An Interview with Chalmers Johnson, Parts 1 & 2
December 1, 2004 11:38 AM   Subscribe

If we were having this conversation in 1985, and I had said to you, “Four years from now the Soviet Union will collapse and in six years it will disappear,” you would have thought, “This is not a reliable observer.” But the U.S.S.R. is gone -- disappeared -- and we didn’t predict it. Russia today is a much smaller country than the former Soviet Union. The CIA had all the wrong data. We also made a mistake when we concluded that we had won the Cold War. We had almost nothing to do with what happened in the Soviet Union: there were internal issues and it certainly wasn’t Star Wars. We now know in detail how Gorbachev brought Sakharov out of exile in Gorky to address the Politburo on, “What would you do about a ballistic missile defense?” Sakharov said, “It’s easy to overwhelm it with missiles. I wouldn’t spend a ruble on it.” And they didn’t. But in mistakenly thinking that we won the Cold War, we strongly imply that we did something to cause that. Instead, the Soviet Union collapsed because of overstretch, a case of imperial overstretch.   An Empire of More Than 725 Military Bases
An interview with Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback and The Sorrows Of Empire (More Inside)
posted by y2karl (33 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
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.

From CIA Analyst to Best-Selling Scholar (Discovering the Moral Equivalency of the Two Superpowers) Via Political Theory Daily Review
posted by y2karl at 11:39 AM on December 1, 2004

Ah, cool stuff. I loved reading Blowback.
posted by malaprohibita at 11:51 AM on December 1, 2004

"a case of imperial overstretch"

Given that a certain country is damaging the long term viability of their military by committing 150,000 troops to a foriegn land, I'd say that overstretch cuts both ways.

If the blue states really wanted to claim their independence... who'd be there to stop us?!
posted by insomnia_lj at 11:53 AM on December 1, 2004

Thanks for the post Mr. Assburger.
posted by Seth at 11:54 AM on December 1, 2004

So maybe, just maybe, there are some apt parallels that can be inferred for the current empire? :-)

Aren't all empires destined to crumble due to overstretch?

Doesn't it look like we are headed in that direction what with our reckless spending and aggressive invading mindset?

Thanks for an always excellent and informative post y2karl.
posted by nofundy at 11:55 AM on December 1, 2004

I loved reading Blowback.

Me 3. And Sorrows is a great sequel.
posted by ao4047 at 12:02 PM on December 1, 2004

This is the thing that ultimately destroys the home country, as it did classically in the case of the Roman republic in the first two centuries B.C. The first really great experiment in democratic government collapsed into a military dictatorship as a result of the pressures put on the structure of democracy.

"Why did Rome fall? Was it because Christianity weakened the bonds that had held it together? Was it because people became corrupt? Was it because it just got too big? Was it because of the barbarian attacks? Was it because they had started using lead pots and got lead poisoning?

The correct answer is, of course, that none of these answers is correct. There wasn't any single cause."

posted by three blind mice at 12:05 PM on December 1, 2004

There is some merit to the idea that we are spending too much blood and treasure to uncertain ends in far-off lands... but it should be pointed out that Chalmers Johnson is a crank. Ten years ago, he was on the "dominant Japan will crush our economy" bandwagon. Maybe he doesn't talk about Japan's state-run juggernaut overwhelming us anymore, but he appears to have hit on a new reason for impending doom to America. And he's still a crank, judging from this interview.
posted by ibmcginty at 12:17 PM on December 1, 2004

the usual good stuff, karl.
classic Johnson here:

A Worthless Intelligence Agency
by Chalmers Johnson and Tom Engelhardt

It's well known that Washington was originally built on a pestilential swamp. Right now, the Bush administration is in the process of draining its own "swamp" of potential critics and doubters of any sort and installing "family" members, many from George's (and Karl's) old Texas days, others "adoptees" like Condoleezza Rice, ever more firmly in positions of ever greater power. Though many have written about this night of the loyalists recently, New York Times White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller, who often seems little short of an Oval Office staff member herself, produced a wonderful little mash note on the subject Monday ("White House Letter: In the New Bush Cabinet, Loyalty Trumps Celebrity").
posted by matteo at 12:21 PM on December 1, 2004

three blind mice:

I think he's talking about the collapse of the REPUBLIC, not the Empire.

'Sorrows' was all about the rise of militarism in the US, and accompanying influence of defense contractors and military secrecy.
posted by maledictory at 12:28 PM on December 1, 2004

Johnson (Miti and the Japanese Miracle), professor of international relations at the Univ. of California, San Diego, describes how a misinterpreted nuance of the Japanese language led to a prolongation of WWII and the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities. He believes that the difficulties of the Japanese language for Westerners require a greater understanding of the dissimilar cultures, which, he points out, most American commentators lack. He blames the prominent role of U.S. economists in policymaking for our misunderstanding of the Japanese value system and Japan's "capitalist development state." For all the fear of state control bruited about in the U.S., Chalmers points out, Japan's great wealth, highly educated workforce, low-cost health care and low unemployment result precisely because Japan's economy is planned.

Not much "dominant Japan will crush our economy" in the blurb there.

And this is not yet an entirely incorrect assessment, even for dating from 2002:

...After the 1987 Wall Street crash Japan helped prevent more serious panic by buying many American shares. Japan's export of its trade surpluses to the US made up for the dearth of US domestic savings and allowed the US to run huge external deficits. The US avoided paying any of the usual costs and kept its financial markets buoyant.

Japan holds the key to the health of the US financial system. If Japan ever brings home the money invested in US government securities, Washington will be forced to finance its own debt from domestic savings. These were negative in 2000; the deflationary impact of such a capital outflow on the US economy would be devastating.

Insecure, exasperated and bored with the old politics: The American shogunate
posted by y2karl at 12:32 PM on December 1, 2004

Please don't blaspheme about one of the Republicans' most cherished tenets of faith. We all know it was the Gipper who crushed the Evil Empire - with a little help from Nancy's astrologer.
posted by rhymer at 12:36 PM on December 1, 2004

I guess we all were 'Cold Warriors'
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 12:43 PM on December 1, 2004

On a sidenote:

Johnson's LRB book review of Gold Warriors is rather redolent of Cryptonomicom:

A lot of gold and gems were lost as a result of American submarine warfare; and by early 1943, it was no longer possible for the Japanese to break through the Allied blockade of the main islands except by submarine. Chichibu therefore shifted his headquarters from Singapore to Manila and ordered all the shipments to head for Philippine ports. He and his staff reasoned that the war would end with a negotiated settlement, and they believed (or imagined) that the Americans could be persuaded to transfer the Philippines to Japan in return for an end to the war. From 1942, Chichibu supervised the building of 175 'Imperial' storage sites to hide the treasure until after the war was over. Slave labourers and POWs dug tunnels and caves and then were invariably buried alive, often along with Japanese officers and soldiers, when the sites were sealed to keep their locations secret. Each cache was booby-trapped, and the few extant Golden Lily maps are elaborately encoded to hide exact location, depth, air vents (if any) and types of booby trap (e.g. large aerial bombs, sand traps, poison gases). In Manila itself, Golden Lily constructed treasure caverns in the dungeon of the old Spanish Fort Santiago, within the former American military headquarters (Fort McKinley, now Fort Bonifacio), and under the cathedral, all places the Japanese rightly assumed the Americans would not bomb. As the war came to an end, Chichibu and Takeda escaped back to Japan by submarine.

posted by y2karl at 12:46 PM on December 1, 2004

Johnson argued in his book on Japanese development in 1994 that the US is at risk owing to Japan's superior state-managed economy, even if the blurb does not. While his comments from '02 are correct, that's not what he was talking about in the early 1990s, just as Japan slid into a decade-long malaise.

Johnson was right that US economists were missing something important going on in Japan, but got carried away by his love of vitriol and his inclination to perceive sinister and well-organized forces behind recent events. He's doing the same thing now regarding US foreign policy.
posted by ibmcginty at 12:52 PM on December 1, 2004

Isn't the "imperial overstretch" argument just a reiteration of Paul Kennedy's thesis in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers? Kennedy's book was written before the Cold War was officially over (1989), but the essential point seems to be the same.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 1:04 PM on December 1, 2004

Lots of plrevious empires. We rule now! We are numero uno! Let the lefties bitch up a storm.
posted by Postroad at 1:09 PM on December 1, 2004

Great interview -- thanks, y2karl.

Lots of people were wrong about the "Japanese juggernaut" back then. If somebody has to have been always right about everything for us to listen to them, we won't have anybody to listen to.

As a matter of fact, I was telling people the Soviet Union didn't have long to live back in the '70s -- but that's because, as a Russian major, I had read Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984 by Andrei Amalrik, an amazingly prophetic work.
posted by languagehat at 1:26 PM on December 1, 2004

Uh, Postroad, what makes you include yourself in that "we"? What's that, a Bush in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

"They're looking out for number one, and you're not EVEN number two."-Frank Zappa
posted by Enron Hubbard at 1:30 PM on December 1, 2004

sure, you can be wrong about one thing and right about another, but my point here is that Johnson systematically exaggerates (real) trends and threats.

It is correct to say that we (the US) are at risk of overreaching, especially in Iraq; it is not correct to claim that we are systematically engaged in imperialism-- and were under President Clinton.

We are at risk of having a greatly reduced ability to pursue popular programs at home (owing to massive debt) and advance our interests abroad (because of that debt and diminished regard for the US). We are not at risk of losing the republic.
posted by ibmcginty at 2:05 PM on December 1, 2004

I loved Blowback, didn't know there was a sequel. Thanks! Lots of reading to do.
posted by clubfoote at 2:27 PM on December 1, 2004

We are not at risk of losing the republic.

Well, reasonable people can disagree.
posted by languagehat at 2:34 PM on December 1, 2004

Ibmmcginty: What republic do you live in?
posted by clubfoote at 2:38 PM on December 1, 2004

my point here is that Johnson systematically exaggerates (real) trends and threats

Sources, please?
posted by malaprohibita at 2:40 PM on December 1, 2004

thanks for the good post. grates on me listening to people go on at length about how we crushed the communist expansion.. and if it weren't for us...
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 2:50 PM on December 1, 2004

The only part I had a major problem with was the following: He praises Clinton for using moral arguments in the pursuit of our own ends. Part of Bush's error is, in fact, that he started bringing up the noble-ends thing - in a big way - late in the game, after the primary explanations had failed. But I don't think most nations would hold it against us if we pursued our own interests with humility - part of which includes restraining yourself from lecturing others about morality or playing up your supposed moral worthiness.
posted by raysmj at 3:22 PM on December 1, 2004

The USA has had a substantial empire since 1945. Germany and Japan have been continuously occupied by American troops ever since; they were run by the US military until civilian control was re-established under terms dictated by the Americans who wrote their constitutions; and their economies depend on exporting to the USA, that is they are functionally part of the US economy.

The US empire was popular before the Iraq war as a result of the uniquely altruistic policy toward older military dependencies (local proxy rulers chosen democratically, the economy to be run according to local as well as imperial interests). The wider influence of the USA depended to a large extent on the passive or even active acquiescence of the subordinate countries of what we used to call the free world. The USA led by example and was followed out of admiration.

There is no Marshall plan for Iraq. The elections will be the devil's own work if the sunnis boycott them and are excluded from the constitutional convention. This is a truly ignominious contrast to Japan or Germany. The USA is leading by force. Few are following. Without at least the tacit support of the biggest allies, the cost in blood and treasure of the latest imperial adventure will be sufficient to ensure that the high water mark of American greatness has been passed.

posted by apodo at 3:31 PM on December 1, 2004

Sorry, I went off on one there a bit. Please, Americans, don't allow your republic to become too militarised.

Pretty please.
posted by apodo at 3:37 PM on December 1, 2004

Yeah, one of the reporters who broke the Iran-Contra story was telling me the other day that the intelligence on the USSR was cooked to exaggerate the power of the Soviet Union in much the same way the Iraq intel was some of the same people.

Of course, I always wondered, how could all these reactionaries have so much faith in Communism as a system good enough to survive?
posted by inksyndicate at 3:56 PM on December 1, 2004

raysmj I don't think he was praising Clinton in his clever use of the military machine, but rather to just point out that it did exist then. I think it's safe to say he doesn't favor any form of militarism, clever guise or not.
posted by vodkadin at 4:38 PM on December 1, 2004

As a "Blue" person stuck in a "Red" state, I am embarrassed to call myself an American. It's bad enough that I want to start calling myself a displaced Irishman. I'm not one of the extremists who swore that he would move to Canada if Bush won a second term, but I am fearful about the state of the world right now. I do not want there to be a war that my three children will be fighting in twenty years from now, simply because some cowboy and his fat handler screwed things up for us now.
posted by Ignition at 5:18 PM on December 1, 2004

yah, i've never heard any rational person claim we "won" the cold war. just dumbasses and republicans.
posted by quonsar at 5:59 PM on December 1, 2004

and i swear i'm going to choke the next fucker who talks about a blue or red state. talk about accepting the opposition framing without even the feeblest of thought.
posted by quonsar at 6:01 PM on December 1, 2004

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