Memorial Resolution: John J. Johnson

John J. Johnson


John J. Johnson, eminent professor of Latin American history at Stanford for over three decades, died on May 28, 2004 in Gunnison, Colorado. He was 92 years of age.

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. These included: The Role of the Military in Underdeveloped Countries (Princeton Univ. Press, 1962), The Military and Society in Latin America (Stanford Univ. Press, 1964), Continuity and Change in Latin America (Stanford Univ. Press, 1964), Simon Bolivar and Spanish American Independence, 1783-1830 (D. Van Nostrand, 1968), Latin America in Caricature (Univ. of Texas Press, 1980), A Hemisphere Apart: The Foundations of United States Policy toward Latin America (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1990). He specialized on the histories of Chile, Ecuador, and Venezuela. At the time of his death he was working on a study of the representation of the United States in the political cultures of other countries from 1860-1992. He served as the editor of the Hispanic American Historical Review, as the chair of the Conference on Latin American History, of the American Historical Association, and as the President of the Latin American Studies Association. He was the first recipient of its Kalman Silvert award for lifetime achievement. After he retired from Stanford, Johnny spent five years at the University of New Mexico and a year at the National Humanities Center as a fellow.

In a long published interview in 1986, Johnny reflected on his career. He said that he sometimes though of himself "as the last of the generalists." "I have researched and written," he said, "on the colonial period, the independence era, and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I have written on a half dozen of the republics and on such diverse topics as horses, electric telegraphs, political behavior, the military, political cartooning, and hemispheric relations. I have, naturally, sacrificed something in terms of depth, but learning about new fields and how to approach them intellectually has been vastly satisfying for me."

At Stanford, he was the director of the Latin American Studies Center, received the Dean's distinguished teaching award, and was proud of the over thirty doctoral students he helped mentor here. Johnny once declared that his greatest satisfaction as a historian came from working with his graduate students at Stanford. It should also be said that Johnny, when he was a senior member of the department, also took great interest in helping junior members, understand the University and navigate their way forward.

Johnny was a devoted member of the Stanford community and lived on campus for many of his years on the faculty. Johnny had married Maurine Amstutz in 1942 and the two were devoted to one another. They enjoyed travel and their lovely homes in Mendocino and on the Stanford campus, where they regularly entertained. Johnny was known for his love of lively conversation, for his sharp wit, and for exuberant opinions on everything from Stanford sports to national politics. Maurine died in 1996. They are survived by their son, Michael, daughter-in-law Nan, grandchildren, and a great granddaughter.


Gordon H. Chang, Chair

Albert Camarillo