I remember the day I was ready to go over to the Oval Office and give my four stars to the President and tell him, `You have refused to tell the country they cannot fight a war without mobilization; you have required me to send men into battle with little hope of their ultimate victory; and you have forced us in the military to violate almost every one of the principles of war in Vietnam. Therefore, I resign and will hold a press conference after I walk out of your door.' — response to BG Albion Knight, on being asked what he would do if he could live his life over again
Born in North Dakota in 1912, he graduated from West Point in the Class of 1933. Some of his West Point experience would affect his interactions as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Johnson had been assistant manager of the football team, with the manager, John McConnell, one year senior to him. McConnell, whom Johnson disliked because he would take the credit for work Johnson had done, became Air Force Chief of Staff during the Vietnam War. Another member of McConnell's Class of 1932 was Earle Wheeler, who became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and frequently mediated between Johnson and McConnell.
He was commissioned a second lieutenant of Infantry, and became a lieutenant colonel in the Philippines, captured at the fall of Bataan and survived the Bataan Death March. After imprisonment in the Philippines, Japan and Korea, he was liberated in 1945.
Post WWII Assignments
After attending Command and General Staff College and teaching there, he commanded battalions in the Korean War, then moved into corps and Army Department staff planning roles.
Graduating from the National War College, in 1953, he again moved into Army staff planning, assistant division command, and chief of staff of the Seventh Army. In 1960-1963, he commanded Fort Leavenworth and the Army Command and General Staff College, which provided him much opportunity to reflect and research the changing nature of war.
As Army Chief of Staff, he dealt with Vietnam, the Dominican Republic operations, and the shift of NATO headquarters out of France.
Attempts to influence the direction of Vietnam
GEN Johnson, early in major Vietnam conflict, disagreed with GEN William Westmoreland's priority of attrition against the enemy, which assumed defeating the Communist forces in the field would solve the problem. He was concerned over the civilian casualties, saying "We have not enough information. We act with ruthlessness, like a steamroller."
Returning from a 1965 inspection tour of Vietnam, he created the Program for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of Vietnam (PROVN), to examine the fundamental dynamics of the Vietnamese situations and what it would take to win a war he recognized as political and social as well as military. Reflecting at Leavenworth, Johnson wrote, "I maintain that control is the object beyond the battle and object beyond the war," he wrote in late 1964. "Destruction is applied only to the extent necessary to achieve control and, thus, by its nature, must be discriminating." Some of the combat techniques applied in Vietnam were extremely destructive, but also could be effective, such B-52 strikes at areas reasonably believed to hold enemy targets. Destruction of villages and relocation of the inhabitants, when those inhabitants are from a culture tied to ancestral lands, is destructive in a different way, one that will not encourage those villagers to support the government that relocated them.
The PROVN team was directed to deal with specific problems and recommendations. "I do not want this to take a dialectical form...If a problem is complex, I want it broken down to proportions which are manageable. I would like a practical time schedule, even if it takes fifty years." The 10 PROVN officers came from a deliberately interdisciplinary background: history, military operations, economics, cultural anthropology, psychological operations, intelligence, and economic development.
PROVN's report of 1 March 1966 looked back to the experience of the American Civil War:
Modern wars are not internecine wars in which the killing of the enemy is the object. The destruction of the enemy in modern war, and, indeed modern war itself, are means to obtain that object of the belligerent which lies beyond the war. — War Department, General Order No. 100, 24 April 1863
In his private conversations, as well in discussions much later with H.R. McMaster, Johnson regretted not having resigned, or taken some other drastic action to thwart what he seemed, above all, to regard as Westmoreland's unwise attritional strategy. 
- Sorley, Lewis (Spring 1998), "To Change a War: General Harold K. Johnson and the PROVN Study", Parameters: 93-109
- McMaster, H. R. (1997), Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, Harpercollins, p. 224-225
- Karnow, Stanley (1983), Vietnam, a History, Viking Press, p. 437
- McMaster, pp. 317-318