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