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College Quarterly
Spring 2011 - Volume 14 Number 2
Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope
Chalmers Johnson
New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010
Reviewed by David Model

Dismantling the Empire is an interesting read for those who are concerned with the details of the structures and institutions of the American Empire, but for those seeking a deeper analysis or a more adequate theoretical framework within which to understand American imperialism, this book will be a disappointment.

Johnson focuses almost exclusively on the 737 American military bases located in 130 countries resulting in a massive drain on the American treasury, the devastating impact of the defence budget on the economy and the political influence of the pentagon and defence industries.

For example, he discusses Okinawa at great length, and describes it as an American colony with its ten Marine bases on 1,186 acres of land where rape of local women and women serving in the Marine Corps is a serious problem. American bases are essential for projecting power around the world, but they have been rarely used during the expansion of the empire.

In the book, Johnson condemns the extravagant and wasteful expenditures on weapons systems that are rarely relevant to the wars in which the United States has been engaged. He argues that "It [the Defense Department] is also squandering staggering levels of defense appropriations on aircraft, ships and futuristic weapons that fascinate generals…[but] most of these will actually prove irrelevant." In other words, high tech stealth bombers that cruise at Mach-2 will not be useful in battles against the Taliban. He explores the stupidity of building the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the B-2 Stealth Bomber whose expense and irrelevance reflect the power of the pentagon and defense industries to control the blueprint for American fighting capabilities.

The political influence of defence industries is an exercise in pressuring Congressmen to choose between principles and election success. Johnson discusses in detail how contractors such as Northrop Corporation, who built the B-2 bomber, influence Congress by demonstrating that tens of thousands of dollars were at stake in 46 states and 383 congressional districts in approving the contract for the bomber. In addition, political donations from defense industries and lobbyists are an irresistible allure to congressmen seeking re-election and are more persuasive than the rationality of a particular weapons system. 

On the other hand, by not defining precisely what he means by an American Empire, Johnson fails to provide an infrastructure as a reference point for understanding the system that he claims is collapsing. The American Empire is very different from empires of the past such as the British, Spanish or Roman Empires in that the United States does not directly rule the nations within its empire but uses a number of techniques to gain control over nations without, for example, a Raj.

American control is exercised through surrogate governments which are dedicated to serving American interests notwithstanding the interests of their own people. To ensure friendly leaders, the United States has colluded in the overthrown governments, often including the removal or assassination of unfriendly or unreliable leaders such as Diem in Vietnam, Lumumba in the Congo, Allende in Chile, Roldós in Ecuador and Torrijos in Panama.

Eliminating an unfriendly government was also accomplished through the sponsorship or creation of insurgent forces as in Iran in 1953 with the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh or the arming and support of the Contras in Nicaragua in an attempt to remove Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista government from power.

Sometimes it has been necessary to defend a friendly ruler in power with military and economic support as, for example, in the strengthening of the Greek military in 1947. Mobutu in the Congo, Said in Somalia, Reza Pahlavi in Iran, Mubarak in Egypt, Duvalier in Haiti, Trujillo in Cuba and Pinochet in Chile were only a few of the brutal and corrupt dictators who were maintained in power with American military and economic aid and with the support of the CIA and the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the United States Army School of the Americas, or the School of Assassins as it was known by its critics).

All these American puppets impeded development of their own economy while jailing, torturing and killing their opposition. These leaders are the control mechanism for the American Empire not the military bases as implied by Chalmers Johnson. According to Johnson, the backbone of the Empire are the military bases scattered around the world as he claimed when he observed that "Once upon a time, you could trace the spread of imperialism by counting up colonies. American's version of the colony is the military base." It was the pro-American leaders whose countries provide the resources over which the U.S. sought control, the markets for American products or the territory needed to build the bases.

One of the most serious flaws in Johnson's analysis is his failure to address the underlying rationale and driving force behind empire building. When the United States emerged from World War II with the most powerful economy in the world, State Department policy-makers among others recognized that it would be impossible to maintain a much higher standard of living relative to Europe and other emerging powers without the use of force. George Kennan, one of the major architects of American foreign policy stated on February 24, 1948, that "We have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. We cannot deceive ourselves that we can afford the luxury of altruism and world benefaction. We should cease to talk about such vague and unreal objectives as human rights."

American imperialism is founded on the doctrine of "Political Realism" which embodies the concept that the United States has a right to expand its wealth indefinitely by exploiting other countries if necessary. In the pursuit of this objective, national interests, or accumulating and controlling wealth, carry greater weight than concepts such as international law or morality. 

Johnson skirts around this issue repeatedly. He refers to it briefly two thirds through the book as an afterthought and refers to it as the "empire of consumption". Without addressing this doctrine to which not only American leaders adhere but also much of the academic community, it is impossible to discuss the dismantling of the empire.

In his final chapter "Dismantling the Empire", Johnson devotes all but two pages to the folly of Iraq and Afghanistan and Status of Forces Agreements in a number of different countries but only two pages to dismantling the empire in which he lists ten bromides which are completely self-evident in the preceding chapters: one is about abandoning the "burden of our empire of bases" and another admonishes his compatriots to "end the use of torture".

Johnson fails to recognize that the community of people who support empire-building are not about to experience an epiphany or come to their senses and begin the process of dismantling the empire of their own volition. Dissent and protests are necessary and sufficient to force the government to reverse policies to which they have been deeply committed for 66 years.


David Model teaches political science at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at david.model@senecac.on.ca

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