College Quarterly
Fall 2003 - Volume 6 Number 1
Reviews Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire
Chalmers Johnson
New York: Henry Holt, 2000

Reviewed by Michael R.Whealen

The title of Chalmers Johnson’s book has already entered the vocabulary of intellectuals, government officials and military strategists. It was coined by the US Central Intelligence Agency to refer to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people. What the media report as the malign acts of terrorists, drug cartels, illegal arms merchants and rogue states often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations.

Used by Johnson, it makes the point is that a nation-state, especially a hegemon like the United States, reaps what it sows in its pursuit of global interests and agendas. There are two chapters on how this has worked out in Japan, two on the impact of US foreign and monetary policy in China, and a chapter on blowback in Thailand and Indonesia. This study was completed well before September 11, 2001; its conclusions and admonitions are chilling and eerily prescient: Terrorism, by definition, strikes at the innocent in order to draw attention to the sins of the invulnerable. The innocent of the twenty-first century will harvest additional blowback disasters from the imperialist escapades of recent decades. Although most Americans may be ignorant of what was and is being done in their names, all are likely to pay a steep price for their nation's policies and practices.

Johnson also devotes considerable attention to the impact of short-sighted US foreign policy in nations and regions that contain significant Muslim populations, such as Afghanistan and Indonesia. The research is irreproachable, the sources surprisingly orthodox and "conventional," and one seeks in vain for the kind of unsubstantiated speculations about hidden conspiracies that tend to haunt so many comparable critical studies.

Even though the events of 11 September may have shown that his was a voice crying in the wilderness, Blowback is worth reading for anyone remotely interested in foreign policy in our time.

Michael R. Whealen, Centre for Academic Writing, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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