- Chalmers Johnson
author of 14 books, including Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire in 2000, Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic, and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. He taught for 30 years at the Berkeley and San Diego campuses of the University of California, where he held endowed chairs in Asian politics. He was president of the Japan Policy Research Institute and at Berkeley he chaired the Center for Chinese Studies.
The distinguished scholar and bestselling author Chalmers Johnson has died. He passed away in California on Saturday afternoon at the age of 79. During the Cold War, he served as a consultant to the Central Intelligence Agency and was a supporter of the Vietnam War, however, later became a leading critic of U.S. militarism and imperialism. He wrote the book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire in 2000, which became a bestseller after the 9/11 attacks. He went on to complete what would become a trilogy about American empire. Today we re-air part of our last interview with Chalmers Johnson from 2007. [includes rush transcript]
“Imperialism is a form of tyranny,” Johnson said. “It never rules through consent of the governed… We talk about the spread of democracy, but we talk about the spread of democracy at the point of an assault rifle.”
AMY GOODMAN: The distinguished anti-imperialist scholar, bestselling author Chalmers Johnson has died. He passed away in California Saturday afternoon at the age of 79. Johnson taught for 30 years at the Berkeley and San Diego campuses of the University of California, where he held endowed chairs in Asian politics. He was president of the Japan Policy Research Institute and at Berkeley he chaired the Center for Chinese Studies.
In a tribute by Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, Chalmers Johnson is described as, quote, “the most significant intellectual force who has shaped and defined the fundamental boundaries and goal posts of U.S. foreign policy in the modern era.”
Chalmers Johnson served in the Korean War and was a consultant for the CIA’s Allen Dulles between 1967 and '73. He first visited Japan in 1953 as a U.S. Navy officer and lived and worked there for many years with his wife, the anthropologist Sheila Johnson. In 1994, he founded the Japan Policy Research Institute. He was a prolific writer, authored some 16 books, numerous articles for the Los Angeles Times, the London Review of Books, _Harper's Magazine_ and The Nation.
Over the years, Johnson transformed from a right-wing conservative into an icon of the left and a trenchant critic of U.S. militarism. His last four books focus on American military hegemony and imperialism. He wrote Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire in 2000, which became a bestseller after the 9/11 attacks. He went on to complete what would become a trilogy about American empire, Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. His latest book was published in August, a collection of his essays published over the last three years called Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope. He was featured prominently in the award-winning documentary Why We Fight.
I want to play excerpt from my last interview with Chalmers Johnson. It was February of 2007, and the final volume of his trilogy had just been published. I began by asking him about the title of that book, Nemesis.
CHALMERS JOHNSON: Nemesis was the ancient Greek goddess of revenge, the punisher of hubris and arrogance in human beings. You may recall she is the one that led Narcissus to the pond and showed him his reflection, and he dove in and drowned. I chose the title, because it seems to me that she’s present in our country right now, just waiting to make her — to carry out her divine mission.
By the subtitle, I really do mean it. This is not just hype to sell books — “The Last Days of the American Republic.” I’m here concerned with a very real, concrete problem in political analysis, namely that the political system of the United States today, history tells us, is one of the most unstable combinations there is — that is, domestic democracy and foreign empire — that the choices are stark. A nation can be one or the other, a democracy or an imperialist, but it can’t be both. If it sticks to imperialism, it will, like the old Roman Republic, on which so much of our system was modeled, like the old Roman Republic, it will lose its democracy to a domestic dictatorship.
I’ve spent some time in the book talking about an alternative, namely that of the British Empire after World War II, in which it made the decision, not perfectly executed by any manner of means, but nonetheless made the decision to give up its empire in order to keep its democracy. It became apparent to the British quite late in the game that they could keep the jewel in their crown, India, only at the expense of administrative massacres, of which they had carried them out often in India. In the wake of the war against Nazism, which had just ended, it became, I think, obvious to the British that in order to retain their empire, they would have to become a tyranny. And they, therefore, I believe, properly chose, admirably chose, to give up their empire.
As I say, they didn’t do it perfectly. There were tremendous atavistic fallbacks in the 1950s in the Anglo, French, Israeli attack on Egypt; in the repression of the Kikuyu — savage repression, really — in Kenya; and then, of course, the most obvious and weird atavism of them all, Tony Blair and his enthusiasm for renewed British imperialism in Iraq. But nonetheless, it seems to me that the history of Britain is clear that it gave up its empire in order to remain a democracy. I believe this is something we should be discussing very hard in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Chalmers Johnson, you connect the breakdown of constitutional government with militarism.
CHALMERS JOHNSON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the signs of the breakdown of constitutional government and how it links?
CHALMERS JOHNSON: Well, yes. Militarism is the — what the social scientists call the “intervening variable,” the causative connection. That is to say, to maintain an empire requires a very large standing army, huge expenditures on arms that leads to a military-industrial complex, and generally speaking, a vicious cycle sets up of interests that lead to perpetual series of wars.
It goes back to probably the earliest warning ever delivered to us by our first president, George Washington, in his famous farewell address. It’s read at the opening of every new session of Congress. Washington said that the great enemy of the republic is standing armies; it is a particular enemy of republican liberty. What he meant by it is that it breaks down the separation of powers into an executive, legislative and judicial branches that are intended to check each other. This is our most fundamental bulwark against dictatorship and tyranny. It causes it to break down, because standing armies, militarism, military establishment, military-industrial complex all draw power away from the rest of the country to Washington, including taxes, that within Washington they draw it to the presidency, and they begin to create an imperial presidency, who then implements the military’s desire for secrecy, making oversight of the government almost impossible for a member of Congress, even, much less for a citizen.
AMY GOODMAN: Chalmers Johnson, you write in your book Nemesis, “Once upon a time, you could trace the spread of imperialism by counting up colonies. America’s version of the colony is the military base.” Can you lay out the global picture of American military bases, how many there are? What does the map look like?
CHALMERS JOHNSON: Americans really wouldn’t believe it to see it, but it’s — according to the official count right now, in something called the Base Structure Report, which is an unclassified Pentagon inventory of real property owned around the world and the cost it would take to replace it, there are right now 737 American military bases, on every continent and well over 130 countries. Some apologists from the Pentagon like to say, well, this is false, that we’re counting Marine guards at embassies. I guarantee you that is simply stupid. We don’t have anything like 737 American embassies abroad. And all of these are genuine military bases with all of the problems that that involves.
In the southernmost prefecture of Japan, Okinawa, site of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, there’s a small island, smaller than Kauai in the Hawaiian islands, with 1,300,000 Okinawans. There are 37 American military bases there. The revolt against them has been endemic for 50 years. The governor is always saying to the local military commander, “You’re living on the side of a volcano that could explode at any time.” It has exploded in the past. What this means is just an endless, nonstop series of sexually violent crimes, drunken brawls, hit-and-run accidents, environmental pollution, noise pollution, helicopters falling out of the air from Futenma Marine Corps Air Base and falling onto the campus of Okinawa International University — one thing after another. Back in 1995, we had one of the most serious incidents, when two Marines and a sailor abducted, beat and raped a 12-year-old girl. This led to the largest demonstrations against the United States since we signed the security treaty with Japan decades ago. It’s this kind of thing.
I first went to Okinawa in 1996. I was invited by then-Governor Ota in the wake of the rape incident. I’ve devoted my life to the study of Japan, but like many Japanese, many Japanese specialists, I had never been in Okinawa. I was shocked by what I saw. It was the British Raj. It was like Soviet troops living in East Germany, more comfortable than they would be back at, say, Oceanside, California, next door to Camp Pendleton. And it was a scandal in every sense. My first reaction — I’ve not made a secret of it, that I was, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, certainly a Cold Warrior. My first explanation was that this is simply off the beaten track, that people don’t come down here and report it. As I began to study the network of bases around the world and the incidents that have gone with them and the military coups that have brought about regime change and governments that we approve of, I began to realize that Okinawa was not unusual. It was, unfortunately, typical.
These bases, as I say, are spread everywhere. The most recent manifestation of the American military empire is the decision by the Pentagon now, with presidential approval of course, to create another regional command in Africa. This may either be at the base that we have in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. It may well be in the Gulf of Guinea, where we are prospecting for oil, and the Navy would very much like to put ourselves there. It is not at all clear that we should have any form of American military presence in Africa, but we’re going to have an enlarged one. Invariably, remember what this means. Imperialism is a form of tyranny. It never rules through consent of the governed. It doesn’t ask for the consent of the governed. It is — we talk about the spread of democracy, but we’re talking about the spread of democracy at the point of an assault rifle. That’s a contradiction in terms. It doesn’t work. Any self-respecting person being democratized in this manner starts thinking of retaliation. Nemesis becomes appropriate.
AMY GOODMAN: Chalmers Johnson, author and scholar, that interview from 2007. You can see the whole thing at our website, democracynow.org. Chalmers Johnson died Saturday at the age of 79.