Interview with Vincent Bevins: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade and the Murder Program that Shaped Our World

Published June 11th, 2020 - 09:46 GMT
The Indonesian leader Suharto, 1968. (AFP/Getty Images)
The Indonesian leader Suharto, 1968. (AFP/Getty Images)

In 1965, the US government helped the Indonesian military kill approximately one million unarmed civilians. The journalist Vincent Bevins uses recently declassified documents, interviews, and scholarship to tell the story of how the fight against communism in what was known as the Third World led to massacres, including in the Middle East, and the rise of global capitalism.

In this interview, we talk about the beginnings of what would become known as ‘the Jakarta method’, its use around the world, and how the tactic can be seen in the present police brutality in the US against protestors and other civilians.  


NP: What is the Jakarta method?

VB: The Jakarta method is the intentional mass murder of innocent civilians that are either leftist or accused of being leftist. This was a very important tactic used in the Cold War. The apex of the story of anti-communist violence is the massacre in Indonesia. 

This was a very important turning point and it was a huge success for the side that was ultimately victorious,  which was the US and the global system it was trying to create. This success was so obvious to other US allies and potential US allies that they started to copy the violence. In the early 70’s in Chile and Brazil, there was the use of the word ‘Jakarta’ to signify mass murder, either as a threat or to symbolize a plan to exterminate innocent lives.

Whilst not every country I look at in the book uses the word ‘Jakarta’, I found that in over 20 countries US-allied governments carried out mass murder projects against unarmed leftist civilians.

NP: How was the push for post-colonial independence involved?

VB: It is useful to situate these events within the broader context of the Cold War and the emergence of what was known as the Third World. That term is often used in a derogatory fashion now, but at the time it was entirely positive and optimistic. The Indonesian president Sukarno was one of the most important founders and visionaries for this movement, and brought together Asian and African countries in 1955. This was a problem for   Washington DC. 

NP: Many of the Third World countries tried to strike a balance between the US and the Soviet Union. But Sukarno became an ‘enemy’ of the US. What happened then?

VB: Even among post-colonial communists it was extremely common to try to be friends with the US. There was no reason to pick a fight with the most powerful country that has ever existed. For example, when Ho Chi Min declared independence from France in 1945 he quoted the US Declaration of Independence. Sukarno situated his 1955 conference within the legacy of the US Revolutionary War. 

But they ended up being considered enemies, or problems to be solved by the US establishment. That led to very tragic results.

NP: What were the key policy decisions that led to the US backing the military in Indonesia?

VB: If we’re talking about the position the US government takes at the early stages of the Cold War, which was to oppose any Third World nations that were neutral, there are two competing explanations.

One explanation says that the US was so paranoid about communism that they ended up confusing nationalism with a threat. Another side says that the US inherited a position in the global system that required the exercise of violent hegemony,in order to keep the world’s exploited nations in line. Anticommunism acted as an excuse to carry out policies that were very similar to what the Europeans had been doing for hundreds of years, the second theory posits. I don’t see a contradiction between these two reasons. They can reinforce each other. 

In the case of Indonesia, by far the most horrible consequenceof this posture the US takes, the ultimate massacre is the final attempt to solve a ‘problem’ the US had been struggling with for a decade. The first attempt was in 1955, when the CIA started funding a conservative Muslim party, hoping that the Indonesian Communist Party would stop winning elections. It didn’t work.. Attempt number two was the invasion of the country when CIA pilots dropped bombs on Indonesian islands, but got caught. In the third attempt, Washington threw its weight behind this drastic and very violent solution.

NP: What did the US do?

VB: In 1964-5 the CIA and MI6 were agitating covertly to create a clash between the communist party and the US-backed right-wing military. When the conflict does erupt, in quite a mysterious way,the US Ambassador recognizes this as an opportunity to crush the communists. The US then does everything in its power to spread to propaganda stories that there was a devious communist plot, knowing this was a lie. Thirdly, they supplied material help to the Indonesian army. They authorized the supply of weapons from the CIA station in Bangkok. They supplied communications equipment.

When the murders started, the US officials got constant reports about them, they made it very clear they were happy about what was happening, encouraged more of the killings, and supplied lists of people that could be killed. We know from one employee that he handed over lists of people who could be ‘crossed off.’ The way they would be crossed off is just as horrible as you would imagine.

But this isn’t the first time we have evidence of this happening. There is evidence that US officials supplied kill lists in 1954 in Guatemala and in 1963 in Iraq when the CIA got behind a Ba’ath Party coup and supported the killing of members of the communist party and other leftists.


NP: How many people were killed in Indonesia?

VB: I say approximately 1 million. A lot of experts say between 500,000 and 1 million. The most recent ground-breaking study on the subject says approximately 1 million.

The reason for the uncertainty is because the US-backed military that took over has remained so influential that the kind of inquiries that are needed to come up with an accurate figure has never been done. There has never been any interest within the Indonesian government to find out what happened and there has never been enough pressure internationally to push the government to find out what happened.

NP: What was the reaction in the US to the killings? 

VB: Euphoria. The reception among policymakers and journalists in the US was euphoria. Bobby Kennedy was the only prominent figure who spoke out, but that was a pebble thrown into a sea of joy and celebration. I quote a very famous liberal who wrote a New York Times piece called ‘A Gleam of Light in Asia.’

In a very sick way, they were right. This was a victory for them. In the 1960’s Indonesia was far more important than Vietnam as a point of geopolitical significance. Robert McNamara in his memoir wrote that when Indonesia fell into the Western canon Vietnam stopped mattering. He wrote that the fall of the ICP “greatly reduced America’s stake in Vietnam” because “fewer dominoes now existed and they seemed much less likely to fall.” 

The Soviet Union did not try to stop or really denounce it. But basically, the unarmed Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was hung out to dry by the international community.


NP: How was the Jakarta method used in Iraq?

VB: In the era that the Third World had come together under people like Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Sukarno, the largest communist party in the Afro-Asian world was the PKI, number two was the Iraqi Communist Party, and the third was the Sudanese Communist Party. All three of these parties were literally exterminated.

In 1963 the Ba’ath Party carried out a coup and proceeded to kill members of the communist party and other leftists. I interviewed one prominent Iraqi journalist who explained that Saddam Hussein gained a reputation as one of the most ruthless torturers and murderers during the purges of the Iraqi left. There are indications that US officials supplied lists to the Ba’ath party in 1963 of people who were to be crossed-off in the same way as they were later in Indonesia.


NP: Is there a link between what the US did overseas in these instances and how they are responding to riots now on their own soil?

VB: There is a lot of interesting research on the ways the global counter-insurgency war has come home to roost and affected the way the US polices its own populations. There is a book called Badges Without Borders by Stuart Schrader that traces how quasi-imperial development of police as ‘counter-insurgency forces’ outside the US ended up transforming US police forces into a force that made war on its own populations.

You must situate US interventions in the Third World within the context of US settler colonialism and racism. It was absolutely a racist government that was responsible for these atrocities in Africa and Asia.

Then, you must also situate the functioning of the contemporary police system in the US within a history of global anti-communist policies and “counterinsurgency” war. It transformed the way the US operated around the world but also on its own turf.


The Jakarta Method: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World was published in May 2020 by PublicAffairs.

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