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Interview with Chalmers Johnson
Part 2. From CIA Analyst to Best-Selling Scholar

(Discovering the Moral Equivalency of the Two Superpowers)
Cardiff, California

Chalmers Johnson
Chalmers Johnson. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Chalmers Johnson, Ph.D., is the author of the best-selling books “Blowback” and “The Sorrows of Empire,” the landmark “MITI and the Japanese Miracle,” and many other publications. He is the co-founder and president of the Japan Policy Research Institute This interview was conducted on May 29, 2004, by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine in Cardiff, California. Also see Part 1 -- "An Empire of More Than 725 Military Bases".

As a preface to “Blowback”

In Motion Magazine: Please tell me about yourself.

Chalmers Johnson: I’m 72. I was an undergraduate at Berkeley (University of California) between 1949 and 1953. I didn’t go to the Korean War in its hard phase because I was in the Naval Reserve. I spent one weekend a month at Oakland airport flying around in TBMs (Grumman TBF/TBM Avenger Naval military aircraft). But when I got my degree I was activated and became the operations officer on an LST in the western Pacific. An LST is a ship that doesn’t even have a name. It’s got six officers on it. It’s a flat-bottomed rust bucket that carries around marines for landings on beaches. But it was important to me in that I had never been in East Asia. Never gave it a thought.

I became enormously intrigued by my first encounters with Japan and began studying Japanese at the Naval Base at Yokosuka. And as it turned out, I got a career out of it. The Navy or the military does today for young Americans what missionaries did a century ago. Even today, if you find people who are good in odd languages they have often been missionaries. For example, in Richmond, Indiana, almost everybody speaks some Japanese because it’s a Quaker town. Or in Provo, Utah, where they have all been Mormon missionaries.

Japan in 1953

I became greatly intrigued by East Asia, but at that time, the attraction was artistic and philosophical and architectural. In 1953, you’d have certainly never imagined that Japan was going to invent a new form of capitalism -- which is what I’m best known for having identified.

In those days it was a very poor country. The occupation had formally ended in 1952 but you would have not have known it. The Americans were still very much in charge. Heated railroad cars for the so-called U.N. forces while everyone else rode around in freezing cold cars, often without any windows in them. Oddly enough, as a young man I took that for granted, as if this was our due.

In 1955, I became part of the inactive Naval Reserve and went back to the university intending to do Japanese studies. I already had pretty good Japanese by then. But at the university, I came greatly under the influence of the late Professor Joseph Levenson, a very great Chinese historian, and started studying Chinese. All of this is also in my preface to “Blowback”.

On the popular basis of the Chinese Communist Party

In 1961, I received a PhD in Chinese studies. I did a study of the popular basis of the Chinese Communist Party between 1937 and 1945, using the Japanese army archives. And it made my career, although I certainly would not have become a professor without the encouragement of Levenson.

I was hired at Berkeley, another remarkable piece of good luck. I’ve never had to deal with the two hardest issues of academic life: getting a job in the first place and then getting tenure. My own university gave me a job, and three years later it gave me tenure.

Berkeley was an important university. Like Harvard, the students are often smarter than the faculty, and that’s what makes the place interesting. When I was chairman of political science at Berkeley, students used to come in and say, “I’ve worked my ass off to get here but it’s not nearly as great as I thought it was going to be.” And I would say, “Don’t you realize that the best course in this university is called lunch? Get to know your fellow graduate students because you will develop lifetime friendships and they are going to be more important to you than any particular formal classroom work,” although that’s not unimportant.

“I was a Cold Warrior”

My career at Berkeley is relevant background to “Blowback,” because one of the things that has bugged people is that I was certainly a Cold Warrior in those days. I think today, as I say in the preface to “Blowback,” that I probably knew more about communism than I did about the United States. I was irritated in many ways by the anti-war movement in that they knew nothing about Vietnam. One day, at the height of the protests on the Berkeley campus, I went to the library and every single book on Vietnamese communism was on the shelves. Nobody had checked them out. Nobody was reading them. At the same time I would have to say that I was clearly not very good on McGeorge Bundy or the particular kind of Americans who were staffing our government at that time.

A matter of class

It’s been a major issue that people often ask about: why did I support the Vietnam War? And I think the answer to it is undoubtedly complex, and probably slightly a matter of class. I would never have gone to the university had it not been for the University of California, which was then very inexpensive. When I enrolled at Berkeley in the fall of 1949, it cost $32 a semester for a resident of California. I went to Alameda High School and thought that Berkeley was just the local state college. It turned out to be a very important university, staffed by many exiles from Nazi Europe. It was an extraordinary education.

My introduction to moral philosophy came from Hannah Arendt during the one year she taught at Berkeley. Later, she was the discussant on my first essay on the theory of revolution that led to a subsequent book. I’ll never forget when she said, “You’re right, but you write abominably. Hobbes said all this better than you have. But, nonetheless, nice try for a kid. You are on the right track.” It was very flattering.

Partly because of this background, I deeply resented the attacks on the university by the student movement, which at Berkeley had begun well before the Vietnam War protests became very advanced. I recognized that these attacks on the university had some justification: the tendency of the university to become a cog in the machinery of the American establishment, turning out perfect little Corollas as if it were a Toyota plant for the society. But, at the same time, I also admired the University of California. In 1983, I was offered a job at Harvard and turned it down on the grounds that I wanted to work at a state university and not at some elite institution. So I resented the attacks against the university that were part of the anti-war movement.

The Civil Rights Movement

Then there was the other issue, which I think people tend to forget. Not only was there Vietnam and “Flower Power” -- the overcoming of Victorian blue laws in this country – but above all there was racial protest.

I had many students from the Black Panther Party in my classes and I used to argue with these men. “Look,” I said, “the Panthers aren’t going to win if you’re trying to adapt Marxism to your movement because that tells you to make alliances with white honkies, and that’s not what you want. You want Black solidarity. If you’re interested in Black solidarity read Martin Luther King’s sermons. They are the most remarkable revolutionary tracts of our time and in an extremely divided community he’s going to produce more unity than anybody else is. Particularly by speaking in the rhetoric of Black protestant churches.”

All this is to say that I ended up being less interested in the Vietnam War than I was in the Civil Rights Movement, and the Civil Rights Act, and so I became a supporter of Lyndon Johnson. He was a passionate advocate of all this and was actually ruined by the Vietnam War.

I was approached by Richard Helms, director of the CIA

Meanwhile, in my research on China, I was also much more concerned with the Sino-Soviet dispute and the Cultural Revolution as it was developing on the mainland. And in this context, in 1967, I was approached by Richard Helms, who was then director of Central Intelligence, and asked to become a consultant for the Office of National Estimates (O.N.E.) of the CIA.

The O.N.E. was very important in the old agency; it was abolished by Kissinger and Schlessinger. O.N.E. wrote national estimates, the final product of intelligence collecting, and sent them to the president. Under the old, original National Security Act, we actually had the power to compel the president to read something. The director of Central Intelligence could take in something we had written and say, “Under law, you must read this and sign this piece of paper as evidence that you have read it.”

The Sino-Soviet dispute

I have never had any regrets about my six years as a consultant. I was then the chairman of the Center for China Studies at Berkeley, and the CIA asked me to comment on issues involving China and Maoism at a time when there were some amazing things going on in the communist world. Take, for example, the Sino-Soviet dispute.

When we put strategic bombers over Hanoi, I said, “Nothing on earth should be more likely to reunite China and the Soviet Union. If the Soviet Union put bombers over Paris, I guarantee you the United States would become allies of the French again, regardless of Charles de Gaulle.” But, in fact, putting strategic bombers over Hanoi drove China and the Soviet Union even further apart, and this became a major analytic issue in beginning to reveal to us that communism was not the basic category. We could reduce it further to the nationalist revolution in China. China was on its own, as was the case in Vietnam.

The Chinese Cultural Revolution

I enjoyed the meetings of the O.N.E. simply because the CIA had some of the best analysts on China at the time. It was more stimulating than the campuses were in those days. People tend to forget that Mao ZeDong was enormously admired on campuses all over the world -- students believed that Mao was the scourge of bureaucracy and the herald of a New World.

Although I had first been attracted to the Chinese Revolution in a rather idealistic manner, with the development of the Cultural Revolution I became convinced these people were going badly off the tracks. This was getting to be very much the equivalent of the purges carried out by Stalin in 1937 and 1938 against the old Bolsheviks. This was the revolution eating its own. If Mao had died in 1956, he’d have gone down as the greatest modern Chinese leader. As it is he’s going to go down in history as an important revolutionary who, as so often is the case, turned into a tyrant.

Japan in 1972

So I drifted away from Chinese studies because I became disgusted with what was going on in China, as well as by what I thought was campus Maoism. In 1972, I spent a summer in Japan and decided to leave the China field and work on Japanese studies because a new and interesting phenomenon was just then developing there. Japan was becoming an incredibly rich country and yet it was an example of successful socialism -- of state-guided capitalism. It had begun to square the circle, to achieve state goal-setting and very high rates of economic growth, but without the known consequences of socialism, as we’ve understood it in the Leninist variety of misallocation of resources and tremendous inefficiencies.

MITI and the Japanese Miracle

In 1972, I resigned as chairman of the Center for Chinese Studies and began the research for the book for which probably I am best known, which is called “MITI and the Japanese Miracle.” It was published in 1982 and is about the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) and the way in which it had put together a capitalist economy. “MITI and the Japanese Miracle” is really a paean to the Japanese economy of that period rather than being in any way critical of it, although many Japanese didn’t seem to understand that.

In 1988, a new graduate school of international relations was created at UC San Diego, and by this time I’d taught at Berkeley for twenty-six years and had been there since I was freshman in 1949, except for my time in the Navy. My wife also had her PhD in anthropology from Berkeley. We were both ready for a change, and we liked Southern California.

In 1992, I retired from UCSD and created my own research institute, the Japan Policy Research Institute. You might want to take a look at our web site. We’ve just published our 100th working paper, and we have had quite a lot of impact. But you are probably wondering what about the books “Blowback” and most recently “Sorrows of Empire.” How did I get from my previous stance to these very critical books?

“When I get new information, I alter my position.”

The short answer is what John Maynard Keynes, the English economist, once said when he was accused of being inconsistent. He answered his accuser, “When I get new information, I alter my position. What, sir, do you do with new information?”

I got some new information, both analytically and concretely. The first came in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I had believed the Soviet Union was a genuine menace. I traveled extensively in Brezhnev’s Russia in 1978, including in the Trans-Caucasus area. I have enormous admiration for Russian society but I certainly had very little admiration for the Soviet system.

However, it was the menace of the Soviet Union, their very considerable military potential, that was the entire justification for our Cold War deployments, our bases spread around the world, the secret intelligence agencies, all of this. And then the Soviet Union simply disappeared -- and it’s important to stress that Russia today is not the Soviet Union with a new government. It has lost all the colonies from the Tsarist era as well as its empire of satellites in Eastern Europe. I expected in this country a much greater demobilization of our deployments around the world. It should have been comparable to the end of World War II. We should have demobilized the armed forces very considerably. We should have re-oriented the economy to stress civilian needs. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have been able to do so.

Instead, our government turned almost instantly to trying to find a replacement enemy in order to continue to justify the huge Pentagon and its military-industrial complex: China, terrorism, drugs, even instability. Every professor of international relations knows that the nature of the international system is by its very nature unstable and that the only issue in instability is whether it affects your own country. If it doesn’t have any relevance to you, you are obliged to ignore it. It’s not your business. Instead, we are now beginning to claim that we must have a global military apparatus in order to deal with “instability” everywhere.

The Cold War as a cover for an American imperial project

This raised for me an analytic question. Was the Cold War, in fact, a cover for a more basic American imperial project, going back to World War II, to replace the British Empire as the global hegemon?

This is not to say that everything done throughout the Cold War had a necessarily imperial connotation to it. There was a great deal of building of international law, such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and institutions, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Health Organization. We were very much a status quo power, committed to our own wealth, the wealth of our allies, and attempting to build a structure of international law that would maintain the peace. Hence the United Nations and the use of foreign aid, which we pioneered.

But even so, I concluded that the evidence today is that American imperialism has been in the works ever since Franklin Roosevelt encountered Winston Churchill a long time ago. Roosevelt concluded that he didn’t like the British Empire but that the world needed something like it so long as we held the reins. And the Cold War was largely a cover for this.

It’s very obvious, for example, in the case of our relations with Latin America, which have always had a traditionally imperialist quality, that nothing was more convenient for us than Fidel Castro. Instead of saying we were supporting the United Fruit Company in Guatemala, we could contend that we were protecting these poor Guatemalans from the menace of Soviet influence and the influence of Fidel Castro.

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration gave Central America its worst decade since the Spanish conquest. It’s a travesty what we did to places like El Salvador and Guatemala. And it worries me today that John Negroponte has been appointed ambassador to Iraq. He was the ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, when Honduras was the largest single CIA station on earth, carrying out counterrevolutionary attacks against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He should be answering charges of war crimes carried out by the Reagan administration.

Dissident about the collapse of the Soviet Union

I also concluded, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that we had made a disastrous mistake in thinking, in 1991, that we had “won” the Cold War. My argument is that, in fact, we simply did not lose it as badly as they did. Both of us had developed extreme rigidities in our economic institutions, driven by ideology. We had become very much the victim of imperial overstretch, as Paul Kennedy originally used the concept. And, like the Soviet Union, we seem to be virtually unable to reform.

Usually we teach in international relations courses that no empire ever gave up voluntarily. The only exception I can think of is the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, by 1987 at the latest, was convinced that the future of Russia would be better if it had friendly relations with Germany and France rather than continuing to protect its run-down East European satellites like Romania and Bulgaria that had been inherited from Stalin and the end of World War II. But Gorbachev was stopped cold by domestic vested interests in the old Cold War system.

I began to think, “Well, these vested interests obviously exist here too.”

Renouncing the Brezhnev Doctrine

Up until the Berlin Wall was breached, in the late autumn of 1989, the Soviet Union had something called the Brezhnev doctrine. It was enunciated when they intervened in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Brezhnev Doctrine proclaimed that the Soviet Union would intervene to prevent any member of the Warsaw Pact from slipping the leash. In the summer of 1988, Gorbachev in a speech to the U.N. renounced it and said, “We will never ever invoke it again.”

Interestingly enough, in December 1989, we invaded Panama and killed an awful lot more people than was necessary if we were just trying to run down Manuel Noriega, who was a former CIA asset. It was a bloody and worthless expedition. But one of the things that impressed me at the time was that the deputy foreign minister of the Soviet Union said to our ambassador, “We give you the Brezhnev Doctrine. It’s now yours. We are not intervening any longer. You’ve just seen that we allowed the Germans to tear down the Berlin Wall and we didn’t do anything about it. We’ve decided to give up on that. But we see that you are now behaving just as stupidly in Panama as we did in Czechoslovakia, in 1968.”

Moral equivalency of the two superpowers

All this is to say, I had begun to work myself around towards something that was never really debated during the Cold War, namely, the so-called moral equivalency between the two superpowers, that over time they both began to behave in the same way for the same reasons.

The CIA’s intelligence estimates are based on three things: past behavior, current capabilities, and intentions. The only difficult thing to analyze is intentions. But during the Cold War, in dealing with the Soviet Union, we came up with something called a “most-worst case”. A most-worst case is one in which you leave out intentions. You just deal with past behavior and current capabilities -- capabilities determined largely by observing missile launches and technical, scientific analysis.

These intelligence estimates, I was beginning to realize, were part of the Cold War system. Since we would not take intentions into account, we were just sitting there saying, “We have this telemetry of a missile fired in southern Russia and it goes this far and it reached this altitude and the scientists tell us this is what it could do.” We gave that to the Department of Defense and it showed up next year in a request in the defense budget for a missile that did exactly the same thing, plus fifteen percent.

The Russians then looked at the tests from Vandenberg Air Force base of our missiles, and their leading scientists said, “This thing can go an awfully long ways and they might have an atomic weapon on the end of it, so we need a bigger one.” That was what the arms race was all about. It was lucrative to the arms manufacturers, but it made no sense whatsoever. We ended up with these huge arrays of weapons around the world that were clearly counter-productive.

Deluded about the Cold War

This led to my first impulse toward revising my views. The nature of the end of the Cold War and what happened in its aftermath, strongly suggested that I had been deluded about the Cold War. A lot of people were. The Cold War was probably a cover for a much more long-standing American imperial project, and as I began to think more about this something else happened that strongly affected my views.

A very serious incident in 1995

As I mentioned earlier, I have devoted my life since 1953, when I first went there, to the study of Japan and thought I knew a great deal about it. But I had never been to Okinawa. Okinawa is the southern-most of the Japanese main islands. It was an independent kingdom in the late nineteenth century, and, much the same way that the United States seized the Hawaiian Kingdom, it was forcibly incorporated into the Japanese empire. Today Okinawa somewhat resembles Puerto Rico, which became part of the American empire as a result of the Spanish-American War, in that Japanese mainlanders have always discriminated against it. The people who live there have a slightly different culture. They used to speak a dialect that was unintelligible to people who spoke standard Japanese. There are definite Chinese influences in their culture. And then, of course, there was the last and bloodiest battle of World War II, the Battle of Okinawa, fought in the spring and summer of 1945.

It’s interesting that we now take credit for bringing democracy to conquered countries by citing the case of post-war Japan. But we omit Okinawa from the discussion, because it was kept as a military colony until 1972. It was run by an Army lieutenant-general until we gave Japan technical sovereignty over Okinawa, with the understanding that our 38 military bases, on an island smaller than Kaua‘i in the Hawaiian islands, remain exclusively under our control. The Japanese have nothing to say about what we do on these bases or how we use the large number of troops based on them.

In 1996, I was invited by the then governor of Okinawa, a former professor, Masahide Ota, to come and talk about a very serious incident that occurred on September 4, 1995, when two marines and a sailor from Camp Hansen abducted, beat, and raped a 12-year old girl. It produced the biggest demonstrations against the United States since the security treaty had been signed in its revised version back in 1960. The governor had invited me to come and discuss this issue with his staff and I was delighted to do so.

38 American military bases

I was shocked by the impact of 38 American military bases, including the 3rd Marine Division, on 1.3 million people living on an over-crowded island with the choicest 20% of the land given over to these military bases. One thing that struck me was that there was no strategy behind this. These bases had obviously just grown. They had been there since 1945 and throughout the Cold War.

Revolt against them has been endemic. There was an Okinawan revolt against the seizure of land in the 1950s, and a tremendous revolt in 1970 over the use of Okinawa as a staging area for the Vietnam War.

In 1996, I thought that Okinawa had just become a backwater of the Cold War, one that nobody paid any attention to. Journalists didn’t come down there often, and it had all smell of the British Raj about it. Golf courses have neatly stenciled parking places reserved for captains in the Navy, and colonels in the Army near the first tee. First sergeants must park the furthest away.

It also reminded me of Soviet troops in East Germany who refused to go home after the Wall came down because they lived so much better in Germany than they would back in the Soviet Union. Our people live a great deal better in Okinawa than they would in a stateside town like Oceanside, California, next door to Camp Pendleton.

Incidents typical of an empire

At the time, the commander of the U.S. forces in Japan was then Lieutenant General Richard Myers, who is today Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff and a four-star general. He gave the same explanation for the Okinawan rape incident that he gives about the Abu Ghraib prisoner-torture scandal in Iraq during his watch. In 1995, he said of the rapists, “These are just three bad apples, but they are certainly not in any way typical of America’s Armed Forces,” just as today he is saying that at Abu Ghraib there are just six bad apples.

However, as a result of research by an organization that came into being after this rape called Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence, the Okinawa Prefectural Police, a couple of very smart investigative journalists at the Dayton Daily News, as well as my own research, we now know that the rate of sexually violent crimes committed by American servicemen in Okinawa leading to courts martial is about two per month and this rate has been constant for over fifty years. The actual rate is probably much higher because many women are too humiliated to come forward and make a formal complaint, and the Marine Corps depends on that. So General Myers is simply misleading the public, both in Japan and the United States.

But, still reflecting my residual Cold War warrior mentality, I thought Okinawa must be exceptional. Only as I began to look at the 725 military bases that we have around the world -- the 101 bases in South Korea; the massive military reservations in Germany, and Britain, and Italy; the bases around the Persian Gulf; on the island of Diego Garcia which the British leased to us when we decided we needed an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean (they acquired it back in the Napoleonic Wars) -- did I conclude that Okinawa was not unusual. It was all too typical of the kinds of incidents that are associated with our empire of military bases.


This led me to write the book “Blowback,” which was published in the spring of 2000 and translated into German, Italian, Japanese, and Korean. It was virtually ignored in the English-speaking world until a year-and-a-half later. After 9/11, all of a sudden there was an overnight desire by Americans to begin to understand something about what their foreign policy had created. And my book became an underground bestseller.

My new book, “The Sorrows of Empire,” grows out of 9/11 in that I became so appalled by our response to 9/11 I felt the need to add to what I had already written. If there’s any one thing we know about terrorism it is that the proper response to it is not a high-tech military kicking down doors and running into private homes in Iraq pointing assault rifles at families and arresting all the men, while hollering “freedom and democracy” in a language that nobody can understand. This is simply going to produce more terrorism.

To read Part 1 of this interview :

Published in In Motion Magazine September 19, 2004

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