Occasional Paper, No. 25 (April 2002)
The Continuation of the Cold War and the Advent of American Militarism
By Chalmers Johnson

Reflecting their traditional preoccupation with Europe, most American political elites accept as common knowledge that 'the Cold War is over.' What they really mean is that the Cold War in Europe seemed to end with the breaching of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. From this perspective, there could be no doubt that the U.S. 'won' the Cold War and that it is the sole remaining 'superpower.' However, these elites tend to ignore or be ignorant of the Cold Wars in East Asia and Latin America and do not appreciate that their own country is the prime reason why both continue at the present time.

 Actually, the Cold War was never formally 'ended' or concluded in Europe. Instead the Soviet Union disintegrated because of a combination of three different sets of causes: internal economic contradictions, imperial overstretch, and an inability to reform. These are all conditions that also affect the United States at the present time. The unexpected collapse of the USSR produced a crisis of credibility for the United States. For the first forty years after World War II, the menace of the Soviet Union was the U.S.'s prime justification for its worldwide and multifaceted operations against 'communism.' When this menace disappeared, it was revealed that during the Cold War the United States had objectives other than just balancing and containing the Soviet Union. The U.S. was covertly laying the groundwork for its own global domination based on military superiority and economic manipulation under the guise of globalization. The United States had become accustomed to its hegemony over the parts the world not dominated by the Soviet Union and intended to enlarge its scope when the USSR disappeared.Ê

 When the Cold War seemed to 'end,' the U.S. did not demobilize but instead continued its system of alliances and bases around the world and launched extensive strategic and intellectual efforts to find new threats and situations that demanded its imperial attention. These included an alleged need for a 'humanitarian war' against Serbia, renewed intervention in the Chinese civil war on behalf of Taiwan and in order to maintain 'stability' throughout the Asia-Pacific region, the opening of a new front against left-wing social reform movements in Colombia while continuing to train and equip virtually all the armies of Latin America, and, after September 11, 2001, a unilateral assertion of American hegemony over the entire world under the guise of fighting a presidentially declared 'war on terrorism' and against rogue states.

American leaders are reluctant toÊ acknowledge that the people of East Asia have tried to end the Cold War in their region and that the United States has done everything it could think of to sabotage their efforts. In June 2000, the leaders of North and South Korea, without having obtained the permission of the United States, met in the North Korean capital and started a process looking toward the reunification of the Korean peninsula. The meeting allowed President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea to proclaim, 'The North will no longer attempt unification by force and, at the same time, we will not do any harm to the North. The most important outcome of the summit is that there is no longer going to be any war.'1Ê The South Korean president won the Nobel Peace Prize in the year 2000 for his efforts. But this development ran directly counter to the interests of the American military establishment, the American arms industry, and America's position as hegemon of East Asia, and it spread panic among American strategists and intelligence operatives. In his 'axis of evil' speech of January 29, 2002, in which President George W. Bush singled out Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the next targets of American military intervention, he sought to scuttle the emerging hopes for peace on the Korean peninsula.

Similarly, the Cold War in Latin America has not ended and instead entered a new, more virulent stage in Colombia when in July 2000 the U.S. military intervened under cover of fighting the 'drug war.' Following the pattern of the U.S.'s Vietnam-like operations in Central America throughout the 1980s, this new phase in South America includes clandestine operations, environmental degradation, right-wing death squads, and mammoth arms sales.

More than ten years after the demise of the Soviet Union, the U.S. is deploying some 254,783 military personnel in 139 countries around the world, including 26,000 serving on naval vessels in foreign waters.2Ê The people of the United States make up perhaps four percent of the world's population but consume forty percent of its resources. They exercise hegemony over the world directly through overwhelming military might and indirectly through organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. Although largely dominated by the American government, these are formally international organizations and so beyond Congressional oversight.

In February 1998, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, defending the use of cruise missiles against Iraq, declared that 'If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see farther into the future.'3 The evidence suggests precisely the opposite. I believe that America's role is not disinterested but instead grew out of the structural characteristics of the Cold War and the strategies the U.S. pursued, particularly in East Asia, to achieve what it thought were its interests. The United States created satellites in East Asia for the identical same reasons that the former Soviet Union created satellites in East Europe. During the course of the Cold War, the USSR intervened militarily to try to hold its empire together in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The United States intervened militarily to try to hold its empire together in Korea and Vietnam. The United States, incidentally, killed a great many more people in its two losing interventions than the USSR did in its two winning interventions.

The richest satellite in the Soviet empire was former East Germany; the richest satellite in the American empire remains Japan. Japan today, much like East Germany before the wall came down, is a rigged economy almost totally dependent on its political relationship with the United States. During the Cold War in Europe and for the decade thereafter, the U.S. offered Japan a deal: it would get unrestricted access to the American market and toleration of its protectionism in return for Japan's acceptance and willingness to pay for American troops based permanently on its soil. For the first half of the Cold War, down to about 1970, the U.S. also encouraged Japan to take positive advantage of these terms in order to prosper economically. Economic growth was the American way of inoculating the Japanese against communism, neutralism, socialism, and other potentially anti-American political orientations.Ê

Over time, this arrangement produced gross overinvestment and excess capacity in Japanese industries. It also produced the world's largest trade deficits in the United States (over $300 billion per year at the beginning of the new millennium), huge trade surpluses in Japan, and a lack of even an approximation of equilibrium in supply and demand across the Pacific. Moreover, contrary to communist accusations of neocolonialism, it was costly to the United States in terms of lost American jobs, destroyed American manufacturing industries, and smashed hopes of American minorities and women trying to escape from poverty.

The American government continued to accept these costs as the price of keeping its empire together. From about the Nixon administration on, the U.S. did start to negotiate more or less seriously with the Japanese to open their markets to American goods and to 'level the playing field.' But attempts to lessen trade friction and open reciprocal markets always collided with the security relationship. In order to level the economic playing field, the United States would also have had to level the security playing field, and this it was never willing to do.

Perhaps these American policies made strategic sense during the period from approximately 1950 to 1970, when they also had the desirable consequence of bringing real competition to such complacent industries as American automobile manufacturing. But today these old policies are utterly destructive to the security and economic well-being of both the U.S. and Japan. They continue to alter the American economic system away from manufacturing and toward finance capitalism, and they prevent Japan from producing an economy that can stand alone and trade with other economies on a mutually beneficial basis. The day of reckoning for American pride and Japanese myopia cannot be very far away.

In 1995 an incident occurred that revealed more clearly the relationship between the United States and Japan as one of an imperial power and its dependent satellite. On September 4, 1995, two U.S. Marines and a sailor from Camp Hansen, located in Kin village in central Okinawa, kidnapped and gang-raped a twelve-year-old schoolgirl they had picked out at random. This incident was bad enough, but it was what followed over the succeeding years that forces one to reexamine the American role in Japan and, by extension, to consider the American role in the world throughout the so-called Cold War era.

The Okinawan rape produced the most serious crisis in Japanese-American relations since the riots that accompanied the renewal of the Security Treaty in 1960. It illuminated the costs to the 1.3 million Okinawans of the numerous American military bases located in an overcrowded space smaller than the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. It revealed that Washington and Tokyo were quite prepared to force the Okinawans to bear burdens during peacetime that the citizens of the Japanese mainland or of the United States would not even contemplate assuming for themselves. The United States treated the Okinawan rape incident not as a symptom of a need to change its policy but as a public relations problem. It endlessly spun the case as a singular tragedy, not typical of the American armed forces or of their major military installations located in other people's countries (even though Okinawa actually has a higher rate of rapes of local women than any other place on earth where the American military is located). There are today still 38 American bases in Okinawa, and a new one is scheduled to be built on an environmentally sensitive site in the northern part of the island, at Nago.

During the early Cold War years, the problem in East Asia was that national communist parties had taken over the leadership of movements for liberation from European, Japanese, and American colonialism. Since the U.S. was supporting the Europeans in their attempts to keep their colonies, it ended up on the wrong side of history in supporting the Kuomintang over the communists in China and South Vietnam instead of Ho Chi-minh. In South Korea, the role played by the United States from 1945 to the present has, until recently, been almost totally suppressed except for the Korean War. But in the spring of 1980, for example, the U.S. aided South Korean troops who were killing hundreds of South Korean civilians at Kwangju when they were demonstrating for democracy and against the country's American-backed military dictator, General Chun Doo Hwan. This incident, almost totally ignored by the AmericanÊ news media, is quite comparable to the Chinese government's suppression of democratic demonstrators at Tiananmen in 1989.4 Today we are in grave danger of re-entering the Philippines militarily under the guise of fighting terrorism, when the Philippine public does not want us there and if the Philippine government allows it, there may very well be a military coup.

One of the prime consequences of the long and persistent period of Cold War, as well as our continuation of it into the present, is the development of militarism in America. By militarism, I mean the phenomenon in which a nation's armed services come to put their own institutional preservation ahead of their effectiveness in achieving national security or the integrity of the government of which they are a part. Related to this internal transformation of our military is the progressive displacement by the armed forces of most of the other institutions within the government that conduct relations with other nations. A sign of militarism is when a nation relies on its armed forces to perform numerous tasks for which they are unqualified, and indeed where their particular capabilities are almost guaranteed to make a situation worse. Classical tools of international relations, such as diplomacy, foreign aid, treaties defining mutually acceptable behavior, international education, support for international law, and the making of one's country into a model of international behavior, atrophy as the carrier task force and cruise missiles become the first choices in dealing with global problems.

Militarism implies that the armed services have or are about to pass beyond effective political control and have become the de facto or explicit governing class of a society. It is a common phenomenon around the worldÑexamples include much of Latin America during the 1970s, Suharto's Indonesia from 1965 to 1998, South Korea from 1961 to 1993, and Pakistan today. American political leaders, from Washington's farewell address to Eisenhower's identification of the 'military-industrial complex,' have warned against the dangers of militarism to a democratic society; but since the end of the Cold War these warnings have gone unheeded.

The onset of militarism is commonly marked by three broad indicators. These are, first, the emergence and glorification of a professional military class; second, a preponderance of military officers or representatives of the arms industry in key positions throughout the government; and third, a wild overemphasis on military preparedness as the first priority of the state.

A professional military class began to emerge in the United States after the Vietnam War. When it became apparent that the military draft was being administered in an unequal mannerÑuniversity students were exempted while the weight of forced military service fell disproportionately on minorities and those with insufficient means to avoid itÑthe U.S. government chose to abolish the draft rather than apply it equitably. Henceforth, serving in the military was no longer a normal obligation of U.S. citizenship. Service in the armed forces is today entirely voluntary and has become a route of social mobility for those to whom other channels of advancement are often blockedÑmuch as was the case in the former Imperial Japanese Army during the 1930s, where conscription was in effect but city dwellers were commonly deferred for health reasons.

Vietnam also contributed to the advance of militarism because the United States lost the war. This defeat was disillusioning to all American elites and set off a never concluded debate about what 'lessons' were to be learned from it. For the newly ascendant far right in American politics, Vietnam became a just war that the left wing did not have the will or courage to win. Whether they truly believed this or not, rightist political leaders came to some quite specific conclusions. As Christian Appy observes in his book Working-Class War, 'For Reagan and Bush, the central lesson of Vietnam was not that foreign policy had to be more democratic, but the opposite: it had to become ever more the province of national security managers who operated without the close scrutiny of the media, the oversight of Congress, or accountability to an involved public.'5Ê The result has been the emergence of a 'general staff' of professional militarists that classifies as secret everything they do and that has thoroughly infiltrated other branches of government.

Not all of these militarists wear uniforms. One consequence of the way the United States waged war in Vietnam was to undercut the venerable distinction between civilians who make policy and professional military officers who execute it. President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara shifted responsibility for real planning away from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ad hoc committees composed principally of civilian analysts and attorneys, whose main goal was to obtain a consensus consistent with the president's pursuit of a middle path between disengagement and war. In the Reagan administration, a vast array of amateur strategists and Star Wars enthusiasts occupied the White House and sought to place their allies in positions of authority in the Pentagon. The result was the development of a kind of military opportunism, with the military paying court to the pet schemes of politicians while also preparing for lucrative post-retirement positions in the arms industry or military think tanks. Top military leaders began to say what they thought their political superiors wanted to hear, and they also undertook covertly to maintain and enlarge the interests of their individual services.

These tendencies accelerated and became entrenched during the 1990s and the opening years of the twenty-first century. Lobbyists and representatives of groups wanting to maintain hegemonic relationships took charge of making virtually all politico-military policy, particularly in East Asia, where prior to September 11 the possibilities for a new Cold War seemed most promising to them.6 They often sought to eliminate or counter expertise that stood in their way; and the influence of the State Department within the U.S. government has notably withered. For example, Kurt M. Campbell, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Clinton administration, noted approvingly that U.S. policy toward China has increasingly been taken over by a new 'Ôstrategic class'Ñthat collection of academics, commentators and policymakers whose ideas help define the national interest.' He says that this new crop of military experts, of which he is a charter member, is likely not to know much about China but instead to have 'a background in strategic studies or international relations' and to be particularly watchful 'for signs of China's capacity for menace.'7 These are the typical attitudes of a militarist.

The second political hallmark of militarism is the preponderance of military officers or representatives of the arms industry occupying offices normally reserved for civilians. During 2001, the administration of George W. Bush filled many of the chief American diplomatic posts with militarists, including the secretary of state, Gen. Colin Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, a former military officer and undersecretary of Defense in the Reagan administration. The secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, served previously as secretary of defense some twenty-six years earlier, in entirely different political times and circumstances. The vice president, Richard Cheney, was also a former secretary of defense. At the Pentagon itself, President Bush nominated Albert Smith, a Lockheed-Martin vice president, for the post of undersecretary of the airforce; Gordon England, a vice-president of General Dynamics, for secretary of the navy; and James Roche, an executive with Northrup-Grumman and a retired brigadier general, for the post of secretary of the air force. It should be noted that Lockheed-Martin is the world's largest arms manufacturer, selling $17.93 billion worth of military hardware in 1999. On October 26, 2001, the Pentagon awarded Lockheed-Martin a $200 billion contract, the largest military contract in American history, to build the F-35 'joint-strike fighter,' an aircraft that might have been needed during the Cold War but that is irrelevant to the probable military problems of the 21st century.

Richard Gardner, a former U.S. ambassador to Spain and Italy, estimates that the United States spends more on preparing for war than on trying to prevent war by a ratio of at least 16 to 1.8 Policies that attempt to prevent war by eliminating the underlying conditions that breed social discontent or that try to mitigate misunderstandings among nations include: programs for reforming the world capitalist system to make it equitable, promoting health, seeking to achieve food security, providing humanitarian assistance to refugees, safeguarding nuclear materials and stopping their proliferation, economic aid generally in areas of potential conflict such as Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, and the Balkans, and activities such as the international exchange of students and scholars in the Fulbright program. The United States is notoriously delinquent in paying its dues to the United Nations and is at least $490 million in arrears to the various multilateral development banks. By comparison the United States will spend at least $340 billion on defense in 2002 and is well on its way, following the terrorist attacks, toward defense budgets in the range of $400 billion to $700 billion.

The United States Constitution of 1787 establishes a clear separation between the activities of the armed forces in the defense of the country and domestic policing under the penal codes of the various states. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 was enacted to prevent the military from engaging in police activities in the United States without the consent of Congress or the president. However, with the rise of militarism and particularly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, these old distinctions have been eroded. The military has expanded the meaning of national security to include counter-terrorism, interdicting drug traffickers, preparing for natural disasters, and controlling immigration, all areas in which it actively participates.

The Department of Defense has drafted operation ordersÊ to respond to what it calls a 'CIDCON,' a 'civilian disorder condition.' When it declares a CIDCON, it plans to intervene and take control of civilian life. During the Republican Party's convention in Philadelphia in August 2000, for example, the Pentagon placed on alert in case of a large-scale terrorist incident a 'Joint Task Force-Civil Support' based at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and 'Task Force 250,' ready to go into battle to restore order. Task Force 250 is actually the Army's 82nd Airborne Division based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Several civilian agencies, including the F.B.I., the Public Health Service, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have expressed dismay at the growing role of the military in their respective spheres of responsibility. It is not at all obvious to me which is a greater threat to the safety and integrity of the citizens of the United StatesÑthe possibility of a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction or an out-of-control military intent on displacing elected officials who stand in their way.

The third hallmark of militarism is a devotion to policies in which military preparedness becomes the highest priority for the state. In his inaugural address, President George W. Bush said, 'We will build our defenses beyond challenge, lest weakness invite challenge. We will confront weapons of mass destruction, so that a new century is spared new horrors.' But there is no nation that has the capability to challenge the United States militarily. Even as the new president spoke, the Stockholm International Peace Institute was compiling the 2001 edition of its authoritative SIPRI Yearbook. It shows that global military spending rose to $798 billion in 2000, an increase of 3.1 percent from the previous year. The United States accounted for 37 percent of that amount, by far the largest proportion. It was also the world's largest arms salesman, being responsible for 47 percent of all munitions transfers between 1996 and 2000. The United States was thus already well prepared for war when Bush came into office. Since his administration is nonetheless devoted to enlarging America's military capabilityÑa sign of militarism rather than of military preparednessÑit has invented new threats. China has long been one of the Republican party's special targets of vilification, despite the fact that since 1978 China has turned decisively toward a strategy of commercial integration with the rest of the world.

On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3E 'Aries II' electronic espionage aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter plane off Hainan Island. The American aircraft was on a mission to provoke Chinese defenses and then record the transmissions and procedures the Chinese use in sending up their interceptors. One Chinese pilot lost his life, while all twenty-four American spies landed safely on Hainan and were taken well care of by the Chinese authorities. It soon became clear that China, which is the third largest recipient of foreign direct investment on earth today, after the United States and Britain, was not interested in a military confrontation with the U.S., where many of its most important investors have their headquarters. But it could not instantly return the crew of the spy plane without provoking powerful domestic criticism of its obsequiousness in the face of American provocation and belligerence. It therefore delayed for eleven days, until it received from the U.S. a pro forma apology for causing the death a Chinese pilot on the edge of Chinese territorial air space and for making an unauthorized landing at a Chinese military airfield. Meanwhile, the American government demanded the immediate return of the crew, called them 'hostages,' and encouraged their relatives to tie yellow ribbons around trees near their homes. The incident allowed Washington's militarists to promote their view that hostility between a commercially-oriented China and a jealously hegemonic United States is inevitable and that a war between them is likely to break out sometime in the first quarter of this century.

The other main arena of war-scare propaganda has been the Bush administration's attempt to convince the American public and the other nations of the world that the United States needs to build a 'ballistic missile defense' to protect itself from 'rogue states,' a euphemism for three or four very small and economically insignificant nations: Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and perhaps Libya. China opposes the so-called ballistic missile defense (BMD) because it suspects that it is actually aimed at neutralizing China's minuscule nuclear deterrent, and all of America's main allies are reluctant to go along with it, fearing that the BMD would unleash an arms race in missiles in order to overwhelm such defenses with numbers. Nonetheless, the Bush administration is determined to go ahead with this unproven and highly destabilizing system, and the patriotic euphoria following the attacks of September 11, 2001, caused the Congress to vote all the money the Pentagon requested to get started.

The Bush administration's BMD campaign includes doing everything in its power to hide official information on how it is likely to malfunction and the hazards this entails. For example, the Pentagon has continued to suppress the report written in August 2000 by Philip E. Coyle, then director of operational testing and evaluation at the Department of Defense, despite six different Congressional requests for it. Among other things Coyle documents how the command and control system of the BMD is easily confused and has in the past caused a simulated launch of multiple interceptors against missiles that did not exist. Representative John Tierney (D-Mass) commented that 'One immediate danger in these types of situations is that adversaries may interpret these launches as a hostile first strike and respond accordingly.'9 Defense Secretary Rumsfeld says that he wants a national missile defense even if it has not been thoroughly tested and is admittedly not able to perform to specifications.

The United States's nuclear arsenal today is comprised of 5,400 multiple megaton warheads atop intercontinental ballistic missiles based on land and sea; an additional 1,750 nuclear bombs and cruise missiles ready to be launched from B-2 and B-52 bombers; and a further 1,670 nuclear weapons classified as 'tactical.' Not fully deployed but available are an additional 10,000 or so nuclear warheads in bunkers around the United States. One would think this is more than enough preparedness to deter the four puny nations the United States identifies as potential adversariesÑtwo of which, Iran and North Korea, have been trying to achieve somewhat friendlier relations with the U.S. despite the decades of hostility and clandestine interference in their societies. The overkill in the enormous American nuclear arsenal and its lack of any rational connection between means and ends is clear evidence of militarism in the United States.

The attitudes and policies that underlie American militarism and imperialism are at least fifty years old and not easily changed. They go back to the tense postwar situation in Europe, the U.S. obsession with China following the communist victory there, and the discovery that anti-communism could be used to advance traditional American interests in Latin America. The imperialism that these ideological positions bolster was always there but it came into the open only with the end of the European Cold War, when the United States began trumpeting its status as the 'last remaining superpower.' It seems unlikely to me that the U.S. will soon abandon or moderate its international agenda. The unavoidable conclusion, therefore, is that the American empire, like that of the former Soviet Union, is in the not too distant future likely to succumb to internal contradictions, imperial overstretch, and an inability to reform.


1.Kim Dae Jung, 'Only a Unified Korea Can Survive in the Coming Information Age,' Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2000.

2.Joseph Farah, 'The American Empire,' WorldNetDaily, May 7, 2001, on line at <http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=22721>; and Financial Times, February 18, 2002, p. 4.

3.Quoted in Andrew J. Bacevich and Lawrence F. Kaplan, 'Battle Wary,' The New Republic, May 25, 1998, p. 20.

4.On the Kwangju massacre, see Lee Jae-eui, Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series, 1999); Henry Scott-Stokes and Lee Jae-eui, eds., The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Accounts of Korea's Tiananmen (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2000); and Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000), chap. 4, 'South Korea: Legacy of the Cold War.'

5.Christian G. Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), p. 5.

6.See Chalmers Johnson, 'In Search of a New Cold War,' Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October 1999, pp. 44-51.

7.Kurt M. Campbell, 'China Watchers Fighting A Turf War of Their Own,' New York Times, May 20, 2000. The Times nowhere identifies Campbell as a former Pentagon official.

8.Richard Gardner, 'Foreign Policy on the Cheap,' Financial Times, June 8, 2001.

9.Gail Kaufman and Gopal Ratnam, Space News, June 13, 2001. For earlier efforts to cover-up the BMD's failings, see William J. Broad, 'Missile Contractor Doctored Tests, Ex-Employee Charges' New York Times, March 7, 2000; and Broad, 'Pentagon Classifies a Letter Critical of Antimissile Plan,' New York Times, May 20, 2000.

Chalmers Johnson is president of the Japan Policy Research Institute. This paper was delivered as the keynote address to the Conference on the Unfinished Business of the Cold War, University of Kansas, April 13, 2002.

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