The Cold War’s unfinished legacy

Journalist Vincent Bevins’ new book, The Jakarta Method, shows that some of the 20th century’s ugliest episodes are still unfolding.

Photo by Simon Infanger on Unsplash

Historians of the Cold War have only recently begun to highlight the role of the third world in what has long been understood (at least in certain circles) as a distinctly bipolar conflict, one pitting American capitalism against Soviet communism. Of course, both political-economic systems claimed spheres of influence that included large swaths of the global South, which quickly became a proving ground for competing ideologies—its inhabitants often unwilling pawns in complex geostrategic games. Consult some of the best revisionist and “post-revisionist” histories of the Cold War, and you will not find mention of Indonesia—or, for that matter, of Nigeria or Mozambique. So consistent has been this tendency to overlook the third world that many of those currently writing about the Cold War are still obliged to identify continental lacunae—to assure their readers that the cast of national characters in fact encompassed more than Castro’s Cuba and the Eastern bloc countries in addition to the two superpowers.

As journalist Vincent Bevins suggests in The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World, centralizing the Third World in the historiography of the Cold War is not an eccentric or “politically correct” gesture but a necessary, even logical, step toward a basic understanding of the decades-long conflict. The term itself was a Cold War coinage, the conceptual product of anticolonial nationalisms—the pivot of independence movements from Ghana to Vietnam. “When the leaders of [newly independent] nation-states took up the term,” Bevins writes, “they spoke it with pride; it contained a dream of a better future in which the world’s downtrodden and enslaved masses would take control of their own destiny… For much of the planet, the Third World was not just a category; it was a movement.”

More than mere historical accuracy is at stake here. Bevins’ argument, distilled in the book’s subtitle, is that a global history of the Cold War is required for a clearer comprehension of today’s world. The Jakarta Method is a sweeping account of some of “the most important events in a process that has fundamentally shaped life for almost everyone…whether you are sitting in Rio de Janeiro, Bali, New York, or Lagos.” The US has long sought to refashion the world in its own image, or, at the very least, in ways conducive to its economic interests. Its methods have included the kind of hysterical anticommunism that is making a comeback in the country’s political affairs (if it ever really went away). Homegrown fascisms, fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment and committed to the preservation and expansion of the underclass, have all too obvious overseas counterparts, from Poland to Brazil. Completed around the time that Jair Bolsonaro ascended to the Brazilian presidency, The Jakarta Method couldn’t be timelier. It is a triumph of reporting that powerfully demonstrates that some of the 20th century’s ugliest episodes are still unfolding.

That the US “suffered” the “loss” of China in 1949, and that of North Korea around the same time, is well understood. Less clear, perhaps, is that such “losses” precipitated frenzied attempts both to secure perceived territorial and geopolitical gains and to ensure the defeat of left-leaning administrations in other parts of the world, from Brazil to Indonesia—two countries at the center of Bevins’ analysis. “It’s very often forgotten,” the author points out, “that violent anticommunism was a global force, and that its protagonists worked across borders, learning from successes and failures elsewhere as their movement picked up steam and racked up victories.”

One of the challenges of writing a global history of the Cold War is to shed light on little-known participants (often, if somewhat misleadingly, referred to as “proxies”) without ignoring or underplaying the conflict’s true scope—to attend to national and regional realities while keeping the bigger geographic picture very much in mind. Another challenge is to acknowledge the Cold War’s continuities with earlier antagonisms—its roots in tensions that preceded even World War II. The Jakarta Method succeeds in meeting the first challenge, offering as it does a welcome comparative study of Southeast Asia and Latin America, one that also, for good measure, mentions Africa’s role in this saga. The second challenge demands an even longer view than the author’s methodology, with its reliance on the accounts of living survivors of historical atrocities, allows—or than, admittedly, the book, at a mere 300 pages, is designed to provide.

Bevins is a journalist, not an historian, and if The Jakarta Method privileges reportage, it is often for the better. The book is full of the voices of the victims of anticommunist violence, some of whom escaped Suharto’s Indonesia only to be terrorized in Brazil or Chile. This is a unique strength: such biographical mini-narratives illustrate not simply the human stakes of imperialist aggressions and US-backed autocracies, but also the impossibly wide net cast by anticommunist fervor. Try though they invariably did, Bevins’ peripatetic contacts simply could not escape it. “My choice of focus, and the connections that I saw, were probably dictated to some extent by the people I was lucky enough to meet,” writes Bevins, who was the Brazil correspondent for the Los Angeles Times before covering Southeast Asia for the Washington Post, “but…their story is just as much the story of the Cold War as any other is, certainly more so than any story of the Cold War that is focused primarily on white people in the United States and Europe.”

Bevins is correct, of course, but such a disclaimer downplays his mastery of secondary sources. The author has read widely and well. The Jakarta Method synthesizes some of the best scholarship on the Cold War, decolonization, and the Non-Aligned Movement, offering an indispensable introduction to a dizzying array of sociopolitical contexts. The book is a monumental achievement, written, at times, with the grace of a gifted novelist. The concluding passages, which take elegant inventory of the past’s saturation of the present, are simply breathtaking.

Calling for “a full view of the Cold War and US goals worldwide,” Bevins draws attention to “a traumatic rupture in the middle of the 1960s”—to the titular formula for eliminating all opposition to crony capitalism: mass murder. The systematic annihilation of some of the world’s largest communist parties, appalling in itself, caused considerable collateral damage and, in many cases, the entrenchment of ruthless military dictatorships that, operating as pro-US puppet regimes, recalled and even exceeded the depredations of colonial rule.

Bevins’ chronicle of Indonesia takes stock of those late-colonial efforts that anticipated the more successful methods of US imperialism. Much as the French were intent on returning to “their” Indochina after World War II, the Dutch had designs on the Java that had been wrested from them by Imperial Japan. Never mind that indigenous populations had set up their own governments in 1945: the Dutch, like Europe’s other colonial powers, desired a revivification of pre-war imperial conditions. What makes Indonesia such a crucial, magnetizing case study, Bevins argues, is the Bandung Conference, set up just a few years after the Dutch were finally expelled from the country. Bevins offers a fine, nuanced sketch of Sukarno, the independence leader who became the first president of Indonesia, only to be removed from power amid a coup whose strategic mystifications preceded the anticommunist mass killings of 1965-1966.

Sukarno was no radical, but he remained outspoken on the subject of imperialism. At the Bandung Conference of 1955, which helped inaugurate a third world project rooted in shared Asian and African concerns regarding the scope and persistence of imperialist ambition, Sukarno delivered a speech in which he implored his listeners to resist “think[ing] of colonialism only in the classic form” familiar from decades of European rule. “Colonialism,” Sukarno continued, “has also its modern dress, in the form of economic control, intellectual control, actual physical control by a small but alien community within a nation. It is a skillful and determined enemy, and it appears in many guises. It does not give up its loot easily.”

Like Kwame Nkrumah, Sukarno openly relied upon the term “neocolonialism” in order to succinctly describe the conditions of forced dependency in which so much of the Third World found itself, despite the ostensible achievement of national self-determination in the aftermath of formal colonial rule—and despite, as well, the rhetoric of sovereignty that the United States continued to peddle so hypocritically. While Sukarno endeavored to maintain Indonesia’s non-aligned status, powerful American leaders decided that “[a]nyone who wasn’t actively against the Soviet Union must be against the United States.” Thus, even Sukarno’s moderate policies placed him in a vulnerable position.

Within three years of the Bandung Conference, the CIA was executing a massive anticommunist operation in Indonesia, complete with aerial bombardments. That, of course, was hard power—a show of imperialist force. But soft power played a role, too, as Bevins points out. His explorations of the cultural dimensions of anticommunism are never less than stimulating; they provide useful evidence of the imprinting power of American-style capitalism, which had to be “sold”—and not simply imposed—abroad. Bevins’ descriptions of the growing demands of Western governments and international financial institutions (particularly the IMF) do even more than that. Together, they furnish additional support for Quinn Slobodian’s contention that neoliberalism, which conventional periodization dates to the 1980s—to the reigns of Reagan and Thatcher—in fact has older, deeper roots, located, particularly, in parts of the world that have too rarely received adequate scholarly attention.

The additive power of Bandung, which brought together populations from across Asia and Africa, had its horrific obverse in the Indonesian politicide that followed just ten years later. In addition to members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (the PKI) and suspected communist sympathizers, the purge targeted Gerwani women, Javanese Muslims, and Indonesians of Chinese descent. The political upheavals that convulsed Indonesia beginning in the fall of 1965 are notoriously complicated; some of them remain downright inscrutable. To his credit, Bevins does not attempt to downplay these obstacles to politico-historical comprehension. He admits that much is not known (and perhaps cannot be known) with any real certainty—not least because the CIA, the Indonesian military, and many other organizations have not released all of the documentary evidence that they surely possess. But there is also much that is now available to researchers, and Bevins avails himself of these sources, citing, for example, now-declassified US State Department cables that reveal that Washington, eager to prevent Southeast Asia’s most populous country from evading its grasp (and ejecting its oil companies), “quickly and covertly supplied vital mobile communications equipment to the [Indonesian] military.” America’s support for the purge was not simply rhetorical, a measure of the outspoken anticommunism of the country’s political establishment; it was also material. As Bevins points out, US Army installations—particularly Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas—provided extensive training to thousands of Brazilian and Indonesian military officers who would go on to commit various atrocities in their respective countries.

Bevins’ careful accounts of third worldist publications reveal that his transnational methodology, though it may be unfamiliar to some readers, is really nothing new. It has, in fact, had a long, noble, vibrant life in anti-imperialist reportage. Throughout the 1950s, The People’s Daily, the newspaper run by the PKI, routinely “paid very close attention to…events…half a world away,” Bevins writes as he details the activities—and political motivations—of journalists committed to uncovering American imperialism in Guatemala and other locations far from Jakarta (at least geographically). Such individuals, increasingly aware that even the mildest of social reforms were incurring the wrath of the US, “reported [far-flung] events more accurately than the New York Times.” Bevins’ honesty regarding the shortcomings of mainstream journalism is refreshing; this is one American reporter who clearly understands the limitations of the “paper of record.” Bevins also shows how the concentration of media ownership has material effects, including in Brazil, much of whose mainstream media is controlled by “a few powerful landowning families.” The “mystifications of an anticommunist industry” are, then, exactly that: the obfuscatory efforts of a privileged minority for which political understanding is dangerous—a threat from “below.”

On the opportunistic tendency to depict as dangerously communist even minor or incremental reforms—like national literacy campaigns and the extension of voting rights—Bevin is particularly strong. But he is not a trained historian, and his account of the global contexts in which the eponymous strategy was forged is perhaps too speedy, too economical—an instance of “reader-friendliness” working against itself, raising more questions than it can possibly answer, even with endnotes. Sorely missing is an index—an indispensable navigational tool, one that would assist the reader in juggling so many names, so many places. (Detailed political maps would also help; the book’s sole map is included as an appendix, and it is neither sufficient nor particularly navigable.) Some key names—those both of historical figures and of the private actors who were the author’s interviewees—reappear after rather lengthy intervals; an index would have allowed the reader to efficiently refer back to their earlier appearances—to reestablish biographical contact with a truly international cast of characters.

Readers of Africa Is a Country will want to know how the campaigns that Bevins describes actually played out on the African continent—whether the so-called Jakarta Method was in fact applied there. As he must, ill-fated Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba looms relatively large here. While Bevins does not promise to offer a comprehensive account of the Cold War’s effects on Africa and Africans, he provides an accurate overview of some of the ultimate effects of Portuguese colonialism in Angola and Mozambique. His occasional references to Nigeria, however, beg certain questions about that country. Like Indonesia, Nigeria boasted a population size that rendered it impossible for the superpowers to overlook. A brief consideration of Nigeria’s Cold War experiences substantiates many of Bevins’ claims about the universal application of anticommunist pressures. Throughout the first half of the 1960s, American leaders repeatedly articulated their fear of “losing” Nigeria, if not to Communism, then to the sort of insufficiently “cooperative” capitalism that troubled them nearly as much. The riots in Nigeria that followed Lumumba’s assassination served to galvanize Washington’s anticommunist forces. Worrying over a so-called “Soviet pattern” in Nigeria, one influential American cited “Communist and pro-Communist infiltration into youth groups,” as well as “anti-white and anti-American” attitudes among the vast and growing population. Others insisted that “many Nigerians seem pro-West and pro-American in their attitudes,” and sought to reassure “American businessmen” who were already installed in and around Lagos. “In foreign affairs generally,” concluded one anticommunist, “the Nigerian government has been leaning rather strongly toward the West. When it seems to take an anti-West stand it is often because it cannot afford to appear in the eyes of other Africans as a Western puppet…”

Throughout The Jakarta Method, Bevins does an admirable job of addressing commonalities while simultaneously respecting differences—no easy feat. He is aided by the aforementioned survivors of state-organized extermination campaigns, who lend his polemic the authority of firsthand experience. Bevins’ original biographical sketches are deftly woven into accounts of the bigger politico-historical picture, as the author urges us to question received knowledge. “I fear,” he writes at one point, “that the truth of what happened contradicts so forcefully our idea of what the Cold War was, of what it means to be an American, or how globalization has taken place, that it has simply been easier to ignore it.” But if the truth has been ignored, it has also been actively distorted, as Bevins shows: organized state violence has repeatedly been recast in apocryphal terms—as the “story of inexplicable, vaguely tribal violence,” which is, of course, “so easy for American readers to digest,” because it plays to (and derives from) a deep-seated ethnocentrism.

One piece of received wisdom that, regrettably, Bevins does not question has to do with World War II. “In that war,” he writes in the opening chapter, “the better angels of American nature came to the fore,” and “a generation of American boys came back from that war rightfully proud of what they had done—they had looked an entirely evil system in the face, stood up for the values their country was built on, and they had won.” This reiteration of the “Good War” myth is a rather odd choice for a book about US imperialist violence, though it is likely meant to bolster the author’s assertion that the so-called Jakarta Method was without precedent in American foreign relations. But counterinsurgency was hardly born with the CIA. The US did not require the threat of postcolonial nationalism or trade unionism in order to propose and pursue seismic mitigation strategies. State power, embodied in and exercised through the armed forces, was itself sufficient to motivate all manner of imperialist activities, expansionism being the pulse of the American state project.

Anticommunism was an important pretext for these pursuits, but it was not the first (or the last), and it was scarcely tempered, during World War II, by the marriage of convenience between the US and the Soviet Union. What’s more, an abundance of documentary evidence suggests that it wasn’t pride but bitterness and confusion that characterized that “generation of American boys” to which Bevins refers. Not for nothing did the young Norman Mailer describe World War II as a “mirror that blinded everyone who looked into it.” The “Good War” myth is thus the product of precisely the kind of aggressive disinformation campaign that Bevins so rightly sees as having been applied to populations throughout the third world. During World War II, service members of color well understood their country’s racist devotion to territorial empire. Black men were disproportionately rejected by the Selective Service; those who were “included” in war work were subjected to the extreme stresses of life in the Jim Crow military, where simply complaining about segregation was grounds for a psychiatric discharge. The wartime expansion of American military installations was extreme, reaching from Jamaica to the Solomon Islands. On the domestic front, hate strikes were a regular feature of racial strife that extended far beyond Detroit and Los Angeles. The Jakarta Method is not about World War II, but it would certainly benefit from an acknowledgment of some of these realities.

Though Bevins later concedes that “Washington’s anticommunist crusade had actually started well before World War II,” the notion that the conflict represented a kind of lull—a period of détente—in the US-led opposition to Marxism plays too prominent a part in his opening chapters. Far stronger are the book’s analyses of post-1945 developments. Bevins makes abundantly clear, for instance, that when Truman, speaking in 1947, pledged “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” the US president’s sentimentalized reference point was the world’s non-communist population, and only its non-communist population. Bevins’ condensed account of the Truman Doctrine is, however, marred by the factually inaccurate assertion that napalm was used “for the first time in history” in 1948, during the Greek Civil War. Developed at a secret Harvard laboratory in 1942, the gel was actually employed extensively—and enthusiastically—throughout the European and Pacific theaters of World War II.

If Bevins’ naïve reliance on the “Good War” myth is troubling, it is partly because of a later reference to Barack Obama, who, with his anthropologist mother, famously lived in Indonesia as a child. Bevins quotes extensively (and uncritically) from Obama’s 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father, in which the future US president describes his dawning recognition of some of the atrocities of Indonesia’s past, those committed with the explicit as well as tacit approval of the US, and partly in the name of the very American imperial project that Obama would himself serve and extend. If Bevins believes the familiar liberal-utopian myth about World War II, perhaps he also believes the one that still surrounds Barack Obama, the “good” president. It is difficult to tell. The eighth chapter of The Jakarta Method ends with a block quote from Dreams from My Father. Bevins does not make any direct connections between Obama’s prose, which tells of an early encounter with the harsh realities of power asymmetries, and his presidential legacy. Perhaps he doesn’t need to. The Jakarta Method is damning enough. No reader of this book could possibly come away with the impression that the US was simply a benign observer of the traumas of the latter half of the 20th century. Bevins even underscores the bipartisan nature of the country’s culpability, writing, “From 1975 to 1979, while both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter sat in the White House, Washington’s closest ally in Southeast Asia annihilated up to a third of the population of East Timor, a higher percentage than those who died under Pol Pot in Cambodia.”

For its part, Indonesia has undergone transformations emblematized in the word “Jakarta” itself. By 1965, that word “had come to mean not cosmopolitanism, not Third World solidarity and global justice, but rather reactionary violence. ‘Jakarta’ meant brutal elimination of people organizing for a better world.” Today, such peace is available only to those wealthy few who, like Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, travel to Bali (which Gilbert describes as “a strange and wondrous thing”) in order to “find themselves”—often, as Bevins says, on sands that, not long ago, were littered with corpses. A transnational history of CIA-backed covert actions, The Jakarta Method is essential reading.

Further Reading