[Dialogic is saddened to hear of the passing of Chalmers Johnson. He was a leading critic of American empire and militaristic expansion. He was also a fearless intellectual who stood up to abusive power in his own institutions. We will let those that knew him better explain below, but we must state how much Johnson contributed to our understanding of the world and for that we celebrate his life and accomplishments.]
Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback; The Sorrows of Empire, Dead at 79: The Impact Today and Tomorrow of Chalmers Johnson
by Steve Clemons
Johnson's ability to launch an instant, debilitating broadside against the intellectual vacuousness of friends or foes made him controversial. He chafed under the UC Berkeley Asia Program leadership of Robert Scalapino whom Johnson viewed as one of the primary dynastic chiefs of what became known as the "Chrysanthemum Club", those whose Japan-hugging meant overlooking and/or ignoring the characteristics of Japan's state-led form of capitalism. Johnson was provocatively challenged graduate students in the field to choose sides -- to work either on the side where they acquiesced to a corrupt culture of US-Japan apologists who wanted the quaint big brother-little brother frame for the relationship to remain the dominant portal through which Japan was viewed or alternatively on the side of those who saw Japan and America's forfeiture of its own economic interests as empirical facts.
When Robert Scalapino refused to budge despite Johnson's agitation, Johnson who then headed UC Berkeley's important China Studies program abandoned the university and became the star intellectual of UC San Diego's School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. There is no doubt that Johnson but UCSD's IRPS on the map and gave it an instant, global boost.
But as usual, Johnson -- incorruptible and passionate about policy, theory, and their practice -- eventually went to war with the bureaucrats running that institution. Those who had come in to head it were devotees of "rational choice theory" -- which was spreading through the fields of political science and other social sciences as the so-called softer sciences were trying to absorb and apply the harder-edged econometrics-driven models of behavior that the neoliberal trends in economics were using.
Johnson and one of his proteges, E.B. "Barry" Keehn, wrote a powerful indictment of rational choice theory that helped trigger a long-running and still important intellectual divide that showed that rational choice theory was one of the great ideological delusions of the era. I too joined this battle and wrote extensively about the limits of rational choice theory which I myself saw dislodging university language programs, cultural studies, and more importantly -- the institutional/structural approaches to understanding other political systems.
Johnson once told me when I was visiting him and his long-term, constant intellectual partner and wife, Sheila Johnson, that the UCSD School of International Relations and Pacific Studies no longer either really taught international relations or pacific studies -- and that a student's entire first year was focused on acultural skill set development in economics and statistics. To Johnson, this tendency to elevate econometric formulas over the actual study of a nation's language, history, culture and political system was part of America's growing cultural imperialism. Studying "them" is really about "us" -- as "they" will converge to be like "us" or will fall to the way side and be insignificant.
It was that night that Chalmers Johnson, Sheila Johnson and I agreed to form an idea on had been developing called the Japan Policy Research Institute. Chalmers became President and I the Director. We maintained this working relationship at the helm of JPRI together for more than 12 years and spoke nearly every week if not every other day as we tried to acquire and publish the leading thinking on Japan, US-Japan relations and Asia more broadly. We became conveners, published works on Asia that the official journals of record of US-Asia policy viewed as too risky, and emerged as key players in the media on all matters of America's economic, political, and military engagement in the Pacific. Today, JPRI is headed by Chiho Sawada and is based at the University of San Francisco.
However, this base of JPRI gave Chalmers Johnson the launch pad that led to the largest contribution of his career to America's national discourse. From his granular understanding of political economy of competing nations, his understanding of the national security infrastructure of both sides of the Cold War, he saw better than most that the US had organized its global assets -- particularly its vassals Japan and Germany -- in a manner similar to the Soviet Union. Both sides looked like the other. Both were empires. The Soviets collapsed, Chalmers told me and wrote. The U.S. did not -- yet.
To Read the Entire Essay
Chalmers Johnson, 1931-2010, on the Last Days of the American Republic
The distinguished scholar and best-selling author Chalmers Johnson has died. He passed away in California on Saturday afternoon at the age of 79. During the Cold War, he served as a consultant to the Central Intelligence Agency and was a supporter of the Vietnam War, however, later became a leading critic of U.S. militarism and imperialism. He wrote the book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire in 2000, which became a bestseller after the 9/11 attacks. He went on to complete what would become a trilogy about American empire. Today we re-air part of our last interview with Chalmers Johnson from 2007.
Dialogic Archive: Chalmers Johnson