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Telling the People’s Story: A Tribute to Chalmers Johnson

Tim Shorrock

For Chalmers Johnson, a great man who died this weekend.

February 1996, I broke a major story on U.S. foreign policy, reporting
for the first time how the United States government and the Carter
administration had secretly backed the South Korean government in its
1980 crackdown on a nation-wide movement to end military rule. The May
1980 coup led directly to the massacre of hundreds of activists by South
Korean Special Forces in the Korean city of Kwangju. My stories
appeared on the first day of the trial in Seoul of the two generals and
former presidents who had led the coup; both were later convicted for
murder and treason. The stories were a sensation in South Korea. But, to
my shock, they were virtually ignored by the U.S. media, including both
the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, which had covered the
1980 events in detail. I concluded that nobody here really cared, and
went back to my regular beat, covering trade and transportation for the
Journal of Commerce.

About 10 days after my stories appeared, a three-page,
single-spaced fax came in for me from somewhere in San Diego. It was
from Chalmers Johnson,
a former professor of Asian Studies at the University of California who
I knew by reputation as an excellent writer and commentator on Japan,
Asia and U.S. foreign policy. In the fax, Chalmers praised my stories
and said they had confirmed what he suspected about the U.S. role in
South Korea during the Cold War, which he was then investigating for a
book that he would later publish under the title of BLOWBACK: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.
To make sure that my work received broader coverage, he invited me to
speak at a conference he was organizing on the legacy of the Cold War in
Asia later that year in San Francisco.  There, I met Chal, as I came to
know him, and presented my findings on Kwangju. I also met many of
Chal's friends and colleagues, including Steve Clemons, who had lived in
Japan as well and is now the vice president of the New America
Foundation in Washington. That conference was a turning point in my
writing career, lifting me out of journalist obscurity and putting me in
touch with many other writers and analysts who I'd long admired from

An even greater surprise greeted me when BLOWBACK was published a
few years later. In his chapter on Korea, Chalmers not only cited my
work on the U.S. role in Kwangju, but wrote me into his book.

Our understanding of what the South Korea
of late 1979 owes a great deal to the efforts of an American
journalist, Tim Shorrock, who was raised in Seoul as the child of
American missionaries. Shorrock has used the Freedom of Information Act
[to force] the U.S. government to divulge some two thousand diplomatic
and military cables concerning Korea to and from the State Department
and the Defense Intelligence Agency in 1979 and 1980....Most of the cables
are from a secret policy-making group that the Carter administration
set up ten days after the assassination of Park Chung Hee [in October
1979]...As revealed in these documents, the primary goal of the United
States was to keep South Korea from turning into ‘another Iran.' Towards
this goal, the American were quite prepared to see General Park
replaced by a new, perhaps more malleable general who would effectively
suppress the rising calls for democracy that might prove

Chalmer's last book, Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope,
was published earlier this year. In one of his chapters, again to my
delight, he quoted extensively from my 2008 book, Spies for Hire: The
Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. "I applaud Shorrock for his
extraordinary research into an almost inpenetrable subject using only
openly available sources," he wrote. My findings, he said, were
"devastating." But then, in typical Chalmers fashion, he called me out
on my use of language.

There is, however, one aspect of [Shorrock's]
analysis which which I differ. This is his contention that the wholesale
takeover of official intelligence collection and analysis by private
companies is a form of "outsourcing." This term is usually restricted to
a business enterprise buying goods and services that it does not want
to manufacture or supply in-house. When it is applied to a governmental
agency that turns over many, if not all, of its key functions to a
risk-averse company trying to make a return on its investment,
"outsourcing" simply becomes a euphemism for mercenary activities.

He was so right. So, from now on, Chal, I'll use that term: mercenaries.

I owe Chalmers Johnson a huge debt. By making me feel that my
years of work and research on U.S. foreign policy were worthwhile, he
helped launch my second career as an independent journalist. He is also
noteworthy for his courage and honesty as an intellectual who was able
to question his earlier support for the Vietnam War and forge a new way
of looking at America and its past. I salute Chal for his life and work,
which is beautifully profiled here
by his friend and protege, Steve Clemons. As a tribute, I offer this
essay, which explains my own philosophy of what I call "humanitarian
journalism" - a way of writing about the world that is due in no small
part to the courageous and pioneering work of the late, great Chalmers
Johnson. Presente!

How I came to be a humanitarian journalist
By Tim Shorrock

In the fall of 2008, I was asked to speak at a conference
organized by Alexis Dudden, a professor at the University of
Connecticut, on Humanitarianism and Responsibility. Most of the speakers
were human rights activists, and I was honored to be the only
journalist. In my talk, I explained how I had become an investigative
and humanitarian journalist and focused on two events that completely
changed my life: my coverage of Korea in 1980 and Hurricane Katrina in
2005. Here's what I said:

When Alexis first asked me to speak here, she suggested that I talk
about my experiences as a journalist writing about South Korea during
the 1980s and New Orleans and the US Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
She saw a connection between my reporting in both instances. That was
intriguing to me because 1) those experiences were among the most moving
and emotionally jarring experiences of my adult life and certainly the
highlights of my career as an investigative journalist and 2) nobody had
ever suggested that those stories might be connected.

But as I began to think about the topic of this conference I had to
figure out how my Korea and Katrina reporting would fit into our theme.
How could I define it in the context of humanitarianism and
responsibility? Particularly when journalists typically report about
humanitarian disasters and situations from the perspective of observers,
but rarely actually participate in them. And suddenly the answer
loomed: I should talk about humanitarian journalism. It occured to me
that that's what I've been practicing all these years - without even
knowing it. So today I'm going to create a new genre of journalism.

Let me start with my experiences in Korea. In 1980 a terrible event
occured in Kwangju, a city in southwestern Korea that was the birthplace
of Kim Dae Jung, South Korea's former president and its most famous
dissident. On May 18, 1980, hundreds of students and democratic
activists were shot down and bayonetted to death in the wake of a
violent military coup in which Kim Dae Jung - who'd nearly been murdered
by the Korean CIA seven years earlier - was arrested and nearly
executed. In
response to the savagery of the Korean Special Forces who were
responsible for the bloodshed that day, the citizens of Kwangju, who
were well organized after years of oppression, took up guns and chased
the military out of town. For seven days a citizens' committee held the
city, negotiating with the military to seek a peaceful end to the
crisis. It was the first uprising against military rule in South Korea
since the Korean War and is widely seen there as a turning point in
Korea's democratic movement.

At the time of the uprising, a US military general commanded the
combined South Korean-US Joint Command - just as it does now. One of the
most powerful figures in the country was the American ambassador, the
late William Gleysteen. With Korean and US forces surrounding the city,
the Kwangju Citizens Committee made a desperate attempt to bring Mr.
Gleysteen into the negotiations. But taking his command from President
Jimmy Carter, a man who had pledged to make human rights the centerpiece
of US foreign policy, Gleysteen refused. On May 22, 1980, at a meeting
at the White House, Carter's national security team - led by national
security adviser Zbigniew Brzenzski and Assistant Secretary of State
Richard Holbrooke - made a fateful decision to deploy Korean troops from
the DMZ, the border with the North Korea, to put down the uprising. 

Under my FOIA request, the secret minutes of that meeting were
declassified. After a full discussion, the minutes stated, "there was
general agreement that the first priority is the restoration of order in
Kwangju by the Korean authorities with the minimum use of force
necessary without laying the seeds for wide disorders later...Once order
is restored, it was agreed we must press the Korean government, and the
military in particular, to allow a greater degree of political freedom
to evolve," the White House decided. The U.S. position was summed up by
Mr. Brzezinski as "in the short-term support, in the longer-term
pressure for political evolution." But over the next eight years South
Koreans endured one of the harshest police states in the world. And the
people never forgot that all this had occured under a US president
promising respect for human rights.

Even though I was living in the United States at the time, I was
following these events almost on a minute by minute basis. In 1980, I
was a graduate student in Asian Studies at the University of Oregon, and
writing a thesis about the South Korean economy and its dependence on
low-cost and unorganized workers. Workers and unions played a huge role
in the democratic movement. I was shocked and ashamed that my government
had aided and abetted a government that oppressed its citizens. A year
after the Kwangju Uprising I went to the city and learned first-hand
about the events there. I returned in 1985 and
met many activists, some recently released from prison, who told me
more stories and described their anger at the betrayal of the United
States. Tell the American people why we are so angry, they asked
me. Explain to them what we've been through. Make them understand that
we believed America supported democracy, but when democracy was on the
line, your leaders let us down. Tell Americans that we Koreans will
never forget. I promised them that I would, and I promised myself that I
would try to unravel the truth of the disgraceful American role in the

Why was I so outraged? Well, I had grown up in South Korea and Japan
and had been raised by parents who spent their life serving humanitarian
causes. My dad had learned the Japanese language while serving in the
Navy during World War II and he and my mom, after meeting down the road
from here at Yale Divinity School, had gone to Japan in 1947 as
missionaries. For most of the next 20 years my dad provided humanitarin
relief to Japan and South Korea sent by US churches. They both had a
lifelong commitment to healing the wounds of war and improving the lives
of people who had previously been America's enemies. Their commitment
placed a heavy burden on me and my siblings - not always a welcome one, I
must add. But it nurtured in me a sense that I owed something to
humanity and the knowledge that there were many many people less
fortunate than me. And a belief that I had a responsibility to somehow
make others aware of these truths.

Later, after South Korea became a democracy, the Korean parliament
began looking into the events at Kwangju. The Bush administration
refused to allow the US ambassador and the top US general to testify;
instead it wrote a "white paper" explaining US actions. I read it
carefully. After visiting Kwangju twice and reading everything I could
find about the incident, I concluded it was full of holes. I filed a
freedom of information request for all the background documents. By 1996
I had compiled over 3,500 pages of declassified documents.

They showed that, far from being ignorant of what the Korean military
was planning in May 1980, the United States 1) gave the Korean generals
a green light to use military forces to end the nationwide, peaceful
protest movement that spread throughout South Korea in the spring of
1980 and 2) knew ahead of time that the generals were sending special
forces troops trained to kill North Koreans to Kwangju and other

We did not pull the trigger of the guns at Kwangju. But our
government was complicit in the killing. To this day, no American
official has ever acknowledged this or taken responsibility. But thanks
to the documents I obtained, historians such as Chalmers Johnson and Don
Oberdorfer have been able to write that the American role was far more
direct than was ever admitted. Those documents told the truth. It's one
of the greatest accomplishments of my life. While my reporting on that
story was fair, it was not objective - I took the side of the Korean
democratic fighters who risked and lost their lives at the hands of one
of the most vicious police states ever seen in Asia. My stories came
from my identification with humanity and the truth. For a journalist
there is nothing more important.

That's also what drove me to report on Hurricane Katrina, which was
in part a man-made tragedy where the government utterly failed to serve
the people it is supposed to represent.

At the time of the hurricane I was living in Memphis, Tennessee. I
was shocked along with most of the world at the inhumane response of the
Bush administration. The thousands of people begging for help and 
rescue. President Bush playing air guitar while the nation wept. Telling
his FEMA chief, "Brownie," that he was doing a ‘heck of a job' as the
terrible events unfolded. I soon heard about a free clinic that had
sprung up during the hurricane to help the poor and dispossessed. This
was amazing to me because I knew from first hand experience that
hundreds of nurses had contacted the Red Cross and the government to
volunteer their services - only to be told that there was no need.
Another lie.

I went down to the clinic, which was called Common Ground, in late
September - about 3 weeks after the storm. I stayed in New Orleans for
weeks afterward, and later spent a lot of time on the Mississippi Gulf
Coast. It was heartbreaking.

Remember, I grew up in postwar Asia. I've seen a lot of destruction.
But nothing like I saw in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, where the flooding
from the collapse of the levees was the worst. For blocks in every
direction it was complete destruction. Empty lots where houses once
stood. Cars on roofs. Big black marks showing how many bodies had been
found in certain houses. It looked like a war zone. People evacuated as
far as Utah, not knowing if they'd ever see their homes and
neighborhoods again. And
all our government did was hand out big contracts to giant corporations
and asked them to lead the ‘reconstruction' - for a profit of course.
The people, the suffering people, were last on their list.

When I was down there I felt an intense sense of shame. I was ashamed
that my government could let its own citizens down like this. I was
ashamed that a proud African American community, with an amazing
cultural heritage, could be abandoned like so much lost cattle. And I
was angry at the excuses and explanations from Bush and his minions. The
racist response of people like Rush Limbaugh that the people of New
Orleans just wanted a handout - statements he repeated this year when
flooding struck white Iowa. I yearned, and still do, for a government
that cared for its citizens. All I could think of while I was there was -
we need a new New Deal, like Roosevelt started. We need a Works
Progress Administration - giving jobs to youths and anyone else who
wanted to help New Orleans rebuild. We still need that.

But most of all I was struck by the humanity and dignity of the
people living there. There's one day I'll never forget as long as I
live. I was in New Orleans on assignment for Mother Jones
with a photographer friend, Kike Arnal, who's from Venezuela. We'd
spent the last few days in the Ninth Ward walking around. The only
people in the area were rescue workers, the police and the National
Guard. One day the city announced that homeowners could go back to their
neighborhoods for the first time. Kike and I showed up at a big
crossroads in the Ninth Ward.

As Kike and I drove up, we spotted a family getting out of a van and
pulling on white overclothes to protect themselves as they entered their
homes for the first time since the storm. We asked them if we could
accompany them, and they readily agreed. It
was a family of four: Evelyn Gilbert, and her three sons, all in their
50s: Rhett, Gustaf and Daniel. I felt privileged to be with them on such
a sacred moment. Kike and I followed them slowly down North Claiborne
and into a little cul-de-sac near the canal. We stopped and got out in
front of a long white house completely off its foundation. Next to it
was a tiny blue structure, leaning crazily to one side with its roof
caving in. It had been Evelyn's home, and was built in 1978, she said;
the rest of the family lived next door. The heavy line at the top of the
roofs showed that both houses had been almost completely under water. 

As the Gilbert brothers explored their property, I hung back, feeling
like an interloper and trying to avoid being intrusive. After a while, I
asked Evelyn, who didn't want to go near her house, where she was when
the water came. She told me she was evacuated on the Friday before the
storm, and ended up in Houston; she's now staying in Mississippi with
family. She watched anxiously as her sons pushed open her front door and
gingerly took a few steps inside the destroyed house. Finally, Rhett
walked out carrying a portable barbeque. "We found something at least,"
he said. "But it's the only thing salvageable." He dusted it off as best
he could and loaded it into the van.

Gustaf and Daniel then went to look at their house as Rhett told me a
little about the neighborhood. "I was born and raised here, and this is
the only place I know," he said. "I know this city like the back of my
hand." He motioned to the other broken structures near their property.
"All these are kin-folk. Used to walk to the church over there, the
store." Now, he said, he lives in Dallas, and everywhere he walks he
runs into another freeway; worse, the services he needs are far away. He
had no idea if he and his family will return, or where his former
neighbors are. Finished with their short tour, the Gilbert family shook
hands with Kike and me and slowly drove away. All I could do was sit
inside my car and weep.

Later that day Kike and I ran across Michelle McKenney Jones outside
of her family home in the Lower Ninth that was built by her grandfather
in 1953 and where her mother lived until Hurricane Katrina and Rita
swept through the area. Jones sighed as she surveyed the house, which
was knocked off its foundations and is now uninhabitable. The social
impact of the disaster in the Ninth Ward, she said, was compounded
because this neighborhood once had the highest percentage of black
homeownership in the entire Parish of Orleans. Then she paused as her
emotions caught up with her.

"You've got to be our voice," she told me and Kike. "This
community doesn't have a voice. Nobody seems to be listening to us.
Represent us, please." As she spoke, tears filled her eyes and rolled
down her cheeks. Kike and I stood with her in silence for a minute,
trying to share her grief, and assured her that we would hold her words
in our hearts. And I did tell her story. And I'm telling it to you now.

So what motivated me in both cases were the pleas of the victims and
survivors - tell our story because no one else will: "Be our voice." I
heard almost the exact same words when I was reporting in Kwangju. I
took those words like a solemn vow. Another motivation was the
callousness of the government. Once, after my first visit to Kwangju, I
met with the political officer at the US Embassy in Seoul. He told me
the stories I'd heard about massive killing were exagerrations. Even the
ones from the American missionaries, he said. Much later, when I got
the documents, I was told officially by the State Department that, while
Kwangju was a tragedy, "When all the dust settles, Koreans
killed Koreans, and the Americans didn't know what was going on and
certainly didn't approve it."

Yet we trained these soldiers. We financed them. We told them their
job was to defend their country against communism - and their own
generals told them the rebels in Kwangju were communsts, to be treated
like dogs (a statement that was repeated almost word for word on ABC's
Nightline by US General John Singlaub). Once I confronted Richard
Holbrooke about Kwangju, and he literally screamed at me, explaining I
had no real understanding of the national security stakes involved.

It was the same with Katrina. Nobody took responsibility. Brownie was
fired, sure. But all the corporations that failed miserably to help -
like the ones who couldn't get the buses to New Orleans on time, or the
ones who supplied the trailers filled with formaldahyde that poisoned -
and still poison - so many residents of the Gulf - they got paid. Soon,
America forgot what happened. Katrina was a national disgrace. There's
no other way to look at it. And that's because it's my responsibility as
a journalist and a human being to speak for those who have no voice.

In other words, the truth of those residents of New Orleans
and Kwangju is all of our truth. Humanitarianism means understanding the
truth of lives we know nothing about. Responsibility means doing
something to alleviate their pain and make sure their suffering never
happens again. And to me that is the ultimate responsibilty of
journalism - to go where ordinary people can't go and tell the stories
of those who suffer so the rest of the world can do something. It's not
"objective" journalism. There's not "another side" to the story. It's
exposing reality - placing it before the public so they can't hide from
it. And our leaders can't hide from it. It means taking risks. It means
coming off like a fanatic sometime. It means making other people
uncomfortable and even angry. And it means being human, and taking
responsibility for the other inhabitants of this planet, and saying NO
to the powers that be.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Tim Shorrock

Tim Shorrock

Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based investigative journalist who grew up in Japan and South Korea. He is the author of "Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Outsourced Intelligence" (2008).  Over the past 35 years, his work has appeared in many publications in the United States and abroad, including Salon, the Atlantic, the Journal of Commerce, Mother Jones, The Nation, Harper’s, Inter Press Service, The Progressive, Foreign Policy in Focus, Asia Times, Sisa Journal (Korea) and Hankyoreh 21 (Korea).

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