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Profile Image for Trevor.
1,291 reviews21.7k followers
April 15, 2009
This book is remarkable. The guy is one of the United State’s foremost experts on China and Japan. The main thesis of the book is that because the US has not really adjusted its foreign policy to account for the collapse of the Soviet Union it is still essentially fighting the cold war. But fighting the cold war isn’t really a good idea, particularly for the US, as it effectively gives an unfair economic advantage to East Asia. He claims that the US needs to better integrate both its foreign policy objectives and economic objectives – both of which come most clearly into conflict in its dealings with countries like South Korea and Japan which it gives economic preference to, at the expense of US industry, companies and jobs.

There are a number of predictions made in this book, most of them dire and many of them have pretty well come true over the last few years. The current economic crisis being just one of these, as was 9/11 – this book was written 18 months prior to 9/11 and said something of the kind was virtually inevitable due to US imperial ambitions and actions. Given that most Americans don’t accept that they have an empire, much of the book will probably only annoy US readers. This will particularly be the case with the extensive comparisons he makes between the US and the USSR throughout the cold war – many of which are anything but flattering to the US.

He makes a fascinating point that the US concept of freedom is basically an 18th century conception of individual freedom, whilst the Soviet (and Chinese) conceptions were 19th century collective notions. He uses this to explain the differences in views about ‘human rights’ violations, and I think he is right. I remember the old Soviet commentators who would be accused by us of doing bad things to individuals and them responding by talking about unemployment rates in the US.

One of the speculations in this book is that it is possible (perhaps even likely) that in a hundred years time people will not look back and say, “The US won the cold war” – but rather that the building of mirror empires helped to destroy both the US and the USSR. We are just yet to see the US tumble just yet.

I’ve very limited knowledge or understanding of the history of East Asia – that is much less the case now. This book provides detailed and disturbing information on the history of US involvement in Korea, Japan and China. It puts quite a different spin on what I had taken for granted. There are interesting facts you just don’t think about – for example, a US president visited China before one visited Japan. Now, isn’t that interesting and quite unexpected? The Presidents were Nixon for China and then Ford for Japan. He is anything but complimentary about how the US built ‘democracy’ in Japan. He claims that their political system is so badly rigged and seen as such in Japan, that the average Japanese citizen feels totally alienated from the political system. He talks about coups in South Korea that virtually organised by the US. It reads like a huge conspiracy theory, until you realise that this guy had worked for the CIA and is clearly a respected US intellectual. The chapters on China, particularly China’s movement towards nationalism as the core ‘faith’ in China are fascinating.

Part of his concern is that Nixon abandoned the Bretton Woods Agreement and that this was one of the worst decisions of the century and something we will pay very dearly for. Essentially, he is quite fond of capitalism, but completely opposed to finance capitalism. He claims the 30s depression was deepened and prolonged due to currency speculation. He says that this was the main reason for Bretton Woods pegging currencies against the US dollar and fixing the US dollar at $35 per ounce of gold. This made it impossible to speculate on currencies and added stability to the world economy. However, Nixon (faced with a budget deficit due to the Vietnam war) decoupled the US dollar from the gold standard and floated it. Now, currency speculation is rife and was a major cause of the Asian financial crisis and likewise with the world financial crisis we are facing.

The parts of this book dealing with Okinawa are very disturbing. I remember the rape case of the twelve year old girl by the three US servicemen, but had never really thought about it at the time. You know, unfortunately, man rapes child is hardly an exceptional headline. I had no idea this was basically the last straw in Okinawa and that Okinawa has very many reasons to be utterly pissed off with the US bases it is forced to accommodate and to financially support.

The title of this book refers to a CIA term about US foreign policy that sometimes US policy has consequences that ‘blowback’ on US citizens and harms the US. For example, having US military bases in Saudi Arabia seriously annoys Arab nationalists who then fly planes into US buildings. He questions why it is still necessary to have US bases in some of these places. For example, why it is necessary to keep so many US troops and forces in Okinawa. There is no real ‘threat’ that these forces are containing anymore. What are they doing there? His view is that the US has not finished fighting the cold war, even if the USSR no longer exists to be fought against. After the cold war the US could have adjusted to the new world reality and adjusted its foreign policy accordingly. However, it did not do this and instead created increasingly bizarre ‘threats’ such as Saddam Hussein and North Korea so as to justify retaining and increasing US miliary presence and military budget.

This is a wide ranging and fascinating book. The comparisons he runs of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the US involvement in South Korea and Indonesia are compelling and disturbing. I really couldn’t recommend this book too highly.
Profile Image for Clif.
443 reviews122 followers
October 22, 2020
Blowback was written before 9/11, the event that was to make the word known. It refers to the U.S. actions in the world that bring a response detrimental to the U.S., 9/11 being a the prime example. Americans like to think of the U.S. as a rational actor with good intentions in opposition to crazed people out to do us harm. It's what we are fed by our government and by our news media, but it's mythology. Blowback presents the truth, where foreigners are just as rational as we are and have understandable reasons for their actions.

The book is the work of a man who has experience regarding the topics he discusses. He lived in Japan for several years, speaks Japanese and is president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, so when he discusses U.S. policy with regard to Japan and the conditions on Okinawa where the U.S. has a very heavy presence, he tells a story worth hearing.

Chalmers Johnson's writing style avoids jargon and acronyms, assuming the reader is simply a curious, likely uninformed American citizen and not a foreign policy expert or history buff. His ability to convey foreign views of American policy is impressive and convincing, undoubtedly because of his personal interaction with foreigners throughout his career. I was particularly impressed by his comparison of American economic terms such as "the free market" to communist terms like "the dictatorship of the proletariat". Terms we accept as explaining how things are sound very different to people outside our country. We have our own ideology and blind spots just as do Marxists.

Going into international affairs in different theaters, Johnson gives clear explanations for American policy successes and failures. These accounts are quite different from what we have been told by our politicians and reveal in detail the reasons events have unfolded as they have. Time after time this book illuminated history for me, in particular concerning the Korean War and trade relations between the U.S. and Japan. The North Korean leadership is crazy, right? Read this book.

Blowback is a must-read because of the danger of the over-extension of the U.S. military that fields special operations forces in a multitude of countries. These forces act not as defenders of the United States but as trainers, in effect working for U.S. arms manufacturers who sell to all manner of governments. A foreign government deciding to buy U.S. equipment doesn't necessarily make that government a popular one with the people of the country it rules (think the Shah of Iran). This sets up the conditions for blowback.

The fullest regional examination in the book is of Okinawa, used as a lever for policy between Japan and the U.S. regardless of the wishes of the local people. Okinawans want to end the stationing of U.S. forces there, but the value of those forces in the Asian plans of the U.S. Department of Defense is such that Japan has been able to get what it wants from the U.S. in trade concessions. Thus it goes the world over with the U.S. planning its moves on the international chessboard, pursuing the impossible task of keeping a lid on unrest anywhere and everywhere so that business can be safely pursued while local people are ignored.

The message of the book is if we don't back off from our empire project, we can expect to see consequences we will not like. Our very expensive and extensive efforts are counterproductive.

Finishing this book you will not only be well informed, you will be freed of the confusing official history of U.S. relations with other countries that you get from listening to U.S. administrations and TV news. What makes no sense (because it is largely fiction) becomes clear when it is accepted that others have reasons for what they do. Knowing the motivations of others allows the creation of a constructive foreign policy.
Profile Image for Matt Shake.
138 reviews
October 14, 2010
This is another book I read in college. In political science there are two basic philosophies: "realism" and "idealism." When I was young I used to lean more towards political idealism. This philosophy encourages people to do things out of ideological principle. But Johnson wrote this book from a realist perspective, and I liked it enough that it ignited a slow conversion for me. Realists basically encourage people to act out of self-interest. But I've noticed two shades of realism: cold, hard, selfish realism versus practical, reasoned realism. Johnson displays the latter in his analysis of the drawbacks of American empire. For example, it would be nice if the US could end despotism in places like North Korea but the reality is, according to Johnson, that trying to do so through US intervention has created more long-term pain for the US and Korea than if we'd have tried a more nuanced approach than war. And I agree with him. The more I study history, the more I see the dangers of people going on "crusades" to "liberate" "oppressed" peoples. Marx, Hitler, Woodrow Wilson, etc. all claimed they were doing this. The world has gone mad with ideological crusaders who, like the infamous Don Quixote, do more harm than good while chasing windmills. Does the world need improvement? Certainly. But one great improvement would be if people would stop killing each other in the name of "liberty."
Profile Image for Kym Robinson.
Author 5 books19 followers
August 9, 2017

Book Review -
‘Blowback’ by Chalmers Johnson.

Blowback is a book that many of us know about due to its relevance in the post ‘9-11’ world. Because of this I had known about this book for some time before I was able to track it down and dig my paws into its pages. Johnson was a man who I had heard give interviews and seemed to be one of the 'go to guys' for the US anti-war movement. The book was published before that date and the terrible terror attacks which seemed to change much of the World. Because of this many felt that Johnson had a degree of clairvoyance in his anticipation of such consequence to US foreign policy.

The book does discuss the damage that the United States has inflicted on many parts of the World, its focus however is spent in East Asia. It is here that Johnson gives the reader an excellent insertion into much of the recent history that has harmed the region and its people. Because of the focus on East Asia many other parts of the World are all but ignored as far as US imperialism goes.

The books strength is its degree of depth as far as China, Japan, Okinawa and Korea goes. It also covers some of South East Asia but for the most part it is the above mentioned that gets most page space. Now while Johnson does have expertise in this region and subject matter his writing tends to take a meander into more of a passionate essay which almost borderlines on a rant. Not a bad rant mind you, just one that seems to lose focus and objectivity at times.

The greatest weakness for me however was in the exploration of economics and policy related to such. Though it at times seemed to be an attack on 'free market' economics while also discussing the many interference by National Governments, namely the US or by the IMF. Such bodies are in no way related to a true free market. It is in the discussion of economics that the book really stalls and bogs itself down. This is perhaps in part due to the Asian market collapse which was occurring or had just occurred around the time that the book was written, which sees Johnson attempt to better explain his then contemporary world.

So while this book does cover some ground as far as post World War Two, US colonial reach, it does not truly set out to conclusively satisfy with a comprehensive over view of such a hegemonic empire. Nor does the book cover many incidents of blow back or suppose in any real detail where some may arise in the books future hence. It is in its coverage of such terrible events like the Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980, that the book serves in some way to highlight the savage hypocrisy that coats much of the World. Such events seem to find no exposure in a Washington lead narrative of the Cold War and the years since.

The post Clinton era has shown just how much blow back will arise as far as such an arrogant, aggressive and overly inconsistent US foreign policy goes. This book does help to explain some of this and perhaps in time some of the examples given by Johnson, such as those in Okinawa and Korea may explode with much of the frustrated rage that many of the victims feel because of US policy and its 'friends' have inflicted upon them. For Johnson the ‘blowback’ will come from East Asia, not the Middle East.

This book is certainly a good read for any one who wishes to better under stand why much of the World does not see the United States as a 'good guy'. It helps to break down much of the mythology that Americans and many in the West hold dear as far as their importance and virtue go. It is a book that should be sobering for many who are simply naive as to the true nature of the World. Because of that this book is important. It pulls no punches and does not make any excuses for foreign policy.

Blowback’ is more of a conceptual read, a several thousand word definition of a word that is now thrown around as part of the common language. That is what makes this an important must read book. As far as information goes or comprehensive detail this book falls short and is quiet weak. What it does do however is put up a mirror to the face of ‘America’, allowing some to see through the cracked self perception of its own illusion to see the ugly and horrible that many of its victims know it for.

So while this book was published in 1998 and did not foresee the war on terror in any specific detail it did conceive the notion that many on this Earth will take up arms against the United States because of its many exceptions. So long as the USA continues to occupy foreign lands, conduct itself with impunity, support despots and wage endless war with intervention of all kinds, then this is a book that shall be relevant.

In amongst the jingoism and self afforded 'exceptionalism' that only those from within the Imperial bubble hold dear, lies a black and sinister heart which cynically destroys so many innocents in more subtle ways. It is done so with the declaration that a greater good shall be achieved or that the alternative is far worse. It is here that a terrible perversity and hypocrisy is so openly flaunted by its many cheering supporters as the bones and ashes of its victims rot beneath their ticker tape and dancing feet. God Bless America because no one is blessing her victims. ‘
Profile Image for billyskye.
171 reviews19 followers
October 15, 2015
Every year or so I tell myself that I need to be consuming policy books. Someone of my background really should be better versed in the available literature, after all. It would be good to broaden my intellectual horizons and see what sorts of theories are floating around out there. Then I pick up something like this and become hastily reacquainted with my reticence. I remember that the genre has basically made an art form of stringing together vaguely misleading and highly curated details into tendentious readings of history. Oh, what fun!

In Blowback, Chalmers Johnson’s thesis appears to be that the United States’ misguided post-Soviet outlook has transformed it into some sort of hegemonic empire and that the foreign policy undertaken in its name will surly lead to blowback from oppressed peoples the world over. Interesting. The problems arise from the fact that both key terms are defined so nebulously that they cease to really contribute anything functional to the academic dialogue. The former contention – that the United States is an imperial force because it has military bases in allied nations (who, I might note, typically lobby for their persistence, and in some cases like Poland and South Korea repeatedly press for more engagement than they are given) or something ¬– only really serves as a means of attempting to indentify a systemic connection to the reckoning he believes is coming. The latter argument appears to encompass almost any sort of bad thing that happens anywhere in the world (of political, economic, ideological, security strain) that can be tenuously linked to an action the United States has undertaken at some time or another. The book is lauded because of this for predicting the World Trade Center attacks of 11 September 2001, but I would similarly dispute the prescience of his claims. Dr. Johnson barely discusses the Middle East – focusing primarily on East Asia. Many of the nations he identifies as potential pressure cookers – primarily Japan and South Korea – remain as stable partners of the United States in the international theater to this day.

There is very little attempt at organization or logical flow to the presentation of these arguments. In fact, Dr. Johnson’s litany of desultory gripes with the United States is often presented so haphazardly that it basically reads as the product of some strange bout of receptive aphasia. As I see it, the majority of the fragmented ‘idea salad’ can be sorted into one of three categories:

1)There’s the stuff that draws you in and walks away. Dr. Johnson will make some intriguing claim about how the United States fundamentally misunderstood the essence of Asian capitalism leading up to the 1997 economic crisis, and you’ll be thinking, “sweet, I’m going to learn how to actually understand it!” and then he’ll move onto his next point trusting that you’ll just take his word for the fact that they wanted it to be one way, but it was, in fact, another way. He’ll smugly cite some damning data about traffic accidents or rape perpetrated by US forces abroad and not give you the statistical control that would make them useable.

2) The Lupe Fiasco “Obama is the biggest terrorist of them all” grandstanding. The stuff where you play fast and loose with comparisons in order to transform vague similarities into 3edgy5u claims. The US is a rogue state. Its role in Asia is basically equivalent to those played by the USSR and Nazi Germany respectively in Eastern Europe. Complicated leaders like Park Chung-Hee and Chiang Kai-shek are nothing more than American stooges. Agency to any player more directly responsible for an atrocity is denied. God forbid China or the Khmer Rouge shoulder blame for what happened in Cambodia under Pol Pot – that’s on the United States.

3) Ultimately though, what really did it in for me were the willful inaccuracies included to paint the United States in the worse light possible. There were a number of early absurdities in the book – like Dr. Johnson’s claim that UBL was a “protégé” of the United States, or that Japan and China would be on amicable terms save for looming American imperialism – that tainted the rest of the read for me. The details of the areas in which I am versed were found lacking, so it was impossible for me to truly trust the statements included on the topics about which I am less knowledgeable.

I fear I haven’t presented a particularly exhaustive or conclusive critique, but I guess at the end of the day my point is that unless you already have a set opinion that mirrors that of Dr. Johnson and are just looking for something to which you can nod along and stoke your passions, there’s significantly better, more scientific, more nuanced, more valuable work out there. Read Legacy of Ashes if you want a detailed history of the United States’ covert misdeeds abroad. If you’re in the market for something on the manner in which the world has responded to US occupation, Robert Pape’s got you covered. Paul Kennedy or early John Mearsheimer can help with overstretch. And someone like Barry Eichengreen, Dambisa Moyo, or William Easterly will get down and dirty on the economic side of imperialism. Ghost Wars and the Looming Tower both present meticulously researched accounts of the road to September 11th. There’s a lot of terrific literature that accomplishes everything Blowback attempts to – and in a more thorough and educational manner besides.

Two stars. Piss-poor, monocausal social science!
Profile Image for Satyaki Mitra.
75 reviews26 followers
May 4, 2015
This book provides an insightful analysis of the flaws and ineptitude of American Foreign policy, principally with focus on the East Asian region. The author being one of the foremost scholars on East Asia, attempts to make his readers understand the dual and hypocritical role the US has been playing in East Asia, encouraging and even directly aiding dictatorships and inflicting unimaginable brutalities that are not much dissimilar from the policies the former USSR used on it's satellite states. The overwhelmingly anti-American sentiments that are brewing in Okinawa, due to continued US military presence in the region are discussed in details, the economic crises in East Asia in 1997 caused partly due to the American Imperialistic overstretch, and unrestricted access to local currency speculation by foreign investors ultimately resulted in huge economic losses for the East Asian nations, leading to anti-american feelings throughout the entire region.
This book is a must read for students of political science and general readers with an interest in international politics.
Profile Image for Aaron Minks.
7 reviews5 followers
May 30, 2008
Chalmers book was more than thought provoking but maybe not quite live changing. The entire point of the book was convered early on and and Chalmers seemed to belabor it. It was a good point but hammered so hard and repeatedly that I did not finish. I got the point, appreciated it, learned from it, and set the book aside. Warning: Chalmers has a distinctly Anti-American bias. I'm not sure how he got it but it's fills the pages. To say that American involvement in foreign affairs more often leads to unintended negative results is fair enough and valid. To say that it is done through malicious intent is so far over the top. I prefer to think many of these mistakes were caused by bumbling humans who were trying to do the right thing and not diabolical demons.
Profile Image for Chris White.
3 reviews
August 31, 2017
A very interesting review of the influences of the American empire on the second half of the 20th century and early 21st. You reap what you sow.
6 reviews
February 9, 2012
The first thing to know is that both the title and subtitle are misleading. This is a book almost exclusively about US imperialism in East and Southeast Asia. It rarely explores other regions or what's usually termed blowback. However, it's probably one of the best critical introductions to US foreign policy in Asia. Johnson's strength is in recounting the specificities of US foreign policy. It's not a pretty picture.

In case after case, Johnson demonstrates the negative impact of American military bases on local communities such as Okinawa and parts of the Philippines where, rape, crime, noise, disease, and environmental contamination are routine byproducts of American military presence. Add to this Americas complicity to South Koreas military's atrocities such as the Kwangju massacre (1980) Cheju (after World War II), & the US arming and training of Indonesia's death squad military, along with the relentless push for a militarized Asia by the American military-industrial complex, & the inept reorganization of foreign economies by American controlled institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank and foreign hostility toward the United States ceases to be a mystery.

Where American troops were once stationed abroad as a buffer against Soviet expansion, they are now used to influence the countries they occupy or to train governments in counter insurgency and political repression. Johnson points out that in several cases American intervention on behalf of a repressive government merely turned American protectorates into implacable enemies. Johnson sites Vietnam and Iran as two examples of this failed strategy, and he warns of impending identical results in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. The tragedy of America's misguided foreign policy, according to Johnson is that while it drains enormous resources from America, it fails to provide the nation with beneficial results.

We see the destructive legacy of American bases in Okinawa and elsewhere. Instead of continuing its obsolete Cold War strategy, Johnson calls on the United States to reevaluate its strategic requirements and to formulate a new foreign policy. An honest evaluation of American objectives according to Johnson would probably result in the recall of most American troops stationed abroad. Johnson foresees enormous resistance to such change from the military, which is the chief beneficiary of America's global military deployment. Johnson also argues that America is much better off accepting and working with China's inevitable economic surge and its increasing political status than attempting to contain the inevitable.

To anyone who is wondering why citizens of many foreign countries hate the United States, this book is a must read. Written prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, this book accurately predicts increasing blowback against the United States both at home and abroad in response to its late 20th Century foreign policy. The American challenge in the 21st Century according to Johnson involves dismantling the American empire and coping with blowback.
Profile Image for Joel Wentz.
998 reviews61 followers
December 17, 2015
'Blowback' is both brilliant and deeply unsettling. Growing up as a millenial, and vividly remembering that day in high school when the twin towers crumbled, I have always had a vague intuition that America's actions and policies overseas seemed to be creating enemies. I also suspected that many of my peers felt the same way - we couldn't explain why, but we were definitely uncomfortable with how our country handled itself in other parts of the world.

Well, Johnson's meticulously-researched-and-cited work here absolutely confirms those intuitions. Keeping in mind this was written just over a year before 9/11, it seems nearly-impossible to deny Johnson's argument: that U.S. actions abroad will inevitably result in terrible "blowback" for American citizens in the early 21st century. Johnson primarily focuses on East Asia here (his personal area of expertise), and while I would have been interested in more information about Central America, I learned an immense amount about how America has negatively impacted countries like China, Taiwan & Japan. I had no idea we have military bases in Okinawa, or that there was a disastrous global crisis in East Asia in the late 90s, or that America has copiously funded and manipulated countless political campaigns and economies of other countries (this just scratches the surface of what Johnson digs into)!

If you're willing to have your patriotic perspective shaken a bit, I highly, highly recommend 'Blowback.'
Profile Image for G. Branden.
131 reviews52 followers
March 6, 2009
As I recall, this is the first book I read after the September 11th attacks.

It was a good choice. Originally published in 2000, it saw a reprinting not long after I bought my copy--evidently I wasn't the only person impressed with Johnson's appearances on NPR at the time.

Essential reading for anyone who doubts that the United States constitutes an imperial power in the world (whether for good, ill, or both).

Johnson also makes the strongest case I've yet read for a civilian peacetime draft. The idea of such has filled me with horror all of my life, and yet Johnson just about pushed me onto the fence on the subject.

Now my objections to compulsory military service are better-informed, and I can say this--there are advantages to it that our current professionalized force lacks, and we'd be well-advised to address those deficiencies by some means. Or suffer the blowback.
Profile Image for Ian.
188 reviews24 followers
December 19, 2010
Lots to recommend in this book: great perspective on America's economic and military bullying (though, largely focused on east Asia). Connects the dots between American policy abroad and the collapse of manufacturing and the middle class at home.

One thing I hate about books like this is confronting the depth of my own ignorance.
Profile Image for Chris Chester.
563 reviews80 followers
July 19, 2017
Typically, reading books about the geopolitical moment more than five years after they were written is an exercise in futility, as conditions change and the collective consciousness comes to perceive world events in new ways. In this case though, it is actually because of its age that Blowback is so interesting, since Johnson penned this account of American imperial overreach before the psychological trauma of September 11, 2011 forever altered our perception of the world.

To be clear, there is quite a bit in the book that feels anachronistic. The focus on the waves of recession sweeping East Asia in 1997 and 1998 would likely provoke a head scratch among those schooled only in the biggest of economic earthquakes, just as an example. And the impeachment of Bill Clinton is for Chalmers a stunning example of the degradation of political authority in the U.S. (What must he think about our present state of affairs?)

But that vision unclouded by our adventurism in the middle east gives him a clarity about the structural issues that caused the conditions in the U.S. that many would argue gave us a President Donald Trump.

Globalization is not an economic force simply playing out to its logical end. No, as Johnson argues persuasively, the exportation of American manufacturing to Southeast Asia is the bargain that American leaders struck to preserve the existing system of military bases that ring the globe, particularly in the Pacific. This juggernaut is not only likely unnecessary, given the official conclusion of the Cold War (and its de facto resolution even before the Reagan administration), but it costs Americans mightily on the domestic front.

It also leaves us open to — you guessed it — blowback! When all you've got is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. So for enterprising geopolitical ne'er-do-wells like Osama Bin Laden, it's a simple matter of blowing something up to prompt this military machine into an overreaction that winds up causing a disproportionate response that only further undermines the imperial power.

But again, the meat of this book has much more to do with East Asia, which given that China is our logical successor hegemon, remains of paramount importance. He sketches out how our system of satellites in East Asia is directly analogous to the Soviet Satellites in Eastern Europe. And, I suppose, relinquishing our hold on them (whether intentionally or as a result of diplomatic bungling) may signal our own Berlin Wall moment.

The likelihood that we'll be able to do so intelligently and of our own accord is looking increasingly unlikely. Speaking from his position in the 90s, Johnson argues that "given the almost sacred position empire bestows on the American military, it seems unlikely that the crisis will occur in that area," seeing economic contradictions unraveling the empire instead. I am less sure — I think we are already undermined economically and may be more of a paper tiger than we like — but we won't know until it happens.
Profile Image for Andy.
760 reviews3 followers
November 20, 2015
This is the second book I've read from Chalmers Johnson, and it was definitely another success. Technically, this is part of a trilogy of texts, and I read the second prior to reading this, though the books are not required to be read in any particular order. Taken together, the books paint a picture of a US in danger of losing its way, though by now it is more likely that it has already lost its way.

This book shows how the military structure and the defense agenda have divorced themselves from America's interests. Our military goals do no lead to stability in the international system, nor are they truly about protecting the US or its allies. Worse yet, these goals have led us to economic policy that directly weakened our economy and hurt Americans while ensuring that poverty around the world would increase. It's difficult to see how the US can square its stated ideals of freedom, self-determination, and the rule of law with direct support for dictators and autocrats, imposed "one-size-fits-all" economic models, and a rejection of any liability for itself under international legal norms.

There should be two main take away points from this reading. The first is that America and its institutions (including the IMF) seem to lack an essential curiosity to understand non-American cultures. The IMF frequently imposes and American inspired economic model on the countries it "helps," yet as Mr. Johnson has noted, the IMF cannot point to even one notable success for its policies. Recently, the IMF itself has noted that its policies are often counterproductive, though it refuses to actually reform them.

The second main take away is that America's increasing reliance on military might and ideological purity, as divorced from its own actions, have lessened the credibility of the nation and made it harder for America to maintain its standing. As our citizens fall further behind the industrialized world and, eventually, cede economic superiority to other nations that have invested in their economic infrastructure, America will find itself with fewer allies because of its belligerent stances. Prior to this, the country will have to deal with violent uprisings and political discontent in its satellites. Doing so is costly both in terms of money and it America's image. Our commitment to remaining the "lone superpower" is, in short bankrupting us and insuring our eventual decline.

Despite being written prior to 9/11, this book still offers some great insights into America's neo-colonial project.
Profile Image for Steven Peterson.
Author 20 books271 followers
January 30, 2010
Blowback, according to author Chalmers Johnson, is a term invented by the CIA to (page ix) ". . .describe the likelihood that our covert operations in other people's countries could result in retaliation against Americans, civilian and military, at home and abroad." At another point, he notes that (page xi) ". . .blowback is another way of saying that a nation sows what it reaps." It results in unintended consequences of actions.

This is an angry book, with Johnson not pretending to take an academic perspective or a neutral analytical viewpoint. One simple example: The United States provided assistance to the resistance in Afghanistan against the old Soviet Union. One of the beneficiaries was Osama bin Laden. The result (page xiv):

It was only after the Russians had bombed Afghanistan back to the
stone age and suffered a Vietnam-like defeat, and the United States
had walked away from the death and destruction the CIA had helped
cause, that Osama bin Laden turned against his American supporters.

Blowback. We supported--and then abandoned the resistance; according to Johnson, this led to blowback later on.

The book examines a number of instances of what Johnson considers blowback--Okinawa, North and South Korea, China, Indonesia, Japan, and so on. The reader may not be fully convinced of one or another of these examples. He also noted, on page 26, the variety of dictators that the United States has supported to achieve foreign policy goals and, in the process, often angering local populations and producing negative effects for American goals.

In the concluding section, he says (page 217): ". . .the evidence is building that in the decade following the end of the Cold War, the United States largely abandoned a reliance on diplomacy, economic aid, international law, and multilateral institutions in carrying out its foreign policies and resported much of the time to bluster, military force, and financial manipulation." The end result? "The world is not a safer place as a result" (page 217). He argued that the United States has become an empire and is in danger of "imperial overreach."

All in all, this is an angry book. Johnson does not always successfully connect the dots; not all of his examples necessarily prove convincing. Nonetheless, this is a thought-provoking discussion.
Profile Image for Bryce.
74 reviews8 followers
October 4, 2013
Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire was written by Chalmers Johnson an American author and professor emeritus of the University of California, San Diego. He served in the Korean War, was a consultant for the CIA from 1967 to 1973, and chaired the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California, Berkeley from 1967 to 1972.

Blowback a term initially used in classified CIA documents, referred to the unintended consequences of covert action. "In a broader sense, blowback is another way of saying that a nation reaps what it sows." This book, published in 2000, was panned by the media and critics. Republished in 2004, with a new prologue by Johnson, the book found broad acceptance in among US readers. The new prologue Johnson states, his "intention in writing it was to warn my fellow Americans about the nature and conduct of U.S. foreign policy over the previous half-century, focusing particularly on the period after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991." he makes it clear he was not predicting the fateful events of 9/11.

The book discusses US foreign policy the East Asia (Okinawa, Japan, Korea, China, the Philippines, and Indochina) and it military and economic hold on that areas to remain a world economic hegemony. It also discussed blowback from action taken in the last half of the 20th century in Eastern block countries and the Middle East.

This important work, well researched and documented, should be on the shelf of any serious student of US foreign policy. It provides a another view from what most Americans believe (usually because of ignorance of what our government does around the world in the name of spreading democracy). Johnson sates, "We Americans deeply believe that our role in the world is virtuous - that our actions are almost invariably for the good of others as well as ourselves. Even when our country's action have led to disaster, we assume that motives behind them were honorable. But the evidence is building up that in the decade following the end of the Cold War, the Unites States largely abandoned a reliance on diplomacy, economic aid, international law, and multilateral institutions in carrying out its foreign policies and resorted much of the time to bluster, military force, and financial manipulation. The world is not a safer place as a result."
Profile Image for Marc.
Author 1 book8 followers
August 27, 2016
Brilliant! Blowback=unintended consequences of secret policies of the US Government. The American people have given uncritical support to an array of operative including presidents in US Empire building.

Chalmers Johnson has somehow managed to avoid inclusion in the Horowitz hate monger list.
An incredibly thorough analysis of the foreign policy mess that is USA. The list is long.
Iran (1953)
Guatemala (1954)
Cuba (1959-present)
Congo (1960)
Brazil (1964)
Indonesia (1965)
Vietnam (1961-73)
Laos (1961-73)
Cambodia (1961-73)
Greece (1967-74)
Chile (1973)
Afganistan (1979, present)
El Salvador-Guatemala-Nicaragua (1986)
Iraq (1991, present)

The operatives are not always officials creating foreign policy; out of control military/ambassadorial personnel who abuse their welcome in country are some of the most egregious examples; he calls them imperialist escapades.

" substitute for an informed public. An excessive reliance on a militarized foreign policy...indifference to the distinction between national interests and nation values."

"In retrospect, I wish I had stood with the antiwar protest movement. For all its naivtee and unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong."
Profile Image for Marissa Ovick.
9 reviews2 followers
June 8, 2011
Another book I reread once every couple of years. Always relevant.....
From Booklist
A veteran, and veteran academic on China and Japan, offers a serious indictment of the security system the U.S. organized in East Asia circa 1950 to contain the communists. Convinced the time has arrived to close down bases, bring troops home, and renegotiate extant security treaties, Johnson examines, from a highly critical, almost excoriating viewpoint, the American presence in Japan, Korea, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. He wants to connect with general-interest readers, perceiving them blinkered to the resentments engendered by U.S. military activity. When anti-Americanism erupts, Americans tend to be perplexed by it (why are those ingrates rioting?), they and their leaders believing their foreign policy to be animated by virtuous liberal values, not hegemonic self-interest. These occasional but persistent reactions Johnson calls "blowback," and his intimation of disasters to come, possibly wars, drives his insistence on dismantlement of the cold war security structures. This is edgy, unconventional wisdom that deserves hearing and debating. Gilbert Taylor
11 reviews1 follower
July 3, 2017
This book is essential reading for anyone trying to figure out what happened to the United States after World War II. We became an empire. We assumed a role that placed above international law. We decided which groups would control governments in countries where we had influence. The US military was one part of the effort, but so, too, was the CIA.

Economics played a key role in producing the blowback — the sometime violent response to US intervention and domination — that resulted. Chalmers Johnson wrote this book between the 1998 financial crisis that crushed the economies of some of our allies (and led to a global rebellion against the IMF) and the attacks of 9/11/01.

Johnson also makes a compelling case for how the US sacrificed its manufacturing base to our clients in Japan, South Korea. The American middle class was expendable to the greater goals of empire.

He didn't predict the events of 9/11, but he laid out the rationale for what he sensed was coming. It's a great book and the first of a trilogy.

Highly recommend it!
2 reviews1 follower
August 3, 2010
We often wonder why there is anger against the USA around the world. We are prevented from accurate analysis of our status and stature globally because the media filters out the truth of our actions and their effects on other nations. This leaves us clueless to the reality that we press upon other nations calling it benevolence at home, but serving up crushing hegemony overseas. Thisbook explains how this process has worked against our nation and created the insecurity we now face as we become aware we are the target of angry retaliations we do not understand and which are lied about by our government and the media so we are kept from understanding the true nature of the conflicts we set in motion around the world. It is important we study the work of Chalmers Johnson who has a clear-eyed and bravely honest grasp of the issues and the history that most affects us in the 21st century. Please read the books of this great scholar.
Profile Image for Dale.
536 reviews59 followers
September 6, 2010
This book was written in 2000 and focuses mostly on blowback of US policies in East Asia, and only peripherally on policies in the Arab world. The term 'Blowback' is now pretty widely known: the long-term unintended consequences of policy decisions and covert actions.

Johnson begins by making the case that the US has been an imperialist power since the end of World War II. What other country has troops stationed in over 100 countries? How many of those countries have troops stationed in the US? The US since 1945 has routinely executed covert actions to bring down democracies and prop up dictatorships. Often, these 'covert' operations have been hidden mostly from the US people, while citizens of the target countries have understood very well what was happening. And then we wonder why there is so much animosity towards the US, sometimes expressing itself in terrorist acts against US citizens.

18 reviews
February 24, 2010
A wonderful look at America's recent foreign policy in Southwest Asia. This book poses the question "Why do we have over 100,000 troops in Japan and Korea?" and answers it: There is no reason. Why is our defense budget almost $270 billion a year (2000 numbers)? Guess who has the next biggest military budget? Japan... at $47 billion, which dwarfs China's military budget, which is about $30 billion. Of course all of these numbers have increased over the years, especially with the onset of the "War on Terror". But it really makes you think: "What are we doing? Why are we spending so much money to get so little in return?" Perhaps our security would increase through treating others with respect and leading by example rather than strong arm deplomacy, only using force when necessary to prevent human rights violations"
Profile Image for Kamil Salamah.
118 reviews26 followers
October 30, 2009
An amazing history of America's involvement in Southeast Asia with all its associated consequences from social, culutral, political, military, economical, financial and human rights aspects.

Again, it is another piece of outstanding written material that tragically paints a trajectory for the Empire of the age that is most unfortunate due to the loss of the Dream of the Founding fathers of America. Once again the power of the military-industrial complex( warned against by many including President Eisenhower) is highlighted as having taking over the government of the USA and its foreign policies.
Profile Image for Shea Mastison.
189 reviews23 followers
February 19, 2012
This guy fundamentally misunderstands the nature of fiat currency and the essentially destabilizing effect that it has on the global economy. Contrary to what he may think, the boom and bust cycle will always be made worse by having a centrally planned economy. In the face of his passion, it's clear he doesn't want to understand this as why Japan has been stagnant for the last ten years or more; however, the problem is not cultural--it's endemic.
It's an okay read if you're a foreign policy/political nerd. However, if you're only willing to read one book on blowback; read "Imperial Hubris" instead.
Profile Image for Chris Welch.
6 reviews
August 28, 2012
Unbelievable. I thought I was pretty informed on the problems with US foreign policy. After reading this book I realize that I had such a small window of knowledge. This book has helped me to understand the underlying motivation behind US economic policies, the banking system and how the elite are dooming us all to the inevitable fall of our once great nation. This should be required reading for everyone! Chalmers knowledge of history and foreign policy are superb. I had to read a few passages a few times to make sure I understood what was being said and this is not a book for the casual reader but the content is invaluable. It was definitely worth the effort to read. Eye opening!!
Profile Image for Sarah.
68 reviews
May 6, 2015
Fascinating read that examines the many pies that the U.S. government has fingers in. "Blowback" is a term that refers to the negative occurrences that result from the actions of the CIA, and, boy, are there plenty of examples of blowback in this book. The most obvious example being 9-11, of course, but the author manages to cover a huge variety, from the decline of Detroit to the political situations of Iran, North and South Korea, Indonesia, Japan...
A great read in its own right, but as a bonus, it's also prompted a great deal of further reading. Recommended.
Profile Image for Dave Winter.
24 reviews
September 28, 2009
This is THE definitive work on American foreign policy. The book explains how the CIA and its annexes take action without thinking of the consequences. For example, it was the CIA who established the Sha in the Iranian government in the 1950s, and now America is paying the price for it. This is part one in a three-part series, and is a necessary book for anyone who is interested in the tragedy that is American foreign policy.
Profile Image for Sean Rosenthal.
197 reviews23 followers
November 24, 2016
Interesting Quote:

"Military might does not equate with 'leadership of the free world'...An excessive reliance on a militarized foreign policy and an indifference to the distinction between national interests and national values in deciding where the United States should intervene abroad have actually made the country less secure in ways that will become only more apparent in the years to come."

-Chalmers Johnson, Blowback, 2000
Profile Image for ScrappyMags.
597 reviews244 followers
June 26, 2008
I read the version that was published prior to 9/11 and wow.. that made the book downright prophetic. I read this in college as a Poli Sci major and I often go back to read bits & pieces here and there. It was easy to read and made me do a heck of a lot of thinking. Post 9/11, it was interesting to look back and see that Mr. Johnson was right. Not my usual genre of choice, but a great read.
Profile Image for Christopher.
22 reviews16 followers
February 23, 2011
Punching a man in the face, or killing his family, is not the best way to make him your friend. This principle extends to foreign policy. The U.S., far from making friends, has made countless enemies. We will unfortunately reap future violence (terrorism) from this bitter harvest.

Johnson focuses on blowback from Asia, the area of the world on which he is an expert.
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