The passing of a great man: Chalmers Johson, critic of empire

by: Paul Rosenberg

Mon Nov 22, 2010 at 09:00

As noted in Quick Hits by doubledown, historian and critic of American empire Chalmers Johson has died at age 79.  Although I never knew him personally (I met him briefly after a lecture in which he read from his then-forthcoming book, Sorrows of Empire), I felt like I did. And I can remember the exact moment when I first felt that I knew him.  It was in 2000, when I read the following passage in the prologue of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire:

Knowing what I did about guerilla war, revolutionary politics, and foreign armies, I thought it a mistake for us (the United States) to involve ourselves further in what was visibly a Vietnamese civil war. But once we did so in the mid-sixties, I was sufficiently aware of Mao Zedong's attempts to export 'people's war' to believe that the United States could not afford to lose in Vietnam. In that, too, I was distinctly a man of my times.

It proved to be a disastrously wrong position. The problem was that I knew too much about the international Communist movement and not enough about the United States government and its Department of Defense. I was also in those years irritated by campus anti-war protesters, who seemed to me self-indulgent as well as sanctimonious and who had so clearly not done their homework. One day at the height of the protests, I went to the university library to check out what was then available to students on Vietnamese communism, the history of communism in East Asia, and the international Communist movement. I was surprised to find that all the major books were on the shelves, untouched. The conclusion seemed obvious to me then: these students knew nothing about communism and had no interest in remedying that lack. They were defining the Vietnamese Communists largely out of their own romantic desires to oppose Washington's policies. As it turned out, they understood far better than I did the impulses 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 naivete and unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong."

You can count the number of people who have the wisdom and integrity to admit to that level of profound error in judgment on the fingers of one hand.  But it wasn't just the admission that he had been wrong--despite what seemed like very good evidence, intelligently obtained--it was the simple, unassuming eloquence of how he expressed it: "In retrospect, I wish I had stood with the antiwar protest movement. For all its naivete and unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong."

Johnson himself had a deep knowledge of East Asia, as he had explained in passages just prior to this one. He was actually already primed to become a critic of empire, although the seeds hadn't ripened yet:

Paul Rosenberg :: The passing of a great man: Chalmers Johson, critic of empire

Although I returned to Berkeley to study modern Japan, I came under the spell of the university's preeminent historian of China, Joseph R. Levenson....

Sometime in the late 1950s, I mentioned to Professor Levenson that on-the-spot Western observers of the Chinese Communist movement from 1937 to 1945 had almost uniformly reported on the party's remarkable popularity among ordinary Chinese. Levenson replied that they had all paid a price for such reportage, for every one of them had been tarred as a leftist and a possible traitor by Senator Joseph McCarthy or other red hunters of the time. The firsthand testimony of Edgar Snow, Evans Carlson, Agnes Smedley, Nym Wales, Geroge Taylor and others was still considered valueless in the America of the late 1950s, coming as it did from those believed, at best, to be ideologically predisposed to accept the Chinese Communists as mere 'agrarian reformers'.

Having by now read a range of Imperial Japanese Army documents on China, I responded that I could supply secret assessments of the popularity of the Chinese Communist movement in the crucial period of 1937 to 1941 from an unimpeachably anti-Communist source--namely, the Japanese high command in China. Levenson pointed out that such a topic would make a good doctoral dissertation, and so, in 1962, my dissertation was published under the title Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945. The book had a significant impact on the study of modern China. The Japanese invaders, I argued, had created conditions of such savagery, particularly in North China, that the peasant masses who survived their depredations naturally gravitated toward the only group that offered them hope and resistence--the Chinese Communist Party.

China illustrated what was soon to become a major political lesson of twentieth-century Asia: only in those circumstances in which the most patriotic act is to join the Communist Party does a Communist movement become a mass movement.

It would take many years, apparently, for Johnson to come to see that around the globe in far too many places, America had sown the same seeds as the Japanese had in China.

I was a freelance book reviewer at the time I read these passages, and the book they served as an introduction to. I reviewed Blowback for the Denver Post, one of more than a dozen books I reviewed for them. But for whatever reason, the review never ran. It became part of the almost universal blackout of attention that Blowback received on its publication.  A year later, the book seemed prophetic, particularly in light of passages like the following:

Even an empire cannot control the long-term effects of its policies. That is the essence of blowback. Take the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in which Soviet forces directly intervened on the government side and the CIA armed and supported any and all groups willing to face the Soviet armies. Over the years the fighting turned Kabul, once a major center of Islamic culture, into a facsimile of Hiroshima after the bomb. American policies helped ensure that the Soviet Union would suffer the same kind of debilitating defeat in Afghanistan as the United States had in Vietnam. In fact, the defeat so destabilized the Soviet regime that at the end of the 1980s it collapsed. But in Afghanistan the United States also helped bring to power the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic movement whose policies toward women, education, justice, and economic well-being resemble not so much those of Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran as those of Pol Pot's Cambodia. A group of these mujahedeen, who only a few years earlier the United States had armed with ground-to-air Stinger missiles, grew bitter over American acts and policies in the Gulf War and vis-a-vis Israel. In 1993, they bombed the World Trade Center in New York and assassinated several CIA employees as they waited at a traffic light in Langley, Virginia. Four years later, on November 12, 1997, after the Virginia killer had been convicted by an American court, unknown assailants shot and killed four American accountants, unrelated in any way to the CIA, in their car in Karachi, Pakistan, in retaliation.

It is likely that U.S. covert policies have helped create similar conditions in the Congo, Guatemala, and Turkey, and that we are simply waiting for the blowback to occur.

Waiting, indeed. But not for long.

A true prophet is not a man who sees the future.  A true prophet is a man who sees the present and the past--instead of illusions--and speaks out.

A true prophet has passed from our midst.

Tags: , , (All Tags)
Print Friendly View Send As Email

Amen, Paul. (4.00 / 3)
Chalmers Johnson was one of the giants.  A shame his passing will go barely noticed by American society when his books should be required reading in high school.

Decarbonize, Deglobalize, Demilitarize

A giant and an honest man. (4.00 / 1)
He fought tooth and nail to defeat what he considered to be America's greatest threat, from long intellectual thought. And he considered his compatriots as honest as he was fighting the soviet union, until he saw them pick a new "enemy" like choosing a fox for the hunt.

He was aghast that onetime so called "cold warriors" suddenly equated the strongest military adversary America ever had with the batshit crazy zealots in the desert. He saw quickly that he had few if any compatriots on the right, and instead mere profiteers who would promote war and war spending solely for personal and class interest.

It apparently shocked him. No surprise there. What was surprising was not that he saw it, recognized it, but altered his understanding of the forces controlling the American project and kept his principles intact.

These are the few intellects that we on the left attempt so often to sway, only to find their proposals, plans and principles to be as malleable as jello, and only their greed to be unshakable.


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky

[ Parent ]

Open Left Campaigns



Advanced Search

Powered by: SoapBlox