[  ]
Restore the Wetlands. Reinforce the Levees.

Writing Against the (American) Empire:
A Tribute to Chalmers Johnson


[cross-posted at Daily Kos]

“[Blowback] refers to retaliation for the numerous illegal operations we have carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public. . . . This means that when the retaliation comes, as it did so spectacularly on Sept. 11, 2001, the American public is unable to put the events in context. So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the perpetrators, thereby most commonly preparing the ground for yet another cycle of blowback.” —Chalmers Johnson, Dismantling the Empire (2010)

We want to say a few words in honor of Chalmers Johnson, a strategic analyst and former CIA consultant who became a strong critic of the U.S.’s increasingly imperialist foreign policy and its effects on American democracy. He died Saturday, Nov. 20, at his home near San Diego, at the age of 79 (not on Nov. 13 as reported by the New York Times). He is survived by his wife, Sheila Johnson. Dr. Johnson was well known as the author of the three-volume American Empire Project, including Dismantling the Empire, quoted above, and The Sorrows of Empire, along with Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, a hot seller after the September 11 attacks, and many other works.

Johnson, a former consultant to the CIA (he was a net assessments adviser to former director Allen Dulles) who earned degrees in economics and political science at the University of California, Berkeley, also served in the navy during the Korean War and became an avid student of Japan, China, and other Asian nations, particularly their economies.

He was admired here because of his steadfast and fact-based warnings about the dangers of imperial overreach by the United States—military and economic—particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the end of the Cold War, this formerly hard-right security hawk came around to criticize Washington for exorbitant and unnecessary expenditures in defense, on weapons programs and overseas bases—more than 700 around the globe—and, increasingly, on war. He lamented the consequences for the American people’s prosperity and the nation’s democracy.

The former head of U.C. Berkeley’s China Center and chairman of Berkeley’s political science department had a gift for explaining complex matters for general readers. In Blowback he discusses how during the Cold War “gross overinvestment” in East Asia with its cheap labor (“economic colonialism”)—a policy that benefited U.S. corporations—created massive trade deficits and harmed American workers (sound familiar?):

. . . these terms proved surprisingly costly to the imperial power. They cost American jobs, destroyed manufacturing industries, and blunted the hopes of minorities and women trying to escape from poverty. . . . The true costs to the United States should be measured in terms of crime statistics, ruined inner cities, and drug addiction, as well as trade deficits. (Blowback, 195–96)

Detailed and personal tributes from foreign policy expert Steve Clemons and editor Tom Engelhardt should be read for a fuller portrait of this important thinker; they knew him well. (Their blogs, The Washington Note and TomDispatch, are always on our blogroll at right, under National & Global.) Also, here is Tom Engelhardt’s 2006 interview with Johnson, “Cold Warrior in a Strange Land.” Steve Clemons had this to say in a post titled “The Impact Today and Tomorrow of Chalmers Johnson”:

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. . . . 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.


“Why should we be concerned about imperialism and militarism? It’s a suicide pact: that’s the way empires end.”


Photo credit (top right): K. Amemiya/Henry Holt and Company

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Print This Post Print This Post

3 Responses to “Writing Against the (American) Empire:
A Tribute to Chalmers Johnson”

  1. Sheila Johnson Says:

    Nice obit, but my husband died November 20th, not the 13th.

  2. Levees Not War Says:

    Thank you, Mrs. Johnson. The date has been corrected to the 20th. Our condolences to you and your family.

  3. Leo Wong Says:

    Yesterday, Dec. 16, 2010, two noteworthy events occurred in Washington, D.C.: the House of Representatives passed an anti-American tax cut bill, and a group of Americans protested America’s imperialistic wars. The New York Times obamanated the unpatriotic event and did not report the patriotic event.

Leave a Reply