Enduring Cold War Imperialism: On Vincent Bevins’s “The Jakarta Method”

By Leo SchwartzJuly 25, 2020

Enduring Cold War Imperialism: On Vincent Bevins’s “The Jakarta Method”

The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins

IT WASN’T ALWAYS the case that “Third World” had a negative connotation. After World War II, two-thirds of the global population lived in the so-called Third World. They weren’t part of the immediate spoils of war for the United States or the Soviet Union. The countries held their newfound independence proudly, with many emerging from a long history of colonialism and ready to fight for a dream of sovereignty.

Outside of the bounds of the escalating Cold War, the Third World also believed that through solidarity, it could build this new future together. Last summer, a vestige of Third World optimism quietly died when Cuba shut down the Organization in Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL), which was born in 1966 and grew out of the landmark Bandung Conference, hosted by Indonesia in 1955. For decades, OSPAAAL produced the iconic Tricontinental Magazine — published in Spanish, English, French, and Arabic for countries around the world.

Once feared by the United States, OSPAAAL didn’t make any headlines when it closed. Third World is no longer a marker of pride — it’s now a pejorative, replaced by the euphemism “developing world.” And the developer, of course, is the United States and its multilateral institutions: the victor of the Cold War.

In The Jakarta Method, Vincent Bevins describes how the war was won. While it may not be his explicit goal, his book dismantles and re-positions the American mythos, similar to two recent Pulitzer Prize winners: Nikole Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project and Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth.

As with Hannah-Jones and Grandin, Bevins isn’t necessarily surfacing groundbreaking new findings, but instead arguing that we’ve been looking at the past all wrong. Through empathetic reporting and fastidious archival research, he examines two overlooked periods of the Cold War: Indonesia and Brazil in the early 1960s, and how US-backed anticommunism movements in the two countries diffused through the rest of the world.

More than a new history of the Cold War, though, The Jakarta Method is an elegy. Like the term Third World, Jakarta used to have a different meaning. In the initial years after World War II, the “Jakarta Axiom” signified a US tolerance for neutral Third World nations — a policy of nonaggression. That changed after a US-backed coup in Indonesia targeted communists, killing anywhere from 500,000 to three million people. When Cuba hosted the 1966 Tricontinental Conference and created OSPAAAL, Indonesia — which helped create the movement for Third World solidarity — was in the midst of its brutal slaughter. By the 1970s, the “Jakarta Axiom” of neutrality was a distant fantasy. The “Jakarta Method” now meant a genocidal approach to anticommunism, so powerful that the city’s name was used to sow fear through graffiti in countries flirting with socialism, as distant as Chile. Jakarta became a metonym for the death of Third World sovereignty.

Of course, the questions of why and how this happened are at the center of Bevins’s inquiry. More consequential, though, is the question of whether it had to happen — not in a deterministic sense, but in a pragmatic one. Based on the outcome of the Cold War, it seems logical to conclude that — aside from some unfortunate missteps — the United States was a rational and effective actor. Bevins dispels this notion.

From the onset of the Cold War, ignorance and bad assumptions drove US foreign policy in the Third World. The early CIA tried to emulate James Bond. Tracy Barnes, one of the CIA’s senior staff members, “would pass out copies of the [James Bond] novels to his family at Thanksgiving.” The “man who wrote the so-called blueprint of the Cold War,” Paul Nitze, believed that “doing in the enemy is the right thing to do,” and like Thucydides, there were no “restraints on ends and means” if the enemy was a barbarian. Communists were barbarians.

They quickly realized that they could not combat communism behind the Iron Curtain, so they had to look to the Third World. The issue, as Bevins describes, is that the CIA and US government had no understanding of the Third World, nor a desire to learn. They saw communism everywhere, even though the ideology was amorphous and irrelevant to many of the countries it targeted. As one (slightly) more enlightened diplomat in Indonesia believed, “Americans failed to understand what nationalism was in the context of emerging countries, and its difference from communism. […] It was not about race, or religion, or even borders. It was built in opposition to centuries of colonialism.”

Instead, the governing principle of the United States was an academic field of study called modernization theory, which was a kind of antithesis to Marxism on how societies progress. As interpreted by US officials, it argued that authoritarian and elite forces were necessary to “make the difficult leap to modernity,” and that anti-Americanism in postcolonial states was a “psychological pathology.” What emerged was a “messianic anticommunist ideology” — one that would be opportunistically adopted by authoritarian governments around the world, from Indonesia to Argentina.

Thus, as the Cold War progressed, the United States would never allow a country like Indonesia, which sought an independent future for itself, to be neutral. The tragedy of The Jakarta Method was Third World countries’ belief in the promise of the post–World War II order — one built on humanitarian treatises and grand declarations — that as long as they operated within democratic ideals, they could be non-aligned in the Cold War. Instead, all the United States saw was communism, or even just the threat that small reforms — the doubling of minimum wage, or buying up land at market rate — would lead to communism. These countries, from Guatemala and Brazil to the Republic of the Congo and Indonesia, fell one by one.

Unlike other Cold War accounts, Bevins also makes clear that its history is not just of countries, but people. He weaves in the narratives of individuals subsumed by the endless violence, often dragged around the world by the larger geopolitical forces out of their control: by the “waves emanating from Brazil and Indonesia in 1964 and 1965.”

By focusing on these narratives, he makes the complex transnational dynamics of the Cold War both easier to comprehend and more grounded in human stakes. Through one character, an Indonesian named Sakono, Bevins illustrates why US action in Indonesia destroyed the global possibility for moderate leftism. When the mass murder of communists began in Indonesia, Sakono was affiliated with the country’s broad communist party, the PKI.

When he was taken to prison, he thought it was nothing to worry about: “He had done nothing wrong, so he figured he would just do some interviews, provide some information, and clear his name.” All his friends were there. Bevins writes, “It was practically a reunion. The mood was light, almost festive. They began singing revolutionary songs together — not even in defiance of the police, but just in a kind of joyful solidarity.”

Sakono only became concerned when they took 12 of the prisoners away while he was asleep. He soon realized that he was not protected by the movement’s democratic approach. The anticommunists would still employ mass murder, with the United States supplying not only training and funding, but lists of thousands of communists and suspected communists to be “checked off.”

And anticolonialists around the world noticed — people from Che Guevara to Pol Pot. They realized that outside of political parties in Western European countries such as France and Italy, the United States would undermine any Third World attempts at moderate leftism with extreme violence. By the 1970s, as Bevins writes, most of the moderate dissidents were dead.

By interpreting any attempt at anticolonialism as communism that needed to be extinguished, the United States wasn’t only creating enemies on the left. It would prop up nationalist, anticommunist movements in other countries that soon sought out their own autonomy. In Iraq, the United States backed a coup led by the anticommunist Ba’ath Party. A young party member, Saddam Hussein, reportedly participated in those US-backed anticommunist extermination programs.

The United States may not have directly murdered millions of people, but they put in place — and permitted — systems that have. From Brazil, these systems perceived demonic plots that did not exist: stories of communists sneaking into military barracks and stabbing officers in their sleep in Brazil, and of women cutting off generals’ genitals and gouging out their eyes in Indonesia. In reality, the plots almost always came from the anticommunists and the United States, who hatched their James Bond fantasies of poisonous cigars and scuba suits contaminated with deadly spores.

Bevins clarifies that the Cold War did not end solely because of US mass violence, but also because of the USSR destroying itself from the inside out. Instead, he argues, the violence of the extermination programs created by the United States “profoundly shaped the world we live in today.”

The Cold War still dictates the way we perceive the world. “From 1960 to the present, Cuba was very far from the most repressive political system, or the worst violator of human rights, in the hemisphere,” writes Bevins. When Bernie Sanders acknowledged the country’s successful health-care and literacy programs, it was a nationwide scandal. In the meantime, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro — who frequently waxes nostalgic on the country’s brutal US-backed dictatorship — is a frequent guest of the White House.

The Jakarta Method is a devastating critique of US hypocrisy during the Cold War, and a mournful hypothetical of what the world might have looked like if Third World movements had succeeded.

As Bevins points out, Indonesia still does not acknowledge the millions of lives lost during its anticommunist crusade, nor the role of its government. What he leaves unspoken: Neither do we.


Leo Schwartz is a multimedia journalist based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation, and PBS NewsHour.

LARB Contributor

Leo Schwartz is a multimedia journalist based in Brooklyn. He is the web editor at the NACLA Report, a quarterly magazine and online publication on Latin America. His work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation, PBS NewsHour, Roads & Kingdoms, BuzzFeed News, Documented, Deadspin, and World Politics Review. He graduated from New York University with a dual master’s in journalism and Latin American studies.


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