Jacob Heilbrunn

A Scholar and A Patriot: the Death of Chalmers Johnson

[amazon 0805093036 full]Chalmers Johnson, the renowned political scientist of Asia, died on Saturday. Steve Clemons, who worked closely with him, has written a warm and generous tribute. It is fully deserved.

Thanks to Steve I first met Chalmers over a decade ago, spending some time with him in Washington and San Francisco and Tokyo. It didn't take more than a few seconds to realize that Chalmers was an inimitable figure--corruscating, engaging, witty, alert, cantankerous. He had the ability of many great professors to treat anyone's question or assertion with the greatest seriousness--and then patiently elucidate his response. With the higher-ups, though, he wasn't always so patient--I remember him referring to one member of the American embassy in Japan as an "intellectual geisha." Johnson's attitude, I think, could be summed up in the 1960s phrase "question authority." Chalmers did a lot of questioning.

For much of his career, Johnson was a scholar. His doctoral dissertation called Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power compared the mobilization of the pesantry in communist China and Yugoslavia. It's a deeply researched book. In focusing on the power of nationalism in both countries, Johnson was ahead of the curve, to use the kind of cliche that he would have shunned. He probably would have used a word like "percipient." He went on to cause a stir in the 1980s and 1990s with his analyses of Japan, which he saw as controlled by the state bureaucracy--a kind of hybrid capitalism (the forerunner of what would emerge in China). Others, including Steve Clemons, can chronicle the history of these disputes over Japan more ably than I can.

Though I do remember a fascinating conversation between Murray Sayle, the Australian expatriate and crack journalist who lived for years in a small fishing village in Japan, and Chalmers at the Tokyo press club over whether America could survive without an industrial base. Murray, like Chalmers, was a contributor to the National Interest--he, too, had a penchant for upending conventional wisdom, arguing, as I recall, that the number of dead at Tiananmen Square, which he visited, had been greatly exaggerated. Murray died this September.

Steve Clemons explains Johnson's academic ascension and upheavals better than I can. One thing that bears noting, however, is that Chalmers, I think, was greatly influenced by his service to the CIA as a consultant during the 1960s. He was a champion of the Vietnam War. He lost his faith. As I understand it, Chalmers made the reverse evolution of the neoconservatives, from the right to the left. He became a sharp and trenchant critic of what he dubbed the American empire.

In fact, Chalmers became a fierce foe of America's presence at Okinawa and, more generally, what he saw as the inevitable "blowback," to quote the title of one of his books, that accompanied America's expansion around the globe. Chalmers would have none of it. Not for him the temptations of empire, the swagger, the braggadoccio that took off after the end of the Cold War and culminated in the George W. Bush presidency. I recall introducing him for a talk early on during the Bush presidency at the New America foundation. I think much of the audience thought he had gone off his rocker as he denounced America's foreign policy. But by the end of the Bush presidency, much of what he espoused had become conventional wisdom. One of his best essays appeared in 2007 in the London Review of Books, where he reviewed a book called Ghost Planes. Chalmers discussed how spotters had traced CIA transports of terrorism suspects to secret prisons around the world--the rendition program, to use the government euphemism. WIth Washington sanctioning torture, Chalmer's once-radical critique was starting to appear commonplace. He was, you could say, being overtaken by events. Now that America's economy has been battered, his critique looks even more telling.

In a sense, it may be a mistake to say that Chalmers moved to the "left." He personified many of the "old right" themes as well. But to try and categorize Chalmers is probably a mistake. Some would classify him as anti-American. To the contrary, he was an American original. His was the pain of a patriot who saw his country debasing and debauching the very ideals it purported to uphold. He thought it could do better.

Whether he will be fully vindicated in his dire view of the fall of the American Republic remains unclear. But this clairvoyant figure made a lasting contribution to the debate about American foreign policy. His command of English and sweeping analyses will not be soon forgotten. His cautions about American foreign policy will be continued by Steve Clemons and other admirers. Chalmers may have passed away, but the questions he raised will not. He didn't simply leave behind a body of work. He has left a legacy.