Vincent Bevins, The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped our World (Public Affairs, 2020)
Mini-review, commentary, excerpt from the book, further reading (references)
From the publisher
“The hidden story of the wanton slaughter—in Indonesia, Latin America, and around the world—backed by the United States.
In 1965, the U.S. government helped the Indonesian military kill approximately one million innocent civilians. This was one of the most important turning points of the twentieth century, eliminating the largest communist party outside China and the Soviet Union and inspiring copycat terror programs in faraway countries like Brazil and Chile. But these events remain widely overlooked, precisely because the CIA’s secret interventions were so successful.
In this bold and comprehensive new history, Vincent Bevins builds on his incisive reporting for The Washington Post, using recently declassified documents, archival research and eye-witness testimony collected across twelve countries to reveal a shocking legacy that spans the globe. For decades, it’s been believed that parts of the developing world passed peacefully into the U.S.-led capitalist system. The Jakarta Method demonstrates that the brutal extermination of unarmed leftists was a fundamental part of Washington’s final triumph in the Cold War.”
The Jakarta Method deserves all the praise it received in the numerous reviews that are excerpted in the opening pages of the book, many of them from mainstream sources that usually avoid covering American-backed atrocities. The book is also remarkable in that its author distanced himself from his work with The Washington Post by taking on a project that such “papers of record” have never been interested in.
I wrote this post on a short deadline in order to have it ready on September 30th, the date in 1965 when Suharto’s CIA-backed coup d’état occurred. Thus I don’t have a thorough review of the book ready. I will write only that its major flaw is that it makes no reference to the outstanding books written by Greg Poulgrain on Indonesian history (see the reference list below). I suspect that Bevins’ Washington Post background might have biased him to neglect, consciously or not, the voluminous research on the CIA’s involvement in the assassinations of JFK and RFK. Because of this aversion, Bevins overlooked the story of the discovery of massive deposits of West Papuan gold and oil in the 1930s. Poulgrain covers it thoroughly, explaining how it led to Allen Dulles (head of the CIA) patiently plotting over decades to turn West Papua over to Indonesia and Indonesia over to American corporations. JFK had a different plan for Indonesia, but he walked unknowingly into the contrasting vision being put in place covertly by the CIA. In addition to all the other famous conflicts JFK had with the security state over organized crime, racial integration, the oil industry, the steel industry, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos and détente with the Soviet Union, this one over Indonesia was very high-stakes. It was one more reason JFK had to go.
Another glaring omission was the work of poet, scholar and former Canadian diplomat poet, Peter Dale Scott (see the references). Like Poulgrain, his long career of writing analyses of “deep politics” might have been too much for a former Washington Post journalist to contend with.
For anyone who thinks that the US played a minor role in the Indonesian genocide in 1965-66 and the prime responsibility is on the Indonesian government, it is crucial to understand that the US government brought that government to power through a long covert operation to remove Sukarno, the beloved first leader of independent Indonesia. His rule ended with a staged “attempted communist coup,” provoked and manipulated by Suharto, that was used as an excuse for the mass atrocities against civilian, unarmed members of the country’s largest political party. US military and economic aid was essential for the new government, so the US had tremendous leverage over the Indonesian government if it had wanted to end the bloodshed. As Noam Chomsky said about the independence of East Timor that finally came after years of genocidal terror there, all it takes is a phone call from the US president:
Clinton informed the Indonesian generals the game was over. A couple of sentences. The next day they withdrew. It could have happened for 25 years. After they withdrew, a UN peace-keeping force, Australian, entered, which was a good thing… That’s handled as a great case of humanitarian intervention. What it really was an extraordinary scandal. For 25 years the US continued to support the crimes, atrocities, the virtual genocide. They could have stopped it in one minute. You don’t have to invade anyone. You don’t need sanctions. You don’t need threats. Just stop supporting it, and it’s over.
The new romantic comedy set in Bali called Ticket to Paradise, with Julia Roberts and George Clooney, perhaps provides an excellent teachable moment for the masses to learn a little background about what happened in that paradise under the guidance and tutelage of the powers that now proudly uphold the “rules-based international order” against conjured threats from demonized foes. You could say what happened in Bali stayed in Bali, but in Bali some things have been forgotten even by the locals. It is a prime example of historical erasure. People don’t know, and they don’t even have an inkling that there is something to know. But there are a few who remember.
Excerpt from The Jakarta Method, pages 245-246 on Bali, the resort paradise built on top of the mass atrocities of 1965
Wayan Badra, the Hindu priest, lives on the street where he grew up, in Seminyak, Southwest Bali. But the neighborhood has changed drastically. That same beach that he used to walk on for forty minutes every morning, as he headed to school down in Kuta, is certainly not empty. It’s packed wall to wall with luxury resorts and “beach clubs,” a very common type of business on the island, where foreigners can sip cocktails all day, and take a dip in a pool, right on the sand.
It’s the same sand, of course, where the military brought people from Kerobokan, a few miles east, to kill them at night. Right on the beach, a few feet from Badra’s home, is one of the bigger, more upscale beach clubs in Bali. Seminyak has become one of the more expensive places to stay on the island, where the tourism usually revolves around wellness, and spa treatment, or “mindfulness,” and meditation and massages, or, of course, sun and surfing.
If aliens from another world landed on Bali, they would immediately conclude that our planet has a racial hierarchy. The white people who come here for vacation are orders of magnitude wealthier than the locals, who serve them. It is just accepted as a natural part of life. Almost everywhere in Southeast Asia, white people have the disposable income to buy lavish hospitality, or sex, from the locals. They were born with this wealth. Compared to the rest of Indonesia, Bali has done OK for itself economically as a result of the tourism, and Balinese people often obediently reproduce the “Bali smile” as they get Australian surfers their eggs or Russian Instagram models their coconuts.
Almost none of the tourists who come, no matter how well meaning and well educated, know what happened here, says Ngurah Termana, the nephew of Agung Alit, the man who spent a darkly absurd afternoon sifting through skulls in search of his father’s body. In contrast to Cambodia, where Western backpackers faithfully (or morbidly) visit the Killing Fields Museum outside Phnom Penh, few people who come to Bali are aware that a huge part of the local population was slaughtered right underneath their beach chairs.
“Even when we meet with NGO groups, the most internationally informed type of people, that know about Rwanda, Pol Pot, everything, no one has any idea what happened here,” said Ngurah Termana, who is a founding member of Taman 65, or the 1965 Garden, a collective dedicated to promoting memory and reconciliation on the island. The group put out a book on the killings in Bali, as well as a CD of songs that prisoners sang in the concentration camps here.
The members of Taman 65 know that there’s a reason none of the tourists know about the violence that took the lives of so many of their relatives. The government has buried that history deep, even deeper than it was buried on the island of Java. The tourism boom, which started in the late 1960s, required that. Before Suharto, a huge amount of Bali’s land was communal, and often disputed. “They needed to kill the communists so that foreign investors could bring their capital here,” said Ngurah Temrana…
The luxury beach club a few steps away from Wayan Badra’s home has a name that is almost comically on the nose. It’s called Ku De Ta, Bahasa Indonesian for coup d’état. I asked the staff there if they knew why that might be ironic. They did not.
Over the years, Wayan Badra and his neighbors have found bones and skulls in the sand around Ku De Ta. As the elder priest for this village, he takes it upon himself to give the bodies a proper Hindu funeral.
Dennis Riches, “NBC’s Troubled Documentary on the Indonesian Genocide,” personal blog, October 29, 2017. Video clip from the documentary—an archaeologist and enthusiastic genocide apologist describes how the killings in Bali occurred.
Final Report of the International People’s Tribunal (IPT) 1965: Findings and Documents of the IPT 1965, July 20, 2016.
Greg Poulgrain and Edward Curtin, “The CIA’s Involvement in Indonesia and the Assassinations of JFK and Dag Hammarskjold,” Off-Guardian, July 24, 2016.
Greg Poulgrain, JFK vs. Allen Dulles: Battleground Indonesia (Skyhorse, 2020).
Greg Poulgrain, The Incubus of Intervention: Conflicting Indonesia Strategies of John F. Kennedy and Allen Dulles (Petaling Jaya, Malyasia: Strategic Information and Research Development Center, 2015).
Humans Rights Watch, “Indonesia: US Documents Released on 1965-66 Massacres,” October 18, 2017.
John Roosa, Buried Histories: The Anticommunist Massacres of 1965–1966 in Indonesia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2020).
John Roosa, Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’Etat in Indonesia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005).
Joshua Oppenheimer (director), The Act of Killing (DVD), 2014, The Look of Silence (DVD), 2015.
Peter Dale Scott, “Islam, a Forgotten Holocaust, and American Historical Amnesia” (イスラム教、忘れ去られたホロコースト、そして歴史に対するアメリカの記憶喪失症), Asia Pacific Journal, April, 2015.
Peter Dale Scott, “Still Uninvestigated After 50 Years: Did the U.S. Help Incite the 1965 Indonesia Massacre?” Asia Pacific Journal, August 2105.
Peter Dale Scott, Poetry and Terror: Politics and Poetics in Coming to Jakarta, 2018.
Ralph McGehee, “The Indonesian Massacres and the CIA,” Covert Action Quarterly, Fall 1990.
Vincent Bevins, “What the United States did in Indonesia,” The Atlantic, October 20, 2017
A trove of newly declassified diplomatic cables reveals a surprising degree of American involvement in a brutal anti-communist purge in Indonesia half-a-century ago.
In Indonesia in October 1965, Suharto, a powerful Indonesian military leader, accused the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) of organizing a brutal coup attempt, following the kidnapping and murder of six high-ranking army officers. Over the months that followed, he oversaw the systematic extermination of up to a million Indonesians for affiliation with the party, or simply for being accused of harboring leftist sympathies. He then took power and ruled as dictator, with U.S. support, until 1998.
This week, the non-profit National Security Archive, along with the National Declassification Center, published a batch of U.S. diplomatic cables covering that dark period. While the newly declassified documents further illustrated the horror of Indonesia’s 1965 mass murder, they also confirmed that U.S. authorities backed Suharto’s purge. Perhaps even more striking: As the documents show, U.S. officials knew most of his victims were entirely innocent. U.S. embassy officials even received updates on the executions and offered help to suppress media coverage. While crucial documents that could provide insight into U.S. and Indonesian activities at the time are still lacking, the broad outlines of the atrocity and America’s role are there for anyone who cares to look them up.
What is often sorely lacking, however, is an appreciation of the importance of the event or how fundamental the violence was to achieving U.S. goals at the time. Compared with the Vietnam War or a subsequent series of right-wing coups in Latin America, Indonesia 1965 is virtually unknown. But considering the U.S. government’s foreign-policy goals at the time—halting the spread of communism and bringing countries around the world into its sphere of influence—Suharto’s bloody purge was a huge win. The decimation of the PKI and Suharto’s rise to power constituted a major turning point in the Cold War
John Roosa is an associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and author of a seminal book on Indonesia in 1965. After reviewing the new documents and their media coverage this week, he told me that much “of the U.S. foreign policy establishment viewed it as a great victory that they were able to sort of ‘flip’ Indonesia very quickly.” Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest country by population size, and its communist party was the world’s third-largest, after China and the Soviet Union.
Roosa added that a major problem with framing the events of 1965 is that it’s often claimed the United States simply “stood by,” as the bloodbath occurred, which is incorrect. “It’s easy for American commentators to fall into that approach, but the U.S. was part and parcel of the operation, strategizing with the Indonesian army and encouraging them to go after the PKI.”
Some elements within the U.S. government had been trying to undermine or overthrow Sukarno, Indonesia’s anti-colonial independence leader and first president, far before 1965. In 1958, the CIA backed armed regional rebellions against the central government, only calling off operations after American pilot Allen Pope was captured while conducting bombing operations that killed Indonesian soldiers and civilians. Agents reportedly went so far as to stage and produce a pornographic film starring a man wearing a Sukarno mask, which they hoped to employ to discredit him. It was never used. Then for years, the United States trained and strengthened the Indonesian army. After John F. Kennedy’s death derailed a planned presidential visit to Jakarta and relations worsened with the Johnson administration, Sukarno strengthened alliances with communist countries and employed anti-American rhetoric in 1964.
In 1965, when General Suharto blamed the military purge on a PKI coup plot, the CIA supplied communications equipment to help him spread his false reports before moving into power and overseeing the industrial-scale slaughter, as previously released government documents showed. Several of the documents released this week indicate that the U.S. embassy had reliable information that placed blame on rank-and-file PKI members—information that was entirely inaccurate, but nevertheless had encouraged the army to exploit this narrative.
It has long been known that the United States provided Suharto with active support: In 1990, a U.S. embassy staff member admitted he handed over a list of communists to the Indonesian military as the terror was underway. “It really was a big help to the army,” Robert J. Martens, a former member of the embassy’s political section, told The Washington Post. “They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad.”
Much of the American press at the time did not take a radically different view. In a June 1966 column in The New York Times, entitled “A Gleam of Light in Asia,” James Reston wrote that “The savage transformation of Indonesia from a pro-Chinese policy under Sukarno to a defiantly anti-communist policy under General Suharto is the most important of these [hopeful] developments. Washington is being careful not to claim any credit … but this does not mean Washington had nothing to do with it.”
It should not be entirely surprising that Washington would tolerate the deaths of so many civilians to further its Cold War goals. In Vietnam, the U.S. military may have killed up to 2 million civilians. But Indonesia was different: the PKI was a legal, unarmed party, operating openly in Indonesia’s political system. It had gained influence through elections and community outreach, but was nevertheless treated like an insurgency.
Earlier this month in Central Java at the Sekretariat Bersama 1965, one of Indonesia’s main organizations for the remembrance of these events, I met a survivor of the 1965 massacre. “I believed in President Sukarno and our revolution. At the time our country had the official ‘NASAKOM’ ideology, which meant that Nationalists [NAS, from Nasionalisme], Muslim groups [A, for agama, or ‘religion’ in Indonesian] and Communists [Komunisme] were all supposed to work together to build the country,” he said. “Yes, I worked on the left side of politics, broadly under ‘KOM,’ and there was nothing wrong with that.”
Though he worked as a schoolteacher and not as an actual PKI member, he said he was arrested and tortured for days, before watching his cellmates dragged off one by one, never to return. He was spared, for reasons he never understood, and spent over a decade in prison. But it wasn’t only communists and leftists who were victimized. Untold numbers of people were tortured, raped, and killed for being accused of being communists, or for belonging to an ethnic minority, or simply being an enemy of some member of the officially-sanctioned death squads.
Another common problem with the framing of Indonesia 1965 is that the mass violence is often couched as coincidental to Suharto’s rise to power, rather than serving as a prerequisite for it. Historians broadly agree that the anti-communists in the military could have never taken power without crushing the PKI by some means.
“Suharto could not have come to power without the extermination of the PKI,” said Brad Simpson, the historian at the University of Connecticut who worked with the National Security Archive to digitize and publish U.S. embassy documents this week. He agrees with Roosa that the depiction of the United States as simply a bystander is problematic.
More documents revealing what happened in Indonesia in 1965 are likely to come, Simpson tells me. But they’re unlikely to offer a complete picture of what both governments were up to in 1965—they won’t for instance, include information from the U.S. military and the CIA. The Indonesian government has offered practically nothing. “Literally no Indonesian official records are publicly available anywhere, so we’re really reliant on Western archives,” Simpson said.
This is because much of Indonesia’s political elite still relies on Suharto’s original—and false—narrative for their legitimacy. The country’s powerful military leaders fight any investigations that might lay blame on them. Suharto’s government produced a crude, wildly inaccurate propaganda film depicting Communists torturing and killing military officers while communist women perform a wild dance.
The methods Suharto used may have inspired other Washington-backed right-wing putsches around the world. According to several accounts of Santiago, Chile, in the days before the U.S.-backed coup that deposed Salvador Allende, cryptic graffiti showed up on walls around the city. Referring to the capital of Indonesia, they read, “Jakarta is coming.”