Born in Roanoke, Virginia, he earned a law degree from the University of Virginia. After graduation he practiced law in Clarksburg, West Virginia; his firm, Steptoe and Johnson, eventually opened offices in Charleston, West Virginia, and Washington, DC. Elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1916, he served as majority floor leader and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. During World War I, Johnson saw action as an Army officer in France. After the war he resumed his law practice and was active in veterans' affairs, helping to found the American Legion and serving as its national commander in 1932-33.
During the war, Johnson had no major responsibilities within the government involving military matters, though he participated in the Roosevelt administration's war mobilization of U.S. industry. Later, he served as Alien Property custodian for the American operations of the German chemical giant I. G. Farben. In 1942, Johnson briefly served as the president's personal representative in India, until an intestinal illness forced his resignation and early return to the United States.
According to historian Walter LaFeber, Truman was known to approach defense budgetary requests in the abstract, without regard to defense response requirements in the event of conflicts with potential enemies. Truman would begin by subtracting from total receipts the amount needed for domestic needs and recurrent operating costs, with any surplus going to the defense budget for that year. From the beginning, Johnson and Truman assumed that the United States' monopoly on the atomic bomb was adequate protection against any and all external threats. Johnson's unwillingness to budget conventional readiness needs for the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps soon caused fierce controversies within the upper ranks of the armed forces.
Johnson was also an advocate of defense unification, which he saw as a means to further reduce defense spending requirements. At a press conference the day after he took office, Johnson promised a drastic cut in the number of National Military Establishment boards, committees, and commissions, and added, "To the limit the present law allows, I promise you there will be unification as rapidly as the efficiency of the service permits it." Later, in one of his frequent speeches on unification, Johnson stated that "this nation can no longer tolerate the autonomous conduct of any single service...A waste of the resources of America in spendthrift defense is an invitation to disaster for America."
Johnson promptly began proposing mothballing or scrapping much of the Navy's conventional surface fleet and amphibious forces. Shortly after his appointment, Johnson had a conversation with Admiral Richard L. Connally, giving a revealing look at his attitudes towards the Navy and Marine Corps and any need for non-nuclear forces:
Admiral, the Navy is on its way out. There’s no reason for having a Navy and a Marine Corps. General Bradley tells me amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.
Both Truman and Johnson extended their opposition to the Navy in their treatment of the U.S. Marine Corps. Truman had a well-known dislike of the Marines dating back to his service in World War I, and famously said "The Marine Corps is the Navy's police force and as long as I am President that is what it will remain. They have a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin's." Johnson exploited this ill feeling to reduce or eliminate many Marine Corps' budget requests. Johnson attempted to eliminate Marine Corps aviation by transferring its air assets to other services, and proposed to progressively eliminate the Marine Corps altogether in a series of budget cutbacks and decommissioning of forces. Johnson ordered that the highest-ranking Marine officer, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, be deleted from the official roll of chiefs of service branches authorized a driver and limousine, and for whom a special gun salute was prescribed on ceremonial occasions. He further specified that there would be no future official recognition or celebration of the Marine Corps birthday. More ominously, Johnson barred the Commandant of the Marine Corps from attending Joint Chiefs of Staff meetings in his role of chief of service (including meetings involving Marine readiness or deployments). Johnson welcomed the passage of the 1949 amendments to the National Security Act of 1947, telling an American Legion convention that he was "happy to report . . . that 80 percent of the problems that beset unification immediately disappeared when the President signed the bill increasing the authority and the responsibility of the Secretary of Defense." Believing that the amendments would help him achieve additional budget cuts, Johnson estimated that one year after their passage the Defense Department would be achieving savings at the rate of $1 billion per year (he later claimed that he had attained this goal). One of his slogans was that the taxpayer was going to get "a dollar's worth of defense for every dollar spent" by the Pentagon, an approach that Truman approved.
Johnson did not limit his budget-cutting campaign to the Navy or Marine Corps. Johnson ordered nearly all of the Army inventories of surplus World War II tanks, communications equipment, personnel carriers, and small arms be scrapped or sold off to other countries instead of being shipped to ordnance and storage depots for reconditioning and storage. Johnson even resisted budget requests for reserve stockpiles of small arms and anti-tank ammunition, anti-tank weapons, or amphibious infantry training for the Army's newly acquired ex-Navy landing craft, which promptly began to deteriorate from lack of proper maintenance. Though the Air Force faced fewer program cancellations and cuts, Johnson refused Air Force requests for a doubling of active air groups until the invasion of Korea, and favored reduction of tactical air force readiness in favor of the strategic nuclear bomber forces.
Faced with such large-scale budgetary reductions, competition between the service branches for remaining defense funds grew increasingly acrimonious. The cancellation of the supercarrier precipitated a bitter controversy between the Navy and the United States Air Force, the so-called "Revolt of the Admirals." In congressional hearings and other public arenas, the Navy reacted angrily to Johnson's action by openly questioning the ability of the Air Force's latest strategic bomber, the Convair B-36, to penetrate Soviet airspace. The Air Force countered with data supporting the B-36, and minimized the importance of a naval role for surface ships in future major conflicts.
Subsequently declassified material proved the USAF correct in its immediate assessment of the capabilities of the B-36 at the time of the Revolt of the Admirals. At the time, it was indeed virtually invulnerable to interception due to the great height at which it flew. However, the B-36 was a pre-World War II design: by the time it was fully deployed to Air Force active-duty squadrons, the B-36 was hopelessly vulnerable to modern Soviet MiG-15 jet interceptors, aircraft that would greatly surprise U.S. officials when they later appeared over North Korea. The role of heavy bombers evolved into an extension of their role during World War II, support of tactical forces in-theatre. In the long run, Navy arguments for the supercarrier prevailed, though not for the reasons originally cited. A relative failure as a strategic nuclear deterrent, the large aircraft carrier would prove invaluable as an element of conventional rapid deployment forces. Ironically, a successor to the canceled supercarrier, the radical new USS Forrestal, and later designs, continue in service with the Navy into the 21st century.
However, a more ominous (if less publicized) development than the supercarrier debate was Johnson's steady reduction of force in Navy ships, landing craft, and equipment needed for conventional force readiness. Ship after ship was mothballed from the fleet for lack of operating funds. The United States Navy and Marine Corps, once the world's preeminent amphibious force, lost most of its amphibious capabilities and landing craft which were scrapped or sold as surplus (the remaining craft were reserved solely for Army use in amphibious operations exercises, which did not utilize them in that role)
In its final report, the House Armed Services Committee found no substance to the charges relating to Johnson's and Symington's roles in aircraft procurement. It held that evaluation of the B-36's worth was the responsibility of the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group, and that the services jointly should not pass judgment on weapons proposed by one service. On cancellation of the supercarrier, the committee questioned the qualifications of the Army and Air Force chiefs of staff, who had testified in support of Johnson's decision, to determine vessels appropriate for the Navy. The committee, disapproving of Johnson's "summary manner" of terminating the carrier and failure to consult congressional committees before acting, stated that "national defense is not strictly an executive department undertaking; it involves not only the Congress but the American people as a whole speaking through their Congress. The committee can in no way condone this manner of deciding public questions."
The committee expressed solid support for effective unification, but stated that "there is such a thing as seeking too much unification too fast" and observed that "there has been a Navy reluctance in the interservice marriage, an over-ardent Army, a somewhat exuberant Air Force . . . . It may well be stated that the committee finds no unification Puritans in the Pentagon."
Finally, the committee condemned the dismissal of Admiral Louis E. Denfeld, the chief of naval operations, who accepted cancellation of the supercarrier but testified critically on defense planning and administration of unification. Secretary of the Navy Francis P. Matthews fired Denfeld on October 27 1949, explaining that he and Denfeld disagreed widely on strategic policy and unification. The House Armed Services Committee concluded that Denfeld's removal was a reprisal because of his testimony and a challenge to effective representative government.
Although Johnson emerged from the Revolt of the Admirals with his reputation intact, the controversy weakened his position with the services and probably with the president. Notwithstanding Johnson's emphasis on unification, it was debatable how far it had really progressed, given the bitter recriminations exchanged by the Air Force and the Navy during the controversy, which went far beyond the initial question of the super-carrier to more fundamental issues of strategic doctrine, service roles and missions, and the authority of the secretary of defense. Moreover, Johnson's ill-conceived budget cutbacks on force readiness would soon bear bitter fruit with the coming of the Korean War.
Concluding that the hydrogen bomb was now required as deterrent as well as an offensive weapon, Truman decided on January 31 1950 to proceed with development; Johnson supported the president's decision. Truman at the same time directed the secretaries of state and defense to review and reassess U.S. national security policy in the light of the Soviet atomic explosion, the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, and acquisition of the hydrogen bomb, and to produce a paper based on their new analysis. Johnson went about this task reluctantly, as he had promised Truman he would hold the line on increased defense spending. He was also upset that the State Department had first taken the lead on the policy assessment and had heavily influenced the contents of the resultant report NSC 68.
Truman was less than enthused about the large defense cost projections for NSC-68 and its implications for existing domestic budgetary spending priorities, and initially sent it back without comment to its authors for further analysis. Although Truman took no immediate formal action on NSC 68, the paper gained considerable support when the North Koreans attacked South Korea on June 25, 1950. Johnson's obstinate attitude toward the State Department role in the preparation of this paper adversely affected his relations with both Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Truman. Although he publicly professed belief that "the advance guard in the campaign for peace that America wages today must be the State Department," his disagreements with Acheson and his restrictions on DoD contacts with the State Department persisted until the realities of the Korean War caused his fall from favor with the White House.
In an initial response, Truman called for a naval blockade of North Korea, and was shocked to learn that such a blockade could only be imposed 'on paper', since the U.S. Navy no longer had the warships with which to carry out his request. For FY 1951, Johnson had supported Truman's recommendation of a $13.3 billion defense budget, but a month after the fighting in Korea started, the secretary hastily proposed a supplemental appropriation request of $10.5 billion, (an increase of 79%), bringing the total requested to $23.8 billion. In making the additional request, Johnson sheepishly informed a House appropriations subcommittee that "in the light of the actual fighting that is now in progress, we have reached the point where the military considerations clearly outweigh the fiscal considerations."
It was all too late. U.S. Army infantry forces hastily deployed to Korea were ill-trained and proved short of everything needed to repel the well-equipped North Korean forces: artillery ammunition, heavy tanks, ground-support aircraft, even a modern defensive infantry anti-tank weapon: the M20 3.5-inch Super Bazooka. Large-scale issue of the M20, a weapon urgently required to defeat the thick cast armor of Soviet tanks being supplied to the North Koreans, had been cancelled due to budget cuts. Some Army infantry units sent to Korea were supplied with wornout, 'red-lined' M-1 rifles or carbines in immediate need of Ordnance overhaul or repair. Unlike the U.S. Army, the Soviet Union had retained its large World War II surplus arms inventories and kept them in a state of combat readiness; they lavishly supplied the well-trained North Korean Army with modern tanks, machine guns, mortars, combat aircraft, and artillery. Initial combat encounters by the 24th Infantry division and other Army units at the Battle of Osan with North Korean armored spearheads proved disastrous.
Faced with the consequences of the previous budget cuts, Army officials found themselves frantically recovering rusted Sherman tanks from World War II Pacific battlefields, reconditioning them for shipment to Korea in a frantic effort to repel North Korean advances. Several World War II-era M-26 90mm Pershing tanks had been mounted as war display memorials at Fort Knox; they were removed from their pedestals, overhauled, and hastily shipped to the Korean battle front. The Navy, now short of amphibious assault craft, had to keep its remaining boats in constant operation, causing frequent breakdowns. Having used most of its defense appropriations to build large strategic bombers for atomic warfare, the Air Force now found itself flying tactical ground support missions to Korea from Japan. Without modern ground support aircraft with sufficient loiter capability and weapons payloads, US airpower was unable to stop the North Korean armored spearheads. Air Force commanders were forced to take F-51 (P-51) propeller-driven aircraft out of storage or from existing Air National Guard squadrons, and rush them into front-line service. Even pilots flying current U.S. jet interceptor aircraft (such as USAF F-80 squadrons operating from bases in Japan or Navy F9F-2s flown from carriers in the Sea of Japan) found themselves completely outclassed by faster Soviet MiG-15 fighter planes, though their superior training did ensure a few victories against the MiGs
U.S. infantry forces deployed from Japan were unprepared for the intense ground combat in Korea. By 1950, the Eighth Army and U.S. occupation forces in Japan had essentially eliminated divisional and regimental-level simulated combat exercises in an effort to reduce costs. Marches and physical training were minimized in favor of motorized transport. Armored maneuvers were reduced in scale in order to minimize compensation paid to Japanese farmers (who demanded reinbursement for fields ruined by tanks and trucks on exercises). Because of the weakness of roads and bridges in Japan, where it had been based, the Eighth Army was equipped with only light tanks, and was not authorized to maintain inventories of heavy tanks, even in storage. By June 1950, the Army's 'battle-ready' infantry divisions were just 93 percent of an authorized strength already far reduced from a war strength of 18,900. Training and unit cohesion suffered from an annual turnover that exceeded 40 percent, and both equipment and ready-stored ammunition were in poor condition.
As a consequence, U.S. and U.N. forces were rapidly pushed down the Korean peninsula in the summer of 1950 in a steady series of retreats and withdrawals, losing considerable numbers of soldiers who were cut off and taken captive (most were summarily executed). Reservists and new inductees called to duty found themselves short everything from uniforms to rifles and ammunition. Ironically, only the U.S. Marine Corps, whose commanders had thoughtfully stored all of their World War II surplus equipment and weapons, proved ready for immediate deployment, though they still were understrength and in desperate need of suitable landing craft to practice amphibious operations (Johnson had transferred most of the remaining craft to the Navy and reserved them for use in training Army units) The U.S. Navy's aircraft carriers were the only effective airfields available to U.N. forces, as they could not be overrun by the land-based North Koreans.
U.S. reverses in Korea and the continued priority accorded to European security resulted in rapid, substantive changes in U.S. defense policies, including a long-term expansion of the armed forces and increased emphasis on military assistance to U.S. allies. Preoccupied with public criticism of his handling of the Korean War, and wishing to deflect attention from the peacetime defense economy measures he had previously espoused, Truman decided to ask for Johnson's resignation. On September 19, 1950, Johnson resigned as Secretary of Defense, and the president quickly replaced him with General George C. Marshall.