"The guy's a wacko!"
BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Chalmers Johnson, when you wrote the last line of ”The Sorrows of Empire,” you said this: ”Feeling such a reform, Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits impatiently for her meeting with us.” I get a sense you might even be writing your next book name, "Nemesis.”
CHALMERS JOHNSON, AUTHOR: The third book is done and it’s called, ”Nemesis.” The subtitle is, ”The Last Days of the American Republic.” It’s to say that I don’t see the way out any longer. ...The separation of powers has clearly broken down; the President has achieved virtually anything he might’ve wanted to do in that area. I don’t think the political system will save us. The military could conceivably take over; they’ve threatened this but I don’t think so for reasons that I think are pretty obvious -- above all, the fact that ...only enlisted men have been convicted in the prison torture scandals, none of the officers. The result is that within the armed forces today, enlisted men are extremely sensitive to illegal orders, saying, you’re going to take the rap for it, not us. There’s no more illegal order than to take over Congress, so the officers I just don’t think believe innocent men would follow their orders today! So my wife keeps saying to me, come up with something optimistic and I come up with bankruptcy. That looks like it might be the thing that will bring the republic to an end.
LAMB: You know that there are people watching right now that say that guy’s a wacko. I mean that’s an extreme of it but it’s like the conspiracy theorists and all that …
JOHNSON: ... If you and I were having this conversation in say, 1985 and I said to you, four years from now the Soviet Union will disappear, you’d have thought that’s not really a reliable analyst! Well, it’s gone. It’s disappeared. Its – Russia today is a much smaller place than the Soviet Union was. Empires go very, very rapidly and we’re getting extremely overextended; really very serious thin ice. This is not terribly novel with me, right now. A lot of people know this, understand it, and are worried about the trend of events.
"Duke" Cunningham, corruption, and what it means
JOHNSON [who lives in Cunningham's district]: Well, this is the crookedest congressman we’ve ever had who is now in prison for over eight years for bribery. He was a lot dumber than we thought he was. I mean you’d have thought that he could’ve become a lobbyist and stayed out of prison. I wrote a piece in the LA Times well before this happened arguing that my congressman was bought and paid for by the military industrial complex. It was easy to simply see what he reported to the Federal Election Commission and where his money came from and it wasn’t within the 50th District, it was Lockheed-Martin and above all, MZM Corporation, the one that where the guy he was paying him off in order to get defense contracts. It’s extremely serious when the institution that the authors of the Constitution presumed to be the heart of our government, the place where initiatives came from, is today; you just want to ask what’s happened to Congress? Where has it gone? One could talk endlessly about the enthusiasm of Bush and Cheney for greater powers in the imperial presidency but what we don’t understand is how did Congress just disappear? How did it cease to function any more at all? It has the smell of the Roman Senate, as we come up on the last days.
Militarism and the military industrial complex
LAMB: Why does this happen in your opinion? What’s the start of all this?
JOHNSON: Militarism, primarily. That is to say – well, its imperialism [whose] inescapable accompaniment is militarism. This begins to invoke the earliest warnings we have about the threats to republican government. After all, George Washington’s farewell address -- still read in Congress each session -- warns [that] the greatest threat to liberty is standing armies and it’s the particular threat to republican liberty. He meant by this that it would destroy the separation of powers on which the structure was set up. It would move power toward the President and move it away from Congress and the courts. That seems to me today obvious. Then, of course, the equally famous warning, by Dwight Eisenhower as he left office in 1961, where he invented the phrase military industrial complex and it’s worth reading because it’s so strident. This was not a diplomatic remark at all by an outgoing President. He warns in the harshest possible terms of what’s likely to befall us from spending as much as we do on military affairs ...I think this is culmination. It’s the same sort of thing that happened to the Roman Republic, which one mentions only because the Roman republic was so much a model for Madison and the other authors of the Constitution... This was the first functioning democratic republic that we know of. We used and took many ideas from them. What happened to them as they rather thoughtlessly acquired themselves an empire which then required these huge standing armies instead of the citizen armies that had prevailed in the early days of the republic and it overwhelmed their government -- leading them finally to populist military figures of which, of course, Julius Caesar is the model. It led to his assassination in the Senate. But then you get on to more ruthless figures -- young Octavian who decides to make himself a god, Augustus Caesar.
JOHNSON: ...I was a student at the University of California then, just finishing up. I was always in the Navy. My father had been in the Navy, my cousin had been in the Navy. ...This is back 1951....
Berkeley and the war in Vietnam
JOHNSON: Twenty-six years [at Berkeley], teaching Chinese and Japanese politics.
LAMB: But you were, at some point, supportive of the Vietnam War.
JOHNSON: That’s true and I’ve talked about this in the various books. I was wrong on Vietnam. I – in retrospect, as I’ve said I knew too much about communism, which is what I was specialist in, I was Chairman of the Center for Chinese Studies at this time but I wasn’t a specialist on people like a George Bundy or Robert McNamara.... people who ran the Vietnam War... I was also irritated at the time -- no doubt about it -- by the student demonstrations. They struck me as pampered little brats who didn’t really know what they were doing. I was very proud of the University of California. I thought they were damaging the university at the time and so, I guess there was another issue that when we talk about the Vietnam War, one seems to think that this was the only issue out there. It was a period of enormous change in America and at this time, I was very much caught up with racial integration in America. I had many students in the Black Panther Party who were students at my university. That being the case, Lyndon Johnson became a kind of hero because of the Great Society, the Civil Rights Act, things of this sort and we tended not to pay as much attention to what he was doing in Vietnam, as I should have and was wrong.
LAMB: When did you change your mind on Vietnam?
JOHNSON: Oh, after I changed my mind generally. That came with something truly unusual, namely, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. I regarded the Soviet Union as a menace. I still do. ...I was specialist in the subject. I traveled extensively in the Soviet Union in 1978 at the height of [that era?] and things of this sort but when the whole raison d’être of the Cold War ended -- that is they’d collapsed, they’d imploded, they disappeared -- I was truly shocked by the American government’s reaction. Instantaneously, we set out to find a replacement enemy -- well, China, drugs, terrorism, whatever to keep the military industrial complex working, to maintain the huge – I mean we’re talking about 737 debts on the Pentagon’s account, military bases located around the world at the present time. I was shocked by this. It led me, as a professor of international relations, to begin to ask, was the Cold War just a cover or something deeper for an American imperial project, probably, to replace the British Empire that went back to World War II and I strongly suspect that is the case. Particularly in East Asia where I worked, it looked very much like we were on the wrong side of issues of national liberation in China, in Vietnam and Southeast Asia -- onething after another. I guess, then the other thing that led me really to shift my views... People have said over the years, well you’re being inconsistent. My answer on that is a famous crack by John Maynard Keynes, when he was accused of being inconsistent. He said, "Well, when I get new information I change my position. What, sir, do you do with new information?" The new information I got was the remarkable American reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was no peace dividend. There was no moving back into the United States. Okinawa I’ve spent most of my life studying Japan, working with issues concerned with Japan and Northeast Asia but I’d never been at Okinawa until 1996. The governor there, a retired professor..., had invited me to come down after a very serious incident in 1995 when two Marines and sailor abducted, beat and raped a 12-year-old girl. It set off the worst demonstrations against the United States since the security treaty had been signed. I had never been to Okinawa and like many others. It’s a Japanese version of Puerto Rico. It’s a territory that is discriminated against. It was acquired in the late 19th Century by the Japanese Empire. It has 38 American military bases on an island smaller than Kauai, in the Hawaiian Islands, living cheek by jowl with 1,300,000 Okinawans. I took up Mr. Ota’s (ph) offer, visited Okinawa and was simply appalled by what I saw. The signs of the Raj. We’d been there since the battle of Okinawa in 1945. I mean these troops reminded me of the Soviet troops that were in East Germany and didn’t want to leave. They were living better in East Germany than they would back in Russia after the wall came down. Well, our people were living better than they would in Oceanside, California next door to Camp Pendleton. That led me to start looking at bases....
Do you trust the Pentagon?
LAMB: You said 737 military bases around the world.
JOHNSON: That’s the Pentagon’s count.
LAMB: Do you trust that?
JOHNSON: Well, I just know it isn’t true. I mean they don’t – there’s a lot of bases they don’t include for various political reasons. They don’t include ...the air base in Qatar. Well that was the headquarters for our assault on Iraq but they don’t do so, in order to not embarrass the Emir of Qatar. They don’t include any of the espionage bases. We have a wonderful old arrangement with Britain, so that most of our bases in Britain, of which there are quite a few, are disguised as Royal Air Force bases. ...I doubt that anybody knows the really full count. I doubt if Mr. Rumsfeld does but it’d probably go up over 1,000.
Okay, but if we can afford it, why not have a huge defense budget?
JOHNSON: ...I think we need to spend the money in other ways. The largest element in our budget of discretionary spending goes for national security. We are spending today more on national defense, so-called really on war, than all the other nations on earth combined. That’s an astonishing figure. Its also amazing to see that perhaps, 20,000 insurgents in Iraq have fought to a standstill 130,000 of the most-highly trained, heavily equipped troops on earth and that’s what has happened and that’s why they’re withdrawing often in their secure bases or very few of them ever leave that base. The thing is a fake. Moreover, what bothers me is the degree to which militarism has penetrated into our society. Its perfectly logical for the Secretary of Defense to want to close bases domestically that we no longer need but its amazing every time he does that to see every community with a closed base erupt and demand that their senator keep our base open; keep those jobs there. ...It’s something we don’t want to admit in this country, how dependent we are increasingly on the military industrial complex. We don’t actually manufacture that much in this country any more but without question, we manufacture more weapons than anybody else on earth and we sell them like crazy to anybody who’ll buy them. We particularly like a military situation where we can sell weapons to both sides.
But doesn't that make you feel more secure, better protected?
JOHNSON: But they’re not protecting me -- that’s the point. In fact the country is in rather serious trouble because of our skewed priorities. I mean after all, we have to create a Department of Homeland Security because the so-called Department of Defense, which in an earlier time in this country, we called the War Department. The Department of Defense has nothing to do with defense. It has to do with buying weapons that are worthless, which we do a lot of. Buying things that were appropriate to the Cold War, even though it’s now 15 years old and even then, we knew throughout the 1980’s that there was never going to be a war with the Soviet Union or we were kidding ourselves with – I mean this is not the first time we’ve had bad intelligence at work. ...Slowly over time, as Eisenhower warned us, we have become oriented toward, dependent upon, accepting of the rationale of why we have monstrous standing armies and why we’ve also given up on the idea of citizen armies. I’m not sure how I stand on the draft. I don’t particularly like it but at the same time, one of the things I do like about it, is that it’s a real check on militarism.
JOHNSON: ... I believe we’ve handled it miserably. I believe we’d have been much better off if we had treated it as the way we would approach organized crime. That is, attacks on innocent civilians, building cases that would stand up in court; focusing on who did it, since we knew who did it and going after them instead of this, again, war of choice. So many of our wars are wars of choice in which arguably the world couldn’t possibly have been worse off if George Bush and Dick Cheney had never heard of Iraq.
JOHNSON: "Blow Back" is a specific CIA term. It was first used in the after action report on our first overthrow of a democratic reelected government, namely the government of Iran in 1953, in which the report was not declassified before the year 2000, in which the word – phrase occurs in there, we’re going to get some blow back from this. Now, blow back doesn’t just mean retaliation. It means retaliation for things that we did abroad for which – that were kept entirely secret from the American public, so that when the retaliation comes they have no ability to put into context to see cause and effect. That’s why we ended up with the President actually getting away with a truly absurd question to congress, why do they hate us? You might well have wanted to ask, who is it on earth that doesn’t hate us for good reason. I mean often in many cases very good reason. These things were kept secret from the American public; they’re not kept secret from the people on the receiving end that – when we carry out one of these so-called clandestine operations. ... I was criticized almost at once for suggesting that the United States was in some way responsible; some way had – was involved in what had happened on September 11th, 2001. Of course, I had argued precisely that. That this was blow back from the largest single clandestine operation we ever carried out, namely, the recruiting army and sending into battle of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, against the Soviet Union. Once the Soviet Union collapsed George Bush rather famously just walked away from Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was an asset and an ally of ours in those days. We worked closely with him. We armed him. We certainly knew where his base was because we had built it for him. That when Bill Clinton decided to bomb it with cruise missiles, things of this sort. They felt betrayed; let down. It was also foolish on our part that we never once asked who were these people we were supporting. They were anti-Soviet but William Casey, Reagan’s CIA Director, who is a deeply devout and a passionately devout Catholic, who seemed to believe that the greatest single force against Communism would be religion and he welcomed Islamic allies, never once asking what about Islam? What kind of Islam, whom they might be, what they – at any rate – Osama bin Laden and company felt betrayed by the Americans and they got even. They let us know what they were doing. They did it quite regularly. They already destroyed two embassies in East Africa. They’d bombed the USS Cole. Similar bombings had already occurred at the World Trade Center. To be surprised at what happened on 9/11 seemed to me is incompetent on the part of political leaders.
"Democratizing" the Middle East and Central Asia
JOHNSON: With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, we moved vigorously into this area. It wasn’t certainly just George Bush and the Republicans. It was very much a Democratic thing, too. A lot of money involved. We had already had troop exchanges. We now had bases in Uzbekistan and Kurdistan. The Vice President has just visited Kazakhstan to try and arrange more oil after insulting the Russians in a speech in Vilnius. ...This territory -- Southern Eurasia -- was opened up by the collapse of the Soviet Union to enormous geopolitical pressures. I don’t think we’ve done it particularly well. I think we’ve been remarkably cynical. I can’t imagine how these people, with a straight face, talk about the promotion of democracy in places still ruled by old Soviet apparatchiks who are very regularly welcomed to the Oval Office by our President and described in glowing terms, whereas, the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan quit because of the tortures being carried out by the government and explained them to the world. ...We’ve had a long history of this, after all, going back into the first World War when Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, his Secretary of State, were declaring that we were the exemplar for good government on earth that all moral issues rested in the American leadership. I think as a historical generalization you could not be wrong today to say its unmitigated tragedy that the American President believes such nonsense. Had he not, we might have avoided intervening in a war between the British and German Empires.
The four sorrows of empire: endless war, loss of liberty, habitual official lying, and financial ruin.
JOHNSON: By the loss of liberty I mean that the structure of government bequeathed to us by the founders, is today, in tatters. If you believe the government in Washington D.C. bears any resemblance to the government outlined in the Constitution of 1787, the burden of proof is on you. There’s just way – I mean I cannot – for example, its just inconceivable to the people who created our republican, little r, form of government that you would – that the President would have at his disposal, a private army and that’s the CIA -- totally secret. No way you can do oversight on it. No way you can – that he can be held accountable for it. That 40 percent of the defense budget is black, it’s not reported. It’s in contrary to Article One of the Constitution that says, you will be told how your tax money is spent. You will never be told and that’s not something George Bush did. It started with the Manhattan Project in World War II to build atomic bombs. These things are cumulative. There’s now so many of it, so built up over such a long period of time that I believe there is a real threat to the continuation of the republican form of government. That is what provides our democracy; what provides our civil liberties and by this we mean divided government. The impossibility of somebody becoming a dictator; being checks and balances, a balance of power; imperial presidency is a good term for it today and it’s out of control.
Does any of this matter if "we're toast"?
JOHNSON: If I’m wrong you’re going to forgive me because you’re going to be so pleased I was wrong! But the evidence adds up. That is, all you can do is to try in dealing with contemporary history, to use your experience, the facts that you can get, put them together in a plausible and coherent way. It looks like the United States continues to head toward a terrible cul-de-sac that as it stands right now, given the largest bankruptcy, the largest trade and current account and fiscal deficits virtually in economic history. In my latest book I call it a Blanche DuBois economy. We are increasingly dependent on the kindness of strangers. As you remember the strangers became less and less kind to Blanche in Tennessee Williams’ play, too! We’re dependent on the kindness of the Minister of Finance of the Peoples Republic of China and of Japan. Now, as many smart economists have said, it’s an odd business for the world’s largest debtor nation to go around insulting its banker all the time. That’s what we do to the Chinese all the time and all he’s got to do is to say one day, "I think we’ve got too much money in dollars. The Euro is a much stronger currency. The Yen is a stronger currency..." The truth of the matter is, he’s obviously thought of that and they’re doing it privately and quietly anyway, in order to not disturb the markets.
The new book, "Nemesis."
JOHNSON: I say that Nemesis is already here, she’s just waiting her turn. She’s watching. She’s an extremely interesting figure in Greek mythology. Edith Hamilton has a wonderful treatment of it in her famous work on mythology that – and I believe that probably it is irreversible. That is, I can’t imagine a President who could – any President, who could bring the military industrial complex, the secret intelligence agencies and the Pentagon under control. I think they are – they have lives of their own today.
LAMB: Define your own politics.
JOHNSON: Well that’s hard to say. I guess, I voted twice for Ronald Reagan and I – but today I vote Democratic.
LAMB: No matter what?
JOHNSON: Oh, certainly matter what...!
LAMB: And then after Ronald Reagan who’d you vote for?
JOHNSON: I did vote for Dukakis, simply because the first George Bush got on my nerves. I thought he was a walking watercress sandwich, too Yalie for my taste and I just didn’t care for him. It was more of a personality thing than anything else. He didn’t – he did know a great deal more than his son about the world; ex-Director of Central Intelligence, Scowcroft was...not the world’s greatest intellect but you have to say he’d never let things get out of control the way Condoleezza Rice did and he didn’t. He understood how the government worked and what were our responsibilities to International affairs. I did not like Bill Clinton but he ended up being President anyway. I didn’t think he had the right background. I still don’t think he did the right things. I was astonished at how fast after he’s elected Wall Street showed up to give him a lesson in the bond market and he changed his policies very, very quickly. Even so, I do admire, at least, he did begin to reduce the national debt.
LAMB: So, what do you think of the current President?
JOHNSON: I can control my enthusiasm! Just wait, I don’t think he’s qualified in any way and will go down as an unmitigated disaster but the worst thing is the citizens with which he has mobilized the hopes and aspirations of a large number of American citizens and distracted the public through a meaningless and worthless war. We could’ve handled – I mean what Osama bin Laden did on 9/11 didn’t affect the balance of power one iota. There was nothing changed at all on the day after. If you wanted to maintain democracy you didn’t want to declare war on him. You didn’t even want to call it a war. You only call it an emergency. We knew how to deal with terrorists. We would – had we been more intelligent we’d still have all of our allies. We have most of the Arab world supporting us, too. They understood these issues. We’d have been able to proceed intelligently and correctly; instead, we are in terrible trouble and it’s extremely hard to figure out how we’re going to get out.
LAMB: Anybody you see coming along in the leadership world that you would supportive of in the future?
JOHNSON: Not that I’ve noticed, frankly. No, I don’t think so.