BLOWBACK: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. By Chalmers Johnson. Metropolitan. 268 pp. $26.
Some Sundays back, the New York Times fronted a story from its Paris correspondent, Suzanne Daley, about the fear and loathing Americans induce among Europeans these days. America is “a worrisome society,” it seems. It’s “a menacing, even dangerous force intent on remaking the world in its image.” Among the many criticisms the piece listed–guns, the death penalty, our obsession with “globalization” for all– one stood out. It has to do with our lapsed relations with the past and our inability to see ourselves as others see us. “Omnipotence and ignorance,” a French parliamentarian named Noel Mambre says in a book Daley quoted. “It is a questionable cocktail.”
The following Sunday, the Times ran another curious piece in the same position–Page 1, above the fold. This one was about the 1953 coup that toppled Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and installed the last Shah as an unchallenged monarch. It was the Central Intelligence Agency’s “first successful overthrow of a foreign government,” the Times wrote of this coup that has been “lost to history.” The piece then went on to draw the straight line Iranians draw as a matter of course between the coup in ’53 and the revolution twenty-six years later that landed them with clerical rule.
History as news, then. This is encouraging, though one doesn’t want to make too much of it. Iran in 1953 was a seminal cold war event, with more straight lines poking forward from it than a bicycle wheel has spokes–to the coup in Guatemala a year later, to the Bay of Pigs, to Indonesia in ’65, to Chile in ’73, to Indochina. An officially leaked report about Iran in a paper such as the Times suggests an important change. Are we now encouraged to know or remember all that was patriotically hidden or forgotten all these years? It’s a fine thought. Americans, like everyone else frostbitten by the cold war, pay dearly for their ruptured relations with history. As so often, the victimizers turn out to be victims, too.
The problem is that cocktail. Let’s call it an Americano. It has been our daily sun-downer for so long now that one wonders whether we will ever, so to say, sober up and climb on the wagon. In a dysfunctional democracy such as ours, public ignorance (and its sibling, indifference) is essential to the exercise of power–to the principle that in dealing with others we have no principles. That was true throughout the cold war, of course, and has been grimly true since. The real post-Berlin wall peace dividend would have been knowledge–self-knowledge, above all–for to know would be to object, as the keepers of secrets understand. So we can add to the notion of history as news the notion of history as a kind of subversion, a weapon in the ongoing war between rememberers and forgetters.
Several of Chalmers Johnson’s fifteen books, the work of a long career in Chinese and Japanese studies, have turned out to subvert the orthodoxy. His first, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power (1962), forced late-McCarthyist America to acknowledge the treasonous truth that the Chinese Communists enjoyed immense popularity in the years leading up to the revolution. In 1982 he published MITI and the Japanese Miracle, a founding document for the “revisionist” view of Japan now prevalent. MITI upended another tradition, too, it turns out. “I did not realize then,” Johnson now writes of it, “that my research would inadvertently lead me to see clearly for the first time the shape of the empire that I had so long uncritically supported.”
And if Johnson was late in seeing that shape clearly, as he touchingly confesses in the prologue of his new book, he writes of it now with the authentic, eyes-wide-open clarity of the betrayed. The focus of Blow-back is what we can neatly call our manifest duplicity. It’s about all those Americanos we’ve drank. It’s also about history, language and identity–in each case ours. In short, Johnson has written a straight-talking analysis of America’s global conduct during the cold war and since, and what we’re eventually going to pay for it.
“Blowback,” of course, is spookspeak. In the CIA it means the unintended consequences of a covert operation–the union protests that follow a labor leader’s assassination or the jungle war against the third-rate general Washington carefully installed in some distant presidential palace. Johnson stretches the term this way and that–and comes up with an altogether better use for it. For him, blowback would cover everything from Pan Am flight 103 (retaliation for President Reagan’s 1986 air raid on Libya) to Afghan heroin, Pol Pot, the mess in East Timor, Midwestern rust belts and Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party. These are the flora and fauna of the American empire–a term Johnson is careful to define and defend. Blowback, in short, is what we’re going to live with in the century we’ve just begun, Johnson argues. “There is a logic to empire that differs from the logic of a nation,” he writes. “The United States now faces an agenda of problems that simply would not exist except for the imperial commitments and activities, open and covert, that accompanied the Cold War.”
Johnson stays close to his specialties as he develops these themes. There are two chapters on China, two on the Koreas, one on Japan and another in which the Asia crisis of the late nineties is recast as the unraveling of imperial satellites that are no longer useful or affordable. We do not get sustained consideration of Europe, the Middle East, Africa or Latin America. I do know Johnson (and let’s count this a statement of disclosure). He’s too careful a scholar to venture into territory unknown to him, and he’s also too careful a scholar to present us with anything less than a finished argument. Blowback is expansive thinking. It arrives just as our national conversation, begins to suggest we’re waking up from a dream. The book does much to articulate this change–and will do much to advance it further.
Not that there isn’t plenty to contest in Blowback. “Nixon’s opening to China was the first sign that some understanding of East Asian history was finally starting to penetrate Washington minds,” Johnson writes. This gives too much credit to Washington minds, in my view–especially since, in the context, we have to include Henry Kissinger’s among them. Elsewhere, Johnson lines up with Ronald Steel, the foreign affairs scholar, to assert that America has been exploited by its empire more than it has exploited it. There’s something to this, as our trade figures attest. But as a simple summation of a complex question, it leaves too much out. The trade deficits that have long beleaguered us reflect purposeful judgments US cold warriors made just as they were getting their project under way. In a matter of a few years, we shifted from the high-savings, low- consumption economy that got us through World War II to a high-consumption, low-savings alternative geared to absorbing the European and Asian exports we wanted to induce. This was our cold war economic policy, in all its nuance and farsightedness. Shopping and, perfectly fair to say, gluttonous consumption became ideologically correct acts. We can hardly turn around now and call ourselves exploited. It was our cold war bargain, and we set the terms.
In the same vein, one can easily agree with Johnson that US policy in Asia is in need of a radical overhaul. But trafficking in Kirkpatrickisms such as “soft authoritarianism” and “soft totalitarianism” to rank the region’s generally grim regimes,as Johnson does, confuses more than it clarifies. Throughout Blowback, Johnson makes much of the symmetry between the US and Soviet empires during the cold war. This is legitimate and useful, it seems to me. But it’s also among Johnson’s most contentious strategies. While he walks carefully enough through the fetid swamp of “moral equivalence,” some readers will inevitably get off his trail on this point.
Never mind. In his lapsed-believer phase, Johnson is good for a hearty argument. Blowback is not simply an emperor-has-no-clothes shout by one of the premier scholars of his generation–although it is that, certainly. More important, it gives us back what our newspapers and our academic specialists have declined to supply since the late forties: a framework in which we can understand where we’ve come from, who we’ve made of ourselves and where we’re headed. It’s the straight lines Johnson draws that give the book its cogency: between the cold war and globalism, say, or between imperial ambition and our doomed efforts to “contain” the emerging China. In all of this, Johnson’s plain diction is more than a literary virtue. It defies us to advance beyond the euphemisms we’ve used to mesmerize ourselves, the cotton wadding we’ve made of American English as we speak it in public.
An eerie wind of doom gusts through Blowback, especially its final chapter, in which Johnson looks forward. We’re in for a century of crisis, he asserts. We will swim long laps in the lakes of resentment we have left behind here and there around the world. Terrorism–a strike at the innocent to reveal the sins of the invulnerable, Johnson calls it–will be as common as baseball in American life, without the seasonal breaks. At home our imperial pre-tensions have saddled us with a military under scant civilian control, while we have assumed a militarized consciousness we seem not even to notice in ourselves. In the end, Johnson thinks, it will be our failure to understand limits that gets us–a fate not altogether unlike that of the Soviets. “I believe our very hubris ensures our un-doing,” Johnson writes. “A classic mistake of empire managers is to come to believe that there is nowhere within their domain– in our case, nowhere on earth–in which their presence is not crucial. Sooner or later, it becomes psychologically impossible not to insist on involvement everywhere, which is, of course, a definition of imperial overextension.”
A definition–meaning there are others. And one such alternative is to be found in the extent to which Washington has failed to adjust to new global realities in the past decade simply because it lacks the intellectual agility and the innovative capacity to reimagine its relations with the rest of the world. No matter how many hoops Pentagon tacks jump through, the fact remains that some of the largest US military installations abroad have no logical justification. This, too, is what Johnson means by imperial overreach. “The United States today desperately needs a new analysis of its role in a post-Cold War world,” Johnson writes. To me, this is the single most important sentence in Blowback. And the point is nowhere more graphically or immediately demonstrated than in Korea.
You would have thought that after a half-century of tension along the 38th parallel, Washington would have released a flock of balloons, in the yin-yang pattern, perhaps, at news of the recent North-South summit. Instead we got a smug, altogether revealing silence from our nation’s capital. You got the sense that our own leaders and planners heard well enough the message beneath the message from the two Koreas: “It’s over. You’re history, as you Americans like to say, and we’ll solve this alone.”
A couple of weeks after the Kim-Kim summit in Pyongyang, Rowan Scarborough, correspondent of the esteemed Washington Times, reported from Seoul that Americans stationed in South Korea might now be prey to “strike squads” of Koreans unhappy with the presence of 37,000 uniformed protectors and their dependents. Our men and women on the peninsula are now required to use the “buddy system” when traveling off post; they can also resort to a “civil disturbance hotline” if they get into trouble among our Korean friends. But we’re staying in Korea, Defense Secretary William Cohen regularly reiterates– settlement or not, wanted or not.
And there you have it, don’t you? Blow-back in its purest form, more blowback in the making. Johnson’s new book arrives none too soon. We’re still crazy after all these years, you have to conclude. It’s the price of forgetfulness and of living in a house without mirrors. Another Americano, anyone? On the rocks, of course.