The Murderous Legacy of Cold War Anticommunism
A new book reveals how deeply the Washington-backed Indonesian mass killings of 1965 reshaped global politics, securing a decisive victory for U.S. interests against Third World self-determination.
May 19, 2020
May 19, 2020
25 Min read time
A new book reveals how deeply the Washington-backed Indonesian mass killings of 1965 reshaped global politics, securing a decisive victory for U.S. interests against Third World self-determination.
The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World
Public Affairs Books, $28 (cloth)
Eight years ago, at an academic conference in Jakarta, I was struck by the absence of a word. Scholars from Europe and the United States spoke of “hegemony”—a concept often associated with the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci—without hesitation or explanation, but many Indonesian colleagues in attendance, one young scholar admitted to me, had never encountered the term. In the discussion that followed we came to realize that the culprit was likely the word’s Marxist affiliation, however much it has been forgotten thanks to popular use in the United States. This repression of a political vocabulary is one of the more subtle legacies of the Cold War, which in Indonesia saw an anticommunist genocide of staggering proportions in 1965 and 1966, killing at least half a million people and imprisoning another million. Yet, as Vincent Bevins writes in his trenchant new book, The Jakarta Method, “Most people know very little about Indonesia, and almost nothing about what happened in 1965–66 in that archipelago nation. Indonesia remains a huge gap in our collective general knowledge.”
Bevins documents the U.S. government’s role in fostering systematic mass murder across the globe—from Southeast Asia to South America—in the name of fighting communism.
Today Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country, with the largest Muslim population of any nation. The stark absence of Marxist terminology in its political discourses reflects a concerted, decades-long effort to both suppress and villainize the country’s communist past. With a legacy stretching back to 1914 with the formation of the Indies Social Democratic Association, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) grew by midcentury to be one of the three primary power bases in the country, along with the army and the country’s charismatic president, Sukarno, a prominent figure in the country’s struggle against the Dutch empire. Japanese occupation during World War II helped weaken Dutch rule, and Sukarno proclaimed Indonesia’s independence in August 1945. But the Dutch did not concede until 1949, after years of battles to retain the colony. At first Washington deemed Sukarno an independence leader sufficiently free from communist influence, but then the PKI started to win elections. By the early 1960s it was the largest communist party outside what became known as the Sino-Soviet Bloc; operating openly, it counted around 3.5 million members, along with another 20 million more in affiliated organizations.
Sukarno also won popularity abroad. His global stature grew from his efforts to foster a global dialogue on international solidarity and national independence, most notably through the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung. Sukarno’s commitment to internationalism was one of the five principles of Indonesian national unity he developed, counterposing it to elite cosmopolitanism or inward-looking nationalism. For a time this vision gained adherents around the globe, in no small part due to the possibility Sukarno demonstrated: a government could enact “non-alignment” abroad, which seemed to hew neither to U.S. nor Soviet prescriptions, while sharing power with a communist movement at home. This delicate balance would not last, however; the United States would not allow it. Under General Suharto, who took control of the country following a botched nighttime coup on September 30, 1965, the PKI was destroyed and Marxism was outlawed, with the approval and support of U.S. diplomats and national security officials. Thanks to a program of thoroughgoing political repression, any positive memory of the PKI has been almost entirely erased in Indonesia today.
The international scope of this history is the subject of Bevins’s powerful new book, which documents the U.S. government’s role in fostering systematic mass murder across the globe—from Southeast Asia to South America—in the name of fighting communism. A California-born journalist who has worked in Indonesia and Brazil and speaks both Indonesian and Portuguese, Bevins is particularly well suited to investigate these legacies—including as they manifest in the administration of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who represents the irruption of this vicious history from beneath the thin veneer of contemporary liberalism.
A guiding question for Bevins is how the 1950s metonym of Bandung, indicating the hopefulness of self-determination, anticolonial independence, and Afro-Asian solidarity, came to be replaced by the 1970s idea of Jakarta, symbolizing the anticommunist terror of forced disappearance, death squads, and political murder. In addition to interviewing survivors and chronicling their struggles, Bevins draws on the latest historical scholarship on the “global Cold War,” which, contrary to its name, entailed hot, violent conflicts in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. He translates the findings of complex scholarly accounts into smooth and readable, if often heartbreaking, prose.
By illuminating the international reach of the machinery of anticommunist violence that reshaped the world order in the late twentieth century, Bevins shows how the memory of the Jakarta method reverberates today.
An analytical challenge for scholars of these proxy conflicts is to explain how the United States both facilitated and benefited from the violence while rarely controlling specific events on the ground. As Bevins indicates, outside Vietnam, U.S. citizens themselves rarely pulled the trigger. Instead, as demonstrated by Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling documentary The Act of Killing (2012), the most immediate perpetrators were armies and police forces aided by the United States, or else loosely organized petty gangsters and members of right-wing paramilitary organizations for whom America meant popular icons such as James Cagney or Elvis Presley, not powerful men of state such as John Foster Dulles (Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959) or his brother Allen (CIA director from 1952 to 1961). Though Bevins focuses on U.S. relations with Indonesia, Brazil, Guatemala, and Chile, he is attentive to local dynamics. But by illuminating the international reach of the machinery of anticommunist violence that reshaped the world order in the late twentieth century, Bevins shows how the memory of the Jakarta method reverberates today.
• • •
As the book details, the Indonesian genocide relied on structures put in place by U.S. foreign policy operations beginning the prior decade, due to suspicions that Sukarno was going to turn the country communist. Based on the blueprint of the successful 1954 coup it had orchestrated in Guatemala, which deposed the democratically elected Jacobo Árbenz and installed the corrupt dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas, the CIA under Dwight D. Eisenhower secretly supported rebels scattered on islands in central Indonesia, delivering weapons and even paying mercenary pilots to drop bombs on government targets. Sukarno was able to confirm the CIA’s role when Indonesian forces shot down a mercenary plane in May 1958. This fiasco had two consequences: the United States now had to rely on cultivating forces opposed to communism within Sukarno’s government (as it would turn out, primarily in the army and national police), and Sukarno came to mistrust the United States, vitiating the leverage of traditional diplomacy.
Like most Americans, Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, believed the past was no precedent. But Sukarno, like most leaders of newly independent nations, was unwilling to forget recent history. Still, the two had a lot in common and developed positive relations at first. One might say that Kennedy was the Sukarno of the United States: a charismatic and cultured playboy, often sickly, overwhelmed by events, and outmatched by a recalcitrant security state.
When it came to Third World countries, Kennedy himself, along with some of his intellectual advisors, was committed to modernization in the form of economic development and political liberalization. But, as Sukarno remarked in 1964,
we must make a distinction between Kennedy and the Kennedy Administration. It is one thing for a Kennedy to appreciate the changing world situation, or to understand the role of nationalism in shaping the policies of the emerging countries, but what can be expected of an administration is quite another matter.
Indeed the administration, including the president’s kid brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, was committed to anticommunism. Almost everyone in Kennedy’s government (and in Lyndon Johnson’s, for that matter) agreed that in case of emergency, democracy would be sacrificed to anticommunism. Many Eisenhower-era U.S. officials, including the Dulles brothers, feared that non-alignment, a position they most closely associated in Southeast Asia with Sukarno, was a cover for communist tendencies. Through Secretary of State Dean Rusk, these views carried over into the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, particularly as Sukarno forged closer ties to China. For its part, the CIA consistently amplified evidence that Sukarno’s non-alignment was insincere.
A guiding question for Bevins is how the 1950s metonym of Bandung, indicating self-determination and Afro-Asian solidarity, came to be replaced by the 1970s idea of Jakarta, symbolizing the anticommunist terror of political murder.
Yet Sukarno did hold an ideological commitment to positive non-alignment, which meant internationalism, solidarity, and anti-imperialism. He accepted U.S. overtures, meeting with Kennedy in 1961, but then opposed British plans for the creation of Malaysia in 1963, which would encroach on Indonesian territory. Washington viewed this dispute through the simplified Cold War lens, anxious at the snub of a close ally. But Sukarno saw territorial integrity as a plank in a broader movement against colonial backsliding around the globe, and he had to satisfy domestic supporters who wanted him to stand up to European powers. Sukarno’s growing ties with China, plus his decision to receive aid from the Soviet Union, should be seen in this light. Some Washington observers said so, but their arguments went unheeded.
Beneath this diplomatic turbulence, the United States was all the while providing support to Indonesia’s army and national police. By 1965 this backing mooted any appreciation of Sukarno still lingering in Washington. These two aid operations, which Kennedy and Johnson inherited from Eisenhower, were to ensure that countries like Indonesia would not fall to the communists. Bevins adroitly examines the massive military assistance program, but the history of the much smaller police assistance program in Indonesia remains to be written. In the decade before Kennedy’s inauguration, some 141,250 foreign nationals came to the United States for military training, according to the historian Simeon Man. Up to a quarter of Indonesia’s Army command echelon—2,800 officers—trained in the United States by 1965. The military assistance program had three primary purposes. First, it was the companion to the economically important program of arms sales; deliveries of American matériel required American training in how to use it. Second, it allowed U.S. intelligence agencies to develop an intimate sense of foreign military capabilities and trustworthiness, vetting particular high-ranking officers in the process. Third, it fostered ideological adherence to the United States and promoted anticommunism. Sukarno declined large arms deliveries, giving greater salience to the latter two purposes.
In a telling detail, Bevins points out that Indonesian Army officers spent many evenings at strip clubs in Kansas while training at Fort Leavenworth. Cultivating reliable cold warriors meant sharing the rewards of American manhood; strippers complemented counterinsurgency manuals. As an ideological warrant for capitalism, anticommunism always grew from local and indigenous sources that the United States hoped to marshal and channel into Americanism, but as a practice of governance, anticommunism required a specific technique of surveillance and suspicion.
Kennedy’s administration favored police assistance to military assistance abroad. Police agencies were more attuned to the anticommunist counterinsurgency task, the Kennedy brothers believed, than were militaries focused on interstate conflict, and the administration beefed up the police advisory program, permitting it a great deal of independence and resources. At its root, police assistance was designed to build state capacity, and as the historian Geoffrey Robinson argues in his book The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965–66 (2018), “State capacity in the fields of logistics, propaganda, administration, and control over the means and organization of violence arguably mark the difference between isolated outbreaks of violence and sustained, geographically dispersed programs of mass killing and incarceration.” In 1955 Indonesia was the first of fifty-two countries to receive overt U.S. police assistance. Forty-five U.S. police advisors cycled through Indonesia, with many subsequently posted to other Cold War battlegrounds, including Brazil. Surviving a coup, Brazil’s program (1959–1972) resulted in 857 ranking police officials trained directly by the United States, including the country’s top police commander. And U.S. advisement reached 100,000 Brazilian line officers, according to historian Rodrigo Patto Sá Motta.
The Indonesian genocide relied on structures put in place by U.S. foreign policy operations beginning the prior decade, due to suspicions that Sukarno was going to turn the country communist.
In a 1975 interview, the former CIA field officer and whistleblower Philip Agee characterized U.S. police assistance as an instrument of the CIA: “Thousands of policemen all over the world, for instance, are shadowing people for the CIA without knowing it. They think they’re working for their own police departments, when, in fact, their chief may be a CIA agent who’s sending them out on CIA jobs and turning their information over to his CIA control.” In the case of Indonesia, General Soekanto, the first director of the country’s national police, was among the most favored U.S. intelligence assets in the 1950s. Unlike other national police executives who emphasized improved crime control an objective when seeking U.S. aid, Soekanto acknowledged that Indonesia’s program was singularly focused on “reducing Commies.” It began with assistance to the Mobile Brigade or Mobrig, a 20,000-man specialized unit of the national police (125,000 total), considered the most reliable instrument to carry out the U.S. political agenda. According to historian Jeremy Kuzmarov, U.S. officials anticipated that in the event of total breakdown in the Washington-Jakarta relationship, the Mobrig would be critical to reestablishing U.S. influence. Should communist insurgency break out, the Mobrig would “fight to the last man.” One U.S. police advisor recommended that the Mobrig cultivate adjunct civilian “goon squads” to be activated “at moment’s notice.”
The effects of U.S. assistance to Indonesia’s police outlasted the actual program, though it already seemed durable after Sukarno removed Soekanto in 1959. Sukarno and U.S. officials agreed to phase out the bilateral program by 1965, each side accusing the other of “politicizing” the police. In the program’s last two years, 173 Indonesian officers trained in the United States. All told, during the Kennedy presidency Indonesia was the second largest recipient of U.S. police aid, behind only South Vietnam, leaving it stocked with numerous weapons but also with fingerprinting and data management capabilities. These proved critical to the mass killing that began in 1965 under Suharto.
• • •
In examining the causes of the Indonesian genocide, Bevins covers a lot of ground concisely and persuasively, but two factors merit further attention: Euro-American economic interests in Indonesia, and how these shaped conceptions of race.
Oil and rubber were the two Indonesian commodities most prominent in the minds of U.S. policymakers in the early 1960s; oil alone accounted for around a third of Indonesia’s export economy. During Kennedy’s presidency, profitability for U.S. oil firms did not reach the levels achieved by British operations in Iran before the 1953 coup, but Sukarno’s government tried to wrest some of the profits away, leading to tense negotiations, while oil workers staged wildcat strikes. Through the first half of the 1960s, Indonesia’s foreign debt burden was huge, inflation was rampant, and food shortages were common. Oil production had increased, but exports declined. The International Monetary Fund proposed an early form of structural adjustment. Sukarno denounced aid conditionality, declaring in a speech in English, “You can go to hell with your aid.”
By 1965, fearful of instigating another war in Southeast Asia by overreacting to threats to U.S. economic interests, the United States had mostly retreated to covert dissemination of anticommunist propaganda. Meanwhile oilmen lobbied U.S. officials to “stave off the inevitable”—nationalization of the industry. Once it seemed a left-wing putsch loomed, the U.S. strategy of cultivating an anticommunist nucleus in the army paid off, and Suharto’s minions soon got paid, bribed by oilmen and planters. In April 1966 a State Department official remarked that Caltex, one of the major U.S. oil firms operating in the country and which had feared nationalization by Sukarno, was at last “optimistic.”
All told, during the Kennedy presidency Indonesia was the second largest recipient of U.S. police aid, behind only South Vietnam, leaving it stocked with numerous weapons but also with fingerprinting and data management capabilities.
The historian Wen-Qing Ngoei has argued in Arc of Containment: Britain, the United States, and Anticommunism in Southeast Asia (2019) that U.S. and British actions in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s were driven by an appreciation of regional interconnectedness, with the Chinese diaspora as the mechanism of that connection. In response to that perceived threat, it was necessary to construct, as Kennedy advisor Roger Hilsman put it, “a wide anti-communist arc.” In this sense, there was no single “most important” domino at risk of falling into communism—whether Indonesia, as Bevins suggests, or South Vietnam, as many other studies have indicated. Encircling China and isolating Vietnam (after 1975) were the primary regional goals. The imperative to disrupt the cohesion of the Chinese diaspora in each country, from Indonesia to Malaysia to the Philippines, interlaced with localized chauvinisms, allowing U.S. policy meant to quell labor militancy to take advantage of and sharpen extant xenophobia.
U.S. officials, particularly Democrats who never escaped the ludicrous accusation that they had “lost China,” worried that Mao’s China would replicate Hirohito’s expansionist Japan. Powerbrokers on the ground maintained more pedestrian worries about labor pools, land tenure, and real estate. Anticommunism proved to be a useful vehicle for invigorating simmering economic disputes. As Ngoei puts it, “Disciplining the Chinese diaspora, a corollary of resisting China, provided the connective tissue between Southeast Asia’s anticommunist nationalism, U.S. containment policy, and British neocolonialism in Malaya and Singapore.” Anti-Chinese pogroms both preceded and followed the mid-1960s genocide in Indonesia, and it would be a mistake to presume that racism did not shape the mass killing, as well as subsequent U.S. denials of complicity that attributed it to elemental Indonesian characteristics.
After Indonesia finally achieved independence in 1949, European companies took hold of vast stretches of land for rubber, tobacco, sugar cane, and palm plantations, which dispossessed Indigenous locals, but a great deal of land remained fallow, inciting protest. Anti-Chinese sentiment thus mixed with longstanding hatred by the European planter class for increasingly organized Indigenous plantation workers, believing them “ignorant” and ungovernable. Planters, as Lisa Tilley has shown, fed militant workers into the assassination machine. Sukarno had been the one person able to unify Indonesia’s diverse archipelago, and as his visibility declined after October 1965, factionalism, regionalism, and religious disputes bubbled up. The army imposed a political binary onto these tensions.
• • •
This backstory culminated in the September 30 Movement in 1965, when army troops kidnapped top generals. More a purge than a coup, the event was meant to prevent a right-wing military takeover and dismissal of Sukarno from national leadership, but instead it spurred a takeover led by a different group of military commanders, including Suharto, who then sidelined Sukarno. Five of the six generals killed in the offensive had trained in the United States, and one had earlier informed a U.S. embassy official of a military plan to seize power. Others identified by the CIA as friendly, including Suharto, survived. Bevins points out that U.S. officials anticipated an “unsuccessful coup attempt by the PKI” and believed it would be fortuitous, allowing the army and anticommunist political forces to assert themselves. That is exactly what happened.
The proximate spur for the purge was Sukarno’s own apparent weakness, real and imagined. His health was failing, and his political stature was insecure; U.S. diplomats feared the country was on the brink of a communist revolution in September. Urban street demonstrations accompanied worker seizures of rural plantations. But covert destabilization of Sukarno was happening, too, and dangerous rumors ricocheted across the country. Crafted as psychological warfare, media reports suggested right-wing generals were planning a coup, provoking the PKI. An Indonesian oil executive brandished a purported plan for a communist revolt, provoking the army. As a CIA brief on such covert propaganda operations outlined, “the purpose of the entire exercise is agitation and the instigation of internal strife between communist and non-communist elements. While the pattern of activity proposed is relatively modest in scope, the measure of the success of the program would in effect be the momentum it acquired.” This momentum far outlasted the confusion of the first week of October 1965.
Bevins points out that U.S. officials anticipated an “unsuccessful coup attempt by the PKI” and believed it would be fortuitous, allowing the army and anticommunist political forces to assert themselves. That is exactly what happened.
How the purge of the generals was supposed to unfold is unclear, but it was likely botched. Contrary to Washington’s fears, even if the purge had been successful it would not have necessarily empowered the PKI; the army’s anticommunism was too deeply entrenched. Suharto, it turned out, was more opportunistic than the PKI, which did not mobilize its members after the generals were killed Almost none of the PKI rank and file knew about or planned for the coup, though they bore the brunt of its effects. Despite U.S. worries, Mao Zedong did not orchestrate the events; he “acquiesced” to a vague plan by PKI leader D.N. Aidit to protect Sukarno. “We know there was a conspiracy,” Bevins writes. “Unless the CIA and . . . the Indonesian military release what they have, we can only theorize as to its true nature based on the available evidence.” But that Suharto took advantage of the opportunity and later misrepresented the events “is not in doubt.”
Suharto was the senior army official in Jakarta on the night of the purge, and his levelheadedness allowed him to take control of the army, which marked the beginning of what would become his three-decade military dictatorship. Throughout Suharto’s rule a number of police officials whom the United States had trained in the 1950s and early 1960s rose to high command positions, though the army predominated and directed Indonesia’s economic neoliberalization. To enable this transformation the army, police, paramilitaries, and unaffiliated civilians slaughtered PKI members and others with ease in the year or so after September 30, 1965.
U.S. technical training and assistance both enabled and compounded the tragedy. Among other things, Sukarno’s five principles of national identity—belief in God, humanistic internationalism, Indonesian unity, democracy, and social justice—guided the creation of youth groups, to foster cohesion and political participation across a fractious and huge country. In 1965 and 1966, however, local elites pushed youths to direct antisocial behavior from street crime to political combat, and the Mobrig and army special forces turned the groups into loosely trained paramilitary organizations. With the help of U.S. records standardization and surveillance technologies, they would soon become effective anticommunist death squads, fulfilling quotas by tracking down suspected communists who tried to hide once arrests and massacres began.
The speed of the slaughter indicated the PKI was unprepared to mount a violent counter-campaign. Although U.S. police assistance had already built a nationwide radio communications system, the United States rushed new mobile communications equipment to the army in October, which helped coordinate the killings. During round-ups, there were sporadic clashes between police or soldiers and communists who defended themselves. But the majority who were unable to flee faced imprisonment, rape, and torture, as well as murder and mutilation. Anonymous burial in mass graves was common, some in the sand of Balinese beach idylls that now pop into your Instagram feed. As one ex-CIA official recalled, the police assistance the United States had afforded Indonesia was “groundwork” that “may have been responsible for the speed with which this coup . . . was wrapped up.” This glib assessment, erasing a staggering degree of violence in the passive voice, contrasts starkly with the sensitive treatment of victims and survivors in The Jakarta Method.
Although the bulk of the killing occurred within a year of September 30, 1965, political arrests continued for a decade. The last political prisoners were not released until 1979, and former detainees still faced deep stigma. Suharto had finally pushed Sukarno out of even a nominal governing role in 1967, and he died in 1970 after living under house arrest. The army became the center of power in the country, guiding both foreign investment and domestic repression. Beginning in 1975 Suharto oversaw another mass killing, this time in East Timor, a territory his army occupied immediately after it had declared independence from Portugal. Over 100,000 people, and as many as 300,000, died in an invasion personally approved by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Suharto ruled Indonesia until 1998, when his government fell apart amid another spate of mass violence largely targeting ethnic Chinese Indonesians.
• • •
Looking beyond Indonesia, Bevins also tracks the dispersion of the Jakarta method abroad. His analysis hinges on its arrival in Chile and Brazil; this is the most original aspect of the book. Around seven years after the start of the genocide in Indonesia in October 1965, shadowy actors began painting mysterious slogans on walls in Chile: “Yakarta viene” and “Jakarta se acerca.” Anonymous postcards arrived at the homes of members of Salvador Allende’s government: Jakarta is coming, they read, marked with the frightening arachnid logo of Pátria y Libertad, a far right organization. The slogan foretold the coup and mass killing that was to come in Chile. Meanwhile, in Brazil, as a truth commission later revealed, security officials spoke in 1973 of “Operação Jacarta,” a plan to eliminate everyday people because of their political beliefs. The plan never came to fruition, but the military dictatorship nevertheless harassed, arrested, jailed, and tortured thousands. The commission identified 434 people the dictatorship killed, while calculating that thousands of Indigenous people died prematurely from its policies. Brazil also exported intelligence-gathering and torture methods across the hemisphere.
From the perspective of twenty-three countries that Bevins addresses in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, it was undistinguished destruction that characterized the local experience of the ideological clash between the United States and the Soviet Union.
While techniques of mass killing spread from Jakarta to Brasília, the idea of developing a “national religion” based on defeating communist treachery, as Bevins calls it, traveled the opposite direction. In 1935 Brazilian communists staged a failed coup, which killed a couple soldiers. The so-called Intentona Comunista then became a reliable myth for the Brazilian right: it was portrayed as a massive plot designed to overthrow the government, which would have included the rape and murder of elites but not for brave soldiers who squashed it. The attack became a justification for a brutal right-wing crackdown. By 1964 the constructed memory of the plot helped to energize right-wing coup plotters scripting their actions as preventive. They overthrew the moderate president João Goulart, with U.S. approval, ushering in twenty-one years of military rule. By 1980 a quarter of Citibank’s total profits came from Latin America, 11 percent from Brazil. As in Indonesia, military dictatorship rewarded Wall Street.
A similar national religion was also being constructed in Indonesia. Suharto cultivated myths about the events of September 30, 1965, which claimed that communist women engaged in bizarre sexual rituals as they killed army commanders. None of this was true. The real sexualized violence that characterized the genocide would be forgotten. Memorializing the violent fantasy became its own ritual, including in a three-hour film the regime forced on the citizenry.
Brazil built a monument to celebrate the fallen heroes of the Intentona Comunista, and Suharto followed suit. In both countries, a white marble structure stands behind bronze soldiers. Indonesia’s is more grandiose than Brazil’s, but the structure of each proclaims that the dead put their lives on the line to defend the nation. Both memorials make concrete what political theorist Robert Meister, drawing on the work of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, calls “projective identification.” For political theorist Alberto Toscano, this identification is the “psychic infrastructure of political violence,” whereby the “dominator re-experiences his own aggression towards the dominated as a fear of the dominated’s murderous hostility.”
The Jakarta method relied on this psychic infrastructure, but also on the practical infrastructure bequeathed by police and military assistance from the United States, whose own founding document, the Declaration of Independence, contains a projective identification with “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” From the perspective of twenty-three countries that Bevins addresses in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, it was undistinguished destruction that characterized the local experience of the ideological clash between the United States and the Soviet Union.
• • •
Bevins calls Indonesia and Brazil the Cold War’s greatest victories for anticommunism: had they failed, our world might be a very different place. In his telling, part of what enabled these victories was a widespread faith, even among “leftists of Southeast Asia and Latin America,” in a “liberal international order”—one in which “rich countries” were ultimately committed to liberalism and the rule of law and the United States would come to the defense of democracy. This group of believers, he writes, were “annihilated.” He succeeds in showing how disappearances and death squads relying on U.S. intelligence and technical expertise “profoundly shaped the world we live in today.” His global survey reveals how the final outcomes accorded with U.S. foreign policy goals—hidden in plain sight—even if U.S. officials did not directly control another sovereign regime or direct every particular killing.
Contemporary evocations of the Jakarta method illustrate the paradox of projective identification: tribunes of domination misrecognize the downtrodden’s dreams of liberation as vicious hostility.
Politics today cannot escape this history. On Twitter Bevins recently circulated a photograph of Bolsonaro supporters holding a banner that read in Portuguese: “Get rid of Congress and the Supreme Court! A new anti-communist constitution! Criminalize communism!” Jakarta may yet arrive in Brazil, nor is it the only apparent destination. Across the United States under Donald Trump an acronym emblazons the shirts of neofascist men: RWDS, short for “right-wing death squad.” One RWDS-branded shirt says “Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong.” Another says “Make Communists Afraid of Rotary Aircraft Again”—the reference is to killing people by shoving them out of helicopters into the sea, a tactic that first appeared in Guatemala in 1965 and soon spread throughout the hemisphere.
Bevins begins his book by recollecting encounters with right-wing mobs in Brazil and Indonesia, who harass and threaten people they deem communists. These experiences prodded him to investigate the “monstrous international network of extermination” at the Cold War’s core. Contemporary evocations of the Jakarta method illustrate the paradox of projective identification: tribunes of domination misrecognize the downtrodden’s dreams of liberation as vicious hostility. It is not any defense of freedom but this fear of retribution that fuels the machinery of mass death. But one Indonesian survivor Bevins interviewed “wants no vengeance.” “The solution,” he believes, “is for this nation to recognize its sins and to repent.”
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May 19, 2020
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