Chalmers Johnson vs. the Empire
Chalmers Johnson was a stalwart of TomDispatch. He first wrote for this website on Jan. 8, 2003 (“Iraqi Wars”), barely more than a month after it was launched. The last piece he wrote in his life (“Portrait of a Sagging Empire”) was for TomDispatch as well. In the years between, he penned 28 other TD pieces on a remarkably wide range of subjects, including how the American war in Iraq was harming the human patrimony (“Smash of Civilizations”), abolishing the CIA, the dangers of our empire of bases (a subject he all but copyrighted), the bloated Pentagon budget, our fading military empire, and how militarism was driving us toward bankruptcy, among a host of subjects. For good measure, he sat down for a two-part TomDispatch interview with me that was Chalmers all the way. (“Our encounter,” as I wrote at the time, “is an interview in name only. No one has ever needed an interviewer less. I do begin with a question that had been on my mind, but it’s hardly necessary.”)
I’ve written about how we first met on the page (as I was his book editor, starting with his now-classic volume Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire) and about his death on Nov. 20, 2010. I still miss him. In our present world, overflowing with explosive, unexpected moments, I regularly wonder just what “Chal” would have made of events in Egypt, Libya, Japan, or Washington. His remarkable, restless, penetrating intelligence is missed. He was a giant.
That said, I’m pleased to offer a special kind of goodbye to him today, a memory piece on his work by Sheila Johnson, his wife, his partner in so many endeavors, and an impressive figure in her own right. It seems like a fitting way to say goodbye, remember the breadth and stature of the man, and take in the scope of his life.
In the introduction to his final book, Dismantling the Empire, America’s Last Best Hope (just out in paperback), he took up a recurring topic of interest to him: “the choice between republic and empire,” and the way “our imperial dreams stretch our means to the breaking point and threaten our future.” Among “the alternatives available to us as a nation,” he wrote, “we are choosing what I call the suicide option.” He added that “it might not have to be this way, that we could still move in a different direction.” Those were, in a sense, his last words. How true they remain three and a half months after his death. Tom
The Blowback World of Chalmers Johnson
Remembering the man and his work
by Sheila K. Johnson
In going through my husband’s files, books, and papers after his death, I’ve been forcibly struck by two things. First, contrary to what many of his obituaries said, his writings and thoughts were remarkably consistent throughout his life. In other words, he was not a right-winger who became more liberal and outspoken as he got older. More than most people suspected, he was a radical all along, whose intellectual impulses were tempered only by his birth in the Depression year of 1931 and his determination to make a decent living without “joining the establishment.” Second—and it was an unavoidable recollection—he worked with manic energy and maniacally hard all his life.
When we met in the fall of 1956, I was a 19-year-old junior at the University of California, Berkeley, “shacked up” with a boyfriend. Chal, by contrast, was six years older and had just returned from two years with the Navy in Korea, where the ship on which he was the communications officer, LST 883, had been tasked with ferrying Chinese prisoners of war from South Korea back to North Korean ports. He was living at home with his parents in Alameda to save money, and had only recently finished his master’s thesis on “thought reform” in Communist China in the period just before and after Mao Zedong took over in 1949.
When his LST was docked in Yokosuka, he started to study Japanese. As an undergraduate at Berkeley he’d majored in economics, but he was now a graduate student in political science and a teaching assistant for Robert Scalapino, whose course on “America’s Role in the Far East” I took. I had invited Chal to a Christmas party at my apartment (and even fixed him up with a date). In return, in January 1957 he decided to deliver my final grade in Scalapino’s course in person. I wasn’t home, but my boyfriend was and informed Chal that I was leaving him. (Even in those early days of “free love,” I’d concluded that for women the price was too high.)
Several weeks later, I bumped into Chal on campus and he said, “I hear you’re a free woman. Can I invite you to do something interesting one of these days?” And so our brief but intensive courtship began. We were married in May 1957 in Reno, Nev., having left the car in a 15-minute parking zone. We returned to Berkeley the next day because we both had final exams to take.
Peasant Uprisings and Japanese Spies
Robert Scalapino was then best known as a Japan scholar. (He only later became influential in the China field.) On a trip to Japan, he had microfilmed the archives of a World-War-II-era bureaucrat, Hatano Ken’ichi, who had taken home his papers for safekeeping in advance of the American firebombing of Tokyo and simply kept them. Scalapino asked Chal to index this microfilmed collection, offering him the opportunity to use it for his Ph.D. dissertation.
Thus was born Chal’s first book, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945. Hatano’s archives included reports from the Japanese army trying to conquer and pacify northern China. These focused on the stiff resistance being encountered among the peasants in that region then being organized by communist leader Mao Zedong. It seemed to Chal that these peasants weren’t simply being seduced by Communism. They were joining Mao’s movement for nationalistic reasons, thanks to the terrible “burn all, loot all, kill all” operations launched by the Japanese army, and so, in a sense, the Japanese military was propelling Mao toward future victory in a post-World-War-II civil war in China.
Published by Stanford University Press in 1962, Peasant Nationalism is still in print almost 50 years later. It certainly had its detractors, chief among them the Communist Chinese, who preferred to think of themselves as Marxist-Leninists rather than nationalists, and the defeated Kuomintang government, exiled to the island of Taiwan in 1949, which could never stomach the idea that it had deservedly lost the support of the Chinese population during World War II. For many years after the book’s publication, Chal could not get a visa to either Beijing or Taiwan.
This didn’t bother us much then because Chal was, after all, a budding Japan specialist. In 1961, a Ford Foundation grant sent us to Japan, where we lived in a small Japanese-style house in Tokyo. There, he wrote his first “scholarly” article, published by World Politics, a distinguished academic journal, in which he sought to apply the wartime Chinese experience to other revolutionary situations. In “Civilian Loyalties and Guerrilla Conflict,” he presciently argued:
“To approach the subject of guerrilla warfare as a purely military doctrine is to court disaster. … General political and economic considerations must be taken into account, such as the abilities of local elites, the nature of a country’s economy, its class structure, and a host of other variables that can only be altered by long-term reforms. By the time guerrilla warfare has actually broken out, the conflict may already be lost to the defenders and require a negotiated or stalemate solution.”
In Tokyo, Chal haunted the used bookstores of Jinbocho, and it was here that a very interesting bookseller he had met handed him a 1930s volume by Ozaki Hotsumi, a journalist who had worked in prewar Shanghai for the major Japanese newspaper Asahi. On reading the book, Chal was struck that a Japanese of that era could have written quite so frankly and insightfully about his country’s disastrous policies in China. Only later did he learn more about the author, a well-regarded journalist and adviser to the Japanese government, who, as it turned out, also became a spy for the Russians.
After Adolf Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Ozaki and Richard Sorge, the head of the spy ring, were credited with assuring the Russians that the Japanese army would strike south into Southeast Asia rather than at Russia, permitting Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to move troops from Siberia to defend Moscow against the German onslaught and so save the city. Ozaki and Sorge were both arrested in Japan in 1941 and executed in November 1944.
I believe the conundrum faced by Ozaki—his dismay over his country’s war in China and his personal decision to aid the enemy— deeply influenced Chal and affected many of his own political beliefs. As we made our way back to the U.S. in the summer of 1962 via a slow boat to Europe, Chal told me the story of Ozaki’s life, and said, “I think I’ll write an article about him.” I suggested that it sounded more like a book.
An Instance of Treason: Ozaki Hotsumi and the Sorge Spy Ring came out in 1962 and, though now out of print, remains a remarkably empathetic portrait of a traitor and a spy. Meanwhile, Chal had been hired by Scalapino to teach Chinese politics at Berkeley. Because even then it was not considered intellectually “cool” to be typecast as an “area specialist,” Chal decided to offer a graduate seminar on revolutions and guerrilla warfare. This would lead to his next book, Revolutionary Change, published in 1966, an important theoretical work, but also, in hindsight, a bit nutty.
Early in our marriage Chal and I had discussed whether it was possible to construct what we called a “Fascistograph.” The idea was to come up with a checklist of things going wrong in a country that might herald the imminent arrival of fascism—so that one could get out in time. (This was, in part, triggered by conversations with some of our own professors, including Hannah Arendt, about how and when they made the decision to leave Hitler’s Germany and go into exile prior to World War II.) For Revolutionary Change, Chal tried to develop various “measures” of social disequilibrium that might indeed signal the onset of a revolution. These included rises in suicides and violent crimes, in the numbers of police and military forces, and in the circulation of certain kinds of ideological magazines.
When the book finally went out of print in 1982, Stanford University Press offered to bring out a second edition, but we all agreed that the chapter on measuring “disequilibrium” had to go. Chal replaced it with two new ones—on terrorism as a revolutionary strategy and on theories of revolution. On March 2, 1986, the Los Angeles Times reported that Gen. Juan Ponce Enrile, in abandoning Filipino autocrat Ferdinand Marcos and joining Cory Aquino’s revolution, threw three books into his knapsack: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a volume on the idea of law, and Chalmers Johnson’s Revolutionary Change. Reading that, we could only laugh and hope that the volume he grabbed was the second, revised edition (still in print in 2011).
The decade from 1965 to 1975 could be called our China years, although it was also the crucial decade for America’s war in Vietnam and for student protests on college campuses, not least among them Berkeley. In 1965, we moved to the then-British colony of Hong Kong to spend nine months as “China Watchers.” That was communist China we were eying, of course, a place we Americans still couldn’t visit.
Mao’s Cultural Revolution was just beginning. As Chal became increasingly convinced of the harm it was inflicting on China’s people and economy, many of his students back in California were turning into sincere Maoist camp followers, even as they were also protesting the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In these years, Chal became a temporary convert to “the domino theory”—the idea that “losing” one more country to communism could set off a kind of global chain reaction.
And yet, in 1973, he published a little book, Autopsy on People’s War, in which he argued that Maoist theories of “people’s war” would not lead to a general Asian conflagration. “It is useful to be reminded,” he wrote, “that revolutions in the modern sense are also, in fact, civil wars. If other nations want to make a successful adjustment to them, they cannot ignore the fact that a domestic fight is going on between people who are agitated by issues other than the general course of human history. For this reason direct intervention in one is generally the worst thing that a prudent nation can do—not because the revolution is unimportant either ideologically or to the world balance of power but because foreign intervention, if it fails, is bound to antagonize in the most direct manner the victorious revolutionary state.”
It was an uncomfortable time to be the chairman of Berkeley’s Center for Chinese Studies and a consultant for the CIA’s Board of National Estimates. Chal had accepted CIA Director Richard Helms’s invitation to become a consultant because he believed the Agency was then producing some of the most accurate reporting on China (and also, as would later be revealed, on Vietnam). At the same time, Chal also managed to write and publish another book about Japan, Conspiracy at Matsukawa—a complicated tale set during the post-World War II American occupation of that country that revealed a great deal about Japanese police methods and American interference in the country’s politics.
The summer it came out, Chal spent a month by himself in Japan, decompressing from five turbulent years in Berkeley. During this time he wrote me a series of charming letters about his sudden realization that he was tired of following the ups and downs of Maoist China at a distance and wanted to return to doing concrete research about Japan. An old Japanese friend suggested that he should take up the study of an important branch of Japan’s bureaucracy, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, or MITI, a subject that would come to preoccupy him for a decade.
In 1974, he was the first person to explain in English the Japanese system of amakudari, whereby retired bureaucrats were hired by big businesses to smooth their future relations with the government that regulated them—not unlike the revolving door in Washington that regularly spins retiring politicians and retired military officers into the arms of large American firms eager to lobby the government.
In 1975, he published an important article, “Japan: Who Governs? An Essay on Official Bureaucracy,” but with a sabbatical from teaching looming, he also wondered whether he needed to write yet another book. Hadn’t he already written enough about MITI? “Well,” I said, “you have all of this historical material. It would be a pity just to throw it away.”
And so, in the fall of 1980, Chal began work on MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975. He started, as he always did, by first reading through all his files and indexing whatever he wanted to use. Knowing the story he wanted to tell, he then wrote with intensity and speed, producing two chapters a month. He was working this fast, he told me, because the material was so complex that he could hold it in his head only a short time. With eight chapters in hand, he was exhausted. When he told me, “I was going to write a concluding chapter, but I’ve said it all, haven’t I?” I agreed.
We sent off the manuscript to Jess Bell, a friend and the publisher of Chal’s other books at Stanford University Press. He wrote back that he would, of course, publish the book, but it did need a concluding chapter, a “take-home” message. We laughed, because we realized he was right.
Chal was then well aware that one of the unusual and controversial aspects of his description of MITI and its World War II-era predecessor, the Ministry of Munitions, was the continuity between them in both practices and personnel. Unlike most books about modern Japan that drew a sharp dividing line at the Japanese defeat in 1945, Chal’s did not. He knew that his implicit message, if made explicit, might just as well have been labeled the jocular title adman Jerry Della Femina once proposed for a Panasonic ad: From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor. Still, he wrote a concluding chapter in record time, and when the book was published in early 1982, both he and Jess were amused that reviewers singled it out for special praise.
In the fall of 1982, our home phone rang and it was Henry Rosovsky, then dean of the Harvard faculty as well as a friend who had taught at Berkeley and been a member of Chal’s Ph.D. orals committee. I knew at once what this call was about: like a summons from the Vatican, Harvard had at last decided to offer Chal a job.
Of course, we would go for a “look-over” and give it serious thought. We knew a number of people at Harvard, even if we worried about the winter climate because of Chal’s rheumatoid arthritis. As it turned out, we liked Boston and Cambridge a great deal, but Harvard struck us both as too patrician and too full of itself. Chal asked one of his Harvard friends what he would be asked to teach, and the reply was: “Oh, Chalmers, at the level you’re being hired, you don’t have to teach anything you don’t want to. The only thing you must never refuse is a request to speak to the Harvard alumni.”
As we flew back to California, Chal commented glumly, “They want me as a moose-head professor—to hang my head on the wall and say they’ve bagged me.” We chose to stay at Berkeley for another six years.
Back to Economics
Even before the MITI book was published, the Japanese had expressed an interest in translating it, and the first reactions there were great pride in Chal’s description of their postwar economic growth and how it had been achieved. But as Japan’s trade deficits with the U.S. grew along with calls for U.S. tariffs on Japanese automobiles and other products, Chal came to be characterized as a “Japan-basher.”
It’s true that writing MITI and the Japanese Miracle had reawakened his interest in economic theory, and he did, in the end, come to agree with critics who accused Japan of not providing a level playing field. He was, however, also interested in seeing the U.S. adopt some of Japan’s state-guided development methods or “industrial policy.” This was anathema to most American economists and politicians, and so Chal came under attack from Americans as well. When Japan’s economy became stagnant, while China’s (also heavily state-guided) economy began to grow rapidly, MITI’s methods were simply dismissed in the United States.
In the winter of 1985, Chal had his first major “episode” of rheumatoid arthritis, a disease he had been diagnosed with in his early twenties. In fact, a Navy doctor even suggested he could use it to avoid serving in the military, a suggestion that Chal declined. For the next 30 years, he survived on large doses of aspirin or stronger painkillers. Then, in the space of a few hours, he suddenly was running a high fever, while his body, painful even to the touch of a sheet, became as rigid as an I-beam. A week in the hospital on heavy doses of cortisone sent him back to the university with a cane and the need to lecture sitting down. Like a midlife heart attack, that incident acted as a wake-up call, and we began to think about moving to a warmer, drier climate.
In 1987, the San Diego campus of the University of California was creating a new School of International Relations and Pacific Studies that would offer an MA combining business courses with Asian area studies and languages. It seemed like an interesting experiment and a good fit for Chal’s interests and abilities. When he began working there in 1988, Chal was 57 years old and we assumed that he would teach for at least eight more years. Then as now, however, the state of California was experiencing big budget deficits and the university was anxious to retire highly paid senior professors and replace them with cheaper, often temporary, staff.
So in 1992, Chal took early retirement. His departure was acrimonious because by then it was clear that much of the faculty at his school was determined to study Asia through the lens of “rational choice theory.” Much like other theories that sweep through academic disciplines—structural-functionalism, behaviorism, Marxism—rational choice theory provided a template (with its own specialized, jargonistic vocabulary) to explain how nations function, whereas Chal’s approach was always to proceed inductively, beginning with the data on the ground.
He wrote several stinging, acerbic articles about trends in academic political science, and then—quite by accident—he was offered a chance to form a small “think-tank” in which to showcase what he considered good research on Asian societies. It was called the Japan Policy Research Institute (JPRI), and for almost 12 years it would publish monthly papers on north and southeast Asia, hold conferences open to the public, promote books, and focus attention on much neglected policy issues, including the heavily U.S.-garrisoned Japanese island of Okinawa, which Chal came to call “the American Raj.”
The Blowback Era
In 1991, the Soviet Union simply disappeared and the Cold War was officially over, but as Chal quickly noted, no “peace dividend” followed. The American Raj simply sailed blissfully on as if nothing whatsoever had happened. This caught Chal’s attention, along with what he later came to call “the American empire of bases” and the full-scale garrisoning of the planet that went with it. For the rest of his life he would focus his energies on the subject of American militarism, an ever more bloated military-industrial complex, and of course the growing power of the Pentagon, which in a weird sense functioned as an American MITI.
On Sept. 4, 1995, three American servicemen abducted and raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl, provoking widespread anger and demonstrations on the island. In response, Chal began to write extensively about those American bases on Okinawa, which had been established as World War II ended and never stopped growing. In late September of the following year, he was invited by the island’s governor to address members of the prefectural government and tour the island. Never one to mince words, Chal also spoke at Tokyo’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club after his trip and summed up the Okinawan situation this way: “The American government is the rapist; the Japanese government is the pimp.”
In March, 1998, U.S. News and World Report carried a small piece of his called “Enter the Dragon: Ten Reasons to Worry About Asia’s Economic Crisis.” Literary agent Sandra Dijkstra read it and contacted Chal to see whether he was thinking about writing a book on the subject. As a matter of fact he was, having decided to distill his 40 years of studying and teaching about China, Japan, and Korea into essays that would reflect on U.S. policy in Asia since World War II.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had acquired an empire but, Chal argued, so had we. After the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europe and many parts of the Soviet Union itself—Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan—declared their independence, while the U.S. only expanded its overseas military bases. Chal decided to call his book Blowback (a term of tradecraft he’d first heard at the CIA for operations so secret that when they “blew back” on the U.S., ordinary Americans had no clue as to the connection). Even in those relatively quiet years of the 1990s when American pundits and others spoke of this country as the “sole superpower” on planet Earth, or even its towering “hyperpower,” he became convinced that there would be a time of reckoning for the U.S., as there had been for the Soviet Union, and that it would not be as far off as almost everyone imagined.
Chal explained what happened next:
“I wrote Blowback between 1997 and 1999, and it was published in March 2000 [by Metropolitan Books]. In the summer of 2000, I signed another contract with [Metropolitan] to write a new book, but at that time I conceived it as a book about Asia—particularly China, Japan, and Korea—and their relationships with the U.S. Blowback sold reasonably well throughout 2000 and the first part of 2001, but after 9/11 it suddenly began to jump off bookstore shelves. So I stopped and wrote a new, post-9/11 preface to Blowback and did a lot of journalism and radio interviews; and I found that I had quite a lot more to say on the whole subject of blowback and, more particularly, on how the American government was reacting to the threat of terrorism and al-Qaeda. I scrapped my earlier book outline and wrote a new one, and for the next 15 months I worked like someone possessed on this new book.”
The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic was published in January 2004. At its heart lay a region by region anatomy of America’s global “baseworld” and how it worked, a subject that remained remarkably undiscussed and unanalyzed in this country. Subsequently, Chal gave many speeches and interviews in an effort to help deny George W. Bush—“likely the single worst president in the history of the American republic”—a second term. When Bush was reelected and the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan continued to take their human and economic toll, he became determined to write a third book in what would become The Blowback Trilogy.
This time his tone was more alarmist, while his focus was on the way an American version of military Keynesianism was failing the country. He feared that the U.S. would be simultaneously overwhelmed by related tides of militarism and bankruptcy. Reflecting his own grim mood, he chose for his title the name of the Greek goddess of myth whose task was to punish human arrogance and hubris: Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. In it, he pulled together many of his thoughts about the fate of empires—particularly the Roman and British ones—and predicted that, in the reasonably near future, the U.S. would have to choose between remaining a democratic society or becoming a military dictatorship.
Nemesis was published in January 2007, and given Chal’s increasing arthritic debility (by then, he was often using a wheelchair), I didn’t expect him to write another book. He was, by then, reading so many books by others (including Andrew Bacevich, Steve Coll, Tim Weiner, and Tim Shorrock) on events of the moment that he continued to produce a steady stream of op-eds, articles, and reviews. By the spring of 2009, Tom Engelhardt, the editor of The Blowback Trilogy and director of the website TomDispatch.com, suggested that there were enough of his recent essays to collect in a small volume. The three of us read through them and Tom, with his usual talent for discovering a path through the underbrush, found the common thread.
By the time Dismantling the Empire was published in April 2010, the sustained work Chal had kept up for more than 50 years was simply beyond him. He could barely move or sign his name. In September, even that became impossible. We had decided that more hospital stays were not what we wanted, and so on Sept. 15, 2010, he entered hospice care. A hospital bed was delivered to our family room, overlooking our garden and the Pacific Ocean that had played such an important role in his life. Friends could visit, we watched the TV news every evening, and our cat Seiji (successor to felines Miti and Mof) slept at his feet.
As his life slowly ebbed, Chal would sometimes exclaim in great agitation, “I don’t know what to do.” I always replied, “You don’t have to do anything, you’ve done enough.” Toward the end, he changed this line to “I can’t do it anymore.” By then, I wasn’t sure whether he was talking about the intellectual tasks he’d always set himself or about life itself.
Chal was a formidable and—I’m tempted to say—driven man. After his death, I received a letter from a high school friend who said much the same thing. “I always admired Chal’s ability to really focus in on an interest. I hate to use the word, but it bordered on zealotry. An example was his ‘passion’ for collecting streetcar and bus transfer slips. As I recall, they were colorful and contained a lot of information about the routes.”
I had to laugh when I read this, and I offer it as a piece of advice to parents who may have similarly focused kids: don’t worry if they’re memorizing baseball statistics. It may lead to something far more important.
Sheila K. Johnson is an anthropologist, freelance writer, and editor. Her husband’s final book, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope (Metropolitan Books), has just appeared in paperback.
Copyright 2011 Sheila K. Johnson
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