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The Blowback World of Chalmers Johnson | The Nation

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The Blowback World of Chalmers Johnson

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It was an uncomfortable time to be the chairman of Berkeley’s Center for Chinese Studies and a consultant for the CIA’s Board of National Estimates. Chal had accepted CIA Director Richard Helms’s invitation to become a consultant because he believed the agency was then producing some of the most accurate reporting on China (and also, as would later be revealed, on Vietnam). At the same time, Chal also managed to write and publish another book about Japan, Conspiracy at Matsukawa—a complicated tale set during the post–World War II American occupation of that country that revealed a great deal about Japanese police methods and American interference in the country’s politics.

About the Author

Sheila Johnson
Sheila K. Johnson is an anthropologist, freelance writer, and editor.

The summer it came out, Chal spent a month by himself in Japan, decompressing from five turbulent years in Berkeley. During this time he wrote me a series of charming letters about his sudden realization that he was tired of following the ups and downs of Maoist China at a distance and wanted to return to doing concrete research about Japan. An old Japanese friend suggested that he should take up the study of an important branch of Japan’s bureaucracy, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, or MITI, a subject that would come to preoccupy him for a decade.

In 1974, he was the first person to explain in English the Japanese system of amakudari, whereby retired bureaucrats were hired by big businesses to smooth their future relations with the government that regulated them—not unlike the revolving door in Washington that regularly spins retiring politicians and retired military officers into the arms of large American firms eager to lobby the government.

In 1975, he published an important article, “Japan: Who Governs? An Essay on Official Bureaucracy,” but with a sabbatical from teaching looming, he also wondered whether he needed to write yet another book. Hadn’t he already written enough about MITI? “Well,” I said, “you have all of this historical material. It would be a pity just to throw it away.”

And so, in the fall of 1980, Chal began work on MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975. He started, as he always did, by first reading through all his files and indexing whatever he wanted to use. Knowing the story he wanted to tell, he then wrote with intensity and speed, producing two chapters a month. He was working this fast, he told me, because the material was so complex that he could hold it in his head only a short time. With eight chapters in hand, he was exhausted. When he told me, “I was going to write a concluding chapter, but I’ve said it all, haven’t I?” I agreed.

We sent off the manuscript to Jess Bell, a friend and the publisher of Chal’s other books at Stanford University Press. He wrote back that he would, of course, publish the book, but it did need a concluding chapter, a “take-home” message. We laughed, because we realized he was right.

Chal was then well aware that one of the unusual and controversial aspects of his description of MITI and its World War II–era predecessor, the Ministry of Munitions, was the continuity between them in both practices and personnel. Unlike most books about modern Japan that drew a sharp dividing line at the Japanese defeat in 1945, Chal’s did not. He knew that his implicit message, if made explicit, might just as well have been labeled the jocular title adman Jerry Della Femina once proposed for a Panasonic ad: “From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor.” Still, he wrote a concluding chapter in record time, and when the book was published in early 1982, both he and Jess were amused that reviewers singled it out for special praise.

In the fall of 1982, our home phone rang and it was Henry Rosovsky, then dean of the Harvard faculty as well as a friend who had taught at Berkeley and been a member of Chal’s PhD orals committee. I knew at once what this call was about: like a summons from the Vatican, Harvard had at last decided to offer Chal a job.

Of course, we would go for a “look-over” and give it serious thought. We knew a number of people at Harvard, even if we worried about the winter climate because of Chal’s rheumatoid arthritis. As it turned out, we liked Boston and Cambridge a great deal, but Harvard struck us both as too patrician and too full of itself. Chal asked one of his Harvard friends what he would be asked to teach, and the reply was: “Oh, Chalmers, at the level you’re being hired, you don’t have to teach anything you don’t want to. The only thing you must never refuse is a request to speak to the Harvard alumni.”

As we flew back to California, Chal commented glumly, “They want me as a moose-head professor—to hang my head on the wall and say they’ve bagged me.” We chose to stay at Berkeley for another six years.

Back to Economics

Even before the MITI book was published, the Japanese had expressed an interest in translating it, and the first reactions there were great pride in Chal’s description of their postwar economic growth and how it had been achieved. But as Japan’s trade deficits with the United States grew along with calls for US tariffs on Japanese automobiles and other products, Chal came to be characterized as a “Japan-basher.”

It’s true that writing MITI and the Japanese Miracle had reawakened his interest in economic theory, and he did, in the end, come to agree with critics who accused Japan of not providing a level playing field. He was, however, also interested in seeing the United States adopt some of Japan’s state-guided development methods or “industrial policy.” This was anathema to most American economists and politicians, and so Chal came under attack from Americans as well. When Japan’s economy became stagnant, while China’s (also heavily state-guided) economy began to grow rapidly, MITI’s methods were simply dismissed in the United States.

In the winter of 1985, Chal had his first major “episode” of rheumatoid arthritis, a disease he had been diagnosed with in his early 20s. In fact, a Navy doctor even suggested he could use it to avoid serving in the military, a suggestion that Chal declined. For the next thirty years, he survived on large doses of aspirin or stronger painkillers. Then, in the space of a few hours, he suddenly was running a high fever, while his body, painful even to the touch of a sheet, became as rigid as an I-beam. A week in the hospital on heavy doses of cortisone sent him back to the university with a cane and the need to lecture sitting down. Like a midlife heart attack, that incident acted as a wake-up call, and we began to think about moving to a warmer, drier climate.

In 1987, the San Diego campus of the University of California was creating a new School of International Relations and Pacific Studies that would offer an MA combining business courses with Asian area studies and languages. It seemed like an interesting experiment and a good fit for Chal’s interests and abilities. When he began working there in 1988, Chal was 57 years old and we assumed that he would teach for at least eight more years. Then as now, however, the state of California was experiencing big budget deficits and the university was anxious to retire highly paid senior professors and replace them with cheaper, often temporary, staff.

So in 1992, Chal took early retirement. His departure was acrimonious because by then it was clear that much of the faculty at his school was determined to study Asia through the lens of “rational choice theory.” Much like other theories that sweep through academic disciplines—structural-functionalism, behaviorism, Marxism—rational choice theory provided a template (with its own specialized, jargonistic vocabulary) to explain how nations function, whereas Chal’s approach was always to proceed inductively, beginning with the data on the ground.

He wrote several stinging, acerbic articles about trends in academic political science, and then—quite by accident—he was offered a chance to form a small “think tank” in which to showcase what he considered good research on Asian societies. It was called the Japan Policy Research Institute, and for almost twelve years it would publish monthly papers on North and Southeast Asia, hold conferences open to the public, promote books, and focus attention on much neglected policy issues, including the heavily US-garrisoned Japanese island of Okinawa, which Chal came to call “the American Raj.”

The Blowback Era

In 1991, the Soviet Union simply disappeared and the cold War was officially over, but as Chal quickly noted, no “peace dividend” followed. The American Raj simply sailed blissfully on as if nothing whatsoever had happened. This caught Chal’s attention, along with what he later came to call “the American empire of bases” and the full-scale garrisoning of the planet that went with it. For the rest of his life he would focus his energies on the subject of American militarism, an ever more bloated military-industrial complex, and of course the growing power of the Pentagon, which in a weird sense functioned as an American MITI.

On September 4, 1995, three American servicemen abducted and raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl, provoking widespread anger and demonstrations on the island. In response, Chal began to write extensively about those American bases on Okinawa, which had been established as World War II ended and never stopped growing. In late September of the following year, he was invited by the island’s governor to address members of the prefectural government and tour the island. Never one to mince words, Chal also spoke at Tokyo’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club after his trip and summed up the Okinawan situation this way: “The American government is the rapist; the Japanese government is the pimp.”

In March, 1998, U.S. News and World Report carried a small piece of his called “Enter the Dragon: Ten Reasons to Worry About Asia’s Economic Crisis.” Literary agent Sandra Dijkstra read it and contacted Chal to see whether he was thinking about writing a book on the subject. As a matter of fact he was, having decided to distill his forty years of studying and teaching about China, Japan and Korea into essays that would reflect on US policy in Asia since World War II.

During the cold war, the Soviet Union had acquired an empire but, Chal argued, so had we. After the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europe and many parts of the Soviet Union itself—Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan—declared their independence, while the United States only expanded its overseas military bases. Chal decided to call his book “Blowback” (a term of tradecraft he’d first heard at the CIA for operations so secret that when they “blew back” on the United States, ordinary Americans had no clue as to the connection). Even in those relatively quiet years of the 1990s when American pundits and others spoke of this country as the “sole superpower” on planet Earth, or even its towering “hyperpower,” he became convinced that there would be a time of reckoning for the United States, as there had been for the Soviet Union, and that it would not be as far off as almost everyone imagined.

Chal explained what happened next:

I wrote Blowback between 1997 and 1999, and it was published in March 2000 [by Metropolitan Books]. In the summer of 2000, I signed another contract with [Metropolitan] to write a new book, but at that time I conceived it as a book about Asia—particularly China, Japan, and Korea—and their relationships with the U.S. Blowback sold reasonably well throughout 2000 and the first part of 2001, but after 9/11 it suddenly began to jump off bookstore shelves. So I stopped and wrote a new, post-9/11 preface to Blowback and did a lot of journalism and radio interviews; and I found that I had quite a lot more to say on the whole subject of blowback and, more particularly, on how the American government was reacting to the threat of terrorism and Al Qaeda. I scrapped my earlier book outline and wrote a new one, and for the next fifteen months I worked like someone possessed on this new book.

The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic was published in January 2004. At its heart lay a region by region anatomy of America’s global “baseworld” and how it worked, a subject that remained remarkably undiscussed and unanalyzed in this country. Subsequently, Chal gave many speeches and interviews in an effort to help deny George W. Bush—“likely the single worst president in the history of the American republic”—a second term. When Bush was re-elected and the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan continued to take their human and economic toll, he became determined to write a third book in what would become The Blowback Trilogy.

This time his tone was more alarmist, while his focus was on the way an American version of military Keynesianism was failing the country. He feared that the United States would be simultaneously overwhelmed by related tides of militarism and bankruptcy. Reflecting his own grim mood, he chose for his title the name of the Greek goddess of myth whose task was to punish human arrogance and hubris: Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. In it, he pulled together many of his thoughts about the fate of empires—particularly the Roman and British ones—and predicted that, in the reasonably near future, the United States would have to choose between remaining a democratic society or becoming a military dictatorship.

Nemesis was published in January 2007, and given Chal’s increasing arthritic debility (by then, he was often using a wheelchair), I didn’t expect him to write another book. He was, by then, reading so many books by others (including Andrew Bacevich, Steve Coll, Tim Weiner and Tim Shorrock) on events of the moment that he continued to produce a steady stream of op-eds, articles and reviews. By the spring of 2009, Tom Engelhardt, the editor of The Blowback Trilogy and director of the website TomDispatch.com, suggested that there were enough of his recent essays to collect in a small volume. The three of us read through them and Tom, with his usual talent for discovering a path through the underbrush, found the common thread.

By the time Dismantling the Empire was published in April 2010, the sustained work Chal had kept up for more than fifty years was simply beyond him. He could barely move or sign his name. In September, even that became impossible. We had decided that more hospital stays were not what we wanted, and so on September 15, 2010, he entered hospice care. A hospital bed was delivered to our family room, overlooking our garden and the Pacific Ocean that had played such an important role in his life. Friends could visit, we watched the TV news every evening, and our cat Seiji (successor to felines Miti and Mof) slept at his feet.

As his life slowly ebbed, Chal would sometimes exclaim in great agitation, “I don’t know what to do.” I always replied, “You don’t have to do anything, you’ve done enough.” Toward the end, he changed this line to “I can’t do it anymore.” By then, I wasn’t sure whether he was talking about the intellectual tasks he’d always set himself or about life itself.

Chal was a formidable and—I’m tempted to say—driven man. After his death, I received a letter from a high school friend who said much the same thing. “I always admired Chal’s ability to really focus in on an interest. I hate to use the word, but it bordered on zealotry. An example was his ‘passion’ for collecting streetcar and bus transfer slips. As I recall, they were colorful and contained a lot of information about the routes.”

I had to laugh when I read this, and I offer it as a piece of advice to parents who may have similarly focused kids: don’t worry if they’re memorizing baseball statistics. It may lead to something far more important.

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