Chalmers Johnson served in the Navy during the Korean War. He earned his Ph.D. in political science at UC Berkeley and taught there and at UC San Diego until 1992. He served as chairman of the Center for Chinese Studies and was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Chalmers Johnson is president and co-founder of the Japan Policy Research Institute (www.jpri.org). He has written numerous articles and reviews and twelve books on Asian subjects, including, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power, MITI and the Japanese Miracle, and Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. His latest book is titled, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic.
David Ross (D.R.): Throughout the Internet after the September 11th attacks, there was a lot of talk of blowback. When, in fact, a year before the attacks, you wrote the book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, where you predicted events such as 9-11. What is blowback and what are its causes?
Chalmers Johnson: “Blowback” is a CIA term. It was first invented after the CIA intervention against the government of Iran in 1953 when we overthrew an elected government there for the interests of the British and American petroleum industries. Blowback refers to the unintended consequences of clandestine policies that have been kept secret from the American public. I think it’s important to stress that any policy may have unintended consequences, but here we’re talking about unintended consequences of policies that the public knows nothing about, therefore, has no context within which to place them, and ends up with a daffy president going around asking, “Why do they hate us?”
My analysis was that the things we had done during the cold war, and the first decade after the cold war, were generating almost uncontrollable blowback. I did not, obviously, specifically anticipate anything like 9-11, but I certainly did anticipate and predict terrorist acts against Americans-military and civilian, abroad and at home-and therefore, was not particularly surprised when the attacks came on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September of 2001. At the time, I did not think that they were necessarily Islamic terrorists; I thought they could have been from Argentina, Chile, Indonesia, Okinawa, Greece, or any number of places on earth where we have carried out clandestine activities that unquestionably generate hostility toward the United States.
My book was written as an explicit warning to my fellow Americans of the likely consequences of their policies over the previous decade and earlier. The warning was unheeded in the United States. The book was very well received abroad, particularly in Germany and Italy. But it was more or less ignored here until after 9-11, when, as you say, it became somewhat of an underground bestseller because of the surprise that the world finally came home to the Americans.
DR: What are some instances of past blowback and possible future blowback against the U.S?
Chalmers Johnson: First of all, I think the obvious thing right now is our mistaken reaction to 9-11. It became almost taboo in this country after 9-11 to even ask what the motives of the attackers were. The public has now been so confused by lies from our government that they believe Saddam Hussein was the one behind it. Of course, we know he wasn’t, and since there is no evidence that he could have been, the people have gotten that idea only from listening to the disinformation that comes from the White House and the Pentagon.
September 11th was not an attack on America’s values or America’s democracy or America’s wealth. It was an attack on American foreign policy and there were some fairly obvious things that should have been done at once which would have defused the situation. First, we should have withdrawn the troops at once that we had based in Saudi Arabia. Since the first war with Iraq in 1991, they were just exacerbating the situation rather than serving any real function. Second, we should have said that we do support the continuity of the state of Israel, but we do not support Israeli Zionist imperialism. And that until the settlements in the West Bank are closed-which are a cancer working on Israeli society in a destructive manner-we’re going to cease our continued bankrolling of Israel, both financially and militarily. Last, we should have instituted at once a crash program of fuel conservation that could have easily eliminated our dependence on Persian Gulf petroleum imports.
We didn’t do any of those things. Instead, we set out to use our massive military power against two peculiarly puny and defenseless targets-Afghanistan and Iraq-producing untold misery. This will without question generate and recruit more people committed to the idea of attacking the United States.
The Department of Defense has said for years that nobody can meet us militarily except in one of two ways: one, with the use of nuclear weapons, which would deter us; and the other is what they call, in typical Pentagon jargon, “asymmetrical warfare,” meaning the weak attacking the super powerful via terrorism. There is every reason to anticipate that we will have more terrorism as we increasingly sink into the two quagmires that we have created in Afghanistan and Iraq.
DR: You’ve done a lot of research on U.S./Asian relations. Can you give us a historical thumbnail sketch of the U.S. involvement in South Korea?
Chalmers Johnson: It goes back to the Korean War in 1950-1953 and we’ve been stationed there ever since. We have over one hundred military bases in South Korea. Peace began to break out in Korea in the year 2000 when the new South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung, on his own initiative, without asking permission from the United States, went north and tried to end the cold war on the Korean peninsula by opening direct negotiations with North Korea-with Kim Jong Il’s regime. He came back after a triumph. It appeared as though, as he said in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, the chances of war on the Korean peninsula had just vanished.
This development was extremely threatening to the American military, the military-industrial complex, and those who believe in some form of American empire in that part of the world, they have done everything since then to cause this situation to backtrack-to not allow peace to break out on the Korean peninsula.
With the extremely belligerent remarks coming from the Bush Administration, including Bush’s statement in the State of the Union address in 2002 that North Korea was part of something that he called an “axis of evil,” the North Koreans concluded that, indeed, they were targeted by the United States for a regime change in the violent manner they’ve already seen happen in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the threat implicit in American policy became manifest with the massive attack on Iraq, the North Koreans concluded that the only way they could defend themselves was with the threat of nuclear weapons. The thing that was wrong with Saddam Hussein in Iraq is he didn’t actually have any weapons of mass destruction and therefore, was vulnerable to the bullying of the Donald Rumsfelds and the Condoleezza Rices of this world.
Therefore, we have a genuine crisis today. The North Koreans have reopened their nuclear reactor, begun to reprocess old spent fuel rods from their reactor and convert them into plutonium, and are well on their way toward developing a nuclear arsenal. I believe the issue can still be controlled because the surrounding nations-South Korea, Japan, and China-all recognize that North Korea’s activities are essentially defensive. It is an isolated country that was ruined by the end of the cold war, a failed communist country that has no real future and is desperately trying to come in from the cold the way China did 20 years ago.
But the chief issue is the volatility in Washington and whether or not we can cause the president and his advisors to back down and assume a more reasonable position in what is clearly a negotiable situation. The North Koreans have said they would dismantle their nuclear weapons capability in return for some guarantee that the Americans don’t intend to simply squash them the way they did Iraq. They want a non-aggression treaty or at least some other very public statement by the United States that it will not carry out aggression against North Korea. This has struck our allies in South Korea as utterly reasonable, and it has helped to fuel a very considerable anti-American movement in South Korea at the present time.
DR: I’ve read in several different sources that near four million Koreans were killed by U.S. military forces and U.S. client forces before and during the Korean War. Would you agree with this figure?
Chalmers Johnson: I don’t know if the number is accurate or not. But certainly the revelations of the killing of unarmed civilians at Nogunri during the Korean War, the almost relentless carpet bombing of North Korea, and the general atrocities carried out by American troops that seemed to have a basis in racism, have been suppressed for a long time in South Korea but are coming to the fore again as they begin to see American aggression in the field.
DR: In your book, Blowback, you also talk about how Japan is still a client state of the U.S. government as is South Korea. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of the U.S. involvement in Japan?
Chalmers Johnson: We created satellites in East Asia after World War II in the areas that we had conquered in exactly the same way and for more or less the same reasons that the Soviet Union created satellites in Eastern Europe-satellites that gained their independence from the Soviet Union after the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989. Then, of course, the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. One of the reasons for my writing Blowback was the end of the cold war in 1991 and the disappearance of the menace of the Soviet Union. The United States, far from demobilizing and trying to generate a peace dividend, was instead doing everything in its power throughout the 1990s to shore up cold war structures in East Asia and expand our empire of military bases into the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Central Asia.
The problem is that this old structure is quite wobbly today, above all, on economic grounds. Economics was the one thing that was really different between our satellites and those of the Soviet Union. We said to Japan and South Korea: In return for allowing us to station American forces on your soil, indefinitely, without your having any control over them despite all the nuisances that come with that, we would, in return, give you free and open access to the American market, then and still today, the world’s largest market. And more importantly, we would tolerate their protectionism, developing their own economies at our expense. We said this in the early 1950’s when we couldn’t imagine that they could ever become economic competitors
This has now come to the point where East Asia is quite industrialized. It produces the largest trade surpluses in economic history that are destined for the United States-trade surpluses in places like Japan, South Korea, and Mainland China. This trade imbalance is something that simply can’t go on forever. At some point, the economic consequences of our empire will bankrupt us, which is one of the sorrows of empire that I talk about in my new book.
Meanwhile, the presence of American military bases in places like Okinawa where we have 38 bases on an island smaller than Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands, has produced a place that is almost volcanic in its anti-Americanism. These military bases continue to generate incidents-sexual violence, accidents, pollution, airplane crashes, etc.-that build long-term distrust and dislike. What we’re seeing is almost a classic situation of subordinated peoples slowly developing the attitudes and the alliances to resist American imperialism.
DR: In your book, Blowback, you also describe how the Asian financial crisis, which infected Brazil and Russia also, was actually caused by U.S. interests in order to weaken the Asian economic tigers and keep them in their place.
Chalmers Johnson: One of the things that worried the United States throughout the 1980s was that it became the world’s largest net debtor nation-we owed more money to other people than anybody else-whereas Japan became the world’s largest creditor nation. This should have been a signal right then and there to alter this old relationship. We didn’t. Instead, the Japanese clung to us more tightly and we enjoyed having them as our satellite in permanent orbit around our foreign policy. Their foreign policy is essentially being dictated to them by Washington D.C. Over time this situation becomes more and more unstable.
We became deeply concerned, however, about the fact that Japan was becoming such a rich and powerful manufacturing country. All you have to do is look at any American parking lot to see what I’m talking about: The kind of enormous competition that Japan offered to the American automobile industry, and the fact that virtually all consumer electronics are made in Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan today.
Therefore, there’s no question that we used organizations that are our surrogates, our proxies-the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization-to destabilize various nations in East Asia and to make them subordinate to us.
It was a shocking development for the Asian economic tigers. They’ve slowly begun to recover from it. South Korea has recovered very nicely. But the legacy it has left is that the United States is considered fickle, bitter, and dangerous, and that an alliance with the United States is probably more costly than it’s worth. These attitudes now carry over into places like Argentina, which was formerly the fine pupil of American economic theories; the election of Lula da Silva in Brazil; and the anti-American attitudes caused by the great poverty imposed by the IMF in places like Ecuador and Venezuela.
These attitudes are now hardening. If we look forward and ask when will the American empire start to unravel, I would predict that our military is so strong, I don’t really expect it to occur on military grounds, but I think we can expect an economic crisis in the not too distant future. The attempt to dominate the entire globe militarily is an extremely expensive proposition, and we are not in a very good position to do that compared to other empires. The British Empire, on the eve of the First World War, had trade surpluses in the neighborhood of 7 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). They were a rich country and could afford to do what they wanted to do, even make mistakes, like the Boer War in South Africa.
The United States for the last 15 years has had trade deficits that are the largest ever recorded in economic history and today are running at around 5 percent of GDP. The buoyancy of our financial markets-since we save almost nothing in this country-depends almost entirely on capital imports from savings-oriented countries, particularly those in East Asia. Anytime these countries start concluding that the United States is not a safe place to invest or that there are alternatives, such as the emerging European Union, then the United States will find itself in extremely serious trouble with a howling deflation.
DR: In June 2003, Paul Wolfowitz was in Japan advocating that Japanese troops be sent to Iraq. Could you comment on that?
Chalmers Johnson: The odd thing in East Asia, which is, except for places like North Korea, one of the richest parts of the world today is that peace is breaking out. China has turned decisively in a commercial direction and is today one of the major manufacturing centers on earth. Except for the United States and Britain, it absorbs more direct foreign investment than any other country on earth. It is quite integrated into the world’s manufacturing system at the present time and has a huge trade surplus with the United States.
There is no enemy that requires our military presence in East Asia, except in so far as we are worried that China, 50 years from now, with the world’s largest population and an economy that’s growing faster than any other economy on earth, may well rival us in terms of our power to push people around. I don’t believe there is any real sense of a military threat.
Nonetheless, we have now become so committed to military means-militarism is so far advanced in our country and we have such massive forces deployed in East Asia-that Wolfowitz and the like are doing their best to insure that peace does not break out. They do everything in their power to push Japan into further rearmament, to exacerbate the situation on the Korean peninsula, and to continue to talk to the Taiwanese about the possibility of war with China. In fact, the Taiwanese situation is largely being resolved by economic integration between the mainland and Taiwan.
Wolfowitz was touring the area from Singapore up through Korea and Japan, making belligerent statements everywhere he went. What does it sound like? It sounds like the Roman Empire. They are concerned about the potential growth-not any genuine, serious threat-of China over the long term.
D.R.: What solid evidence is there that the Bush Administration is lying to the general public about the recent invasion of Iraq; and secondly, do you think they’re going to attack other nations in the Middle East?
Chalmers Johnson: The evidence is now overwhelming that the so-called main reason for the attack on Iraq-the threat that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, meaning nuclear, biological and chemical weapons-has evaporated. And there’s ample evidence that the administration lied to the public, and knew they were lying in the sense that the documents alleging, for example, that Iraq was importing uranium from Niger were forged. They relied on intelligence from the British government that was plagiarized from other open and public sources. The credibility of Colin Powell simply is gone after his performance at the United Nations on February 5th, 2003. No one in their right mind would ever believe a thing he said again.
As for further war in the Middle East, the people who have been making policy, concentrated above all in the Pentagon around people like Paul Wolfowitz and under the influence of Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, have certainly proclaimed their desire to carry the war further. They are also deeply influenced by the right wing in Israel, by the Likud Party, the party of Ariel Sharon.
Therefore, the only thing that apparently might stop them from further wars in, for example, Syria or Iran-which there’s already evidence they’re trying to destabilize-is the growing quagmire in Iraq itself. The American public, whether they’re informed about the war or not, will not tolerate many further casualties of the sort that have been occurring after the president so flamboyantly declared the war was over.
David Ross hosts a talk show on KMUD radio in Redway, CA. He is a grassroots activist who has worked on the Nader campaign, corporate malfeasance, U.S. foreign policy, and environmental issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.