Revisiting America’s anticommunist crusade

New evidence emerged last year concerning the role of US imperialism in the dismissal of the Labor Whitlam Government in 1975. The ABC Radio National podcast The Eleventh discussed the role of growing ALP opposition to the Pine Gap military base in raising the heckles of Washington. The release of the ‘Palace letters’, resulting from a High Court decision, provided fresh evidence for the argument that John Kerr’s decision was motivated at least partly by a desire for ‘the preservation of the US intelligence apparatus in Australia’.

A new book by Vincent Bevins, The Jakarta Method, examines multiple instances of US involvement in overseas coups in a similar period. The examples Bevins discusses are, in their violence, incomparable to what occurred in Australia in 1975. The book’s main focus is the 1965-66 coup and subsequent anticommunist purges in Indonesia that saw the killing of up to a million people.

In the months before October 1965, Indonesia had the largest communist party of anywhere in the world outside the USSR or China. An estimated twenty million people were members of the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) or its affiliated mass organisations. Indonesia’s president at the time, Sukarno, was an anti-colonial nationalist and a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. Sukarno was not a communist, but his tolerance of the PKI and unwillingness to take the side of the US in the Cold War concerned Washington greatly.

At the end of September 1965, in Jakarta, six senior army generals were assassinated. A General by the name of Suharto, himself a senior military leader, falsely blamed the killings on the PKI and used the event as a pretext for the army to take control of the state. Sukarno – still at this time the president – was sidelined, eventually to be overthrown, and a violent purge of communists began across many parts of the country. In the months that followed, hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of communists, or those suspected or labelled as such, were imprisoned, tortured and massacred. ‘That day and the ones to follow were to be the stormiest days in the city’s history,’ the narrator of Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound tell us, ‘with the people facing giants in the streets’.

Western commentators have previously discussed this violence as an instance of Indonesian civilians running amok, either possessed by savagery or settling local feuds (the word amok itself made its way into English through Bahasa Melayu, from which Bahasa Indonesia emerged). The majority of academic opinion rejects this view as ahistorical and orientalist, as does Bevins. Scholars such as Vedi Hadiz and Hilmar Farid have argued that the 1965-1966 violence constitutes an instance of the Marxist notion of primitive accumulation, paving the way for further capitalist development in the subsequent ‘New Order’ years under the Suharto dictatorship. Bevins makes a similar point but on a larger scale: the violence in Indonesia was an important part of a global process by which a particularly rapacious form of free-market capitalism emerged, globally triumphant, out of the Cold War.

The Jakarta Method meticulously traces the role of the US in the events in Indonesia and connects them to a wider ‘monstrous international network of extermination’ that existed in the second half of the twentieth century. Bevins does a brilliant job of connecting the dots between various instances of violence against the Left, from Guatemala (1953) to Brazil (1964) to Indonesia (1965) to Chile (1973). In the early 70s, left-wing activists in Chile, for example, were receiving postcards in the mail telling them that ‘Jakarta is coming’. Bevin locates the word ‘Jakarta’ or ‘Jakarta method’ being used as a metaphor for mass killings in at least eleven different countries. The CIA comes off particularly badly in Bevins’ account, their crimes ranging from the absurd – creating a fake pornographic film in which Sukarno has sex with a Russian air hostess; attempting to make Fidel Castro’s beard fall out – to the murderous.

In Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2014 documentary The Look of Silence, a commander of a team of troops responsible for a wave of the mass killings in North Sumatra tells the interviewer that Amerika mengajar kita benci sama komunis – ‘America taught us to hate communists’. As presented to the viewer, this claim appears to be part of a psychological strategy employed to avoid the guilt of having knowingly slaughtered innocent people. As a historical statement, it is brazenly reductive, ignoring the complexity of Indonesia’s society at the time and the contradictory interests held by various classes. Nevertheless, according to Bevins’ argument, it contains a kernel of truth. Thousands of Indonesian soldiers had been trained at the Fort Leavenworth Army Base in the US and had returned as strident anti-communists. US economic interests were well served by the extermination of communists too. Bevins provides a list of US companies – General Electric, American Express, Caterpillar, Goodyear Tire, Raytheon, Lockheed – that began operating in Indonesia within one year of Suharto consolidating his rule.

One of the most interesting questions to emerge from the book is that of precisely how far US culpability extends, not just for this conflict in Indonesia but for creating the post-WWII global order. Bevins’ argument points us towards a consideration of this problematic, but he does not explicitly address it. There is little or no analysis of the Indonesian army’s relationship to the state and landed interests, or the diverse geopolitics of the different regions of Indonesia which all experienced the anticommunist killings differently. If Bevins overemphasises the role of the CIA as a historical actor, to the exclusion of a more nuanced appreciation of local factors, this stems from who he imagines his audience to be: a Western readership with little knowledge of the political context or history of the world’s fourth-largest nation. The book is therefore more of a crash course in the horrors of US imperialism than it is a historical account of the genesis, causes, and effects of the violence in Indonesia – but Bevins knows this and doesn’t pretend otherwise.

The assumptions about the relative ignorance of his readership are unfortunately mostly likely correct, even for a geographically more proximate Australian audience. The island of Bali, known to 1.2 million Australians each year as a tourist destination, lost an estimated 5 per cent of its population to the 1965-66 violence. The now-popular tourist suburb of Seminyak was only decades ago a killing field.

Australia is mentioned only a few times in the book, and always in the context of its role in assisting the US in their foreign policy objectives. Indonesia is, of course, one of Australia’s closest neighbours, and the ‘strategic relationship’ between the two countries has long been a priority for many a foreign minister. A former Australian Department of Foreign Affairs worker described the reaction of the department to the extermination of the PKI as an ‘enormous feeling of relief’ . The present Australian foreign affairs establishment is no less willing to be an accomplice to mass murder. Today, genocidal violence is occurring once again in Indonesia, not against communists (for there is no communist party left to speak of) but against West Papuans. Hundreds of thousands of West Papuans have been killed by occupying Indonesian forces, and the violence continues to this day. Australia’s diplomatic, economic, and military support to the Indonesian state legitimises the occupation.

In Bevins’ other region of focus, Latin America, it was just two yars ago that we saw the US assist to overthrow socialist president Evo Morales in Bolivia. The election results returning Morales’ party back into office last October indicate the unpopularity of this US intervention. These contemporary examples testify to Bevins’ claim that the world we live in today is one indelibly shaped by the anticommunist violence of the Cold War period.

Bevins’ draws humanising character portraits of the survivors he interviewed. Francisca Pattipolohy, for instance, is a ninety-four-year-old Indonesian woman who lives in exile in The Netherlands, where she spends her time reading the latest Marxist theory and cooking Indonesian food. Francisca remains an activist to this day, bringing to international attention the crimes that she lived through. Amidst the bleakness of the events Bevins’ describes, these portraits serve as necessary resources for hope.


Image: John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson speak with Indonesian President Sukarno on the South Lawn of the White House in April 1961

Naish Gawen

Naish Gawen is a writer and student.

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