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Louis A. Johnson: A Legacy of Leadership and Service

As they fulfill their role in a just and functioning society, lawyers often find themselves on the front lines of history.

One such lawyer, forever tied to West Virginia, illustrates the valuable influence and the important responsibility held by members of the legal profession.

WVU Law Louis A. Johnson

In 1913, two native sons of Bedford County, Virginia, established a small firm in Clarksburg, West Virginia. It was a boomtown, close to manufacturing, banking, mineral, and service-related industries. Consequently, the new firm — Steptoe & Johnson — quickly carved out a niche in banking, insurance, litigation, mineral, and public utility law.

Philip Steptoe was a low-key, methodical and scholarly attorney while Louis Johnson was the compulsive extrovert and rainmaker. The complementary partnership between the two founders helped the young firm make a name for itself.

Among early accomplishments of note, Steptoe wrote a West Virginia statute to keep a satisfactory amount of natural gas in the state before it was exported. The well-intentioned law — nicknamed the Steptoe Gas Act — was designed to benefit residents and businesses of the Mountain State. It was eventually struck down by the U.S Supreme Court to the satisfaction of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The extrovert Johnson, at age 26, was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1916. He served as chairman of the Judiciary Committee and his lifelong passion for politics was ignited. Johnson fought in World War I in 1918, seeing action in France.

His experiences led him to become instrumental in the formation of the American Legion, which today has almost two million members. Around this time, he also met a young Harry Truman, who also served in France.

In the 1920s and 30s, Steptoe & Johnson expanded — hiring young lawyers mainly from the University of Virginia, West Virginia University, and Harvard — and opened an office in Charleston. When Steptoe retired in 1935, the firm had 15 lawyers and its leadership was transferred to Johnson.

From 1932 to 1934, Johnson served as national commander of the American Legion. His connections in Washington, D.C., led to his first major role in government when he was appointed assistant secretary of war by President Roosevelt.

Serving from 1937 to 1940, Johnson witnessed Europe’s collapse into World War II. Perhaps with a lawyer’s foresight, his principal achievement during his tenure as assistant secretary of war was preparing the U.S. industrial base for WWII and rearmament of the military.

WVU Law Louis A. Johnson and FDR on a train

Louis Johnson (glasses, third from left) with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

WVU Law Louis A. Johnson 1937

Louis Johnson being sworn in as Assistant Secretary of War, 1937.

Roosevelt did not appoint Johnson to Secretary of War. He did, however, ask Johnson to serve as a personal representative to lead an advisory mission to assess India’s war capability and assist India in its preparations for war. During that process he became very close to Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress. Johnson also interacted with Winston Churchill, but not in a particularly agreeable fashion.

The contacts Johnson made through the American Legion, the Democratic Party, Washington’s inner circle, and his service on corporate boards led to a dramatic expansion of Steptoe & Johnson’s client base.

During World War II, the firm’s practice shifted from West Virginia energy and regional business to a more national and international focus. Cases in Washington, D.C., including federal regulatory matters, moved to the forefront. Clients included figures such as Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran.

Initially, the firm’s Washington lawyers practiced in West Virginia, or they were sent to West Virginia for a year of training. Two of those lawyers were Guy Farmer ’36, later chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, and Steven Ailes ’36, who would serve as the eighth secretary of the army under President Johnson from 1964 to 1965.

By the end of WW II, Steptoe & Johnson was firmly ensconced as a major firm in Washington, D.C. Practice areas grew to include civil aeronautics, anti-trust, federal taxation, insurance and, eventually, lobbying.

By virtue of Johnson’s military industrial contacts, those clients included Convair, Owens Illinois, GAF, Kaiser Motors, Slick Airways, Atlantic Richfield Company, Phillips Petroleum, C&O Railroad, Burlington Northern, Pan American World Airways, Southern Pacific Railroad, Riggs Bank, the American Insurance Association, Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation, Citibank, Hamilton Watch Company, and Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

While leading the firm, Johnson served as chief fundraiser for his old friend Harry Truman during the 1948 presidential campaign. That fundraising was instrumental in Truman’s surprise defeat of New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey.

When President Truman needed a new U.S. secretary of defense in early 1949, he turned to the lawyer from West Virginia. It’s said that Truman wanted the meanest and hardest so-and-so he could find — and he got his wish in Johnson.

Johnson’s fiscal conservatism aligned with Truman’s desire to cut defense spending, which had ballooned during WWII. His strategy and tactics put him in direct conflict with the generals and admirals and even Congress.

The irony, of course, is that Johnson had laid the groundwork for large military budgets when he was Roosevelt’s assistant secretary of war. Ultimately, though, it was not Truman or Johnson or who decided the path of U.S. military spending and budgetary priorities, it was world affairs.

While lasting just 18 months, Johnson’s tenure as secretary of defense was marked by some of the 20th century’s most important historical events. Between March 1949 and September 1950, NATO was formed; Mao Zedong and the Communists took control of mainland China; Russia tested its first nuclear bomb; and the Korean War broke out. With the Cold War in full swing around the world, priorities and spending had to adjust.

The pragmatic Johnson told Congress that military concerns outweighed fiscal considerations — not the argument he and Truman initially presented. Thus began an expansion of the armed forces and defense spending that, ultimately, ended the Cold War with the West’s victory.

World events had forced Johnson (and President Truman) to adapt and change course. To save face, President Truman replaced Johnson with a new secretary of defense, General George C. Marshall. The West Virginia lawyer left the halls of power one last time and returned to his practice. He remained loyal to his president, however.

Johnson ran his firm like a benevolent dictator; it was not a democracy. In 1966, he passed away and was buried in Clarksburg where his career in the law began. Steptoe & Johnson continued to flourish and, eventually, the practices of the Washington, D.C., and West Virginia offices grew in different directions. 

In 1980, the Washington office amicably separated from its West Virginia sibling.  Both firms continue to refer business to each other as they carry on their founders’ legacy of leadership and service.

Photos courtesy of Steptoe & Johnson PLLC

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