THE KILLING CODE. Washington Post reporter Vincent Bevins is the author of “The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder that Shaped Our World”. His book asks why the US government helped the Indonesian military kill approximately one million innocent civilians in 1965, and shows that the brutal extermination of unarmed leftists was a fundamental part of Washington’s final triumph in the Cold War.
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Vincent Bevins, why did you decide to publish this book about the post-colonial situation of the world?
When I moved to Jakarta in 2017 to cover Southeast Asia for The Washington Post, I realized that wherever I looked, in Indonesia or Southeast Asia, the 1965 massacre of approximately one million innocent civilians was lurking below the surface. It was prohibited to actually tell the story, and, when I decided to do so, my book also ended up being about the ways that the United States exercised its hegemony from 1945 until the present day, when it has been by far the most powerful country on the planet. Now US hegemony is in relative decline and contested, and this became more obvious under the administration of Donald Trump, but even without his antics this would be an important moment to examine what the real nature of US hegemony was.
You describe the creation of the CIA in 1947. Why is your book not only the story of Jakarta and Indonesia but also the story of the influence of the CIA, with its good and bad results, under the different presidents and powers in Washington over the years?
The protagonists in the book are the American foreign policy establishment and the members of the Indonesian left that believe they have a right to participate in the creation of a new world now that formal colonialism and the era of direct European control over much of Africa and Asia had ended. In 1945 the United States emerges from World War Two as by far the most powerful country on the planet, but without a permanent intelligence agency or an active overseas presence working behind the scenes to further American interests, so they threw together the CIA very quickly. The men of the CIA were American “blue bloods” from the best backgrounds, but they were limited in their horizons. Very American, very Protestant, they didn’t know much about Africa and Asia, about countries with religions different to theirs, etc. This became very apparent in the ways that they threw their weight around in many different countries. They were well-funded but quite inexperienced, and were given a remit that had nothing to do with the welfare of the people in the countries where they so aggressively intervened.
“In 1965, the US-backed Indonesian military oversaw the intentional execution of approximately one million innocent civilians”
Visitors look at an old well where six Indonesian army generals and a junior officer were buried in an abortive coup in 1965 that the military blamed on Indonesia’s Communist Party and led to the anti-communist purge in 1965-1966, at Pancasila Sakti Monument in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 15, 2017. Dita Alangkara/Associated Press
Vincent Bevins, what is the story of Indonesia?
Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim majority country whose capital city is Jakarta. It was a Dutch colony and was invaded by the Japanese during the Second World War. When the Japanese lost the war Sukarno, the “Founding Father” of Indonesia who was very much against the colonial power of the Dutch, declared independence and created the new country with a mixture of three powers: religious Muslim power, military power, and then a party that was small at the beginning and grew bigger and bigger, which was the Communist Party. Sukarno governed the country in equilibrium between these three forces, and would have liked to make a sort of a European Union in Asia with other Asian countries. He was very much helped in his politics by Nehru from India, and they played across the two powers in Cold War at the time, Russia and the United States, and sometimes flirted with China, not yet the power that it is today. In 1965, the US-backed Indonesian military oversaw the intentional execution of approximately one million innocent civilians. And then created the Suharto dictatorship, which became one of the most important allies for Washington in the Cold War.
To support American interests, did the White House and the CIA invent a story that the communists in Indonesia tried to kill military personnel?
The US helped spread that story. But let me take a step backwards. From 1955 to 1964, the United States attempted to slow or crush the growth of the Indonesian left in numerous ways. First, they funnelled money to a right-wing conservative party, hoping that would stop the communists from winning elections. It didn’t work. In 1958, the CIA started bombing the country, as part of an attempt to break Indonesia up into little pieces. That didn’t work. Then in 1965, a group of military officers said they believed that there was a right wing coup being brewed against President Sukarno, and kidnapped six generals, who ended up dead at the bottom of a well. Why the generals ended up dead is very mysterious, and we may never know exactly who planned this operation. But we do know with certainty that in 1964. the United States had shifted its tactics towards Indonesia. They switched out the ambassador who had been friendly with Sukarno, and brought in an ambassador widely seen as an expert in regime change. We know from declassified files that the CIA and British MI6 were covertly agitating for a clash between the very well-armed Indonesian military and the entirely unarmed but popular Indonesian Communist Party. And we know that as soon as those generals were killed, Washington helped Suharto to spread a propaganda story, deliberate lies, that blamed the left and justified the imminent massacre, which the US Embassy cheered, going so far to provide lists of people that should be killed.
“The United States is still by far the most powerful national security actor on the planet”
Vincent Bevins, why do you say that after the war president after president didn’t care about dictatorships or military coups or revolutions, as long as the leaders were faithful to the American alliance?
Anticommunism became a foundational, guiding principle for US foreign policy after World War Two. By 1950, if you were not one hundred percent committed to the idea that communism must be battled across the world, you were not going to be in the United States government. By 1953, with the arrival of President Eisenhower and the first “successful” CIA operation, to crush Iranian democracy and to bring back the Shah – an autocrat who would make sure that the Iranian economy is porous to international capital and specifically American investment – it was no longer sufficient to be not allied with the socialist world. Failing to form an explicit alliance with the United States against the Soviet Union was enough to get you labelled as an enemy of the United States and a fair target for removal. So, there is Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and then in 1955 they started trying this against Sukarno in Indonesia, but the first two attempts failed. But when you’re the CIA, the covert operations team for the most powerful nation in history, screws up, you don’t really get in trouble. There’s no referee to stop you from trying again. So what ultimately happened in 1965 – this horrible massacre that is the central event of the book – is really the third attempt to crush a left wing movement in South East Asia which they saw as incompatible with the world that they were trying to create.
Does it still operate in the same way today?
No, not exactly the same, but what I call the Jakarta method was one of the most powerful mechanisms employed to shape human life.. And in my book I tried to show that pro-American right wing groups that were active in the 20th century were also part of an international movement, just as much as the communists were an international movement – oftentimes more so. In the Cold War, the United States and its associated overt and covert agencies built up a toolbox of tactics, strategies, and stories that worked in these kinds of operations. They built up institutional capacity to influence the world as effectively as possible, just as the Soviet Union was attempting to do in different ways. The Soviet Union fell apart, but the United States did not fall apart. The CIA changed after the 1975 Church Commission, when the CIA gets hauled before the Senate and is forced to confess some of the most shocking things it has done; but the CIA is still there. And these stories still tell you a lot about the way that the United States maintained its power in the second half of the 20th century, the way that it shaped the world with its power, and the institutions that it used to do so.
But Russia is no longer the Soviet Union, and the new big power is China.
If things continue the way they’re going, China will end up being more powerful than the Soviet Union ever threatened to be. We could be entering – in 20, 40, 60, 80 years – a world of Chinese hegemony, and we must be very careful to avoid the automatic assumption that things always improve. Just because the United States did horrible things in the peak of its power in the late 20th century does not mean that things will get better if the United States loses that power. However, looking at what the United States did in the first Cold War can help us to understand the ways in which the United States and China are likely to interact in the next 5, 10, 50 years, in some kind of contestation of hegemony on a global scale. It will not be the exact same, because the financial systems are much more integrated and many people in the United States have a lot to gain if the Chinese economy does well. Looking at how the first Cold War was fought is fundamental to helping us decide how the West may want to “confront” a rising power with a population that is still far poorer than the average American or Western European. It will help us to foresee the ways that this very different kind of conflict could go.
Is the CIA still just as powerful today?
It operates differently than it did then, but if we combine the Pentagon with all the various overt and covert operations that the United States carries out throughout the world, the United States is still by far the most powerful national security actor on the planet. The United States is still far ahead of China when it comes to military power, and the power to influence politically and economically less powerful countries.
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Indonesian President Sukarno cruise on the Nile River, Cairo, July 1965
Jakarta became the codeword for US backed killings
The Communist Party of Indonesia (Indonesian: Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI) members and sympathizers rounded up in Bali, December 1965
Suspected communists under armed gaurd, Jakarta December 1 1965
Indonesians buried alive by US supported regime
“American victory was total”
Vincent Bevins, are you very critical of the American actions?
Well in the book I simply show, using well-documented facts, the ways that the United States fought the Cold War in the Global South. I did not need to make any judgment. Some parts of the story are so clearly bad that I choose to let the events speak for themselves.
Has the United States been successful in their purpose, to go against communism and to keep enclaves of political allies around the world?
Yes, absolutely. It’s really important that we understand the ways in which American victory was total, and very deep as well.
Why was American colonial power very different to the European model?
The US has a deep-seated ideology that tends to affirm that America is the only real country, and all other countries are going to be like us at some point. Or, if not, it’s because they’re lacking. This deeply problematic ideology informed Modernization Theory, a disastrous force in the 20th century. The US certainly failed to create a prosperous, happy, democratic Indonesia and Brazil and El Salvador. If the goal was to create little Americas, if the goal was actually to export democracy and our way of life, it was failure after failure after failure. But it was a great success if the goal was simply to maintain the United States at the top of a global capitalist order, which it profoundly shaped, which it oversees, and in which it is able to act economically on the vast majority of the planet.
When do you think American hegemony really started to decline?
The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a catastrophic failure, not only from a human rights perspective, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, but, even from a cynical, self-interested perspective, the United States did not in any way increase its power in the Middle East or the world. It was an act of self-harm and of aggression against others. Things have not gone the way that the United States foreign policy establishment would have liked them to in the last 17 years, not at all.
Will America become stronger again with the new Joe Biden administration?
There will be a difference in foreign policy style. The overall goals of US foreign policy didn’t change very much with Donald Trump; what changed a lot was the style, the way that he would tear up agreements, antagonize allies and parts of his own government. Joe Biden will try very hard to repair relations with the foreign policy establishment in Washington D.C. and with US allies, but countries around the world, from Germany to Iran, are asking one very important question: Why make a deal with the United States if one of its two parties is likely to tear it up the next time they get back in the White House in four to eight years? It’s very difficult to lead the world if nobody trusts that the deal they’re making is only going to last until the next party gets into power. The US political system now seems to be dysfunctional in the kinds of ways that make the exercise of hegemony in the 20th century style very difficult.