Chalmers Johnson, an Asian studies scholar who stirred controversy with books contending that the United States was trying to create a global empire and was paying a stiff price for it, died Saturday at his home in Cardiff-by-the Sea, Calif. He was 79.
The cause was complications of rheumatoid arthritis, his wife, Sheila, said.
Dr. Johnson, who considered himself a longtime cold warrior, was a consultant to the Central Intelligence Agency for many years. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union he became concerned that the United States was increasingly using its military presence to gain power over the global economy.
In “Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire” (Metropolitan Books, 2000), Dr. Johnson wondered why America’s military spending continued to rise after the cold war had ended. He concluded that through a network of more than 700 strategic bases around the world, the United States was committed to creating global hegemony. And he worried about the consequences for American democracy.
Summarizing the series in “Dismantling the Empire,” Dr. Johnson said that “blowback” means more than a negative, sometimes violent reaction to United States policy. “It refers to retaliation for the numerous illegal operations we have carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public,” he wrote.
“This means that when the retaliation comes, as it did so spectacularly on Sept. 11, 2001, the American public is unable to put the events in context. So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the perpetrators, thereby most commonly preparing the ground for yet another cycle of blowback.”
To maintain its empire, he said, the United States “will inevitably undercut domestic democracy.”
In a review of “The Sorrows of Empire” in The New York Times, Ronald Asmus, a deputy assistant secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, wrote that the book was “a cry from the heart of an intelligent person who fears that the basic values of our republic are in danger.” He added that it “conveys a sense of impending doom rooted in a belief that the United States has entered a perpetual state of war that will drain our economy and destroy our constitutional freedoms.”
E. B. Keehn, past president of the Japan Society of Southern California and a former lecturer at Cambridge University, said in an interview on Monday that Dr. Johnson “did not go into his work with an agenda.”
“If the data pointed to a conclusion that made people uncomfortable, including himself,” Dr. Keehn said, “he would never shy away from it.”
That was true not only of the “blowback” series, Dr. Keehn said, but of Dr. Johnson’s studies of Chinese Communism and of the role Japan’s government played in its economy.
His 1982 book, “MITI and the Japanese Miracle” (MITI stands for the Ministry of International Trade and Industry), challenged conventional wisdom with its premise that Japan was a “capitalist developmental state” that combined government industrial strategy with free-market forces. His ideas contradicted those of economists who insisted that Japan’s economic rise was almost entirely based on the free market.
The heavily state-influenced economic model that Dr. Johnson elucidated can now be seen in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and China. “This,” Dr. Keehn said, “is how you can have a contradiction that the world’s last remaining powerful Communist country is also the world’s greatest rising capitalist success.”
Born in Phoenix on Aug. 6, 1931, Chalmers Ashby Johnson was one of two children of Katherine and David Johnson Jr. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1953, with a degree in economics, he served in the Navy in the Korean War; it was the start of his fascination with Asia. “His assault boat landing craft was constantly being repaired in Yokohama,” his wife said, “so he started to study Japanese.”
After receiving his master’s degree in 1957 and his doctorate in 1961, both from Berkeley, he joined the university’s political science faculty. He headed the China Center at Berkeley from 1967 to 1972 and was chairman of the political science department from 1976 to 1980. In 1988 he moved to the University of California, San Diego, to teach at its new School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. He retired in 1992.Besides his wife, the former Sheila Knipscheer, he is survived by his sister, Barbara Johnson.