Chalmers Johnson Interview (2007): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Chalmers, welcome back to Berkeley.
Well, thank you very much, Harry. It's always a pleasure to be here.
Tell us how you chose that title.
Nemesis is the ancient Greek goddess of revenge, of retribution, the punisher of hubris and arrogance, and she's a very important figure in iconography, usually shown as a fierce young woman, usually with a scales in one hand and a whip in the other. But she's a very legitimate goddess. She was the sister of Erato, the goddess of love poetry. Readers of Edith Hamilton and other Greek mythology books will recall she's the one who found Narcissus in the woods, led him to the pond and showed him his reflection. He fell in love with it, dove in, and drowned. But I'm suggesting that Nemesis is present in our country now, waiting for her divine mission.
Your book is an analysis of the consequences of empire, which you've traced in the previous two books, on the American republic. And in summary, the chickens have come home to roost.
Yes. The essential argument in Nemesis (it's certainly not the only argument) is that there is no more unstable political configuration, history tells us, than the one of the United States today, that is, a domestic democracy combined with a foreign empire. The two don't mix. You can be one, you can be the other, but you don't get to do both. [If] you try it, it's going to work out one way or the other. You're going to lose your domestic democracy, as for example, did the Roman Republic, which is significant because so much of our principles in the Constitution were derived from the Roman Republic. Or, [as] I suggest in the book, there is an alternative. You could, like the British -- I'm not a great admirer of the British empire, by any manner of means, but after World War II, having just defeated Nazism, it became apparent to the English that it was not possible to retain the "jewel in the crown," India, short of administrative massacres. The British had used them often enough in the past but it was now no longer acceptable in light of Nazi behavior in World War II. Therefore, I argue, they gave up their empire in order to retain their democracy, and it is something I believe we in this country ought to be talking about very seriously.
If we look at your intellectual odyssey, which we talked about in the last interview, it's quite interesting. As an distinguished Asian scholar you actually were involved as a consultant to the CIA, commenting on national intelligence estimates [NIEs]. And now in this book, and in a recent article in Harper's, I guess I would say you're trying to write an NIE for the people and the American democracy.
It is illegal to write a national intelligence estimate on the United States. The CIA is not supposed to do intelligence on the United States. Of course, it has on numerous occasions gone ahead and actually done that, and that's what I tried to do in the Harper's piece. But it is. An NIE is relevant, it seems to me, in that it deals with the best the intelligence community can do in putting together the paths to the future. As I say at the end of the Harper's piece, my wife used to ask me, "Why is this stuff so highly classified?," and I said, "Well, it's probably highly classified because it's the best we can do and it would be embarrassing to actually display to the world the best we can do." Our intelligence functions are not very good despite the original purposes of the Central Intelligence Agency and the legislation that created it.
Let's talk a little about the history that one finds throughout the book. You've talked already about the comparison with Rome and Great Britain with the hope of understanding this challenge. You say: "The problem was that the Roman constitution made administration of so large and diverse an area increasingly difficult and subtly altered the norms and interests that underlay the need for compromise and consensus."
Precisely. Look at the United States today. The president goes around saying, "I am the decider." It's hard to think of a more absurd remark, and [one] more hostile to our Constitution. He's anything but the decider. It's to be done by consensus through the separation of powers. This is, of course, what is breaking down. It goes back to probably the most important piece of advice ever given to us by a former president. I would certainly include Eisenhower but it's the original one. It's George Washington's farewell address that is read to the opening session of Congress each new term, in which he said, "The great enemy of liberty is standing armies, and the particular enemy of republican liberty." What he meant by it is that standing armies, as distinct from raising an army to defend the country in a time of national emergency, standing armies draw a power to Washington, destroy federalism, increase the power of the presidency, increase secrecy in government, draw funds from throughout the country into the military.
In a certain sense, Eisenhower's warning in 1961, in which he used the phrase, and invented it, "military-industrial complex," was a further manifestation of this warning, that the great "intervening variable" (to sound social science-y) between domestic democracy and foreign imperialism is militarism. Let's always remember, an empire is a pure form of tyranny. It never rules through consent. It rules through military force, even though the British and the Americans love to say to themselves -- they have a pocket industry of writing books about how foreigners love us. But you don't rule through consent in any way, shape, or form. In order to create the empire, to protect it, to expand it, you need armed forces, and you then get the most common picture in our minds of American troops in Iraq, a burly fellow with half a dozen other well-fed Americans standing there, kicking down the door of a private home, rushing in with an assault rifle, pointing it at cowering women, and hollering "democracy" in a language that nobody in the room understands.
This is where the issue comes up that you can't [escape]. Militarism is an inescapable accompaniment of imperialism, and the militarism will force changes domestically. This was what the British realized in 1945. To keep India they would have to become a domestic tyranny. They would have to change their own government; the public would not stand for administrative massacres. Therefore the choice was stark. They also were fortunate in one sense: they knew that they could piggyback onto American power at the time, so that it was somewhat easier.
But their leaders had the courage to make this decision.
Right. Now, not done perfectly; there were many fallbacks, many atavistic responses, including the god-awful war against the Kikuyu in Kenya in the 1950s, the Anglo-French, Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956 -- you could certainly mention today, speaking of atavisms, Tony Blair, and of all the places you would have thought any halfway intelligent English prime minister would not get involved in was Iraq, which they had already bungled in creating after the First World War, and were the first people to really use poison gas in Mesopotamia. But there they are ...
Back, and a bad mistake.
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