For a former Air Force pilot his friends affectionately call "the Red Baron," Stephen C. Johnson, the new deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs, the journey that took him to his current post, responsible for shaping and implementing U.S. military and security policy in the region, was more of a zigzag pattern than a straight line.
Following in his father's footsteps, Johnson received his pilot's license while still in high school and later served as a pilot and air attache in the U.S. Air Force. Here he is at the controls of a KC-135 Stratotanker, the Air Force's venerable flying gas station.
And, to hear Johnson tell it, he enjoyed every stop along the way.
"I've liked every job that I ever had," he said in a recent interview in his office along the D-Ring of the Pentagon, flashing the self-effacing wit that colleagues say keeps them laughing. "Maybe I should have been more discriminating. I would have been more successful, if I had been able to focus, but I found things to enjoy in just about everything I did."
And, according to his long-time friends and former employers, he did them pretty well.
Johnson came to the Pentagon after serving for nearly eight years as foreign policy analyst for Latin America at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, where he gained a reputation for his prolific production of policy studies ranging from trade and energy to political liberties and security; the organizing of international conferences, and myriad public speaking engagements. His opinion page commentaries appeared in a wide range of media, and Johnson was also a featured guest on CNN, MSNBC, National Public Radio, Univision, Telemundo, the BBC and Voice of America.
"Steve put Heritage on the map as a place to look to and a place to meet," recalled Helle Dale, director of the think tank's Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies. "He was an important voice on the democracy deficit that was developing in the region." Dale credits Johnson's success to his low-key, high-energy approach, an enviable Rolodex peopled by those who count from the region and in Washington, and a "varied and comprehensive background" in Latin America and in the U.S. government.
"Steve is one of the most decent guys I ever met, personally and professionally," avers former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Crescencio Arcos, whose friendship with Johnson goes back more than a quarter century. "He has a tremendous amount of integrity."
The new deputy assistant secretary, adds retired Col. Jay Cope, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University, "cares deeply about common people" and is unafraid to ask the hard questions about our relations with the region and to make those views known on Capitol Hill.
From There to Here, and Enjoying it All the Way Commissioned in the U.S. Air Force, Johnson completed his undergraduate pilot training at Vance AFB, Oklahoma. He has served as the director of the Central American Working Group at the State Department; as chief of the Bureau of Public Affairs' editorial division, as a strategic planner at the Office of Public Affairs for the Secretary of the Air Force, and as a public affairs officer for the U.S. Southern Command. In 1990 Johnson received a master's degree from Georgetown University in international relations. In 1995 he was made co-director of public affairs for the multi-nation joint peacekeeping exercise, Fuerzas Unidas, in Buenos Aires.
Earlier, in the tumultuous 1980s, Johnson had been the assistant air attaché assigned to Tegucigalpa and accredited to Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. From his work in Central America, Johnson said, he took away a keen awareness of the challenges new and emerging democracies faced in taking hold in a region not always forgiving to those who sought peaceful change.
"I watched the transition in Central America during the 1980s, when those countries moved away from military dictatorship toward civilian elected rule. I felt that elections were just the beginning of an evolution that would take time," Johnson recalled. "After all, our own democracy has roots that go back to the Magna Carta. The Sandinistas made a big deal of calling their regime "democratic," when it clearly wasn't. Other countries were using elections as a veneer to hide old authoritarian habits.
"I began to look at other countries in Latin America through the same lens. And, I thought it was important that they pursue follow-on reforms because democracies tend to make better neighbors as opposed to states where decisions are funneled through powerful presidents with peculiar personalities."
His experience at Heritage, Johnson noted, was key to his personal professional formation, rounding out a resume that already was long on public service: "I'd have to say that being at a think tank gave me practical knowledge that I could not have obtained just studying countries out of a book. ... At Heritage, I met with national leaders and talked with them about policy decisions. I saw firsthand the effect that civil society and non-governmental groups could have on politics."
In his current job, Johnson expresses optimism about the course of U.S. defense and security policy in the region. "I think we're headed in the right direction," he said. "It's been a long slog to get over the Cold War and to deal with the horror of September 11, 2001. We've had to learn how to support our civilian authorities in their job of protecting the United States. And then we've had to come to grips with allies used to us operating in a tutorial manner, particularly those outside of NATO and not recently involved in coalition operations in the Middle East. That has led us to better understand the need for promoting partnership capacity."
"It doesn't mean engaging in teaching relationships like we had in the past-and I don't meant to downplay those, they were very important when many countries in the hemisphere had provincial militaries or militias that were loyal to political figures," Johnson explained. "But since the 1970s, transformations have occurred in political structure, governments and armed forces have become more professional, societies are more modern and outwardly focused. We are now at the point that we really do have neighbors that we can partner with."
Johnson also takes issue with those who bemoan current political trends in the region. "Even though there are countries that are hostile to us-namely Venezuela and Cuba--the rest of the hemisphere is friendly," he said. "Not only do we have allies, we now have more capable allies, and ones that are showing some initiative, such as Central American states that cooperate on disaster relief, or Chile and Argentina that are establishing a bi-national standby peacekeeping force.
"Who would have figured that Colombia would be training counter-narcotics police in Afghanistan? Who would have predicted that El Salvador would be contributing to the coalition forces in Iraq? Who would have pictured Mexico sending troops across the Rio Grande for Hurricane Katrina relief? Who would have guessed that Chile and Peru would cooperate on sub-regional defense matters?"
The Back Story
Johnson was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1950, the youngest of three children. His father Ralph, a graduate of Purdue University and an aeronautical engineer, received his pilot's license from the Army Air Corps in the early 1930s, and went on to work for United Airlines as a captain and its chief test pilot.
During World War II, Ralph Johnson was one of the engineers who tested a large number B-17s before they went to the battlefront, and flew the Pacific as a Civil Reserve air fleet pilot. Johnson's mother Ruth worked as a social worker before meeting his father, and after the war they settled permanently in Cheyenne, where Ralph established an aircraft business.
Asked who were his boyhood heroes, Johnson says without hesitation, "My dad--then and now." He added: "Both my parents taught me was tolerance for other people and their ideas; the importance of listening. Both traveled extensively and they made it a point to take us children on frequent trips around the country, and sometimes abroad."
One Christmas when he was in college, Johnson's parents took him and a fraternity brother to Mexico, where they spent their vacation visiting the anthropological museum and climbing pyramids. (Today, his father is almost 101 years old, his mother nearly 95, and, hale and hearty, they celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary last April.) Johnson says that, over time, the pantheon of his personal heroes has also expanded, "because, in large measure, any success you achieve during life is largely due to the advice and examples of people who surround you." Mentors, too, were important to Johnson, "lots of people; folks who probably don't even know that they were mentors, but their advice still affects my thinking."
An early one was a neighbor who noticed that eight-year-old Stephen liked to write. "I had a neighborhood newspaper that came out every two weeks that I kept going for about four years, from the time I was eight until I was 12," he remembered. "She talked me into it, and helped me buy my first duplicating machine." The paper's highest subscription level was about 200, Johnson said.
Growing up in Cheyenne, Johnson played tennis and skied, was a rock hound ("agates, fossils--Wyoming is full of them."), painted in oils, created caricatures in pen and ink and dabbled with a French horn. "Some people might call that attention deficit disorder," Johnson joked at his own expense. "I couldn't do one thing well. I had to be interested in a lot of different things. Worse, I liked easy subjects better than hard ones." In high school, he got his pilot's license. "Dad was a pilot and that was important to me."
Foreign language instruction at a relatively early age was also important to his development, Johnson said. " I was privileged to be in a public school system that had very strong language instruction and enthusiastic teachers. There was an expectation that if you were taking either French or Spanish, you would go to countries where those languages were spoken--visit with fascinating people, see awesome sights, and use the language in the double past pluperfect subjunctive. I did everything but the latter."
When he was still in high school, Johnson got a job at the local television station, the CBS affiliate KFBC-TV, where he made graphics for television commercials and eventually, while in college, spent summers as a disk jockey at the affiliated radio station. During the evenings, he hosted a nightly radio show and, occasionally, was asked to present the weather on TV. "That the owners of the station would take a chance on a youngster speaks awfully highly of them," Johnson received a scholarship from them to the University of Wyoming, where he was studying mass communications.
"But it was sink or swim during those summers," Johnson added, recalling that he was sometimes called to fill in for regular announcers and broadcast personalities. "I can remember doing commentary for the Frontier Days rodeo on the radio, sitting in at the last minute for someone else. Coming up with salient quips tied my stomach in knots. There's an audience listening and you can say 'look at that horse buck' only once."
Later, a gift for the felicitous phrase earned Johnson a wife. He was working for the State Department in Panama in May of 1989, part of a delegation sent to observe strongman Manuel Noriega steal another election. Since his main focus was public affairs, he was assigned to work with the embassy information officer, Cynthia Farrell, formerly of Brooklyn, New York. Working out of Farrell's cramped office, Johnson admired some of her own paintings hanging on the wall.
"I thought, geez, what a terrific person; whoever her husband is must be a really lucky guy." The normally discreet Johnson happened to give voice to such musings to U.S. Ambassador Arthur Davis's secretary, who told him Farrell was not married. "So, I said something flip, like 'What a waste,' and of course that got right back to her." Several months later, back in Washington, Farrell and Johnson--who now have two teenage sons, Matthew and Nathanial--were engaged.
And the rest is, you know, history.