Hugh Johnson was the head of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) from June 1933 to September 1934. The NRA implemented provisions of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and enforced codes (designed by private industry and reviewed by the NRA) to control prices, wages, and production levels in American business, in an effort to lift the country out of the Depression. As head administrator, Johnson had a tremendous influence on the economy: he could summon business owners to explain why they charged prices lower than what the codes called for; approve increases or decreases in wages and production levels; investigate violations of labor rights; refer violators to the Department of Justice for prosecution; and more .
Hugh Samuel Johnson was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, on August 5, 1882, to attorney Samuel Johnson and his wife Elizabeth Mead Johnson. In 1893, the family moved to Alva, Kansas, where Hugh would later graduate from high school and attend the Northwestern Normal School (now Northwestern Oklahoma State University). He only stayed at Northwestern for one year, before heading off to New York for training at West Point. He graduated in 1903, the first cadet from Oklahoma .
Highlights of Johnson’s military career include: working as a quartermaster for refugees of the San Francisco Fire of 1906; serving in the Philippines from 1907 to 1909; serving as superintendent of Sequoia National Park (before the National Park Service was created in 1916, the Army supervised the nation’s parks); and managing the draft during World War I. By the end of his military service in 1919, Johnson had risen to the rank of brigadier general .
During the 1920s, Johnson worked in private industry and developed a friendship with Bernard Baruch, a wealthy financier who backed the Democratic Party. Through this connection, Johnson met Franklin Roosevelt and, by 1932, was helping the candidate with his campaign speeches. One such speech—crafted by Johnson, influenced by Baruch, and delivered by Roosevelt—promised a 25% reduction in federal spending. Rexford Tugwell, one of Roosevelt’s key brain trusters (and an advocate for greater federal involvement in the economy), was flummoxed by the promise and called it an “unforgivable folly” .
Johnson was an able administrator, but he had a drinking problem. Furthermore, he frequently used coarse language and had a tendency to be overly candid with the press. These habits landed him in hot water with the president. Eventually, under pressure from Roosevelt, Johnson resigned from the NRA on September 24, 1934 . The NRA itself would topple only a few months later, a victim of the Supreme Court’s ruling that NIRA codes were unconstitutional .
Johnson was put in charge of the WPA in New York City in June 1935, but left in October after a power struggle with Robert Moses, the city’s forceful urban planner . And though Johnson supported Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election, his relations with the administration deteriorated further. By the end of 1939 he was openly promoting Roosevelt’s presidential challenger, Wendell Wilkie, and making declarations such as, “With an intelligent government in Washington we could have prosperity tomorrow” .
Hugh Johnson died of pneumonia in Washington, DC, on April 15, 1942. He was 59 years old. Johnson was survived by his wife, Helen Kilbourne; his son, Kilbourne Johnston (the “t” was a return to an earlier version of the family name); and his brother and sister-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Johnston. Despite the controversies of his later years, the New York Times highlighted Johnson’s generous nature and recalled, “In that rugged and rocky face there was great kindness and a lot of fun” .
Sources: (1) See, e.g., “Cites 100 Cleaners As Price Violators,” New York Times, December 3, 1933; “Lets Cotton Mills Lower Production,” New York Times, December 3, 1933; “Johnson Allows Coal Wage Cut,” New York Times, June 5, 1934; and “Johnson Awaiting Charges on Ford,” New York Times, December 13, 1933. (2) See Oklahoma Historical Society at “Johnson, Hugh Samuel (1882-1942)” and “Alva” (both accessed February 26, 2016), and “Hugh S. Johnson Dies In Capital, 59,” New York Times, April 16, 1942. (3) “Hugh S. Johnson Dies In Capital, 59,” New York Times, April 16, 1942. (4) Ibid., and see also Michael Hiltzik, The New Deal: A Modern History, New York: Free Press, 2011, pp. 115-119. (5) See previous note, Hiltzik, pp. 269-275. (6) See our summary of the National Industrial Recovery Act, at https://livingnewdeal.org/what-was-the-new-deal/programs/. (7) See, e.g., note 3, and also “Johnson to Resign WPA Job In October,” New York Times, September 14, 1935. (8) “Presidential Race Urged On Wilkie,” New York Times, November 22, 1939. (9) “Hugh Johnson,” New York Times, April 16, 1942.