A Crime to Want Something Different

Sukarno and other leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement. Photo Credit: ResearchGate

The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & The Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World (2020)

By Vincent Bevins
PublicAffairs, 307 pp., $28.00

As Vincent Bevins points out in his vital and timely new book, The Jakarta Method, it is the winners who write history. This is perhaps why mass killings, genocides, starvation, and extermination campaigns under Communist regimes are so well-documented. From the killing fields of Cambodia, to Stalinist gulags in the Soviet Union, to the tens of millions that perished under Mao; the horrors of leftist authoritarian governments are even familiar to most school-aged children in the West. We are forced to learn and internalize these stories for a couple reasons, I believe: first, they really happened and we must never forget them and their victims. Second, by painting such a diabolical, inhuman, and monstrous portrait of Communism and Socialism, they valorize the undisputed winner of the Cold War: the American, capitalist world order that we live in today.

As a former Washington Post and Los Angeles Times journalist, Bevins understands that reliably pro-American and stable countries seldom make scandalous headlines in the United States. It is shocking, then, when Americans learn about the myriad acts of aggression and abject violence their nation committed in the global cold war against Communism. As Bevins eloquently states, “I fear the truth of what happened contradicts so forcefully our idea of what the Cold War was, of what it means to be an American, or how globalization has taken place, that it has simply been easier to ignore it.”[i] The Jakarta Method, therefore, is Bevins’ laudable attempt to correct the winner’s record of the Cold War, to bring to light the human extermination campaigns the other side committed in the name of anti-Communism. As Bevins makes clear, “this is a book for those who have no special knowledge of Indonesia, or Brazil, or Chile or Guatemala or the Cold War…”[ii] For that reason, he takes liberties to oversimplify and paint in broad strokes the byzantine (from an analytical point of view) nature of the Cold War. For students and scholars familiar with the subject, then, large portions of the book may, unfortunately, induce some eye rolls and skipping ahead.

The Jakarta Method, as the title indicates, begins in Indonesia where upwards of one million accused Communists and leftists were killed during 1964 and 1965. Made famous by two terrific documentaries by Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), the anti-Communist annihilation campaign is noteworthy for its brutality, efficiency, and scale. Having seen the films and familiar with the nature of the carnage, I was initially afraid to read The Jakarta Method. Bevins, though, deftly recounts the history of the event without indulging in the sadistic and truly ghastly details. He homes in on how the campaign fits within the history of the Cold War and provides keen analysis on its exemplification of fanatical, almost messianic, anti-Communism encouraged by the United States and executed by its allies in the Third World. 

Forgotten today, Indonesia at the time was viewed by the United States as a far more important prize than even Vietnam during the Cold War, according to Bevins: he quotes Secretary of State Dean Rusk as saying, “the loss of a nation of 105 million to the ‘Communist camp’ would make a victory in Vietnam of little meaning.”[iii] During the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s when decolonization was in full swing, the U.S. and the Soviet Union vied for influence in the Third World. Freshly independent Indonesia, under its first president, Sukarno, was a major player. As one of the spiritual leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement, Indonesia was a champion of anti-imperialism, boasting the world’s sixth largest population as well as the largest Communist party outside of the U.S.S.R. and China: the PKI. Parties like the PKI, other left-leaning nationalist former colonial populations, and much of the Non-Aligned Movement posed a serious threat to the kind of capitalist world the United States was striving to create. By interviewing Indonesians and Chileans who survived anti-Communist extermination programs, Bevins vividly communicates the boundless hope they had when there was a real chance to forge their own path, not confined to the American or Soviet systems. For the United States, there was not a third choice for these countries: either you were with them, or you were against them. In the mid-1960s, the United States decided for Indonesia.

In a staccato-rhythmed chapter that recounts the days leading up to the massacres in Indonesia, Bevins tells a story familiar to anyone with knowledge of mass killing campaigns. Most have an inciting incident that is then coopted by a group to scapegoat and justify the extermination. For Indonesia, it was the September 30th Movement: a mysterious, failed “Communist uprising” against senior Indonesian military leaders that resulted in the death of six generals. This was all that the right-leaning military, supported by the United States, needed to move against Sukarno and the PKI. What followed was the frenzied orgy of violence that took the lives of upwards of one million suspected Indonesian Communists. Without indulging, Bevins quotes declassified U.S. cables regarding the violence. Particularly harrowing is America’s ambassador to Indonesia, Marshall Green’s: “Army has nevertheless been working hard at destroying PKI and I, for one, have increasing respect for its determination and organization in carrying out this crucial assignment.”[iv] Once it was clear the army was going to crush the PKI and provide “a striking vindication of U.S. policy,” Bevins writes that, through the CIA, US embassy officials “prepared lists with the names of thousands of communists and suspected communists and handed them over to the Army, so that these people could be murdered and ‘checked off’ the list.”[v]

As Bevins convincingly argues, the extermination campaign in Indonesia was a massive victory for the United States during the Cold War. What could not be accomplished in Vietnam in more than ten years of costly conflict was achieved within months in Indonesia. Not only was one of the world’s largest Communist parties annihilated and Indonesia made a pliant partner in Southeast Asia, US and foreign capital was finally allowed to pour into the resource-rich nation. Bevins points out that, within days of the military assuming control, US firms began flooding into the country, including mining company Freeport, which uncovered what is now the largest gold mine on the planet.

Central to the success of the campaign in Indonesia was its transferability. This is what Bevins means by his titular phrase, “the Jakarta Method:” when states with a large left-leaning party or nationalist bent began to show signs of developing an alternative to the American-led international order, the United States would assist sympathetic factions in those states to murder and disappear anyone who was vaguely thought to be a threat. From Indonesia to Brazil, from Guatemala to Chile: when it was clear the people would not choose the path of the United States during the Cold War, the Jakarta Method was employed–to use Mao’s phrase—to drain the water. In a poignant interview with a survivor of the Indonesian extermination, Bevins asks the old man how the United States won the Cold War and why the alternatives presented by the Non-Aligned Movement never came to fruition. “You killed us,” the man simply responds.

As Bevins points out, in countries where a permutation of the Jakarta Method had been implemented, the military and their allies in government and media mobilized the fears of their populations by portraying leftists as not just political enemies, but outright evil. In Indonesia, for example, rumors spread that the generals killed during the September 30th Movement were mutilated and tortured by communist women. This effectively stamped any woman with connections to left-leaning politics or union membership, as a witch. In Brazil, as Bevins writes, “communism was associated with pure evil or witchcraft, drawn with the use of demons or satanic beasts, such as dragons, snakes, and goats.”[vi] These stories bear frightening resemblance to the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory in the United States, proving that these extremely dangerous tropes are not relics of the past, but are being peddled at the time of this writing by major news media and even members of Congress.

If the year 2020 has proven anything, it is the fragility of the capitalist word order that unambiguously won the Cold War. Massive income inequality, crony capitalist states (like Indonesia today), and economic precariousness (shockingly exposed by a virulent pandemic) have left the architects of the so-called liberal international order scratching their heads. If there is a silver lining, it is that new, dynamic social and political movements are presenting their cases for a world less encumbered by exploitation, corruption, and racism. Leaders like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and movements like Black Lives Matter and the Sunrise Movement have taken this opportunity to show the world that there is another path–that things do not have to be this way. On the other hand, there are an equal number of social and political elements that cling to the way things are–or worse, seek to transport the world into a (usually imagined) past. Autocrats like Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, and to an extent, Donald Trump, represent the dialectical antithesis to a new progressivism. If the rise of these men has proven one thing, it is that the ideology of murderous anti-Communism is alive, well, and on the march.

The best history books read as maps to the present. Vincent Bevins’ The Jakarta Method not only explains how and why these extermination campaigns occurred, but illuminate the signs that they may happen again.


[i] P. 3

[ii] P. 3

[iii] P. 127

[iv] P. 140

[v] P.142

[vi] P. 103

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