription law a few weeks later. His tenacity and innovation, though, helped Johnson win the Distinguished Service Medal. He rose to the position of Deputy Provost Marshal General, and gained inclusion in a key War Department committee on military training.
Johnson retired from the army in 1919 and pursued a business career until joining Democratic Presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust” of political advisers in 1932. A gifted writer, Johnson penned some of FDR’s most dynamic campaign speeches against incumbent Herbert Hoover. After Roosevelt’s election, Johnson crafted the controversial National Industrial Recovery Act, which led to a pleased President appointing him to oversee the National Recovery Administration that flowed from it.
Johnson built the NRA into an organization of unparalleled size, power, and acrimony. It grew to thousands of employees and millions of volunteer workers. It issued 100 million pamphlets and posted millions of its distinctive Blue Eagle stickers and posters nationwide. It boasted 23 million participating workers.
In a breathtaking reversal of the vision of America’s Founders and most of its history, this son of the Oklahoma frontier possessed what many contemporary observers considered almost unlimited powers over industry. The era’s premier media outlet, Time magazine, named him its 1933 Man of the Year. He won out over Roosevelt.
As it had during Johnson’s Selective Service work, however, the tenacity for which he gained acclaim accompanied a tyrannical and tempestuous temperament and inability to work harmoniously with others. He ramrodded a nationwide effort that painted individuals and companies who did not support the NRA as selfish and even traitorous. Heavy drinking while on the job and accusations of fascism—he promoted the Mussolini-supported tract “The Corporate State”—also conspired against him.
Roosevelt called for his resignation in 1934, and the Supreme Court in a historic and uncommon unanimous decision, outlawed the NRA the following year for infringing on the Constitutional authority of the states. Hailing the “shining name” of fascist Italian dictator Mussolini, Johnson parlayed his communications skills into a flourishing career as a nationally-syndicated political columnist and public speaker.
He supported Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election, but called the President a would-be dictator the next year at the advent of his court-packing plan, and supported his unsuccessful Republican opponent in the 1940 election. Two years later, pneumonia brought to a close the tumultuous life of the boy pioneer of Oklahoma who rose to the highest ranks of the nation that he, a first-generation American born of Irish parents, loved and long defended in the manner that seemed right to him.
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.