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REVIEW - Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire by Chalmers Johnson

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Editorial Reviews
Book Description
Reader Reviews (Note: these reviews were all written before the terrible World Trade Center disaster of 09/11.)

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CLICK TO ORDER Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire by Chalmers Johnson.

Editorial Reviews

If the 20th century was the American century, the 21st century may be a time of reckoning for the United States. Chalmers Johnson, an authority on Japan and its economy, offers a troubling prognosis of what's to come. Blowback--the title refers to a CIA neologism describing the unintended consequences of American activity--is a call for the United States to rethink its position in the world. "The evidence is building up that in the decade following the end of the Cold War, the United States largely abandoned a reliance on diplomacy, economic aid, international law, and multilateral institutions in carrying out its foreign policies and resorted much of the time to bluster, military force, and financial manipulation," writes Johnson. "The world is not a safer place as a result." Individual chapters focus on Okinawa (where American servicemen were accused of raping a 12-year-old girl in "Asia's last colony"), the two Koreas, China, and Japan. The result is a liberal-leaning (and Asia-centric) call for the United States to disengage from many of its global commitments. Critics will call Johnson an isolationist, but friends (perhaps admirers of Patrick Buchanan's A Republic, Not an Empire) will say he simply speaks good sense. All will agree he is an earnest voice: "I believe our very hubris ensures our undoing." --John J. Miller

Richard Bernstein, The New York Times "Boldly provocative...A useful and timely alert."

From Booklist


A veteran, and veteran academic on China and Japan, offers a serious indictment of the security system the U.S. organized in East Asia circa 1950 to contain the communists. Convinced the time has arrived to close down bases, bring troops home, and renegotiate extant security treaties, Johnson examines, from a highly critical, almost excoriating viewpoint, the American presence in Japan, Korea, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. He wants to connect with general-interest readers, perceiving them blinkered to the resentments engendered by U.S. military activity. When anti-Americanism erupts, Americans tend to be perplexed by it (why are those ingrates rioting?), they and their leaders believing their foreign policy to be animated by virtuous liberal values, not hegemonic self-interest. These occasional but persistent reactions Johnson calls "blowback," and his intimation of disasters to come, possibly wars, drives his insistence on dismantlement of the cold war security structures. This is edgy, unconventional wisdom that deserves hearing and debating. Gilbert Taylor


From Kirkus Reviews

In this timely book, noted Asian specialist Johnson (Japan: Who Governs?, 1994) addresses the effects of American global interventionism, delivering a grim warning that the United States will soon experience severe reprisals (or blowback) from the victims of government policies kept secret from the American people. Johnson begins his book with a confession. He admits that as a naval officer after the Korean War, and as an academic who studied the formation of Chinese communism, he was not in a position to witness the results of American power disinterestedly. In fact, he wholeheartedly shared the assumption that America was the necessary guarantor of world peace. Only after his pathbreaking exploration of Japan's economic renewal in MITI and the Japanese Miracle (1973) did he conclude that the US mission to protect the ``free world'' was a justification for empire. This insight became especially clear in the wake of the Cold War. That the US has not significantly reduced or adjusted its military position after the fall of the Soviet Union reveals, to Johnson, this country's imperialistic aims. Moreover, he argues that American fat-headedness is not just confined to the upper echelons of the State Department. From rape in Okinawa to the imposition of economic austerity in Indonesia (followed by the quick purchase of its industrial plant on easy terms), Johnson sees the imperialistic mentality as the defining style of American actions and expectations abroad. In order to curb imminent and massive blowback, he calls for a more humble American presenceboth militarily and psychologicallyin the world. However, one has to wonder about the value of Johnson's dissent: Is humility a realistic solution to the tangle of issues that this nation has persistently involved itself in for half a century? Engrossing and at the same time alarming, Johnson's well-researched book nevertheless presents an easy solution to fundamental problems that have usually forced great powers into catastrophic predicaments. -- Copyright ©2000, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

John W. Dower, author of Embracing Defeat, winner of the Pulitzer Prize "Stunning and shocking. Blowback is a wake-up call for America."

Book Description

Now available in paperback, Chalmers Johnson's take-no-prisoners account of the consequences of American global policies, hailed as "brilliant and iconoclastic" (Los Angeles Times)

The term "blowback," invented by the CIA, refers to the unintended consequences of American policies. In this incisive and controversial book, Chalmers Johnson lays out in vivid detail the dangers faced by our overextended empire, which insists on projecting its military power to every corner of the earth and using American capital and markets to force global economic integration on its own terms. From a case of rape by U.S. servicemen in Okinawa to our role in Asia's financial crisis, from our early support for Saddam Hussein to our actions in the Balkans, Johnson reveals the ways in which our misguided policies are planting the seeds of future disaster.

In the wake of the Cold War, the United States has imprudently expanded the commitments it made over the previous forty years, argues Johnson. In Blowback, he issues a warning we would do well to consider: it is time for our empire to demobilize before our bills come due.

About the Author

Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, has written numerous books on Japan and Asia, including Miti and the Japanese Miracle and Japan: Who Governs? He lives near San Diego.

Reader Reviews

A great read, September 5, 2001 Reviewer: christinecanning (see more about me) from UAE
I have to admit that I am not an avid reader of these types of books, but was given it as an assignment for a client to read and write a report. Most of the time, these assignments are dull, but I found this book really interesting. I could not put it down. After reading it, I started to see CNN, news events and the world around me in a different way. I think it is nothing new for someone born and raised outside of America. However, for an American, it is an educational eye-opener. Sometimes, it made James Bond seem based more on reality than fiction. The factual data was quite interesting and the book is well written. It is easy to read and straight to the point. What made it more interesting is that it was written by an American. The book is a little liberal for my tastes, but overall it was an exciting read for a non-fiction book. I think it was a good book and explains alot of things I see overseas. As an American, I did find it a little unpatriotic. So, that put me off a little when reading the book. However, I would highly recommend it for expats, international businessmen, politicians and American's who want to learn history beyond the confines of the scripted school lectures of the Civil War and WWII.

Disappointed, June 14, 2001 Reviewer: Paul Meehan (see more about me) from Malaysia
Had I read this book without knowing the identity of its author, Chalmers Johnson would have been down there at the bottom of my list of suspects. 'MITI and the Japanese Miracle' is - and will probably remain - one of the three best books I have ever read. With Blowback, he has now written one of the three worst.

I found this work little more than a long-winded conspiracy theory. But shame on me that I did not see what was coming from Dr Johnson's prologue; apologizing for his initial disdain for the student protesters at Berkeley in the 1960s, he writes "I wish I had stood with the anti-war protest movement. For all its naiveté and unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong."

Dr Johnson writes at length of the social backlash generated by the US military's undoubtedly intrusive presence in such places as Okinawa, and in parts of South Korea. He rationalizes this backlash, and basically apologizes for the policies which he claims caused it. He argues that this kind of backlash is inevitable, and we will see it elsewhere as a result of the US' attempts to sustain its "empire" in Asia even though the threat against which it was originally built as a buffer (the Soviet Union) has now vanished. He argues that the US is wrong to leave military forces in Asia on the pretext of preserving "stability", and that its globalization campaign - prosecuted on its behalf by what is portrayed as a dark and sinister proxy of the US Treasury (the IMF) - will entail even more "blowback", the consequences of which Americans (and others) will suffer in the years to come.

Dr Johnson's conclusions may indeed be correct, or they may not be; it is difficult to tell, since they are based not so much on observations or established facts as on sweeping assertions, generalizations, intrigue and innuendo. There is very little in the way of verifiable evidence. ...

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, the disappearance of several anti-Suharto activists in 1998 is later concluded by Indonesians to be the work of Kopassus, an elite commando unit of the Indonesian army. "Singled out for immediate responsibility was... Colonel Chairawan. Before his arrest, Chairawan told Nation magazine correspondent Allan Nairn that his primary contact at the US Embassy was Colonel Charles McFetridge, the DIA attaché." There can be little doubt about what Dr Johnson hopes we conclude from this. Yet diplomats and military attachés everywhere will testify that they are routinely required to maintain contact with local officials of their profession, and some of these can be unsavory characters to say the least; this does not necessarily mean that they support their activities, much less coordinate them. But there is more intrigue elsewhere:

"South Korea was the first place in the postwar world where the Americans set up a dictatorial government... In order to keep South Korea firmly under its control, during the 1980s the Americans sent as successive ambassadors two senior officials of the CIA, James Lilley and Donald Gregg." Dr Johnson never explains exactly how these ambassadors' tenure in the CIA qualified them as the best candidates to "ensure" continuing American control over South Korea. He appears happy to leave this to the reader's imagination, so one thinks of Berkeley since the 1960s; the CIA is a dark, omnipotent, malevolent and manipulative demon for no other reason than that the students' placards say it is so.

But the CIA does not escape so easily: "On August 22, 1997, the eve of the [peace-treaty and control of missile technology] talks [with North Korea], the North Korean ambassador to Egypt "defected" to the United States.... Then Newsweek revealed that the former ambassador in fact had long been on the CIA's payroll... Informed observers concluded that he had not so much defected as been called in from the cold at a time of the CIA's choosing and with an eye to scuttling the upcoming talks." Dr Johnson never names these "informed observers", nor cites any of the evidence on which they based their "conclusion". He does not see fit to mention any examples of high-profile spies who defected just as their countries' counter-intelligence services were closing in on them (Philby, Howard and others). But then, why should he? By this stage it is very clear to the reader that the Treasury, the Defense Department, the CIA and other US government institutional conspirators (very few individuals are named) are to be found guilty - of empire building, suppression of human rights and national sovereignty, and economic enslavement - if not by association, then by implication. It seems we should not need conclusive or reasoned evidence any more than the campus protesters of the 1960s did. ...

But the saddest moment of all came at the end of the book, when Dr Johnson presents alternatives to empire. In seeking to reverse the imperialist economic policies which hollowed out much of US manufacturing industry, the US should "establish minimum wage-levels for the manufacture of goods that are to be exported to our market". Did I miss something, or is this not just the kind of expropriation of other countries' sovereignty against which Dr Johnson rails elsewhere in his book?

One tragedy is that part of Dr Johnson's book does make a sympathetic and compelling case for greater assessment of personal accountability on the part of the Defense Department against the individuals it sends overseas; the rapists, the drunk-drivers, the uninsured motorists and others. It's too bad that this was not the case Dr Johnson assigned himself. Dr Johnson appears to have set out to prove institutional culpability on the part of the US for much of the social and economic disorder which has occurred in our "empire" over recent years. However, his failure to present rationally-derived, authoritative evidence in support thereof leaves the US government with little to answer for. He appears to have relied heavily on his readers being blessed with the same naiveté as his 1960s campus protesters, among whom I am sure this book will go down as a welcome and long-overdue vindication of their righteous rage. As for the rest of us? Speaking for myself, I am overwhelmed by reasonable doubt. And I feel very, very, sad.

Isolationism is not a Viable Option for the United States, June 3, 2001 Reviewer: David Thomson (see more about me) from Houston, TX USA
Chalmers Johnson's isolationist ideology hinders his ability to comprehend the unavoidable responsibilities thrust upon the United States. In a perfect universe super power nations should be able to embrace the concept that essentially the rest of the world can be ignored. Unfortunately, abstract speculations arguing that the troubles of other countries are not ours sound reasonable until the gun is pointed at our head. It is perhaps analogous to the hypothetical family living next door whose kids play in the backyard with real machine guns. The problem is not directly our own except for the irritating possibility that the spray bullets may pierce the walls of the house. Other peoples difficulties indeed shouldn't be laid at our doorstep. Alas, life is not always fair, and Johnson needs to accept this irritating fact.

The quintessential historical example contradicting Johnson's central theme may very well be World War II. The "America First" isolationists which included Rev. Charles E. Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh staunchly contended that the United States shouldn't get involved in the troubles of Europe resulting from Hitler's saber rattling. A somewhat Pacifist mindset pervaded our politics and culture. The evidence is now overwhelming that Hitler's military threat could have likely been nipped in the bud. Chalmers seems to imply that Red China's leaders are basically decent and only the alleged belligerence of our nation's elected officials discourage them from becoming full fledged civil libertarians. There simply is no justification for such an opinion.

Perceived weaknesses encourage those intent on harming us. The formulation of both carrot and stick policies is mandatory. Only hind sight allows perfect 20/20 vision, and therefore mistakes will occur. Chalmers is not incorrect to remind us of our past errors. After all, this is the best way to prevent making the same blunders in the future. Why, though, does he ignore our successes? I have many complaints about the previous Clinton administration. Nevertheless, Bill Clinton should be congratulated for many of his decisions pertaining to the crisis in the Balkans. Many lives were saved, and the horror did not expand into the rest of Western Europe and the former Soviet republics.

An inadvertent "stop the world, I want to get off" attitude, is not in the least bit helpful. Isolationism may have been a legitimate alternative a few centuries ago. It took weeks to travel over the oceans, and much of the world had little impact whatsoever on the everyday life of America's citizens. Today our planet has been aptly described by the late Marshall McLuhan as increasingly evolving towards something akin to a small village. We can email someone in another country within seconds, and a airplane trip to remote areas of our globe is now a relatively minor event. I will not question the well meaning intentions of Pat Buchanan and Chalmers Johnson, but their isolationists views would be catastrophic if ever taken seriously.

America Is An Empire, April 20, 2001 Reviewer: The Independent Review, Winter 2001 (see more about me) from Oakland, CA
The United States is a unique imperial power. In what columnist Charles Krauthammer calls the "unipolar moment," this country stands as an international colossus. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it dominates the world in a manner not seen for least 150 years, and perhaps much longer...

...the United States possesses not only the ability to intervene everywhere, but the ability to defeat any adversary. Russia is a wreck. Japan has minuscule international influence compared to its economic strength. China is a rising power, but it remains a military pygmy. Even western Europe, an international aggregation whose population and economy exceed those of the United States, has only 10 to 15 percent of America's combat capability. With varying amounts of effort, the United States could defeat any (and probably all) of those great countries if it chose to do so. Still, all is not well...

...America is an empire. As Chalmers Johnson puts it in his new book Blowback, "Perhaps the Romans did not find it strange to have her troops in Gaul, nor the British in South Africa" (p. 4). But such foreign commitments were considered alien to America throughout most of its history. That tradition was abandoned during the Cold War, but only for compelling reasons...

...Among the costs is what he terms blowback-"the unintended consequences of policies" (p. 8). One obvious form of blowback is terrorism. Johnson points to the 1988 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, which was probably retaliation for the attack on Libya two years before, and to the bombing of New York's World Trade Center and the attacks on U.S. facilities in Africa and the Mideast. And such attacks continue: the attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, last fall was likely a response to Washington's attempt to extend its reach to even that distant nation by establishing intelligence facilities.

Johnson's discussion of terrorism should be required reading for every foreign-policy official in the new administration. Terrorism rarely occurs in an international vacuum. For the most part, foreign countries and gangs do not kill Americans for pleasure. Rather, they do so to wage what they view as war...

...Blowback is not limited to terrorism. Potentially more dangerous in the long term is the growing international perception of U.S. arrogance. One can quibble with some of Johnson's arguments-for example, that in 1997 in East Asia the International Monetary Fund acted in ways similar to the Soviets' actions in eastern Europe after World War II-but his examples of American arrogance and foolishness should cause any patriot to squirm.

There's Okinawa, for instance...

...Johnson prescribes a more rational and humble policy: military withdrawal from South Korea, diplomatic engagement with North Korea, adjustment to China's growing power, and less military involvement elsewhere, among other things. He would "reemphasize the 'defense' in the Department of Defense and make its name fit its mission," and instead have the United States "lead through diplomacy and example"-both shocking concepts in America today (pp. 228-29).

If Washington does not adjust its policies, he warns, America's victory in the Cold War may eventually prove hollow . The seventeen sailors killed onboard the USS Cole were merely the latest victims of blowback. Without foreign-policy changes in Washington, there are likely to be many, many more.

The author's foolish opinion piece in the LA Times, April 9, 2001 Reviewer: Larry Moffett from Brussels, Belgium
First of all I admit I have not read this book (which is why I am giving it a neutral rating of 3 stars, two more than it probably deserves), but I did read the author's contribution to the Los Angeles Times (reprinted in the International Herald Tribune of 9 April 2001) entitled "If Eisenhower Could Apologize, Why Can't Bush?". Frankly, it is one of the most asinine articles I have ever read on the IHT Opinion page, and I suspect it captures the essence of his book.

Here's a quote: "They [the Bush administration] all seem to think that being the 'lone superpower' means never having to say you're sorry. They forget that President Dwight Eisenhower did apologize for the flight of Francis Gary Powers over Russia" The fact that in this case our plane was flying over international waters seems to make no difference to Mr. Johnson.

Another quote: "The United States looks absurd talking about its airplane having something called 'sovereign immune status'" - so evidently Mr. Johnson must think it's perfectly legitimate for the Chinese to search the plane (after it was knocked out of the sky by one of their fighters) and help themselves to our technology.

The overall message of the article and the book seems to be, if someone kicks us in the teeth, we should humbly apologise for getting our mouth in the way of their foot.

Johnson's Voice of Experience Counts Here, November 15, 2000 Reviewer: A reader from Alaska USA
I am not a scholar nor military expert. My only credentials to justify this review would be many years of living and working in Asia with both military and civilians from the United States who represented us there in the late 60's and Didn't find what you are looking for? We've been online since 1996 and have created 1000's of pages. Search below and you may find just what you are looking for.

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