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

Page 6 of 6

Sorrows of Empire

But there is, in both the case of the sergeant at Abu Ghraib and these plane spotters, an inkling of hope in the sense that civil society has a different set of values [than the military], and civil-society [values] have impacted soldiers. [Otherwise] it's a very pessimistic view. This isn't an argument with what you're saying, but one is left without much hope, because as you point out, the other elements of this domestic configuration is the movement toward implementation of a unitary presidency by Bush ...

Much bigger secrecy than in any previous regimes.

... and a failure of the checks and balance system ...

That's what's breaking down. We have an imperial presidency that is out of control today. I still think that it's a much bigger issue, not Bush and Cheney and their crazy ambitions, presidents often have done things like this, it's what happened to Congress. Why did they fail so badly? Why did they not even attempt oversight? They just gave up on it. This then made it easy for the president to classify so much stuff that the idea of oversight by a citizen turns out to be absurd. Remember, 40% of the defense budget is black, nobody gets to see it, all of the CIA's budget is black, always has been. Until the Church committee in the 1970s it had no form of oversight whatsoever. It was the president's private army, and even though it was created as an intelligence agency it has, in fact, evolved irreversibly into an agency of dirty tricks, of overthrowing foreign governments, assassinations, renditions, teaching Latin American military officers state terrorism, devices to undercut economies that irritate us. No president, the day after he's inaugurated and the director of Central Intelligence comes in and tells him about the power he's got, has failed to use it. It's a secret army at his orders. It's the Praetorian Guards again.

You say the checks and balances broke down. I want to read a quote that you have from Brandeis ...

Let me say that it's important to stress that we know what we should do. It's to restore constitutional government. But that's so difficult to do, that if you do believe that the government in Washington today bears any resemblance to the one outlined in the Constitution of 1787, the burden of proof is on you. It just simply is not the case. The Constitution doesn't talk about those two big buildings on the south bank of the Potomac River, the CIA and the Pentagon.

But this actually is to the point, because you quote Brandeis, which gives a very nice flavor of what our system of government is about, which you're talking about. Brandeis, in the 1926 dissent in Myers v. U.S. said, "The doctrine of the separation of powers was adopted by the Convention of 1787 not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power. The purpose was not to avoid friction but by means of the inevitable friction incident to the distribution of the governmental powers among three departments, to save the people from autocracy." So, why has it failed?

[sighs] Many things. Probably the political system has failed us and it can't be fixed. It's very hard to imagine any president in either party that could stand up to the military-industrial complex, or the CIA, or whatever. We have effective constitutional procedures for dealing with an unsatisfactory president, we can impeach him, for one who lies to the country into war, who violates the law on secrecy and the Fourth Amendment, rights to privacy, and things of this sort, numerous other cases.

Last November the public -- again, inchoate manner, not well informed, a press that is failing us daily, universities that do nothing except promote each other -- elected the opposition party [to Congress]. On virtually the day they come to power, the leader of the opposition party says impeachment is off the table. Well, if impeachment is off the table, then maybe democracy is off the table. It's just a way of acknowledging it doesn't work.

But what led to this? It was certainly standing armies, it was militarism. The military-industrial complex is very clever in that on a big project like the B-2 bomber, they put a piece of that in as many constituencies as you can possibly find to make sure that if a congressman or woman decided we don't need another weapon of mass destruction, they can be voted out of office next time on simply loss of jobs. It's perfectly logical for the Secretary of Defense to try and close redundant and useless defense facilities, some of them going back to the Civil War, and even earlier. Just try it. Every time he does try it, communities erupt, preachers preach sermons, newspapers write editorials, people protest, "Save our base, save our job."

I come [from] the 50th district of California. One of our most distinguished citizens, former Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, is spending eight and a half years in a federal penitentiary for being the largest bribe-taker in the history of Congress. It is significant that he was taking bribes from military contractors to buy junk that nobody wanted -- the Defense Department didn't want it, it was worthless stuff -- while also parading himself around as a Vietnam War Navy air ace, and friend of the military, blah, blah, blah. And of course, the wisdom -- the 50th district has now gone ahead elected to replace him with a lobbyist working with Abramoff, who is just a little bit smarter than Randy "Duke." But it's illustrative of the world that we live in. Well before Cunningham was identified and brought to justice by the U.S. Attorney, I had written an article in the LA Times, pointing out that he was bought and paid for by the military industrial complex, and I received letters from people in, oh, say the 34th district, downtown Los Angeles, saying, "God, I wish he was my congressman. I could use a good job. I wouldn't mind making cluster bombs for use on Lebanese civilians, or whatever else." We don't manufacture that much in this country anymore, but we do manufacture more weapons than anybody else on earth.

As a student of Asian political economy, you wrote the classic on MITI. In the final analysis your judgment is that not only will we suffer political, but also economic, bankruptcy.

My wife keeps saying to me, "Come up with something optimistic, will you?" It's possible the military could take over. That's the way the Roman Republic ended, that finally vested interests in the military becomes so great that after the assassination of Julius Caesar, Octavian becomes dictator for life and the god, Augustus Caesar. That could happen, and General Tommy Franks, who was the leader of the assault on Baghdad, has already said in print that [in the event of] another attack comparable to 9/11, we in the military probably have no choice but to take over, we're the only ones who know how to run things, blah, blah, blah.

You could imagine a Renaissance from below. I find that with the third book of this inadvertent trilogy I'm getting a much better public reaction, suggesting that the public is much more worried than they were when the first two books came out, and that there is a real sense of "what do we do?" or "prepare your escape route, got any good ideas? In Vancouver, Malaga? Where should we go?" Et cetera, et cetera. So, it is conceivable but I think unlikely, given a country this large, how difficult it would be to mobilize it, how ...

A political movement.

A political movement. Indeed, it's possible. We did it in the Civil Rights movement but at the same time, the media are so awful, so clearly owned by conglomerates who are making money off of advertising (Rupert Murdoch talks about buying a third of the Los Angeles Times) that it's almost impossible to imagine the citizen playing the citizen's role as Benjamin Franklin imagined it, doing elementary oversight on his government.

So, what do I suggest probably will happen? I think we will stagger along under a façade of constitutional government, as we are now, until we're overcome by bankruptcy. We are not paying our way. We're financing it off of huge loans coming daily from our two leading creditors, Japan and China.

Both of whom hold about $800 billion.

Exactly. And have no reason to do that forever. It's a rigged system that reminds you of Herb Stein, [who] when he was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in a Republican administration, rather famously said, "Things that can't go on forever don't." That's what we're talking about today. We're massively indebted, we're not manufacturing as much as we used to, we maintain our lifestyle off of huge capital imports from countries that don't mind taking a short, small beating on the exchange rates so long as they can continue to develop their own economies and supply Americans -- this means, above all, China, which without question, within twenty to twenty-five years, will be both the world's largest social system and the world's most productive social system, barring truly unforeseen developments.

Bankruptcy would not mean the literal end of the United States, anymore than it did for Germany in 1923, or China in 1948, or Argentina just a few years ago, in 2001 and 2002. But it would certainly mean a catastrophic recession, the collapse of our stock exchange, the end of our level of living, and a vast series of new attitudes that would now be appropriate to a much poorer country. Marshall Auerbach is a financial analyst whom I admire who refers to the United States as a "Blanche Dubois economy." Blanche Dubois, of course, was the leading character in Tennessee Williams' play, "A Streetcar Named Desire," and she said, "I've always depended upon the kindness of strangers." We're also increasingly dependent on the kindness of strangers, and there are not many of them left that much care, any more than they were for Blanche. I figure if the United States did start to go down, it would not elicit any more tears than the collapse of the Soviet Union did, in the world at large today.

Do you see a configuration of external power, Japan, China, the EU, that will be a balancer that might not just confront us but might help guide us to changes that would be good for us and them?

Once you go down the path of empire, you inevitably start a process of overstretch, if you can't stop, of tendencies toward bankruptcy, and certainly, in the rest of the world the tendency toward the unity of people who are opposed to your imperialism simply on grounds that it's yours, but it may also be on the grounds that you're incompetent at it. There was one time when the world did trust the United States a good deal as a result of the Marshall Plan, of foreign aid, things of this sort. They probably trusted it more than they should have. Today that is almost entirely dissipated by the current government that's been in power since the Supreme Court appointed it in 2000. And at some point, either we will stop it, we will reduce our empire of bases from 737 to maybe 37 -- I'd just as soon get rid of all of them, but we could probably do it with 37. We certainly don't need 737. If we don't start doing that, then we will go the way of the former Soviet Union.

One final question, if the audience watching the program -- besides reading your three books, which we've convinced them of, how would you advise them? If they are concerned citizens with a conscience, do you see something that the public can get a handle on to assist the process of changing America back to the way it was?

The system [of accountability] isn't working very well, but it does depend on an active, engaged citizenry that would at least aspire to oversight of its government, and discovering how deeply frustrated they're going to be if they try to use the Freedom of Information Act, that they should actually try to account for what is called the defense budget. It's so complex; it's intentionally designed to make sure that you can't really find out the huge amounts that are being spent in the name generally of the military establishment. They can try to become better informed. Start using the internet. I begin the morning every day with not the New York Times but with It's not leftist; generally, they're libertarians, but it's a good digest of all the news that isn't in the New York Times, around the world. And it's a way to begin. And then attempting to put pressure on our government.

I don't think this is going to work. I don't think we have enough time. I think we've waited too long and that we are probably talking about the short, happy life of the American republic. In that case, the well informed citizen would start thinking of his or her escape route, the condo in Vancouver, or whatever else it may be. People keep pushing me on this. I'm 75 years old and say I'm probably going to ride it out, but having been pushed I said I happen to have a geriatric Russian Blue cat that I admire a great deal, and I mention at the end of the book ...

Whose name is ... ?

Moff. It's a he. I did a little quick survey to find out if there's any country on earth that you can get into without putting your cat in quarantine. It turns out the Spaniards don't care, so it looks like Malaga would be a place that would serve.

Chalmers, on that lighter note I want to thank you very much for writing this trilogy. I want to show the book, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, and I want to thank you very much for coming back to Berkeley and being on our program.

I'm indebted to you, and I'm an admirer of Conversations with History. You've done a terrific job with this program.

Thank you very much, Chalmers, and thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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