Eric Johnston

Eric Johnston

Eric Allen Johnston (December 21, 1896August 22, 1963) was a business owner, president of the United States Chamber of Commerce, a moderate Republican Party activist, president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and a U.S. government special projects administrator and envoy for both Democratic and Republican administrations. As president of the MPAA he abbreviated the organization's name, convened the closed-door meeting of motion picture company executives at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel that led to Waldorf Statement in 1947 and the Hollywood blacklist, and discretely liberalized the production code while he served as president of the MPAA until his death in 1963.

Early life

An Episcopalian, [Doherty, "A New Lobbyist to Represent Hollywood… Why They Need One," "Boston Globe," July 8 2004.] Johnston was born "Eric Johnson" in Washington, D.C. His father, a pharmacist, moved the family to Marysville, Montana, when Johnston was a year old. In 1905, the family moved to Spokane, Washington. The Johnsons divorced in 1911, and Eric's mother, Ida, changed her and her son's last name to "Johnston."Edgerton, "The Eric Johnston Story," "The Pacific Northwesterner," Fall 1989.] Bachrach, "Eric Johnston Dies," "New York Times," August 23, 1963.]

He attended the University of Washington, graduating in 1917 and joining the Theta Delta Chi fraternity. During this time, he worked as a stevedore, newspaper sports columnist, library clerk and shoe salesman.

When the United States entered World War I, Johnston enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. He was commissioned a second lieutenant, and became a ROTC commander at the University of Washington in 1918. Then, he was promoted to captain, fought with the American Expeditionary Force Siberia in the Russian Revolution, and was named military attache in Peking. Johnston's learned some Mandarin, traveled widely in Asia, and successfully speculated in Chinese currency."Surprise for Mr. Roosevelt," "Time," June 29, 1942.]

Johnston was assaulted by an unknown person in Peking. His skull was fractured, which led to sinus infections, lung ailments, and his discharged from the Corps in 1922 for medical reasons. Johnston returned to Spokane for its dry climate, and married his long-time girlfriend, Ina Hughes. He became a vacuum-cleaner salesman, and bought the Power Brown Co., the Pacific Northwest's largest independent appliance distribution business. In 1924, the newly-renamed Brown-Johnston Company purchased the Doerr-Mitchell Electric Co., a manufacturer of electrical appliances, ironwork and glassware."Milestones," "Time," August 30, 1963.]

Johnston was elected president of the Spokane Chamber of Commerce in 1931. He became managing trustee of the bankrupt Washington Brick and Lime Co., led it out of bankruptcy, and became its chairman. Johnston also became president of the Wayne-Burnaby Company, a regional electrical contractor.

Chamber of Commerce

Johnston became active in the national Chamber of Commerce. He was appointed to its tax committee in 1933, elected a director in 1934, and elected vice president in 1941. Johnston became head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce after a revolt by younger, moderate business executives pushed several older, powerful conservative candidates aside. He refused to antagonize the American Federation of Labor or the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and advocated labor-management cooperation. Johnston persuaded the labor federations to make a no-strike pledge during World War II.

In 1940, Johnston ran in the Republican primary for Senator from Washington state, but placed a distant 2nd place at 18%.

Johnston served on several wartime commissions for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, including the Committee for Economic Development, the War Manpower Commission, and the War Mobilization and Reconversion Committee.

In 1943, President Roosevelt named him chairman of the United States Commission on InterAmerican Development. He traveled widely in Latin America, reassuring heads of state that the United States intended to protect them in the event of war.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin invited Johnston to tour Russia in 1944. Johnston agreed, and Roosevelt named him his emissary. Johnston spent nearly a month in the Soviet Union, and was the first American diplomat to tour the Central Asian SSRs. He met with Stalin in a three hour long meeting when Ambassador W. Averell Harriman had yet to meet the Soviet premier. [Lawrence, "Soviet Is Pictured As Big U.S. Market," "New York Times," June 20, 1944; Reston, "Johnston Extols Soviet Peace Aim," "New York Times," July 14, 1944.]

Johnston retired as Chamber of Commerce president in 1945. He was awarded the Presidential Medal for Merit in 1947.

Head of the MPAA

Johnston was named president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDAA) in 1946. He immediately changed the name of the organization to its current title, the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA.

The blacklist

In September 1947, the motion picture industry came under sharp criticism by the House Un-American Activities Committee for allegedly permitting known communist sympathizers to include anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, pro-communist messages in motion pictures. Spurred by Red-baiting members of the MPAA as well as a fear of government censorship, Johnston agreed to institute a blacklist. ["Movies Pledge Aid in Inquiry on Reds," "New York Times," September 30, 1947; Tower, "Critics of Film Inquiry Assailed, Disney Denounces 'Communists'," "New York Times," October 25, 1947; Tower, "Film Men Admit Activity By Reds," "New York Times," October 21, 1947.]

On November 25, 1947, Johnston was part of a closed-door meeting with 47 motion picture company executives at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel that resulted in the Waldorf Statement. Johnston issued the two-page press release that marked the beginning of the "Hollywood blacklist." ["Movies to Oust Ten Cited For Contempt of Congress," "New York Times," November 26, 1947; "Film Leaders to Map Communist Policy," "New York Times," November 25, 1947; "Film Industry to Ban 'Known Communists'," "New York Times," November 22, 1947; "Asks Rule on Jobs for Communists," "New York Times." November 20, 1947; Schary, "Heyday: An Autobiography," 1979, pp. 164–67.]

During his tenure at the MPAA, Johnston quietly liberalized the production code. [Canby, "A New Movie Code Ends Some Taboos," "New York Times," September 21, 1966; "Old Movie Taboos Eased in New Code For Film Industry," "New York Times," December 12, 1956.] He also engaged in major initiatives to secure a significant American market share of the overseas motion picture market, and to reduce restrictions on the screening of American films in foreign markets. [ After World War II, many nations placed limits on the number of foreign-produced films which could be shown. These restrictions were designed to promote domestic film production. Since Hollywood produced more motion pictures than most of the world combined, these restrictions severely limited foreign distribution of American films. See Zeiler, "Free Trade, Free World: The Advent of GATT," 1999; "Heads Film Export Unit," "Associated Press," October 2, 1945.]

Government appointments

In January 1951, he was appointed by President Harry S. Truman as administrator of the Economic Stabilization Agency, replacing Alan Valentine. He lasted only a few months in the job. [Loftus, "Johnston Is Named Stabilizing Chief," "New York Times," January 20, 1951; "Johnston Leaving Defense Job Nov. 30," "New York Times," November 16, 1951.]

President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Johnston a "Special Representative of the President of the United States" to deal with the water conflict between Israel and Arab countries, mainly Jordan and Syria) in 1953. He worked to solve the Middle East's water problems until 1956.

Johnston traveled to the U.S.S.R. and met Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1958. The following year, he hosted the Party Secretary in both Washington, D.C., and California during Khrushchev's famous 18-day visit to the United States in 1959. [Frankel, "U.S., Soviet Agree to Film Exchange," "New York Times," October 10, 1958; Schumach, "Khrushchev Sets Hollywood Agog," "New York Times," September 10, 1959.]


Eric Johnston served as president of the MPAA until his death in 1963. He suffered a stroke in Washington, D.C., on June 17. He was hospitalized at George Washington University Hospital, and suffered a second stroke on July 4. He entered a coma on August 5, and died on August 22. ["Eric Johnston Has Stroke," "Associated Press," July 5, 1963; "Eric Johnston in Coma," "Associated Press," August 5, 1963.] He was succeeded at the MPAA by Jack Valenti in 1966 after a three-year search. [Crowther, "New Czar on the Job," "New York Times," May 1, 1966.]

Cultural references

Johnston is a key character in the play "The Waldorf Conference," written by Nat Segaloff, Daniel M. Kimmel and Arnie Reisman. The play is a fictionalized account of the Waldorf Conference of 1947, and the beginning of the blacklist.



*"Asks Rule on Jobs for Communists." "New York Times." November 20, 1947.
*Bachrach, Fabian. "Eric Johnston Dies." "New York Times." August 23, 1963.
*Canby, Vincent. "A New Movie Code Ends Some Taboos." "New York Times." September 21, 1966.
*"The Censors." "Time." January 11, 1954.
*Crowther, Bosley. "New Czar on the Job." "New York Times." May 1, 1966.
*Dart, Peter. "Breaking the Code: A Historical Footnote." "Cinema Journal." 8:1 (Autumn 1968).
*Doherty, Thomas. "A New Lobbyist to Represent Hollywood… Why They Need One." "Boston Globe." July 8 2004.
*Edgerton, Ralph A. "The Eric Johnston Story." "The Pacific Northwesterner." 33:4 (Fall 1989).
*"Eric Johnston Has Stroke." "Associated Press." July 5, 1963.
*"Eric Johnston in Coma." "Associated Press." August 5, 1963.
*"Film Industry to Ban 'Known Communists.'" "New York Times." November 22, 1947.
*"Film Leaders to Map Communist Policy." "New York Times." November 25, 1947.
*Frankel, Max. "U.S., Soviet Agree to Film Exchange." "New York Times." October 10, 1958.
*"From the Word Factory." "Time." January 31, 1949.
*"Heads Film Export Unit." "Associated Press." October 2, 1945.
*"Johnston Leaving Defense Job Nov. 30." "New York Times." November 16, 1951.
*Lawrence, W.H. "Soviet Is Pictured As Big U.S. Market." "New York Times." June 20, 1944.
*Loftus, Joseph A. "Johnston Is Named Stabilizing Chief." "New York Times." January 20, 1951.
*"Milestones." "Time." August 30, 1963.
*"Movies Pledge Aid in Inquiry on Reds." "New York Times." September 30, 1947.
*"Movies to Oust Ten Cited For Contempt of Congress." "New York Times." November 26, 1947.
*"Old Movie Taboos Eased in New Code For Film Industry." "New York Times." December 12, 1956.
*"'Political' Blacklisting in the Motion Picture Industry: A Sherman Act Violation." "Yale Law Journal." 74:3 (January 1965).
*Reston, James B. "Johnston Extols Soviet Peace Aim." "New York Times." July 14, 1944.
*Schary, Dore. "Heyday: An Autobiography." Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.
*Schumach, Murray. "Khrushchev Sets Hollywood Agog." "New York Times." September 10, 1959.
*"Surprise for Mr. Roosevelt." "Time." June 29, 1942.
*Tower, Samuel A. "Critics of Film Inquiry Assailed, Disney Denounces 'Communists'." "New York Times." October 25, 1947.
*Tower, Samuel A. "Film Men Admit Activity By Reds." "New York Times." October 21, 1947.
*Zeiler, Thomas W. "Free Trade, Free World: The Advent of GATT." Wilmington, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. ISBN 0807824585

External links

* [ "The Waldorf Conference."] A play about the Waldorf Conference led by Eric Johnston in 1947. Accessed June 17, 2007.
* [ Full text of the Waldorf Conference Statement. Hollywood Renegades Archive, Cobblestone Entertainment. No date.] Accessed June 17, 2007.

NAME= Johnston, Eric
ALTERNATIVE NAMES=Johnston, Eric Allen
SHORT DESCRIPTION=president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a motion picture association executive and U.S. government administrator
DATE OF BIRTH=December 21, 1896
PLACE OF BIRTH=Washington, D.C.
DATE OF DEATH=August 22, 1963
PLACE OF DEATH=Washington, D.C.

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