John J. Johnson

Professor Emeritus
Sample Book Chapter/Journal Article

Johnny, as he was known to his friends and colleagues, was born on March 26, 1912, in White Swan, on the Yakima Indian Reservation, located in central Washington State. His father operated small hauling and farming operations. He went to high school in Yakima and Posser, finishing in 1930. Because of his family's financial difficulties, he worked at various jobs for two years before going to Central Washington College of Education, where he received his BA in 1940, the first college graduate in his family. He taught in public schools for six years. In 1941, he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley and earned his masters (1943) and doctoral (1946) degrees from there. Why did he choose Latin American history? Johnny once recalled, "Curiosity born of a profound ignorance of the area, its people, and its institutions was admittedly a factor in my decision. But I also thought that I knew something about and had respect for Indians from having lived among them….But probably the most important factor…was that the Good Neighbor Policy seemed to portend well for hemispheric relations and thus for increased academic and official interest in the region. In that sense, my decision to work in the Latin American field was a purely pragmatic one, understandably, I think, for a young person who had come through the depression." His graduate studies also took him for brief periods to the University of Chicago and to the University of Chile.

He joined the Stanford faculty in 1946 and became emeritus in 1977, though he continued to be active in the History Department through the next twenty years. Even into his late 80s, Johnny worked daily in his office -- he usually was one of the first in the department to arrive in the History building in the morning and one of the last to leave at the end of the day. In the early 1950s, he worked in the State Department as acting director of the South American Branch of the Division of Research on the American Republics. At various times over the years, he served as a consultant to the RAND Corporation, Foreign Service Institute, and the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Johnny helped build the field of Latin American history into national prominence during his long and productive career. He was the author or editor of numerous books and articles on modern political developments in that region. His 1958 book, Political Change in Latin America: The Emergence of the Middle Sectors (Stanford Univ. Press), won the Herbert E. Bolton Prize of the Conference on Latin American History for the outstanding book of the year on Latin American History. In 2000 the name of the award was changed to the Bolton-Johnson Prize to acknowledge Johnny's lifelong contributions to the field. His other books examined the role of the military and politics in different Latin American countries and United States-Latin American relations.