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Our History: Featured Alumni: Johnson, Louis A., 1912

Over the decades our graduates have developed distinguished careers as justices, congressmen, ambassadors, educators, businessmen and women, and community leaders in many fields. This site features some of those late graduates.

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Louis Arthur Johnson

U.S. Secretary of Defense

Louis Arthur Johnson was born in 1891 in Roanoke, Virginia. After graduating from Jefferson High School in Roanoke in 1908, he entered the University of Virginia and graduated in 1912 with the degree of Bachelor of Law and as president of his law class. Moving to Clarksburg, West Virginia, he co-founded the firm Steptoe and Johnson, which grew to be one of the most important in the state.

In 1916, Johnson represented Harrison County in the House of Delegates and served as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Soon after the legislature adjourned, Johnson entered the Army as a Captain in the Infantry during World War I and then transferred to the 305th Ammunition Train. Johnson travelled overseas in May 1918 and was appointed Adjutant of the Train. He participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive and later received the rank of Commandeur Ordre National de la Legion D'Honneur by the Republic of France. Johnson then accepted a commission in the Officers' Reserve Corps. Colonel Johnson participated in the national organization of the American Legion in 1919 and served in various capacities until he was elected National Commander in 1932. He was later elected a life member of the National Executive Committees and headed the Legion's Commission on Post-War American in 1943.

From 1933 to 1937, Johnson served as Civilian Aids to the Secretary of War for the state of West Virginia and became a member of the Federal Advisory Council of the United States Employment Services for several years. He served as chairman of the Veterans Advisory Committee of the Democratic National Committee from 1936 to 1937. In 1948, he became chairman of the Finance Committee of the Democratic National Committee and was chief fund raiser for President Truman's campaign. From June 1937 through July 1940, Johnson served as Assistant Secretary of War. In this post, he fought for an expanded air force and for an active program of industrial mobilization. Johnson disagreed with Secretary of War Harry Woodring over the transfer of arms to countries then fighting Germany. As a result, both men were replaced by President Roosevelt in 1940.

From 1942 to 1947, Johnson served under the Alien Property Custodian, and on the Boards of General Aniline & Film Corporation and of General Dyestuff Corporation in New York. During 1942, Johnson was the President's personal representative to India. As chairman of the American Advisory Mission, it was Johnson's objective to determine by means of a technical survey how the United States could most effectively aid in the expansion of India's war production.

Appointed Secretary of Defense in March 1949, Johnson conducted a vigorous program to cut defense expenditures and to unify the armed forces while maintaining a maximum of military strength. As the result of a long disagreement with Secretary of State Dean Acheson regarding the relative significance of Europe and Asia in American political thinking, Johnson resigned on September 19, 1950, and resumed his law practice. He spent his remaining years mainly in Washington, D. C. He died on April 24, 1966 at the age of seventy-five.

Louis Arthur Johnson Papers, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

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