Chalmers Johnson: California Cassandra

Historians in the News

Jim Benning, in (March 15, 2004):

Author Chalmers Johnson was asleep in his San Diego-area home on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when the telephone rattled him awake.

Metropolitan Books publicist Tracy Locke was on the line from her Manhattan office two miles from Ground Zero. The previous year, she had promoted Johnson's book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire , which warned that U.S. policies abroad were creating the potential for retaliatory attacks."Blowback" is the term the CIA uses to describe the unintended consequences of covert actions.

The book had generated only modest interest when it was published, but with the events of the morning, Locke knew that was about to change. Before rushing home, she spoke into the telephone in a voice flattened with shock, telling the author,"Turn on your television. The World Trade Center has just been hit. The worst kind of blowback has happened."

Johnson was stunned. He hadn't exactly predicted the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the book, but he had come close."World politics in the twenty-first century," he wrote,"will in all likelihood be driven primarily by blowback from the second half of the twentieth century – that is, from the unintended consequences of the Cold War and the crucial American decision to maintain a Cold War posture in a post-Cold War world."

Blowback shot up bestseller lists and was reprinted thirteen times as Americans struggled to make sense of the attacks. Impressed with Johnson's prescience, the German magazine Der Spiegel labeled him the"California Cassandra" after the mythological Greek prophesier who often went ignored. Johnson had more to say, however. In January 2004, his follow-up book hit stores and soon landed on bestseller lists. The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic rails against America's vast military presence abroad and warns that more harm is on the way, including perhaps the end of the republic itself, if the nation does not rein in its military and change its aggressive posture.

Neoconservative thinkers behind the Project for the New American Century would beg to differ with Johnson's analysis, of course, but many others have embraced the book. The Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune praised it, and writers as diverse as William Greider of The Nation and James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly have voiced their enthusiasm. Wrote Fallows:"Chalmers Johnson's relentless logic, authoritative scholarship, and elegantly biting prose distinguish the Sorrows of Empire, like all his other work."

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