Chalmers Johnson, President of the Japan Policy Research Institute and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, has written numerous books on Japan and Asia, including Miti and the Japanese Miracle and Japan: Who Governs?
Professor Chalmers died on November 20, 2010 in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California. The following documentary was released in 2007 as part of the Speaking Freely series.
Grieving is a process: typically, denial gives way to anger, and anger gives way to acceptance. Chalmers Johnson’s trilogy on the American Empire—Blowback (2000), The Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis (2006)—projects the loss of democracy as the ultimate price for empire. While Americans at large have lived in empire denial all the way back to George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796), Johnson summons the “righteous anger” of the Greek goddess Nemesis to stir them into action. In his mind, and in opposition to Thomas Jefferson’s “empire for liberty” (1809), the choice is clear-cut: either the United States keeps its empire and loses its democracy, or it sheds its empire and restores its democracy. In other words, Americans should follow not Roman footprints after 27 b.c. but British footprints after 1945—presuming they avoid the British brutality of empire surrender as witnessed in Malaya, Kenya, and Egypt in the 1950s. Accepting military or civilian dictatorship at home, warns Johnson, serves neither Americans nor the world.
Readers of Blowback and Sorrows of Empire will be familiar with Johnson’s overall argument in Nemesis: since at least 1941, the United States has been instrumental in promoting permanent war. As James Madison had forewarned, war would lead to “executive aggrandizement,” or, in today’s parlance, the imperial presidency. And the imperial presidency’s most important tool is the Central Intelligence Agency, “the president’s private army.” Johnson points to the long history of secret CIA-sponsored coups in foreign countries. Starting with Iran in 1953, “the CIA has often been ordered into battle without Congress having declared war” (93). Even President Jimmy Carter, who preached “moral principles” and fostered human rights, was a culprit: his CIA actions “deliberately provoked the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan” in 1979, as Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski candidly admitted in 1998 (110). The Afghan operation is of particular importance to Johnson. Not only did CIA partisans characterize it as the “biggest, meanest, and far and away most successful CIA campaign in history” (110), but it also led to the unintended consequence of 9/11—a rather questionable long-term success, aside from the 1.8 million Afghan casualties of the Soviet Union’s equivalent of the Vietnam War.
Not surprisingly, President George W. Bush used 9/11 to justify doubling the number of covert CIA operators. Moreover, the CIA’s illegal kidnappings, use of torture, and fabrication of false intelligence—in particular the National Intelligence Estimate of October 1, 2002, on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, which helped lead to the U.S. invasion 6 months later—were just one facet of President Bush’s “unprecedented” and “deliberate dismantling of the Constitution” (244). Johnson depicts “Bush II” as the paramount imperial president who puts himself, the CIA, and the military above the law. Wrapping his administration in a “cloak of official secrecy” (245), Bush provoked comparatively little public resistance to his unconstitutional domestic and foreign policies—including, among others, the use of surveillance, presidential “signing statements,” and the militarization of space, the “ultimate imperialist project” (208). For Johnson, the “enthusiastically manufactured threats” (215) of space war follow logically from the “fabricated intelligence” (98) on the American, not the Soviet, side which drove the arms race in the Cold War. Ever since World War II, the American empire has been driven by “the unacknowledged nature of our economy—specifically our dependence on military spending and war for our wealth and well-being” (271). Whether “military Keynesianism” comes in the form of Reaganomics or the Global War on Terror, it is an effective root cause of empire and militarism because it gives everybody a real stake in it, at least until it reaches bankruptcy.
Those who have read his earlier books may find Johnson’s changed tone in Nemesis surprising. The author ends his trilogy on a nervous note, hoping not to get “hanged as a traitor” (279). Why is he, the academic, so afraid? For labeling Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld “desk murderers” just like SS officer Adolf Eichmann? For branding Japanese–American internment during World War II a “pogrom”? For reminding former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright of her own public admission that the U.N.-sanction-induced “slaughter” of half a million Iraqi children was “worth it”? For comparing the statistical efforts of minimizing the size of the defense budget to “Enron-style accounting”? For labeling the Pentagon’s data-mining program “the perfect American computer version of Gestapo or KGB files” (256)? Johnson has always liked to use historical analogies, but in Nemesis they are far more polemical and aimed at provoking the reader’s “righteous anger.” For example, while Johnson asserted in Sorrows of Empire that “many governments have manufactured pretexts for going to war” (301) and listed German actions in 1939 along with American actions in 1898 and 1965 as evidence, he did not equate World War II with the Vietnam War. In Nemesis, in contrast, Johnson aims to evoke the emotive power of associating “Bush II” America with Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. The overdrawn use of historical analogies drives home the watershed of 9/11. For Johnson, only the myth of American exceptionalism remains; the “city upon a hill” has turned into a superbase down in the swamps.
Whether one deems Johnson’s historical analogies to be accurate, amiss, or somewhere in between, his arguments never fail to provoke lively classroom discussion. Having assigned Johnson’s entire trilogy in my undergraduate courses on the American Empire between Spring 2001 and Spring 2008, I can attest to the range of students’ reactions, from pure excitement to pure despair. In particular, within the context of the 2008 presidential campaign, one could sense a certain degree of disbelief—for those students who had internalized the notion that their government “can do no wrong,” it was hard not to marginalize Johnson as the academic Jeremiah Wright. Others expressed impatience with the implications of Johnson’s analogies, from downplaying the nature of the Holocaust to rendering every major leader since World War II a “desk murderer.” Most students, nevertheless, judiciously parsed out Johnson’s substantive critique from his polemic. Remarkably, the student who agreed most wholeheartedly with Johnson asked the most decisive question in response: “But could it be possible that we are not losing our democracy because we never had it?”
So, why are not more Americans alarmed? Johnson weaves a powerful narrative plot of deception through his book. Because U.S. imperial policies have been secret and hidden from the public, Americans at large are not able to put events such as 9/11 into context. This argument is well worth further academic exploration. But who is to say that, even if more Americans knew the full extent of U.S. cruelty, many would not agree with Albright that such policies were “worth it” to defend their affluent way of life? After all, flying flags on cars was a far more intuitive response to 9/11 than riding bicycles to work.
Righteous anger has been a driving force for change, from the Founding Fathers to Frederick Douglass, Jeremiah Wright, and beyond. But will Johnson’s righteous anger reach or repel his critics? Is a politics of righteous anger really a good response to a politics of righteous fear? And are not we as academics supposed to deconstruct both? Johnson’s trajectory overlooks the connections between empire abroad and reform at home. The Cold War, for instance, was not just a story of a trumped-up arms race, but it also brought at least some measure of social progress to racial minorities in the U.S., as the strategic necessity of building international Cold War coalitions across color lines helped push civil rights at home. Not that progress at home would ever justify imperial brutality abroad, but for better or worse, the choice between empire and democracy may not be as clear-cut as Johnson suggests.
Reviewed by Regina U. Gramer
Gramer, Regina U. “Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic – by Chalmers Johnson.” Peace and Change 34 (2009): 356-359. Wiley Inter Science. Web. 4 Feb. 2010.
Shortly after the new millennium began, Chalmers Johnson’s book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire hit the markets (see the review in the Humanist, May/June 2001). Six months later, terrorists flew commercial planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and blowback–a CIA term for the unintended consequences of U.S. policies kept secret from the country’s people–became part of the language describing terrorist activities.
In his new book The Sorrows of Empire Johnson takes a longer view than he did in Blowback. The United States has been on the path to imperialism for over a century as Johnson describes in great detail, although he emphasizes that it is now an empire of military bases rather than colonies. This military expansion has been so rapid during the past fifty years that it’s difficult to keep up with the precise number of bases overseas.
As for the future, Johnson warns of the consequences of disregarding George Washington’s admonition that “overgrown military establishments” are “inauspicious to liberty.” More recently Dwight D. Eisenhower’s counsel that “the military-industrial complex” endangers “our liberties” and our “democratic processes” has gone largely ignored. With the burdens of militarism and empire already plaguing American society, a grimmer future awaits unless it alters its path. At the moment, that doesn’t seem very likely.
The first in Johnson’s catalog of sorrows is perpetual war. This comes as no surprise, as U.S. military conflicts have occurred over and over for the past half-century. Now George W. Bush has declared that the “War on Terror” will be open-ended, illustrating what he means by first attacking Afghanistan, which had a clear-cut connection to al-Qaeda, and then Iraq, with no demonstrable connection at all.
More broadly, the U.S. response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, was spelled out in an official document, the “National Security Strategy of the United States,” which Bush previewed in a speech to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He argued that the United States has a unilateral right to overthrow any government in the world deemed a threat. Bush has stated that the United States must be “ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.” Although the president didn’t name any countries in that speech, it turned out he had a hit list of sixty possible targets–an escalation over Vice-President Dick Cheney’s identification in November 2001 of “forty or fifty” countries we would consider placing on our attack roster.
Consistent with the warnings of Washington and Eisenhower, war and the bloated military apparatus that support it bring on additional sorrows: loss of democracy, loss of established rights, and the well-known sacrifice of truth. James Madison, the most influential author of the Constitution, considered the power of Congress to declare war extremely important because he felt that such power “would be too great for any one man.” Yet Congress has cast no declaration of war in the many conflicts, large and small, since World War II. Most recently, Congress gave Bush unrestricted power-including use of nuclear weapons–in striking at Iraq whenever he deemed it “appropriate” As for constitutional rights, Johnson reviews an abundance of legal proceedings forcing him to conclude that Articles IV and VI of the Bill of Rights are now “dead letters.”
Use of deception in U.S. empire-building goes back at least to the manufactured hysteria over the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor in 1898. And later Lyndon Johnson famously used a nonexistent attack on a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin to boost congressional support for the war in Vietnam. Disinformation has been increasing exponentially as the executive branch creates new bureaucracies to manage public information and to control as much as possible what people in the country see, read, and therefore believe. This tactic can be very effective, as a recent example shows.
When CNN/USA Today conducted a poll last year, one of the questions asked, “Do you think Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11 attack, or not?” This was after Bush had finally admitted that he had no reason to believe there was any link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terrorists, having claimed the contrary for a year and a half. More than half of those polled answered the question in the affirmative. Moreover, 84 percent of those who answered “yes” supported the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.
An empire of bases-at least 725 of them outside the -United States–doesn’t come cheap. These and the grandiose military ventures they support prompt Johnson to list bankruptcy as a fourth sorrow. He writes: “The Congressional Budget Office projects federal deficits over the next five years of a staggering $1.08 trillion, on top of an existing government debt in February 2003 of $6.4 trillion.” But by January 2004 the CBO had to revise the numbers, forecasting a deficit of $1.4 trillion over the five years after 2004 (much higher if the tax cuts are made permanent, as the president wants), added to a $6.8 trillion total at the end of 2003.
This crushing debt will make it impossible to deal with a rising tide of crises facing the nation. One of the most severe is the inability to deliver adequate health care to the increasing millions of uninsured and underinsured–their plight made worse as many states facing deep fiscal shortages cut back their services. Another pending crisis, less immediate but just as disastrous in the long run, is the looming threat to Social Security that is being ignored rather than addressed. And then there are the nation’s enormous trade deficits that are becoming increasingly difficult to finance. The International Monetary Fund recently warned that, with its enormous trade imbalance and huge budget deficits, the United States is running up a record-breaking foreign debt that is threatening its economy and that of the whole world.
An ordeal that plagues the people of a country intent on building an ever-larger empire is its military casualties. Johnson, looking back at several wars, reviews this in detail but, for whatever reason, doesn’t include it in his enumeration of sorrows. The evolution of casualty statistics from the first Gulf War offers a chilling commentary on modern conflict, even when one side has virtually complete military superiority over the other.
At the end of hostilities in 1991 a total of 760 U.S. casualties were reported out of nearly 700,000 service people in the area. Yet the following year the Veterans Administration revealed nearly 170,000 service-connected casualties and illnesses. Within a few years almost a third of Norman Schwarzkopf’s army had filed claims for medical care, compensation, and benefits based on injuries caused by combat. The final accounting shows a stunning casualty rate of just under 30 percent.
Johnson soberly concludes: “It is nowhere written that the United States, in its guise as an empire dominating the world, must go on forever. The blowback from the second half of the twentieth century has only just begun.” True, but there is more than one possible ending to the empire. One continues the present path of ongoing war (which in turn cultivates new terrorists), the erosion of democracy and of civil liberties, and financial ruin. The other ending would require curtailing the military and so shrinking the empire. Done wisely, it could even begin reducing the terrorist threat. To achieve the latter ending will require renewed dedication to democracy and to the civil liberties of which we were once so proud. And it will require healthy skepticism toward government pronouncements and their parroting by the uncritical mainstream media.
These are in fact some of the steps toward constructing the decent, humane country and the decent, humane world that most want. Johnson thinks the odds are against the changes needed to move in that direction. That he may be right makes it all the more important to support those changes as vigorously as we can.
Reviewed by Al Huebner
Albert L. Huebner has taught physics for more than twenty years at California State University at Northridge and was appointed contributing writer for Toward Freedom in 1995.
Huebner, Al. “The Sorrows of Empire.” Humanist 64.3 (2004): 41-42. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Feb. 2010.
Now available in paperback, Chalmers Johnson’s take-no-prisoners account of the consequences of American global policies, hailed as “brilliant and iconoclastic” (Los Angeles Times) The term “blowback,” invented by the CIA, refers to the unintended consequences of American policies. In this incisive and controversial book, Chalmers Johnson lays out in vivid detail the dangers faced by our overextend empire, which insists on projecting its military power to every corner of the earth and using American capital and markets to force global economic integration on its own terms. From a case of rape by U.S. servicemen in Okinawa to our role in Asia’s financial crisis, from our early support for Saddam Hussein to our actions in the Balkans, Johnson reveals the ways in which our misguided policies are planting the seeds of future disaster.
In the wake of the Cold War, the United States has imprudently expanded the commitments it made over the previous forty years, argues Johnson. In Blowback, he issues a warning we would do well to consider: it is time for our empire to demobilize before our bills come due.
Blowback book summary courtesy of Henry Holt and Company http://us.macmillan.com/blowback