From the Archives: Death Ends Career of Sen. Hiram Johnson


Sen. Hiram Warren Johnson died today, fighting to the end the battle against tie-ups with foreign nations which he began a quarter-century ago in the bitter battle against the League of Nations.

Death, attributed by his physician to thrombosis of a cerebral artery, came at 6:40 a.m. in Bethesda Naval Hospital.

The 78-year-old California Republican, a national political figure since early in the century, had been under treatment there for two and a half weeks. He was in a coma when the end came.


Opposed Charter

One of the Senator’s last official acts was to cast the one vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee against ratification of the United Nations charter for a world organizations of nations.

Even after the onset of his fatal illness his vote was recorded against final ratification through a pair with two charter supporters, Sens. Reed (R.) Kan., and Thomas (R.) Ida.

(Pairs of treaties require two Senators bracketed against one, because of the two-thirds vote requirement for ratification.)

Committee Factor to End

The silver-haired Johnson, long a fire-breathing debater in the Senate, had been heard seldom on the floor in recent months. But he was still a factor to be reckoned with in committee room and cloak room.


He had been expected to come out again to the open fighting in the Senate chamber in opposition to the charter, but illness intervened.

One of his last great floor battles was against passage of the bill to draft teen age youths early in the war. Then he pleaded with tears in his eyes against “calling children to fight our battles.”

Against United Action

Only recently he told a reporter he believed this was not time to consider legislation for postwar collective action by nations.

Elected to the Senate in 1916 after six years as Governor of California, Johnson was ranking Republican in the chamber. He took Office March 16, 1917, just 18 days after Sen McKellar (D.) Tenn., the only name now in the Senate with more seniority.

Candidate With T.R.

Mrs. Johnson was with him when he died and a son, Lt. Col. Hiram W. Johnson Jr., was en route by plane from San Francisco.

Sen. Johnson was the Vice-Presidential candidate in Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” campaign of 1912.

He recovered from a critical pneumonia illness two years ago to engage in a bitter but unsuccessful fight this spring against Senate ratification of the United State-Mexico water treaty.

Unwavering in his belief that this country should remain aloof from foreign alliances, he was vocal in his 1941 opposition to repeal of the 1939 Neutrality Act’s prohibition against arming of American merchant ships.

Barely a month before the Jap attack on Pearl Harbor, he told the Senate repeal of this provision and permission for the ships to carry war supplies to Britain was tantamount to a declaration of war by the United States.

Sen. Capper Left

Johnson’s death leaves Sen. Capper (R.) Kan., the ranking minority member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Capper was 80 years old last month.

Johnson, whose maternal grandfather was Albert De Montfredy, a French Count, was born in Sacramento, Cal., Sept. 2, 1866. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Grove L. Johnson, moved to California from Syracuse, N.Y., a year before Hiram was born.

Flags on the Capitol and the Senate office buildings were lowered to half-staff this morning, as many of his Senate associates issued statements expressing regret at the loss of “a great public servant.”

Sen. Johnson will be buried in San Francisco. Funeral arrangements have not been completed. Close associates said the Senator often had requested that there be no state funeral for him.

Cut Partisan Lines

Johnson cut his own political path across partisan lines for more than a generation — beginning with the Governorship of California and followed by his election to the United States Senate five successive times.

Called “President hater” by some, he did not see eye to eye with any President from Taft on, even though he supported each of them at times.

Californians responded with overwhelming approval. He became such a powerful political figure that he repeatedly won nomination by Democratic, Republican and Progressive parties, regardless of which was dominant in his State of the nation.

In 1934 Democratic members of Congress from California endorsed him in gratitude for his support of President Roosevelt in 1932, although he always retained the Republican label as a member of the Senate.

Broke With Roosevelt

It was a different story in 1940, when Johnson had definitely broken with President Roosevelt. In 1936 he had remained aloof from the Presidential campaign, pleading a physician’s orders to “keep away from politics.”

During the second Roosevelt term, however, Johnson bitterly opposed the President on several major issues, and before the California primary Mr. Roosevelt said Johnson could no longer be considered a liberal or progressive, although he still was very fond of him.

He took the stump against the President when the Chief Executive became a candidate for a third term.

Openly Deserted Party

He was among the group that successfully fought the President’s 1937 proposal to increase the size of the Supreme Court.

Although he became dean of Republican Senators in point of service, he openly deserted his party on two occasions — the first time to “stand at Armageddon” as Vice-Presidential nominee with Theodore Roosevelt and the Bull Moosers in 1912; the second time in 1932 when he campaigned for Mr. Roosevelt.

If there was a consuming, ambition in Hiram Johnson’s life it was said to be the Presidency. Strangely enough he kept both himself and another — so it was asserted — out of that high office.

Refuses Second Place

Offered the Vice-Presidential nomination on the Republican ticket with Warren G. Harding in 1920, he refused. Calvin Coolidge accepted and became a President when Harding died in office.

Four years earlier, the famous “slight” of Johnson by Charles Evans Hughes, when the latter was campaigning in California as the Republican Presidential nominee, was accounted by many as having cost Hughes the election. California went for Wilson by 3806 votes, while Johnson was elected Senator by the greatest majority in the history of the State up to that time.

Among his accomplishments in congress was co-authorship of the Swing-Johnson Act which made possible the gigantic Hoover Dam. More than that, however, his admirers believed he would wish to be remembered for the reforms in government which marked his tenure of the Governorship of California.

Reforms Initiated

Written into the State’s Constitution at his behest were provisions for the initiative, referendum and recall; the direct primary, woman suffrage and the wiping out of national party lines in municipal and county elections. Under him, too, California took the lead in legislating for workmen’s compensation, limiting hours of work for women, creating a State marketing department, protecting investors in lands, mines and oil, regulating railroads and public utilities and in prison reform.

A would-be murderer’s shot called Johnson to public life. He was 42 and building a reputation as a lawyer when a bullet wounded Francis J. Heney in court during trail of the famous San Francisco graft case, involving the notorious Abe Ruef.

Convicted Abe Ruef

At the very moment the telephone brought news of the shooting it is related, Johnson was stubbornly refusing the solicitations of another attorney to assist Heney in the prosecution. With that news, however, he changed his position and declared he would convict Ruef. That he did, and from then on was closely identified with the reform forces of his State.

As a leader of these forces, he became a candidate for Governor two years later and was elected.

In 1912, two years after he became Governor, Johnson was nominated as running mate to Theodore Roosevelt on the Bull Moose ticket. That marked that beginning of his national career, although it was not until four years later that he gave up service as Governor to enter the Senate.

Re-elected Governor

Re-elected as chief executive of California in 1914 he had served half of his second term when Hughes was nominated as the Republican Presidential candidate. He then announced his candidacy for the Senate. In the midst of the 1916 struggle Hughes made his visit to California. The Governor and the Presidential nominee did not meet during the five days Hughes remained in California, although they once were in the same hotel.

Johnson’s followers resented this and the result at the polls was historic. Hughes carried the East and Wilson, running for re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” had the Solid South. The Midwest generally went for Hughes and both candidates went to bed election night thinking that Hughes had won. But the mountain States and the Pacific Slope swung into the Wilson column and 24 hours after the polls closed the result hinged on California’s 13 electoral votes. It was days before a recanvass of the entire State revealed that Wilson had carried it by less than 4000 votes.

With that scant margin went the Presidency. But Johnson won his Senate seat by better than 296,000.


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