Sunday, November 21, 2010

Chalmers Johnson, 1931-2010

Professor Chalmers Johnson has died.

Steve Clemons has reflections (via Memeorandum), and see also the links at Google so far. Leftists lionize Johnson --- not to mention paleocon America-bashers --- for his research on the purported American empire. Much more important is Johnson's work in comparatitve political science.

Below I've re-posted an essay on Johnson from January 31, 2007, "Chalmers Johnson and America's Imperial Decline."


Chalmers Johnson's one of the nation's foremost experts on Japanese politics and international economic competitiveness. A professor emeritus at UC San Diego, Johnson's book, MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975, remains one of the most important selections on Japanese politics graduate syllabi. In recent years Johnson's been writing on trends in American foreign policy, particularly the consequences of America's clandestine intelligence operations and the "blowback" from U.S. strategic reach and ambition.

Johnson's got a new book out, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Empire, which looks at what Johnson sees are threats to the republic from the country's massive military industial complex, which emerged from our post-World War II foreign policy of containing threats to U.S. national security.

Nemesis received
an outstanding review by Tim Rutten in today's Calendar at the Los Angeles Times:

The thesis proffered here is that, since the end of World War II, the United States has been undergoing a kind of creeping coup in which the growth of an imperial presidency, the development of the CIA as a secret presidential army, the bloating of an outsized military establishment, and a venal and derelict Congress have conspired to undermine the American republic — perhaps irremediably.
Much of what Johnson denounces is the Bush administration's advocacy of executive branch supremacy in the realm of national security, manifest, for example, in the adminstration's early policies on the detention and torture of enemy combatants. But Johnson goes too far in making his case, essentially equating the Bush administration's excesses with the totalitarianism of Hitler's Nazi regime. Here's what Rutten says about that analytical overstretch:

Many of the conclusions Johnson teases from his shrewdly assembled and analyzed material are not so convincing. For example, appropriating Hannah Arendt's description of Adolf Eichmann — "desk murderer" — and applying it to Cheney, George W. Bush and Donald H. Rumsfeld isn't just histrionic, it's wrong on the merits, wrong in ways so fundamental that it renders moral judgment itself a uselessly blunt instrument. However horrific events in Iraq have been, they have nothing in common with Hitlerian Germany's "final solution," and it does violence to both reason and history to carelessly suggest otherwise for mere effect.

On the other hand, when Johnson argues that America "will never again know peace, nor in all probability survive very long as a nation, unless we abolish the CIA, restore intelligence collecting to the State Department, and remove all but purely military functions from the Pentagon," he presents a case that demands consideration.
That sounds pretty fair. Rutten goes on to give additional examples of the difficulties of Johnson's analysis. For example, even if the Bush administration succeeded in elevating White House power into an "imperial presidency," the election of a Democratic majority in the November midterms has already started the process of restoring the balance of power among the branches in the federal system. The democracy's not in jeopardy of succumbing to a military dictatorship any time soon, as Rutten ably points out.

(An interesting aside here is that Johnson's book shares its title, Nemesis, with the second edition of Ian Kershaw's authoritative biography of Adolph Hitler, Hitler: 1936-1945, Nemesis. I agree with Rutten, though, that comparing Bush to Hitler -- or U.S. foreign policy to Nazi foreign policy -- defies reason. The antiwar left, nonetheless, loves to denounce the Bush administration as fascist. Whether the shared title was deliberate or coincidental is an intriguing footnote to Johnson's scholarship.)

I've been reluctant to read Johnson's latest books. Upon skimming The Sorrows of Empire at Barnes and Noble, for example, I got the feeling the work was just a dressed-up, high-brow anitwar attack on the Bush administration war policies. Rutten's cool-handed review has convinced to give Johnson's writing a second look, however. There's a growing debate on America's continued leadership of the global system -- which I have discussed
here and here, for example -- and Johnson's work certainly adds an important dimension to the discussion.


dave in boca said...

I'm not so high on Rutten, who blows in different directions on the "military/industrial complex."

Here he's quoted in Newsbusters in June, 2009:Two months ago, the Republican National Committee and many conservative commentators went into paroxysms of rage over a report by the Department of Homeland Security drawing attention to the potential terrorist threat of resurgent right-wing extremism. The department ended up apologizing for noting the extremist underground's attempts to recruit returning military personnel. (All three of the men involved in the Oklahoma City bombing met and developed their convictions while serving in the Army.) As the body count mounts, the department may want to reconsider that apology.

Rutten appears to imply that extremist "convictions" are developed while serving in the military. Of course, ironically, just a few days after this comment, the Fort Hood massacre of 13 US military by a Muslim terrorist occurred. Wonder what Timmy had to say about that?

Read more:

Kenneth Davenport said...

Donald -- I studied Japanese political economy under Chalmers at UCSD in the late 1980s. He was the finest lecturer I had with a tremendous knolwledge of Japan and China. His work on MITI remains the seminal work on japan's industrial policy that fueled it's 20th Century ascendancy. He was truly a groundbreaker.

Unfortunatlely, his later writings on US Foreign Policy have tarnished my memory of him -- he became a poster scholar for the anti-American radical left. He is held out as a hero at Firedog Lake -- and that's all you need to know about that.

AmPowerBlog said...

Dave: I know about Rutten, but that essay cited is in 2007. I probably would just ignore him today.

AmPowerBlog said...

Ken: I met Johnson when he came to UCSB for a panel, probably in 1993. You're right about his leftward turn. It's too bad.