Remembering Chalmers Johnson, 1931—2010
A Depression boy; a lieutenant junior grade assigned to a Navy “rust bucket” without a name at the end of the Korean War; a student of the radicalization of Chinese peasants under the Japanese “loot-all, kill-all, burn-all” campaigns of the late 1930s; a staunch anticommunist nonetheless capable, in one of his many books, of slipping, in a deeply empathic way, into the mindset of a World War II Japanese communist spy; a supporter of the US war in Vietnam and the rescuer of the State Department China hand John Service after anticommunist witch hunts had destroyed his livelihood; a valued consultant to the CIA and an eminent scholar of Japanese state capitalism. When the cold war ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the United States refused to demobilize and come in from the cold, he did.
He could have lived comfortably with his eminence, but in the face of a new reality, he refused. His was a remarkable tale. In 1995 he visited the Japanese island of Okinawa for the first time and was shocked by the thirty-odd US bases there (“the American Raj,” he called it), and from that moment he turned his back on our “unacknowledged empire.” He recanted former positions—“In retrospect, I wish I had stood with the [Vietnam] antiwar protest movement. For all its naïveté and unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong”—and labeled himself sardonically a “spear-carrier for empire.” He turned his razor-sharp mind and accumulated experience against US militarism while mapping out our global “empire of bases,” a situation strangely unnoticed by Americans but painfully obvious to others.
He had the creds to do so. The title of his first book of this era, Blowback, published in 2000, picked up a CIA term, “tradecraft” (“the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people”), and put it into our vocabulary. In that book, he all but predicted a 9/11-like fate for us (“acts committed in service to an empire but never acknowledged as such have a tendency to haunt the future”) and, like a classic Cassandra, found his book largely ignored until events drove it to prominence and bestsellerdom. From then on, he never stopped warning the rest of us that if we didn’t choose to dismantle our empire ourselves, far worse would be in store for us.
His was an all-American odyssey, and in his final decades he was a man on a mission. A sparrow of a figure, ever more crippled in his losing battle with rheumatoid arthritis, he was in every other way a giant. To those who knew him, it seemed a reasonable bet that he would beat death at its own game.
No such luck. He died on November 20. This country, lost at sea and incapable of downsizing its global mission, still needs him. If only we could bring him back for one more round.