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U. Alexis Johnson Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
U. Alexis Johnson

United States career Foreign Service officer, 1935-; with service during the Truman Administration as Am. Consul, Manila, Philippines, 1945; detailed to GHQ SCAP, Tokyo, Japan, August 1945; Am. Consul, Yokohama, Japan, April 1946, Am. Consul General, 1947-49; Dep. Dir., office N.E. Asian Affairs, Dept. of State, 1949-51, Director, 1951; Dep. Asst. Sec. of State for Far Eastern Affairs, 1951-53.

Washington, D.C.
June 19, 1975
Richard D. McKinzie

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened August, 1978
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
U. Alexis Johnson

Washington, D.C.
June 19, 1975
Richard D. McKinzie


MCKINZIE: Ambassador Johnson, I think that the postwar period really began for you, did it not, when you were assigned to an Army Civil Affairs Training School in 1944, to participate in the postwar period. I wonder if you recall how you happened to be assigned to go to Chicago in 1944, and what you anticipated doing in the postwar period as a young Foreign Service officer.

JOHNSON: I'm trying to remember who was in charge;


let's see, Dr. [Stanley Kuhl] Hornbeck was still in the Department. In any event, I was in Rio at that time. I had to come back to the States because of the death of my father in 1944. While I was out in California in connection with that, I got a call from H. Merrell Benninghoff, who was dealing with postwar policy toward Japan, asking me to come back to Washington to talk about going to the Civil Affairs Training School. I asked, what was I supposed to do? Was I supposed to be a teacher or a professor, or was I supposed to be a student? What was the whole idea? And they said they didn't know (neither they nor the Army); the whole idea would be that I would go out to Chicago and see what there was to be done. As it turned out, I was a little bit of both. When it came to military


subjects, naturally, I was a student; when it came to talking about Japan, why, naturally, I was at least an instructor. However, I lived and worked as a student. And living with the group of students, I think, probably was of the most value to both of us. So far as I know--I haven't done any research on it--I think that that was the first time that any civilian, particularly a State Department civilian, probably ever went to any military school. And I think it was sort of a test-tube case for what developed in the postwar period of our students going to the National War College and our participating in almost all of the service schools. My assistant out here now is going to carry on a program that I initiated when I was in the Department of going to Annapolis, for example, for a year as an instructor in Soviet and Eastern European



Well, that's how I got into it.

MCKINZIE: But at that time people were anticipating that the war was going to last considerably longer than it did, and your assignment to a Far Eastern post came, I take it, a little earlier than you might have anticipated.

JOHNSON: Oh, yes, it did. The concept was that perhaps I could contribute something to the whole concept of military government in Japan as it was then known, and then see what happened; we didn't talk about future assignments of any kind. And then while I was at the school, the invasion of the Philippines took place, and I was assigned to go out to Manila to open a consulate with Paul Steindorf--as a junior officer at the


time. And we actually went into Manila, into the Philippines, at the end of February or first of March. We landed in Leyte first, before Manila fell, and then when Manila fell we went up to Manila.

The first night I was there, standing in a chow line--GI chow line, of course, in an officer's quarters--a fellow, seeing that I was a civilian, started talking to me. His name was Colonel Ginsburg, and he said they were trying to screen the people at Santa Tomas and Los Banos in the prison camps, and they were having a lot of difficulty with it. They didn't know what it was all about, and would I come out and see if I could give them a little hand? So, I said I would do so.

That led to my taking over the screening,


if you will, from the Army, to determine nationality, where people would go, and all this type of thing that is, as you know, part of our life as Foreign Service officers. But to an Army officer it was a very strange and baffling business. And that led to the request, at the surrender of Japan, that I go up with MacArthur's headquarters and do the same thing in Japan.

MCKINZIE: I wonder if you recall your first contacts with Japan? I read that you traveled extensively throughout the islands before they were effectively occupied, except in the Tokyo, Yokohama area.

JOHNSON: Well, yes, I did. I was assigned a C-47 and a crew, and I had the map of the prison camps, of the civilian internee camps and our prison camps as well. And so I went


around the country with a C-47, landing where we could land and then getting Japanese to drive me up to the camps, making contact with our camps and with the prisoners and the local Japanese, and then making contact with the task forces that came in to evacuate them--primarily the naval task forces at Wakkanai and also at Nagasaki. I wasn't in charge; I don't want to overstate my role in it. But in most of these places, I was the first American in and the first American to make any direct contact with the Japanese, because the headquarters, you see, was handling this through Japanese command channels, and the headquarters, apart from myself, had nobody there.

So, you know, we'd land on a field, and the Japanese would come running out, and they were scared and my crew was scared. I wasn't


so much. I don't know; I think I sort of had a sense that when the Japanese surrendered they were going to surrender completely, and I never was particularly concerned in that regard. But they'd come running out and I was able, of course, to speak to them in Japanese, and that always relaxed things a lot. I would arrange to get a car and take my map and go to the camps and make contact with people. So, for a young FSO, you know, this was very heady business. As a matter of fact, in Nagasaki I had the pleasure of welcoming the Marines ashore. The commander was the officer who had been an attache in Rio during the time I was in Rio. I came in over the hill and saw the task force steaming into the harbor, and then watched where they were headed for. I then had my driver drive down to the area they


seemed to be headed for. They threw over their landing boats and came boiling up to the pier, and I was standing on the pier to welcome them. So, this gave me a little emotional satisfaction. Of course, they were naturally somewhat taken aback to see an American standing on the pier. But I enjoyed it. I had been out about a week then, without a bath or anything else, and the commander took me out to his flagship and gave me a bath and a night's sleep and something to eat.

MCKINZIE: One of the things that historians today are constantly curious about is the relationship between the State Department and General MacArthur's organization, and you were among the very first to have that relationship. Without belaboring that unduly, I really wish


you could talk in some detail about the relationship you had with SCAP and how that State-Army relationship evolved during the period you served in Japan.

JOHNSON: Well, I was in a fortunate position from that standpoint, in that I was not there in any formal way representing State. Although no papers were ever formally exchanged or anything, in effect I was what the British would call "seconded" to the headquarters. And I got well-acquainted with the officers around; MacArthur knew me, and I knew him. But more particularly, [Richard K.] Sutherland was then the Chief of Staff, Charles Willoughby was G-2, and so on. I knew many of these people at various ranks. In what I was doing down in the Philippines I had become acquainted with a lot of these officers,


and they, particularly junior officers, found me very useful, because, being a civilian--and the only civilian in headquarters, in effect--I didn't have to be concerned about command channels and the proper hierarchy. I could go around and see people without regard to these things to get what I wanted done, and when it coincided with what they wanted done, why, we could each use the other. I was able to do favors for some of them, and they were able to do favors for me. We first landed in Japan, with the surrender, out at Atsugi, of course, and came into the Grand Hotel in Yokohama, and we'd been there a couple of days. I can't remember if it was before I undertook this going around to these prison camps, or afterwards. I think maybe it was before. Yes it was right at the very f