My college mentor, Chalmers Johnson, dies at 79


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It is with great sadness today that I blog about Chalmers Johnson, who died yesterday at age 79.  I was one of those students mentioned below that he mentored at the University of California, San Diego.  I last saw him at his home for dinner back in 2006.  I’m very unhappy to hear that we won’t be able to do that again.  Arudou Debito


The Atlantic Monthly, November 21, 2010

I have just heard that Chalmers Johnson died a few hours ago, at age 79, at his home near San Diego. He had had a variety of health problems for a long time. (Photo source here.)


Johnson — “Chal” — was a penetrating, original, and influential scholar, plus a very gifted literary and conversational stylist. When I first went to Japan nearly 25 years ago, his MITI and the Japanese Miracle was already part of the canon for understanding Asian economic development. Before that, he had made his name as a China scholar; after that, he became more widely known with his books like Blowback, about the perverse effects and strategic unsustainability of America’s global military commitments. Throughout those years he was a mentor to generations of students at the UC campuses at Berkeley and San Diego.

Johnson and his wife and lifelong intellectual partner Sheila were generous and patient with me, as I was first trying to understand the world they had studied and analyzed. I vividly remember spending an afternoon in the early 1990s on the sunny patio at their house in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, north of the UCSD campus. I’d moved back from Japan, was working on a book about it, and spent hours writing notes as fast as I could as Johnson described Douglas MacArthur’s mistakes and (occasional) successes during the U.S. Occupation of Japan, and why Japan’s economy was unlikely to open itself on the Western model, even if U.S. or British economists kept giving lectures about the importance of deregulation. I have never concentrated harder as I tried to be sure to capture his bons mots.

Johnson would have been about 60 at the time. Even then he suffered from a rheumatoid or gout-like condition that caused him swelling and pain. “It all goes so fast,” I remember him saying. He made good use of his time. Sympathies to Sheila Johnson and their many friends.


7 comments on “My college mentor, Chalmers Johnson, dies at 79

  • I was very sad to hear this news. For years, Chalmers Johnson has courageously spoken out about the flaws and dangers of U.S. militarism. He has also been one of Okinawa’s most eloquent defenders. He will be sadly missed. I’ve read a lot of Johnson’s work on line, but to honor his memory, I just ordered a couple of his books. He will be sadly missed.

  • I read his “Japan-Who Governs?” my final year of grad school, which would have been the year it was published. I don’t think we will soon see his like again.

  • Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010

    Japan hand Chalmers Johnson dead at 79

    Staff writer
    OSAKA — American author and scholar Chalmers Johnson, whose views on postwar Japan angered American academics and Japan experts in the late 1980s but influenced a generation of students studying the country, died Saturday in California at age 79…

    Debito Arudou, a columnist for The Japan Times, was a student of Johnson’s at the University of California at San Diego in the early 1990s. He said that in the classroom, Johnson was the voice of Zeus.

    “He never suffered fools gladly, but everything he said was meticulously researched. He presented his ideas with verve,” Arudou said…

    Full obit at


    November 24, 2010
    Chalmers Johnson Dies at 79; Criticized U.S. Role in World
    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.

    It was a theme he expanded upon in three subsequent books, “The Sorrows of Empire” (2004), “Nemesis” (2006) and “Dismantling the Empire” (2010).

    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.

  • I happen to be a fan of a podcast called “Media Matters” done by Bob McChesney at the University of Illinois. Recently, I’ve been catching with old Media Matters podcasts after a period of being too busy to listen. I am now listening to a rebroadcast of an interview done with Chalmers Johnson in March of 2010. The following link

    will take you to the results of a search for interviews with Chalmers Johnson on “Media Matters.” You’ll find the program I’m listening to and several others from past years. Chalmers Johnson is a pleasure to listen to. He was truly a world-class scholar and, though he is gone now, I think these interviews will give any listener a sense of the intellectual powerhouse that he was.

    If you like the interviews and are as impressed as I am with Bob McChesney, you may also want to look into other shows. McChesney is an intellectual powerhouse in his own right and seems to have no difficulty getting leading scholars on his show.


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