Johnson: Changed Cold Warrior
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
SPOOK TO SKEPTIC?
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:
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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
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.
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).
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."
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.
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.
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