The Cold War–how it was fought and brutally won by the U.S. on a global scale—has defined international politics for more than half a century. That is the central argument of journalist Vincent Bevins’ new book, “The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World.” Through meticulous research and extensive interviews with over a hundred people in more than a dozen countries and several languages, Bevins connects the dots between a U.S.-sponsored terror scheme that killed more than a million civilians in Indonesia in the 1960s, and the slaughter of leftists in Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere in the following years.
The connection the former Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent finds between these seemingly disparate national tragedies is not just a despotic goal shared by the likes of Augusto Pinochet and Suharto to seize power through the execution of any opposition. Rather, the main link between Operation Condor in Latin America and mass murders in Southeast Asia is actually the American desire to brutally suppress even the whisper of communism worldwide in its fight against the Soviet Union for global hegemony in the post-WWII era. Seemingly in order to cement its new position on the international stage, Bevins’ book illustrates, the U.S. government and the Central Intelligence Agency were willing to commit unspeakable atrocities, depose democratically-elected leaders, and prop up brutal regimes–all of which not only impacts current American foreign policy, but has continued to define it throughout the 21st century.
“The book that I ended up deciding to write,” explains Bevins, “tells the story of the massacre of the Indonesian Communist Party, and a lot of people that were not in the party that were accused of being in the party, in 1965. I present this as one of the most important turning points in the Cold War.
“It is a victory for the Western powers, especially the United States,” the “Jakarta Method” author continues. “The way that that victory was achieved–and this is perhaps why we haven’t heard about it so much ever since–is that approximately 1 million innocent civilians were taken and slaughtered with the active assistance of the U.S. government. Then this success was so obvious to the rest of the world’s right-wing, U.S.-allied, Cold War governments that it was reproduced in other countries. And this is the Jakarta method.”
The conversation is a fascinating meeting of the minds: the “Scheer Intelligence” host not only lived through the historic moment Bevins so eloquently and effectively portrays, but also met and interviewed many of the main players in the book during Scheer’s own three decades at the Los Angeles Times. With his extensive experience and knowledge of Cold War politics, Scheer outlines what he sees as one of the main conclusions one can draw from Bevins’ book regarding a historical moment few will have heard of.
“Everybody forgets the great hope coming out of World War II is that the largest mass of people in the world who had been disenfranchised, had been enslaved, had been colonized,” says Scheer, “They think now, with the UN, with the new world order, we’re going to have a chance to find our own way. And that ability to define their own history, make their own history, is taken away from them–yes, by the Soviets, who do it in Eastern Europe, and by the U.S. that seems to do it all over the world.
“And that is really what is at issue here,” concludes Scheer. “We overthrew Sukarno, we helped get Nelson Mandela in jail, we challenged, undermined Allende and destroyed his government. So what’s really at stake here was the development of a model that you defined very clearly in your book of a crony capitalism that is highly militarized and run by the generals.”
In a chilling comparison, the two journalists discuss the deaths caused by Soviet regimes and those that the U.S. either inspired, backed or carried out in various ways. Bevins quotes historian John Coatsworth, who found that between 1960 and 1990, U.S.-linked murders “’vastly’ exceeded” the number of those killed by their communist counterparts. And this harrowing story doesn’t end with the countries Bevins explores in his book.
“I found at least 20 countries across the world where U.S.-backed Cold War allies carried out mass murder programs of innocent civilians,” says the author. “So that’s intentional murder of innocent civilians, not people killed by bombs or starvation or bad governments. And then if you add the wars in Indochina, I think it’s pretty clear you can argue that Washington’s anti-Communist crusade, as I put it, killed millions of innocent people in the 20th century.”
In the media player above, listen to the full conversation between Bevins and Scheer as the two discuss how modern day politics are playing out before the backdrop of the Cold War, and what that says about the narratives Americans consume and cling to regarding their country’s role in recent history. You can also read the transcript of this episode below the credits.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. And having just absorbed this incredible book, The Jakarta Method–and it sounds like a spy thriller; it reads like a spy thriller. And it isn’t very long, it’s about 250 pages. But I would say it presents not just the most provocative thesis about what the whole Cold War was all about–indeed, what the last 70 years of foreign policy has been all about. But it is not sensationalist, in the sense of being light.
And I want to begin with the credentials of the author, who is a journalist and a scholar, I dare say. And the power of this thesis–let me give you the thesis in the book’s subtitle: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World. Those are fighting words: “the mass murder program.” And when I put the book down after reading it, I kept thinking of Hannah Arendt’s comment on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem of this Nazi war criminal. And the title was The Banality of Evil. And this book, believe it or not, is actually enjoyable to read. There are human beings in it, people who suffered but survived. You learn about life in lots of different places in the world, from the Congo to Brazil to Indonesia. It’s a romp through 70 years of history.
But for all of its lightness and ease of access, it has the most disturbing thesis. And I’m going to let you state that thesis, and then tell us about your credentials and the methodology that you brought to this. So this is not internet chatter. This, for my money, may be the most, the must-read book about the Cold War. There have been quite a few, but this one is current, it’s sweeping, and it’s an absolute must-read if you’re only going to read one book to think about what that whole eventful, maybe the most eventful period in human history, was all about. So take it from there, the thesis and the credentials.
VB: Yeah, sure. Well, thanks for having me, first of all, and thanks so much for saying all of that. My name is Vincent Bevins, and I’ve worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent for a little over the last 10 years. I was the correspondent in Brazil for the Los Angeles Times, and then I was sent to, I moved to Jakarta to cover all of Southeast Asia for The Washington Post. And when I got there, I sort of discovered a story I already knew about, but I discovered how important it was for the history of that region, for the contemporary politics of that region, and really for the contemporary politics of the whole world.
So the book that I ended up deciding to write, rather than staying and working full time as a correspondent there, tells the story of the massacre of the Indonesian Communist Party, and a lot of people that were not in the party that were accused of being in the party, in 1965. And I present this as one of the most important turning points in the Cold War. And it is a victory for the Western powers, especially the United States. And the way that that victory was achieved–and this is perhaps why we haven’t heard about it so much ever since–is that approximately 1 million innocent civilians were taken and slaughtered with the active assistance of the U.S. government. And then this success was so obvious to the rest of the world’s right-wing, U.S.-allied, Cold War governments that it was reproduced in other countries. And this is the Jakarta method.
So in Chile and in Brazil, Jakarta is used to denote subsequent programs which wipe out the left in the construction of capitalist, authoritarian regimes. And the point that I make, after telling this whole story with all the characters involved, is that this loose international network of mass murder was fundamental to the way that our side won the Cold War. It’s not the reason we won the Cold War, but it was so fundamental to the process of the Cold War victory that did occur, that it ended up shaping life as we know it for the vast majority of humanity to this day.
RS: Well, but the irony of this, the power of it, is the conceit of the Cold War from the West side is that we were up against the obvious totalitarian enemy of communism. Monolithic, international, centered in Moscow, taking in of course China, Vietnam, and any other–Cuba, any other country that dared to, in any serious way, and using war, civil war, revolution, was a threat to human decency, to freedom and so forth. But there was an alternative camp, and maybe people now are unaware of it. There was something called the Third Way. It had different names, the non-aligned nation and so forth.
RS: And it included a range of people that were also trying to shape history. And this was a movement that came out of the anti-colonial change. After all, the big change of World War II was it brought about the dissolution of overt colonialism, and it was a new era that was welcomed, and so forth. And what your book really is about is the destruction of alternatives; the destruction of the ability, in much of the world, of people to make their own history. That’s really the power of this book. We denied–and it ranged; it wasn’t just Indonesia and Brazil, which are two massive countries in population and everything else. It included being involved in the arrest and imprisonment of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, the death of Lumumba in the Congo; you could go down the list. Your book argues that the mass murder program was at the heart of a foreign policy to deny the right of most people in this world to make their own history. And that it won, and as a result, as you say at the end of the book with your charts, your facts, your data, the fact is the Third World has not been able to close the gap in any way serious with the richest capitalist countries of Western Europe and the United States.
VB: Yeah, that’s right. So I think that first narrative you present of the Cold War, that it’s a conflict between the United States with liberal democracy and the Soviet Union with a very different, closed system–that’s not wrong, right? But it’s only part of the story. It’s a part of the story that concentrates only on two European-descending countries, two white countries, two major world powers. And the way I lay out the introduction to the rest of, to the other side of the coin, is that at the end of World War II, there was the First World and the Second World and the Third World. And the First World was the rich countries of Western Europe and the United States, and the Second World was the Communist bloc. And then there was the Third World movement, which now we think of Third World as a derogatory term, but at the time it was meant to signify hope, the new chance, the third act, the rising up of the peoples that used to be colonized, and now had their freedom.
And as a result of having their freedom, they all believed–and this is something that was very striking about speaking to so many of the people who lived through these experiences, is that in the forties and the fifties and sixties, they believed that they would be able to take their place on the world stage alongside the rich white countries. And Indonesia was one of the, not only one of the largest countries in the world at the time, as it still is; Indonesia grew out of an anti-colonial struggle, which gave rise to President Sukarno, who was the leader of this Third World movement, one of the founding leaders, and one of the founding members of the non-aligned movement.
And the non-aligned movement wanted to forge a path independent of the First and the Second worlds. It certainly rejected colonialism; to a large extent it rejected the most savage versions of capitalism. And Sukarno was supported at times, among other parties, by the Indonesian Communist Party. And the Indonesian Communist Party–we, when we think of Communist parties we tend to think of the Soviet Union. And while it was true that the Indonesian Communist Party was founded in a way that was loyal to Moscow, it was a party that was unarmed, it was a party that had mass participation, and it was a party that would have certainly won elections until they were cancelled the same year that the CIA sponsored an invasion, dropping bombs across the country.
So I think your point is right that what happened in the end was that a lot of alternatives were destroyed. A lot of countries lost their ability to choose from a full range of options, right. So a lot of options were taken off the table very violently. I’m not sure if this was the intention of the United States. I like to believe that sort of some part of the founding ideals of the country were always active in even the most horrible things that came out of U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century. But I do think that the way it turned out is that possible paths to development were denied by brutal violence.
RS: Well, what do you mean, it wasn’t their intention?
VB: Well, you said that these mass murder programs were in–I don’t know what the wording you said was, but I think you said that the–
RS: I used the words of your book.
VB: Right, absolutely.
RS: I mean, I read the subtitle before. I mean, it was a mass murder program. It was–right? That shaped our world. I mean, look, you introduce us to a cast of characters, you know, at the CIA and in the State Department that were cold-blooded killers.
VB: Yeah, no, that’s right, certainly. They–
RS: One of whom killed–one of them, the main architect, killed himself with a shotgun.
RS: You know, I mean, these were–I don’t know what you, how you want to describe them, but they were–well, you describe him–why don’t you tell us about him, but he was unstable from the get-go. And these people were playing with the world; they were the cowboys drunk on their own sense of power and virtue. Is that not the description?
VB: No, I wouldn’t disagree with that at all. I think that’s right. And so yeah, so Frank Wisner, who was sort of the head of the early CIA covert operations program–so he was very active in the coup that overthrows democracy in Iran in 1953, the Guatemalan coup in 1954. He was very influential in organizing a CIA bombing campaign in Indonesia in 1958. And he moves off the scene a little bit as his health begins to wane. But I think you’re absolutely right that if–I think if it was anybody else, any other country that had done this, I wouldn’t have tried to be so circumspect a moment ago. I think that it’s true that everybody that has done anything evil in the history of the world, they believe somehow or another that they were helping, or that it was justified. And I met Frank Wisner’s son, and he told me that his father believed he was fighting communism. And I believe that he believed that, but I don’t really know how far that goes. Because I think that’s probably true of anybody that’s ever done anything, you know.
So I’m not sure if–there’s no smoking gun that indicates that the U.S. foreign policy establishment wanted to take options away from the Third World. But we do know that it happened. And we certainly do know that at the moment that mass murder began in Indonesia in 1965–this was after they had already tried to remove, to get rid of the Indonesian Communist Party in two different ways. They’d been very eager to get rid of President Sukarno. We know that once the mass murder started, they helped, they supplied material support, they encouraged more killings, and they rewarded the murderers.
So there’s no way to really mince your words about that; I think you’re right. I think it’s, it was the most brutal violence against innocent people who didn’t even know that it could happen to them. Because they were not–the Indonesian Communist Party was not an armed guerrilla movement. It was a mass party with maybe 25% of the country involved somehow or another. It was the kind of thing you got involved with as a kid if you were into sort of history or education or politics or culture. It was–there was no sense that being in this party meant that you were a bad guy. And this was one of the more striking things that emerged from all my hours and hours of interviews with the survivors.
RS: Yeah, and the power of your book–let me just say, by the way, how many languages do you know?
VB: For this book, I did interviews in four languages. So I did interviews in Spanish and Portuguese and Indonesian. I can kind of do a little bit of German. But yeah, the research was important–
RS: OK. So I want to put that out there, because this is not the helicopter journalism, you know, where you parachuted in or something and did a few interviews with taxi drivers and came to some big conclusion. This book, even though it’s only about 260, 270 pages, is first of all very well documented, very thoroughly researched, and your interviews are conducted in native languages. In the case of Indonesia that’s not easy, since there seems to be about 40 of them. And so I mean, let’s not ignore the scholarship here, because I think the scholarship and how thorough–because I checked a lot of your footnotes.
RS: You know, because there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t know in this book, and I thought I knew a lot of it. I mean, I actually met Sukarno.
RS: You know, who was very principally involved. I also interviewed Bobby Kennedy, and you have very provocative quotes from him at the end that are criticizing an American policy that he had endorsed before. Well, I interviewed him the day he was shot, killed. And I know his transformation was real. And so, you know, I was reading this book and I was very impressed. And the fact is, you introduce us not to this abstract number–or not abstract, but “a million people died in Indonesia”–you introduce us to people whose wives were raped, killed, murdered, tortured. You introduce us to people who were themselves. In fact, you introduce us–you did an interview with the president of Brazil, who had been tortured under one of these regimes, right?
VB: Right, yeah.
RS: And so the power of this book is it’s not some sort of armchair speculation, or academic writing in the worst sense. It’s an eyewitness to history, but it’s informed by the documentation. You’ve gone through State Department files. I mean, it’s not my job to tout your book, but I happen to think it’s a great book. And you know, and I just want to put that out there. You cannot–just, you can’t dismiss this book.
And I want to cut to something about–this is why I began with Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil. I’ve spent my whole life interviewing a lot of people around the world, and some of them are in your book. I interviewed Fidel Castro some hours, and quite critically, and I’ve interviewed Gorbachev, and a lot of people–and Sukarno in your book, and ran across quite a few. And they all present well. They all present well; that’s what they do. And they have people around them who help them present well.
But the point of Hannah Arendt’s judgment–that doesn’t stop it from being evil. And you have a statistic which came from, you know, Freedom House, which has been a pretty big cheerleader for the Cold War, and gets government funding and so forth. But they did a calculation, which is that more innocent people died because of our policy–or as many; I can’t remember the exact quote, you’ll remember it–as at the hands of the Communists. Right?
RS: Between 1960 and 1990. That’s a damning quote in what was supposed to be a battle between the free world and the totalitarian world, that the free world managed to kill more innocent people.
VB: Yeah, that’s–what that quote is, is that John Coatsworth, who’s an historian, he took Freedom House numbers, because he wanted to take sort of numbers that were sufficiently anti-Communist for the numbers of murders that had been carried out in the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc from 1960 to 1990. And he found that the number of murders carried out by U.S. allies in Latin America over the same period, quote unquote, “vastly” exceeded the number. And I, across–I mean, I did interviews in 12 countries, I interviewed probably 125 people. I spent two years sort of trying to find the people that would allow this story to come alive in a short book; I wanted it to be something that was digestible. But I found at least 20 countries across the world where U.S.-backed Cold War allies carried out mass murder programs of innocent civilians. So that’s intentional murder of innocent civilians, not people killed by bombs or starvation or bad governments. And then if you add the wars in Indochina, I think it’s pretty clear you can argue that the U.S., Washington’s anti-Communist crusade, as I put it, killed millions of innocent people in the 20th century.
RS: Well, Robert McNamara in the “Fog of War” documentary says that 3 million died, and that was still early in the war, when he was there in Indochina. Let me make a point about your book, because we’ve talked a lot about Indonesia. And a lot of people think well, OK, we know about Indonesia, there have been some powerful movies made about the massacres there, and so forth. And then for some–we always think of our own sponsor of torture or involvement with murder of civilians as a one-off, you know, as an aberration and so forth. What your book makes clear–because actually, Indonesia is not covered for most of the book. You go into Brazil, you go into Chile, you go into a lot of places. And what you’re arguing in this book–correct me if I’m wrong–is that the reason it’s called the Jakarta method is because the killers in other countries thought they were using the Jakarta method. And it’s a method–and we should be clear about this–that was not endorsed only by some rogue agents in the CIA and the State Department. You have Henry Kissinger gleefully rubbing his hands over the murder and mayhem. You have the New York Times–we talk a lot these days about fake news.
RS: You have the New York Times and other major papers–the L.A. Times, The Washington Post–you know, I also worked at the L.A. Times for many years. You have these establishment, respected newspapers condoning mass murder and torture. Concealing it, covering it up, looking the other way. That’s a–that is a showstopper in your book. To quote James Reston, one of the most admired figures–right? Good old New York Times Washington bureau chief. Everybody thought he was just a wonderful guy. And he knows they are going around killing people who did not commit acts of violence, and they’re killing them systematically and going off a murder list compiled by the CIA. And he’s endorsing it.
VB: Yeah, he–
RS: The New York Times editorially endorsing it.
VB: Yeah, James Reston, the column that he wrote, the headline was “A Gleam of Light in Asia.” And the “gleam of light,” the sort of silver lining that he found in that part of the world, was that the Indonesian Communist Party had been destroyed. And of course, he knew that it was being destroyed with mass violence. He did not know, probably at the time, that the State Department handed kill lists to the Indonesian army. That, a State Department employee came out later and said that.
But it was absolutely true that at this point in the Cold War, most of the major media in the United States sort of saw it as their patriotic duty, almost, to help the U.S. in its covert operations. And the CIA and British intelligence, right before the mass murder of Indonesians started, they very actively helped spread these lies about what the Indonesian Communist Party had done. And these lies are still believed to this day. So a lot of the people that I met in Indonesia–and I spent, you know, a lot of time going back and forth and living near them, and you know, talking–you know, it took probably two years to get to all the people that wanted to talk, and that could talk, and that could really make this book into a book. Because a lot of people don’t want to talk, because to this day the propaganda that was spread about them–by the Suharto dictatorship, by the CIA, by MI6–is still taken as fact.
So they live often in poverty; they live sort of isolated and kicked out of the, out of Indonesian society. Because the story was told in 1965 that they had participated in sort of satanic, sadistic sexual torture rituals to murder generals. All this is entirely made up, and Suharto knew it was made up. It’s very likely that U.S. officials–no, we know for sure that U.S. officials knew that he was lying. It’s not clear how he made up this incredibly powerful propaganda story. Because without this incredibly powerful propaganda story, three months earlier, the Communist Party was probably the most popular political entity in the country. They would have won elections, as the CIA themselves recognized.
RS: Well, they would have won elections in Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh could have been elected. They would have won the election in Italy, probably, in ’48. But the book makes clear–and I want to get back to James Reston. I don’t want to hurt your chances of having a good review in the New York Times. But hopefully they are aware that this is a checkered history, not just for the New York Times, but for what was mainstream journalism. That when, you know, truth is the first casualty when you go to war. But I want to challenge something you just said: “they didn’t know.” And I remember one of our editors at the L.A. Times once told me when I asked, how come we didn’t know about the Gulf of Tonkin–which is in your book, the fabrication for Vietnam. Well, our publisher was in the White House, you know; other people were in the White House at that time with Lyndon Johnson. And he said to me, said, “Too good to check.”
RS: And if James Reston–who was after all the bureau chief of the New York Times in Washington–didn’t know that bad stuff was happening in Indonesia or Brazil or anywhere else that you’re describing, it’s because he didn’t want to know. Because he was at dinner with these people. They fraternized, they socialized together. And I want to bring up some illustrations of that, because you have documentation in this book where they’re acknowledging–you know, Kissinger and all of these people are acknowledging that they’re doing this. It’s not like, you know, oh, we didn’t know. They’re encouraging. And in fact, the main argument of your book–I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, because you know–but it seems to me what you’re saying is that they were thrilled to have a model of mass murder that they thought would produce a good outcome for their vision of capitalist expansion throughout the world. Basically, isn’t that what the book ends up with?
VB: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know who at what point decided that it was going to work that way. But it’s absolutely true, as far as I’m concerned, that in 1965 the mass murder of 1 million unarmed leftists was a huge success for the larger Cold War project. And as a result, it was replicated in many other countries with the assistance of the United States. Now, there’s evidence–you know, some of these figures go back and forth. So some people that were in Southeast Asia go to Guatemala right away, and then Guatemala begins mass murder programs of a very suspiciously similar type in 1966. And then of course, I think you talked about Kissinger; Pinochet in Chile takes power after right-wing terrorists spend a year or two painting “Jakarta is coming” or just “Jakarta” on the walls of leftists in Santiago. And that message is meant to be very clear. It’s meant to say, we’re going to kill you just like they killed them in Indonesia. And with the U.S.-backed coup in 1973, that’s exactly what happened. And it’s absolutely, the United States absolutely knew what it meant that Pinochet took over. And the United States was influential in helping South American nations organize Operation Condor, which was an international mass murder organization, where the South American dictatorships worked across borders to find and eliminate opponents to their political projects.
RS: Right. And in your book, you very clearly state the United States was complicit in the jailing and imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, now recognized as probably the greatest hero of the last 50 years, or certainly right up there.
RS: And I think this is, you know, the power–we know there are overtly blatant evil governments in the world, and you don’t have trouble recognizing them. They don’t do a good job of hiding, even though in Germany there were plenty of supporters in the U.S. who thought, well, you know, Mussolini in Italy gets the trains to run on time, and after all, Hitler’s doing a good job, and Mercedes likes him and all that. But what we’re talking about here, the power of this book, I think, is not–OK, so we did bad things, and the Russians obviously, Soviets did bad things. But what is really at issue here is whether we took the oxygen out of the human experience for alternatives.
RS: And the people that you’re describing, you know, were not Communists, most of them. They had some supporters who were, but you can’t say Nehru in India, you know, or even the leader of the Indonesian party, I forget his name. These were people who were nationalist, they cared about their country. Sukarno, for instance–
VB: Yeah, Sukarno was not a Communist ever. He worked with them, but–
RS: He was an anti-Communist. And Sukarno–I know, I was in Cambodia in I believe it was 1964 when Sukarno spoke, his address at the Indochinese people’s conference, and so forth. And Sihanouk, who was a nationalist and a neutralist, independent Third World. You know, this had support throughout the Third World, and everybody forgets the great hope coming out of World War II is that the largest mass of people in the world who had been disenfranchised, had been enslaved, had been colonized–after all, you had 5 million slaves from Africa and Brazil, right, who never got their rights. I mean, your book has a lot of documentation. Indonesia, this was not some place that the Dutch ran in a mild way. Colonialism was brutal and vicious; these people come out of the exploitation of colonialism. They think now, with the UN, with the new world order, we’re going to have a chance to find our own way. And that ability to define their own history, make their own history, is taken away from them–yes, by the Soviets, who do it in Eastern Europe, and by the U.S. that seems to do it all over the world.
And that is really what is at issue here. We overthrew Sukarno, we helped get Nelson Mandela in jail, we challenged, undermined Allende and destroyed his government. So what’s really at stake here was the development of a model that you defined very clearly in your book of a crony capitalism, highly militarized, run by the generals. You find this in U.S. State Department and CIA documents, favoring the generals’ military rule, OK? And the irony of this whole history, not only do we punish this Third World and prevent them from modernization in the name of modernization, the irony is the communist countries turn out to be very good at moving there quite on their own. So now, as you point out at the end of your book, the most successful Third World country was China.
RS: And China develops its own variant of a kind of capitalism and cronyism, just as Putin’s Russia does. That they were going there anyway, if that was your goal. Apple has no trouble working in China, you know. They didn’t need to kill millions of people.
VB: No, absolutely. And then, just to touch on this issue of crony capitalism, I ended up for this book getting very deep into the academic literature on the Cold War. And there’s a very good historian who has this thesis that a lot of the former Third World was set on its current path by conflicts in the Cold War, and they’re still sort of living in the system that was created during these Cold War conflicts. And he comes at it from a very academic perspective, but as a correspondent who lived in Latin America for most of the last decade, and who lived in Southeast Asia the last three years, it just jelled so perfectly with my experience to look at Brazil and think, oh no, yeah, this is a society that was put in place by a military coup in 1964.
In Indonesia, it’s even more extreme. So the military that we trained and put in power in 1965 is still very much in control of the country. It’s still illegal to tell the truth about what they actually did in 1965. And I think quite tragically, if you look at the vast majority of the world that used to be under direct European colonization, that used to be considered the Third World, this kind of crony capitalism–this system where you have to kind of break the rules to get along, you never really know if you’re going to fall into horrible poverty if you don’t put up with the oligarchs who are in charge–unfortunately I think this is a system that is very familiar to a lot of the world’s peoples right now. And that experience is the experience that we lose when we concentrate on the Cold War only as a sort of spy game between Moscow and Washington. Because as you said, it was the vast majority of the world’s people that experienced it, that were in this third team.
RS: Well, and that was a convenient fiction from the beginning. I mean, after all, what happened in Indonesia? The Dutch wanted to go back, and a nationalist movement–what happened in Vietnam? The French did go back, but they were defeated, and then we propped up a neocolonialist, you know, Ngo Dinh Diem. I mean, you go country after country–and this is where I want to get to this banality of evil. You can’t tell me for a second that Henry Kissinger did not know every minute of the way, as Christopher Hitchens brilliantly analyzed in his critique of Kissinger. He had to know. They knew, and they were thrilled to it, and you found the documentation confirming that in case after case. And we haven’t done the book justice. I want to stretch this a little bit. Because people may think, again, that Indonesia is an exception. But your book is not primarily about Indonesia. It’s about the world, and what happened to the world. So take us through those other cases of Chile and Brazil. And you know a lot about Brazil. I believe you’re there right now, actually, right?
VB: Yeah, I’m in São Paulo. I wasn’t supposed to be, but my–an election I was supposed to cover in Chile got canceled, and then my book tour got cancelled, so I just decided to stay in São Paulo. So yeah, I mean, I’ll go in chronological order. I mean, so in 1945, the United States is by far the most powerful country on Earth, much more so than the Soviet Union. And they form the CIA, and the CIA at first tries to go after the Soviet bloc, and they fail. These are guys that are largely upper-class Yale guys that are very ambitious, very eager to get the job done, to fight communism. But they can’t do it in the Eastern bloc; they screw up.
And so that’s when they turn to the Third World, right? And as Eisenhower comes in, the first big success of this covert operations team put together by Frank Wisner, one of the main characters in the story, is in Iran in 1953. And then you have Guatemala in 1954. And I tell this in the book through the perspective of the Indonesians who have just been liberated, or just liberated themselves from colonialism, and they look over at what’s happened in Iran and Guatemala, and they think oh, no, no, no–well, maybe colonialism is not over. Maybe they’re coming back. And they look up to Vietnam, and the United States is actively helping the French to attempt to reconquer Indochina. And Sukarno comes up with a–well, he comes up with all kinds of–he’s a very, he was a very philosophical and almost kind of a prophetic figure. He was more of like a founding father than a good president. He sort of came up with a philosophy of the country, but he came up with lots of terms, and one of them was just neocolonialism as a defining feature of the 20th century. So he brought together all the countries.
RS: Can I just interrupt you for one second? One of the great things about your book–I love doing these interviews because I learn something. I learned a great deal from your book. I really did. I think, I want to repeat, I think it’s the indispensable book–the indispensable book to read about the Cold War. And I thought I knew Sukarno. I was in Indonesia during a very rough period. You know, I thought I knew the situation. But until I read your book I had no idea, first of all, of the role of language in unifying Indonesia. And of the skill that Sukarno–we think of these people as represented in the media as if they’re simplistic cartoon figures, particularly if they’re in the Third World. How many languages does Sukarno–like you. [Laughter] You know about five languages. He knew more!
VB: Way more, way more, way more. So I think it was like something like nine or 10. And then Francisca and Zain, the other sort of main characters in the book, they spoke something like eight, nine or 10. And this is the–I mean, this is just–I mean, just to get off track a little bit, this is something that whenever I talk to Americans, and they’re like oh, I’m not good at languages, I don’t have that skill. And I’m like, well, in Indonesia, everyone speaks three or four. And this is just the reality of being in that part of the world, the reality of being under colonialism, the reality of being in a country which has so many different nations living on top of each other at the same time. You have to–
RS: Well, Sukarno–I’m sorry, Sukarno–not only was he special, but we trivialize–or, you know, when I was reading your book I thought yeah, Sukarno, go to hell with your aid. That was the Daily News, New York Times headline: I don’t need your aid. Well, he was summing up a heck of a lot of wisdom, knowledge, and experience when he said we can’t be dependent upon your aid, or you’ll own us. And this was true of Nehru, it was true of all of these people who were the third–you know, Papandreou in Greece. I mean, you could go down the list, Olof Palme in Sweden. The non-aligned movement was saying something that your book captures, I think, better than anyone I’ve seen recently. Because a lot of your victims were working in this non-aligned movement, because Sukarno was very instrumental. And what they were saying is we don’t want to be defined by the Cold War. We don’t want to be defined by the U.S. Soviet rivalry or the Chinese rivalry. We want to make our own history, and both the Soviet Union and the Chinese and the U.S., all of you, are trying to interfere with our–and the old colonial powers, the French and the Dutch, and so forth.
And your book really is a testament to freedom. It’s saying, why can’t these people make their own history? Why shouldn’t they be trusted to make their own history? And what you exhibit is that in the name of democracy, we were a good rival to Soviet communism and denying people their ability to make their own history. And in some ways, as you say, we won the Cold War precisely–“we” being the U.S.–because the U.S. was more brutal and tough-minded in controlling people and intimidating them at the end of the day, more effectively so.
VB: Well I think, I mean, we won the Cold War, or the Cold War ended, you know, primarily because the Soviet Union fell apart. But I definitely think that the brutality employed by the United States was a huge part of the way that the Cold War was won. And the way that the Cold War was won really matters a lot for how life is lived on this planet. And I want to go back to, you said that Sukarno very famously said go to hell with your aid, at the very end of his presidency. And that is often presented in the Western press as, like, ah, this–he’s a wild card, he’s crazy, he won’t listen to reason. The CIA had already authorized his assassination at this point. The CIA had already bombed his country, killing innocent civilians, trying to break up Indonesia. So usually, at the beginning, usually these anti-colonial or even Communist countries, Vietnam being an example, usually at the beginning of the Cold War, they tried to work with the United States. And after 5, 10, 15 bitter years they realized, no, they’re not, it’s not going to work. They’re–they’re coming for me. And so they tried to defend themselves, and in rare cases it worked. But in the case of Indonesia, it absolutely didn’t.
RS: Right, and the demonization or trivialization of any other political leader in the world–and as I say, we did it with Nelson Mandela; he was just a commie–it happened, and it’s in your book. By the way, there’s so many good sections in your book. Even though they’re brief. People want to know about the Gulf of Tonkin, you’ve got an excellent description. If they want to know about the overthrow of Mossadegh, how the Shah got back to power, what Iran is all about, you have a very good description. Mossadegh was made a cartoon figure. The last great nationalist in Iran was reduced to a cartoon figure.
So we never took any of these people seriously. We never thought they cared about their own country, they cared about their people. And yet they were the people who were sacrificing; almost all of them had sacrificed greatly in fighting colonialism. Even been on our side, in the case of the Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh during the war. I want to mention, just to wrap this up, in terms of authority. Because you know, I agree with you; I’m not trying to label people when I say “the banality of evil.” And in reading your book, I was reintroduced to some people that I have known, or met, or interviewed. One of them, going to this overthrow of Mossadegh, I actually interviewed Kermit Roosevelt over the phone when I was at the L.A. Times.
RS: And he actually wrote a book, I have it on my shelf, about the whole thing. And he in that interview said very clearly, he didn’t want what he did in Iran–overthrowing the [leader]–to be a model. And that, as you point out in your book, he refused to go along with Allen Dulles who said, oh great, let’s do it now in Latin America.
VB: Guatemala, yeah. In ’54 he–
RS: Yeah, Guatemala. And another person I interviewed when I was doing a lot of stuff on Vietnam–and I’m only offering this to support your thesis, not to contradict it–
VB: No, no, please.
RS: –was General Lansdale. And General Lansdale, who was the first one to develop this sort of counterinsurgency for democracy idea. And Lansdale did it in the Philippines, which was one of the first models. And then he of course was the inspiration for doing it in Vietnam. But I remember walking around Washington with General Lansdale. He said, when I was raising questions to him, he said let’s go out, let’s leave the office. He was in an office at the White House with Food for Peace. And he was very clear that that should not be a model for other countries, what happened in the Philippines. And then finally I want to end with this example of Bobby Kennedy, and bring him up. Because you’re right in your book–this was, by the way, we should be clear, Democrats and Republicans. Most of the crimes you describe in this book, or a good percentage of them, were conducted under Democratic presidents.
RS: Right? And, but Eisenhower was there for part of it, and Richard Nixon was certainly there for part of it. So I’m not saying it’s not bipartisan. But one of them that you really go after is Jack Kennedy. And Bobby Kennedy was very close to his brother, not just as attorney general but as an advisor and everything else. And yet in your book, I don’t know if you have it in front of you, but there’s a very powerful quote from Bobby Kennedy, when he was by then a senator.
VB: Yeah, I do.
RS: Do you have it handy?
VB: Yeah, I do. Just, you know, just a quick background, JFK in Congress in the fifties was coming out and saying things that we would probably agree with these days about the right of the Third World to pick their own destiny, about the post-colonial peoples having the freedom to choose whatever path they wanted. And Sukarno knew this, and Sukarno was excited about JFK becoming president. [omission] John F. Kennedy, as a congressman in the fifties, he was somebody that–and this was rare in Washington at the time–was well known as somebody that supported the rights of the Third World to pick their own destiny, to have the freedom to choose whatever path they wanted. And Sukarno knew this, and Sukarno was excited about JFK as president. Now we know, of course, JFK as president had to deal with the CIA doing everything that they did, and he got involved in Latin America all over the place. And in JFK’s administration, Bobby Kennedy was not known to be shy about using the dark arts or covert operations in Latin America. He was considered very aggressive, even within Washington. Now, in 1966 as a senator after his brother has passed away, he is the only prominent politician in the United States to speak out against what has happened in Indonesia. And I have the quote here: in January 1966 he said, “We have spoken out against the inhuman slaughters perpetrated by the Nazis and the Communists. But will we speak out also against the inhuman slaughter in Indonesia, where over 100,000 alleged Communists have not been perpetrators but victims?” And of course, that number is far too small. But you’re absolutely right, that I think in a lot of cases people go into the U.S. foreign policy apparatus with good intentions; they end up doing things that they don’t want other people to do, and then they end up sitting back and watching while they do them.
RS: Well, that’s why I want to end this with this–Hannah Arendt, for people who don’t know Hannah Arendt, probably no one has written more effectively about the attraction, the rationalizations, the mechanisms of totalitarian activity. And that phrase, “the banality of evil”–everybody forgets Germany was a society that was much admired throughout certainly Europe and the United States. And they kept great records, they had great rationalizations, they quoted great thinkers for their, you know, probably the most startling example of evil in the modern world. But they could cloak it by quoting the Greeks, you know, and the Romans or what have you.
And what I think your book reveals is that a whole cast of characters that are still admired, or at least treated with the dignity of well, they had tough choices to make–no. Because they read these reports. You know, torture did not start with Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo or anything else. Torture was as American as apple pie. And the destruction of Native Americans–infants were thrown into fires. Benjamin Madley at UCLA, you know, he’s written a very powerful book about that, even in the 19th century. And so what your book challenges–and you know, I’m hesitant to put too much on it, because it may not be your reading of it. But my reading of it is it challenges this pernicious notion of American innocence. And your book asserts–no. These were not excesses, the way My Lai is defended, you know? This was a policy of torture, brutality, murder of innocents, destruction of elections, destruction of nationalism, of a political life for people, intruding on their life, that was calculated. And it was embraced because it was thought to work.
And what it did is it made the world safe–safe for your notion of American capitalism, or whatever your ideology. But certainly the word “capitalism” has to be in there, because you associate it with a certain notion of markets and expansion and access. And really, it seems to me what your book is saying is that what was won was not the freedom and increased opportunity for people, because your statistics at the end show the Third World has not done well at all. And many governments are totalitarian that we helped create; they didn’t stop being totalitarian. What we won was we made the world safe for a variant of American capitalism. Rapacious, expansionist, exploitive.
VB: Yeah, well, what was won is the world that we all occupy today. And what I tried to sort of reconstruct talking to all these people that lived through it in the Third World in the fifties and sixties and seventies is, they thought that something very different would be the world in 2020. And the way that that world that we live in was won, the Jakarta method, as I call it, is part of that. And whether we like it or not, the Jakarta method did work. It was effective.
RS: So let me end by taking your two worlds. You are a scholar, and you do go to the documents, you do go to the record. You have the linguistics skills, you know the countries you travel. But you’re also a journalist, you know, getting the human side, talking to ordinary people. And I think the big challenge in your book–it’s a good challenge, it’s an important corrective–is you deny our right to stereotype and be dismissive and marginalize other actors in the world. You introduce us–and I haven’t discussed this at all, but you introduce us to really heroic ordinary people. By “ordinary” I mean not that they’re uninteresting, but they’re from ordinary villages. They’re from, sometimes, from the countryside. There are people, you know, who have an ethnicity that stands out, say being Chinese in Indonesia, that have to change their name. There’s a wonderful cast of characters.
Just take us through some of that, and we’ll wrap it up with that. But these are the people that we hurt. That it’s not a video game. Human beings get their husbands and wives and children killed. They are tortured, their lives are disrupted. And you introduce us–that’s why this is, I would say, a joy to read. Because it’s a book about survival and courage. And that’s the arc, by the way, in your book that connects Brazil to Indonesia. It’s a refugee story also.
VB: Yeah, so I take a few people from Indonesia, a couple from the upper class, a couple peasants, one Chinese family that ends up fleeing Indonesia to Brazil. And there is a small community of Indonesians in Brazil now that all fled U.S.-backed, racist violence, and most of them don’t know that it was U.S.-backed to this day. But I think I picked the ones that are really interesting. I mean, I talked to a lot of people, and I picked a couple of people that I think sort of became heroes for me personally in my life. I mean, Francisca, who lives now in Amsterdam, who’s 94 years old, who was part of the anti-colonial struggle and then ended up being a translator for the Third World movement, going all throughout Africa and Asia and meeting the leaders of this brand new world, raising kids and then eventually suffering through 1965 in her own way, is a hero. And I think there’s another character, Benny, who you mentioned, who unfortunately–ah, I don’t want to give too much away. But Benny is–again, he’s a real hero, that he ends up being involved in the UN. And he goes through 1965 in his own way, but then he’s influential in exposing to the world what Pol Pot has done, and fighting for a free Cambodia.
And I want to tell the same story that people already know, but with different people as the main characters, right? So there are American foreign policy officials that are the protagonists, but there’s also people from Indonesia that come up looking at the world a very different way, looking out at the world from Indonesia, in the forties and fifties and sixties, and sort of working very hard to build a new world. And I think that is what makes the book so interesting, made the book so interesting for me to report and to write, was to go through the arcs of their lives as they interacted with these big global phenomena that a lot of us thought we knew about, but at least personally speaking, I didn’t really know at all how a lot of people had experienced them.
RS: So that’s it for this discussion. But let me just say, I am really grateful for the seriousness of purpose you brought to this. You know, because whether you’re tortured by a Communist or you’re tortured by a Democratic Socialist or a Democratic capitalist, it really doesn’t matter what their claim is and so forth.
And one final example which joins the two, which you describe with Benny in your book, and Cambodia and Pol Pot, that’s a perfect example of that. Here was Sihanouk, the royal leader of this small country, which was at that time 6 million people. And we dragged Sihanouk and Cambodia into the Cold War. So did the Chinese, so did the Soviets, so did the Vietnamese, all right? And this neutral country which was part of this movement with Sukarno and Nehru and everyone, trying to find their own way–a Cambodian way, an Indonesian way, a Brazilian way to deal with the complexities of development in the modern world–we dragged them into this Cold War. So did the Soviets, so did the Chinese and so forth. And Pol Pot was someone who in Cambodia, after our bombing of Cambodia and our refusal to accept Sihanouk as a neutralist, Third World, Third Way leader, which he clearly was–he was hardly a communist, he was a royalist and so forth–we destabilized that country.
And this maniac Pol Pot, with some crazed rural notion of Communism, ends up being, again, one of the great perpetrators of genocide. Kills a million of his people for the crime of wearing eyeglasses and other things. And the irony is, you describe in your book, Pol Pot actually was somebody the U.S. preferred to the Vietnamese, who come in and get rid of him, and throw him out. And they preferred him because we were playing footsie by that time with the Chinese communists. And they were backers of Pol Pot. And so suddenly this genocidal killer–he’s OK. And the president, who I in many ways admire, certainly as an ex-President, Jimmy Carter, was the president who said no, we’re going to reach out even when Pol Pot was thrown out, we’re going to still reach out to a coalition that included Pol Pot. Because we can’t, we don’t want to break with the Chinese communists over this issue.
That shows what your book is really about. It’s the deep cynicism of our politics, and at the end of the day, our cynicism was certainly no more benign. No more benign–maybe you don’t agree with that, but reading your book, I came to the conclusion it was no more benign than the people we had identified as the godless enemy, godless Communists.
VB: Yeah, I don’t think there’s evidence to support, other than sort of a nationalist faith in the United States that we’re taught to have, but I don’t think the evidence supports the affirmation that we were more benign, no. But I–I mean, I know we’ve gone on long, but I do really want to ask you, how did you meet Sukarno and what was that like? Can you say what he was like as a person?
RS: Well, it’s just an echo of your book. And one reason I’m so enthusiastic about it is while, you know, I had friends who were on the left and they–you know, they thought oh no, these Vietnamese are fighting, and they’re revolutionary, or other people. And I went to Cambodia actually quite by accident; I wanted to go to China. It was hard to get into, this was 1964. And I had been in Vietnam, and I went over. And I marveled at the country. I actually wrote a piece, I said leave this country alone. Don’t drag them into the Cold War. I wrote a letter from Phnom Penh, which is really an echo of what I’m saying about your book. I said, let them find their own way. Their prince plays Coltrane, you know. He’s a jazz musician. The fruit drops from the tree when it’s time to eat it. You know, it’s this marvelous country. And then we visited incredible brutality upon it by dragging them into war, and he represented the very neutralists that your book describes, this endangered species of people in the world trying to avoid the U.S. and Russia in that time.
And so he had an Indochinese people’s conference, and I happened to be the only correspondent that was allowed to go to this thing. I was there, and I attended it. And Sukarno was the big draw, big speaker. But the Viet Cong were there from the south, and from the north, and a lot of different movements and so forth. And Sukarno was at that time acknowledged as this great leader of the Third Way. And so I think it was through an invitation from some of these people with him or what have you. I forget all the circumstances, I forget everything, but I ended up going to Indonesia. And I was there during–I can’t remember the exact dates, I could look it up. But there was suppression already of the Chinese community, or an attack at that time when I was there, and the deification of the Chinese. And again, reading your book, I realized that that was something manipulated by outsiders, to some degree.
VB: So in 1961, after the CIA bombed the country in 1958, we ended up training the military and bringing a lot of the Indonesian military to study in Kansas. And as a sort of part of the U.S.-backed army’s ploy to gain more economic power in the country, they cracked down on the Chinese, who had a lot of businesses. So starting in 1961, there was U.S.-backed anti-Chinese pogroms carried out by the military. So you would have been there in the wake of that, it sounds like.
RS: But the stoking–OK, we’ve gone on, I’ve gotten my hour with you. [Laughter] And I’m going to bill this as a primer. This is an hour worth spending. But why don’t we end with mentioning your book, which is [The Jakarta Method]. And give us the two-sentence description of The Jakarta Method.
VB: Yeah, The Jakarta Method is the story of the Third World movement and its destruction, and how all of that deeply affects the world we live in today. And yeah, I just really hope that other people can take a look and come to their own conclusions about what it tells them about the world today, or about the United States, or about the possibilities for a globalized world in the 21st century.
RS: Well, I think it also leads to the argument that people should be allowed to make their own history, and challenges the arrogance that somehow–you know, in your case, you know all these languages. But most of us don’t know any of them. And we have hardly even traveled, unless as tourists, to any of these countries. And the book is really a powerful rejoinder to the idea of American innocence. It was calculated and quite destructive on the highest level. It is an example of the banality of evil, but we didn’t invent it. We have to be accountable to it. So I want to end on that note. And you had some movies in your book you said people should watch, but they’re listed in the book. So pick it up, The Jakarta Method. It’s not just about Indonesia. And by the way, the subject is profound and important and, yes, depressing, but the writing is excellent.
VB: Thank you so much.
RS: And without cheapening it, without simplifying it, you convey in this book really an incredible record, or important chunk of the record of the Cold War. It’s indispensable reading. I hope it gets the reviews and attention that it deserves. And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Christopher Ho at KCRW handles this and gets it posted at that great radio station. Natasha Hakimi Zapata does the editing. Lucy Berbeo does the transcription. And Joshua Scheer is the producer and director and everything else of Scheer Intelligence. See you next week with another edition. OK.
VB: Thank you so much.