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 name, ”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: ... 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 Chaim (ph)?
JOHNSON: Well, this is the crookedest (ph) 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
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
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 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 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. My (INAUDIBLE) in the Navy, my father had
been in the Navy, my cousin had been in the Navy and sort of a
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 out there?
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 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
JOHNSON: Twenty-six years.
LAMB: Teaching what?
JOHNSON: Teaching Chinese and Japanese politics.
LAMB: But you were, at some point, supportive of the Vietnam
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 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’être (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,
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 (INAUDIBLE) thing after
I guess, then the other thing that led me really to shift my
views (INAUDIBLE) 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 on Mr. Ota’s (ph) offer, visited Okinawa and was
simply appalled by what I saw. The signs of mélange; 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 (INAUDIBLE) 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 (INAUDIBLE) 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
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
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
(INAUDIBLE) 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
JOHNSON: Oh lord, no 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 (INAUDIBLE) 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 (INAUDIBLE) 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 (INAUDIBLE), 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
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
LAMB: I see you got 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 the right (INAUDIBLE). 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: 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, 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 leaders with the oil business and you write about
this in your book, the Sorrows of Anbar (ph). 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, hydro nations in East Asia, such as China.
LAMB: For the right or wrong reasons; for the right or wrong
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
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
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?
LAMB: Your …
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 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
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 brought
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
LAMB: In your book in 2003, 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 Jerecki’s (ph)
documentary, one thing I was interested is (INAUDIBLE) bill
neither one seem to know what the mission was of the documentary
and Bill Crystal (ph) hadn’t seen and I just wonder when you
participated in it, did you know where Mr. Jerecki (ph) was
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
(INAUDIBLE) Kutofsky (ph) 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
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 (INAUDIBLE) 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,
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 (INAUDIBLE) where were you before Ronald
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 (INAUDIBLE) 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
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
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
LAMB: You sound like – a couple things and just generally
that you’re not very happy with your company 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 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 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.