We’ve talked on the phone several times, but when I had an almost-free day last week I thought it was time to talk with Chalmers Johnson face to face. His 2000 book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Henry Holt Metropolitan, now in an Owl books paperback, $15.00, 266 pp.) was selling well before September 11 and has sold steadily since. But while he has made a few media appearances since then and done a fair amount of lecturing on college campuses and elsewhere, he has also been criticized including by some Antiwar.com readers who took exception to the interview I did with him just after the World Trade Center-Pentagon attack.
The burden of most of the criticism is that he comes across as an apologist for the terrorists and such an aggressive critic of U.S. foreign policy as to almost lapse over into the "we deserved it" or "we brought it on ourselves" category. I don’t think that’s a fair criticism. Mr. Johnson published his book more than a year before September 11, and in it he predicted unspecified but unpleasant consequences for the United States because of the enmity and dislike (justified or not) engendered by our continuing intense involvement in the affairs of other nations overseas. Predicting that actions will have consequences is hardly the same as making a moral judgment about whether they should have consequences or whether consequences are justified.
DOING POLITICAL SCIENCE
The slender, mild-mannered 71-year-old who greeted me at the door of his house in Cardiff, a coastal town north of San Diego, hardly looked as if he should stir controversy. He sort of retired from the political science faculty at the University of California, San Diego, where he had arrived in 1988 to head the Asian Studies department, after a lifetime at UC Berkeley.
He started there as a student in 1949 and after serving in the Navy and getting an MA and a PhD went on to head the Chinese Studies and political science departments. He has written books on the emergence of communist power in China, several on MITI and the Japanese "economic miracle," a widely used text called "Revolutionary Change," and on other aspects of modern Asian politics and history, earning a fairly widespread reputation as a thoughtful and innovative scholar of Asian affairs.
(Having been a political science major myself I’m not often impressed by people with political science degrees or credentials. They vary enormously in quality and intelligence. All too many share the common social-science jealousy of the "hard" sciences, which leads them to want to find aspects of their studies that are quantifiable in numbers, often enough buying the illusion of scientific respectability at the expense of any semblance of real understanding of the complexities of what should be but hardly ever is a nuanced master discipline of human behavior.)
FROM SPOOK TO SKEPTIC?
Chalmers Johnson makes no secret of the fact that he served as a consultant to the CIA between 1967 and 1973, and that during those heady times on campus he was a fierce opponent of campus anti-war demonstrators, whom he viewed as "self-indulgent as well as sanctimonious and who had so clearly not done their homework." He says now that he was a "spear carrier for the empire," but an informed one. In his book (I haven’t read it all and will report more thoroughly when I have), he tells this story:
"One day at the height of the protests, I went to the university library to check out what was then available to students on Vietnamese communism, the history of communism in East Asia, and the international Communist movement. I was surprised to find that all the major books were there on the shelves, untouched. The conclusion seemed obvious to me then: these students knew nothing about communism and had no interest in remedying that lack. They were defining the Vietnamese Communists largely out of their own romantic desires to oppose Washington’s policies. As it turned out, however, they understood far better than I did the impulses of a Robert McNamara, a McGeorge Bundy, or a Walt Rostow. They grasped something essential about the nature of America’s imperial role in the world that I had failed to perceive."
Johnson had the not-uncommon experience of a reasonably informed scholar, noting that perceptions and policies were often at odds with what those with a great deal of knowledge believed to be happening take the American opening to China at about the time China was at its most despotic phase often through his career. But he really began rethinking his worldview and perception of the American role in the world after the fall of the Soviet Union.
As he told the UC magazine California Monthly in a September 2000 interview (he said much the same to me but I wasn’t taking notes): "It’s that with the end of the Cold War the disappearance of the Soviet Union the United States did not dismantle its Cold War apparatus, particularly in East Asia. If anything, it tended to shore it up. And the fact that we continue to maintain this Cold War apparatus particularly in East Asia, which is the main area of my research has caused me to look back on the Cold War in a new light, to study it with a different perspective. And this has led me to a much more critical stance toward American foreign policy."
THREE COLD WARS
Viewing recent history of which he had been a student and in some ways a participant led him to believe "There was not just one Cold War. There were at least three. The one in Europe was concerned with democracy versus totalitarianism, and we were on the right side there. That one’s over."
In Asia, however, Johnson believed that in the context of what was perceieved as a worldwide anti-communist mission, the U.S. short-changed the effort to democratize Japan and other east Asian countries and sought to turn them into satellites instead in a similar fashion to the way the Soviet Union turned most of Eastern Europe into satellites. That placed us on the wrong side of history in a part of the world where the chief issue was shaking off dependence on foreign imperialist powers. In East Asia we defended or became the imperialist powers and fought and lost two wars Korea and Vietnam.
"Then a third Cold War is the one that went on in an area of our traditional imperialist influence, Latin America." Johnson told California Monthly. "Using the excuse of an anti-American revolt in Cuba against Batista, we engaged in all sorts of activities, leading to genocide, as it’s now been identified, in the 1980s, in Guatemala and Nicaragua. This imperialism is still going on at the present time, as we see with the huge new expenditures of funds to buy weapons to carry on an allegedly anti-drug war in Colombia. It’s considerably more than just an anti-drug war."
Johnson describes "blowback," an old CIA term about the unintended consequences of operations. "This refers to the unintended consequences of American policies abroad, including policies that are kept secret from the American public. In the world today any number of Americans can wander into an imperial scenario they know nothing about, but which could have truly lethal consequences for them."
Given his interest in East Asia, it is hardly surprising that Chalmers Johnson has been a leading researcher into the situation on Okinawa, site of the last and the bloodiest battle of World War II. It has 1.3 million people and 39 American military bases, none of which has a thing to do with geopolitical strategy.
Johnson thinks U.S. bases are kept in Okinawa because they’ve been there a long time, they’ve become an American habit and as with service in East Germany for the old Soviet military American military personnel can live better there than in many domestic military bases. But there have been numerous incidents of rape and/or assault by U.S. servicemen and most Okinawans are extremely resentful of the U.S. presence (although a probably unhealthy percentage of the Okinawan economy has become fairly dependent on it).
Johnson writes about U.S. military presence in several countries in Europe, including Italy, "a nation that has no known enemies," where a U.S. military jet accident killed 20 innocent skiers. "What I’ve tried to do in my book is to put together some of these incidents. They add up to a pattern, a pattern that I think the correct analytical word for is imperialism."
A DELIGHTFUL AFTERNOON
Along with his charming wife Sheila, also a PhDed academic, Chalmers Johnson and I talked of many things, including the history of the Orange County Register and the history and ideological genealogy of Antiwar.com, which he consults regularly. We hardly agreed on everything he has more confidence in the possibilities of foreign aid, international institutions and planning than I think is warranted but we found plenty of common ground. He has thought deeply about a wide range of issues and I look forward to our next encounter.
Chalmers Johnson says he is writing a new book on the militarization of the United States and other topics. I hope he finishes it quickly and that it has a wide readership. In the meantime, I recommend "Blowback" highly as a penetrating perspective on recent American history. Far from being an anti-American screed or a work that seems to revel in the possibility that America will "get what’s coming to it," the book seems to me a warning about consequences from an earnest, troubled, disappointed but ultimately hopeful patriot.