Two decades ago, when I was working as an editor at a publishing house, Chalmers Johnson, then an eminent scholar of Asia and a former CIA consultant, sent in a proposal for a book he was already calling Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. I still remember the passage from his prologue that convinced me it was indeed one that simply had to be done:
“One day at the height of the [Vietnam War] protests, I went to the university library to check out what was then available to students on Vietnamese communism, the history of communism in East Asia, and the international communist movement. I was surprised to find that all the major books were there on the shelves, untouched. The conclusion seemed obvious to me then: these students knew nothing about communism and had no interest in remedying that lack. They were defining the Vietnamese Communists largely out of their own romantic desires to oppose Washington’s policies. As it turned out, however, they understood far better than I did the impulses of a Robert McNamara, a McGeorge Bundy, or a Walt Rostow. They grasped something essential about the nature of America’s imperial role in the world that I had failed to perceive. In retrospect, I wish I had stood with the antiwar protest movement. For all its naïveté and unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong.”
If you take Johnson’s conclusion to heart, it’s one that you still can’t go too wrong following. Since World War II, across vast stretches of the planet, from Iran or Guatemala in the 1950s, to Vietnam in the 1960s, to much of the Greater Middle East today, people have regularly suffered thanks to “America’s imperial role in the world” — even if the will of “the people” it was trying to undermine has been expressed in ways that, however “romantic” they may have seemed to some at the time, were themselves flawed. In our American world (even more so in the Trumpian one), it’s always “them,” never “us.”
In today’s post, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon explores one small but telling case of American power gone grim indeed: Nicaragua. She’s been involved in opposing the expressions of such power there since the 1980s and so has quite a tale to tell, one that is, unfortunately, still appropriate to this twenty-first-century moment.