Telling the People’s Story: A Tribute to Chalmers Johnson

From Korea, 1980, to New Orleans, 2005:

How I came to be a humanitarian journalist

For Chalmers Johnson, a great man who died this weekend.

In February 1996, I broke a major story on U.S. foreign policy, reporting for the first time how the United States government and the Carter administration had secretly backed the South Korean government in its 1980 crackdown on a nation-wide movement to end military rule. The May 1980 coup led directly to the massacre of hundreds of activists by South Korean Special Forces in the Korean city of Kwangju. My stories appeared on the first day of the trial in Seoul of the two generals and former presidents who had led the coup; both were later convicted for murder and treason. The stories were a sensation in South Korea. But, to my shock, they were virtually ignored by the U.S. media, including both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, which had covered the 1980 events in detail. I concluded that nobody here really cared, and went back to my regular beat, covering trade and transportation for the Journal of Commerce.

About 10 days after my stories appeared, a three-page, single-spaced fax came in for me from somewhere in San Diego. It was from Chalmers Johnson, a former professor of Asian Studies at the University of California who I knew by reputation as an excellent writer and commentator on Japan, Asia and U.S. foreign policy. In the fax, Chalmers praised my stories and said they had confirmed what he suspected about the U.S. role in South Korea during the Cold War, which he was then investigating for a book that he would later publish under the title of BLOWBACK: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. To make sure that my work received broader coverage, he invited me to speak at a conference he was organizing on the legacy of the Cold War in Asia later that year in San Francisco.  There, I met Chal, as I came to know him, and presented my findings on Kwangju. I also met many of Chal’s friends and colleagues, including Steve Clemons, who had lived in Japan as well and is now the vice president of the New America Foundation in Washington. That conference was a turning point in my writing career, lifting me out of journalist obscurity and putting me in touch with many other writers and analysts who I’d long admired from afar.

An even greater surprise greeted me when BLOWBACK was published a few years later. In his chapter on Korea, Chalmers not only cited my work on the U.S. role in Kwangju, but wrote me into his book.

Our understanding of what happened…in the South Korea of late 1979 owes a great deal to the efforts of an American journalist, Tim Shorrock, who was raised in Seoul as the child of American missionaries. Shorrock has used the Freedom of Information Act [to force] the U.S. government to divulge some two thousand diplomatic and military cables concerning Korea to and from the State Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency in 1979 and 1980….Most of the cables are from a secret policy-making group that the Carter administration set up ten days after the assassination of Park Chung Hee [in October 1979]…As revealed in these documents, the primary goal of the United States was to keep South Korea from turning into ‘another Iran.’ Towards this goal, the American were quite prepared to see General Park replaced by a new, perhaps more malleable general who would effectively suppress the rising calls for democracy that might prove ‘destabilizing.’

Chalmer’s last book, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope, was published earlier this year. In one of his chapters, again to my delight, he quoted extensively from my 2008 book, Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. “I applaud Shorrock for his extraordinary research into an almost inpenetrable subject using only openly available sources,” he wrote. My findings, he said, were “devastating.” But then, in typical Chalmers fashion, he called me out on my use of language.

There is, however, one aspect of [Shorrock's] analysis which which I differ. This is his contention that the wholesale takeover of official intelligence collection and analysis by private companies is a form of “outsourcing.” This term is usually restricted to a business enterprise buying goods and services that it does not want to manufacture or supply in-house. When it is applied to a governmental agency that turns over many, if not all, of its key functions to a risk-averse company trying to make a return on its investment, “outsourcing” simply becomes a euphemism for mercenary activities.

He was so right. So, from now on, Chal, I’ll use that term: mercenaries.

I owe Chalmers Johnson a huge debt. By making me feel that my years of work and research on U.S. foreign policy were worthwhile, he helped launch my second career as an independent journalist. He is also noteworthy for his courage and honesty as an intellectual who was able to question his earlier support for the Vietnam War and forge a new way of looking at America and its past. I salute Chal for his life and work, which is beautifully profiled here by his friend and protege, Steve Clemons. As a tribute, I offer this essay, which explains my own philosophy of what I call “humanitarian journalism” – a way of writing about the world that is due in no small part to the courageous and pioneering work of the late, great Chalmers Johnson. Presente!

How I came to be a humanitarian journalist

By Tim Shorrock

In the fall of 2008, I was asked to speak at a conference organized by Alexis Dudden, a professor at the University of Connecticut, on Humanitarianism and Responsibility. Most of the speakers were human rights activists, and I was honored to be the only journalist. In my talk, I explained how I had become an investigative and humanitarian journalist and focused on two events that completely changed my life: my coverage of Korea in 1980 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Here’s what I said:

When Alexis first asked me to speak here, she suggested that I talk about my experiences as a journalist writing about South Korea during the 1980s and New Orleans and the US Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. She saw a connection between my reporting in both instances. That was intriguing to me because 1) those experiences were among the most moving and emotionally jarring experiences of my adult life and certainly the highlights of my career as an investigative journalist and 2) nobody had ever suggested that those stories might be connected.

But as I began to think about the topic of this conference I had to figure out how my Korea and Katrina reporting would fit into our theme. How could I define it in the context of humanitarianism and responsibility? Particularly when journalists typically report about humanitarian disasters and situations from the perspective of observers, but rarely actually participate in them. And suddenly the answer loomed: I should talk about humanitarian journalism. It occured to me that that’s what I’ve been practicing all these years – without even knowing it. So today I’m going to create a new genre of journalism.

Let me start with my experiences in Korea. In 1980 a terrible event occured in Kwangju, a city in southwestern Korea that was the birthplace of Kim Dae Jung, South Korea’s former president and its most famous dissident. On May 18, 1980, hundreds of students and democratic activists were shot down and bayonetted to death in the wake of a violent military coup in which Kim Dae Jung – who’d nearly been murdered by the Korean CIA seven years earlier – was arrested and nearly executed. In response to the savagery of the Korean Special Forces who were responsible for the bloodshed that day, the citizens of Kwangju, who were well organized after years of oppression, took up guns and chased the military out of town. For seven days a citizens’ committee held the city, negotiating with the military to seek a peaceful end to the crisis. It was the first uprising against military rule in South Korea since the Korean War and is widely seen there as a turning point in Korea’s democratic movement.

At the time of the uprising, a US military general commanded the combined South Korean-US Joint Command – just as it does now. One of the most powerful figures in the country was the American ambassador, the late William Gleysteen. With Korean and US forces surrounding the city, the Kwangju Citizens Committee made a desperate attempt to bring Mr. Gleysteen into the negotiations. But taking his command from President Jimmy Carter, a man who had pledged to make human rights the centerpiece of US foreign policy, Gleysteen refused. On May 22, 1980, at a meeting at the White House, Carter’s national security team – led by national security adviser Zbigniew Brzenzski and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke – made a fateful decision to deploy Korean troops from the DMZ, the border with the North Korea, to put down the uprising.

Under my FOIA request, the secret minutes of that meeting were declassified. After a full discussion, the minutes stated, “there was general agreement that the first priority is the restoration of order in Kwangju by the Korean authorities with the minimum use of force necessary without laying the seeds for wide disorders later…Once order is restored, it was agreed we must press the Korean government, and the military in particular, to allow a greater degree of political freedom to evolve,” the White House decided. The U.S. position was summed up by Mr. Brzezinski as ”in the short-term support, in the longer-term pressure for political evolution.” But over the next eight years South Koreans endured one of the harshest police states in the world. And the people never forgot that all this had occured under a US president promising respect for human rights.

Even though I was living in the United States at the time, I was following these events almost on a minute by minute basis. In 1980, I was a graduate student in Asian Studies at the University of Oregon, and writing a thesis about the South Korean economy and its dependence on low-cost and unorganized workers. Workers and unions played a huge role in the democratic movement. I was shocked and ashamed that my government had aided and abetted a government that oppressed its citizens. A year after the Kwangju Uprising I went to the city and learned first-hand about the events there. I returned in 1985 and met many activists, some recently released from prison, who told me more stories and described their anger at the betrayal of the United States. Tell the American people why we are so angry, they asked me. Explain to them what we’ve been through. Make them understand that we believed America supported democracy, but when democracy was on the line, your leaders let us down. Tell Americans that we Koreans will never forget. I promised them that I would, and I promised myself that I would try to unravel the truth of the disgraceful American role in the events.

Why was I so outraged? Well, I had grown up in South Korea and Japan and had been raised by parents who spent their life serving humanitarian causes. My dad had learned the Japanese language while serving in the Navy during World War II and he and my mom, after meeting down the road from here at Yale Divinity School, had gone to Japan in 1947 as missionaries. For most of the next 20 years my dad provided humanitarin relief to Japan and South Korea sent by US churches. They both had a lifelong commitment to healing the wounds of war and improving the lives of people who had previously been America’s enemies. Their commitment placed a heavy burden on me and my siblings – not always a welcome one, I must add. But it nurtured in me a sense that I owed something to humanity and the knowledge that there were many many people less fortunate than me. And a belief that I had a responsibility to somehow make others aware of these truths.

Later, after South Korea became a democracy, the Korean parliament began looking into the events at Kwangju. The Bush administration refused to allow the US ambassador and the top US general to testify; instead it wrote a “white paper” explaining US actions. I read it carefully. After visiting Kwangju twice and reading everything I could find about the incident, I concluded it was full of holes. I filed a freedom of information request for all the background documents. By 1996 I had compiled over 3,500 pages of declassified documents.

They showed that, far from being ignorant of what the Korean military was planning in May 1980, the United States 1) gave the Korean generals a green light to use military forces to end the nationwide, peaceful protest movement that spread throughout South Korea in the spring of 1980 and 2) knew ahead of time that the generals were sending special forces troops trained to kill North Koreans to Kwangju and other hotspots.

We did not pull the trigger of the guns at Kwangju. But our government was complicit in the killing. To this day, no American official has ever acknowledged this or taken responsibility. But thanks to the documents I obtained, historians such as Chalmers Johnson and Don Oberdorfer have been able to write that the American role was far more direct than was ever admitted. Those documents told the truth. It’s one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. While my reporting on that story was fair, it was not objective – I took the side of the Korean democratic fighters who risked and lost their lives at the hands of one of the most vicious police states ever seen in Asia. My stories came from my identification with humanity and the truth. For a journalist there is nothing more important.

That’s also what drove me to report on Hurricane Katrina, which was in part a man-made tragedy where the government utterly failed to serve the people it is supposed to represent.

At the time of the hurricane I was living in Memphis, Tennessee. I was shocked along with most of the world at the inhumane response of the Bush administration. The thousands of people begging for help and  rescue. President Bush playing air guitar while the nation wept. Telling his FEMA chief, “Brownie,” that he was doing a ‘heck of a job’ as the terrible events unfolded. I soon heard about a free clinic that had sprung up during the hurricane to help the poor and dispossessed. This was amazing to me because I knew from first hand experience that hundreds of nurses had contacted the Red Cross and the government to volunteer their services – only to be told that there was no need. Another lie.

I went down to the clinic, which was called Common Ground, in late September – about 3 weeks after the storm. I stayed in New Orleans for weeks afterward, and later spent a lot of time on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It was heartbreaking.

Remember, I grew up in postwar Asia. I’ve seen a lot of destruction. But nothing like I saw in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, where the flooding from the collapse of the levees was the worst. For blocks in every direction it was complete destruction. Empty lots where houses once stood. Cars on roofs. Big black marks showing how many bodies had been found in certain houses. It looked like a war zone. People evacuated as far as Utah, not knowing if they’d ever see their homes and neighborhoods again. And all our government did was hand out big contracts to giant corporations and asked them to lead the ‘reconstruction’ – for a profit of course. The people, the suffering people, were last on their list.

When I was down there I felt an intense sense of shame. I was ashamed that my government could let its own citizens down like this. I was ashamed that a proud African American community, with an amazing cultural heritage, could be abandoned like so much lost cattle. And I was angry at the excuses and explanations from Bush and his minions. The racist response of people like Rush Limbaugh that the people of New Orleans just wanted a handout – statements he repeated this year when flooding struck white Iowa. I yearned, and still do, for a government that cared for its citizens. All I could think of while I was there was – we need a new New Deal, like Roosevelt started. We need a Works Progress Administration – giving jobs to youths and anyone else who wanted to help New Orleans rebuild. We still need that.

But most of all I was struck by the humanity and dignity of the people living there. There’s one day I’ll never forget as long as I live. I was in New Orleans on assignment for Mother Jones with a photographer friend, Kike Arnal, who’s from Venezuela. We’d spent the last few days in the Ninth Ward walking around. The only people in the area were rescue workers, the police and the National Guard. One day the city announced that homeowners could go back to their neighborhoods for the first time. Kike and I showed up at a big crossroads in the Ninth Ward.

As Kike and I drove up, we spotted a family getting out of a van and pulling on white overclothes to protect themselves as they entered their homes for the first time since the storm. We asked them if we could accompany them, and they readily agreed. It was a family of four: Evelyn Gilbert, and her three sons, all in their 50s: Rhett, Gustaf and Daniel. I felt privileged to be with them on such a sacred moment. Kike and I followed them slowly down North Claiborne and into a little cul-de-sac near the canal. We stopped and got out in front of a long white house completely off its foundation. Next to it was a tiny blue structure, leaning crazily to one side with its roof caving in. It had been Evelyn’s home, and was built in 1978, she said; the rest of the family lived next door. The heavy line at the top of the roofs showed that both houses had been almost completely under water.

As the Gilbert brothers explored their property, I hung back, feeling like an interloper and trying to avoid being intrusive. After a while, I asked Evelyn, who didn’t want to go near her house, where she was when the water came. She told me she was evacuated on the Friday before the storm, and ended up in Houston; she’s now staying in Mississippi with family. She watched anxiously as her sons pushed open her front door and gingerly took a few steps inside the destroyed house. Finally, Rhett walked out carrying a portable barbeque. “We found something at least,” he said. “But it’s the only thing salvageable.” He dusted it off as best he could and loaded it into the van.

Gustaf and Daniel then went to look at their house as Rhett told me a little about the neighborhood. “I was born and raised here, and this is the only place I know,” he said. “I know this city like the back of my hand.” He motioned to the other broken structures near their property. “All these are kin-folk. Used to walk to the church over there, the store.” Now, he said, he lives in Dallas, and everywhere he walks he runs into another freeway; worse, the services he needs are far away. He had no idea if he and his family will return, or where his former neighbors are. Finished with their short tour, the Gilbert family shook hands with Kike and me and slowly drove away. All I could do was sit inside my car and weep.

Later that day Kike and I ran across Michelle McKenney Jones outside of her family home in the Lower Ninth that was built by her grandfather in 1953 and where her mother lived until Hurricane Katrina and Rita swept through the area. Jones sighed as she surveyed the house, which was knocked off its foundations and is now uninhabitable. The social impact of the disaster in the Ninth Ward, she said, was compounded because this neighborhood once had the highest percentage of black homeownership in the entire Parish of Orleans. Then she paused as her emotions caught up with her.

“You’ve got to be our voice,” she told me and Kike. “This community doesn’t have a voice. Nobody seems to be listening to us. Represent us, please.” As she spoke, tears filled her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. Kike and I stood with her in silence for a minute, trying to share her grief, and assured her that we would hold her words in our hearts. And I did tell her story. And I’m telling it to you now.

So what motivated me in both cases were the pleas of the victims and survivors – tell our story because no one else will: “Be our voice.” I heard almost the exact same words when I was reporting in Kwangju. I took those words like a solemn vow. Another motivation was the callousness of the government. Once, after my first visit to Kwangju, I met with the political officer at the US Embassy in Seoul. He told me the stories I’d heard about massive killing were exagerrations. Even the ones from the American missionaries, he said. Much later, when I got the documents, I was told officially by the State Department that, while Kwangju was a tragedy, “When all the dust settles, Koreans killed Koreans, and the Americans didn’t know what was going on and certainly didn’t approve it.”

Yet we trained these soldiers. We financed them. We told them their job was to defend their country against communism – and their own generals told them the rebels in Kwangju were communsts, to be treated like dogs (a statement that was repeated almost word for word on ABC’s Nightline by US General John Singlaub). Once I confronted Richard Holbrooke about Kwangju, and he literally screamed at me, explaining I had no real understanding of the national security stakes involved.

It was the same with Katrina. Nobody took responsibility. Brownie was fired, sure. But all the corporations that failed miserably to help – like the ones who couldn’t get the buses to New Orleans on time, or the ones who supplied the trailers filled with formaldahyde that poisoned – and still poison – so many residents of the Gulf – they got paid. Soon, America forgot what happened. Katrina was a national disgrace. There’s no other way to look at it. And that’s because it’s my responsibility as a journalist and a human being to speak for those who have no voice.

In other words, the truth of those residents of New Orleans and Kwangju is all of our truth. Humanitarianism means understanding the truth of lives we know nothing about. Responsibility means doing something to alleviate their pain and make sure their suffering never happens again. And to me that is the ultimate responsibilty of journalism – to go where ordinary people can’t go and tell the stories of those who suffer so the rest of the world can do something. It’s not “objective” journalism. There’s not “another side” to the story. It’s exposing reality – placing it before the public so they can’t hide from it. And our leaders can’t hide from it. It means taking risks. It means coming off like a fanatic sometime. It means making other people uncomfortable and even angry. And it means being human, and taking responsibility for the other inhabitants of this planet, and saying NO to the powers that be.

This entry was posted in Katrina/Gulf Coast, Korea, Kwangju Declassified. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Telling the People’s Story: A Tribute to Chalmers Johnson

  1. eugenio Leong says:

    Dear Tim Shorrock
    I feel so grateful that in America we still can find a writer, a journalist like yourself…..only people like you can someday put America back to its greatness.

    eugenefrom canada

  2. John Wilson says:

    What a wonderful eulogy for Chalmers Johnson, he will be missed.

    You write movingly about the pain of the Korean people, suffering in spite of the purported US ideals to promote democracy abroad. I am reminded that the Carter administration also supported the death squad government of El Salvador as well, but for a brief moment suspended all military aid only when the American nuns and Jean Donovan were found brutally murdered in late 1980 by the Salvadoran National Guard. The US isn’t interested in justice or democracy, it just wants political and economic stability, even if that means supporting a dictator in order to have it. How sad that the Korean people also suffered for our hubris and arrogance in order to maintain stability.

  3. Alexander Grant says:

    It was a privilege to link through to your website and blog from a search of Chalmers Johnson in regards to his recent passing.

    As described above, your work on South Korea would have richly informed the time that I spent studying political history under Harvard and MIT’s best humanitarian minds–PhD’s whose political stance I have forever suspected led them to be denied work within departments chock full of apologists for state crimes. In turn, they sought work across the river from Huntington and Dershowitz–at the state university there.

    My hope is that yours and Chal’s work will come to and continue to be used across the American educational system to prevent such horrendous outcomes as those advocated by the wreckers of the American present….past, and future.

  4. Elle says:

    Thank you kindly for writing one of the most moving pieces of humanitarian journalism ever written ~ it made me weep ~ and for providing a voice for some of the individuals and communities who’s suffering seemingly go unnoticed by mainstream propaganda news.

    More important, I thank you Tim for BE’ing and expressing your HUMANNESS, for your personal courage to expose TRUTH about so many heartbreaking injustices buried by the ‘powers that be’, especially given the recently passed ‘laws’ designed to stifle and punish one of our basic human rights ~ freedom of speech.

    I am so deeply ashamed by the growing number of atrocities exponentially coming to light, committed by our ‘incorporated’ United States of America and UK bedfellows, wreaking havoc not only within our own respective countries, but for centuries throughout the entire World ~ from the smallest indigenous tribes to the largest of nations ~ and all for WHAT? Reckless greed, profit, and control of Earth’s precious resources ~ resources that belong to all of humanity equally?

    I applaud your ability to stand by your convictions, follow your heart, and remind us all of our own personal responsibility to reach out, help our fellow brothers and sisters and with a united loving voice, say NO MORE to the dwindling powers that will no longer ‘BE’!

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