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On Our Military Empire

Part I: Cold Warrior in a Strange Land

| Tue Mar. 21, 2006 1:00 AM PST

Tom Engelhardt: Let's start with a telltale moment in your life, the moment when the Cold War ended. What did it mean to you?

Chalmers Johnson: I was a cold warrior. There's no doubt about that. I believed the Soviet Union was a genuine menace. I still think so.

There's no doubt that, in some ways, the Soviet Union inspired a degree of idealism. There are grown men I admire who can't but stand up if they hear the Internationale being played, even though they split with the Communists ages ago because of the NKVD and the gulag. I thought we needed to protect ourselves from the Soviets.

As I saw it, the only justification for our monster military apparatus, its size, the amounts spent on it, the growth of the Military-Industrial Complex that [President Dwight] Eisenhower identified for us, was the existence of the Soviet Union and its determination to match us. The fact that the Soviet Union was global, that it was extremely powerful, mattered, but none of us fully anticipated its weaknesses. I had been there in 1978 at the height of [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev's power. You certainly had a sense then that no consumer economy was present. My colleagues at the Institute for the USA and Canada were full of: Oh my god, I found a bottle of good Georgian white wine, or the Cubans have something good in, let's go over to their bar; but if you went down to the store, all you could buy was vodka.

It was a fairly rough kind of world, but some things they did very, very well. We talk about missile defense for this country. To this day, there's only one nation with a weapon that could penetrate any missile defense we put up -- and that's Russia. And we still can't possibly match the one they have, the Topol-M, also known as the SS-27. When [President Ronald] Reagan said he was going to build a Star Wars, these very smart Soviet weapon-makers said: We're going to stop it. And they did.

As [Senator] Daniel Moynihan said: Who needs a CIA that couldn't tell the Soviet Union was falling apart in the 1980s, a $32 billion intelligence agency that could not figure out their economy was in such awful shape they were going to come apart as a result of their war in Afghanistan and a few other things.

In 1989, [Soviet leader] Mikhail Gorbachev makes a decision. They could have stopped the Germans from tearing down the Berlin Wall, but for the future of Russia he decided he'd rather have friendly relations with Germany and France than with those miserable satellites Stalin had created in East Europe. So he just watches them tear it down and, at once, the whole Soviet empire starts to unravel. It's the same sort of thing that might happen to us if we ever stood by and watched the Okinawans kick us out of Okinawa. I think our empire might unravel in a way you could never stop once it started.

The Soviet Union imploded. I thought: What an incredible vindication for the United States. Now it's over, and the time has come for a real victory dividend, a genuine peace dividend. The question was: Would the U.S. behave as it had in the past when big wars came to an end? We disarmed so rapidly after World War II. Granted, in 1947 we started to rearm very rapidly, but by then our military was farcical. In 1989, what startled me almost more than the Wall coming down was this: As the entire justification for the Military-Industrial Complex, for the Pentagon apparatus, for the fleets around the world, for all our bases came to an end, the United States instantly -- pure knee-jerk reaction -- began to seek an alternative enemy. Our leaders simply could not contemplate dismantling the apparatus of the Cold War.

That was, I thought, shocking. I was no less shocked that the American public seemed indifferent. And what things they did do were disastrous. George Bush, the father, was President. He instantaneously declared that he was no longer interested in Afghanistan. It's over. What a huge cost we've paid for that, for creating the largest clandestine operation we ever had and then just walking away, so that any Afghan we recruited in the 1980s in the fight against the Soviet Union instantaneously came to see us as the enemy -- and started paying us back. The biggest blowback of the lot was, of course, 9/11, but there were plenty of them before then.

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