From 1940 to 1949, Johnson practiced law and remained active in Democratic Party politics. In return for his fund-raising efforts during the hotly contested 1948 presidential race, President Harry S. Truman named Johnson as defense secretary, replacing James Forrestal, in March 1949. Looking to reduce military expenditures and pay down the national debt, Truman ordered Johnson to conduct a complete review of the American defense structure. What resulted was the so-called Johnson Axe, which culminated in deep across-the-board military cuts. Johnson believed that Defense Department unification and closer cooperation between the services would reduce needless duplication and that the creation of a strong nuclear deterrent would hold down conventional military expenses.
Johnson's plans for atomic weapons control alienated the U.S. Navy. He advocated giving sole control over American atomic power to the U.S. Air Force and also ordered additional B-36 bombers. In addition, he canceled a key naval program, the 65,000-ton flush-deck aircraft carrier United States. When Secretary of the Navy John Sullivan resigned in protest, Johnson replaced him with a fund-raising friend, Francis Matthews, derisively known as the "rowboat secretary" for his complete lack of naval experience. Leading naval officers were outraged, and in congressional hearings during the so-called Revolt of the Admirals, the navy slandered the air force by denigrating the abilities of the B-36. When Johnson promptly sacked Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Louis Denfeld, other naval officers resigned in acrimonious protest. Only after much wrangling did the Defense Department reach a consensus that the nation needed multiple nuclear options to deal with the Soviet threat.
Johnson's tenure at the Pentagon proved short and stormy. His legendary acerbity no doubt contributed to his downfall, but his decisions also failed to soothe the interservice rivalries in the formative years of the Defense Department. Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington resigned over budget cuts, and Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall departed because of racial integration of the military, which Johnson strongly supported. Congressmen and senators found their constituents unhappy with the impact of defense cuts on local economies. When the Korean War exposed America's military unpreparedness in the summer of 1950, Johnson became a political liability and a convenient scapegoat. Although Truman himself had pushed for defense cutbacks, at the president's request Johnson resigned his post and left the Defense Department on 19 September 1950. Returning to private life, he practiced law until his death in Washington, D.C., on 24 April 1966.
Thomas D. Veve
Condit, Doris M. History of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Vol. 2, The Test of War, 1950–1953. Washington, DC: Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1988.; McFarland, Keith D., and David L. Roll. Louis Johnson and the Arming of America: The Roosevelt and Truman Years. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.; Reardon, Stephen L. History of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Vol. 1, The Formative Years, 1947–1950. Washington, DC: Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1984.; Trask, Roger R. The Secretaries of Defense: A Brief History, 1947–1985. Washington, DC: Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1985.