In the fall of 1965, General Haji Mohammad Suharto began a massacre of hundreds of thousands of people accused of being communists in Indonesia. The US Government not only knew what was happening, but also supported Suharto and helped the army to the point of delivering lists of names, according to journalist Vincent Bevins in his books. ‘The Jakarta Method: The Anti-Communist Crusade and Mass Murders That Shaped Our World’ (Captain Swing).
The journalist assures that the massacres in Indonesia, in which he claims that approximately one million people died, were later exported to multitudes of countries and played a fundamental role in the US victory in the Cold War. Bevins relies on material declassified by the US, has visited 12 countries and has interviewed more than a hundred people. The author points out that the mass murder of leftists during the conflict between the two great blocs was used in 23 countries.
Why is what happened in Indonesia so important?
Indonesia may have been the most important turning point of the Cold War for a number of reasons. In the first place, it was one of the most populous countries that entered the space of the conflict and practically overnight it went from being a left-wing anti-colonialist country to one that was totally anti-communist and an ally of the West. Not only was he great, but he was incredibly important for leading the third world movement. Indonesia inspired many other nations and the destruction of the Sukarno project had enormous consequences for the global south.
And then, of course, there is the method by which it was carried out. It was a tragic, horrible and terrifying program of mass murder that ultimately made Western victory in Indonesia possible. This horrific tactic inspired other mass murder programs around the world in subsequent years.
Why do you think that, at least in Western countries, what happened in Indonesia is so unknown?
The mass murder of roughly a million innocent people in Indonesia is unknown – especially in what we understand as the West – in large part because it was so effective. No one in the United States suffered the consequences; There was no war that American soldiers had to go to as there was in Vietnam; and there was no prolonged period of conflict for years that made the news. In geopolitical terms, the country went overnight from the anti-colonial camp to the western camp. I’ve worked as a foreign correspondent for over a decade, and it’s clear that countries that don’t cause America problems tend not to make the news.
There is also a more disturbing possibility and that is that what happened in Indonesia with the help of the United States and other Western powers was so horrible and so difficult to deal with that it was just easier for us to forget about it. It contradicts too violently our idea of what we were doing during the Cold War.
Was the murder of leftists the basis of America’s victory in the Cold War?
If we understand the Cold War as a confrontation between the first and second world, then the victory of the West occurred simply because the Soviet Union, the second world, fell apart. However, if we look at the number of human beings who were involved in conflicts in what we call the Cold War, there were many more people in the third world.
In the third world, the mass murder of leftists was a fundamental part of the way the war was won. It was one of the many tactics employed by the first world to ensure that the third world entered the nascent US-led global capitalist order and continues to affect the global south to this day. The murder of leftists profoundly shaped the kind of globalization we got after the end of the Cold War.
What was the US strategy with respect to the third world? And that of the USSR?
In both cases, the major powers ended up changing their ways of interacting with the third world during the course of the Cold War. At first, the US had the view that in the global south it was acceptable to be neutral. And that was what defined the relationship with Indonesia in the early years. This changed at the beginning of the Eisenhower Administration. In the 1950s, any country in the global south that was not explicitly an ally of the United States, that had any kind of leftist or anti-colonial lean or even an independent stance, could be seen as an enemy and declared worthy of intervention or destruction.
Regarding the Soviet Union, it was initially committed at least ideologically and rhetorically to anti-colonial solidarity. Stalin, however, at the end of WWII ends up staying in all the parts of Central and Eastern Europe that the Red Army had conquered or liberated, complicating this narrative. In the rest of the global south, Stalin tends to discourage any leftist or communist uprisings that he does not control himself, as happened in Greece and Iran.
After his death there is a rapprochement to some parts of the global south under Nikita Khrushchev, such as Egypt, Syria and Cuba. But overall, the Soviet Union is very cautious about provoking the West, especially after the missile crisis.
What narrative has been found in Indonesia or in other Latin American countries about what happened?
In Latin America there has been at least a kind of process of national reconciliation or of facing the truth of what happened during the Cold War. This is something everyone takes for granted, although many of those victories are now being questioned by the return of the far right to the political scene.
In Indonesia, which is the worst case of intentional murder of leftists during the Cold War, things are totally different and it is still technically illegal to tell the story of what really happened. There is still a law passed in 1966 that criminalizes anything that can be construed as sympathy for communism. In fact, Bolsonaro’s son has said that this law should be copied in Brazil.
Are we today experiencing some consequences of that campaign of death against the left in third world countries?
Yes, of course. Many people I met in Southeast Asia and also in Latin America participated in the third world movement; people who in the 1950s and 1960s truly believed that with the end of colonization, the countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America would be able to take a legitimate place alongside the first and second world and that they would see the emergence of a more democratic order. global, fairer and more equitable. It’s amazing how different the world is now from what you thought it was going to be.
The third world dream of reshaping the rules of the global economy was not going to be easy to achieve, but it didn’t help that the most powerful country in human history was actively trying to crush this movement.
He cites the case of Jair Bolsonaro in the book, but recently we have seen a multitude of politicians, especially from the extreme right, stir up the fear of communism again, why?
There are two elements that allow their return. On the one hand, these narratives have been repeated so many times in the last century that it is something that is ideologically present in the air, that is, it is something that people recognize and a point of reference to grasp. Second, it’s something that really worked for many actors in the 20th century to crush their enemies and gain legitimacy. The demonization of any attempt to challenge the privileges of the dominant group in society is very useful for certain political actors.
What is the current situation of the Indonesian Communist Party?
It is illegal to even say that it should exist. It does not exist and nobody wants it to exist. It is often used as a threat or as a way to silence people. This responds to the methods that were used then. A quarter of the country was in the party or affiliated in some way and the method in which the massacre was carried out was effective in keeping everyone silent for the rest of their lives.
The message was sent that you could be assassinated not only for having been on the left, but for not participating in the construction of the new regime. That is why there is this strange situation in which leftist ideas were almost hegemonic in public discourse in Indonesia until 1965 and in 1966 no one is willing to admit that they had anything to do with the left.