A history of violence

By Adam Schendel

“The United States won. Here in Indonesia, you got what you wanted, and around the world you got what you wanted,” a man named Winarso, says in Vincent Bevins’ new book The Jakarta Method. “The Cold War was a conflict between socialism and capitalism, and capitalism won…we got all the U.S.-centered capitalism that Washington wanted to spread. Just look around you.”

When Bevins asks Winarso how the U.S. won the Cold War, he gets an answer that’s  common among survivors in Indonesia: “You killed us.” 

The Jakarta Method tells the history  of the mass killing of up to one million innocent Indonesian civilians in 1965, when the country’s government was overthrown by its military — events that were materially and ideologically backed by the United States in its Cold War quest to rid the world of rising leftist governments. 

Vincent Bevins

“In just a few months, the U.S. foreign policy establishment achieved [in Indonesia] what it failed to get done in ten bloody years of [the Vietnam War],” Bevins writes. As the fourth most-populous country in the world, and home to the world’s third largest communist party behind China and the Soviet Union, Indonesia was a “far more important prize than Vietnam ever could have been” in regard to the anticommunist goals of the U.S. during the Cold War.

In fact, it was the seamless success of the overthrow of the Indonesian government in 1965 and the horrifying extermination of the country’s political leftists (along with other actual ethnic groups) that has made it such a footnote in the Eurocentric history of the 20th century, as opposed to the bloody quagmire of Vietnam that killed almost 60,000 American troops and still resulted in a communist victory.

Third-worldism

The Jakarta Method begins right after World War II, when Indonesia declared its independence and defeated its Dutch colonizers in the late 1940s. A charismatic, left-leaning leader named Sukarno became its first president, unifying Indonesians around a national philosophy of democracy, justice, and opposing colonialism. 

In one of the most thrilling parts of the book, Bevins recounts how Sukarno galvanized the revolutionary movement of so-called  “Third World” countries (those that had been dominated by European colonialism) by hosting the Bandung Afro-Asian Conference in Indonesia in April 1955. Twenty-nine countries representing over half the world’s population came together at Bandung to celebrate the newfound independence of much of the Third World and the struggles for freedom still in motion for others. They promoted ideals of human rights, equality between races, national sovereignty, and territorial integrity. 

Sukarno and other Third World leaders opposed imperialism and sought to forge their own national identities independent of the global sway of the United States and the Soviet Union. But, Indonesia came to be seen as a threat to the United States and its newly formed CIA agency because of its non-opposition to the Soviet Union, and due to the growing promise of leftist politics among its people.

By the 1960s, the Indonesian Communist Party had gained millions of members and had earned enthusiasm by delivering on promises to improve life for the working class and the poor through popular programs of unions, agricultural land reform, and cultural events like concerts and dances. 

It was these factors that led the U.S. to intervene in Indonesian affairs in the name of anticommunism. The U.S. attempted an array of tactics that ranged from diplomacy to training hundreds of Indonesian military officers at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to covert attempts to foment rebellions that were put down by the government. When the popularity of the Indonesian Communist Party continued to grow and President Sukarno became more bold and anti-American in standing up for Indonesia on the international stage, the U.S. provided guidance and assistance to a much more sinister plan.

“Jakarta is coming”

In a complex series of events beginning in October 1965, the Indonesian military staged an attack by communists and then proceeded to take advantage of the confusing urgency of the moment by overthrowing President Sukarno and his government, and initiating what became known as “Operation Annihilation” to target communists and leftist sympathizers in Indonesia.

For the next several months, the Indonesian Army and various paramilitary groups executed up to one million Indonesian civilians, using methods of “disappearing” the victims before secretly killing them, as well as engaging in torture, forced detention, rape, and the use of concentration camps.

Afterward, extermination programs based on the Indonesian mass killings were used to target leftist movements in other parts of the world, including Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Sudan. The techniques of these anticommunist programs are what is referred to by the book’s title of the “Jakarta method,” and even the city’s name became an ominous warning. In the early 1970s, when Chile had elected the socialist Salvador Allende as president, graffiti began to appear on walls that read, “Jakarta is coming.” In 1973, Allende died by suicide when his government was overthrown in a violent military coup that was also backed by the U.S.

Bevins minces no words in assigning blame and responsibility for the Indonesian massacre and subsequent anticommunist programs on the United States as the architect of the coup. He writes that “Washington shares guilt for every death” and was “part and parcel of the operation at every stage, starting well before the killing started, until the last body dropped and the last political prisoner emerged from jail, decades later, tortured, scarred, and bewildered.” 

Global Conquest

At the end of the book, Bevins astutely lays out how the anticommunist crusade by the U.S., exemplified in the mass murder of Indonesian civilians, shaped the world we live in today. He uses the term “Americanization” to identify how the world has become defined by the United States as the leading military power in a global capitalist system, and points out how stark economic inequality persists between the rich nations that conquered much of the world before World War II and the poorer nations that were subjugated by colonialism, despite the optimistic aspirations of the Third World at the Bandung Conference of 65 years ago. 

The Jakarta Method serves as a brutal and deeply researched reminder of the violence  that the U.S. deployed in other countries to secure its place atop the social and economic world stage. It should stimulate readers to reckon with decades of murderous U.S. foreign policy and to consider how we might a more humane global order.

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