Renowned Asia scholar Chalmers Johnson dies at 79

By T. Rees Shapiro Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 10:13 PM

Chalmers Johnson, 79, a renowned Asia scholar and expert on the economies of China and Japan who later became a fierce critic of the expanded role of the American military in U.S. foreign policy, died Nov. 20 at his home in Cardiff, Calif. He had complications from rheumatoid arthritis.

According to Ellis Krauss, a colleague at the University of California at San Diego, Dr. Johnson was one of the eminent American scholars on the economies and political environments of China and Japan, about which he wrote "seminal, absolutely groundbreaking, influential books."

On China, Krauss said, Dr. Johnson went against the academic establishment by writing that the proliferation of Communism was not an ideological movement but one founded in nationalism.

"It violated people's notions of the Cold War and that Communism was driven by people who followed it ideologically," Krauss said. "That may have been true of the more intellectual people but he was trying to show that ordinary people might follow Communism in China for other reasons as well."

In his research on Japan, Dr. Johnson was one of the earliest observers to identify variations in the U.S. and Japanese capitalistic market economies.

Krauss said Dr. Johnson claimed that Japan was a "developmental state" where "the government played a leading role in promoting growth" to gain an economic advantage over other countries, including "a highly successful challenge to American economic supremacy."

Dr. Johnson's interest in Asia began in 1953, after he graduated with an economics degree from the University of California at Berkeley and became an officer in the Navy aboard a landing ship tank, a shallow-bottomed cargo vessel.

During his wartime service, Dr. Johnson's ship ferried North Korean prisoners back across the demarcation line but often experienced mechanical trouble and was sent to Yokohama, Japan, for repairs.

While waiting for the vessel to be fixed, Dr. Johnson bided his time by learning Japanese and examining the country's culture, economy and longtime turbulent relationship with China.

When he returned to Berkeley in 1955, Dr. Johnson began studying political science and immersed himself in texts related to Asia. For his doctoral thesis, Dr. Johnson explored the rise of the Communist party in China, which he claimed was rooted in a contagious zeitgeist of nationalism shared among much of the country's poor.

To illustrate his point, he compared the rise of Communism in China to that of Yugoslavia shortly after the Germans invaded that eastern European country in World War II, where many peasants became fervently nationalistic and mobilized under the Yugoslav Communist party leadership.

He received a doctorate in 1961 and embarked on a year-long Ford Foundation fellowship in Tokyo. During that time, he revised his thesis and in 1962 it was released as a book - "Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945," - the same year he joined the Berkeley political science faculty.

In 1982, Dr. Johnson released "MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975," where he reported on the Japanese government's control over the country's capitalistic market.

It was in the research for that book that Dr. Johnson said he initially became disenfranchised with what he would later term "American imperialism" abroad and led him "to see clearly for the first time the shape of the empire that I had so long uncritically supported."

His weakening opinion of the expansion of unchecked military influence on U.S. foreign policy was solidified in 1995 after three American servicemen in Okinawa were convicted of raping a 12-year-old-Japanese girl.

In Dr. Johnson's mind, the troops should not have been stationed in Okinawa - the location of one of the Marine Corps' largest installations overseas - in the first place.

The military leadership, Dr. Johnson argued, suffered from an impulsive need to build and maintain bases in foreign countries that was formed during height of anxiety in the Cold War.

Constructing and keeping U.S. military property and manpower overseas was little more than colonization, Dr. Johnson said. The policy, he added, would ultimately poison America's long-term interests and bankrupt the country not only money but also political clout. Dr. Johnson dissected his theories on American imperialism with a series of books, beginning in 2000 with "Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire."

Writing in the New York Times, reviewer Richard Bernstein called Dr. Johnson's book a "take-no-prisoners tirade against what he portrays as classic imperial overextension worthy of Rome or the Ottoman Empire" and could be subjecting itself to retribution in which the 1993 "World Trade Center bombings and other anti-American terrorist acts may be just the beginning."

The review continued that Dr. Johnson had effectively issued "a useful and timely alert," but ultimately concluded the book was "marred by an overriding, sweeping and cranky one-sidedness."

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, however, Dr. Johnson's theories gained significant traction and "Blowback," became a bestseller.

Chalmers Ashby Johnson was born Aug. 6, 1931, in Phoenix.

At Berkeley, Dr. Johnson met Margaret Sheila Knipscheer, who was enrolled in a class for which he was a teacher's assistant.

"He gave me my only B," she recalled on the phone Monday from their home in Cardiff. They married in 1953. Besides his wife, survivors include a sister.

Dr. Johnson said he was a longtime supporter of the Vietnam War but said he realized too late in life that he should have "stood with the antiwar protest movement."

In a July 2009 op-ed piece in the Times, Dr. Johnson wrote that the more than 800 U.S. military facilities around the world are part of "an in-your-face American imperial presence" that the country could simply not afford.

"Make no mistake," Dr. Johnson wrote, "whether we're being bled rapidly or slowly, we are bleeding; and hanging onto our military empire will ultimately spell the end of the United States as we know it."

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