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The Blowback World of Chalmers Johnson

Remembering the man and his work.

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 5:29 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

In going through my husband's files, books, and papers after his death, I've been forcibly struck by two things. First, contrary to what many of his obituaries said, his writings and thoughts were remarkably consistent throughout his life. In other words, he was not a right-winger who became more liberal and outspoken as he got older. More than most people suspected, he was a radical all along, whose intellectual impulses were tempered only by his birth in the Depression year of 1931 and his determination to make a decent living without "joining the establishment." Second—and it was an unavoidable recollection—he worked with manic energy and maniacally hard all his life.

When we met in the fall of 1956, I was a 19-year-old junior at the University of California, Berkeley, "shacked up" with a boyfriend. Chal, by contrast, was six years older, and just returned from two years with the Navy in Korea, where the ship on which he was the communications officer, LST 883, had been tasked with ferrying Chinese prisoners of war from South Korea back to North Korean ports. He was living at home with his parents in Alameda to save money, and had only recently finished his master's thesis on "thought reform" in Communist China in the period just before and after Mao Zedong took over in 1949.

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When his LST was docked in Yokosuka, he started to study Japanese. As an undergraduate at Berkeley he'd majored in economics, but he was now a graduate student in political science and teaching assistant for Robert Scalapino, whose course on "America's Role in the Far East" I took. I had invited Chal to a Christmas party at my apartment (and even fixed him up with a date). In return, in January 1957 he decided to deliver my final grade in Scalapino's course in person. I wasn't home, but my boyfriend was and informed Chal that I was leaving him. (Even in those early days of "free love," I'd concluded that for women the price was too high.)

Several weeks later, I bumped into Chal on campus and he said, "I hear you're a free woman. Can I invite you to do something interesting one of these days?" And so our brief but intensive courtship began. We were married in May 1957 in Reno, Nevada, having left the car in a 15-minute parking zone. We returned to Berkeley the next day because we both had final exams to take.

Peasant Uprisings and Japanese Spies

Robert Scalapino was then best known as a Japan scholar. (He only later became influential in the China field.) On a trip to Japan, he had microfilmed the archives of a World War II era bureaucrat, Hatano Ken'ichi, who had taken home his papers for safekeeping in advance of the American firebombing of Tokyo and simply kept them. Scalapino asked Chal to index this microfilmed collection, offering him the opportunity to use it for his Ph.D. dissertation.

Thus was born Chal's first book, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945. Hatano's archives included reports from the Japanese Army trying to conquer and pacify northern China. These focused on the stiff resistance being encountered among the peasants in that region then being organized by communist leader Mao Zedong. It seemed to Chal that these peasants weren't simply being seduced by Communism. They were joining Mao's movement for nationalistic reasons, thanks to the terrible "burn all, loot all, kill all" operations launched by the Japanese army, and so, in a sense, the Japanese military was propelling Mao toward future victory in a post-World War II civil war in China.

Published by Stanford University Press in 1962, Peasant Nationalism is still in print almost 50 years later. It certainly had its detractors, chief among them the Communist Chinese, who preferred to think of themselves as Marxist-Leninists rather than nationalists, and the defeated Kuomintang government, exiled to the island of Taiwan in 1949, which could never stomach the idea that it had deservedly lost the support of the Chinese population during World War II. For many years after the book's publication, Chal could not get a visa to either Beijing or Taiwan.

This didn't bother us much then because Chal was, after all, a budding Japan specialist. In 1961, a Ford Foundation grant sent us to Japan, where we lived in a small Japanese-style house in Tokyo. There, he wrote his first "scholarly" article, published by World Politics, a distinguished academic journal, in which he sought to apply the wartime Chinese experience to other revolutionary situations. In "Civilian Loyalties and Guerrilla Conflict," he presciently argued:

To approach the subject of guerrilla warfare as a purely military doctrine is to court disaster… General political and economic considerations must be taken into account, such as the abilities of local elites, the nature of a country's economy, its class structure, and a host of other variables that can only be altered by long-term reforms. By the time guerrilla warfare has actually broken out, the conflict may already be lost to the defenders and require a negotiated or stalemate solution.

In Tokyo, Chal haunted the used bookstores of Jinbocho, and it was here that a very interesting bookseller he had met handed him a 1930s volume by Ozaki Hotsumi, a journalist who had worked in prewar Shanghai for the major Japanese newspaper Asahi. On reading the book, Chal was struck that a Japanese of that era could have written quite so frankly and insightfully about his country's disastrous policies in China. Only later did he learn more about the author, a well-regarded journalist and adviser to the Japanese government, who, as it turned out, also became a spy for the Russians.

After Adolf Hitler's armies invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Ozaki and Richard Sorge, the head of the spy ring, were credited with assuring the Russians that the Japanese army would strike south into Southeast Asia rather than at Russia, permitting Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to move troops from Siberia to defend Moscow against the German onslaught and so save the city. Ozaki and Sorge were both arrested in Japan in 1941 and executed in November 1944.

I believe the conundrum faced by Ozaki—his dismay over his country's war in China and his personal decision to aid the enemy—deeply influenced Chal and affected many of his own political beliefs. As we made our way back to the US in the summer of 1962 via a slow boat to Europe, Chal told me the story of Ozaki's life, and said, "I think I'll write an article about him." I suggested that it sounded more like a book.

An Instance of Treason: Ozaki Hotsumi and the Sorge Spy Ring came out in 1962 and, though now out of print, remains a remarkably empathetic portrait of a traitor and a spy. Meanwhile, Chal had been hired by Scalapino to teach Chinese politics at Berkeley. Because even then it was not considered intellectually "cool" to be typecast as an "area specialist," Chal decided to offer a graduate seminar on revolutions and guerrilla warfare. This would lead to his next book, Revolutionary Change, published in 1966, an important theoretical work, but also, in hindsight, a bit nutty.

Early in our marriage Chal and I had discussed whether it was possible to construct what we called a "Fascistograph." The idea was to come up with a checklist of things going wrong in a country that might herald the imminent arrival of fascism—so that one could get out in time. (This was, in part, triggered by conversations with some of our own professors, including Hannah Arendt, about how and when they made the decision to leave Hitler's Germany and go into exile prior to World War II.) For Revolutionary Change, Chal tried to develop various "measures" of social disequilibrium that might indeed signal the onset of a revolution. These included rises in suicides and violent crimes, in the numbers of police and military forces, and in the circulation of certain kinds of ideological magazines.

When the book finally went out of print in 1982, Stanford University Press offered to bring out a second edition, but we all agreed that the chapter on measuring "disequilibrium" had to go. Chal replaced it with two new ones—on terrorism as a revolutionary strategy and on theories of revolution. On March 2, 1986, the Los Angeles Times reported that General Juan Ponce Enrile, in abandoning Filipino autocrat Ferdinand Marcos and joining Cory Aquino's revolution, threw three books into his knapsack: Sun Tzu's The Art of War, a volume on the idea of law, and Chalmers Johnson's Revolutionary Change. Reading that, we could only laugh and hope that the volume he grabbed was the second, revised edition (still in print in 2011).

Watching China

The decade from 1965 to 1975 could be called our China years, although it was also the crucial decade for America's war in Vietnam and for student protests on college campuses, not least among them Berkeley. In 1965, we moved to the then-British colony of Hong Kong to spend nine months as "China Watchers." That was communist China we were eying, of course, a place we Americans still couldn't visit.

Mao's Cultural Revolution was just beginning. As Chal became increasingly convinced of the harm it was inflicting on China's people and economy, many of his students back in California were turning into sincere Maoist camp followers, even as they were also protesting the US involvement in Vietnam. In these years, Chal became a temporary convert to "the domino theory"—the idea that "losing" one more country to communism could set off a kind of global chain reaction.

And yet, in 1973, he published a little book, Autopsy on People's War, in which he argued that Maoist theories of "people's war" would not lead to a general Asian conflagration. "It is useful to be reminded," he wrote, "that revolutions in the modern sense are also, in fact, civil wars. If other nations want to make a successful adjustment to them, they cannot ignore the fact that a domestic fight is going on between people who are agitated by issues other than the general course of human history. For this reason direct intervention in one is generally the worst thing that a prudent nation can do—not because the revolution is unimportant either ideologically or to the world balance of power but because foreign intervention, if it fails, is bound to antagonize in the most direct manner the victorious revolutionary state."

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