Way back in 1999, when I was still a Tomdispatch-less book editor, I read a proposal from Chalmers Johnson. He was, then, known mainly as a scholar of modern Japan, though years earlier I had read his brilliant book on Chinese peasant nationalism–about a period in the 1940s when imperial Japan was carrying out its "3-all" campaigns (kill-all, burn-all, loot-all) in the northern Chinese countryside. The proposal, for a book to be called "Blowback"–a CIA term of tradecraft that, like most Americans, I had never heard before — focused on the "unintended consequences" of the Agency’s covert activities abroad and the disasters they might someday bring down upon us. Johnson began with an introduction in which he reviewed, among other things, his experiences in the Vietnam War era when, as a professed Cold Warrior, a former CIA consultant, and a professor of Asian studies at Berkeley, he would have been on the other side of the political fence from me.
In that introduction, he recalled his dismay with antiwar activists who were, he felt (not incorrectly), often blindly romantic about Asian communism and hadn’t bothered to do their homework on the subject. "They were," he wrote, "defining the Vietnamese Communists largely out of their own romantic desires to oppose Washington’s policies." He added:
"As it turned out, however, they understood far better than I did the impulse of a Robert McNamara, a McGeorge Bundy, or a Walt Rostow. They grasped something essential about the nature of America’s imperial role in the world that I had failed to perceive. In retrospect, I wish I had stood with the antiwar protest movement. For all its naïveté and unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong."
It was a reversal of sentiment to which no other American of his age and background, to the best of my knowledge, had admitted. It reflected a mind impressively willing to reconsider and change–and, as it happened, it also reflected a man on a journey out of the world of Cold War anti-communism and into the heart of the American empire. When Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire finally came out in 2000, it was largely ignored (or derided) in the mainstream — until, that is, September 11th, 2001. Then, "blowback," and the phrase that went with it, "unintended consequences," entered our language, thanks to Johnson, and the paperback of the book, now seen as prophetic, hit the 9/11 tables in bookstores across the United States, becoming a bestseller.