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Where America Developed a Taste for State Violence

From Indonesia to Brazil, the United States fostered a global network of brutal repression in the name of anti-communism.

Pro-democracy demonstrators protest the repressive regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, in April 1987.

A few blocks from Capitol Hill, a woman raises a torch. She is a bronze replica of the Goddess of Democracy, a statue student protesters erected in Tiananmen Square in 1989 before being suppressed by the Chinese government. In the mid-1990s, her stoic visage was embraced by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, the organization that lobbied Congress for her creation. President George W. Bush spoke by the Goddess at her unveiling on June 12, 2007. “The sheer numbers of those killed in Communism’s name are staggering,” he said, “so large that a precise count is impossible.” Bush called it the duty of all people of conscience to recognize those who died and those who yet live under “Communist terror.”

The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World
by Vincent Bevins
PublicAffairs, 320 pp., $28.00

Every year since, the VOCMF has sponsored a wreath-laying ceremony at the Goddess statue. Participants usually come from the countries of the former Soviet Union, where a version of communism victimized millions in the twentieth century. But in 2019, representatives from two South American countries attended for the first time. On behalf of Venezuela were diplomats appointed by Juan Guaidó, the leader of the National Assembly who proclaimed himself president in a failed attempt to oust avowed socialist Nicolás Maduro. Brazil also took part, having recently elected a president whose ascent was fueled by virulent backlash to more than a decade of center-left governance, a man for whom the Cold War never really ended. Indeed, the rise of Jair Bolsonaro, the retired far-right army captain at the head of Latin America’s largest nation, demonstrates the sheer endurance of anti-communism as a galvanizing force in much of the world.

In a way, this potency is surprising considering that the Cold War ended some three decades ago. But although anti-communism may no longer be the overriding imperative for the United States, its legacy is palpable elsewhere. In The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World, journalist Vincent Bevins, who has covered Latin America and Southeast Asia extensively, argues that Cold War battles in Brazil and Indonesia, big influential countries in the global south, produced devastating and enduring effects not only for those countries but for the world. 

To prevent purported Communist advances in the mid-1960s, the U.S. encouraged and supported sectors of the armed forces in both countries that could be counted on to eliminate people with inconvenient politics. The book’s title refers to the sprawling capital city of Indonesia, where “the largest and most important” program of anti-Communist extermination took place. In subsequent years, with Brazil and Indonesia as models, repressive regimes around the world would kill millions of people in the name of anti-communism, their motives as bound up with long-standing domestic antagonisms as with grand ideological struggle. These violent campaigns, according to Bevins, served political as well as economic ends. His book is both a story of haunting Cold War echoes and, in a deeper sense, about why countries that were poor a half-century ago remain so today.

As tensions mounted between the U.S. and Soviet Union amid the postwar rubble of Western Europe, many of the countries then emerging from colonization, along with those that had not been pulled into the fighting for reasons of geographic and political distance, worked hard to avoid taking sides. They tried to stay out of the incipient contest between capitalism and communism, and steer clear of superpower interference. They referred to themselves as the “Third World,” a term introduced in the early 1950s to signal independence from the capitalist countries led by the U.S. (First World) and the system of satellite states orbiting the Soviet Union (Second World). Before it developed what many see as pejorative connotations, the Third World was an emancipatory ideal.

At a conference in the Indonesian city of Bandung in 1955, representatives from 29 Asian and African nations gathered in solidarity to push that promise toward reality. They considered matters of economic development, decolonization, and the role of the Third World in the Cold War. “Like peace, freedom is indivisible. There is no such thing as being half free, as there is no such thing as being half alive,” proclaimed Sukarno, Indonesia’s charismatic first president, in his legendary address. By rooting the pursuit of social justice within a broad anti-colonial struggle rather than anti-imperialism per se, Sukarno sought to rally nonaligned nations while not antagonizing the U.S., which had recently engineered coups in Guatemala and Iran. An ideologically coherent intergovernmental bloc that the Third World could call its own seemed to be forming, led in large part by Sukarno, whose own country had secured independence from the Dutch only six years previously. Brazil sent an “unofficial diplomatic observer” but did not formally embrace the effort.

For a while, Third World insistence on foreign policy independence was well and good from Washington’s perspective so long as Communists were kept in check. This changed definitively with the success of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959. By the mid-1960s, it no longer seemed that the leaders of important countries like Indonesia and Brazil were willing or able to contain Communist advances. A firmer hand was needed. On March 21, 1964, Thomas Mann, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, suggested that “the United States will not in the future take an a priori position against governments coming to power through military coups.” This policy, which became known as the Mann Doctrine, was seen by military conspirators in Brazil as a green light to move against President João Goulart. The democratically elected leader was ousted in a right-wing coup within two weeks.

Mann spoke with Johnson shortly after Goulart’s fall. “I hope you’re as happy about Brazil as I am,” he said, adding that the coup in Brazil was probably “the most important thing” to happen in the hemisphere since the Cuban Revolution. Johnson was pleased but sensitive to how U.S. participation might be perceived abroad. “I hope they give us some credit instead of hell,” he said. That the U.S. president would expect gratitude from Brazilians in that moment is telling. For one thing, it is a pithy articulation of strategic narcissism, the idea that U.S. interests are the default interests of the world. But Johnson’s comment also indicates a sincere belief in the righteousness of interrupting democratic processes to box out communism. Never mind that Brazil was not actually on the verge of a Communist takeover. Conservatives speculated wildly that it could be, at some point, an inkling that spelled Goulart’s demise. Better safe than sorry.

The following year, 11,000 miles away, the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, the largest in the world outside of China and the Soviet Union, was targeted in an exhaustive and extremely brutal crackdown. The PKI had played an influential, if not leading, role in national politics since its creation in 1914 and had been, Bevins explains, “part of Sukarno’s new Indonesia.” The 1965–66 massacre decimated the party faithful but did not stop there. Members of the PKI and countless others were swept up in a murderous dragnet that forever reshaped Indonesian society. Although around a quarter of the country was affiliated with the PKI, after the killings began, very few would admit to any association with the party. This disavowal was precisely the intent of the violence. In a brutally swift transition, the country that had led the charge for Third World development outside the strict binary of the Cold War fell under the sway of the ruthless pro-U.S. General Suharto.

The brutal regimes in Brazil and Indonesia would inspire similar movements in nearby countries—such as Chile in 1973 and East Timor in 1975—resulting in a transnational web of surveillance, torture, disappearances, and murder. In brisk but assured prose, Bevins recounts how Brazil and Indonesia became “the best allies that Washington’s foreign interventions had ever created.” The ruinous legacy of these policies, more than the specific acts of unspeakable violence that they engendered, is the book’s main subject.

As Washington saw it, military interventions in the Third World were a blessing to forestall a curse. But Communist parties in places like Brazil and Indonesia for the most part opposed armed insurrection in the early 1960s. Even the Cuban Communist Party had disavowed Fidel’s early attempts to seize power through force. Nonetheless, anti-Communists saw leftist subversion everywhere, a creeping peril that would gradually infiltrate the nation that let down its guard. In important ways, anti-communism was simply a new framing for the insecurities that elites far from the centers of geopolitical power had long felt. Their ability to dictate the lives of impoverished majorities rested on tradition and the intimation of violence but was inherently precarious. Popular restlessness made these elites anxious. The urgency of Cold War anti-communism gave them a justification to put it down with overwhelming force.

Bevins is not the first to note that the Cold War frequently burned hot in the Third World, but he excels at showing the human costs of that epic ideological struggle. He tells of two young Chilean sailors who, in the late 1960s, heard commanding officers fantasizing about carrying out anti-Communist violence at a national level by invoking the Indonesian case: “‘If we just put the Jakarta plan into place, kill ten or twenty thousand, then that’s it,’ one officer said. ‘Then that’s all the resistance and we win.’” The young sailors tried to warn civilian leaders but were intercepted, imprisoned by the Navy, and tortured repeatedly. By the early 1970s, the name of the Indonesian capital was being used as a chilling shorthand for political violence, painted on walls and typed in anonymous postcards to left-wing government officials and members of the Communist Party—“Jakarta is coming,” they proclaimed.

In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet seized power in a violent military coup and proceeded to round up and kill thousands. Brazil, too, had its own Operação Jacarta, in the late 1970s, which aimed to escalate state repression just as it appeared the military was preparing to relinquish power. Meanwhile, in Jakarta itself, Suharto proved a willing partner in the U.S. effort to destroy any hint of Communist activity. When the Nixon administration worried that East Timor might become “Cuba in Asia,” Indonesia invaded the small country next door. It would go on to kill up to 300,000 people. Between 1975 and 1979, Bevins writes, “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.”

In every case Bevins outlines, anti-Communist violence was not only about eliminating a perceived political threat. Rather, it had the broader aim of shoring up a political order that sustained unbearable levels of inequality. Even moderate plans to break up and redistribute large estates concentrated in the hands of a powerful few, for example, were seen as harbingers of an impending Communist takeover. The forceful rejection of democratizing reforms across the Third World effectively entrenched the consumer-driven, individualistic, market-based economic model favored by policymakers in Washington. Land reform, expanded political enfranchisement, and the nationalization of key resources were largely set aside, preventing poor countries from “catching up” with the rich ones. 

This, Bevins suggests, was by design. Near the end of the book, he asks Indonesian survivors of the 1965 massacre to reflect on the world today, noting that “they are living out their last years in a messy, poor, crony capitalist country, and they are told almost every single day it was a crime for them to want something different.”

Little has been done to account for the toll of anti-communism. By comparison, everyone knows about Stalin, gulags, and the KGB. North Korea is an international pariah. When Cuba comes up in U.S. politics, it is usually to denounce its human right violations. There is therefore something absurd about the VOCMF’s lament that “the free world never demanded a moral reckoning for the crimes of communist regimes” or its alarm that “an entire generation of Americans is open to collectivist ideas because they don’t know the truth.” 

The majority of those in the Third World who embraced communism saw it, more than anything, as a means of easing the poverty and inequality wrought by oligarchic capitalism. At one point in the Cold War, a few U.S. policymakers and think thanks recognized this. In 1962, for example, the Public Affairs Institute warned about the revolutionary potential of legitimate grievances in the Third World: 

Throughout much of Latin America there is a prevailing belief that the governments are under the control of men who are indifferent to the needs of the lower-income groups, and that these groups will use the armies to prevent any more representative government from taking power.

Indeed, as Greg Grandin has written, “secular ideologies of nationalism, socialism, Marxism, and communism—those dangerous scions of liberalism—did motivate and give solace to people’s lives … by providing the fuel and steel needed to contest the terms of nearly intolerable conditions.” That contestation led to mass death in places that, for many Americans, might as well be another planet. Anti-communism, in other words, has its own murderous history. This is the real moral reckoning still pending. It seems unlikely that it will happen soon.