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Posted by Time for change in General Discussion (1/22-2007 thru 12/14/2010)
Mon Nov 22nd 2010, 08:01 PM
“The crisis the US faces today is… above all a growing international distrust and disgust in the face of our contempt for the rule of law” – Chalmers Johnson, from “Nemesis”, the 3rd in a series of 3 books meant to warn Americans of pending catastrop
Chalmers Johnson (August 1931 – November 20, 2010) was a U.S. naval officer during the Korean War, consultant to the CIA (1967-73), Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of 15 books. He will probably be best remembered for his valiant effort during the last decade of his life to warn us about the dangers of U.S. imperialism, particularly involving U.S. interventions in the Islamic world. The last four books he wrote, starting in 2001, were on that subject.

The Trilogy

The first three of these four books have come to be known as “The Trilogy”. The first of them was called “Blowback”, in which Johnson warned of retaliation against the United States for the “covert, illegal violence” that we have long perpetrated abroad for the purpose of overthrowing democratically elected governments of other nations. It was written prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks on our country, but it didn’t receive much attention until after that date.

The second book of his trilogy, “The Sorrows of Empire – Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic”, which was one of the best books I’ve ever read, warned about the disastrous effects of the monumental militarization of our country.

The third book of the trilogy was titled “Nemesis – The Last Days of the American Republic”. Johnson called that book the last of his “inadvertent (non-fiction) trilogy” – a series of three books which were meant to warn Americans of pending catastrophe and the “decline and fall of the American Empire” if they don’t change their ways soon. He never planned to write three volumes, but the first two warnings were ignored so he gave it another try – though he believed it was probably already too late by the time he wrote Nemesis.


The term “blowback” was first coined by our CIA in 1953, following its overthrow of the democratically elected and popular Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, for a combination of imperial reasons. Rationalizations given for that action included Mossadegh’s nationalization of Iranian oil and the belief (unfounded) that he might be leaning towards Communism. Though that tragedy remained unknown to the vast majority of Americans, the Iranians never forgot the years of brutal repression that followed at the hands of their pro-American Shah over the next 26 years. And most historians believe that the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis was largely a result of the Iranian hatred of our country engendered by our illegal overthrow of their government in 1953.

Following the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Johnson and his friends discussed what nations might have had reasons for perpetrating such an attack against us. They came up with a list of 18 countries as possibilities, due to substantial harm that those countries suffered as a result of our meddling in their internal affairs.

The failure of Americans to understand the causes of the 9-11 terrorist attacks

Whether or not one believes that the Bush administration was complicit in the 9-11 attacks on our country, the idea that the attacks occurred solely due to irrational hatred of our country and were not based on anything that we have done is absurd. Yet following the attacks George Bush did everything in his power to perpetuate the myth of our nation as a purely innocent babe in the woods, saying at a press conference in October 2001:

How do I respond when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America? ... I’ll tell you how I respond: I’m amazed that there’s such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am – like most Americans, I just can’t believe it because I know how good we are…

And at a commencement address in 2004 Bush said:

No act of America explains terrorist violence, and no concession of America could appease it. The terrorists who attacked our country on September 11, 2001, were not protesting our policies. They were protesting our existence.

But as Johnson explains, Osama bin Laden had no quibble with our mere existence nor with our “Western values”. It is indeed our policies that enrage him:

Bin Laden on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: “One million Iraqi children have thus far died although they did not do anything wrong”.

Bin Laden on U.S. policies towards Israel and their occupied territories: “I swear to God that America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine…”

Bin Laden on U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia: “… or before all the army of infidels (American soldiers) depart the land of Muhammad (Saudi Arabia).”

The consequences of our failure to understand the causes of the 9-11 attacks

Johnson explains the consequences of most Americans buying into the myth of a purely good and innocent nation as the victim of a world wide evil conspiracy:

Because Americans generally failed to consider seriously why we had been attacked on 9/11, the Bush administration was able to respond in a way that made the situation far worse…

Then he expands on the disastrous consequences of buying into Bush’s myth by explaining what otherwise could have happened, and what instead did happen.

We could have… won the hearts and minds of populations al-Qaeda was trying to mobilize… avoided entirely contravening the Geneva Conventions covering the treatment of prisoners of war and never have headed down the path of torturing people we picked up almost at random in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. government would have had no need to lie to its own citizens and the rest of the world about the nonexistent nuclear threat posed by Iraq or carry out a phony preventive war against that country.

Instead, we undermined the NATO alliance and brought to power in Iraq allies of the Islamic fundamentalists in Iran. Contrary to what virtually every strategist recommended as an effective response to terrorism, we launched our high-tech military against some of the poorest, weakest people on Earth. In Afghanistan, our aerial bombardment … gave warlordism, banditry, and opium production a new lease on life. In Iraq our “shock and awe” assault invited comparison with the sacking of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols. President Bush declared that… you are either with us or against us… His actions would ensure that, in the years to come, there would be ever more people around the world against us….

Perhaps the worst consequence of Bush’s “War on Terror” is the contempt for international law that it has generated

Whether Americans intended it or not, we are now seen around the world as having approved the torture of captives at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, at … Kabul, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at secret prisons around the world, as well as having seconded Bush’s claim that, as a commander in chief in “wartime”, he is beyond all constraints of the Constitution or international law.

The crisis the United States faces today is not just the military failure… or our government’s not-so-secret result to torture and illegal imprisonment. It is above all a growing international distrust and disgust in the face of our contempt for the rule of law.

Johnson then expands upon and details how the Bush administration demonstrated nothing but utter contempt for international law, pointing out that our Constitution requires us to abide by international treaties that we have signed. He concludes that discussion with a statement that should make us all wonder why our Congress never took aggressive steps to remove George Bush and Dick Cheney from office. Regarding the international treaties that we have signed:

Neither the president, nor the secretary of defense, nor the attorney general has the authority to alter them or to choose whether or not to abide by them so long as the Constitution has any meaning.

The extreme militarization of the United States and its consequences

The major theme of Johnson’s second book of his trilogy (The Sorrows of Empire) was the extreme militarization of our country and the disastrous consequences of that policy. He continued that theme in his next book (Nemesis). Americans should consider these facts:

 We are the world’s greatest producer and exporter of arms and munitions.
 Every year our military spending is approximately that of all the other nations on Earth combined.
 We currently operate at least 737 overseas military bases in 130 countries.
 We spend three-quarters of a trillion dollars a year on our permanent military.
 And Johnson concludes that: “Sooner or later, our militarism will threaten the nation with bankruptcy”.

Johnson describes the evils of this militarization and the imperialism that it entails:

The purpose of all these bases is “force projection”, or the maintenance of American military hegemony over the rest of the world. They are meant to ensure that no other nation, friendly or hostile, can ever challenge us militarily… Some of the “rest-and-recreation” facilities include the armed forces ski center… over 200 military golf courses around the world, some 71 Learjets and other luxury aircraft...

Americans cannot truly appreciate the impact of our bases elsewhere because there are no foreign military bases within the United States. We have no direct experience of such unwelcome features of our military encampments abroad as the networks of brothels around their main gates, the nightly bar brawls, the sexually violent crimes against civilians, and the regular hit-and-run accidents. These, together with noise and environmental pollution, are constant blights we inflict on local populations to maintain our lifestyle. People who live near our bases must also put up with the racial and religious insults that our culturally ignorant, high handed troops often think is their right to dish out. Imperialism means one nation imposing its will on others through the threat or actual use of force. Imperialism is a root cause of blowback. Our global garrisons provide that threat and are a cause of blowback…

We are now saddled with a rigged economy based on record-setting deficits, the most secretive and intrusive American government in memory, the pursuit of “preventive” war as a basis for foreign policy, and a potential epidemic of nuclear proliferation as other nations attempt to adjust to and defend themselves from our behavior.

The tragedy of the Iraq war

Johnson describes the extreme differences between George Bush’s rosy rhetoric about the Iraq War and the reality of it:

Despite the administration’s endless propaganda about bringing freedom and democracy to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, most citizens of those countries who have come into contact with our armed forces (and survived) have had their lives ruined.

He then provides a lurid account of how many Iraqis feel about the war by quoting “An Unknown Iraqi Girl”:

I don’t understand the ‘shock’ Americans claim to feel at the lurid pictures (of torture at Abu Ghraib). You’ve seen the troops push, pull, and throw people to the ground with a boot over their head. You’ve seen troops shoot civilians in cold blood. You’ve seen them bomb cities and towns. You’ve seen them burn cars and humans using tanks and helicopters… I sometimes get e-mails asking me to propose solutions or make suggestions. Fine. Today’s lesson: don’t rape, don’t torture, don’t kill, and get out while you can – while it still looks like you have a choice… Chaos? Civil war? We’ll take our chances – just take your puppets, your tanks, your smart weapons, your dumb politicians, your lies, your empty promises, your rapists, your sadistic torturers and go.

Based on everything I’ve read about how Iraqis have felt about our presence in their country, the above quote seems reasonably representative to me. Iraqi opinion polls clearly made that point; according to a 2006 World Opinion Poll, 71% of Iraqis wanted U.S. forces to get out of their country within a year, and another 20% wanted us out within 2 years, 78% said that our presence in Iraq is “provoking more conflict than it is preventing”, and 61% went so far as to say that they approve of violent attacks against U.S. forces. All of that demonstrated extreme hostility of ordinary Iraqis towards the presence of our military in their country. Yet we hardly ever heard this crucially important issue discussed in our country.

Outlook for the future

Dismantling the Empire – America’s Last Best Hope” was Johnson’s last attempt, following his “Trilogy”, to describe a way out of our terrible predicament. I have not read that book. Tim Rutten describes that book as:

part of the publisher's ongoing "American Empire Project," which takes it as a given that "in an era of unprecedented military strength, leaders of the United States, the global hyper-power, have increasingly embraced imperial ambitions." One of the project's purposes is to "discuss alternatives to this dangerous trend."

Johnson says at the end of “Dismantling the Empire”:

We must give up our inappropriate reliance on military force as the chief means of attempting to achieve foreign policy objectives.

Unfortunately, few empires of the past voluntarily gave up their dominions in order to remain independent, self-governing polities. The two most important recent examples are the British and Soviet empires. If we do not learn from their examples, our decline and fall is foreordained.

In the last couple of pages of his prologue to “Nemesis”, Johnson summed up the situation we’re in, and what we need to do:

Unfortunately, our political system may no longer be capable of saving the United States as we know it, since it is hard to imagine any president or Congress standing up to the powerful vested interests of the Pentagon, the secret intelligence agencies, and the military-industrial complex…

If our republican form of government is to be saved, only an upsurge of direct democracy might be capable of doing so… I remain hopeful that Americans can still rouse themselves to save our democracy. But the time in which to head off financial and moral bankruptcy is growing short. The present book is my attempt to explain how we got where we are, the manifold distortions we have imposed on the system we inherited from the Founding Fathers, and our appointment with Nemesis (the goddess of retribution and vengeance, and punisher of pride and hubris), now that she is in the neighborhood.

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The Unfulfilled Promise
The Unfulfilled Promise of the American Dream: The Widening Gap between the Reality of the United States and its Highest Ideals

Time for change

Notwithstanding the lofty sentiments and purpose of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the reality of the United States of America did not then – and never has – lived up to its ideal. Our nation remains today a long way from fulfilling the promise implied by those ideals. Yet, our Declaration was a great start, and it has long shone as a beacon of hope for people all over the world.

Throughout our history, while many have striven to close the gap between our highest ideals and the reality of our nation, others have focused on the accumulation of private wealth and power, at the expense of everyone else. In recent decades the latter have gained much ground, leading to increasing imperialism abroad and deteriorating democracy at home, characterized by routine (and legal) bribery of our public officials, the fusion of government and private corporate interests (corporatocracy), a corrupt election system largely in the hands of private corporations, a corporate controlled communications media, and the widespread acceptance of Executive Branch secrecy, routinely justified with little if any questioning, by the magic words “national security”. All of this is rapidly turning our country from the democracy proclaimed at our founding into a plutocracy (government by the wealthy and for the wealthy). The result is the most obscene wealth gap our country has ever known, the highest imprisonment rate in the world, rampant militarism, routine flaunting of international law, the least efficient health care system in the developed world, a pending environmental catastrophe that threatens to destroy the life sustaining forces of our planet, and myriad other problems that threaten to destroy our nation and tyrannize our people.

My new book, The Unfulfilled Promise of the American Dream – The Widening Gap between the Reality of the United States and its Highest Ideals, explores the roots and consequences of the demise of our democracy, and why most Americans have been unable to understand this process or even become aware of it. A good understanding of why and how we have deviated so greatly from the ideals of our nation is the first and necessary step towards getting back on the right track and revitalizing our society.

The book is currently being sold in electronic PDF format and can be purchased at for $3.99. It will also soon be available in Amazon Kindle format. DU members who cannot afford to buy the book but would like to read it can pm me with your e-mail address, and I will send you a free PDF copy.

I’ve previously posted on DU a slightly earlier version of the introduction to the book, which is also posted at my site. Here is the Table of Contents, followed by a brief description of the three parts of the book:


Prologue – What is Wrong with the United States of America?

Part I – Root Causes of the Impending Demise of American Democracy
Chapter 1 – Legalized Bribery
Chapter 2 – Human Psychological Factors
Chapter 3 – Corporatocracy
Chapter 4 – Corporate Control of Media
Chapter 5 – Corrupt Election System
Chapter 6 – Government Secrecy
Chapter 7 – American Exceptionalism

Part II – A Sampling of Imperialist Actions
Chapter 8 – Slavery and its Legacy
Chapter 9 – Early U.S. Imperialism
Chapter 10 – U.S. Imperialism in Cold War
Chapter 11 – Iraq War and Occupation
Chapter 12 – Afghanistan War

Part III – Consequences
Chapter 13 – Election of George W. Bush
Chapter 14 – War and Imperialism
Chapter 15 – Class Warfare
Chapter 16 – Predator Financial Class
Chapter 17 – Shock Therapy
Chapter 18 – Contempt for Int. Law
Chapter 19 – The “War on Drugs”
Chapter 20 – Climate Change
Chapter 21 – “War on Terror”
Chapter 22 – Health Care
Chapter 23 – Unaccountable government
Chapter 24 – Response to 9/11 Attacks

PART I – Root Causes of the Impending Demise of American Democracy

It is somewhat difficult to separate the causes of our problems from their consequences, since they combine to form a long chain of cause leading to consequence, leading to more consequences, etcetera. Nevertheless, it seems worth while to identify the root causes of our problems, those that occur early in the chain and lead to so many of the tragic consequences we see today. The only chance we have of reversing the demise of our democracy is through addressing and attacking its root causes.

At the top of the list is the systematic bribery of public officials by the powerful corporations (Chapter 1) whom our government is charged with regulating in the public interest. Instead of calling it bribery, we call it “campaign contributions”, but what we call it isn’t as important as what it is. It is hard to fathom how democracy can survive when such a practice is legal and condoned.

Working in tandem with our system of legalized bribery is the nature of the people who inhabit our country. That is not to say that Americans are inherently substantially different than any other people. Human beings are imperfect, and that is probably a major reason why in a world where civilization began more than five millennia ago, the oldest written national framework of government in the world today – the Constitution of the United States of America – is only a little more than two and a quarter centuries old. Chapter 2 explores the roles of basic human needs, authoritarianism, psychological defense mechanisms used to prevent us from perceiving reality as it is rather than as we’d like it to be, and corrupted ideologies in causing us to passively accept the accumulation of power in the hands of ambitious and ruthless individuals who care about little else than expanding their own wealth and power.

When bribery of public officials is tolerated as an inevitable aspect of public life, government inevitably grows close to the wealthy interests that shower it with money in return for legislative and other favors. A malevolent symbiosis grows between the state and corporate power, resulting in rule by an oligarchy that is highly detrimental to the lives of ordinary people (Chapter 3). Using their accumulated wealth and power to manipulate our legislative process, the oligarchy grabs for more and more control of the communications media (Chapter 4) that are used to control the information available to and shape the attitudes of our nation’s people, in pursuit of their own narrow interests.

Since the 1980s an orchestrated campaign has been underway to demonize “big government”, thereby paving the way for private corporate control over more and more functions that were previously deemed intrinsic functions of government. Among those functions is the running of public elections (Chapter 5) – the function that symbolizes democracy perhaps more than any other single function. Consequently, the purging of selected registered voters from our computerized voter rolls has become a routine recurring event throughout much of our country, and without a doubt determined the results of the 2000 – and probably 2004 as well – presidential election. Just as bad, more and more of the counting of votes in our public elections have been turned over to private corporations, which count our votes using electronic machines using secret software to produce vote counts that cannot be verified by anyone.

Bribery, the fusion of government and private interest, fake and biased news, and corrupt elections are not things that government and its corporate allies want us to know about. Consequently, they construct walls of secrecy (Chapter 6) to keep us from obtaining information that sheds light on their activities. The perfect phrase for facilitating this is “national security”. When our government tells us that the “national security” requires that certain things be kept secret from us, the understanding is that to question such a pronouncement is unpatriotic, and to actually attempt to obtain the “secret” information may be treasonous.

But indefinitely maintaining secrets from the American people can be very difficult, because at least some people want to know what their government is up to. So in addition to the formal mechanisms of secrecy, informal mechanisms are constructed (Chapter 7) to keep vital information away from us. One of the primary methods for doing this is to make certain sensitive subjects taboo – that is, to create the widespread belief that discussion of these topics is so outside the bounds of acceptable human discourse that anyone who discusses them should be shunned by society, or worse. The most common issue that falls into this category is any discussion that sheds light on the disparity between American ideals and the reality of life in our country today.

PART II – A Sampling of Imperialist Actions in U.S. History

Notwithstanding the fact that our founding document says that “all men are created equal” and speaks of the inalienable rights of humankind, the United States has throughout its history partaken of massive exploitation of other peoples.

It is estimated that at the time of our birth, 18% of our population was black slaves. In our expansion westwards during the late 18th and 19th centuries, we decimated the original inhabitants of our continent, and often treated them with great cruelty. In 1846 we manufactured an excuse for war with our neighbor Mexico, in which we continued to expand our country westwards and southwards. In 1893 we began our overseas imperialism with the conquest of Hawaii. Our overseas expansion was greatly accelerated in 1898 with our participation in the Spanish-American War, which led to our conquest of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. With our arrival at world superpower status at the end of World War II, we began the Cold War, which led to and served as a rationalization for covert and/or direct military actions against myriad foreign nations over the next 46 years. With the September 11, 2001 attacks on our country, we declared a perpetual “War on Terror”, which served and continues to serve as an excuse to invade and occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, nations that posed no threat to us. We do not know when or if this perpetual war will ever end. We don’t know how many additional imperial conquests it will lead to.

Most Americans don’t think much about all this. Many of these actions are done in secrecy, and the American people don’t find out about them until many years later – or we never find out about them at all. Those that we do know about are spun into the most favorable light, to make them seem benign or even noble.

But these actions come at great costs: in the lives of our soldiers; in the ruined lives of the peoples of the victim countries; in trillions of dollars cost to our people and their future generations; in our international reputation; in anti-American hatred leading to terrorism; and, to our democracy itself. For how can a nation claim to believe in the inalienable rights of humankind specified in its founding document, while making a mockery of that belief in the way it treats other peoples? For that reason alone it is worth while to take a brief look at our long history of imperialist actions.

PART III – Consequences

In the Prologue I give a brief account of what I see as some of the worst and tragic consequences of the root causes that I discuss in Part I – to enable the reader to see where this book is heading. When elections of our public officials are for sale to the highest bidder… when our public officials are so addicted to the “campaign contributions” of their wealthiest constituents that they develop a symbiotic relationship with them… when our communications media are owned and controlled by an oligarchy of wealthy elites… when our citizenry lack the ability to differentiate propaganda from reality… when we allow machines provided by private corporations to count our votes using secret electronic software… then we should expect that the consequences will not be pretty or comfortable for the vast majority of our citizens.

In Part III, I explore those consequences in much greater detail, in the hope that the reader will agree with me that these are very serious problems, and that they must be successfully addressed if our country is ever to fulfill the promise of its ideals, or even make progress in that direction. When enough Americans recognize our problems as problems, stripped of the gloss and spin put on them by our oligarchy, they will rise up and do something about them. Until then there will be no progress, and we are very likely to head in the direction of all the former empires of our planet, ending in chaos, widespread catastrophe, suffering, and ignominy.

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