Chalmers Johnson, expert on Asia, critic of US policy

By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post / November 24, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Chalmers Johnson, 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 US foreign policy, died Nov. 20 at his home in Cardiff, Calif. He was 79 and 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.’’

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 transport 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 climate of nationalism shared among much of the country’s poor.

He received a doctorate in 1961 and embarked on a yearlong 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 disillusioned with what he would later term “American imperialism’’ abroad. He said it led him “to see clearly for the first time the shape of the empire that I had so long uncritically supported.’’

Constructing and keeping US 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’s financial and 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.’’

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, Dr. Johnson leaves a sister.