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Hiram Johnson

(1866—1945)


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(b. Sacramento, California, 2 Sept. 1866; d. Bethesda, Maryland, 6 Aug. 1945)

US; Governor of California 1911–17, US Senator 1917–45 After two years at the University of California in Berkeley, Johnson worked in his father's law office in San Francisco and was admitted to the California bar. He gained prominence as a prosecutor, which enabled him to win the Republican nomination for Governor of California in 1910. In the 1910 campaign he displayed the characteristics which became his hallmark of a feisty progressive reformer with a fiery oratorical style and with a dedication to battle against vested interests on behalf of the people. As governor of California 1911–17 he established himself as one of the major figures of the progressive movement. He enacted reforms of major significance to curb the power of vested interests, such as the establishment of a Railroad Commission to control the power of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and to give more power to the people over the state government, such as by means of the initiative, referendum, and recall.

In 1912 he bolted the Republican Party and was vice-presidential candidate on the Progressive Party ticket led by Theodore Roosevelt. He was re-elected Governor of California in 1914 as a Progressive, but with the demise of the Progressive Party, he rejoined the Republican Party and won election to the US Senate as a Republican in 1916. He supported with reluctance America's intervention in the First World War but was highly critical of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and was one of the leading ‘irreconcilables’ in opposition to American participation in the League of Nations. In 1920 he sought the Republican nomination for President and was bitterly critical of the undemocratic procedure in the ‘smoke-filled room’ at the Republican national convention in Chicago which led to the nomination of Warren Harding. He opposed the policies of the conservative Republican presidents of the 1920s and was particularly critical of the policies of President Hoover. In 1922 and 1928 he was easily re-elected to the Senate but he increasingly took an independent position in support of progressive reform on domestic issues and isolationism in foreign policy.

In 1932 he did not support Hoover's re-election but endorsed the Democratic candidate, Franklin Roosevelt. He was offered the post of Secretary of the Interior in Roosevelt's administration, but he declined since he preferred to maintain his independence as a Senator. He supported the New Deal in its early years and was one of the most prominent of the progressive Republicans whose support was important for the passage of New Deal legislation. But by 1936–7 he turned against Roosevelt and the New Deal and reverted to his more customary position of opposition. He feared that Roosevelt's landslide re-election victory in 1936 and his plan to pack the Supreme Court were signs of an excessive increase in the power of the President. Even more so, he became increasingly distrustful of Roosevelt's foreign policy. Johnson was one of the most outspoken isolationists during the 1930s. He sponsored the Johnson Act of 1934, which prohibited further loans to nations in default on previous loans from the United States, and he supported the Neutrality Acts of 1935–7. He was fiercely critical of Roosevelt's policies of aid to the Allies in 1939–41, such as Lend-Lease, which he was certain would take America into war. After Pearl Harbor, he accepted that America had no alternative other than involvement in the Second World War, but he opposed American international involvement after the War, especially American participation in the United Nations. Although he had been easily re-elected to the Senate in 1934 and 1940, he was in failing health after 1941 and his position was becoming increasingly isolated and outmoded. His death, which occurred symbolically on the same day as the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, marked the death of the isolationist standpoint which he had embodied.

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Subjects: Politics.


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