BRIAN LAMB, HOST, Q&A: Chalmers Johnson, when you wrote the last line of ”The Sorrows of Empire,” you said this, ”feeling such a reform nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits impatiently for her meeting with us.” I get a sense you might even be writing your next book named, ”Nemesis.”
CHALMERS JOHNSON, AUTHOR: The third book is done and it’s called, ”Nemesis.” The subtitle is, ”The Last Days of the American Republic.” It’s to say I don’t see the wait out any longer. That the Congress or that the separation of powers has clearly broken down; the President has achieved virtually anything he might’ve wanted to do in that area. I don’t think the political system will save us. The military could conceivably take over; they’ve threatened this but I don’t think so for reasons that I think are pretty obvious, above all, the fact that no enlisted only enlisted men have been convicted in the prison torture scandals, none of the officers. The result is that within the armed forces today, enlisted men are extremely sensitive to illegal orders, saying, you’re going to take the rap for it, not us. There’s no more illegal order than to take over Congress, so the officers I just don’t think believe innocent men would follow their orders today, so my wife keeps saying to me, come up with something optimistic and I come up with bankruptcy. Its that looks like it might be the thing that will bring the republic to an end.
LAMB: You know that there are people watching right now that say that guy’s a wacko. I mean that’s an extreme of it but it’s like the conspiracy theorists and all that
JOHNSON: ... If you and I were having this conversation in say, 1985 and I said to you, four years from now the Soviet Union will disappear. You’d have thought that’s not really a reliable analyst. Well, it’s gone. It’s disappeared. Its Russia today is a much smaller place than the Soviet Union was. Empires go very, very rapidly and we’re getting extremely overextended; really very serious thin ice. It’s reported and this is not terribly novel with me, right now and a lot of people know this, understand it and are worried about the trend of event.
LAMB: What does it mean to you that you live right here in the 50th District of California, the home of Duke Cunningham?
JOHNSON: Well, this is the crookedest congressman we’ve ever had who is now in prison for over eight years for bribery. He was a lot dumber than we thought he was. I mean you’d have thought that he could’ve become a lobbyist and stayed out of prison but I wrote a piece in the LA Times well before this happened arguing that my congressman was bought and paid for by the military industrial complex and it was easy to simply see what he reported to the Federal Election Commissions and where his money came from and it wasn’t within the 50th District, it was Lockheed-Martin and above all, NZM (ph) Corporation, the one that where the guy he was paying him off in order to get defense contracts.
It’s extremely serious when the institution that the authors of the Constitution presumed to be the heart of our government, the place where initiatives came from, is today; you just want to ask what’s happened to congress? Where has it gone? It’s not I mean one could talk endlessly about the enthusiasm of Bush and Cheney for greater powers in the imperial presidency but you what we don’t understand is how did congress just disappear? How did it cease to function any more at all? That its and it has the smell of the Roman Senate, as we come up on the last days.
LAMB: Why does this happen in your opinion? What’s the start of all this?
JOHNSON: Militarism, primarily. That is to say well, its imperialism, which as its inescapable accompaniment, is militarism and that this begins to invoke the earliest warnings we have about the threats to the republican government. After all, George Washington’s farewell address still read in congress, each session, warns against the greatest threat to liberty is standing armies and it’s the particular threat to republican liberty. He meant by this that it would destroy the separation of powers on which the structure was set up. It would move power toward the President and move it away from congress and the courts. That seems to me today obvious. Then, of course, the equally famous warning, by Dwight Eisenhower as he left office in 1961, where he invented the phrase military industrial complex and it’s worth reading because it’s so strident. This was not a diplomatic remark at all by an outgoing President. It he warns in the harshest possible terms of what’s likely to befall us from spending as much as we do on military affairs and we could talk about that too, how much we spend but its I think this is the culmination. It’s the same-term thing that happened to the Roman republic, which one mentions only because the Roman republic was so much a model for Madison and the other authors of the Constitution and ideas of how to this was the first functioning democratic republic that we know of. We used and took many ideas from them and what happened to them as they rather thoughtlessly acquired themselves an empire, which then required these huge standing armies instead of the citizen armies that had prevailed in the early days of the republic and it overwhelmed their government, leading them finally, to populace military figures of which, of course, Julius Caesar is the model and led to his assassination, in the Senate but then you get on to more ruthless figures, young Octavian who decides to make himself a god, Augustus Caesar.
LAMB: How many years did you spend in the military?
JOHNSON: Two; it was back I was a student at the University of California then, just finishing up and I belonged to the Air Reserve, in the Navy. I was away in the Navy, my father had been in the Navy, my cousin had been in the Navy and sort of a thing kids do and this is back 1951 (INAUDIBLE) do your service in the Navy. I didn’t get activated but I went into a program they had to get a commission once you finished your degree and I lucked through. I mean I was sent to a ship without a name, the LST-883 and I remember thinking as my fellow freshly minted ensigns were going off to aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean and things of this sort, an old chief petty officer who was one of our teachers said, Johnson you lucked through. I mean on an aircraft carrier you’d just be an errand boy for a commander. You’re going to a ship with only six officers. You’ll qualify very rapidly. You’ll be at sea all the time and for a young person it was an enormous experience.
LAMB: What’d you think about all that?
JOHNSON: I didn’t even terribly think much about it and if nothing more it was, again, also a different time. Service in the military was an obligation of citizenship that you the shortest was the Army and the dirtiest. The Navy, you got showers, food served more comfortably, a little bit longer, the but I just took it as a fact of life in those days. Oh, I argued terribly with the captain. He was a conservative mustang that is an ex-enlisted man who had been promoted into an officer, over the Cold War, over he just liked the fact that I subscribed to the old Reporter Magazine and was always talking about the China lobby; seems like ages ago.
LAMB: Were you political then?
JOHNSON: I suppose I was, in the sense of all University of California students were political. That I was concerned about the way the world was going, concerned about our role in it, certainly but not political in a way this (INAUDIBLE) is.
LAMB: And you taught at the University of California at Berkeley and at the time, you were how long were you there by the way?
JOHNSON: Twenty-six years.
LAMB: Teaching what?
JOHNSON: Teaching Chinese and Japanese politics.
LAMB: But you were, at some point, supportive of the Vietnam War.
JOHNSON: That’s true and I’ve talked about this in the various books. I was wrong on Vietnam. I in retrospect, as I’ve said I knew too much about communism, which is what I was specialist in, I was Chairman of the Center for Chinese Studies at this time but I wasn’t a specialist on people like a George Bundy or Robert McNamara.
LAMB: Who were they?
JOHNSON: Well that is to say that President Kennedy’s National Security Advisor and the Secretary of Defense, under Lyndon Johnson; people who ran the Vietnam War and I was I made a mistake, a classic mistake. I believed I had argued strongly in print after my one and only visit to Saigon in 1962, this was a civil war and we shouldn’t get involved in it but I then took an erroneous view that you still hear today, having gotten involved this is a war we shouldn’t lose. Well, no that was an error and I was also irritated at the time, no doubt about it, by the student demonstrations. They struck me as pampered little brats who didn’t really know what they were doing. I was very proud of the University of California. I thought they were damaging the university at the time and so, I guess there was another issue that when we talk about the Vietnam War, one seems to think that this was the only issue out there. It was a period of enormous change in America and at this time, I was very much caught up with racial integration in America. I had many students in the Black Panther Party who were students at my university. That being the case, Lyndon Johnson became a kind of hero because of the Great Society, the Civil Rights Act, things of this sort and we tended not to pay as much attention to what he was doing in Vietnam, as I should have and was wrong.
LAMB: When did you change your mind on Vietnam?
JOHNSON: Oh, after I changed my mind, generally and that came with something truly unusual, namely, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. I regarded the Soviet Union as a menace. I still do. I believe that it was something that had to be and I I mean I was specialist in the subject and I traveled extensively in the Soviet Union in 1978 at the height of the (INAUDIBLE) and things of this sort but when the whole raison d’κtre (ph) of the Cold War ended that is they’d collapsed, they’d imploded, they disappeared I was truly shocked by the American government’s reaction. Instantaneously, we set out to find a replacement enemy, well, China, drugs, terrorism, whatever to keep the military industrial complex working, to maintain the huge I mean we’re talking about 737 debts on the Pentagon’s account, American military bases located around the world at the present time; I was shocked by this. I it led me, as a professor of international relations, to begin to ask, was the Cold War just a cover or something deeper for an American imperial project, probably, to replace the British Empire that went back to World War II and I strongly suspect that is the case. That and particularly, in East Asia where I worked, it looked very much like we were on the wrong side of issues of national liberation in China, in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, one thing after another.
I guess, then the other thing that led me really to shift my views indeed, people have said over the years, well you’re being inconsistent. My answer on that is a famous crack by John Maynard Caines (ph), when he was accused of being inconsistent. He said well, when I get new information I change my position. What, sir, do you do with new information? And the new information I got was the remarkable American reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was no peace dividend. There was no moving back into the United States.
Then, also, I’ve spent most of my life studying Japan, working with issues concerned with Japan and Northeast Asia but I’d never been at Okinawa until 1996 and the governor there, a retired professor (INAUDIBLE) had invited me to come down after a very serious incident in 1995 when two Marines and sailor abducted, beat and raped a 12-year-old girl. It set off the worst demonstrations against the United States since the security treaty had been signed. I had never been to Okinawa and like many others; it’s a Japanese version of Puerto Rico. It’s a territory that is discriminated against. It was acquired in the late 19th Century by the Japanese Empire. It has 38 American military bases on an island smaller than Kauai, in the Hawaiian Islands, with living cheek by jowl with 1,300,000 Okinawans. I was I took up Mr. Ota’s (ph) offer, visited Okinawa and was simply appalled by what I saw. The signs of mιlange; we’d been there since the battle of Okinawa in 1945. It was obvious I mean these troops reminded me of then, the Soviet troops that were in East Germany and didn’t want to leave. They were living better in East Germany than they would back in Russia, after the wall came down. Well, our people were living better than they would in Oceanside, California next door to Camp Pendleton. That led me to start looking at bases. I thought at first good, cold warrior (INAUDIBLE). This is just exceptional. The press doesn’t get down. It’s off the beaten track. Its people have forgotten about it. It’s a vestige to World War II. As I began to study our bases around the world, our military empire, I discovered, no, I’m sorry to say, it’s all too typical.
LAMB: You said 737 military bases around the world.
JOHNSON: That’s the Pentagon’s count.
LAMB: Do you trust that?
JOHNSON: Well, I just know it isn’t true. I mean they don’t there’s a lot of bases they don’t include for various political reasons. They don’t include the air base in Qatar. Well that was the headquarters for our assault on Iraq but they don’t do so, in order to not embarrass the Emir of Qatar. They don’t include any of the espionage bases. We have a wonderful old arrangement with Britain, so that most of our bases in Britain, of which there are quite a few, are disguised as Royal Air Force bases. There aren’t any Americans on, things of this (INAUDIBLE) if you got the full count it’d be hard to do. I doubt that anybody knows the really full count. I doubt if Mr. Rumsfeld does but it’d probably go up over 1,000.
LAMB: What if all of sudden and I know this won’t happen but if all of sudden you were named and agreed to be named Secretary of Defense and you were responsible for Homeland Security. I know that’s not
LAMB: And you’re responsible for the terrorism war and all that what would you do?
JOHNSON: Well, obviously, I would have to agree with the President, who would be the one who appointed me but right off, I think we would take out of a defense budget defense spending is running three-quarters of a trillion dollars a year, which we aren’t paying for, we’re putting it on the tab. It’s being financed by savers in China and Japan, who shift capital to America at the rate of $2 billion or $3 billion a day. Right off, we’d start cutting that budget and cutting out things that reflect military canesinism (ph). That is, its not stuff we want, not stuff we need; its worthless but it’s a way of maintaining jobs in America.
LAMB: Like what?
JOHNSON: We spent well over $5 trillion on nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War. That’s an unbelievable amount of money for something we never ever used. It’s about as good a waste of time as John Maynard Caines’ (ph) idea of making jobs by putting money down old mine shafts and then paying people to dig it out again. It’s but right now, it would be, oh, the Virginia Class nuclear submarines, the F-22 Raptor, the
LAMB: How much is the F-22 going to cost us?
JOHNSON: Well, it’s somewhere around $200 billion (ph). I mean if you go through the whole contract and we keep cutting the contract back because Lockheed-Martin keeps raising the price on the thing daily, so we’re going to get fewer and fewer of them but the amounts are huge. I would stop cold, the ballistic missile defense program. I mean this is really nothing really more than scarecrows stuck in the ground in Alaska. They can’t hit anything and they know they can’t hit anything. It’s fake. The science just isn’t developed that far and moreover, it would only work against a truly incompetent country like North Korea.
LAMB: But it could again, let’s
JOHNSON: Well that’s really one of the first things to do.
LAMB: Well, what I wanted to ask, though, is the President sits there and he says, well, we can afford, as a country, three, four to five percent of GDP. I mean and why take a chance of not having these things? I need to protect the American people.
JOHNSON: I don’t think that’s true. I think we need to spend the money in other ways. The largest element in our budget of discretionary spending goes for national security. We are spending today more on national defense, so-called really on war, than all the other nations on earth combined. That’s an astonishing figure. Its also amazing to see that perhaps, 20,000 insurgents in Iraq have fought to a standstill 130,000 of the most-highly trained, heavily equipped troops on earth and that’s what has happened and that’s why they’re withdrawing often in their secure bases or very few of them ever leave that base.
Its the thing is a fake. Moreover, what bothers me is the degree to which militarism has penetrated into our society. Its perfectly logical for the Secretary of Defense to want to close bases domestically that we no longer need but its amazing every time he does that to see every community with a closed base erupt and demand that their senator keep our base open; keep those jobs there.
The State of Washington is represented by two very decent, pleasant, liberal senators. Say Boeing to them and before your very eyes they will turn into blood-lusting, fascist, hyenas doing anything in their power to keep Boeing in business because it’s a big business in Seattle.
That’s the kind of I mean when I mentioned it to Randy Duke Cunningham (ph), the congressman whose now in federal prison here in the 50th District, had -- was spent using his influence, basically, for military contracts. I got a couple of letters from people in Los Angeles saying; well I wish we had that kind of congressman in the 34th District. I could use a good job like that. It’s something we don’t want to admit in this country, how dependent we are increasingly on the military industrial complex. We don’t actually manufacture that much in this country any more but without question, we manufacture more weapons than anybody else on earth and we sell them like crazy to anybody who’ll buy them. We particularly like a military situation where we can sell weapons to both sides.
LAMB: Again, you know, people watching will say that you know, its not
JOHNSON: He’s not being temperate.
LAMB: No but he isn’t nice. He’s living out there in Cardiff by the Sea. He looks down over the beautiful Pacific Ocean. He’s doing OK and all this stuff. You’re surrounded by military industrial complex.
JOHNSON: Oh lord knows this is a terrific target where we’re sitting right now.
LAMB: But they’re, you know, they’re protecting him and isn’t it nice that he can be this critical.
JOHNSON: But they’re not protecting me that’s the point. I mean well, in fact the country is in rather serious trouble because of our skewed priorities. I mean after all, we have to create a Department of Homeland Security because the so-called Department of Defense, which in an earlier time in this country, we called the War Department. The Department of Defense has nothing to do with defense. It has to do with buying weapons that are worthless, which we do a lot of. Buying things that were appropriate to the Cold War, even though it’s now 15 years old and even then, we knew throughout the 1980’s that there was never going to be a war with the Soviet Union or we were kidding ourselves with I mean this is not the first time we’ve had bad intelligence at work. The and things of this sort that is to say, slowly over time, as Eisenhower warned us, we have become oriented toward, dependent upon, accepting of the rationale of why we have monstrous standing armies and why we’ve also given up on the idea of citizen armies. I’m not sure how I stand on the draft. I don’t particularly like it but at the same time, one of the things I do like about it, is that it’s a real check on militarism. When you’re serving in the armed forces because it’s an obligation of citizenship, you become very interested in whether your officers know what they’re doing. Whether there’s any rhyme or reason to the kind of military activities you’re engaged in. Since 1973 service in the armed forces is a career choice. It’s a it is a way there’s no obligation to do this at all. It’s a career choice increasingly open, as in many imperial systems, in the past for people facing one or another dead-end in our society. That’s why until the Iraq War, African Americans were twice as well-represented in the Army as they are in the society; things of this sort.
LAMB: I read that you were asleep when the first plane flew into the World Trade Center.
JOHNSON: Yes, here in California.
LAMB: Well, how did you find out about it?
JOHNSON: My publisher called to talk about it and we, by then, figured out that it was a terrorist incident. We’d seen the attacks on both towers but and we talked about it. I discussed it with many other people around the country, in that same day. The question being, who were the terrorists? It hadn’t crossed our minds yet that they were Islamic terrorists. The date stood out September 11th. September 11th, 1973 is a date known to everyone in Latin America. That’s when the CIA under the orders of Richard Nixon overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile and brought in one of the most odious figures in the history of American foreign policy, namely, General Augusto Pinochet, so, we first thought maybe Chileans; maybe Okinawans; maybe Greeks, probably, the most anti-American democracy on earth. They will never forgive us for the regimen of the Greek colonels put in to power by the CIA until the colonels went too far and got themselves thrown out; any number of people in Central America from the 1980’s. You could the list is extensive. It could be Guatemalans. It could be Indonesians. We, after all, overthrew the government of Indonesia or helped overthrow it and brought in General Suharto, so that our support for dictators has been legendary. We used to call for Dan Marcos (ph). I mean the first President Bush referred to him as a great democrat. Well, he certainly was anything but that. So that it we were interested. The certainly, I did not believe that we should have made it. Once they’re trying to see this at once as a clash of civilizations. I don’t think it was. My own I believe we’ve handled it miserably. I believe we’d have been much better off if we had treated it as the way we would approach organized crime. That is, attacks on innocent civilians, building cases that would stand up in court; focusing on who did it, since we knew who did it and going after them instead of this, again, war of choice. So many of our wars are wars of choice in which arguably the world couldn’t possibly have been worse off if George Bush and Dick Cheney had never heard of Iraq.
LAMB: Going back to the publisher though, some people’s misfortune turned out to be your fortune, didn’t it?
JOHNSON: Oh, no doubt about that and it’s an unfortunate statement. I mean that is, my publisher, Henry Holt (ph) (INAUDIBLE) is down on West 18th Street. That’s getting fairly close to ground zero and my publisher’s a lovely woman; she says, I’m getting out of here but the it turns out that the first book I published, ”Blow Back,” called the costs and consequences of American empire.
LAMB: That was 2000.
JOHNSON: The year 2000; well before 9/11 had not received much of a reception in the United States and people were not very nice abroad but not here but it then turned out to be a best seller and
LAMB: Right after 9/11.
JOHNSON: Almost at once.
LAMB: How many different editions were
JOHNSON: Oh, there were at least eight printings almost in a month after 9/11 and you remember then that Barnes & Noble and places like that had their little bridge tables set up, called, you know, 9/11 corner or something like that with a few books on it. Mine was one of them. I said to her one day, it’s a hell of a way to make a living and she said, yes it is but its better to sell them than not sell them and so that’s essentially what happened.
LAMB: Was what the impact (INAUDIBLE)? Can you think back, once ”Blow Back” got, you know, on the best seller list and all that what kind of feedback did you get? How much of a change did it make? Did it have any impact?
JOHNSON: Well, no it didn’t. I mean ”Blow Back” is a specific CIA term. It was first used in the after action report on our first overthrow of a democratic reelected government, namely the government of Iran in 1953, in which the report was not declassified before the year 2000, in which the word phrase occurs in there, we’re going to get some blow back from this. Now, blow back doesn’t just mean retaliation. It means retaliation for things that we did abroad for which that were kept entirely secret from the American public, so that when the retaliation comes they have no ability to put into context to see cause and effect. That’s why we ended up with the President actually getting away with a truly absurd question to congress, why do they hate us? You might well have wanted to ask, who is it on earth that doesn’t hate us for good reason. I mean often in many cases very good reason. These things were kept secret from the American public; they’re not kept secret from the people on the receiving end that when we carry out one of these so-called clandestine operations, so that it I was criticized almost at once for suggesting that the United States was in some way responsible; some way had was involved in what had happened on September 11th, 2001. Of course, I had argued precisely that. That this was blow back from the largest single clandestine operation we ever carried out, namely, the recruiting army and sending into battle of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, against the Soviet Union.
We once the Soviet Union collapsed George Bush rather famously just walked away from Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was an asset and an ally of ours in those days. We worked closely with him. We armed him. We certainly knew where his base of (INAUDIBLE) was because we had built it for him. That when Bill Clinton decided to bomb it with cruise missiles, things of this sort. They felt betrayed; let down. It was also foolish on our part that we never once asked who were these people we were supporting. They were anti-Soviet but William Casey, Reagan’s CIA Director, who is a deeply devout and a passionately devout Catholic, who seemed to believe that the greatest single force against Communism would be religion and he welcomed Islamic allies, never once asking what about Islam? What kind of Islam, whom they might be, what they at any rate, they Osama bin Laden and company felt betrayed by the Americans and they got even. They let us know what they were doing. They did it quite regularly. They already destroyed two embassies in East Africa. They’d bombed the USS Cole. Similar bombings had already occurred at the World Trade Center. To be surprised at what happened on 9/11 seemed to me is incompetent on the part (INAUDIBLE).
LAMB: I want to ask you about religion, in the movie in the United 93, the story of the United flight that went down in Pennsylvania.
JOHNSON: I haven’t seen it.
LAMB: It doesn’t matter, both sides in that the Americans riding in the back of the plane and the Arabs who are in control of the plane, as they’re headed toward their death, both sides are playing praying to their god.
LAMB: What’s your take on the religious aspect of all this? I mean is god on somebody’s side in this thing?
JOHNSON: Well, I think it’s just the politicization of ideology and of identity. That what we really got to see here is this is a matter of geopolitics. That in many cases, our foreign policy has been badly conceived, poorly carried out and above all, hypocritically explained to the American public. That is, oil politics. That what happened to us in the Iranian revolution in 1979 when one of the two pillars of our petroleum policy in the Middle East collapsed and that we’ve been working on it ever since and its not accidental that virtually all of the political leaders of our current government are former petroleum company executives of one kind or another.
LAMB: You explain that in your recent book.
LAMB: And you but you think once somebody I mean you’re talking about
JOHNSON: Religion is an element that is used for identity purposes but I don’t believe that we are talking about religious motives or just identity. One of the things that interests me is that in the case of the so-called American Taliban, the young man, John Walker Lindh that was arrested; he’d only been in Afghanistan he arrived in August of 2001. He was extremely pious, young, white middle-class man from Marin County, California who had converted to Islam. He had actually met Osama bin Laden and was disgusted with him because he didn’t think he was sufficiently devout. That he was not he was not a Koran reader and that he was a terrorist. Moreover, it seems to me that contrary to religious explanations, bin Laden in a week after 9/11 in pieces that were published in the British Press, in the New York Times, things of this sort, told us why they did it and it was, as I recall them, if I can get them right, you Americans will never live in peace so long as you continue to back the Israelis against the Palestinians, was one. You will never live in peace so long as you still have infidel troops based in the fountainhead of Islam, namely, Saudi Arabia, which was a bad idea. We never should’ve put them there. We put them there after the first Gulf War.
LAMB: Have they gone?
JOHNSON: They’re finally gone. Yes, we moved to Qatar in the United Arab Emeritus and things like that. We had too. I mean the Saudis just simply couldn’t live with that and of course, Osama bin Laden is himself a prominent Saudi figure. The sort of person that in the 1980’s would’ve been welcome a member of a millionaire family, he’d been welcomed at Kennebunkport as a guest of George Bush senior.
LAMB: Back to what you were talking about when you were connecting current leaders with the oil business and you write about this in your book, the Sorrows of Empire. You mentioned George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and others but the motive, again, I want to get back to is that most of those people have all made their money.
JOHNSON: Well they’ve made their money. They’re concerned with petroleum security for the United States; also to use petroleum as a way of exerting influence over other nations, particularly, high growth nations in East Asia, such as China.
LAMB: For the right or wrong reasons; for the right or wrong motives?
JOHNSON: Their political geopolitical motives, whether you think these are right or wrong, these are the sort of things that nations do to each other. We are the last time we had, I don’t particularly admire him but the last time we had a candid Secretary of State on this subject was Henry Kissinger. Zignia Berjinski (ph) comes closer to it today, too. They talk about the way we actually teach international relations and what goes on there and we I have never ever heard of a course that taught any important war being fought over religion.
LAMB: Were you ever offered a job to serve in an administration?
JOHNSON: I was never offered an administration job. I was a consultant to the CIA back in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s. The Office of National Estimates primarily because of my interest in Chinese communism (ph).
LAMB: He’s taught for 26 or 27 years.
JOHNSON: Twenty-six years and then came down here for five years.
LAMB: And where are we? Cardiff by the Sea’s where?
JOHNSON: Oh, it just slightly north of San Diego. It’s a lovely pleasant town but also, located between the headquarters of the naval district and if you look at the harbor its filled full of the Don Stennett’s (ph) and the Ronald Reagan that is
LAMB: Aircraft carriers.
JOHNSON: Aircraft carriers that sit about six inches off the bottom. This is not the world’s best harbor for them but they like it here and the Marine base to the north. It’s a big concentration of military power right here.
LAMB: Camp Pendleton, yes. Now, you taught at the University of California at San Diego for how many years?
JOHNSON: Five years.
LAMB: Are you retired?
JOHNSON: Best decision I ever made.
JOHNSON: There’s life after the big organization. You no longer have to pretend that your colleagues are smart.
LAMB: You married your wife, Sheila Ware (ph) when?
JOHNSON: Well, 50 years ago. Actually, not quite, 49 in a 25-cent parking meter in Washoe County, Nevada, namely, Reno. She was I’m sorry to say I think its called sexual harassment today, she was a student of mine and she never forgave me for giving her a B but we’re now in our 49th year of marriage or what is called, the long conversation.
LAMB: And do you have children?
JOHNSON: No, we don’t. My wife is Dutch. She lived in Occupied Holland during World War II and she also has her own Ph.D. She decided that children are not an endangered species and we didn’t need any. I took the view that if the mother doesn’t want children, among the worst kinds of vanity is male vanity that thinks he needs to have one and we’ve been very happy with that understanding.
LAMB: Back to the bases, you once took a dip in the Caspian Sea.
LAMB: What were you doing there?
JOHNSON: I was visiting in the USSR, working at the Institute for the U.S.A. in Canada. I took an extensive tour through the Caucuses (ph), Georgia, Armenia, places like that. While in that I was traveling with Russian colleagues, all members of the Communist Party, of course. They were interested in me because of my work in East Asia. I was interested in them I’d learned a lot from them. I used to walk in occasionally and say I’d quote something that I’d read in Pravda and they would say, oh you fool, nobody gets their news from Pravda. You read Pravda the way you read the New York Times, to get the line. To find out whether you can keep your dasha (ph) or whatever and no what you have to do. You get your news from friends, walks in the woods and people you trust, maybe the BBC occasionally but that’s what I was doing there and I had a wonderful swim. The chief thing I remember about it was that the water was slightly oily but the thing that impressed me in those days was I bought a nice big can caviar, got an American Airlines stewardess to put it in her ice box, carried it home and said to my wife, why don’t we have a party and she said like hell we’ll have a party. We’re going to open this up and eat it ourselves.
LAMB: The reason I mention it is because you devote a lot of time to all the bases over in that area, the Stan the Kazakhstan, the Kurdistan, all that
JOHNSON: Well, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, we moved vigorously into this area. It wasn’t certainly just George Bush and the Republicans. It was very much a Democratic thing, too. A lot of money involved. The we had already had troop exchanges. We now had bases in Uzbekistan and Kurdistan. The Vice President has just visited Kazakhstan to try and arrange more oil after insulting the Russians in a speech in (INAUDIBLE). It yes, it’s one of the last areas on in this territory, southern Eurasia; was opened up by the collapse of the Soviet Union to enormous geopolitical pressures. I don’t think we’ve done it particularly well. I think we’ve been remarkably cynical. I can’t imagine how these people, with a straight face, talk about the promotion of democracy in places still ruled by old Soviet apparatchiks who are very regularly welcomed to the Oval Office by our President and described in glowing terms, whereas, the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan quit because of the tortures being carried out by the government and explained them to the world. So that I, you know and it’s yes, I was interested in it and I was fortunate to have visited in this area (INAUDIBLE) to also have some sense of what Azerbaijan for example, is like.
LAMB: Why do leaders and this President’s not the first one to do this, talk about the need for democracy, say, in this case, a place like Iraq and then support dictatorships in other parts of the world.
JOHNSON: It’s a default position. It’s when their policies doesn’t work don’t work and then they wheel it out. It’s like it could be in other context it would be Islam, Christianity or something of that sort.
LAMB: Is the public paying attention to this?
JOHNSON: I don’t know. I think they might. We’ve had a long history of this, after all, going back into the first World War when Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, his Secretary of State, were declaring that we were the exemplar for good government on earth that all moral issues rested in the American leadership. I think as a historical generalization you could not be wrong today to say its unmitigated tragedy that the American President believes such nonsense. Had he not, we might have avoided intervening in a war between the British and German Empires.
LAMB: In your book in 2004, you wrote the four sorrows of empire are endless war, loss of liberty, habitual official lying and financial ruin.
LAMB: Expand on that a little bit.
JOHNSON: Well, I think they’re all still here. That is to say, we’ve by the loss of liberty I mean that the structure of government bequeathed to us by the founders, is today, in tatters. If you believe the government in Washington D.C. bears any resemblance to the government outlined in the Constitution of 1787, the burden of proof is on you. There’s just way I mean I cannot for example, its just inconceivable to the people who created our republican, little r, form of government that you would that the President would have at his disposal, a private army and that’s the CIA; totally secret. No way you can do oversight on it. No way you can that he can be held accountable for it. That 40 percent of the defense budget is black, it’s not reported. It’s in contrary to Article One of the Constitution that says, you will be told how your tax money is spent. You will never be told and that’s not something George Bush did. It started with the Manhattan Project in World War II to build atomic bombs.
Its these things are cumulative. There’s now so many of it, so built up over such a long period of time that I believe there is a real threat to the continuation of the republican form of government. That is what provides our democracy; what provides our civil liberties and by this we mean divided government. The impossibility of somebody becoming a dictator; being checks and balances, a balance of power; imperial presidency is a good term for it today and it’s out of control.
LAMB: I’ve interviewed a couple people that participated in the documentary on Why We Fight, Gene Jarecki’s documentary, one thing I was interested is Karen Kwiatkowski and Bill Kristol, neither one seem to know what the mission was of the documentary and Bill Kristol hadn’t seen it and I just wonder when you participated in it, did you know where Mr. Jarecki was going?
JOHNSON: I didn’t except that he was very much interested in ideas that I presented in the Sorrows of Empire. He was a great admirer of Eisenhower. I wanted to argue with him that I have enormous admiration for a former General of the Army, five-star general who ends his career by warning against out of control military’s vested interest and this is what we mean by militarism. We’re not talking about defense of the country. Nobody has any doubt about there is an obligation, at times, to raise citizen armies to defend the country against aggression. What we’re talking about the military about militarism, is the military as a way of life, as a way of making a living, as a kind of corporate organization with interests of its own and things of this sort.
Jerecki (ph), I think uses Eisenhower’s warning to us and it was as great a warning as George Washington’s warning about a standing army, uses it very effectively in this story. He then in the film and he has some awfully good commentators, including Kwiatkowski who resigned her commission over what she knew was going on inside the Pentagon but he also then has a couple of stories built into it about a New York City policeman whose kid was his son was killed in the Twin Towers attacks. He’s spontaneous, not terribly thoughtful, utterly extremely interesting in his belief in the presidency, in the presidency as speaking for us and he’s basically saying if the President said Iraq did this to us, fine. Let’s go get Iraq. Let’s really go after them. He, in fact, worked very hard as it is explained in the film to get the Marines delivering weapons from off one of the aircraft carriers to get them to put his son’s name on a bomb that was dropped in Iraq. He wanted retribution and he was getting it. What he then Jerecki (ph) quotes a famous scene of President Bush sitting at the in the Cabinet Room at his table and he says, I never said there was any direct connection to Iraq and 9/11. That Saddam Hussein was a secularist; the Bath Party is a socialist party not certainly not Islamic and Jidhadist (ph) or Fundamentalist and he said, I flipped out. If you can’t trust the President who can you trust? He was lying to us and we haven’t done anything about it. We have procedures in this country for getting rid of unsatisfactory political leaders. That’s what the Congress is supposed to do. We can impeach them. We can have periodic elections. We had an election that basically ratifies George Bush as President presidency and it’s an interesting story that has nothing to do with the various commentators that Jerecki (ph) got into, I think its quite effective.
LAMB: The reason I bring it up, is that documentaries have been done, now lots of books are being written; you wrote two books. Well, actually, one really around this particular The Sorrows of Empire issue; you getting anywhere with this? I mean you suggested it’s not going to matter if we’re toast.
JOHNSON: If I’m wrong you’re going to forgive me because you’re going to be so pleased I was wrong. The but the evidence adds up. That is, all you can do is to try in dealing with contemporary history, to use your experience, the facts that you can get, put them together in a plausible and coherent way. It looks like the United States continues to head toward a terrible cul-de-sac that as it stands right now, given the largest, that’s the last of Sorrows of Empire, bankruptcy, the largest trade and current account and fiscal deficits virtually in economic history. We are some people and in my latest book I call it a Blanche DuBois (ph) economy. We are increasingly dependent on the kindness of strangers but as you remember the strangers became less and less kind to Blanche (ph) in Tennessee Williams’ play, too and we’re dependent on the kindness of the Minister of Finance of the Peoples Republic of China and of Japan. Now, as many smart economists have said, it’s an odd business for the world’s largest debtor nation to go around insulting its banker all the time. That’s what we do to the Chinese all the time and all he’s got to do is to say one day, I think we’ve got too much money in dollars. The Euro is a much stronger currency. The Yen is a stronger currency. We ought to start the truth of the matter is, he’s obviously thought of that and they’re doing it privately and quietly anyway, in order to not disturb the markets.
LAMB: When is your third book in this trilogy coming out, Nemesis?
JOHNSON: Probably at the end of this year. I’m still editing it a little bit and working on it. The publisher has to decide they don’t like to publish books like this in the Christmas season (INAUDIBLE). In Germany they don’t mind doing so.
LAMB: How different is Nemesis from the other two books?
JOHNSON: It’s different in that it comes up with I say that Nemesis is already here, she’s just waiting her turn. She’s watching. She’s an extremely interesting figure in Greek mythology. Edith Hamilton has a wonderful treatment of it in her famous work on mythology that and I believe that probably it is irreversible. That is, I can’t imagine a President who could any President, who could bring the military industrial complex, the secret intelligence agencies and the Pentagon under control. I think they are they have lives of their own today.
LAMB: Define your own politics.
JOHNSON: Well that’s hard to say. I guess, I voted twice for Ronald Reagan and I but today I vote Democratic.
LAMB: No matter what?
JOHNSON: Oh, certainly matter what. I mean here in the 50th District I’m voting for my neighbor Francine Busby (ph) who I hope will be elected. This district desperately needs change.
LAMB: What party?
JOHNSON: Democratic; she’s an ex-Republican whose also become a Democrat simply because of the (INAUDIBLE) quality of sort of San Diego County/Orange County Republicans.
LAMB: But what do you think the strongest about? I mean like in issues, what’s besides what we’ve been talking about.
JOHNSON: Oh, those are the things that I feel strongly about. That is to say, the United States is being sold down the river by people who don’t understand what it is. I really do recall when I was a kid, ages ago in Arizona, my parents used to take the 4th of July as the only holiday that mattered. My mother, in 1940, voted for Wendell Wilkie even though they all were very dependent upon the New Deal but she said no President should be in more than two terms.
LAMB: Where were you born?
JOHNSON: In Arizona, in a countryside hill.
LAMB: What did you parents do?
JOHNSON: Well, my father was in the Navy for three wars, First, Second and Korea but then in between he was working as an irrigation official in Southern Arizona, a place called Buckeye. It’s a wide spot in the road. It has only one city limit sign. I think it’s a hellhole but it was a good place to be from if you were a kid. It was fun.
LAMB: But on the politics thing, where were you before Ronald Reagan?
JOHNSON: Oh, I voted oh, I guess when I was a college student, when I was a graduate student I was very much on the left, no question about it. That I and I still know, even as I said, I think of the Soviet Union as a menace, I still know and admire a great many people who gave up on Russia because of the KGB, because of the Gulag and all the rest a long time ago but who can’t help but stand up if you hear the International play. Its there was still idealism that was rooted in it; idealism rooted in Chinese communism that was betrayed and is gone but it one would be crazy ever to deny that it was there.
LAMB: And then after Ronald Reagan who’d you vote for?
JOHNSON: I did vote for Dukakis, simply because the first George Bush got on my nerves. I thought he was a walking watercress sandwich, too Yaley (ph) for my taste and I just didn’t care for him. It was more of a personality thing than anything else. He didn’t he did know a great deal more than his son about the world; ex-Director of Central Intelligence, Schocroft (ph) was probably his Admiral Schocroft (ph) not General Schocroft (ph), not the world’s greatest intellect but you have to say he’d never let things get out of control the way Condoleezza Rice did and he didn’t. He understood how the government worked and what were our responsibilities to International affairs.
I did not like Bill Clinton but he ended up being President anyway. I didn’t think he had the right background. I still don’t think he did the right things. I was astonished at how fast after he’s elected Wall Street showed up to give him a lesson in the bond market and he changed his policies very, very quickly. Even so, I do admire, at least, he did begin to reduce the national debt.
LAMB: So, what do you think of the current President?
JOHNSON: I can control my enthusiasm. Just wait, I don’t think he’s qualified in any way and will go down as an unmitigated disaster but the worst thing is the citizens with which he has mobilized the hopes and aspirations of a large number of American citizens and distracted the public through a meaningless and worthless war. We could’ve handled I mean what Osama bin Laden did on 9/11 didn’t affect the balance of power one iota. There was nothing changed at all on the day after. If you wanted to maintain democracy you didn’t want to declare war on him. You didn’t even want to call it a war. You only call it an emergency. We knew how to deal with terrorists. We would had we been more intelligent we’d still have all of our allies. We have most of the Arab world supporting us, too. They understood these issues. We’d have been able to proceed intelligently and correctly; instead, we are in terrible trouble and it’s extremely hard to figure out how we’re going to get out.
LAMB: Anybody you see coming along in the leadership world that you would supportive of in the future?
JOHNSON: Not that I’ve noticed, frankly. No, I don’t think so.
LAMB: You sound like a couple things and just generally that you’re not very happy with your country and that you basically don’t have much hope.
JOHNSON: I guess that’s true. That is to put it another way, I don’t think hope means anything at all unless you could analyze it, so that you could see how things would begin to change. I believe that we need and could conceivably have in America a mobilization of popular democratic sentiment to retake the Congress, to reconstitute the country. I’m always amazed to see how the poll numbers seem to be more powerful than anything we’re reading in the media but even so, it’s a huge country. I don’t see how you can mobilize it when most of the media are in the hands of conglomerate interests and are simply not worth watching. I mean if you know what’s going on the world and you watch the evening network news, you know that the direct opposite is what’s being reported. Its just or what’s most serious, its what’s being omitted, what’s simply not regarded as newsworthy as they shift to what some MBA has told them is important to do, now put in a segment for old people on their aches and pains and how to sell pills and which pills don’t work or things of this sort. This is the sort of the thing that worries you, corruption. It begins to look like the Roman Republic and it does begin to look like we could be awaiting a Julius Caesar, after all a person within the establishment, a former consulate who then decides to throw in his lot with the military, a military populist, a Juan Peron, a Napoleon Bonaparte.
Now and what is said to be the greatest tyrranicide (ph) in history, of course, a group of senator’s stabbed him in the Forum but he was then succeeded by his grand-nephew, a truly ruthless man, Octavian whose goes on we call it the Roman Empire. It’s the Roman military dictatorship.
LAMB: Chalmers Johnson, thank you very much.
JOHNSON: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to talk with you.