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America’s Cold War Crimes Abroad Are Still Shaping Our World

In the twentieth century, the United States engaged in brutal, even sadistic interventions all over the world, from Indonesia to Brazil, to stop the Left's advance. We’re still living in those interventions' shadow.

Eko Soetikno, 75 years old, points to his photo with Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer who was imprisoned in Buru island at his house on May 4, 2016 in Kendal, Central Java. Ulet Ifansasti / Getty

A specter is haunting the United States — at least in the febrile imagination of its anti-quarantine protesters and their billionaire backers. In the last month, demonstrators from Illinois to California have raised signs equating social distancing and lockdowns to incipient communism. As several outlets have pointed out, many of these demonstrators have ties to Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, whose family is among the country’s most generous donors to right-wing causes. 

On April 30, a forty-two-year-old man from Aubrey, Texas, was charged with assault with intent to kill after opening fire on the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. with an AK-47. Police claim the gunman heard voices, but Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel has called the attack an act of terrorism. More recently, Brazilian Minister of Culture Regina Duarte has made headlines for minimizing the crimes of her country’s military dictatorship, claiming that “there has always been torture” and “humanity has never stopped dying.” (Her predecessor, Roberto Alvim, was dismissed after praising Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.)

These developments across the Americas are less astonishing than they might appear. While the Cold War drew to a close nearly three decades ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union, overt hostility to social democracy remains pervasive in the United States among its elites, but especially in nations once referred to as the Third World. In The Jakarta Method,  a riveting new exploration of America’s mass murder program in the twentieth century, journalist Vincent Bevins contends that our sadistic campaign in Indonesia is a nightmare from which we’re still trying to awaken.

For Bevins, the final overthrow of Indonesian independence leader-turned-President Sukarno in 1967 and the massacre that began two years prior have shaped our world in a few distinct ways: the violence it inspired has left countless nations traumatized, despite varying efforts at reconciliation; the totality of Washington’s victory has destroyed the very possibility of alternative systems of governance; capitalism has grown more entrenched and pernicious in the countries directly affected; and anticommunism continues to be a potent force in geopolitics. Nowhere is this more evident than in Brazil, where agribusiness and the military have rallied around a revanchist buffoon in President Jair Bolsonaro, and in Indonesia, where any expression of “Marxism-Leninism” remains banned to this day.

As a polemic, The Jakarta Method is never anything less than conscientious and persuasive, but Bevins’s book truly takes flight as a work of narrative journalism, tracing the history of America’s violent meddling in Southeast Asia and Latin America through the stories of those it brutalized.

Few interview subjects elucidate the political in the personal better than Francisca Pattipilohy, the daughter of an Indonesian architect who experiences the colonial aggressions first of the Dutch and later the Japanese during World War II. At a university in Holland, she meets a charismatic socialist named Zain and together they commit to forging a new society, in a newly independent Indonesia. Francisca accepts a “dream job” as a librarian, while Zain reports for the Harian Rakyat, the People’s Daily, in Jakarta — a newspaper run by the Partais Komunis Indonesia (PKI). 

While working as a journalist, Zain covers the 1955 Asia-Africa conference in Bandung, and even as a reader in 2020, with the knowledge of all of the death squads and disappearances that marked the latter half of the twentieth century, one can feel that a more democratic future was at hand. Leaders from nations representing more than half of the planet’s population, including left-leaning secularists like Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Jawaharlal Nehru of India, gathered to upend the global hegemonic order and map out a path towards prosperity for the Third World — a collection of states that were neither aligned with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nor the Communist Bloc. Together, they pledged to respect each other’s sovereignty, pursue peaceful solutions to international disputes, and govern along the egalitarian principles of racial equality and respect for human rights. Sukarno himself delivered a stirring address in which he issued a warning to his colleagues:

I beg of you, do not think of colonialism only in the classic form which we of Indonesia, and our brothers in different parts of Asia and Africa, knew. Colonialism has also its modern dress, in the form of economic control, intellectual control, actual physical control by a small but alien community within a nation. It is a skillful and determined enemy, and it appears in many guises. It does not give up its loot easily. Wherever, whenever, and however it appears, colonialism is an evil thing, and one which must be eradicated from the earth.

His words would prove tragically prophetic. After its failed coup attempt in 1958, Washington began funneling money and aid to the Indonesian military, believing it to be their best chance at beating back the growing popularity of the PKI. As Bevins explains, the United States had by then come to fully embrace “modernization theory” — a kind of funhouse-mirror reflection of the orthodox Marxist formulation that societies advance in stages, with the final stage of development being a modern capitalist state. Officially, America supported democratic governance, but it had increasingly turned to local military officials to usher in these “great leaps forward.”

Blueprint

In Brazil and Indonesia, the United States had found its ideal testing grounds. On September 30, 1965, a year after Brazilian armed forces toppled João Goulart’s democratic government in a coup d’état, the Indonesian army kidnapped and murdered six of its generals. The particulars of the abduction remain unclear, but the assault was quickly blamed on an unarmed, unsuspecting PKI, triggering a wave of violence that began on the island of Sumatra and quickly spread to Java, Bali, and across the country. 

Under the direction of General Suharto, using kill lists supplied by the US government, paramilitary organizations like the Pancasila Youth “literally hacked away at the number of people on the left wing of Indonesian politics.” One of the victims, we learn, was the People’s Daily reporter Zain, who was taken into questioning alongside Francisca, never to return. 

In all, right-wing forces slaughtered upwards of a million communists, alleged communists, and ethnic Chinese, many by way of machete — a weapon that Bevins notes arrived on the island of Bali contemporaneously with the military’s anticommunist propaganda campaign.

Indonesia quickly became the US empire’s blueprint for Latin America. Bevins writes that after the election of democratic-socialist Salvador Allende in Chile, graffiti began appearing in the more upscale neighborhoods of Santiago: “Jakarta se acerca” — Jakarta is coming. Anticommunist terrorist groups including Pátria y Libertad (Country and Freedom) threatened nothing less than the extermination of the Chilean left, “of people organizing for a better world,” while “Jakarta” would become a code word for US-sponsored mass killings throughout the region. 

In 1973, three years after President Richard Nixon instructed CIA Director Richard Helms to make Chile’s economy “scream,” the military seized power, setting the stage for the rolling horrors of Operation Condor. In perhaps the most chilling passage of the book, Bevins asks the head of Sekretariat Berasama ’65, an advocacy group for the victims of Indonesia’s purges, how the United States won the Cold War. His answer is simple: “You killed us.”

None of these countries were at immediate risk of falling into the Soviet orbit or even boasted a communist ruling party. Although the PKI was a vital force in Indonesian politics, particularly on a local level, it was still but one faction within Sukarno’s broader, nationalist coalition. The “threat” of communism in Brazil was not substantively greater than the one facing protesters demonstrating in front of America’s chain restaurants today. By the same measure, both the September 30th Movement and the Intentona Comunista (Communist Uprising) of 1935 in Indonesia and Brazil respectively were themselves national myths — bogeymen used to galvanize public opposition to any kind of social-democratic project, from land reform to regulation restricting monopoly power. 

Moreover, the United States had a vested ideological interest in reshaping these societies. “Washington was not worried that Chile’s economy would be destroyed under irresponsible left-wing mismanagement … or even that Allende would harm US interests,” Bevins writes. “What scared the most powerful nation in the world was the prospect that Allende’s democratic socialism would succeed.” Backing right-wing forces across the developing world was the best way to stop it dead in its tracks.