Illustration by Winston Smith

In the darkest days of the Cold War, UC Berkeley professor and sometimes consultant to the CIA Chalmers Johnson heartily denounced anti–Vietnam War protesters as misguided. Nowadays, Johnson is a hero to a new generation of peace protesters. One of the most outspoken critics of the Bush administration, his 2000 best-seller, Blowback, decried the boomerang effect the U.S. suffered by supporting Islamic fundamentalists in the 1980s. And his new volume, Sorrows of Empire, is a timely denunciation of the militarization of American foreign policy. The L.A. Weekly’s Marc Cooper spoke with Johnson recently as he passed through Los Angeles.


L.A. WEEKLY: Your view of American policy has completely reversed itself since the 1960s. But what about your feelings about your country? Can you still be patriotic while being such a fierce critic?

CHALMERS JOHNSON: Of course! As Lord Byron said, “I would have saved them if I could.” I mean, I like living here. But I think we are trending like the Soviet Union was in 1985. If I had said then that the Soviets were five years away from extinction, you’d have said I had spent too much time inhaling exotic substances around Berkeley.


What provoked your political shift?

After the Soviets, who I thought were a real threat, collapsed, I expected a much greater demobilization, a pullback of American troops, a real peace dividend, a re-orienting of federal expenditures to domestic needs. Instead, our government turned at once to find a replacement enemy: China, drugs, terrorism, instability. Anything to justify this huge apparatus of the Cold War structure.


So where does that leave today’s authentic patriots?

The role of the citizen now is to be ever better informed. When Benjamin Franklin was asked, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” he replied: “A republic if you can keep it.” We’ve not been paying attention to what we need to do to keep it. I think we made a disastrous error in the classic strategic sense when in 1991 we concluded that we “had won the Cold War.” No. We simply didn’t lose it as badly as the Soviets did. We were both caught up in imperial overreach, in weapons industries that came to dominate our societies. We allowed ideologues to capture our Department of Defense and lead us off — in a phrase they like — into a New Rome. We are no longer a status quo power respectful of international law. We became a revisionist power, one fundamentally opposed to the world as it is organized, much like Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, Bolshevik Russia or Maoist China.


Indeed, your thesis is that since September 11, the U.S. ceased to be a republic and has become an empire.

It’s an extremely open question if we have crossed our Rubicon and there is no going back. Easily the most important right in our Constitution, according to James Madison, who wrote much of the document, is the one giving the right to go to war exclusively to the elected representatives of the people, to the Congress. Never, Madison continued, should that right be given to a single man. But in October 2002, our Congress gave that power to a single man, to exercise whenever he wanted, and with nuclear weapons if he so chose. And the following March, without any international consultation or legitimacy, he exercised that power by staging a unilateral attack on Iraq.

The Bill of Rights — articles 4 and 6 — are now open to question. Do people really have the right to habeas corpus? Are they still secure in their homes from illegal seizures? The answer for the moment is no. We have to wait and see what the Supreme Court will rule as to the powers of this government that it appointed.


You know from your study of history that when we traditionally speak of empire, we have in mind the model of European colonialism — the Brits in India, the French in Algeria and Indochina. Surely that’s not what you mean when you refer to an American empire.

By an American empire I mean 725 military bases in 138 foreign countries circling the globe from Greenland to Asia, from Japan to Latin America. This is a sort of base world — a secret, enclosed, separate world where our half-million troops, contractors and spies live quite comfortably around the world. I think that’s an empire. Granted, the unit of European imperialism was the colony. The unit of American imperialism is the military base.

These American bases are an outgrowth of U.S. containment policy from the Cold War. What’s their role now? Are they just pork? Or are they there to defend U.S. investment?

What they don’t do is defend U.S. security. They just grew, whether or not they had or have strategic value. We have 101 bases today in Korea even though the war has been over for 50 years. Once created, the military is endlessly creative in finding new functions for them, long after their real value has evaporated. This base world becomes part of the vested interest we associate not with security but with militarism, the danger of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned against.


You’re saying the real impetus here is more a self-perpetuating military bureaucracy rather than some grand rational strategy?

Right. I think Eisenhower was right when he spoke of how we didn’t recognize the unwarranted power of the arms industry. You know, a piece of the B-2 bomber is built in every one of the continental states.


What are the costs of this empire to democracy and the republic?

There’s the literal cost. We are flirting with bankruptcy. We are not paying for what is now a $750 billion tab. The defense appropriation itself is about $420 billion. That doesn’t include another $125 billion, which is the cost of Afghanistan and Iraq. Then another $20 billion for nuclear weapons in the Department of Energy. Add in another $200 billion or so for military pensions and for health benefits for our veterans. Together, that’s three-quarters of a trillion dollars.

We are putting it on the tab, running up some of the most extraordinary budget and trade deficits in history. If the bankers of Asia and Japan should tire of financing this, if they notice the euro is now stronger than the dollar, then all this ends — whether or not they like the Boy Emperor from Crawford. We would face a terrible crisis.

The greater cost is what the public will lose, if they haven’t already lost it: the republic, the structural defense of our liberties, the separation of powers to block the growth of a dictatorial presidency.


But American history didn’t begin on January 20, 2001, or on 9/11. Isn’t much of what you describe a situation that dates back a full century or more? Why blame so much of this on George W. Bush?

Yes, this goes back a long way — to Teddy Roosevelt acquiring colonies from the Spanish. But Bush dropped the mask. He comes out and says we are a New Rome, we don’t need the U.N. or any friends. We now put countries on hit lists. Certainly, if there were some steering committee for an American imperial project, it would consider Bill Clinton a much better imperial president than George W. Bush. It’s always better strategy to not show your hand, to take an indirect approach but to know exactly where you are going.


In a recent review of your book, leftist writer Ian Williams chides you for investing too much belief in the evil of the Bushies. Williams argues that, looking at Iraq, one might conclude that rather than grand imperialists, the Bush folks are instead spectacular screwups.

Well, undoubtedly they bungled things in Iraq, from not using enough troops to misreading the intelligence, and there is more evidence of it every day. But there was never a plan to leave Iraq because there is no intention of leaving Iraq. We are currently building 14 bases there. Dick Cheney can’t imagine giving up that oil. And the military can’t imagine giving up those bases. That’s why they can’t come up with a plan to leave.


Yet Bush’s policies have provoked international and domestic backlashes. Does that make you hopeful?

The political system alone can no longer save the republic. Even if Congress wanted to exercise real oversight, how can it when 40 percent of the military budget is secret? All of the intelligence budget is secret. The only hopeful sign I saw was a year ago when 10 million people demonstrated in the streets for peace. We also saw the recent election in Spain as a response to what is happening. If we can see that now in the U.S., in the U.K., in Italy, then maybe we can have some hope. Otherwise we will soon be talking about the short happy life of the American republic.

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