Chalmers Johnson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Militarism and the American Empire: Conversation with Chalmers Johnson, President of the Japan Policy Institute, January 29, 2004 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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From Political Scientist to Public Intellectual

Chalmers, welcome back to Berkeley.

Thanks very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

How can we explain your movement from being a social scientist to a public intellectual?

Well, don't ask for excessive consistency. John Maynard Keynes, when accused of being inconsistent, said, "When I get new information, I change my position. What, sir, do you do with new information?"

I've received quite a bit of new information, particularly since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Until that time, it's quite true I was a cold warrior. I believed in the menace of the Soviet Union.

And you even called yourself a "spear-carrier --"

"Spear-carrier for the empire."

"-- for the empire," yes, yes.

That's the prologue to Blowback; I was a consultant to the Office of National Estimates of the CIA during the time of the Vietnam War. But what caused me to change my mind and to rethink these issues? Two things: one analytical; one concrete. The first was the demise of the Soviet Union. I expected much more from the United States in the way of a peace dividend. I believe that Russia today is not the former Soviet Union by any matter of means. It's a much smaller place. I would have expected that as a tradition in the United States, we would have demobilized much more radically. We would have rethought more seriously our role in the world, brought home troops in places like Okinawa. Instead, we did everything in our power to shore up the Cold War structures in East Asia, in Latin America. The search for new enemies began. That's the roots of the current neo-conservatives in the Bush administration. I was shocked, actually, by this. Does this actually mean that the Cold War was a cover for something deeper, for an American imperial project that had been in the works since World War II? I had begun to believe that that is the case.

The second thing that led me to write Blowback in the late 1990s [was concrete]. Okinawa prefecture, which is Japan's southernmost prefecture [is] the poorest place in the Japan, the equivalent of Puerto Rico; it's always been discriminated against by the Japanese since they seized it at the end of the nineteenth century. The governor, Masahide Ota, is a former professor. He invited me to Okinawa in February of 1996 to give a speech to his associates in light of what had happened on September 4, 1995, when two marines and a sailor from Camp Hansen in central Okinawa abducted, beat, and raped a twelve-year-old girl. It led to the biggest single demonstration against the United States since the Security Treaty was signed. I had not been in Okinawa before. Back during the Korean War, when I was in the navy, I took the ship in to what was then called Buckner Bay, now Nakagusuku Bay, and dropped anchor. Other officers onboard went ashore. I took a look at the place through the glasses, and I thought, "This is not for me." But we were anchored in the most beautiful lagoon, so I went swimming around the ship. So I had been in Okinawa in the waters, but I'd never touched ground before.

I have to say I was shocked to see the impact of thirty-eight American bases, located on an island smaller than Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands, with 1.3 million living cheek-by-jowl, with warplanes ... the Third Marine Division is based there; the only marine division we have outside the country. And I began to investigate the issues.

The reaction to the rape of 1995 from, for example, General Richard Meyers, who's today chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- he was then head of U.S. forces in Japan -- was that these were just three bad apples, a tragic incident, unbelievably exceptional. On research, you discover that the rate of sexually violent crimes committed by our troops in Okinawa leading to court martial is two per month! This was not an exceptional incident, expect for the fact that the child was so young and differing from many Okinawan women who would not come forward after being raped, that she was not fully socialized and she wanted to get even. This led to the creation of a quite powerful organization that I greatly admire, called Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence.

I began to research Okinawa, and my first impulse -- again, defensive American imperialist -- was that Okinawa was exceptional: it's off the beaten track, the press never goes there, the military is comfortable. I discovered over time, looking at these kinds of bases and other places around the world, that there's nothing exceptional about it. It's typical. Maybe the concentration is a little greater than it is elsewhere, but the record of environmental damage, sexual crimes, bar brawls, drunken driving, one thing after another, these all occur in the 725 bases (the Department of Defense -acknowledged number; and the [real] number is actually considerably larger than that) but 725 bases that we have in other people's countries. That led me to write Blowback, first, as a warning.

But, also, it led you to publish this book --book cover

Our research institute put this out.

-- called Okinawa: Cold War Island, edited by you, which looks at the various aspects of this. And what you're saying is, it's not only the social cost, but it has impinged on the people of Okinawa's right to have some kind of democratic existence.

Oh, no question about it. One of the things that I thought was most outrageous in the discussion of the United States in Iraq is how Bush and others have spoken many times of our wonderful [act] of bringing democracy to Japan after the war, as if to say that our military missionaries were really good at doing this. And using Japan, you'd have to say they always must leave out Okinawa, because between the battle of Okinawa -- the last great battle of World War II, and one of the bloodiest -- down to 1972, it was run entirely as a Pentagon colony. It was not included in the peace treaty. The head of Okinawa was a lieutenant general in the army. It was a safe-house, very rarely visited by anybody.

Then in 1972, after tremendous protests over the conditions in Okinawa, it reverted to Japan and came under the security treaty. But the understanding that Nixon and Kissinger had achieved at that time is that there would be no change in the bases, and they are still there. Essentially, Okinawa is used as a dumping ground by the Japanese. They want the security treaty, but they don't want American troops anywhere near mainland Japanese. So they put them down, as I say, at the equivalent of Puerto Rico, and the conditions fester. The governor of Okinawa today, a very considerably conservative man, Mr. Inamine, is still, nonetheless, always saying, "We're living on the side of a volcano. You can hear the magma down there. It may blow. And when it does, it'll have the same effect on your empire that the breaching of the Berlin Wall had on the Soviet empire."

If I could summarize what you're saying, there was a kind of a synergy between two things. One is your realization that the Cold War institutions weren't being dismantled.


And because your interests are so broad and your scholarship is so deep, you're also talking about economic policies toward that region. So there was no adjustment at the end of the Cold War with regard to our policies toward Korea, with regard to our policies toward Japan, on the one hand. But the Okinawa experience allowed you to get inside this dimension, which was a key part of these Cold War institutions.

I think it's well said. To put it just in a nutshell, Gorbachev really did attempt to dismantle the Soviet empire. He was one of the exceptional cases in history in which an empire sought to dismantle itself, because of the need for reform and things like that. The Russians, by 1989, wanted contact with France and Germany more than they did with these miserable little states in East Europe. He was stopped cold by vested interests in the Cold War system as structured in the Soviet Union. I began to discover the exact same kind of Cold War vested interests existed in the Department of Defense, in the military industrial complex, in the intelligence agencies. And they were having their way.

Next page: Blowback

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