The Roots of Rage

Blowback: The Cost and Consequences of the American Empire, by Chalmers Johnson. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 288 pages, $15.00 (paper).


Americans around the world are targets of terrorist attacks. Not just soldiers such as those killed on the USS Cole in Yemen this fall, but civilians, as well. Last year the State Department issued an unprecedented general warning for Americans abroad--anyone, anywhere--to be alert to the threat of anti-American violence. Yet citizens and commentators alike seemed to take the advisory in stride. No one asked, at the end of "the American Century," why we might be in such danger.



University of California political science professor (now emeritus) Chalmers Johnson has an explanation. United States government policies and practices begun during the Cold War, and continuing to this day, are largely responsible. And the American people are mostly unaware of what we are doing in the world, "since so much of this activity takes place either in relative secrecy or under comforting rubrics."



"Blowback" is a Central Intelligence Agency word for the unintended consequences of secret operations that come back to haunt the United States. An example is the violence traced to Osama bin Laden, today's leading terrorist. He previously was accused of blowing up two U.S. embassies in East Africa, and now is implicated in the recent attack in Yemen. But he used to be "ours." A Saudi Arabian, he assisted the Afghan "freedom fighters" armed by the United States during its proxy war with the Soviet Union. Another example is the 1988 sabotage of the Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, attributed to two Libyans. They were retaliating for President Ronald Reagan's 1986 bombing of Libya, which killed Muammar Qaddafi's stepdaughter.



Johnson's point is that we reap what we sow. His principle target, however, is not the CIA. He believes that the Pentagon is sowing the most dangerous seeds. Among his most serious charges: that the Pentagon is now running the bulk of U.S. covert operations through its Special Operations Division; that the U.S. role as the largest arms seller in the world is undermining our national security; that the Department of Defense (DOD) has slipped beyond civilian control.



Such charges are not new. What is noteworthy is that they come from an unlikely source. By Johnson's own description, he has spent his military and professional life as a "spear carrier" for American foreign policy. In the 1960s, as a professor of East Asian studies on the University of California's Berkeley campus, Johnson vigorously supported U.S. policy in Vietnam. He thought the antiwar protestors were a "self-indulgent," "romantic," and "sanctimonious" lot, lazy students who had "failed to do their homework." (He even went so far as to determine whether any Berkeley campus library books on Vietnam had been checked out. None had been.)



In retirement, Johnson believes that his support for U.S. policy in Vietnam was "a disastrously wrong position." He writes now: "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."



Johnson's circuitous route to this position (stunning to those who knew firsthand his hostility toward the 1960s demonstrators) began with a decade-long study of Japan's economic success. "I did not realize then that my research would inadvertently lead me to see clearly for the first time the shape of the empire which I had so long uncritically supported," he recounts. By empire, Johnson does not mean territorial acquisitions but those policies and practices that "normally lie concealed beneath some ideological or judicial concept--commonwealth, alliance, free world, the West, the Communist bloc--that disguises the actual relationships among its members."



His conclusions are sweeping: "I believe the profligate waste of our resources on irrelevant weapons systems and the Asia economic meltdown, as well as the continuous trail of military 'accidents' and of terrorist attacks on American installations and embassies, are all portents of a twenty-first-century crisis in America's informal empire, an empire based on the projection of military power to every corner of the world and on the use of American capital and markets to force global economic integration on our terms, at whatever costs to others."



In other words, "globalism" is just the newest euphemism, or ideological mask, for what others would call old-fashioned imperialism. Johnson asks us to view South Korea, Japan, and other Asian countries as American satellites, analogous to the Soviet Union's former client states in Eastern Europe. The United States not only exploits these countries economically, but, in his view, keeps an unnecessarily large military force in the region. The U.S. presence in South Korea consists of "37,000 combat troops occupying 65,500 acres of South Korean territory at 96 bases." Johnson devotes two chapters to explaining why South Korea has become a prime breeding ground for blowback.



He compares the 1980 uprising in Kwangju, South Korea, to the 1956 Hungarian uprising. South Korean protesters in Kwangju were put down with the help of the U.S. military, he says, in the "most notorious act of political violence in South Korea's history." The event is forever associated with the United States. What is worse, Johnson observes, everyone in Korea knows about the U.S. role, but the American people do not, since the Pentagon is still withholding information about its involvement.



For those who assume that American troops would come home if North and South Korea reunite, Johnson says, guess again. In 1998 Defense Secretary William Cohen told a Korean audience that the United States intends to keep troops in South Korea, even if North and South Korea become unified. Johnson asserts that both Japanese and Korean media viewed these remarks "as a barely veiled targeting of China as a future enemy and as a warning against the possibility that Japan might undertake a foreign policy independent of the United States."



Likewise, the U.S. military retains a significant presence in Japan. On Okinawa alone, the United States has 39 bases that occupy "20 percent of prime agricultural land." Johnson argues that the original rationale for these bases ended years, if not decades, ago. The new rationale is "stability," an amorphous concept that means little strategically.



Other U.S-led military plans in Asia are "as dangerous as the one the USSR planned in Cuba in 1962--which almost led to nuclear war." Pentagon officials, for instance, are busy convincing Japan that it needs a regional missile defense system. Johnson asks, against what enemy? Japan has significant relationships with China, does not recognize Taiwan, and is North Korea's second-largest trading partner. China would be perfectly justified in seeing this as a provocative act. The United States, he argues, is "playing with fire" and destabilizing the region, all in the name of regional security.



To complicate matters, the Pentagon now has independent economic interests of its own. In the case of Japan, for example, the Japanese government annually pays 78 percent of the DOD's costs of keeping U.S. troops on its soil--647 billion yen in 1997--thus giving the Pentagon a monetary motivation for maintaining the status quo. Japan is also a market for Pentagon arms. Johnson charges that the Pentagon is saddling Japan and other Asian "satellites" with burdensome military purchases.



What if a country can't afford U.S. arms? The International Monetary Fund, which Johnson dubs the covert arm of the U.S. Treasury (but which is unaccountable to Congress), will grant credits to buy military goods. Even as the economies of Malaysia and Indonesia were collapsing in 1997, Secretary Cohen made a hurried trip to Southeast Asia to ensure that military arms deals were still in place, Johnson reports. Military spending necessarily squeezes out domestic programs in countries where such needs are critical.



Worse, the Pentagon has been involved in "state terrorism," Johnson says. The Joint Combined Exchange Training program, passed by Congress in 1991, permits the DOD to send forces overseas for joint exercises with military units "so long as the primary purpose of the mission was stated to be the training of our soldiers, not theirs." The Pentagon, as of 1998, has "trained" in 110 countries. And since few of these countries are at war, newly learned "lethal skills" will most likely be used internally, against a nation's own citizenry, Johnson argues. Indonesia and Guatemala are two examples. The most brutal acts against the East Timorese were committed by President Suharto's Red Berets, whom the United States helped to train. Their skills were used also against opposition leaders in Indonesia who helped bring down Suharto (many of them were "disappeared"). Johnson also cites a United Nations report on Guatemala in which investigators concluded that an elite officer corps trained by the United States in counterinsurgency techniques was a key factor in the genocide against Mayan Indians.



Johnson is not the first person to argue that after the Cold War ended, an entire apparatus--laws, policies, programs, covert activities, even habits--remained in place. New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for example, who chaired the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, concluded that the entire U.S. government is ridden with a "culture of secrecy" that threatens democratic accountability. What is notable is how far removed Johnson's arguments are from the current trend of triumphal books on the Cold War, works that celebrate "victory" and laud U.S. policy. In celebration, costs are not assessed.




Even if one assumes that Johnson's passion as an apostate has led him to construct a one-sided picture, the very secrecy he protests makes his argument both forceful and difficult to assess. For instance, if the Pentagon is running most covert operations with private contractors, placing them beyond the reach of congressional oversight, this is very serious indeed.



Secrets, and even covert operations, may be warranted to protect national security. But if secrets are held forever, no accounting ever takes place. Lessons cannot be learned. Perhaps the largest--and largely unacknowledged--cost of the Cold War was not the neglect of U.S. domestic needs but the squandering of trust between citizens and government.



It is not just Vietnam or Watergate that has made citizens wary of politicians and government, but evidence of other Cold War secrets long denied by government officials. Last winter, for example, a San Francisco Chronicle headline reported, "U.S. admits nuclear toll on workers: Radiation caused cancer at weapons plants." How many citizens have tried to find the truth about this? How many Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests have been made? How many people have suffered not only from cancer but from the acts of a government that for years refused any responsibility? Duplicate this experience by government agency, or by issue, and extend it over five decades. Aren't these deep and significant sources of distrust? They do not appear in the civil society literature (Putnam, Bellah, Sandel, and others); but is not their cumulative effect as devastating as the loss of a sense of community? Are they not related to the loss of connection with government?



Implicit but neglected in Blowback is a hopeful aspect in all this. Whatever the United States might be doing abroad, a fierce tradition of liberty does exist within the American populace. It is probably not too far-fetched to say that it has been citizen action, and citizen action alone, that has forced the government to reveal what it has done in the name of its people. Most of what we know about government secrecy and covert matters, for instance, is the result of patient and tenacious use of the Freedom of Information Act. (Indeed, some of Johnson's most damning examples, including what we do know about the Kwangju uprising, were revealed through FOIA requests.) We may have a rare opportunity before us. Throughout the Cold War, critics of American foreign policy were dismissed as either communists, fellow travelers, or the "blame America first" crowd. A re-examination of the U.S. role in the world need not be derailed by loyalty questions in this era. The Pentagon's actions are as important to emerging discussions about globalization as labor and environmental concerns are.



In his desire to get our attention, Johnson may have overstated his case and relied on inflammatory analogies, as when he repeatedly compares the United States to the Soviets. He also conflates acts of hubris, individual criminal acts, policy choices, and covert actions, and tucks them all under the rubric of "blowback." But Johnson has thrown down enough red flags on the triumphalist field to give us pause. And the issues he raises are ignored at our own peril. ¤

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