Nelson T. Johnson

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Nelson Trusler Johnson (April 3, 1887–December 3, 1954) was the United States ambassador to the Republic of China from 1935–41, and to Australia from 1941-45.

Early life and career

Johnson was born in the family row house located at 1st and East Capitol Street (now a part of the location of the United States Supreme Court) in Washington, D.C. He spent a part of his early life in Newkirk, Oklahoma and then Kildare, Oklahoma. He then returned to Washington to complete his schooling at Sidwell Friends School near 8th & I Street NW. He then went to George Washington University and pledged to the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. In his freshman year he decided to take the Foreign Service Examination, claiming his residency as Oklahoma. Successful, he received an appointment to the Foreign Service of the United States as appointments were made based on one's home state. He spent his entire adult life in the service of his government. Johnson specialized in China and the Far East, first as a student interpreter, then as consular officer, Chief of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs, next as Assistant Secretary of State, and then as Minister and Ambassador on assignments to China leading up to World War II. He served as ambassador to Australia during World War II (1941-1945).[1]

Early influence on Far Eastern policy

Johnson first became intimately involved in shaping American policy toward China in 1925 when he assumed the office of Chief of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs in the State Department. From 1928 to May 1941 he was first assigned as Minister Plenipotentiary, then as Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, to China. During those years he contributed heavily to determining the conduct of US relations with that country, based primarily on Johnson's personal papers in the Library of Congress and the published and unpublished State Department records that address his activities over the 1925–1941 period emphasizing his ideas and suggestions regarding American policy to that country.

Johnson made major contributions during the Coolidge, Hoover and early Roosevelt administrations. He favored going as far as American interests would allow in helping China regain her sovereignty and he consistently guided Secretaries of State Kellogg and Stimson on a moderate course in their policy.

Under Kellogg, Johnson continually opposed interference in the civil war in China. He opposed joining the British at Canton and Hankow in punitive measures against Chinese strike pickets and other nationalists. He opposed harsh or recriminatory action against China during the Nanking Incident of 1927. He advocated conciliation in answering China's note of June 1925 requesting treaty revision. He suggested going as far as possible, unilaterally if necessary, in writing a new tariff treaty, and favored gradual relinquishment of extraterritoriality.

Under Secretary Stimson, Johnson made a significant contribution when, as American Minister in China, he influenced the Secretary's policy during the Shanghai affair. His advice that the United States make a statement in favor of upholding the terms of the Nine-Power Treaty was chiefly responsible for Stimson’s letter of February 1932 to Senator William E. Borah.

In the mid-1930s Johnson's influence continued although other officials gained ascendancy as policy became more Japanese oriented. During this period, he grew increasingly impatient with Japanese aggression and began suggesting a reappraisal of American policy toward Japan. Not yet recommending that she assume any responsibility for the Chinese, he merely advocated United States rearmament and reconsideration of its intention to grant independence to the Philippines.

By the end of the decade, Johnson openly advocated material support for China. The Chinese had then established a measure of order, had demonstrated a will to resist Japan and he believed they deserved support. His descriptions of the events of the war and of China's valiant fight were instrumental in the decision to grant assistance.

Personal life

Johnson married Jane Augusta Washington Thornton Beck in Beijing, China (then called Peking). Second daughter of Wyoming pioneer George T. Beck, she was born October 21, 1900, in Cody, Wyoming. She died February 28, 1991, in Washington, D.C. at age 91. They were married in Peking and were then registered at the US Consulate in Tientsin, China, October 10, 1931.

He made the cover of Time in 1939. [1]

Both Nelson and Jane are buried in Rock Creek Cemetery near the Old soldiers' home in N.E. Washington D.C.


  • The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy, vol. 11.
  • Time, December 11, 1939.
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
John Van Antwerp MacMurray (as Envoy to the Republic of China)
U.S. Ambassador to China
Succeeded by
Clarence E. Gauss
Preceded by
Clarence E. Gauss
U.S. Ambassador to Australia
Succeeded by
Robert Butler