The tragedy of 11 September 2001 transformed Chalmers Johnson's 2000 book Blowback from a trenchant critique of American foreign policy ignored by the mainstream into a best-seller. Johnson described, as the book's subtitle stated, "The Costs and Consequences of American Empire", and thus offered an analysis of the discontents behind the attack on the World Trade Center.
But predictions of unforeseen consequences from America's imperial actions were only part of Johnson's message. In Blowback and his next two books, his so-called "Empire Trilogy", he dissected the transformation of America from republic to empire, arguing that its pathology put democracy itself at risk.
A leading critic of George W Bush's war policies, Johnson's criticism was consistent with a career spent overturning received wisdom. Born in Phoenix, Arizona, he took a degree in economics at the University of California, Berkeley in 1953. He began learning Japanese as a naval officer stationed in Japan and Korea, and returned to Berkeley in 1957, taking masters and doctorate degrees in political science.
His dissertation on China, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power, caused a stir when it was published in 1962, arguing that it was famine, more than the cult of Mao, that drove peasants to the communists during the years of war against Japan. That year he joined Berkeley's faculty; he would chair the political science department, and head its Centre for Chinese Studies.
In 1982 he published another controversial work of revisionism, MITI and the Japanese Miracle, arguing that it was state control, through the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), and not free markets, that was responsible for Japan's economic boom. In 1988 he joined the new School of Pacific Studies at the University of California-San Diego, and retired from teaching in 1992.
Blowback was focused primarily on his area of expertise, Asia, but the next two volumes of the trilogy expanded his reach. Their concerns can be gleaned from their titles; The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (2004) was written while America prepared and launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, while Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2008) went back further in history, but also outlined the ways in which the maintaining of the present military empire was already undercutting the domestic freedoms Americans presumed they enjoyed. "We are on the cusp of losing our democracy for the sake of keeping our empire," he wrote.
Johnson's final book was published in August 2010. Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope detailed ways in which the imperial impulse in American foreign policy might be reversed. As the writer and editor Tom Engelhardt wrote, "his final question was this: what would the 'sole superpower' look like as a bankrupt country? Nobody, I suspect, has the answer."
Chalmers Ashby Johnson, author and academic; born Phoenix Arizona 6 August 1931; married 1957 Sheila K Johnson; died Cardiff-by-the-sea, California 20 November 2010.
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