Fifty years ago, notable liberals like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., late of the Kennedy White House, would explain to critics of US foreign policy that Americans were at times compelled to support dictators, supplying them weapons and military training that resulted, sometimes, in the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians or even more. It was surely unfortunate, but in the first place, “we” had to support them or the dictators would take aid from the Russians, and in the second place, without our guidance, the campaigns against civilians would be less orderly and even worse.
The scholarly rationalizers of the 1965 coup in Venezuela added something else, more characteristic of CIA logic. Since the US was apparently taken by surprise at the specific date of the rightwing uprising, the Agency could not possibly have been at fault. Something very bad happened in the messy aftermath, but it was a victory for the anticommunist cause defending freedom around the world. Or so the logic went.
Other leftwing or “realist” scholars looked at the slaughter of a half million civilians in a rather different light. How many guarantees or at least promises had been made after World War II against repeating the crimes that had shocked the world? Jews, Roma, homosexuals, who would be next?
Vincent Bevins, an award-winning journalist from the heart of the mainstream and correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and the Financial Times, made up his mind to find out what happened in Indonesia in 1965. It would not be easy, thanks to the official forgetfulness of the American press (among others) and the literal extinction of most of the Indonesian dissenters. Almost no traces had been left behind, not even in cemeteries. Records had been systematically destroyed. Even fifty years later, bystanders feared to talk.
Bevins weaves The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World, then, with great difficulty, a preserved record of mass murder here or there, an exile who managed not to be forced into silence for the sake of extended family members. The facts of these monstrous developments are simpler than one would have thought because they are so close to a pattern worked out at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
The Jakarta massacre was not the first of such post-World War II slaughters, but it became so emblematic that the word Jakarta could be found scrawled on walls in parts of Latin America, ten or twenty years later, as a warning from right wing generals in the pay of US intelligence. The message was: go silent or blood will run in the streets and across the jungles, choking priests as well as peasants, whole communities of indigenous peoples as well as student and union leaders and revolutionary guerrillas.
The story could be traced back to the scorched earth policies of the US in the Philippines afterWorld War II, with the slaughter of villagers supporting the Huk uprising. But the emblematic example is Guatemala in 1954.
The overthrow of a properly elected agrarian reformer after a campaign in the US press against him as an agent of the Russians, was welcomed in liberal as well as conservative circles. Even Norman Thomas, the socialist “conscience of America,” regarded the coup as halting the dangerous progress of the communists in the New World. The New Leader, a formerly socialist magazine later discovered to be heavily subsidized by the CIA, published a special, celebratory issue, in which they celebrated the removal of Jacobo Arbenz as a victory for freedom.
There were few communists in Guatemala, Bevin notes. But threats to US interests were significant. The US had repeatedly invaded parts of the Caribbean and Latin America —invasions and coups had prompted the term “Banana Republic”— in the name of the Monroe Doctrine.
Counterinsurgency was practiced country to country, sometimes carried out directly by the US and lasting decades, but more often realized via military forces acting in the name of white supremacist elites, enforcing their will through torture and lengthy detentions.
Indonesia was a special case. In the 1940s, Sukarno emerged as leader following the abandonment of the region by the British. He was no communist, rather, he was willing to use military force against communists as necessary. Sukarno was a straight out nationalist.
Throughout part of Sukarno’s rule, the Non-Aligned Movement hovered in the background. Founded in 1961 following the Bandung Conference of 1955, it could not be described as Communist, which made it, from the perspective of the CIA and State Department, perhaps even more dangerous. Yugoslavia’s Tito, having distanced himself from the USSR, joined with leaders of emerging, newly-independent nations to seek a path forward dependent on neither the West nor the East. In short, a movement of hundreds of non-white millions asserting their own, if problematic and seemingly contradictory, vision of development.
Sukaro’s capital crime was serving as a leading example of the Non-Aligned Movement. Indonesia, phenomenally rich in natural resources, offered a model to other nations. But that would be putting matters too simply, because Indonesia’s anti-colonial movement had actually created a grassroots communist following in the tens of millions. But did this movement threaten Sukarno? Hardly.
The Indonesian army, as in so many other places around the world, represented the classes that looked to the US to protect their wealth and power. Given vast amounts of money and arms, and training in the US, Indonesian army leaders had long prepared for a moment of truth.
Bevins’ detailed account of the coup itself is perhaps the hardest part of the book to follow. The coup was followed by several years of non-communist regional uprisings, put down by the army (making Sukarno indebted to it), and because the exact sequence of events, beyond planning for the slaughter, have long remained secret from Indonesian and international researchers alike.
The slaughter itself is easier to grasp, even as it makes for pained reading. This is especially true since the fall of General Suharto, the Army leader who seized power in 1967 and maintained it until 1998. The processes of the pogrom read like the Holocaust without the death camps or the scientific German efficiency of victim enumeration. Bodies were buried in mass graves, thrown into the sea, relatives and village associates who had no political connection with leftists were likewise murdered in a wave of calculated madness.
This is chilling enough, but The Jakarta Method reveals what few grasped before its publication: in Chile, at the time of the CIA-plotted overthrow of the legally elected president, generals spoke of “Jakarta.” After the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, death squads were organized among Argentine natives in Honduras, and Bishop Romero was arranged, by killers trained at the CIA’s School of the Americas. Slaughter in El Salvador, again in Guatemala and elsewhere followed a tell-tale pattern.
Brazil, however, offers Bevins a particular map of CIA methods. The largest country in Latin America shared economic advisors from US universities with far-away Indonesia. “Modernization theory,” the program for rapid economic growth based on “stability” linked with export economies, was meant to create a domestic middle class loyal to American interests.
According to this theory, the notorious corruption of semi-feudal social relations would ease or disappear as market efficiencies set the pace. In reality, a social restlessness due to an intensification of divisions between rich and poor accelerated a class conflict that the dictatorship, established in 1964, dissipated with mass arrests and torture of dissidents, including future president Dilma Rousseff.
Within the next decade, according to Bevins, Brazil’s rulers became regional partners of US policy, exporting their methods across South America. The body counts, no more than hundreds in Brazil itself, became thousands and then tens of thousands across the region. The 1973 Chilean coup, toppling elected president Salvador Allende and imposing the Chicago School of Economics under Augusto Pinochet, was arguably the crown jewel of US foreign policy successes. The Alliance for Progress proposed by the Kennedy administration as a revived Good Neighbor agreement of the New Deal era, had become what it was always destined to become: a boot upon the neck of victims.
“What kind of world did we get to after the Cold War?” That is the question that begins the final chapter of The Jakarta Method. The answer obviously involves personal issues like torture but the author cannot ask the political survivors. Bevins’ answer: the forced “Americanization” of the planet’s peoples, their society and their economies.
The economic appeals of Americanization are so significant that the survivors of mass murder in Latin America send their children to…the USA. The political appeals, especially for those not living or not living prosperously in America, are a different matter. There are so many ghosts, for starters. And the ghosts do not disappear. The impending threat of a coup in Brazil, the accelerated burning of the rainforest, the impunity of the Brazilian military to impose its order upon what was only recently a parliamentary democracy… All of these elements are agonizingly familiar.
Many pages of The Jakarta Method are difficult to read. All the more reason to read it closely and learn the details of the horror show that is the purported spreading of the benefits of American democracy, far and wide.
Paul Buhle is the authorized biographer of CLR James.