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R.I.P., Chalmers Johnson, Truth to Power Super-Hero

Chalmers Johnson passed away Saturday at the age of 79. He was a valuable messenger about the scope and danger of American hegemony. A chilling quote:

"The United States today is like a cruise ship on the Niagara River upstream of the most spectacular falls in North America," Johnson warned. "A few people on board have begun to pick up a slight hiss in the background, to observe a faint haze of mist in the air on their glasses, to note that the river current seems to be running slightly faster. But no one yet seems to have realized that it is almost too late to head for shore. Like the Chinese, Ottoman, Hapsburg, imperial German, Nazi, imperial Japanese, British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Soviet empires in the last century, we are approaching the edge of a huge waterfall and are about to plunge over it."

Here are some excerpts from a powerful and heartfelt tribute by Steve Clemons:

The rape of a 12 year-old girl by three American servicemen in Okinawa, Japan in September 1995 and the statement by a US military commander that they should have just picked up a prostitute became the pivot moving Johnson who had once been a supporter of the Vietnam War and railed against UC Berkeley's anti-Vietnam protesters into a powerful critic of US foreign policy and US empire.

Johnson argued that there was no logic that existed any longer for the US to maintain a global network of bases and to continue the occupation of other countries like Japan. Johnson noted that there were over 39 US military installations on Okinawa alone. The military industrial complex that Eisenhower had warned against had become a fixed reality in Johnson's mind and essays after the Cold War ended.

[snip]

Saying Chalmers Johnson is dead sounds like a lie. I can't fathom him being gone -- and with all of the amazing times I've had with him as well as the bouts of political debate and even yelling as we were pounding out JPRI materials on deadline, I just can't imagine that this blustery, irreverent, completely brilliant force won't be there to challenge Washington and academia.

Few intellectuals attain what might have been called many centuries ago the rank of "wizard" -- an almost other worldly force who defied society's and life's rules and commanded an enormous following of acolytes and enemies.

Wizards don't die -- and I hope that those who read this, who knew him, or go on reading his works in the decades ahead provoke, inspire, jab, rebuke, applaud, and condemn in the way he did.

In one of my fondest memories of Chalmers and Sheila Johnson at their home with their then Russian blue cats, MITI and MOF, named after the two engines of Japan's political economy -- Chal railed against the journal, Foreign Affairs, which he saw as a clap trap of statist conventionalism. He decided he had had enough of the journal and of the organization that published it, the Council on Foreign Relations. So, Chalmers called the CFR and told the young lady on the phone to cancel his membership.

The lady said, "Professor Johnson, I'm sorry sir. No one cancels their membership in the Council in Foreign Relations. Membership is for life. People are canceled when they die."

Chalmers Johnson, not missing a beat, said "Consider me dead."

I never will. He is and was the intellectual giant of our times. Chalmers Johnson centuries from now will be seen, I think, as the intellectual titan of this past era, surpassing Kissinger in the breadth of seminal works that define what America was and could have been.

A link to Chalmers discussing American hegemony.

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basement angel's picture
Submitted by basement angel on

I'm very sad to hear that he died. I didn't know. He's had a huge impact on the way I think about things.

Submitted by libbyliberal on

I discovered him and his wisdom late, but am grateful I did. The first long article I ever read by him impacted ME forever (I appreciate how you put that), as my jaw dropped and stayed on the floor as I read on and on about base after base after base in country, after country, after country, and waste after waste after amoral and immoral behavior of "ugly American" members of military and military contractors, etc., etc., etc. He did his homework and he connected the dots. Rational and empathetic. God bless this man.

Submitted by MontanaMaven on

I often quoted from "Nemesis". I believe that his professor at Princeton was Sheldon Wolin who wrote the bone chilling book "Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism". Chris Hedges is a recent fan of Wolin's.

I will greatly miss Chalmers Johnson and Howard Zinn. A sad year for all of us lefties in so many ways that it is hard to pick the saddest.