Lament for the Lost Republic

Chalmers Johnson, who is one of those people I consider interesting enough to have taken the trouble, now that I’m advanced enough chronologically to have developed a grudging and still mostly fleeting sense of mortality, to meet personally, is carving out for himself an honorable position as – Cassandra is too strong a word perhaps, for he is measured and far from hysterical – perhaps as one of the Ciceros of the fading republic and the not oncoming but quite here-and-now empire. It will be interesting to see whether he is heard or heeded beyond a circle of intellectuals, committed antiwar types, and readers of The Nation or the History News Network.

His previous recent book, Blowback, published before 9/11, pretty much predicted some kind of dramatic attack on the United States, as a natural consequence of the various overt and covert meddling in which the U.S. government has chosen to engage. “Blowback” is an old CIA term used to describe the usually unintended and/or unpredictable (at least as to timing and precise character) negative consequences of overseas activities. It is not reaching much at all to describe the formation of al Qaida under the emerging leadership of Osama bin Laden as “blowback” from the US funding and arming of the foreign brigades fighting in Afghanistan as “mujahedin” against the Soviets in the 1980s, although other factors, such as the Saudi government’s attitude toward Osama, also influenced the shape and character of the group.

It is possible for decent people to have varying opinions as to whether, even given what we know now about how the groups of trained fighters have redirected their hostility since the fall of the Soviet Union, it was a good idea to support the Afghan “freedom fighters,” as most of us (including me) referred to them in the 1980s. But their transformation into a militant, violent, relatively well-financed and aggressive anti-Western and anti-U.S. force illustrates what should be the obvious fact that intervening into the affairs of other countries does not take place in a vacuum. A military intervention, even if confined to providing weapons and advice, affects and is affected by local history, customs, and traditions, and can tip the scale in favor of one side or another in ongoing squabbles about which the intervening power may know little. Even those that on balance can be adjudged successful (depending on the criteria) can have lasting negative consequences. In a world in which utopia (to the best of my knowledge) is not a live option, that’s simply an unfortunate if somewhat banal truth.


Mr. Johnson’s most recent book, Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (Metropolitan Books, 389 pp, 25.00) offers a more comprehensive history of the United States’ descent (although some would surely prefer the term “ascent”) into empire. He shows that the impulse toward empire of varying forms is not a recent development in American history. Early in the 19th century, with the Monroe Doctrine, the United States declared that Latin America was within its sphere of influence (or at least outside the sphere of influence of any European country). Plenty of historians have described the conquest of the American West (including a war with Mexico), expanding the 13 coastal states into a continent-bestriding colossus, as an imperial venture of sorts. The Spanish-American war, in which the US took outright possession of (or at least occupied) Cuba and the Philippines, was widely spoken of at the time, by advocates and critics of the war policies, as imperial in character.

It is hardly surprising, then, that by the time of World War I (referred to at the time as the “Great War”), especially when led by an outspoken apostle of America’s “mission” to democratize and perhaps to Christianize the rest of the world, the United States was ready to assume an active role on the “world stage.” Under Woodrow Wilson, of course, the United States ostensibly saw itself as an anti-imperialist power – at least anti- the European empires that had been assembled during the previous century – but it had little self-doubt as to whether it possessed both the wisdom and the power to reorder the world along fairer, more democratic and more self-determining paths.

Chalmers Johnson, who taught political science at UC Berkeley for most of his career and retired from the University’s San Diego campus, sketches this history and more with the assurance of a long-time student of politics and power. He might be viewed as something of a late-blooming dove, although he was never completely uncritical of the way the US wielded its power. He became fascinated with Japan and Asia while serving in the US Navy, and did most of his academic work in those areas, becoming an authority on the Japanese political/economic system as it rose to industrial heights. During the Cold War he served as an adviser to the CIA. He seems never to have been particularly seduced by communism as a system, though he has a weakness (fondness? reasoned admiration? hard-nosed appreciation?) for the kind of government management of the economy the Japanese did after World War II. A laissez-faire free trader he is not.

As the American empire, especially its military manifestations, has grown since World War II, Chalmers Johnson has used his experience as a student and analyst of power to warn that hard times may be coming, and that we would do well to face the consequences of our government’s global ambitions honestly.


“Americans may still prefer to use euphemisms like ‘lone superpower,’ but since 9/11,” he writes in his introduction, “our country has undergone a transformation from republic to empire that may well prove irreversible." He goes on:

“This book is a guide to the American empire as it begins openly to spread its imperial wings. Its reach is global: as of September 2001, the Department of Defense acknowledged at least 725 American military bases existed outside the United States. Actually, there are many more, since some bases exist under leaseholds, informal agreements, or disguises of various kinds. And more have been created since the announcement was made. The landscape of this military empire is as unfamiliar and fantastic to most Americans today as Tibet or Timbuktu were to nineteenth-century Europeans. Among its recent additions are the al-Udeid air base in the desert of Qatar, where several thousand American military men and women live in air-conditioned tents, and the al-Masirah naval station in the Gulf of Oman, where the only diversion is ‘wadi ball,’ a cross between volleyball and football. It includes expensive, permanent garrisons built between 1999 and 2001 in such unlikely places as Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. America’s empire of bases also has its entertainment and getaway spots, much like those north Indian hill towns the administrators of the British Raj used for rest and recreation in the summer heat. The modern equivalents of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, and Srinigar are the armed forces’ ski and vacation center at Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps, its resort hotel in downtown Tokyo, and the 234 military golf courses it operates worldwide, not to mention the seventy-one Lear jets, thirteen Gulfstream IIIs, and seventeen Cessna Citation luxury jets used to fly admirals and generals to such spots. At a cost of $50 million apiece, each Gulfstream accommodates twelve passengers plus two pilots, one flight engineer, a communications system operator, and a flight attendant.”

“Like empires of old, ours has its proconsuls, in this case high-ranking military officers who enforce extraterritorial ‘status of forces agreements’ on host governments to ensure that American troops are not held responsible for crimes they commit against local residents. Our military empire is a physical reality with a distinct way of life but it is also a network of economic and political interests tied in a thousand ways to American corporations, universities, and communities but kept separate from what passes for everyday life in what has only recently come to he known as ‘the homeland.’ And yet even that sense of separation is disappearing – for the changing nature of the empire is changing our society as well.”


In brief, Johnson argues, with numerous current examples, American society is becoming increasingly militarized. Overseas diplomacy is becoming more the province of the Defense (there’s a lovely euphemism!) Department rather than the State Department. He argues that “the CIA has evolved into the president’s private army to be used for secret projects he personally wants carried out (as, for example, in Nicaragua and Afghanistan during the 1980s).” Other special forces have become almost private armies of the president, and much of the apparatus operates in secrecy.

Johnson quotes the “great sociologist of the modern state, Max Weber,” who wrote: “Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret. Bureaucratic administration always tends to be an administration of ‘secret sessions’: in so far as it can it hides its knowledge and action from criticism … The concept of the ‘official secret’ is the specific invention of the bureaucracy, and nothing is so fanatically defended by the bureaucracy as this attitude… In facing a parliament the bureaucracy, out of a sure power instinct, fights every attempt of the parliament to gain knowledge by means of its own experts or interest groups.”

Chalmers Johnson is hardly Pollyannaish: “As militarism, the arrogance of power, and the euphemisms required to justify imperialism inevitably conflict with America’s democratic structure of government and distort its culture and basic values, I fear that we will lose our country. If I overstate the threat, I am sure to be forgiven because future generations will be so glad I was wrong.” He sees the US as possibly being on a path similar to that of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. “The USSR collapsed for three basic reasons – internal economic contradictions driven by ideological rigidity, imperial overstretch, and an inability to reform. Because the United States is far wealthier, it may take longer for similar afflictions to do their work. But the similarities are obvious, and it is nowhere written that the United States, in its guise as an empire dominating the world, must go on forever.”


Chalmers Johnson goes on to compare the American style of empire with empires of the past, and to trace the ideological and institutional roots of American militarism. His chapter on bases overseas might be a little shocking even to those who have paid a certain amount of attention. With the tenacity of an experienced researcher he details just how extensive and expensive those bases are, and how they foster an insular culture of ambition through obedience.

In his final chapter, he details the (presumably) unintended consequences of the war on Iraq, arguing that “the war, paradoxically, did leave us and our coalition partners much weaker than before – the Western alliance of democracies was fractured; the potential for British leadership of the European Union went up in smoke; Pentagon plans to make Iraq over into a client state quickly foundered on Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurdish realities; and the very concept of ‘international law,’ including the charter of the United Nations, was grievously compromised.”

He sees the following “sorrows of empire” visiting the United States quite soon (some are already noticeable). “First, there will be a state of perpetual war, leading to more terrorism against Americans wherever they may be … Second, there will be a loss of democracy and constitutional rights as the presidency fully eclipses Congress and is itself transformed from an ‘executive branch’ of government into something more like a Pentagonized presidency. Third, an already well-shredded principle of truthfulness will increasingly be replaced by a system of propaganda, disinformation, and glorification of war, power, and our military legions. Lastly, there will be bankruptcy, as we pour our economic resources into ever more grandiose military projects and short-change the education, health, and safety of our fellow citizens.”

I would rather see resources kept in the hands of the people that produced them rather than going either for military adventures or for grandiose government attempts to meet the educational and health needs of the citizens. I think Mr. Johnson has more confidence than is warranted in the ability of modern state bureaucracies to guide and manage economic activity more wisely than the unfettered market.

Aside from those disagreements, I see little to criticize in Chalmers Johnson’s wide-ranging and magisterial book. He ought to be on all the cable news programs as a counterweight to all the eager (and readily-available, thoroughly press-agented) advocates of more war and the beneficent blessings of empire. The fact that he and people with similar views – James Bovard’s Terrorism and Tyranny and Robert Higgs’ now-classic Crisis and Leviathan tell similar tales, and both are hale, hearty and available, should news organizations want to hear them – are seldom heard or seen suggests that the propaganda aspect of creeping imperialism is well advanced. The fact that they all continue to sell books suggests that at least some Americans are concerned about the imperial project and willing to take the trouble to inform themselves.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).