Louis Arthur Johnson: A Story of National Influence and Controversy

By Sarah Moore | August 15, 2013
This story is part of a series recounting the lives of notable men and women who have been laid to rest in Clarksburg’s cemeteries.

Louis Arthur Johnson (Jan. 10, 1891-Apr. 24, 1966) - namesake of Clarksburg’s Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center as well as the successful law firm Steptoe & Johnson - once appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
On the morning after the 1948 election, the Chicago Daily Tribune preemptively printed and distributed the banner headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman,” when in actuality, Truman had unexpectedly won. The mistake is possibly the most infamous of journalistic errors.
Johnson was Truman's campaign manager.
Truman "owed Johnson his presidency," according to Keith D. McFarland and David L. Roll in The Journal of Military History .
“The 1948 presidential campaign of Harry Truman has been dubbed one of the greatest political campaigns of the modern era,” as stated on the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum website.
In addition to that role, in history books he's called the "founding father" of the American Legion. 
But in spite of his accomplishments, Johnson's name is also associated with darker events in American history.
He's blamed for a revolutionary military controversy, the “Revolt of the Admirals” and the subsequent and unforgiving setbacks of the Korean War Conflict.
Laid to rest in the Elkview Masonic Cemetery, Johnson was actually born in Roanoke, VA, but spent the majority of his life practicing law in Clarksburg, according to Ken Hechler’s article in The West Virginia Encyclopedia.
His days of notoriety began at the University of Virginia, where he not only studied law, but excelled in sports as a collegiate boxing and wrestling champion, Hechler’s article mentions.
He was admitted to the bar in Clarksburg in 1913, where he joined Philip Steptoe to form Steptoe & Johnson, according to the firm’s website.
Johnson’s first elected political office was to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1916 where he served as majority floor leader and chairman of the Judiciary Committee until leaving to serve as an officer in France during World War I, the  Historical Office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense reports.
After the war, the officer remained active with the Army Reserve, during which time he became known as “the Colonel,” a term of endearment given to him by West Virginians for the remainder of his life, according to the Steptoe & Johnson, LLC history website.
Johnson quickly gained support and recognition in the political world. He helped found the American Legion and served as its national commander in 1932–33; in 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him as the Deputy Secretary of War; and in March 1948, Truman named him Secretary of Defense, the Historic Office reports.
Johnson and Truman initially shared beliefs regarding cutting costs for the Department of Defense, and he supported the president's amendments and acts that would have unified military forces.
But when fighting broke out in Korea, Truman's priorities shifted.
Johnson suddenly canceled a very expensive Naval project - the building of a very large ship which had already begun - causing much controversy between the Air Force and the Navy.
This led to the “Revolt of the Admirals,” weakening Johnson’s position and leading to a review of the Johnson's power and the position of the future role of the Secretary of Defense.
McFarland and Roll wrote that Johnson's ultimate downfall was his rationalization of "serious military deterioration" which made him a political liability.
Johnson was blamed for the "military unreadiness" of the Korean War. 
Negative relationships with both Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson ensued, and Truman decided new leadership was needed.
Johnson resigned at the request of Truman in September, 1950.
In his last speech as Secretary of Defense, the day before he left office, Johnson spoke these historic words: "When the hurly burly's done and the battle is won, I trust the historian will find my record of performance creditable, my services honest and faithful commensurate with the trust that was placed in me and in the best interests of peace and our national defense."
His services to the United States military were recognized with the dedication of the VA Hospital in Clarksburg just two months later in December.
Johnson returned to Washington D.C. where he continued to practice law until his death in 1966. His body was returned to his "home" for burial.
Photo of Louis A. Johnson courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum website. 
Photo of Truman with the infamous Chicago Daily Tribune taken from the Historical Office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Photo of Johnson's tombstone is by Ryan Gleason and was taken from Findagrave.com
Time magazine cover from Aug. 22, 1938 taken from Time.com. 

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