Chalmers Johnson Interview (2007): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Last Days of the American Republic: Conversation with Chalmers Johnson, President, Japan Policy Research Institute; March 7, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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Historical Analysis of Growing Militarism

As one looks at your analysis of the empire -- and we're going to get back to this Harper's article in a few minutes -- you give us a compelling analysis of where America is today.

Yes, I hope so.

And just reading some of the chapter titles, "Militarism and the Breakdown of Constitutional Government," "The CIA: the President's Private Army," "U.S. Military Bases in Other People's Countries," "How Empire Works," "The Status of Force Agreement in Japan," and so on. What is striking is [how] your accounts of these aspects of American empire trace a history of the United States. So, at one level you're saying things have gotten bad recently, but this is an evolution, so history becomes important to trace [this evolution].

Right. I'm not in any way saying that this is all Bush administration. There is no doubt that they have gotten disastrous, these stupid things, and made it worse. In another sense, I would argue if you were a serious, committed American imperialist you would have liked Bill Clinton better than George Bush. He was more subtle. He tried to disguise what he was doing, called it globalization, ineluctable forces, technological change, that "the market made me do it" sort of thing, whereas in the case of George Bush, he, along with the neoconservatives, simply dropped the mask, said we are the new Rome, we have full-spectrum dominance, we can enforce our will through military power. That immediately sets up the realization that they're coming, what it might take to resist the Americans, it might take nuclear weapons. That certainly crossed the minds of some people in Teheran and Pyongyang.

So, looking at this leap that our foreign policy has made, are we looking at a Schumpeterian atavism, a group whose leadership at one time made sense, at the end of the Second World War, but over time failed to adapt? [This] as I recall led you to write your first book, Blowback.

Well, yes; it's a very complex history. I'm not sure I'm the last word on it at all. One of the things I'm trying to do here, as a retired professor, is open up this territory, to make it a little bit safer for young scholars. Political science has failed hopelessly. It emits no interesting signal in the world today, and these things should be being studied. My argument would be [that] our mistakes, and the invitation to Nemesis, began with the collapse of the Soviet Union. We misanalyzed it, we said that we won the Cold War. The truth of the matter is we both lost it. They lost it first because they were always much poorer, but we're both now suffering from the same kinds of pressures, of ideological rigidity, imperial over-stretch, inability to reform, even though, to give Gorbachev credit, he did try.

It then seems to me that we make the historic errors in the 1990s and particularly carried on by the so-called neoconservatives, but generally speaking, the American establishment concluded that we were a new Rome, we were the lone superpower. These are hubristic terms, if you ever saw them, that we can rule through military force, that back at the end of the first Bush administration, when Wolfowitz was in the Department of Defense, he already wrote the strategy that said our policy should be to prevent any nation or combination of nations, friend or foe, posing any kind of a military challenge to us. This leads then into defense budgets that are larger than all other defense budgets combined. That's the current state in the United States, playing with bankruptcy, producing the worst debts in recorded history, and things of this sort.

Your analysis gives us a closed system, showing us how all the parts work.

Let me say something further on that. People have often asked me, "You were a Cold Warrior. How did you change your mind? What was the ... ?" And one of the things that I think is very important here is that when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the thing that struck me most vividly is how our government went to work instantly to find a replacement enemy. The military-industrial complex had to be kept in being. It could be China, it could be drug lords, it could be terrorism, even instability, anything to keep the thing going, which also relates to what happened in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev did certainly conclude he'd rather have friendly relations with Germany and France than these crummy satellites that were left over from Stalin's imperialism in Eastern Europe. He tried it, he ran into vested interests that he could not surmount; I believe the same is true today. I cannot think of any president in any party who could truly stand up to the military-industrial complex -- it's now so deeply embedded in our own society as a way of providing jobs for Americans -- or to the Central Intelligence Agency.

One of the points that you emphasize in this book and in the Harper's article is the importance of what you're talking about now, and you call it "military Keynesianism."

That's not my phrase, actually. It goes back to a Polish economist during World War II who invented the phrase to explain the first German economic miracle, that is, Hitler's elimination of depressed conditions in Germany through armaments expenditures. It does obviously mean pump priming, but not truly in the Keynesian sense. There's no counter-cyclical aspect to it. In fact, once you start using the military budget to provide jobs you develop a vicious cycle that leads to wars, and wars lead to more armaments spending, and you never ...

You can't turn off the spigot.

You never cut back. Yeah.

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