DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA
Interview with Chalmers Johnson
PART 1: Cold warrior in a strange land
By Tom Engelhardt
As he and his wife Sheila drive me through downtown San Diego in the glare of
midday, he suddenly exclaims, "Look at that structure!" I glance over and just
across the blue expanse of the harbor is an enormous aircraft carrier. "It's
the USS Ronald Reagan," he says, "the newest carrier in the fleet. It's a
floating Chernobyl and it sits a proverbial six inches off the bottom with two
huge atomic reactors. You make a wrong move and there goes the country's
Soon, we're heading toward their home just up the coast in one of those fabled
highway traffic jams that every description of
southern California must include. "We feel we're far enough north," he adds in
the kind of amused tone that makes his company both alarming and thoroughly
entertaining, "so we could see the glow, get the cat, pack up, and head for
Chalmers Johnson, who served in the US Navy and now is a historian of US
militarism, lives cheek-by-jowl with his former service. San Diego is the
headquarters of the 11th Naval District. "It's wall-to-wall military bases
right up the coast," he comments. "By the way, this summer the Pentagon's
planning the largest naval concentration in the Pacific in the post-World War
II period! Four aircraft-carrier task forces - two from the Atlantic, and
that's almost unprecedented - doing military exercises off the coast of China."
That afternoon, we seat ourselves at his dining-room table. He's 74 years old,
crippled by rheumatoid arthritis and bad knees. He walks with a cane, but his
is one of the spriest minds in town. Out the window I can see a plethora of
strange, oversized succulents. In the distance, the Pacific Ocean gleams.
Johnson is wearing a black T-shirt that, he tells me, a former military officer
and friend brought back from Russia. The shirt sports an illustration of an
AK-47 on its front with the inscription "Mikhail Kalashnikov" in Cyrillic
script, and underneath, "The freedom fighter's friend, a product of the Soviet
Union." On the back in English, it says "World Massacre Tour" with the
following list: "The Gulf War, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Angola, Laos, Nicaragua,
Salvador, Lebanon, Gaza Strip, Karabakh, Chechnya ... To be continued."
Johnson, who served as a lieutenant junior grade in the US Navy
in the early 1950s and from 1967-73 was a consultant for the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA), ran the Center for Chinese Studies at the University
of California, Berkeley for years. He defended the Vietnam War ("In that I was
distinctly a man of my times ..."), but is probably the only person of his
generation to have written, in the years since, anything like this passage from
the introduction to his book Blowback:
The problem was that I
knew too much about the international communist movement and not enough about
the United States government and its Department of Defense ... In retrospect, I
wish I had stood with the anti-war protest movement. For all its naivete and
unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong.
after a long, provocative career as a Japan specialist, he is the author of the
prophetic Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire,
published in 2000 to little attention. After September 11, 2001, it became a
best-seller, putting the word "blowback", a CIA term for retaliation for US
covert actions, into common usage. He has since written The Sorrows of Empire,
Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. He is just now
completing the final volume of his Blowback Trilogy. It will be titled Nemesis.
Sharp as a tack, energetic and high-spirited, by turns genuinely alarmed and
thoroughly sardonic, he's a talker by nature. Our encounter is an interview in
name only. No one has ever needed an interviewer less. I do begin with a
question that has been on my mind, but it's hardly necessary.
Tomdispatch: Let's start with a telltale moment in your life, the
moment when the Cold War ended. What did it mean to you?
Chalmers Johnson: I was a Cold Warrior. There's no doubt about
that. I believed the Soviet Union was a genuine menace. I still think so.
There's no doubt that, in some ways, the Soviet Union inspired a degree of
idealism. There are grown men I admire who can't but stand up if they hear the Internationale
being played, even though they split with the communists ages ago because of
the NKVD [Soviet secret police agency, a forerunner of the KGB] and the gulag.
I thought we needed to protect ourselves from the Soviets.
As I saw it, the only justification for our monster military apparatus, its
size, the amounts spent on it, the growth of the military-industrial complex
that [president Dwight] Eisenhower identified for us, was the existence of the
Soviet Union and its determination to match us. The fact that the Soviet Union
was global, that it was extremely powerful, mattered, but none of us fully
anticipated its weaknesses.
I had been there in 1978 at the height of [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev's
power. You certainly had a sense then that no consumer economy was present. My
colleagues at the Institute for the USA and Canada were full of "Oh my god, I
found a bottle of good Georgian white wine," or "The Cubans have something good
in, let's go over to their bar"; but if you went down to the store, all you
could buy was vodka.
It was a fairly rough kind of world, but some things they did very, very well.
We talk about missile defense for this country. To this day, there's only one
nation with a weapon that could penetrate any missile defense we put up - and
that's Russia. And we still can't possibly match the one they have, the
Topol-M, also known as the SS-27. When [president Ronald] Reagan said he was
going to build a Star Wars, these very smart Soviet weapon-makers said: We're
going to stop it. And they did.
As [senator] Daniel Moynihan said: Who needs a CIA that couldn't tell the
Soviet Union was falling apart in the 1980s, a $32 billion intelligence agency
that could not figure out their economy was in such awful shape they were going
to come apart as a result of their war in Afghanistan and a few other things?
In 1989, [Soviet leader] Mikhail Gorbachev makes a decision. They could have
stopped the Germans from tearing down the Berlin Wall, but for the future of
Russia he decided he'd rather have friendly relations with Germany and France
than with those miserable satellites [Josef] Stalin had created in East
Europe. So he just watches them tear it down and, at once, the whole Soviet
empire starts to unravel. It's the same sort of thing that might happen to us
if we ever stood by and watched the Okinawans kick us out of Okinawa. I think
our empire might unravel in a way you could never stop once it started.
The Soviet Union imploded. I thought: What an incredible vindication for the
United States. Now it's over, and the time has come for a real victory
dividend, a genuine peace dividend. The question was: Would the US behave as it
had in the past when big wars came to an end? We disarmed so rapidly after
World War II. Granted, in 1947 we started to rearm very rapidly, but by then
our military was farcical. In 1989, what startled me almost more than the Wall
coming down was this: As the entire justification for the military-industrial
complex, for the Pentagon apparatus, for the fleets around the world, for all
our bases came to an end, the United States instantly - pure knee-jerk reaction
- began to seek an alternative enemy. Our leaders simply could not contemplate
dismantling the apparatus of the Cold War.
That was, I thought, shocking. I was no less shocked that the American public
seemed indifferent. And what things they did do were disastrous. George Bush,
the father, was president. He instantaneously declared that he was no longer
interested in Afghanistan. It's over. What a huge cost we've paid for that, for
creating the largest clandestine operation we ever had and then just walking
away, so that any Afghan we recruited in the 1980s in the fight against the
Soviet Union instantaneously came to see us as the enemy - and started paying
us back. The biggest blowback of the lot was, of course, September 11, but
there were plenty of them before then.
I was flabbergasted and felt the need to understand what had happened. The
chief question that came to mind almost at once, as soon as it was clear that
our part of the Cold War was going to be perpetuated - the same structure, the
same military Keynesianism, an economy based largely on the building of weapons
- was: Did this suggest that the Cold War was, in fact, a cover for something
else; that something else being an American empire intentionally created during
World War II as the successor to the British Empire?.
Now that led me to say: Yes, the Cold War was not the clean-cut conflict
between totalitarian and democratic values that we had claimed it to be. You
can make something of a claim for that in Western Europe at certain points in
the 1950s, but once you bring it into the global context, once you include
China and our two East Asian wars, Korea and Vietnam, the whole thing breaks
down badly, and this caused me to realize that I had some rethinking to do.
The wise-ass sophomore has said to me - this has happened a number of times -
"Aren't you being inconsistent?" I usually answer with the famous remark of
John Maynard Keynes, the British economist who, when once accused of being
inconsistent, said to his questioner, "Well, when I get new information, I
rethink my position. What, sir, do you do with new information?"
A personal experience five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union also
set me rethinking international relations in a more basic way. I was invited to
Okinawa by its governor in the wake of a very serious incident. On September 4,
1995, two marines and a sailor raped a 12-year-old girl. It produced the
biggest outpouring of anti-Americanism in our key ally, Japan, since the
Security Treaty was signed [in 1960].
I had never been to Okinawa before, even though I had spent most of my life
studying Japan. I was flabbergasted by the 32 American military bases I found
on an island smaller than Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands and the enormous
pressures it put on the population there. My first reaction as a good Cold
Warrior was: Okinawa must be exceptional. It's off the beaten track. The
American press doesn't cover it. It's a military colony.
Our military has been there since the battle of Okinawa in 1945. It had all the
smell of the Raj about it. But I assumed that this was just an unfortunate, if
revealing, pimple on the side of our huge apparatus. As I began to study it,
though, I discovered that Okinawa was not exceptional. It was the norm. It was
what you find in all of the American military enclaves around the world.
TD: The way we garrison the planet has been essential to your
rethinking of the American position in the world. Your chapters on Pentagon
basing policy were the heart of your last book, The Sorrows of Empire.
Didn't you find it strange that, whether reviewers liked the book or not, none
of them seemed to deal with your take on our actual bases? What do you make of
CJ: I don't know why that is. I don't know why Americans take for
granted, for instance, that huge American military reservations in the United
States are natural ways to organize things. There's nothing slightly natural
about them. They're artificial and expensive. One of the most interesting
ceremonies of recent times is the brouhaha over announced base closings. After
all, it's perfectly logical for the Department of Defense to shut down
redundant facilities, but you wouldn't think so from all the fuss.
I'm always amazed by the way we kid ourselves about the influence of the
military-industrial complex in our society. We use euphemisms like supply-side
economics or the Laffer Curve. We never say: We're artificially making work. If
the WPA [Works Progress Administration of the Great Depression] was often
called a dig-holes-and-fill-'em-up-again project, now we're making things that
blow up and we sell them to people. Our weapons aren't particularly good, not
compared to those of the great weapons makers around the world. It's just that
we can make a lot of them very rapidly.
TD: As a professional editor, I would say that when we look at
the world, we have a remarkable ability to edit it.
CJ: Absolutely. We edit parts of it out. I mean, people in San
Diego don't seem the least bit surprised that between here and Los Angeles is a
huge military reservation called Camp Pendleton, the headquarters of the 1st
Marine Division. I was there myself back in the Korean War days. I
unfortunately crossed the captain of the LST-883 that I was serving on. We had
orders to send an officer to Camp Pendleton and he said, "I know who I'm going
to send." It was me [he laughs]. And I'll never forget it. The world of marine
drill sergeants is another universe.
In many ways, as an enthusiast for the natural environment, I am delighted to
have Pendleton there. It's a cordon sanitaire. I spent a little time with its
commandant maybe a decade ago. We got to talking about protecting birds and he
said, "I'm under orders to protect these birds. One of my troops drives across
a bird's nest in his tank and I'll court-martial him. Now, if that goddamn bird
flies over to San Clemente, he takes his chances."
Even then I thought: That's one of the few things going for you guys, because
nothing else that goes on here particularly contributes to our country. Today,
of course, with the military eager to suspend compliance with environmental
regulations, even that small benefit is gone.
TD: So, returning to our starting point, you saw an empire and
CJ: ... It had to be conceptualized. Empires are defined so often
as holders of colonies, but analytically, by empire we simply mean the
projection of hegemony outward, over other people, using them to serve our
interests, regardless of how their interests may be affected.
So what kind of empire is ours? The unit is not the colony, it's the military
base. This is not quite as unusual as defenders of the concept of empire often
assume. That is to say, we can easily calculate the main military bases of the
Roman Empire in the Middle East, and it turns out to be about the same number
it takes to garrison the region today. You need about 38 major bases. You can
plot them out in Roman times and you can plot them out today.
An empire of bases - that's the concept that best explains the logic of the 700
or more military bases around the world acknowledged by the Department of
Defense. Now, we're just kidding ourselves that this is to provide security for
Americans. In most cases, it's true that we first occupied these bases with
some strategic purpose in mind in one of our wars. Then the war ends and we
never give them up. We discovered that it's part of the game; it's the perk for
the people who fought the war. The marines to this day believe they deserve to
be in Okinawa because of the losses they had in the bloodiest and last big
battle of World War II.
I was astonished, however, at how quickly the concept of empire - though not
necessarily an empire of bases - became acceptable to the neo-conservatives and
others in the era of the younger Bush. After all, to use the term proudly, as
many of them did, meant flying directly in the face of the origins of the
United States. We used to pride ourselves on being as anti-imperialist as
anybody could be, attacking a king who ruled in such a tyrannical manner. That
lasted only, I suppose, until the Spanish-American War. We'd already become an
empire well before that, of course.
TD: Haven't we now become kind of a one-legged empire in the
sense that, as you've written, just about everything has become military?
CJ: That's what's truly ominous about the American empire. In
most empires, the military is there, but militarism is so central to ours -
militarism not meaning national defense or even the projection of force for
political purposes, but as a way of life, as a way of getting rich or getting
comfortable. I guarantee you that the 1st Marine Division lives better in
Okinawa than in Oceanside, California, by considerable orders of magnitude.
After the Wall came down, the Soviet troops didn't leave East Germany for five
years. They didn't want to go home. They were living so much better in Germany
than they knew they would be back in poor Russia.
Most empires try to disguise that military aspect of things. Our problem is:
For some reason, we love our military. We regard it as a microcosm of our
society and as an institution that works. There's nothing more hypocritical, or
constantly invoked by our politicians, than "support our boys". After all,
those boys and girls aren't necessarily the most admirable human beings that
ever came along, certainly not once they get into another society where they
are told they are, by definition, doing good. Then the racism that's such a
part of our society emerges very rapidly - once they get into societies where
they don't understand what's going on, where they shout at some poor Iraqi in
TD: I assume you'd agree that our imperial budget is the defense
budget. Do you want to make some sense of it for us?
CJ: Part of empire is the way it's penetrated our society, the
way we've become dependent on it. Empires in the past - the Roman Empire, the
British Empire, the Japanese Empire - helped to enrich British citizens, Roman
citizens, Japanese citizens. In our society, we don't want to admit how deeply
the making and selling of weaponry has become our way of life; that we really
have no more than four major weapons manufacturers - Boeing, Lockheed Martin,
Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics - but these companies distribute their huge
contracts to as many states, as many congressional districts, as possible.
The military budget is starting to bankrupt the country. It's got so much in it
that's well beyond any rational military purpose. It equals just less than half
of total global military spending. And yet here we are, stymied by two of the
smallest, poorest countries on Earth. Iraq before we invaded had a GDP [gross
domestic product] the size of the state of Louisiana and Afghanistan was
certainly one of the poorest places on the planet. And yet these two places
have stopped us.
Militarily, we've got an incoherent, not very intelligent budget. It becomes
less incoherent only when you realize the ways it's being used to fund our
industries or that one of the few things we still manufacture reasonably
effectively is weapons. It's a huge export business, run not by the companies
but by foreign military sales within the Pentagon.
This is not, of course, free enterprise. Four huge manufacturers with only one
major customer. This is state socialism, and it's keeping the economy running
not in the way it's taught in any economics course in any American university.
It's closer to what John Maynard Keynes advocated for getting out of the Great
Depression - counter-cyclical governmental expenditures to keep people
The country suffers from a collective anxiety neurosis every time we talk about
closing bases, and it has nothing to do with politics. New England goes just as
mad over shutting down the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as people here in San
Diego would if you suggested shutting the Marine Corps Air Station. It's always
seen as "our base". How dare you take away our base! Our congressmen must get
This illustrates what I consider the most insidious aspect of our militarism
and our military empire. We can't get off it anymore. It's not that we're
hooked in a narcotic sense. It's just that we'd collapse as an economy if we
let it go and we know it. That's the terrifying thing.
And the precedents for this should really terrify us. The greatest single
previous example of military Keynesianism - that is, of taking an economy
distraught over recession or depression, over people being very close to the
edge and turning it around - is Germany. Remember, for the five years after
Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933, he was admired as one of the geniuses
of modern times. And people were put back to work. This was done entirely
through military Keynesianism, an alliance between the Nazi Party and German
Many at the time claimed it was an answer to the problems of real Keynesianism,
of using artificial government demand to reopen factories, which was seen as
strengthening the trade unions, the working class. Capitalists were afraid of
government policies that tended to strengthen the working class. They might
prove to be revolutionary. They had been often enough in that century. In this
country, we were still shell-shocked over Bolshevism; to a certain extent, we
What we've done with our economy is very similar to what Adolf Hitler did with
his. We turn out airplanes and other weapons systems in huge numbers. This
leads us right back to 1991 when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. We
couldn't let the Cold War come to an end. We realized it very quickly. In fact,
there are many people who believe that the thrust of the Cold War even as it
began, especially in the National Security Council's grand strategy document,
NSC68, rested on the clear understanding of late middle-aged Americans who had
lived through the Great Depression that the American economy could not sustain
itself on the basis of capitalist free enterprise.
And that's how - my god - in 1966, only a couple of decades after we started
down this path, we ended up with some 32,000 nuclear warheads. That was the
year of the peak stockpile, which made no sense at all. We still have 9,960 at
the present moment.
Now, the 2007 Pentagon budget doesn't make sense either. It's $439.3 billion
TD: ... Not including war ...
CJ: Not including war! These people have talked us into building
a fantastic military apparatus, and then, there was that famous crack
[president Bill Clinton's secretary of state] Madeleine Albright made to
General Colin Powell: "What's the point of having this superb military you're
always talking about if we can't use it?" Well, if you want to use it today,
they charge you another $120 billion! [He laughs.]
But even the official budget makes no sense. It's filled with weapons like
Lockheed Martin's F-22 - the biggest single contract ever written. It's a
stealth airplane and it's absolutely useless. They want to build another
Virginia-class nuclear submarine. These are just toys for the admirals.
TD : When we were younger, there were always lots of articles
about Pentagon boondoggles, the million-dollar military monkey wrench and the
like. No one bothers to write articles like that anymore, do they?
CJ: That's because they've completely given up on decent, normal
accounting at the Pentagon. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist,
and a colleague at Harvard have put together a real Pentagon budget which, for
the wars we're fighting right now, comes out to about $2 trillion.
What they've added in are things like interest on the national debt that was
used to buy arms in the past. Turns out to be quite a few billion dollars.
Above all, they try to get a halfway-honest figure for veterans' benefits. For
this year, it's officially $68 billion, which is almost surely way too low
given, if nothing more, the huge number of veterans who applied for and
received benefits after our first Gulf War.
We hear on the nightly news about the medical miracle that people can be in an
explosion in which, essentially, three 155-millimeter shells go off underneath
a Humvee, and they survive through heroic emergency efforts. Barely. Like Bob
Woodruff, the anchor person from ABC News. The guy who saved his life said, I
thought he was dead when I picked him up. But many of these military casualties
will be wards of the state forever. Do we intend to disavow them? It leads you
back to the famous anti-war cracks of the 1930s, when congressmen used to say:
There's nothing we wouldn't do for our troops - and that's what we do, nothing.
We almost surely will have to repudiate some of the promises we've made. For
instance, Tricare is the government's medical care for veterans, their
families. It's a mere $39 billion for 2007. But those numbers are going to go
off the chart. And we can't afford it.
Even that pompous ideologue Donald Rumsfeld seems to have thrown in the towel
on the latest budget. Not a thing is cut. Every weapon got through. He stands
for "force transformation" and we already have enough nuclear equipment for any
imaginable situation, so why on earth spend anything more? And yet the
Department of Energy is spending $18.5 billion on nuclear weapons in fiscal
year 2006, according to former senior Defense Department budget analyst Winslow
Wheeler, who is today a researcher with the Center for Defense Information.
TD: Not included in the Pentagon budget.
CJ: Of course not. This is the Department of Energy's budget.
TD: In other words, there's a whole hidden budget ...
CJ: Oh, it's huge! Three-quarters of a trillion dollars is the
number I use for the whole shebang: $440 billion for the authorized budget; at
least $120 billion for the supplementary war-fighting budget, calculated by
Tina Jones, the comptroller of the Department of Defense, at $6.8 billion per
Then you add in all the other things out there, above all veterans' care, care
of the badly wounded who, not so long ago, would have added up to something
more like Vietnam-era casualty figures. In Vietnam, they were dead bodies;
these are still-living people. They're so embarrassing to the administration
that they're flown back at night, offloaded without any citizens seeing what's
going on. It's amazing to me that [Congressman] John Murtha, as big a friend as
the defense industry ever had - you could count on him to buy any crazy
missile-defense gimmick, anything in outer space - seems to have slightly woken
up only because he spent some time as an old marine veteran going to the
Another person who may be getting this message across to the public is Gary
Trudeau in some of his Doonesbury cartoons. Tom, I know your mother
was a cartoonist and we both treasure Walt Kelly, who drew the Pogo strip.
How applicable is Pogo's most famous line today: "We have met the enemy and he
PART 2: Whatever happened to Congress?
Tom Engelhardt is editor of
Tomdispatchand the author of The End of Victory
Culture. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has recently come out in