Left Wing Book Club, pt 3


by Chalmers Johnson

I don't know if I would call this a "classic," but it's definitely a landmark in Progressive historiography. For a few years, you couldn't walk into a cafe in SF without seeing at least one nose-ringed college kid staring intently at its pages. Given its title, and theme of American "empire," I assumed it was some sort of breathless expose about CIA war crimes in Latin America, or some such. I have always been curious about its contents. Having read it, I am surprised at what this book does, and does not, contain.

From outward appearances, Chalmers Johnson would not seem to be someone who would end up being mentioned in the same breath as Howard Zinn and Noam Chomskey. Johnson is professor emeritus at UC San Diego, where he was a scholar of contemporary Asian Studies with an emphasis on Japan and China. All of his pre-Blowback books were scholarly tomes on Asian politics and economics. But, late in life he appears to have gotten religion and become an advocate of the "American Empire" theory of history, which holds that America is not a republic, but actually a globe spanning empire whose economic and military depradations threaten it with "blowback" from foreign populations radicalized by their oppression under the boot of Uncle Sam

That's the theme anyway. But, for all of Johnson's "imperial" rhetoric and radical credentials, this book only fitfully touches on the theme of "blowback." Johnson's discussions of Blowback begin and end the book. The middle portion (about 2/3 of "Blowback," by my reckoning) is actually a fairly interesting analysis of Asian development in the post-Cold War environment. This gives the book an odd hybrid quality. In fact, it gives every indication of being two books that were combined into one. 

The blowback sections of the book set out a catalogue of sins - both of commission and omission - that the US has engaged in over the course of the Cold War and the Nineties. At the outset, it's important to remember that this book was published in 2000, so Johnson does not discuss 9/11 or the War on Terror, although he does mention Osama bin Laden as being an exemplar of blowback. The actual examples of US depredations are not what you think. He begins the book describing an accident in Italy when some Top Guns flying through a ski valley sliced through a ski gondola's main cable, killing 20. A stupid accident, yes, but I don't think anyone is worried that Italians are going to don suicide vests any time soon. 

The biggest surprise in this book is the countries where Johnson looks to find most of his examples of US sins leading to blowback: virtually his entire discussion relates to American activities in Asia. His thickest dossiers are in Okinawa and Korea. In Okinawa, the complaint has been that the US military has made Okinawa a de facto colony by the placement of a number of military bases, which were used as staging areas for the Korean and Viet Nam Wars. Okinawans don't like the fact that the US military has taken some of the best land in Okinawa. Johnson also hammers the US military for the sexed up atmosphere around the bases, and the sex crimes that occasionally occur there. I would agree that the rapes Johnson describes are indeed disturbing and disgraceful, but (1) they are infrequent and (2) they hardly reflect official US military policy. 

Johnson is also scathing on the subject of Korea. These are actually the most interesting chapters - one for the South, one for the North - in the book. Information about US-Korea relations is very hard to come by in the US (but for M*A*S*H, the Korean War would be virtually forgotten, despite 40,000 combat deaths and its status as the only time we have faced China on the battlefield). There have always been rumors of US atrocities during the Korean War, although none have ever been confirmed. It is also clear that many people in South Korea are virulently anti-American. This chapter gives some indication why that might be. South Korea was, for decades, a military dictatorship, and the government was never shy about cracking down on dissent and protest. As there were also thousands of US troops in Korea during that time, our military and the local dictators were easily conflated in the Korean popular mind. Funnily, Johnson blames the Carter administration (really!) for some of the worst moments of US-South Korea relations, including a brutal crackdown in the city of Kwanju. Predictably, Johnson is a proponent of unification and "bringing the North in from the cold." Johnson is probably right that our record in Korea is an ambiguous one, and one that is too little discussed in our political discourse. 

Johnson also has chapters on Japan and China. These are much less relevant to his theme of blowback. In the Japan chapter, he writes that the US set up post-WW2 Japan to be a model exemplar of the sort of good life a US ally could lead if it abandoned communism and military rule. Johnson goes as far as to state that the LDP was originally funded by the CIA, and that the US gave the Japanese favorable trade concessions that allowed Japan to "hollow out" America's once-proud manufacturing sector. Johnson forgets to mention that America's manufacturing sector did a lot to hollow itself out with crappy, expensive products. Johnson also repeatedly states that Japan was actually a socialist planned economy. which would probably come as a surprise to the Japanese. Johnson is also incorrect about mainstream Japanese opinions about America. We are considered an ally there, and most Japanese seem to hold a positive view of America and American pop culture. Johnson provides little evidence to indicate otherwise. 

The China chapter is a fairly conventional description of China's economic awakening, although Johnson does note that America did not win itself many Chinese admirers by backing Chiang Kai-Shek in the Forties. These chapters are so focused on describing their subject countries that the theme of blowback takes a back seat, and even disappears at times. Johnson also spends some time discussing Indonesia, where he tries to  blame the US for every political murder carried out by Suharto. 

Johnson brings it all together in his chapter on the famous 1997 "meltdown" of the Asian tiger economies, an event that - until last year - was half-forgotten in this country. In Johnson's telling, the meltdown arose after the US aggressively sold Asia on globalization and open markets, and then pulled the rug out from under them with capital outflows. The IMF, which Johnson describes as little more than an arm of the US, then imposed austerity measures that plunged millions into poverty. Johnson that alleges that, following the collapse of the "tigers," US businesses came in and bought Asian companies at fire sale prices, which - he says - was the plan all along. Yes! It was all a plot! 

Throughout the book, Johnson is scathing as to the behavior of successive administrations in DC. Thus, it's amusing that much of his ire is directed at Democrats from JFK and LBJ to the Carter administration to the Clintons, Madeline Albright, Richard Holbrooke and others. Reagan and Bush 41 receive the "cowboy imperialism" insults, but the specific instances of US behavior leading to chaos in Asia is almost always the result of Democratic approaches to foreign policy. Johnson doesn't really try to figure out why this is, but I would say the Dems are much more likely to think they can influence events in societies half a world away, while Republicans tend to take a hands-off approach (with occasional military displays). Dems are also inheritors of the gassy Wilsonian ideal of a US-led activist international community. And, for all the Dems' claims at being the party of the common man, the Clinton administration was very friendly to business and finance. Its efforts during the 1997 meltdown were meant to protect the US economy from the "Asian contagion." The famous "committee to save the world" was directing the response that Johnson complains of here. 

Given all of the above, you would think Johnson would get a clue and realize that the liberal-progressive approach to foreign policy is probably the cause of more world-wide resentment than anything else. As we will see in his next book Johnson will go in the opposite direction in placing blame.  

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