Author, professor and political scientist Chalmers Johnson (1931-2010) accentuated the perils of empire and “blowback” in foreign policy in his work. He often noted that the first official use of the word “blowback” occurred in the CIA’s internal report on Operation Ajax, the plot that eradicated Premier Mossadegh’s democratic government in 1953. His emphasis helped popularize the term in political discourse.
So it’s peculiar that his 2000 book on the subject, Blowback, contained not even a single mention of the 1953 coup in Iran which spawned the term (the book deals mostly with China, Korea and Japan, his areas of expertise). After September 11th, Johnson brought up the coup frequently. He explained the coup in more detail in his second book in the Blowback trilogy, Nemesis, brief mentions in The Sorrows of Empire and the new foreword for Blowback in 2004, and the 2005 documentary Why We Fight.
Before Chalmers A. Johnson began warning that “imperialism is a form of tyranny”, he helped feed the beast. He was a CIA consultant for the LBJ and Nixon administrations during the Vietnam war which he supported, and worked for none other than Allen Dulles, a major player in the 1953 coup which Johnson would later describe as “blatantly illegal”.
Johnson went on to teach international relations at the University of California in Berkeley and San Diego for 30 years, and was the President of the Japan Policy Research Institute, which he co-founded in 1994. On November 20, 2010, he passed away at age 79.
Blowback Article in The Nation - September 27, 2011
“Blowback” is a CIA term first used in March 1954 in a recently declassified report on the 1953 operation to overthrow the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. It is a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the US government’s international activities that have been kept secret from the American people. The CIA’s fears that there might ultimately be some blowback from its egregious interference in the affairs of Iran were well founded. Installing the Shah in power brought twenty-five years of tyranny and repression to the Iranian people and elicited the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. The staff of the American embassy in Teheran was held hostage for more than a year. This misguided “covert operation” of the US government helped convince many capable people throughout the Islamic world that the United States was an implacable enemy.
The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic (2004)
Starting with the CIA’s 1953 covert overthrow of the government of Iran for the sake of the British Petroleum Company, American policy in the Middle East — except for its support of Israel — has been dictated by oil.
From 1953 to 1979, the second geat pillar of America’s Persian Gulf policy was Iran, then the second-largest exporter of crude petroleum and possessor of the world’s third-largest oil reserves. The British, who had been been pumping oil from Iran since 1908, operated the world’s largest refinery there. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company (after 1935, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) had provided the British treasury with 24 million pounds sterling in taxes and 92 million pounds in foreign exchange. The British had no intention of seeing their lucrative oil company nationalized, and the American oil majors sympathized with them. So, in 1953, the British gained the cooperation of the new Eisenhower administration in a blatantly illegal plan to overthrow the Iranian government that wanted a fairer share of the country’s oil reserves.
Eisenhower ordered the CIA to help the British protect their assets, and the Americans in turn redefined the Anglo-Iranian oil crisis as a case of “free world” resistance to the threat of Communism in the Middle East. CIA operatives guided Iranian Army officers in ousting Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, a patrician politician known for his incorruptible defence of the country’s oil interests, and replaced him with the young shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose reign Mossadeq had interrupted. Although the shah claimed to be a nationalist, he was much more willing than Mossadeq to cooperate with Britain and the Unites States, seeing them as counterweights to the influence of the Soviet Union on Iran’s northern border. After the successful coup, the new Iranian government awarded concessions to a consortium of major Western oil companies. In this consortium, 40 percent of the shares went to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, renamed British Petroleum, and 14 percent to its ally Royal Dutch Shell, thereby ensuring that Britain retained a majority vote. A group of American firms received 40 percent, a reward for American participation in the coup, and the French state company 6 percent.
Why We Fight (2005) Documentary by Eugene Jarecki
Democracy NOW! Interview February 27, 2007
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the signs of the breakdown of constitutional government and how it links?
CHALMERS JOHNSON: Well, yes. Militarism is the — what the social side has called the “intervening variable”, the causative connection. That is to say, to maintain an empire requires a very large standing army, huge expenditures on arms that leads to a military-industrial complex, and generally speaking, a vicious cycle sets up of interests that lead to perpetual series of wars.
It goes back to probably the earliest warning ever delivered to us by our first president, George Washington, in his famous farewell address. It’s read at the opening of every new session of Congress. Washington said that the great enemy of the republic is standing armies; it is a particular enemy of republican liberty. What he meant by it is that it breaks down the separation of powers into an executive, legislative, and judicial branches that are intended to check each other—this is our most fundamental bulwark against dictatorship and tyranny — it causes it to break down, because standing armies, militarism, military establishment, military-industrial complex all draw power away from the rest of the country to Washington, including taxes, that within Washington they draw it to the presidency, and they begin to create an imperial presidency, who then implements the military’s desire for secrecy, making oversight of the government almost impossible for a member of Congress, even, much less for a citizen.
It seems to me that this is also the same warning that Dwight Eisenhower gave in his famous farewell address of 1961, in which he, in quite vituperative language, quite undiplomatic language — one ought to go back and read Eisenhower. He was truly alarmed when he spoke of the rise of a large arms industry that was beyond supervision, that was not under effective control of the interests of the military-industrial complex, a phrase that he coined. We know from his writings that he intended to say a military-industrial-congressional complex. He was warned off from going that far. But it’s in that sense that I believe the nexus — or, that is, the incompatibility between domestic democracy and foreign imperialism comes into being.
AMY GOODMAN: Who was he warned by?
CHALMERS JOHNSON: Members of Congress. Republican memb-–
AMY GOODMAN: And why were they opposed?
CHALMERS JOHNSON: Well, they did not want to have their oversight abilities impugned. They weren’t carrying them out very well. You must also say that Eisenhower was—I think he’s been overly praised for this. It was a heroic statement, but at the same time, he was the butcher of Guatemala, the person who authorized our first clandestine operation and one of the most tragic that we ever did: the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 for the sake of the British Petroleum Company. And he also presided over the fantastic growth of the military-industrial complex, of the lunatic oversupply of nuclear weapons, of the empowering of the Air Force, and things of this sort. It seems to be only at the end that he realized what a monster he had created.
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No president since Truman, once told that he has this power, has ever failed to use it. That became the route of rapid advancement within the CIA, dirty tricks, clandestine activities, the carrying out of the president’s orders to overthrow somebody, starting — the first one was the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. It’s from that, the after-action report, which has only recently been declassified, that the word “blowback” that I used in the first of my three books on American foreign policy, that’s where the word “blowback” comes from. [Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran by Donald Wilber, leaked to the New York Times in 2000] It means retaliation for clandestine activities carried out abroad.
But these clandestine activities also have one other caveat on them: they are kept totally secret from the American public, so that when the retaliation does come, they’re unable ever to put it in context, to see it in cause-and-effect terms. They usually lash out against the alleged perpetrators, usually simply inaugurating another cycle of blowback. The best example is easily 9/11 in 2001, which was clearly blowback for the largest clandestine operation we ever carried out, namely the recruiting, arming and sending into battle of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union during the 1980’s. But this is the way the CIA has evolved.
Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2008)
I never planned to write three books about the decline and fall of the American empire, but events intervened. In March 2000, well before 9/11, I published Blowback, based on my years of teaching and writing about East Asia. I had become convinced by then that some secret U.S. government operations and acts in distant lands would come back to haunt us. “Blowback” does not mean just revenge but rather retaliation for covert, illegal violence that our government has carried out abroad that it kept totally secret from the American public (even though such acts are seldom secret among the people on the receiving end). It was a term invented by the Central Intelligence Agency and first used in its “after-action report” about the 1953 overthrow of the elected government of Premier Mohammad Mossadeq in Iran. This coup brought to power the U.S.-supported Shah of Iran, who would in 1979 be overthrown by Iranian revolutionaries and Islamic fundamentalists. The Ayatollah Khomeini replaced the Shah and installed the predecessors of the current, anti-American government in Iran. This would be one kind of blowback from America’s first venture into illegal, clandestine “regime change”—but as the attacks of September 11, 2001, showed us all too graphically, hardly the only one.