Blowback for the Twenty-First Century, Remembering Chalmers Johnson

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Yves here. I must confess to not having read Blowback, since it’s become a classic. Too many good books, too little time. So I would very much welcome takes from those of you who know it.

By Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture.  A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War. Originally published at TomDispatch

Once upon a time, long, long ago — actually, it was early in the year 2000 — I was involved in publishing Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. It had been written by the eminent scholar of Asia, former CIA consultant, and cold warrior Chalmers Johnson. I was his editor at Metropolitan Books. In its introduction, using a word Americans were then (as now) all too uncomfortable with, he bluntly summed up his professional life by labeling himself “a spear-carrier for empire.” And he described the origins of his book’s title this way:

“Officials of the Central Intelligence Agency first invented [the term blowback] for their own internal use… [It] refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people.  What the daily press reports as the malign acts of ‘terrorists’ or ‘drug lords’ or ‘rogue states’ or ‘illegal arms merchants’ often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations.”

Ominously enough, he added, “All around the world today, it is possible to see the groundwork being laid for future forms of blowback.” On page 10, he brought up — and remember he was writing this as the previous century ended — the name of “a former protege of the United States,” one Osama bin Laden. In the 1980s, that rich young Saudi had been part of Washington’s secret war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, forming a group to battle the Russians that he called al-Qaeda (“the Base”) to battle the Red Army. By the time Chalmers wrote his book, the Russian war there was long over, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and bin Laden had turned against Washington. He was then believed responsible for the bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. On page 11, Chalmers added that such “retaliation” for American acts was “undoubtedly not yet at an end in the case of bin Laden.”

He summed things up this way: “Because we live in an increasingly interconnected international system, we are all, in a sense, living in a blowback world.”

Sadly, that remains even truer today and, if Chalmers could return from the dead, I have no doubt that he would have much to say about how we now find ourselves on the ultimate blowback planet.

Blowback in a Sole-Superpower World

To use an all-too-appropriate word, given what he was writing about, his book bombed. Boy, did it! The reviewer at the New York Times dismissed it as “marred by an overriding, sweeping, and cranky one-sidedness.” And it sold next to no copies. It was dead in the water, until, 18 months later… yes, I’m sure you’ve already guessed what I’m about to write next… on September 11, 2001, those towers in New York City came down and the Pentagon was clobbered.

Suddenly, Blowback was on every bookstore bestseller table in America. As Chalmers would mention in his new introduction to the 2003 paperback, Metropolitan Books had to reprint it eight times in less than two months to keep up with demand.

In that volume, he had done something deeply unpopular at the time of publication (except among fringe groups on the left). He had called our country an empire — an imperial power intent on maintaining a staggering military presence globally in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and before the rise of China. A common term used in Washington at the time was the “sole superpower” on planet Earth. And he pointed out, ominously enough, that even without official enemies of any significance, thanks in part to its global imperial presence, Washington had “hollowed out our domestic manufacturing and bred a military establishment that is today close to being beyond civilian control.” He added tellingly that it “always demands more” and was “becoming an autonomous system.” In addition, the post-Vietnam, post-draft, “all volunteer” military was, he pointed out, increasingly “an entirely mercenary force.” Worse yet, he saw the growth of American militarism at home as another form of blowback from this country’s overextension abroad. (Sound familiar in 2022?)

He warned that the collapse of the Soviet Union in the wake of the war in Afghanistan should have been a warning to Washington. Even more ominously, at a moment when this country’s foreign-policy establishment considered us the “indispensable nation” (Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s phrase), he suggested that we were already experiencing “imperial overextension” and on the long downward slope that all empires experience sooner or later.

And keep in mind that all of this was written before 9/11; before President George W. Bush and crew launched devastatingly ill-fated invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; before this country’s civilian population became — as the nightmare at Uvaldereminded us recently — armed to the teeth with military-style weaponry. It was long before Donald Trump and before the Republican Party was transformed into something unrecognizable. It was well before Congress became essentially incapable of passing anything of significance for most Americans, even as it was instantly capable of providing $54 billion in aid and arms for the Ukrainians and endless funds for the Pentagon.

President Blowback

Just last month, 22 years later, I reread Blowback. Chalmers is, of course, long gone. (He died in November 2010.) But with the news of these last years and what may be on the horizon in mind, I couldn’t help thinking about how he would have updated the book, were he still here.

As a start, I doubt he would have been particularly surprised by Donald Trump. In June 2005, reintroducing a piece he had done for TomDispatch in 2003 on the scourge of militarism, he was already writing: “The American governmental system is no longer working the way it is supposed to. Many distinguished observers think it is badly damaged in terms of Constitutional checks and balances and the structures put in place by the founders to prevent tyranny.”

And as I added in that same 2005 introduction, reflecting Chalmers:

“In September 2003, only four months after [President George W. Bush’s] ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment on the USS Abraham Lincoln, it was already evident to some of us that neocon dreams of establishing a robust Pax Americana on the planet were likely to be doomed in the sands of Iraq — but that, in the process, the American constitutional system as we’ve known it might well be destroyed.”

Yes, the possibility of our system spinning downward toward some version of tyranny wouldn’t, I suspect, have surprised him. Of course, he didn’t predict Donald Trump. (Who did?)  But if anyone could have imagined this country “governed” — and I put that in quotes for obvious reasons — by a billionaire grifter and TV impresario who thought not just unbearably well of, but only of himself, it was Chalmers. Had he been here in 2016, when that bizarre figure ran for president, as he’d been dreaming about doing since at least 2011, and won, I’d put my money on his not being even slightly taken aback. Nor, I suspect, would he have been surprised when the economic inequality that helped Trump to victory only grew ever more rampant in his years in office, while billionaires began to multiply like fleas on a rabid dog.

Honestly, if you think about it for a moment, it’s hard not to imagine The Donald’s success as another version of blowback. In fact, he’s almost inconceivable without the sort of imperial mess Chalmers had in mind and that this country did such a splendiferous job of encouraging with its disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and its never-ending war on terror. If it weren’t for the mess that our military machine made of the world in this century (and the money it gobbled up in the process), his rise would be hard to imagine. He now seems like the cause of so much, but honestly, as I wrote during the election campaign of 2016 referring to the disease then in the news: “Perhaps it would be better to see Donald Trump as a symptom, not the problem itself, to think of him not as the Zika Virus but as the first infectious mosquito to hit the shores of this country.”

He certainly marked another key moment in what Chalmers would have thought of as the domestic version of imperial decline. In fact, looking back or, given his insistence that the 2020 election was “fake” or “rigged,” looking toward a country in ever-greater crisis, it seems to me that we could redub him Blowback Donald. (Of course, that “B” could also stand for Blowhard.) And given the present Republican Party, as well as the growing evidence that this country’s political system could be coming apart at the seams, it’s hard not to think that Chalmers was onto something big as the last century ended.

Of one thing I’m sure. He wouldn’t have been slightly shocked to discover that, these days, just about the only thing Congress can agree upon across party lines is the annual raising of the Pentagon budget to levels that now match the military budgets of the next 11 countries combined.

Twenty-First-Century Blowback

In the back of my mind, while rereading his book, I kept wondering how else Chalmers might have updated it in 2022. And what came to mind repeatedly was that potentially ultimate subject, climate change.

Now, Chalmers certainly had a sense of the environmental damage the American empire was already causing, but climate change was not yet on his mind. Recently, to my surprise, I came across a passing reference to it in something I wrote but never published in the 1990s and was surprised I even knew about it then. Still, in this century, as I became ever more aware of it and wrote and published ever more about it at TomDispatch, I came to believe that it would indeed be potentially devastating for humanity. For years, though, I didn’t quite grasp that it would be so in my own lifetime.

Back then, I imagined it as largely a phenomenon of the future, not something for which you could find evidence in the news daily (whether identified as such or not). Yes, at some point I realized, for instance, that South Asia might be more susceptible to climate extremes than many other areas. Still, I hadn’t expected that I would live to see springtime weather with temperatures in the range of 115 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, or that such horrific and, without air conditioning, increasingly deathly warmth would be followed by devastating flooding. Or that such extremes would grow more common so quickly.

Nor, honestly, had I expected a wave of record July temperatures (and humidity) here in the northeast U.S. and across much of my own country this very May (it hit 95 degrees on a recent day in Philadelphia!). Nor did I imagine that the Southwest and West would be embroiled in a megadrought the likes of which hasn’t been seen on this continent in at least 1,200 years, with devastating, often record-setting fires, blazing in New Mexico and elsewhere ever earlier in the year. Or the unprecedented severe drought and record flooding in parts of Brazil and Argentina. Or the staggering burning and flooding in Australia. Or the unparalleled floods in recent years in China, Germany, and other countries.

I hadn’t imagined that every spring I’d see more or less the same spring article predicting another terrible, if not record, Atlantic hurricane season. Or that I’d hear about a May hurricane of record strength hitting the Pacific coast of Mexico.

And of course, that’s just to start down what seems like an increasingly endless list. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned those three rare tornadoes in Germany or the record May heat wave in Spain, or… but why go on? You get the idea. In fact, you or people you know are undoubtedly living that very reality, too, in some daunting fashion — and at this moment, thanks to the war in Ukraine and endless other distractions, the world is only burning yet more fossil-fuels promising so much worse to come.

To return to Chalmers Johnson, if you think about it for even 30 seconds, climate change has obviously become the greatest blowback event in human history — with almost unimaginably greater climate chaos likely to come. As he would undoubtedly have noted, if you’re living in the most significant blowback nation in human history, since no other country has put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than the United States, you’re truly facing — to cite the subtitle of his book — “the costs and consequences of American empire” and, of course, of the imperial oil companies that continue to have such a hand in (mis)shaping our world.

Worse yet, in this century, that newest of imperial powers, China, has already outstripped this country in terms of the fossil-fuelization of this planet’s atmosphere. (Yet another classic case of imperial over-stretch in the offing.)

Talk about decline! These days it almost seems to precede imperial rise. Yikes!

And so many years later, just to out-Chalmers the master himself, let me offer another prediction: if the Republicans sweep into Congress in 2022 and Blowback Donald or one of his act-alikes sweeps (or even creeps) into the White House in 2024, consider that the potential end of the American story, since it would ensure that, for years to come, nothing would be done to stop the ultimate version of blowback.

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  1. ChrisRUEcon

    I confess I have not read Chalmers either, and lament likewise … so many books, so little time … perhaps a summer reading list is in order.

    Thanks as always to #NC for being such a deep well of knowledge.

    Needless to say, nothing with which to be disagreeable here. US/Western hegemony is on the way out, and it is coming fast and furious in so many ways.

    From my #TwitterDoomScrolling this evening:

    “WHO Forced into Humiliating Backdown” (via

    It’s a bit of a follow up from Lambert’s “Unpacking Tucker Carlson on WHO’s “Pandemic Treaty” (So-Called)”

    Apparently it was undone (for now) by a Global South voting block:

    “As most of you know, the World Health Assembly has spent the past 7 days considering Biden’s 13 controversial amendments to the International Health Regulations.

    Official delegates from wealthy developed nations like Australia, the UK, and the US spoke in strong support of the amendments and urged other states to join them in signing away their countries’ sovereignty.

    The first sign, however, that things might not be going the globalists’ way, came on Wednesday, the 25th of May, which just happened to also be Africa Day.

    Botswana read a statement on behalf of its 47 AFRO members, saying they would be collectively withholding their support for the ‘reforms’, which many African members were very concerned about.

    Multiple other countries also said they had reservations over the changes and would not be supporting them either.

    These included Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Iran and Malaysia. Brazil in particular said it would exit WHO altogether, rather than allow its population to be made subject to the new amendments.
    In the end, the WHO and its wealthy nation supporters were forced to back down.”

    It’s so good to see the Global South showing spine. Gives the world hope as the emerging multipoles pivot.

    1. YankeeFrank

      “nothing with which to be disagreeable here” — my problem with this piece and this sentiment is that too often these days the anti-imperialist left (smaller by the day) paints Trump and the America First crew as more repugnant than Biden and the Dem party since the Clinton mob rose up. Trump’s style is deeply offensive to the mannered elite, I get that (though I don’t have much respect for it). But despite a slightly more polished presentation we’ve apparently forgotten Bill’s countless duplicitous “triangulations”, tawdry scandals and trashy ways, Hilary’s disastrous wars (Libya, Iraq, Syria…), horrible behavior and outrageous lies, and the complete collapse of ethics which characterized Obama’s two terms — the total sellout of the people to the banksters and evisceration of our system of laws (“we tortured some folks” / NSA spying, etc) and the 2016/2020 elections where mild reformer Sanders was so unacceptable the Dem party used any and every slimy, undemocratic move it could to stop him.

      Trump is indeed a symptom: a symptom of the collapsed character and ethics of our entire political class and the corruption of every US institution. Ends forever justifies means in our dying American empire and the rot is so broad and deep that even many of our most thoughtful commentators can’t avoid inadvertently propping up one or another faction of this hideous stew with such sentimental ticks. Our precious norms, whatever we think, were gone long before Trump showed up.

      Can’t we agree they’re all awful and need to go? Its not crazy to refuse to distinguish between deadly poisons.

      1. Rolf

        Ends forever justifies means in our dying American empire and the rot is so broad and deep that even many of our most thoughtful commentators can’t avoid inadvertently propping up one or another faction of this hideous stew with such sentimental ticks. Our precious norms, whatever we think, were gone long before Trump showed up.

        Agree completely. Worse, the Dems need Trump (or his successor) and his GOP as a mirror more tawdry (but just as, if not more, damaging) with which to ‘distinguish’ themselves. An end to the current constitution of both parties cannot come soon enough.

      2. pjay

        I agree, and it is an important point. I kept waiting for Engelhardt to discuss the policies of Democratic administrations, NATO expansion and its role in Ukraine, etc. But no. Just another partisan “leftist” critique focusing on the Red team – Republicans and, of course, Trump being singled out. He did admit that Trump was more a symptom than a cause. And he also acknowledged that support for the War Machine was bipartisan. But all specifics were applied to one side only. Chalmers Johnson himself did not spare Democratic administrations or policy. I, too, am curious about how he would have viewed our actions in Libya, Syria, Ukraine, etc.

        1. lyman alpha blob

          Calling Trump merely a symptom was a big improvement for Engelhardt who has suffered greatly from the TDS in recent years. Perhaps Johnson’s book was a palliative for him and he should read it more often.

      3. ChrisRUEcon

        With apologies #YankeeFrank! :)

        I would amend my statement to “little with which to be disagreeable here” if possible.

        I didn’t think that the focus on Trump’s ascension to the presidency (as a tipping point) necessarily placed the blame entirely on “Team Red”, but rather stood as an indictment of much, if not all that came before. In terms of a potential 2024 Trump presidency being a deeper descent and potential full stop on American empire – I can see that as somewhat leaning in the vein of “Team Blue” somehow being better, which as you have pointed out, is not true at all. They are all awful, and as I have opined elsewhere, when the history of this wretched period of US history is ably chronicled from the outside, “Biden-Blinken-belligerence” toward Russia, China and the global south will be seen as a catalyst that accelerated the fall of US empire through corruption, greed, hubris and outright idiocy.

        However, I heartily welcome empire’s demise.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Hopefully you will be able to pick up the pieces and rule them before the MAGAtard Trumpanon Gilead Republicans do. Because they also are planning for “what comes after empire” and they plan to rule the “after empire” country.

          1. YankeeFrank

            The exaggeration of Trump and the right as fascist brown shirts has only made the political impasse more untenable. Grooming little kids to be “trans” or “queer” has outraged many and made things worse. Censoring free speech of the American people makes things worse. Trashing informed consent and imposing forced vaccination, if done by the right, would be proof positive of their fascist intent. Yet we don’t see the right doing any of these things. The liberal class justifies these actions as a necessary preventive against fascism, or something. How convenient. We must destroy our basic rights and strip the right wing of its right to vie for power to save “democracy”.

        2. YankeeFrank

          Apologies if I came across harshly. I only used your quote as a springboard to my complaint about the article but I get your amendment: I too largely agreed with most of the piece. I guess the standard anti-Trump boilerplate irritates (the way all liberal pieces on Ukraine must make the proper genuflections to false truth as well). And I didn’t vote for Trump in either election to be clear. He’s a clown. But he’s not Hitler, and neither are his supporters Nazis.

      4. playon

        PMC voters view Clinton, Obama, Biden etc as being “one of us”, which allows the Democratic party to continue to get away with all kinds of horrible policies. Wars, the abandonment of the working class, regulatory capture, and inaction on climate change (to name a few) do not seem to matter. When I tell my Democrat friends that Biden’s COVID policies have been arguably worse than Trump’s, they are shocked that I would say such a thing.

    2. Jamie

      Johnson had a bad case of western chauvinism when it comes to China, but his detailed and well researched/sourced work calling out the US empire is a priceless gift.

  2. RobertC

    Bought Chalmer’s book over a decade ago. Read it several times, greater understanding each time. I wish he was here to help us understand the future better. Thanks for the reminder of his gift to us.

  3. Acacia

    While this review gives a good shout out to Chalmers Johnson and a freewheeling thought experiment on how we might think of him in the present, there is a depth to his work — going back to Conspiracy at Matsukawa, or even articles like “The CIA and Me” — which isn’t fully acknowledged here, I feel. Environmentalism and electoral politics are slightly curious choices, as Johnson was especially brilliant at analyzing governmental institutions that are present but obscure, while profoundly shaping our lives — something we need greater clarity on today, in this putatively post-ideological present. For anyone who hasn’t read him, I can heartily endorse the man.

  4. drumlin woodchuckles

    I wonder if a rising tide of Black Guns Matter might be considered a kind of blowback from patience lost with the kind of animalistic police barbarity celebrated by this police spokesman and illustrated by little video snippets illuminating what this howling police barbarian is so proud of. I wonder if this spokesman might be a police union leader. If so, would the systematic encrushment and disbandment of all police unions everywhere be another part of the blowback?

    Here is a link to the video.

    1. super extra

      the systematic encrushment and disbandment of all police unions everywhere

      if this happens anytime soon it will be because of stuff like Uvalde and not imperial blowback or protests. the reason they’ve lasted as long as they have in the way they have become is because the expectation from enough normies is that the police will take the risk to stop the threat. if they won’t do that – not can’t, won’t – then the respect is gone forever. when people like my mid-70s ex-military (volunteer!) suburban red state dad is disgusted with the police as a standard matter of course, there are real problems that can’t be papered over with more manipulative PR. we’re going to get vigilante groups or “private citizen tactical response groups” or something insane and very american before there are serious reforms, though.

      1. playon

        “Private citizen tactical response groups” describes the Black Panthers of the 1960s.

  5. Noone from Nowheresville

    I wonder how Johnson would’ve felt about Engelhardt using various flavors of the term blowback to create a partisan article to basically lead to the conclusion Republicans bad, Trump is the worst of the worst, and that the Republicans are ultimately responsible for empire’s blowback.

    1. britzklieg

      Indeed, it’s egregious (and typical of Engelhardt) that the word “Democrat” or any name associated with that execrable organization, is absent here. Partisanship makes you stupid. I wrote him an e mail years ago pointing out his inability to address both sides of the problem and he responded with a whiny, defensive “that’s not fair” attitude, doubling down on his myopia. I remain unimpressed.

      1. Carolinian

        Thanks. I was just about to make exactly the same observation. Indeed it was a Democrat named Jimmy Carter who kicked off the process that Johnson was writing about and Democrats named Kennedy and Johnson who gave us the ultimate example of imperial overstretch in the 1960s.

    2. vao

      There is indeed a lack of international perspective in this piece as regards the advent of Trump:

      But if anyone could have imagined this country “governed” — and I put that in quotes for obvious reasons — by a billionaire grifter and TV impresario who thought not just unbearably well of, but only of himself, it was Chalmers.

      The description fits Silvio Berlusconi very well, and he was upturning the Italian (and European) political scene with demagogery and media dominance long before Trump did likewise, but from Engelhardt’s text it seems that the USA constitute such an exceptional country that what takes place elsewhere cannot be envisioned as a harbinger of what may happen in North America.

      […] it’s hard not to imagine The Donald’s success as another version of blowback. In fact, he’s almost inconceivable without the sort of imperial mess Chalmers had in mind

      The ascent to power of such flamboyant populist billionaires as Silvio Berlusconi, Andrej Babiš or Thaksin Shinawatra does not correspond to any blowback from imperial ventures by the Italians, the Czechs or the Thais, so this explanation does not work.

      More relevant are the links given yesterday on the feelings about democracy in various countries. Trump, Berlusconi, Shinawatra or Babiš are blowbacks caused by regimes that have become so unresponsive to the majority’s needs that the populace is ready to select any political outsider to shake things up and give the finger to established apparatchiks (in the USA, democrats and republicans alike). Ruinous imperial endeavours are a cause, but not the direct cause, and probably not even the main one for the Trump phenomenon.

    3. Waking Up

      Tom Engelhardt must have known how Chalmers Johnson regarded at least some of the Democrats as evidenced by the following which was written at in 2008:

      “The biggest private expansion into intelligence and other areas of government occurred under the presidency of Bill Clinton. He seems not to have had the same anti-governmental and neoconservative motives as the privatizers of both the Reagan and Bush II eras. His policies typically involved an indifference to — perhaps even an ignorance of — what was actually being done to democratic, accountable government in the name of cost-cutting and allegedly greater efficiency.”

  6. Bart Hansen

    I picked up my copy and see that his introduction begins with a critique of Bush’s ‘They hate us for our freedoms’. Johnson knew how wrong that was. He knew how wrong most of what we did abroad was wrong.

    Much of the book, at least indicated by the chapter headings, indicate concern about our dealings with the Koreas, Okinawa, Japan and China. Our ‘advice’ to all these countries back some twenty years ago was just as bad as it is today.

    In the front of the book, the ‘also by’ list of Johnson’s books shows mostly works on Asia.

  7. Amfortas the hippie

    i first read Blowback soon after it came out…i was one of those Far Lefties mentioned by Thom.
    but it’s the first in a trilogy:Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis; The Last Days of the American Republic.

    and of a piece.
    all 3 are well worth your time…he saw far, and remains a sort of secular oracle.

    1. SRL

      I read it as well about a month before 9/11after it first came out. It was being passed along in the highway department construction office I was working in. Civil engineers and suveyors, as a group, aren’t leftists but we needed something to do when things were slow. None of us were suprised.

      I read the sequels as well. Worth reading still.

      Ahmed Rashid was another author from that period that is also worth reading.

  8. Lex

    It was (and is) an important book, not so much for new revelations but for the fact that it summarizes a lot of disparate information into an accessible and cohesive whole.

    A good example of blowback is Jan 6. That was a color revolution in pretty much every way, except instead of doing it to some foreign government it was applied domestically. And it would have worked too if counterprotestors had shown up that day. (Not guaranteed to work, but some level of street violence during protest is a near requirement for triggering events.)

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      It shows that the antifa community was pretty intelligent in this instance. I can’t remember where I read it but I read that the various antifa thought-leaders were passing word around that the Jan 6 rally was designed to draw a big antifa counter-rally response so the Trumpanons could accuse it of the violence they planned to release on it.

      The antifas were wise enough to decline to play the part scripted for them in this particular engineered political stage-set drama.

  9. Steve Moran

    Yeah, I agree that the original “Blowback” (and its sequels) is a deeper book than Tom acknowledges. In 1967-68 I was a working-class scholarship kid at a university that had trained Diem’s police in secret–by giving CIA trainers cover as purported “professors” in a university “Vietnam Project.”

    Members of our campus SDS chapter (we weren’t rich kids) had to get our heads around a different view of this country than the one we had been taught–a view that will be familiar, more than half a century later, to members of the NC community.

    Kicked out of college, I went back to the working class. In all the years that followed, however little support I got from the press ( = today’s “media”), I never saw any reason to doubt my vision of America-as-empire.

    More people, here and around the world, now share this vision today.

    Tom doesn’t get it about Trump. Trump got elected not because the deplorables are all authoritarian personalities or racists or xenophobes or whatever.

    In large part, Trump, clown that he is, got elected because of things he got right. My Appalachian hometown, prosperous when I was a kid, today is a hell of drugs and despair.

    On the street where I grew up in the 50s, every adult male was a veteran and a father AND had a good job. The marriages lasted.

    Today (even though I’ve moved away) I know that on that street, the good jobs are gone, and so are the marriages. The kids and grandkids of my Vietnam generation don’t want to join the mercenary Army to fight the latest “Hitler.”

    They’re not dumb.

    As the hippie said to me on the day that Saigon fell in 1975: “The energy is deserting the old forms.”

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I remember reading once about CIA professors at Michigan State University. But I had thought they were professors who were recruited to the cause, rather than agents inserted under professor cover.

      Are you referrencing a different university than MSU?

      1. Steve Moran

        Dear DW, No, I AM thinking about MSU. I know some things that refute the nothing-to-see-here narrative of those who have later tried to spin this story. But I’m reluctant to go into it all, even after all these years. Some people I knew later went underground, and endured various fates. One member of our SDS chapter was David Stockman, a theology major (in 60s lingo, a “sky-pilot”), who later, for a while, was Ronald Reagan’s supply-side enforcer at the OMB. Today, Dave is blogging for At different times, back in the day, Dave and I even dated the same girl: an impressive person. Best to all.

  10. The Rev Kev

    Maybe instead of using the term blowback, that we use the concept of cause and effect. So the Feds do stuff like get guns to Mexican cartels or promote a torturer who destroyed evidence of such to be the head of the CIA or using Jihadists to further middle-eastern aims. And when it goes wrong are amazed. But that is not what I want to comment on. What I do is the increasing frequency of all this “blowback” and the latest example is the economic crunch that will be coming because of our attack on Russia which will be epic. So here is the thing. Why is the frequency of blowback increasing? Personally I would put it down to negative feedback. Actually make that the lack of negative feedback. So think back on each case of blowback. Were the people that were responsible for that blowback ever held to account? Were they arrested and sent to prison? Did they lose their jobs? Let’s not be silly. None of them paid at all and in fact were usually promoted. Think back on those who pushed the Iraq invasion, the twenty year occupation of Afghanistan, the attempted coup in Venezuela. Nobody paid for the blowback from them at all. The establishment protects them all, even the media figureheads and gives them lucrative careers, think tank appointments, book deals, honours, etc. What about the public you ask? That Princeton study showed that the public has zero input on Fed policy. So this is what we are seeing. The huge machinery of State being run with no negative feedback and therefore unable to know when to veer away or even to stop making it almost rudderless. So no matter how severe the blowback, little seems to change and in fact the typical response as we have seen is to double down.

    1. Acacia

      Did they lose their jobs? Let’s not be silly. None of them paid at all and in fact were usually promoted.

      Indeed. We are being ruled managed by people in an organization for which there is no Peter principle, no “final placement” or plateau. In that way, the blowback gets worse and worse, and we see time and again their typical behavior of doubling down on failure. There is no negative feedback, no accountability, punishment, or jail, when really there probably needs to be all of those, and maybe even the occasional DPRK style firing squad, to provide a suitable object lesson to others. ;)

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Obama made that phrase vomitastic or vomitorious or whatever the word is. I never use that phrase anymore. Obama poured his own unique recipe of fecal gravy with pus sauce on it.

  11. DGL

    …”but it’s the first in a trilogy:Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis; The Last Days of the American Republic.”

    I too read all three books. I have only two points to add:
    1. I wrote Johnson about the term ‘Blowback.’ The CIS did not invent the word or the concept, they just applied it. Blowback is a WWI term.. When a shell is fired the pressure expands it to fit the barrel. The range of the shell is based on this. Blowback occurs when the shell does not expand as expected and gas escapes around the shell and out the barrel. The result is the shell falls short and on one’s own troops. Source: Robert Graves. So blowback results in ‘friendly fire’ – self inflicted harm.
    2. Johnson, in the trilogy, went on at length about how we had to bribe our allies. The waves of imports from Japan and Germany, and under Obama, Korea are the price we pay to keep those countries at our beck and call. Another way our country weakened itself to maintain the empire.

    Empire exists thinking all will last forever. Offshoring to China made people billionaires but was always against the natural interest. Our hubris allowed our elites to conclude China was capable of being bribed like Germany, Japan, and Korea. SAD!

    1. Cat Burglar

      Nuclear power plant engineering documents I have read often cited “pipe blowback” as a hazard designers had to consider.

      They had to ensure pressure in the system always went in one designed direction; should the pressure reverse, the system could malfunction and might even distribute the wrong stuff to the wrong place.

  12. Robin Kash

    Your point is exactly what I noticed in this piece. There is not now nor on the horizon any political or economic movement to call a halt to a worldwide lemming-like race to the brink posed by climate change.
    Biden has changed little of Trump’s policies. And he has reneged on promises made: student loand forgiveness, a public option in healthcare (inadequate as that would be), while keeping MIC markets flourishing. He has replaced Trump’s idiotic bombast with a combination of addled, Alfred E. Neuman mumbling and a loose-lips-sink-ships ineptitude.

  13. Altandmain

    I have read The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis. I’ve skimmed over Blowback.

    The basic hypothesis is simple. The US interferes with a nation (one case Chalmers Johnson notes is in Iran), where the US overthrew the government of Iran under Mohammad Mosaddegh, who wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil and use it for the benefit of his own fellow citizens) in 1953. Ultimately, the US put in the Shah and this would result in a regime that the ordinary Iranians would find so oppressive that they overthrew it in 1979.

    The goal had been to put in an Iranian regime that was very compliant to American interests. The “blowback” was the 1979 revolution in Iran. The term Blowback is used extensively in the CIA. Anyways ,as a result of American meddling, a regime even less friendly to American interests than the one that the US sought to overthrow in 1953 came into power.

    A bit of reading:

    Interestingly, there has been some use in the modern mainstream media nowadays.

    The term Blowback in its context that Chalmers Johnson used it originated in 1954 in a CIA document shortly after the US and UK overthrew the government of Iran. It may have come from the term used in firearms.

    The Sorrows of Empire is a good book and well worth a read if you have a chance.

  14. anon y'mouse

    i read this (the trilogy) back when it came out, or within a year or so after seeing the author being interviewed somewhere.

    it made it clear to me that we were an Empire. and that wherever there was some hardened line of discord between two countries that went unresolved for decades, it was probably our doing to make sure peace couldn’t be had. and that the two places would probably be back together into some accommodation except that we made sure to antagonize one side or the other, or both if possible. the two Koreas stand out.

    it was also one of the first one to talk about our hundreds of military bases worldwide, and how the locals view us (like a cross between locusts and a crim. hideout). and how these criminals predate on the local people and then are protected by the military, similar to the way the Catholic Church protected the pedophiles/rapists in their group. So many different issues are touched on in Johnson’s books. I encourage anyone to at least get them on loan from the library.

    there was a series of books i read back then around that time that seriously shaped my thinking today–Kunstler on the built environment problems here at home, Berman on the “spiritual” crisis, Johnson on the worldwide MIC empire. this caused me to go around seeking out info on the economic sphere, and that’s why i landed here at NC.

    I would love it if the NC had a reading list, regularly updated with true “essentials” of political and social economy, history etc.

      1. Tinky

        At the end of that article, Taibbi greatly reduces the level of respect that he might otherwise deserve with this:

        As was the case with Saddam Hussein, the argument here isn’t for leaving a monster like Putin in power. It’s about not inviting something worse to take his place…

        A monster? It boggles the mind that someone so sharp and otherwise well-informed would use such a description.

  15. joecostello

    For all who think the censored journalism/politics of today is new, all you had to do is use certain words like empire three decades ago. It stood the backs up of the academy even worse, reams were written about how the US wasn’t an empire, the NYT and Post still don’t use the word.

    After 9/11, a few of the Neo-cons tried getting everyone to embrace empire, but that went flat. Americans despite all reality, and it’s a defining character, still embraced some old notion of a republic not an empire as Pat Buchanan wrote in 1999. Though, that’s a little bad history, republics ala Rome, not to mention Athens, were always great imperialists.

    Maybe the person who longest warned of all this was Gore Vidal, but Chalmers Johnson’s books were great. The blowback from Ukraine has been instantaneous, and its barely started, as a friend wrote me in an email yesterday, “They don’t know how to control things and it’s making them dumber and more dangerous at an accelerated rate.”

    Ignorance is not bliss, and in America, on that point, no one is innocent.

    1. ex-PFC Chuck

      Karl Rove not withstanding”

      “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality judiciously, as you will we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    1. David in Santa Cruz

      Thank you for this link; I recall reading Johnson’s review of Wolin’s book back in 2008 (which I have purchased — twice — I studied under some of Wolin’s former students). Johnson’s concluding paragraph is chillingly predictive.

      Englehardt’s piece is weak — he pulls all of his punches on the Democrats, who are the essential party of Inverted Totalitarianism.

  16. Mikel

    “he bluntly summed up his professional life by labeling himself “a spear-carrier for empire.”

    Major General Smedley Butler: . “I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for Capitalism.”

  17. Cat Burglar

    Amazing that the article does not mention the Russia-Ukraine War as an instance of blowback. Nuclear war is another “potentially ultimate” form of blowback moving down the pipe toward us from US NATO expansion policy. It must have been hard work to write the article around the war; so much so, that I wonder if that was the entire point was to emphasize the the war without mentioning it.

  18. Cat Burglar

    Johnson used to appear regularly on a public TV world press review show in the 1970s as one of the panelists. His presentation was crisp, direct, and in full command of what he knew — the model of an empiricist Cold War intellectual.

    One strand of his work was his insistence that scholars and policy makers doing any work on other nations have deep factual knowledge of those countries and their cultures.

    He was a big proponent of an inductive “Area Studies” approach to international relations, and did not suffer the application of revealed truths like rational choice theory to the field.

    When a UC San Diego thesis study of LDP rule in Japan studied argued correlations between rice prices and voting patterns for the LDP from the 1930s onward, Johnson pointed out that the LDP was founded in1955! He wondered how anyone without such basic historical knowledge could be considered an expert. His departure from UCSD was acrimonious, and he called rational choice theoreticians a “flat-earth society.”

    1. Janie

      When I lived between San Diego and Los Angeles in the early 2000s, I heard Chalmers Johnson speak at various forums. He was easy to listen to, facts in hand, had Q and A follow-ups. He suggested emigrating.

  19. junkelly

    I remember 2008 when i was interested in Ron Paul. He was belittled and shutout of mainstream media like many of the more recent leftist candidates. In the debates he described 9/11 as ‘blowback’ and was openly mocked and put down for it.

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