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Razors, Razors, Razors

How the United States abetted mass murder to save the world from communism

The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World by Vincent Bevins. PublicAffairs Books, 320 pages.

The Balinese Village of Petulu is famous for herons—the Kokokan—that descend upon its trees at sunset. At the end of the day, thousands of brown-backed Cattle egrets and Javan pond herons take off from the adjacent rice fields before swooping down in a great avian free-for-all onto the branches that hang above the local temple. They first arrived in early November 1965, one month after the Indonesian army, gangsters, and paramilitary death squads began annihilating suspected members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). While traveling in country in the early 2000s, I met a man there who claimed the Kokokan were the returning souls of the dead, cherished by locals for their supposedly apotropaic powers.

Between October 1965 and March 1966, around eighty thousand people were killed in Bali (about 5 per cent of the island’s population), along with at least another four hundred twenty thousand across the archipelago. The CIA called the massacre “one of the ghastliest and most concentrated bloodlettings of current times.” Victims were rounded up and shot, garroted, or hacked to death with machetes and iron bars. In Joshua Oppenheimer’s darkly surrealist film The Act of Killing (2012), an executioner from North Sumatra recalls the sadism of the rampage: “We shoved wood in their anus until they died. We crushed their necks with wood. We hanged them. We strangled them with wire. We cut off their heads. We ran them over with cars.” Bodies were tossed down wells, flung into rivers and lakes, or buried in shallow graves under banana trees. It is said that the Brantas River in East Java became clogged with headless corpses. As Vincent Bevins writes in The Jakarta Method, it was “an explosion of violence” against the PKI that amounted to “apocalyptic slaughter.”

“The Third World” was more of a promise than a place— the promise to cast off the dead hand of colonialism and transform the liberated nations of Africa and Asia into new worlds of justice.

Bevins’s book is a reckoning with the massacre of Indonesia’s communists—specifically, with U.S. complicity in the crimes. He is less interested in long descriptions of torture and death and more in understanding the geopolitics that lie behind them. The great originality and insight of the book is its emphasis on the international scale of 1965. Drawing on examples from Indochina to Latin America, Bevins reveals how Washington perfected a form of violent if invisible intervention, constructing an “international network of extermination” that targeted communist regimes and sympathizers in the developing world.

In that sense, The Jakarta Method is a history of 1965 as the Cold War’s peripeteia: the turning point at which an incipient, alternative “Third World” order was smashed by an aspiring hegemon. Following the historian Odd Arne Westad, Bevins views the Cold War as the “global circumstances under which the vast majority of the world’s countries moved from direct colonial rule to something else, to a new place in a new global system.” Indonesia in 1965 was the moment all this began.

DN Aidit speaking at PKI election meeting 1955. | Wikimedia Commons

The PKI was once the third largest communist party in the world after those in Soviet Russia and China; in 1965, it had 3.5 million members and 20 million others in affiliated organizations. It took up arms against Dutch colonialism in the 1930s, then against the Japanese occupation in 1945, and against the Dutch one last time between 1945 and 1949. But the PKI emerged from the fighting as a party of parliamentary politics, as a second generation of leaders committed themselves to institutions, community organization, and elections.

The result was that by 1965, the PKI—led by the forty-two-year-old D.N. Aidit—was unarmed and had no plan for revolution. It was a mass-based, ideologically flexible movement which frequently ignored edicts from Moscow and postponed the advent of socialism “until the end of the century.” Vice President Richard Nixon encapsulated the feeling in Washington during the 1950s when he said that “a democratic government was not the best kind for Indonesia” since “the Communists could probably not be beaten in election campaigns because they were so well organized.”

The PKI and army made up two of the three major power bases in post-independent Indonesia. The third, and most significant, was the country’s president, Sukarno, who had led the struggle against the Dutch and Japanese. Charismatic, egotistical, and distracted (or directed) by an extraordinary libido, he adhered to a hybrid ideology called “NASAKOM”— one of his trademark acronyms—an eccentric mixture of nationalism, Islam, and Marxism. Sukarno was also a committed internationalist. Like the nineteenth-century Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, he believed that internationalism “cannot flourish if it is not rooted in the soil of nationalism.” Nor could nationalism “flourish if it does not grow in the flower garden of internationalism.”

This Mazzinian vision of national independence and international solidarity was shared by other leading figures in the Global South, such as Burma’s president U Nu and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. It was temporarily realized in the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung. Although coined in 1952 by the French economist Alfred Sauvy to describe the downtrodden of the Global South, the “Third World” was more of a promise than a place— the promise to cast off the dead hand of colonialism and transform the liberated nations of Africa and Asia into new worlds of justice, freedom, and creativity. While it followed a series of similar conferences—The League Against Imperialism (1927), Pridi Phanomyong’s Southeast Asian League (1947), and the Bogor Conferences (1949 and 1954)—Bandung was the revolutionary acme of the Third World. In his opening speech, Sukarno declared: “I hope that [this conference] will give evidence that Asia and Africa have been reborn, nay, that a New Asia and a New Africa have been born!”

For a while, the United States judged Sukarno’s Third World nationalism to be sufficiently anti-communist to tolerate it. But such forbearance could not last, and under Lyndon Johnson, U.S. policy towards this lodestar of Afro-Asian solidarity hardened into something less forgiving. As economic aid to Indonesian dried up, Sukarno became more anti-American, going so far as to establish ties with Ho Chi Minh’s government in Vietnam. He spoke of a “Jakarta-Phnom Pen-Hanoi-Peking-Pyongyang axis,” and suspended Indonesia’s participation in the UN.

In the annals of American aggression wreaked upon the Global South, it was in Indonesia where the doctrine of liquidation achieved its radical climax.

Washington’s growing alarm at his actions has to be understood against the backdrop of its geostrategic ambitions. After the Second World War, the United States looked to construct a world safe for capitalism, guarded and administered under a global canopy of supreme firepower. That required meeting the Soviet threat wherever it appeared. U.S. strategists realized that the theater of operations against communism stretched beyond Western Europe and that the scene of victory could just as likely be in Africa, Asia, or Latin America. From 1948, as Marshall Plan dollars revived Europe’s economies and undermined support for communist parties, Southeast Asia emerged as the critical frontier in America’s confrontation with the Soviet foe. George F. Kennan, the architect of U.S. containment policy, said that “the most crucial issue at the moment in our struggle with the Kremlin is probably the problem of Indonesia.”

Containment was never intended to impede the advance of the Soviet Union by “the vigilant application of counterforce,” as Kennan put it in 1991. The purpose, rather, was to confront and annihilate. According to the historian Anders Stephanson:

A battle to the death the Cold War certainly was, but to a kind of abstract death. Elimination of the enemy’s will to fight—victory—meant more than military victory on the battlefield. It meant, in principle, the very liquidation of the enemy whose right to exist, let alone equality, one did not recognize. Liquidation alone could bring peace. Liquidation is the “truth” of the Cold War.

In the annals of American aggression wreaked upon the Global South, it was in Indonesia where the doctrine of liquidation achieved its radical climax. Having conducted similar “black ops” against undisciplined regimes that had tried to assert economic independence in Iran (1953), Guatemala and the Philippines (1954), and Iraq (1963), American and British intelligence agencies began ramping up plans to undermine Sukarno’s government. By the early-mid 1960s, Washington and London had even discussed the idea that a premature coup by the PKI could be the casus belli that would allow the army to move against it.

Still from Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, The Act of Killing (2012). | IMDB 

On September 30, 1965, a group of army officers named G30S kidnapped and murdered six Indonesian generals in what appeared to be an attempted coup. General Suharto, an obscure military leader from Central Java, blamed the assassinations on the PKI and took control of the armed forces before seizing the country. There are a number of competing theories about who launched the coup and why. The most plausible was presented in the 1966 “Cornell Paper” by Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey, who argued that it was an internal army affair. Neither the PKI nor Sukarno were involved; instead, they were the victims.

The killing of the generals, and the fake stories that it was communist women who had mutilated them, were used to stoke anti-communist feelings. In a matter of days the army and local death squads—gangsters and members of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organizations— began seizing anyone associated with the PKI. When darkness fell, those arrested would then be taken outside and shot or beheaded in what was called “Operation Annihilation.” Aidit and the other leaders of the party were executed.

Most Indonesians had never heard of Suharto, but the CIA had earlier identified him as an ally in the anti-communist cause. He was part of a network that linked the Indonesian army to the commanding heights of the U.S. military-intellectual complex: diplomats and intelligence agents in the CIA, modernization theorists such as Walt Whitman Rostow, technocrats at Berkeley and the RAND Corporation, and military advisors at Fort Leavenworth, where more than one thousand Indonesian officers had been trained by 1962. The upshot from all these connections was that the army learned to set its immediate task—liquidating communists—in the service of a greater mission to lead Indonesia’s techno-authoritarian development and bring the country into the gradualist kingdom of American capital. When the time came, the CIA helped the army more directly too, blackening the PKI’s name through propaganda and providing the army with lists of suspected communist sympathizers. Bevins’s verdict on American involvement is damning: “Washington shares guilt for every death. The United States was part and parcel of the operation at every stage.” As for Sukarno, his reaction to the killings was one of resignation. “Over and over it’s the same thing,” as he told one group of journalists, “Razors, razors, razors, razors, razors, a grave for a thousand people, a grave for a thousand people!”

What linked communists across borders was not so much a belief in international revolution, but their shared experience of murder and defeat.

For the Johnson administration, the butchery was cause for celebration. It took the edge off the unfolding disaster in Vietnam and seeded a fresh market for corporate return. (In 1967, two years after the worst of the massacres had passed, General Electric, American Express, and other U.S. firms flocked to the archipelago to peddle their wares). The sense of relief was registered in the vast web of diplomatic cables that criss-crossed between Washington, its embassy in Jakarta, and the chancelleries of Europe. Not long after the killings began, Howard Green, the U.S. ambassador in Indonesia, sent a communique to the State Department informing it that the army was “working hard at destroying the [the] PKI and I, for one, have increasing respect for its determination and organization in carrying out this crucial assignment.” “The Indonesian business is developing in a way that looks encouraging,” wrote Undersecretary of State George Ball. “If  . . . the PKI is cleaned up . . . we will have a new day in Indonesia.”

Green’s enthusiasm was widely shared in the U.S. media, still high on the bipartisan atmosphere of the Cold War. In a June 1966 article titled “A Gleam of Light in Asia,” the celebrated New York Times columnist James Reston welcomed “the savage transformation of Indonesia from a pro-Chinese policy under Sukarno to a defiantly anti-Communist policy under General Suharto.” Time magazine described the liquidation of the PKI as “the West’s best news for years in Asia.” US News & World Report went further: “Indonesia: Hope . . . Where Once There Was None.”

Bevins is not the first to describe and analyze America’s violent imperialism in the Cold War. A school of historians descending from William Appleman Williams in the 1950s to the likes of Bruce Cummings and Greg Grandin today has sought to capture the essential truth of U.S. foreign policy as an aggressively expansionist force in the world. But more than anyone else, Bevins shows that what linked communists across borders was not so much a belief in international revolution but their shared experience of murder and defeat. Beyond Indonesia, the Jakarta method found its most devout practitioners in Brazil and Chile.

In both countries, the word “Jakarta” took on a specific meaning for the far right, becoming a synonym for the extermination of communists. In the days leading up to the U.S.-backed coup that overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973, the phrase “Jakarta is coming” was graffitied on the walls of Santiago—a terrifying declaration of the assault about to be unleashed on the left. Meanwhile in Brazil, then under the brutal military dictatorship of Emilio Garrastazu Médici, “the Jakarta Operation” was secretly being planned for the elimination of the country’s  communist party in collaboration with far-right gangs.

Neither of these operations were “orchestrated” entirely from Langley. Rather, the CIA exploited pre-existing divisions within a country, and then cultivated triggermen on the ground—local agents whose anti-communism could be backed with clandestine funds and materiel. This was the “Jakarta method” that was perfected in Southeast Asia in 1965. Since the mid-1950s, as the historian Jeremy Kuzmarov has shown, the International Cooperation Administration had provided Indonesian police with jeeps, patrol boats, and CIA training manuals, such as Covert Paramilitary Training Course (1952) and The Sabotage Manual (1954). Security advisers who had experience in Greece, the Philippines, and Korea established a communications center in Jakarta and a code room at the National Police headquarters to gather intelligence on the PKI. Inspired by European colonial practices, the 1290-d program set up by the Eisenhower administration to train other Southeast Asian police forces in counter-subversion also helped to funnel money to Islamic extremists and Provisional Reconstruction Units; “hunter-killer” teams were recruited from gangs, disaffected minorities, and renegade police and army officers.

Over time, Washington would provide national militaries and police forces across Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa with logistical support and counter-insurgency training, as well as help with propaganda campaigns against local communists and the left. Although Bevins describes this as a “loose” international network, those who were engaged in violence against communists were nonetheless united by a common paymaster, as well as their admiration for what transpired in Indonesia in 1965.

It now looks like the imperial machine is uncontrollable and has turned on its architects.

The influence of Jakarta was not just confined to right-wing anti-communist violence. Bevins shows how the destruction of the PKI influenced the strategic decisions of communist parties throughout the world. In Cambodia, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge studied the collapse of the PKI, concluding that the party’s decision to disarm and trust the democratic process had been disastrous. Pol Pot vowed that his movement would hold on to power through violence and force of arms—to diabolically murderous consequences. In China, the war waged on Sukarno and the left helped inspire the mobilization of Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in 1966. In the Philippines, the founder of the Maoist Communist Party, José Maria “Joma” Sison, saw what had happened to the unarmed PKI and decided that his party would rely on armed tactics in the countryside. (Today, Maoist guerrillas still operate in jungle camps across the archipelago). And the genocide spurred the dictatorships in Taiwan and South Korea to found the World Anti-Communist League.

By the middle of the 1960s, the Third World and its dreams of a radically different order—free, equal, pacific, and fraternal—were all but gone. The leaders of the postcolonial movement, such as Nehru in India, Sukarno in Indonesia, Nkrumah in Ghana, and U Nu in Burma, had either died or been deposed. Most symbolically, the internationalism of the “Bandung Spirit” was supplanted in 1967 by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): a group of nations united not in the cause of peace and justice, but in loyalty to the technocratic and authoritarian imperatives of capital and American-style globalization. An interaction between Bevins and the head of Sekretariat Bersama 1965, a survivors group from the Indonesian genocide, captures the moral of the story with devastating simplicity:

“The United States won. Here in Indonesia, you got what you wanted, and around the world, you got what you wanted.” . . .

How did we win, I asked.

Winarso stopped fidgeting. “You killed us.”’

In its treatment of the events in Indonesia, Bevins leans on academic studies from the last decade or so, such as Geoffrey B Robinson’s The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965–66 (the most forensic), Bradley R. Simpson’s Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960–1968 (the most interesting), and Jess Melvin’s The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder (the most revelatory). But The Jakarta Method is a deft and necessary reckoning with 1965 from its own perspective, determined by the author’s career as a journalist in Brazil for the Los Angeles Times and then in Indonesia for the Washington Post. Bevins spent a lot of time with people who had lived through these events; this was what prompted him to write a history that would present the more unsettling truth to Western readers about what the Cold War was really like for those at the spear tip of American power.

We all still live in the shadow of Jakarta. In Indonesia, the defense of communism is still outlawed and the genocide of 1965 is a taboo subject: an unspoken nightmare that sits like an incubus upon the collective conscience of the nation. In Brazil, Bolsonaro is the lodestar of contemporary anti-communism—and a vestige of America’s murderous past. In the United States itself, the story of 1965 and its afterlives is barely known. The question is whether the bitter backwash of imperial ambition has returned to the homeland. For one lesson of Jakarta is that the United States may have triumphed in the Cold War, but the carnage needed to win it could never be controlled or reined back in. Violence, and the massive complex of bases, special forces, private security firms, clandestine operations, and surveillance systems needed to sustain it, acquired a logic and momentum of its own, seeking out fresh parts of the world to tame and render in its own image.

It now looks like the imperial machine has turned on its architects. A frustrated presidency, warrantless mass surveillance, the hyper-militarization of police forces, the cultural and political demonization of progressives, and the description of urban centers as “battle spaces.” Two worlds that were once separate—the violent frontiers and domestic peace—now collide on America’s streets.