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Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback; The Sorrows of Empire, Dead at 79
The Impact Today and Tomorrow of Chalmers Johnson

by Steve Clemons

Next week, Foreign Policy magazine and its editor-in-chief Susan Glasser will be releasing its 2nd annual roster of the world's greatest thinkers and doers in foreign policy. I have seen the list -- and it's impressively creative and eclectic.

There is one name that is not on the FP100 who should be -- and that is Chalmers Johnson, who from my perspective rivals Henry Kissinger as the most significant intellectual force who has shaped and defined the fundamental boundaries and goal posts of US foreign policy in the modern era.

Johnson, who passed away Saturday afternoon at 79 years, invented and was the acknowledged godfather of the conceptualization of the "developmental state". For the uninitiated, this means that Chalmers Johnson led the way in understanding the dynamics of how states manipulated their policy conditions and environments to speed up economic growth. In the neoliberal hive at the University of Chicago, Chalmers Johnson was an apostate and heretic in the field of political economy. Johnson challenged conventional wisdom with he and his many star students -- including E.B. Keehn, David Arase, Marie Anchordoguy, Mark Tilton and others -- writing the significant treatises documenting the growing prevalence of state-led industrial and trade and finance policy abroad, particularly in Asia.

Today, the notion of "State Capitalism" has become practically commonplace in discussing the newest and most significant features of the global economy. Chalmers Johnson invented this field and planted the intellectual roots of understanding that other nation states were not trying to converge with and follow the so-called American model.

Johnson for his seminal work on Japanese political economy, MITI and the Japanese Miracle was dubbed by Newsweek's Robert Neff as "godfather of the revisionists" on Japan. Neff also tagged Clyde Prestowitz, James Fallows, Karel van Wolferen and others like R. Taggart Murphy and Pat Choate as the leaders of a new movement that argued that Japan was organizing its political economy in different ways than the U.S. This was a huge deal in its day -- and these writers and thinkers led by the implacable Johnson were attacked from all corners of American academia and among the crowd of American Japan-hands who wanted to deflect rather than focus a spotlight on the fact that Japan's economic mandarins were really the national security elite of the Pacific powerhouse nation.

In the 1980s when Johnson was arguing that Japan's state directed capitalism was succeeding at not only propelling Japan's wealth upwards but was creating "power" for Japan in the eyes of the rest of the world, Kissinger and the geostrategic crowd could not see beyond the global currency and power realities of nuclear warheads and throw-weight. The revisionists were responsible for injecting the economic dynamics of power and national interest in the equation of a nation's global status.

To understand China's rise today, the fact that China has become the Google of nations and America the General Motors of countries -- the US being seen by others as a very well branded, large, underperforming country -- one must go back to Chalmers Johnson's work on the developmental state.

Scratch beneath these Johnson breakthroughs though and go back another decade and a half and one finds that Chalmers Johnson, a one time hard-right national security hawk, deconstructed the Chinese Communist revolution and showed that the dynamic that drive the revolutionary furor had less to do with class warfare and the appeal of communism but rather high octane "nationalism." Johnson saw earlier than most that the same dynamic was true in Vietnam. His work which was published as Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power while a UC Berkeley doctoral student launched him as a formidable force in Asia-focused intellectual circles in the U.S.

Johnson's ability to launch an instant, debilitating broadside against the intellectual vacuousness of friends or foes made him controversial. He chafed under the UC Berkeley Asia Program leadership of Robert Scalapino whom Johnson viewed as one of the primary dynastic chiefs of what became known as the "Chrysanthemum Club", those whose Japan-hugging meant overlooking and/or ignoring the characteristics of Japan's state-led form of capitalism. Johnson was provocatively challenged graduate students in the field to choose sides -- to work either on the side where they acquiesced to a corrupt culture of US-Japan apologists who wanted the quaint big brother-little brother frame for the relationship to remain the dominant portal through which Japan was viewed or alternatively on the side of those who saw Japan and America's forfeiture of its own economic interests as empirical facts.

When Robert Scalapino refused to budge despite Johnson's agitation, Johnson who then headed UC Berkeley's important China Studies program abandoned the university and became the star intellectual of UC San Diego's School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. There is no doubt that Johnson but UCSD's IRPS on the map and gave it an instant, global boost.

But as usual, Johnson -- incorruptible and passionate about policy, theory, and their practice -- eventually went to war with the bureaucrats running that institution. Those who had come in to head it were devotees of "rational choice theory" -- which was spreading through the fields of political science and other social sciences as the so-called softer sciences were trying to absorb and apply the harder-edged econometrics-driven models of behavior that the neoliberal trends in economics were using.

Johnson and one of his proteges, E.B. "Barry" Keehn, wrote a powerful indictment of rational choice theory that helped trigger a long-running and still important intellectual divide that showed that rational choice theory was one of the great ideological delusions of the era. I too joined this battle and wrote extensively about the limits of rational choice theory which I myself saw dislodging university language programs, cultural studies, and more importantly -- the institutional/structural approaches to understanding other political systems.

Johnson once told me when I was visiting him and his long-term, constant intellectual partner and wife, Sheila Johnson, that the UCSD School of International Relations and Pacific Studies no longer either really taught international relations or pacific studies -- and that a student's entire first year was focused on acultural skill set development in economics and statistics. To Johnson, this tendency to elevate econometric formulas over the actual study of a nation's language, history, culture and political system was part of America's growing cultural imperialism. Studying "them" is really about "us" -- as "they" will converge to be like "us" or will fall to the way side and be insignificant.

It was that night that Chalmers Johnson, Sheila Johnson and I agreed to form an idea on had been developing called the Japan Policy Research Institute. Chalmers became President and I the Director. We maintained this working relationship at the helm of JPRI together for more than 12 years and spoke nearly every week if not every other day as we tried to acquire and publish the leading thinking on Japan, US-Japan relations and Asia more broadly. We became conveners, published works on Asia that the official journals of record of US-Asia policy viewed as too risky, and emerged as key players in the media on all matters of America's economic, political, and military engagement in the Pacific. Today, JPRI is headed by Chiho Sawada and is based at the University of San Francisco.

However, this base of JPRI gave Chalmers Johnson the launch pad that led to the largest contribution of his career to America's national discourse. From his granular understanding of political economy of competing nations, his understanding of the national security infrastructure of both sides of the Cold War, he saw better than most that the US had organized its global assets -- particularly its vassals Japan and Germany -- in a manner similar to the Soviet Union. Both sides looked like the other. Both were empires. The Soviets collapsed, Chalmers told me and wrote. The U.S. did not -- yet.

The rape of a 12 year-old girl by three American servicemen in Okinawa, Japan in September 1995 and the statement by a US military commander that they should have just picked up a prostitute became the pivot moving Johnson who had once been a supporter of the Vietnam War and railed against UC Berkeley's anti-Vietnam protesters into a powerful critic of US foreign policy and US empire.

Johnson argued that there was no logic that existed any longer for the US to maintain a global network of bases and to continue the occupation of other countries like Japan. Johnson noted that there were over 39 US military installations on Okinawa alone. The military industrial complex that Eisenhower had warned against had become a fixed reality in Johnson's mind and essays after the Cold War ended.

In four powerful books, all written not in the corridors of power in New York or Washington -- but in his small home office at Cardiff-by-the-Sea in California, Johnson became one of the most successful chroniclers and critics of America's foreign policy designs around the world.

Before 9/11, Johnson wrote the book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. After the terrorist attacks in 2001 in New York and Washington, Blowback became the hottest book in the market. The publishers could not keep up with demand and it became the most difficult to get, most wanted book among those in national security topics.

He then wrote Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, and most recently Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope. Johnson, who used to be a net assessments adviser to the CIA's Allen Dulles, had become such a critic of Washington and the national security establishment that this hard-right conservative had become adopted as one of the political left's greatest icons.

Johnson measured himself to some degree against the likes of Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal -- but in my mind, Johnson was the more serious, the most empirical, the most informed about the nooks and crannies of every political position as he had journeyed the length of the spectrum.

Chalmers Johnson served on my board when I worked at the Japan America Society of Southern California. He and I, along with Sheila Johnson -- along with Tom Engelhardt one of the world's great editors -- created the Japan Policy Research Institute. Johnson served on the Advisory Board of the Nixon Center when I served as the Center's founding executive director. We had a long, constructive, feisty relationship. He helped propel my career and thinking. In recent years, we were more distant -- mostly because I was not ready, as he was, to completely disown Washington.

Many of Johnson's followers and Chal himself think that American democracy is lost, that the republic has been destroyed by an embrace of empire and that the American public is unaware and unconscious of the fix. He may be right -- but I took a course trying to use blogs, new media, and a DC based think tank called the New America Foundation to challenge conventional foreign policy trends in other ways. Ultimately, I think Chalmers was content with what I was doing but probably knew that in the end, I'd catch up with him in his profound frustration with what America was doing in the world.

Chalmers and Sheila Johnson saw me lead the battle against John Bolton's confirmation vote in the Senate as US Ambassador to the United Nations -- but given the scale of his ambitions to dislodge America's embrace of empire, Bolton was too small a target in his eyes. He was probably right.

Saying Chalmers Johnson is dead sounds like a lie. I can't fathom him being gone -- and with all of the amazing times I've had with him as well as the bouts of political debate and even yelling as we were pounding out JPRI materials on deadline, I just can't imagine that this blustery, irreverent, completely brilliant force won't be there to challenge Washington and academia.

Few intellectuals attain what might have been called many centuries ago the rank of "wizard" -- an almost other worldly force who defied society's and life's rules and commanded an enormous following of acolytes and enemies.

Wizards don't die -- and I hope that those who read this, who knew him, or go on reading his works in the decades ahead provoke, inspire, jab, rebuke, applaud, and condemn in the way he did.

In one of my fondest memories of Chalmers and Sheila Johnson at their home with their then Russian blue cats, MITI and MOF, named after the two engines of Japan's political economy -- Chal railed against the journal, Foreign Affairs, which he saw as a clap trap of statist conventionalism. He decided he had had enough of the journal and of the organization that published it, the Council on Foreign Relations. So, Chalmers called the CFR and told the young lady on the phone to cancel his membership.

The lady said, "Professor Johnson, I'm sorry sir. No one cancels their membership in the Council in Foreign Relations. Membership is for life. People are canceled when they die."

Chalmers Johnson, not missing a beat, said "Consider me dead."

I never will. He is and was the intellectual giant of our times. Chalmers Johnson centuries from now will be seen, I think, as the intellectual titan of this past era, surpassing Kissinger in the breadth of seminal works that define what America was and could have been.

My sincere condolences to Sheila, to others in his extended family -- particularly among all of his students and colleagues who were part of the Johnson dynasty -- and to his friends in San Diego who were a vital part of the texture of the Johnson household.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, we spend the hour with the former CIA consultant, distinguished scholar, best-selling author, Chalmers Johnson. He’s just published a new book. It’s called Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. It’s the last volume in his trilogy, which began with Blowback, went onto The Sorrows of Empire. In those two, Johnson argued American clandestine and military activity has led to unintended but direct disaster here in the United States. In his new book, Johnson argues that US military and economic overreach may actually lead to the nation’s collapse as a constitutional republic.

Chalmers Johnson is a retired professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego. He’s also president of the Japan Policy Research Institute. He’s written for a number of publications, including the Los Angeles Times, The London Review of Books, Harper’s magazine and The Nation. In 2005, he was featured prominently in the award-winning documentary, Why We Fight. Chalmers Johnson joined me yesterday from San Diego. I began by asking him about the title of his 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.


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 side has called 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.

It seems to me that this is also the same warning that Dwight Eisenhower gave in his famous farewell address of 1961, in which he, in quite vituperative language, quite undiplomatic language—one ought to go back and read Eisenhower. He was truly alarmed when he spoke of the rise of a large arms industry that was beyond supervision, that was not under effective control of the interests of the military-industrial complex, a phrase that he coined. We know from his writings that he intended to say a military-industrial-congressional complex. He was warned off from going that far. But it’s in that sense that I believe the nexus—or, that is, the incompatibility between domestic democracy and foreign imperialism comes into being.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was he warned by?

CHALMERS JOHNSON: Members of Congress. Republican memb-–

AMY GOODMAN: And why were they opposed?

CHALMERS JOHNSON: Well, they did not want to have their oversight abilities impugned. They weren’t carrying them out very well. You must also say that Eisenhower was—I think he’s been overly praised for this. It was a heroic statement, but at the same time, he was the butcher of Guatemala, the person who authorized our first clandestine operation and one of the most tragic that we ever did: the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 for the sake of the British Petroleum Company. And he also presided over the fantastic growth of the military-industrial complex, of the lunatic oversupply of nuclear weapons, of the empowering of the Air Force, and things of this sort. It seems to be only at the end that he realized what a monster he had created.

AMY GOODMAN: Chalmers Johnson, author of Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. We’ll come back to him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: As we return to my interview with Chalmers Johnson—his new book, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic—I asked him to talk about the expansion of US military bases around the globe.

CHALMERS JOHNSON: According to the official count right now—it’s 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, in 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 it’s 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 Kawaii in the Hawaiian islands, with 1,300,000 Okinawans. There’s thirty-seven American military bases there. The revolt against them has been endemic for fifty 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 twelve-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 at 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. 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, there have been major protests against US military bases. Recently in Vicenza in Italy, about 100,000 people protested. Ecuador announced that it would close the Manta Air Base, the military base there. What about the response, the resistance to this web of bases around the world?

CHALMERS JOHNSON: Well, there is a genuine resistance and has been for a long time. As I say, in the case of Okinawa, there’s been at least three different historical revolts against the American presence. There’s collaboration between the Japanese government and the Pentagon to use this island, which is a Japanese version of Puerto Rico. It’s a place that’s always been discriminated against. It’s the Japanese way of having their cake and eating it, too. They like the alliance with America, but they do not want American soldiers based anywhere near the citizens of mainland Japan. So they essentially dump them or quarantine them off into this island, where the population pays the cost.

This is true, what’s going on in Italy right now, where there is tremendous resistance to the CIA rendition cases. That is, kidnapping people that we’ve identified and flying them secretly to countries where we know they will be tortured. There’s right now something like twenty-five CIA officers by name who are under indictment by the Italian government for felonies committed by agents of the United States in Italy. And, indeed, we just did have these major demonstrations in Vicenza. The people there believe that with the enlargement of the base that is already there—I mean, this is, after all, the old Palladian city, a city of great and famous architecture, that they would become a target of terrorism, of numerous other things.

We see the resistance in the form of Prime Minister Zapatero in Spain, that he promised the people that after he came to power, he would get out of Iraq, and he was one of the few who did deliver, who does remember that if democracy means anything, it means that public opinion matters, though in an awful lot of countries, it doesn’t actually seem to be the case. But he has reduced radically the American military presence in Spain.

And it continues around the world. There is a growing irritation at the American colossus athwart the world, using its military muscle to do as it pleases. We see it right now, that people of the Persian Gulf are not being asked whether or not they want anywhere between two and four huge carrier task forces in the fifth fleet in CENTCOM’s navy in the Persian Gulf, and all of which looks like preparation for an assault on Iran. We don’t know that for certain by any manner of means, but there’s plenty enough to make us suspicious.

Then you look back historically, probably there is no more anti-American democracy on earth than Greece. They will never forgive us for bringing to power the Greek colonels the in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and, of course, also establishing then numerous American military enclaves in Greece until the colonels themselves finally self-destructed by simply going too far.

And the cases are ubiquitous in Latin America, in Africa today. Probably still the most important area, of course, of military imperialism is the opening up of southern Eurasia, after it became available to foreign imperialistic pressure with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Many important observers who have resigned their commissions from the Pentagon have made the case that the fundamental explanation for the war in Iraq was precisely to make it the new—to replace the two old pillars of American foreign policy in the Middle East. The first pillar, Iran, collapsed, of course, with the revolution in 1979 against the Shah, who we had installed in power. The second pillar, Saudi Arabia, had become less and less useful to us, because of our own bungling. We put forces, military forces, ground forces, an air force, in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War in 1991. This was unnecessary, it was stupid, it was arrogant. It caused antagonism among numerous patriotic Saudis, not least of whom, one was our former asset and colleague, Osama bin Laden—that Saudi Arabia is charged with the defense of the two most sacred sites in Islam: Mecca and Medina. We ought to be able to do this ourselves without using infidel troops that know absolutely nothing about our religion, our country, our lifestyle, or anything else. Over time, the Saudis began to restrict the use of Prince Sultan Air Base outside Riyadh. We actually closed down our major operations headquarters there just before the invasion of Iraq and moved it to Qatar.

And then we chose Iraq as the second most oil-rich country on earth, and as a place perfectly suited for our presence. I think many people have commented on it, Seymour Hersh notably, but I think, importantly, one of the reasons we had no exit plan from Iraq is that we didn’t intend to leave. And certainly the evidence of it is the now series of at least five very, very large, heavily reinforced, long double runways, five air bases in Iraq, strategically located all over the country. You can never get our ambassador, the Department of Defense, the President, or anybody to say unequivocally we don’t intend to have bases there. It’s a subject on which Congress never, ever opens its mouth. Occasionally, military officers—the commander of Air Force in CENTCOM has repeatedly, in his sort of off-hand way, when asked, "How long do you think we’ll be here?" and he usually says, "Oh, at least a decade in these bases." And then, we continue to reinforce them.

Now, then, we’ve tried to build bases in Central Asia in the Caspian Basin oil-rich countries that were made independent—not in any sense democracies—made independent by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. We have now been thrown out of one of them for too much heavy-handed interference. And the price of our stay in Kyrgyzstan has quadrupled, much more than that actually. It’s gone from a few million dollars to well over $100 million. But we continue to play these games, and they are games, and the game is property called imperialism.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Chalmers Johnson. Now, Chalmers Johnson, you were a consultant for the CIA for a period through Richard Nixon, starting with Johnson in 1967, right through 1973. And I’m wondering how you see its use has changed. You talk about, and you write in your book about the Central Intelligence Agency, the president’s private army.

CHALMERS JOHNSON: I say, at one point, we will never know peace until we abolish it, or, at any rate, restrict what is the monster that it’s grown into. The National Security Act of 1947 lists five functions. It creates the Central Intelligence Agency. It lists five functions for it. The purpose, above all, was to prevent surprise attack, to prevent a recurrence of the attack, such as the one at Pearl Harbor. Of these five functions, four are various forms of information-gathering through open sources, espionage, signals intelligence, things of this sort. The fifth is simply a catchall, that the CIA will do anything that the National Security Council, namely the foreign affairs bureaucracy in the White House attached directly to the president orders it to do.

That’s turned out to be the tail that wags the dog. Intelligence is not taken all that seriously. It’s not that good. My function inside the agency in the late '60s, early ’70s was in the Office of National Estimates. My wife used to ask me at times, "Why are they so highly classified?" And I said, "Well, probably and mostly, simply because they're the very best we can do, and they read like a sort of lowbrow foreign affairs article." They’re not full of great technical detail and certainty nothing on sources of intelligence.

But as the agency developed over time, and as it was made clear to the president, every president since Truman, made clear to them shortly after they were inaugurated, you have at your disposal a private army. It is totally secret. There is no form of oversight. There was no form of congressional oversight until the late 1970s, and it proved to be incompetent in the face of Iran-Contra and things like that. He can do anything you want to with it. You could order assassinations. You could order governments overthrown. You could order economies subverted that seemed to get in our way. You could instruct Latin American military officers in state terrorism. You can carry out extraordinary renditions and order the torture of people, despite the fact that it is a clear violation of American law and carries the death penalty if the torture victim should die, and they commonly do in the case of renditions to places like Egypt.

No president since Truman, once told that he has this power, has ever failed to use it. That became the route of rapid advancement within the CIA, dirty tricks, clandestine activities, the carrying out of the president’s orders to overthrow somebody, starting—the first one was the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. It’s from that, the After Action Report, which has only recently been declassified, that the word "blowback" that I used in the first of my three books on American foreign policy, that’s where the word "blowback" comes from. It means retaliation for clandestine activities carried out abroad.

But these clandestine activities also have one other caveat on them: they are kept totally secret from the American public, so that when the retaliation does come, they’re unable ever to put it in context, to see it in cause-and-effect terms. They usually lash out against the alleged perpetrators, usually simply inaugurating another cycle of blowback. The best example is easily 9/11 in 2001, which was clearly blowback for the largest clandestine operation we ever carried out, namely the recruiting, arming and sending into battle of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union during the 1980s. But this is the way the CIA has evolved.

It’s been responsible for the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile and bringing to power probably the most odious dictator on either side in the Cold War, namely General Augusto Pinochet; the installation of the Greek colonels in the late ’60s and early ’70s in Greece; the coups, one after another, in numerous Latin American countries, all under the cover of avoiding Soviet imperialism carried out by Fidel Castro, when the real purpose was to protect the interests of the United Fruit Company, and continued to exploit the extremely poor and essentially defenseless people of Central America.

The list is endless. The overthrow of Sukarno in Indonesia, the bringing to power of General Suharto, then the elimination of General Suharto when he got on our nerves. It has a distinctly Roman quality to it. And this is why I—moreover, there is no effective oversight. There are a few, often crooked congressmen, like Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who are charged with oversight. When Charlie Wilson, the congressman, long-sitting congressman from the Second District of Texas, was named chairman of the House Intelligence Oversight Committee during the Afghan period, he wrote at once to his pals in the CIA, "The fox is in the henhouse. Gentlemen, do anything you want to."

AMY GOODMAN: Chalmers Johnson has just finished his trilogy. The first was Blowback, then Sorrows of Empire, now Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. We’ll be back with the conclusion of the interview in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to the conclusion of my interview with Chalmers Johnson. Professor Johnson is a noted expert on Asia politics. He has authored a number of books on the Chinese revolution, on Japanese economic development. In his thirty years in the University of California system, Johnson served as chair of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. I asked him to talk about China’s role as a growing world power.

CHALMERS JOHNSON: I’m optimistic about China. I think that they have shown a remarkable movement toward moderation. I believe that the public supports them, because they’ve done something that the public wanted done and was extremely fearful about, namely the dismantling of a Leninist economy without reducing the conditions that occurred in Yeltsin’s Russia, that China has—it’s unleashed its fantastic growth potential and is moving ahead with great power and insight.

There are many things that we do not like in the way this is developing, particularly the fear of China by the American neoconservatives. They have no alternative but to adjust to this. It’s the same kind of adjustment that should have been made in the 20th century to the rise of new sources of power in Germany, in Russia, in Japan. The failure by the sated English-speaking powers—above all, England and the United States—to adjust led to savage and essentially worthless wars. But the Americans are again continuing to harp on China’s growth, where, in fact, I’ve been impressed with the ease with which China has adjusted to the interests of countries that do not necessarily like China at all—Indonesia, for example, Vietnam.

They are contiguously egging on the Japanese to be antagonistic toward China, which was the scene of their greatest war crimes during World War II, for which they have never adequately either responded or paid compensation. I wonder what foolishness is this. A war with China would have the same—it would have the same configuration as the Vietnam War. We would certainly lose it.

The glue, the political glue of China today, the source of its legitimacy, is increasingly Chinese nationalism, which is passionately held. As the Hong Kong joke has it, China just had a couple of bad centuries, and it’s back.

We have not been watching it with quite the hawk eyes we were during the first months of the Bush administration, when, after a spy incident in which the Chinese forced down one of our reconnaissance planes that was penetrating their coastal areas in an extremely aggressive manner—if it had been a Chinese plane off of our coast, we would have shot it down; they simply forced it down, it was a loss of an airplane and one of their own pilots—that, you’ll recall, George Bush said on television that he would, if the Chinese ever menaced the island of Taiwan, he would use the full weight and force of the American military against China. This is insanity, genuine insanity. There’s no way that—I mean, if the Chinese defeated every single American, they’d still have 800 million of them left, and you simply have to adjust to that, not antagonize it, and I believe there’s plenty of ample evidence that you can adjust to the Chinese.

AMY GOODMAN: Chalmers Johnson, in January, the Chinese launched their first anti-satellite test, and I wanted to segue into that to the militarization of space.

CHALMERS JOHNSON: Well, precisely, I have a chapter in Nemesis that I’m extremely proud of called "The Ultimate Imperialist Project: Outer Space." It’s about the congressional missile lobby, the fantastic waste of funds on things that we know don’t work. But they’re not intended to work. They’re part of military Keynesianism, of maintaining our economy through military expenditures. They provide jobs in as many different constituencies as the military-industrial complex can place them.

We have arrogantly talked about full-spectrum dominance of control of the globe from outer space, the domination of the low and high orbits that are so necessary. We’ve all become so dependent upon them today for global positioning devices, telecommunications, mapping, weather forecasting, one thing after another. In fact, the Chinese, the Russians, the Europeans have been asking us repeatedly for decent international measures, international treaties, to prevent the weaponization of space, to prevent the growing catastrophe of orbiting debris that are extremely lethal to satellites, to—as Sally Ride, one of the commanders of our space shuttle, she was in an incident in which a piece of paint, or in orbit—that’s at 17,000 miles an hour in low-earth orbit—hit the windshield of the challenger and put a bad dent in it.

Now, if a piece of paint can do that, I hate to tell you what a lens cap or an old wrench or something like that—so there’s a whole bunch of them out there. At the Johnson Space Center, they keep a regular growing inventory of these old pieces of, some case, weaponry, some case, launch vehicles for satellites, things of this sort. They publish a very lovely little newsletter that talks about how a piece of an American space capsule from twenty years ago rear-ended a shot Chinese-launched vehicle and produced a few more debris. It’s a catastrophe.

But instead, we’ve got—there’s no other word for it—an arrogant, almost Roman, out-of-control Air Force that continues to serve the interests of the military-industrial complex, the space lobby, to build things that they know won’t work.

AMY GOODMAN: What is a space Pearl Harbor?

CHALMERS JOHNSON: A space Pearl Harbor would mean, they believe, what the Chinese did in January, when they tested an anti-satellite weapon against one of their old and redundant satellites. Satellites do burn out. There’s no way to repair them, so they simply shot it down with a rocket. This explosion produces massive amounts of debris, whizzing around the earth in low-earth orbit. If you put it higher into orbit, you would start killing off the main satellites on which, well, probably this television broadcast is going to depend on, too. And there’s no way to ever get rid of things that are orbiting in high-earth orbit. Low-earth orbit, some of them will descend into the atmosphere and burn up.

But the Air Force has continuously used this so-called threat of our being blinded by—because we have become so reliant on global positioning systems. Our so-called "smart bombs" depend on them, that we’ve—they’re not very smart, and it’s not as good a global positioning system as the peaceful one the Europeans are building called Galileo. They use it to say we must arm space, we must have anti-satellite weapons in space, we have rebuffed every effort to control this, and finding out the Chinese have called our bluff.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does Fort Greely, Alaska, fit into this, the silos?

CHALMERS JOHNSON: Well, that is, there’s three ways to shoot down an alleged incoming missile. This is the whole farce of whether there is a defense against a missile. I guarantee you there is no defense at all against the Topol-M, the Russian missile that goes into orbit extremely rapidly—it goes into its arch extremely rapidly. It has a maneuvering ability that means that it’s undetectable.

We’re basically looking at very low-brow weapons that would be coming from a country like North Korea, in which we have three different ways of trying to intercept them. We used to only try to do with one under the Clinton administration. Under the enthusiasm of the current neoconservatives, we have three ways. One, on blastoff, this is extremely difficult to do, but we’re trying to create a laser, carried in a Boeing 747, that would hit one. You’ve got to be virtually on top of the launch site in order to do so. It’s never worked. It probably doesn’t work, and it’s just expensive.

The much more common one would be to down the hostile missile, while it is in outer space, from having given up its launch vehicle and is now heading at very high speed toward the United States. This is what the interceptors that have been put in the ground at Fort Greely, Alaska, and a couple of them at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, are supposed to do. They have never once yet had a successful intercept. The radar is not there to actually track the allegedly hostile vehicle. As one senior Pentagon scientist said the other day, these are really essentially scarecrows, hoping that they would scare off the North Koreans.

This is a catastrophic misuse of resources against a small and failed communist state, North Korea. There is no easier thing on earth to detect than a hostile missile launch, and the proper approach to preventing that is deterrence. We have thought about it, worked on it, practiced it, studied it now for decades. The North Koreans have an excellent reputation for rationality. They know if they did launch such a vehicle at Japan or at the United States, they would disappear the next day in a retaliatory strike, and they don’t do it.

It’s why, in the case of Iran, the only logical thing to do is to learn to live with a nuclear-armed Iran. It’s inevitable for a country now surrounded by nuclear powers—the United States in the Persian Gulf, the Soviet Union, Israel, Pakistan and India. The Iranians are rationalists and recognize the only way you’re ever going to dissuade people from using their nuclear power to intimidate us is a threat of retaliation. So we are developing our minimal deterrent, and we should learn to live with it.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Chalmers Johnson, you have just completed your trilogy. Your first book, Blowback, then Sorrows of Empire, and now finally Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. What is your prediction?

CHALMERS JOHNSON: Well, I don’t see any way out of it. I think it’s gone too far. I think we are domestically too dependent on the military-industrial complex, that every time—I mean, it’s perfectly logical for any Secretary of Defense to try and close military bases that are redundant, that are useless, that are worn out, that go back to the Civil War. Any time he tries to do it, you produce an uproar in the surrounding community from newspapers, television, priests, local politicians: save our base.

The two mother hens of the Defense Facilities Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the people committed to taking care of our bases are easily Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Dianne Feinstein of California, the two states with the largest number of military bases, and those two senators would do anything in their power to keep them open. This is the insidious way in which the military-industrial complex has penetrated into our democracy and gravely weakened it, produced vested interests in what I call military Keynesianism, the use and manipulation of what is now three-quarters of a trillion dollars of the Defense budget, once you include all the other things that aren’t included in just the single appropriation for the Department of Defense.

This is a—it’s out of control. We depend upon it, we like it, we live off of it. I cannot imagine any President of any party putting together the coalition of forces that could begin to break into these vested interests, any more than a Gorbachev was able to do it in his attempted reforms of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there anything, Chalmers, that gives you hope?

CHALMERS JOHNSON: Well, that’s exactly what we’re doing this morning. That is, the only way—you’ve got to reconstitute the constitutional system in America, or it is over. That is that empires—once you go in the direction of empire, you ultimately lead to overstretch, bankruptcy, coalitions of nations hostile to your imperialism. We’re well on that route.

The way that it might be stopped is by a mobilization of inattentive citizens. I don’t know that that’s going to happen. I’m extremely dubious, given the nature of conglomerate control of, say, the television networks in America for the sake of advertising revenue. We see Rupert Murdoch talking about buying a third of the Los Angeles Times. But, nonetheless, there is the internet, there is Amy Goodman, there are—there’s a lot more information than there was.

One of the things I have experienced in these three books is a much more receptive audience of alarmed Americans to Nemesis than to the previous two books, where there was considerable skepticism, so that one—if we do see a renaissance of citizenship in America, then I believe we could recapture our government. If we continue politics as in the past, then I think there is no alternative but to say Nemesis is in the country, she’s on the premises, and she is waiting to carry out her divine mission.

AMY GOODMAN: Chalmers Johnson, his new book is Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. It’s the last volume in his Blowback trilogy, following the best-selling Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire.
Published on Monday, November 22, 2010 by Speaking Freely Chalmers Johnson on American Hegemony

Chalmers Johnson, historian and author, passed away on Saturday, November 20th, 2010.

Author of Blowback, The Sorrows Of Empire, Nemesis: The Last Days Of The American Empire, and most recently Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope, Johnson literally wrote the book on the concept of American Hegemony. A former naval officer and consultant of the C.I.A., he served as professor Emeritus at UC San Diego. As co-founder and President of the Japan Policy Research Institute, Mr. Johnson promoted public education about Asia's role in the international community.

Speaking Freely - Chalmers Johnson on American Hegemony

Above link for a 52 minute video interview with Chalmers Johnson.