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Brain Trust Brawler

Q. The year 2013 marks the 80th anniversary of the creation of the National Recovery Administration, one of President Franklin Roosevelt's early New Deal agencies. General Hugh S. Johnson, a graduate of Berkeley Law, was the first head of the NRA...

Hugh Johnson
Hugh Johnson

 ...What can you tell us about General Johnson and his academic career at Boalt Hall? — PT, Fresno

A. Anyone who has endured a sweltering Boalt Hall commencement exercise has no doubt wondered if the class valedictorian so earnestly wafting platitudes from the stage of the Greek Theatre would ever go on to accomplish anything of real substance in life. The perspiring parents who listened to Hugh S. Johnson on May 17, 1916 no doubt wondered the same thing. But Hugh “Iron Pants” Johnson (1881-1942) would prove to be Boalt Hall’s answer to Forrest Gump, popping up in the most unusual places to play very significant roles – though not roles one might expect from a typical Berkeley grad.

It is unlikely that any graduation speech ever given by a Boalt Hall student in the history of the law school has had the national (and ultimately international) impact of Johnson’s 1916 address “The Conscription of Armies in Time of War.”  Only two years and one day after its delivery, the speech was used by the United States government as the template for the Selective Service Act, adopted to choose doughboys for combat in World War I.

He arrived on campus via an unusual route. Lt. Hugh S. Johnson, West Point Class of 1903, was stationed at Monterey with the First Cavalry when the War Department decided to send him to Berkeley to study law. “On October 5, 1914,” writes his biographer, “Johnson entered the law school of the University of California, a month after the beginning of classes. During the remaining months of the term he worked hard for the first time in his academic life. Because of the outbreak of war in Europe, he was under orders to finish the three-year course of study in nineteen months or leave without a diploma. As a result, he had to double up on his courses and work eighteen hours a day.... At the end of the term the dean refused him permission to take final exams because of his late start. Johnson, however, displaying the initiative and disdain for red tape that would later become one of his trademarks, slipped in and took one of the exams and scored the highest grade. The dean then let him take the other exams, and Johnson completed the term, earning either the highest or second highest grade in each of his courses.”

In his spare time while in law school Lt. Johnson taught a class in UC’s Dept. of Military Science and Tactics, and published a short story in the Saturday Evening Post. And he made law review.

From the stage of the Greek Theatre, the newly-minted J.D. rode off to revolution-torn Mexico to serve under General John J. Pershing in his pursuit of Pancho Villa. In the rugged mountains of Chihuahua, Johnson shared a tent with George S. Patton while serving as acting judge advocate for the expedition. Pershing gave Johnson the assignment of studying the Mexican legal system “to determine why Mexico had never known any real peace except under a military oligarchy.”

It was not Johnson’s first opportunity to be an eye-witness to history. In 1893 his father was appointed to the position of postmaster for the non-existent town of Alva, Oklahoma, and as a result the eleven-year-old Hugh was with his family in Kiowa, Kansas to see the largest land run in US history. Between 80,000 and 100,000 settlers raced across the border to grab homesteads in the Cherokee Strip. On the morning of September 16 Alva, Oklahoma had only five residents. By the time a sleepy Hugh climbed into his improvised bed that evening, the population of his new home town had soared to 7,000.                         

Hugh was only fifteen when he learned of Teddy Roosevelt’s call for volunteers to join the Rough Riders, and he almost succeeded to joining the charge up San Juan Hill. But his father collared him at the Alva train station and yanked him out of line. Sam Johnson reached a compromise with his bellicose son: if Hugh refrained from running away from home, Sam would use his influence with Congressman James “Eat a Mule” Callahan to secure him an appointment to West Point.

Johnson was graduated from the Military Academy in 1903 and assigned to the First Cavalry in Fort Clark, Texas, but in May of 1906 his unit was sent to San Francisco to help care for the refugees of the Earthquake and Fire. From California he was transferred to the Philippines, where (among other duties) he tried to implement a program of venereal disease control among the US troops stationed there. The Army’s policy of merely ordering abstinence had proved less than effective.

Then there was Boalt Hall and Pancho Villa. 

Transferred to Washington, Johnson joined a secret committee of military brass responding to President Wilson’s request for a national conscription plan — more than a month before the sinking of American merchant ships prodded Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war. Johnson pulled out his Boalt Hall commencement address, and co-wrote the plan eventually sent to the president.

Later, as a member of FDR’s so-called Brain Trust, Johnson was placed in charge of the National Recovery Administration. In 1933, with the country slowly beginning to climb out of the Great Depression, Time Magazine passed over President Roosevelt and instead named Hugh S. Johnson as its Man of the Year.

Both in the military and in government Hugh Johnson was known as a hard drinker (by the 1930s he was a confirmed alcoholic) and a scrappy brawler. “Johnson was ready to mix it with fellow officers, enlisted men, or civilians,” writes John Kennedy Ohl, “and early chalked up a couple of fistfights in each category. In performing his duties, Johnson issued orders in a rasping bark, larded with the profanity of the barracks and the choicest specimens of stable-sergeant sweepings.”

That pugnaciousness was on view in July of 1934, when Johnson returned to the University of California to be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. By this time a national figure because of his prominent work in the FDR administration, Johnson was asked to deliver an address on campus after the induction ceremony. The talk was originally planned for Harmon Gymnasium, but it was relocated to the Greek Theatre when the high level of public interest became clear. Johnson found himself, nineteen years and many battles later, standing on the very spot where he had delivered the commencement address to his fellow Boalt Hall graduates.

That summer the ports of California were in tumult due to what became known to history as the West Coast Longshoremen’s Strike of 1934.   Johnson was in general a supporter of unionized labor, but he vehemently opposed the tactic of closing down the ports. “The general strike is a threat to the community,” Johnson told the Greek Theatre audience. “It is a menace to government. It is civil war.”  He reached back to his days as a student at Boalt Hall. “When the interstate and international commerce of this nation is paralyzed up and down a whole coast by an action admittedly concerted as between ports in different states, the most backward law student in his first year course must know beyond peradventure that all the majesty and power of the Federal Government has been deliberately invoked.”  Warming to his task he told the audience, “It would be safer for a cotton-tail rabbit to slap a wildcat in the face than for this half of one per cent of our population to try to strangle the rest of us into submission by any such means as this. Let’s settle this thing and do it now.”

Berkeley city officials had tried to postpone Johnson’s talk, fearing that the firebrand would incite passions already at the kindling point because of the violent general strike. They doubted that even the combined city and campus police forces could provide adequate protection. “When the fiery executive heard the reason for the cancellation,” reported the Daily Cal, “he laughed and insisted on making his appearance regardless. A force of University police-deputized students, mostly football players, patrolled the Hearst amphitheater during the meeting.”

On a softer note, Johnson waxed poetic about his alma mater and his days at Boalt Hall. “I am no more proud to say ‘West Point ‘03’ than to say ‘California ‘15.’  I here vow that I will never take any honorary doctor’s degree from any college in the world, because I have one that I earned from the University which I would not trade for any academic honor under the sun.”


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