Some Sundays back, the New York Times fronted a story from its Paris correspondent, Suzanne Daley, about the fear and loathing Americans induce among Europeans these days. America is "a worrisome society," it seems. It's " a menacing, even dangerous force intent on remaking the world in its image." Among the many criticisms the piece listed -- guns, the death penalty, our obsession with "globalization" for all -- one stood out. It has to do with our lapsed relations with the past and our inability to see ourselves as others see us. "Omnipotence and ignorance," a French parliamentarian named Noel Mamere says in a book Daley quoted. "It is a questionable cocktail."
The following Sunday, the Times ran another curious piece in the same position -- Page 1, above the fold. This one was about the 1953 coup that toppled Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and installed the last Shah as an unchallenged monarch. It was the Central Intelligence Agency's first successful overthrow of a foreign government," the Times wrote of this coup that has been "lost to history." The piece then went on to draw the straight line Iranians draw as matter of course between the coup in '53 and the revolution twenty-six years later that landed them with clerical rule.
History as news, then. This is encouraging, though one doesn't want to make too much of it. Iran in 1953 was a seminal cold war event, with more straight lines poking forward from it than a bicycle wheel has spokes -- to the coup in Guatemala a year later, to the Bay of Pigs, to Indonesia in '65, to Chile in '73, to Indochina. An officially leaked report about Iran in a paper such as the Times suggests an important change. Are we now encouraged to know or remember all that was patriotically hidden or forgotten all these years? It's a fine thought. Americans, like everyone else frostbitten by the cold w ar, pay dearly for their ruptured relations with history. As so often, the victimizers turn out to be victims, too.
The problem is that cocktail. Let's call it an Americano. It has been our daily sundowner for so long now that one wonders whether we will ever, so to say, sober up and climb on the wagon. In a dysfunctional democracy such as ours, public ignorance (and its sibling, indifference) is essential to the exercise of power -- to the principle that in dealing with others we have no principles. That was true throughout the cold war, of course, and has been grimly true since. The real post-Berlin wall peace dividend would have been knowledge --self-knowledge, above all -- for to know would be to object, as the keepers of secrets understand. So we can add to the notion of history as news the notion of history as a kind of subversion, a weapon in the ongoing war between rememberers and forgetters.
Several of Chalmers Johnsons's fifteen books, the work of a long career in Chinese and Japanese studies, have turned out to subvert the orthodoxy. His first, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power (1962), forced late-McCarthyist America to acknowledge the treasonous truth that the Chinese communists enjoyed immense popularity in the years leading up to the revolution. In 1982 he published MITI and the Japanese Miracle, a founding document for the "revisionist" view of Japan now prevalent. MITI upended another tradition, to, it turns out. "I did not realize then," Johnson now writes of it, "that my research would inadvertently lead me to see clearly for the first time the shape of the empire that I had so long uncritically supported."
And if Johnson was late in seeing that shape clearly, as he touchingly confesses in the prologue of his new book, he writes of it now with the authentic, eyes-wide-open, clarity of the betrayed. The focus of Blowback is what we can neatly call our manifest duplicity. It's about all those Americanos we've drunk. It's also about history, language and identity - in each case, ours. In short, Johnson has written a straight-talking analysis of America's global conduct during the cold war and since, and what we're eventually going to pay for it.
"Blowback," of course, is spookspeak. In the CIA it means the unintended consequences of a covert operation -- the union protests that follow a labor leader's assassination or the jungle war against the third rate general Washington carefully installed in some distant presidential palace. Johnson stretches the term this way and that -- and comes up with an altogether better use for it. For him, Blowback would cover everything from the Pan Am flight 103 (retaliation for President Reagan's 1986 air raid on Libya) to Afghan heroin, Pol Pot, the mess in East Timor, Midwestern rust belts and Japan's Liberal Democratic party. These are the flora and fauna of the American empire -- a term Johnson is careful to define and defend. Blowback, in short, is what we're going to live with in the century we've just begun, Johnson argues. "There is a logic to empire that differs from the logic of a nation," he writes. "The United States now faces an agenda of problems that simply would not exist except for the imperial commitments and activities, open and covert, that accompanied the Cold War."
Johnson stays close to his specialties as he develops these themes. There are two chapters on China, two on the Koreas, one on Japan and another in which the Asia crisis of the late nineties is recast as the unraveling of imperial satellites that are no longer useful or affordable. We do not get sustained consideration of Europe, the Middle East, Africa or Latin America. I do know Johnson (and let's count this a statement of disclosure.) He's too careful a scholar to venture into territory unknown to him, and he's also too careful a scholar to present us with anything less than a finished argument. Blowback is expansive thinking. It arrives just as our national conversation begins to suggest we're waking up from a dream.. The book does much to articulate this change -- and will do much to advance it further.