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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 186

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This is the grave of Hugh Johnson.

Born in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1881, Johnson’s grew up in Oklahoma. His family worked to get him into West Point, which the young man desperately wanted. When it turned out that one of Oklahoma’s choices was too old, Johnson received the appointment. He entered the Academy in 1899 and graduated in 1903. One of his early appointments was to the national parks, which the military occupied before the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, originally to prevent poaching and then just because it was what the military did. In fact, Johnson would become superintendent of Sequoia National Park while a first lieutenant. Rising in the military, he wanted to go into law and so received a law degree from the University of California in 1916 and became a JAG officer serving with Pershing in Mexico. He rose very quickly as the nation approached World War I, being promoted all the way from captain to lieutenant colonel in 14 months. During the war, he co-authored the regulations in the Selective Service Act of 1917. When he was promoted to brigadier general in 1918, at the age of 36, he was the youngest person to achieve this rank since the Civil War. He worked in military planning through the war, particularly with the War Industries Board. He resigned from the Army in 1919, only 38 years old, ready to make a big splash in industry and government.

Still a good boy from the Great Plains, Johnson went to work for Moline Plow Company and lobbied hard for the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Bill that would have established the first farm price supports in American history. In 1927, he left industry to become Bernard Baruch’s top advisor. This put him in line to follow his boss into the Roosevelt administration when it took power in 1933. In fact, Johnson would get arguably the most important job of the early New Deal. He was named administrator of the National Recovery Administration.

The NRA made Johnson famous. One of the problems with the American economy was the brutal overcompetition in many industries. While steel and auto had eliminated some of competition by 1933, industries such as timber and coal were filled with small firms with low capitalization that in aggregate flooded the market with product that no one wanted. The solution of the NRA was for the different industries to create codes that each company would follow. This task both flew in the face of the American mythology around small business and had the impact of prioritizing monopoly capitalism, causing small owners to bemoan the socialistic New Deal. The Blue Eagle became the famed symbol of this new era in American business, with supporters putting it outside their businesses to show their support for the New Deal.

Johnson had a herculean task ahead of him. He should have been the man for the job. Time even named him Man of the Year in 1933 for taking this on. But he really wasn’t good at the job. Maybe no one could have been. But he was a bully to most people and completely obsequious to the big capitalists he had to deal with as NRA head. He had absolutely no answer when labor struck across the nation in 1934 after Section 7(a) of the NRA gave workers the right to a union of their own choice. Nearly a throwaway clause and with no enforcement mechanism, it threw Johnson and even Roosevelt for a loop. The NRA was poorly constructed and Johnson alienated a lot of major players. Many businesses had to be covered by multiple codes, some of which contradicted each other. There wasn’t much in the way of enforcement and businesses started reverting to old ways once they realized this. Johnson’s failures were not helped by the fact that he also started drinking heavily, even at work. By mid-1934, the NRA and Johnson were both falling apart. His political commitment to the New Deal was also under attack. Frances Perkins called him a fascist. Maybe he had more than a bit of that in him. Anyway, when the Supreme Court ruled the NRA unconstitutional in 1935, most of Roosevelt’s people were relieved. This failed attempt to fix the economy spawned a lot better thought out ideas, with a serious assist from a much better Supreme Court. And Johnson was released of any duties to the government.

Johnson remained a Roosevelt supporter even after his political exile. But when FDR unveiled the courtpacking scheme, Johnson believed the president was a dictator and he turned hard against him. He supported Wendell Willkie in 1940 and he became an isolationist, opposing American involvement in World War II. Not a great end for a once prominent man. He died of pneumonia in 1942.

Hugh Johnson is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

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