JULY 25, 2020
VINCENT BEVINS DIDN’T MOVE to Indonesia because of an interest in the atrocities of US foreign policy. He had been working as a foreign correspondent in Brazil for the Los Angeles Times for five years, and he was ready for a change. He thought about moving to Russia, but when he visited, he was trailed by a spy, which put him off. He considered a position in West Africa too, but then settled on Indonesia. The world’s largest Muslim-majority country and its emerging economy seemed underrepresented in the mainstream English-language media. He decided to move there, learn the language, and cover Southeast Asia for The Washington Post.
But when Bevins started reporting, he found something he didn’t expect. Behind nearly every story, one major event loomed: the US-backed anticommunist massacre of over one million Indonesian civilians in 1965. The history of the event was buried; it is illegal to tell the truth about it in Indonesia, and back in the United States, most people didn’t know anything about it. But as Bevins started to tug at the loose threads of this gruesome story, he found connections to events in Latin America that he knew quite well, so he began to trace the global history of the violent anticommunist crusade that won Washington the Cold War.
The product of three years of reporting and archival research in four languages and 12 countries, Bevins’s debut book, The Jakarta Method (published in May by PublicAffairs Press), is the story of this crusade, told assiduously through the lives of those who lived through it. Written in a heartfelt, analytical staccato, it’s a profound, disturbing, sometimes disorienting, but always edifying read. As precise as it is capacious, the book brings readers along on the same journey that Bevins took, back to the dark second half of the 20th century and the all-but-forgotten political horizons on which it foreclosed.
As the world that the American century built ground to a halt in April, amid the global coronavirus pandemic, I talked with Bevins on the phone, from my apartment on lockdown in New Delhi to his in São Paulo.
LEWIS PAGE: How did you go about researching The Jakarta Method? I was really struck by the characters in particular, and how well they tied the story together. How did you meet them?
VINCENT BEVINS: I had only been in Indonesia seven or eight months when I started working on the book proposal. I had applied for a full-time staff position at The Washington Post, but then when the book proposal was accepted, I withdrew my application. I felt that this was something I couldn’t do justice to unless I gave it most of my time for several years. I started working on it in 2017, reading every book I could get my hands on about the Cold War background. Then I spent quite a lot of time trying to find the people who would be able to tell their stories in a way that would make the book more meaningful and human for the average reader.
It took quite a long time to find the specific characters — probably two years extra. I had to meet the communities of survivors, gain their trust, and patiently talk to a lot of them, until I could find out who the people were who had the special connections across countries that would be resonant with this story. Like I said, it is not easy for them to talk about what happened. They are shunned, or worse, if they admit what they and most of the country were doing in the early ’60s. And I’m American, so I’m from the country that now runs the world — partially, in their view (and I’ll leave it up to the reader whether or not they agree), because of the violence that was carried out against them and their friends. So it wasn’t a quick process to get to know these people, and to find a way to do the interviews that was revealing but also not too difficult for them. I didn’t want to retraumatize anyone, and I didn’t want to be exploitative. I spent a lot of time just living near them, figuring out who wanted to talk about what, who liked telling their story and who did not, and whose story fit into the larger narrative. In the end, the main characters ended up being a couple of Americans, a couple of Indonesians, and a couple of Latin Americans, all of whom lived through these really big Cold War events, and experienced them in a granular, visceral way.
You were a foreign correspondent in Latin America, so I assume you had some critical awareness of US foreign policy and power. But there are a few moments in this book where you gesture to how much the process of researching the topic rattled your preconceived notions. I’m curious — what were your preconceived notions about the Cold War, and what was it that was revealed to you during the research process?
I’m still really grappling with those questions myself. Before I started, I don’t think that I was underinformed, relatively speaking as an American. I had a decent sense of the legacy of the coups in Latin America, the Vietnam War, etc. I was the kind of correspondent who would always put “after the US-backed coup of 1964” in my articles about Brazil. I thought I knew my history, more or less. But I didn’t expect to find this. And spending these two or three years swimming in the worst things that my government ever did — the worst kinds of things you could ever imagine — and spending time with people who were cast into the dustbin of history, really shook me to my core. I don’t want to say too much, but it really affected me psychologically. The survivors in Indonesia are still living in poverty, marginalized and outcast, all because they chose a political movement that in many ways defends the same values as the vast majority of American liberals do now. It really rattled my sense of my own national identity, and of the type of globalization we ended up getting after the Cold War. It took me a long time to kind of reintegrate into the English-speaking society of my peers and to feel normal again after hanging out in parts of Indonesia with survivors of this violence for so long.
What is the common narrative of the Cold War that you are trying to write against with this book? What intervention were you trying to make?
I think I want to make a distinction: the story that this book tells does not contradict the established Cold War narrative in the academic world. The narrative I try to present fits right into the larger view of the Cold War as laid out by scholars like Odd Arne Westad and Bradley Simpson. On the other hand, the generally accepted view in the English-language mainstream media is not the same as that academic narrative. One of the aspects of that mainstream story that I try to demonstrate to be misleading is, first of all, the idea that anyone who called themselves a communist anywhere in the world was part of some violent, Soviet-led operation to overthrow the global order and destroy the United States. And hopefully, through looking at these Indonesian characters, the sort of shallowness of that narrative becomes obvious. Another major misconception is that the other guys did mass murder, but we didn’t. I think a lot of people sort of know about the Vietnam War, they know it was bad, but still the general narrative is the other guy, the communist bad guy, engaged in the intentional murder of civilians, while we did not. Well, our side did that in at least 22 countries in a sophisticated and coordinated way.
I think there is a broad kind of a priori assumption made by people who grew up in the US that we’re always the good guys. And well, maybe sometimes we were. But if you want to be a serious journalist and treat your historical question with any seriousness, you can’t assume in advance that your side is the good guys. And I think that, if you drop that assumption and take a hard look at the facts, you have to question that part of the mainstream narrative.
That insistence on challenging basic assumptions comes across really strongly, even in the way you present information — you explain everything from scratch, so much so that in the first line of the book you introduce one of the main characters, the United States, as “a western European settler colony.”
I’m glad you noticed that line. I know it seems kind of absurd to define the United States like that, but there are a few reasons I wanted to do it. Number one — and this might be very optimistic — but I would like this book to be something that any 19-year-old in Kenya or Paraguay could pick up and read. So I don’t want to make any assumptions about prior knowledge. And number two, even for the American reader who knows quite a lot about 20th-century history, I want them to realize that it could be a Kenyan 19-year-old reading this — I want them to remember that being an American is just one of many nationalities you can have. It’s not the default subjectivity of planet Earth. And it’s not a normal country, either — it has a strange and very specific history. You and I speak English; that’s because we trace our roots back to Europe. Why does everyone in the Western hemisphere speak European languages? Well, because Europeans came to America and demolished the native population and imported slaves to construct a new European-language-speaking society.
But that wasn’t just an axe I had to grind. When I spoke to so many Indonesians and Latin Americans who grew up in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the way that they understood the United States was profoundly shaped by that history. The Indonesians I spoke to, whether they were on the left or not, said they all just understood back then, “Oh yeah, the United States, that’s a racist place … they had black slaves and they murdered all the natives.” And the people whom I met who actually went to the United States were even more shocked by the level of racism they encountered there. And if you look at the ways that US officials during the Cold War talked about Asia and Latin America, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that they were motivated by white supremacy to some extent. And that shouldn’t be surprising, because white supremacy was a foundational principle of the United States.
The United States doesn’t come off very well in this book, that’s clear.
I wasn’t on my own crusade! I wasn’t just out there trying to make my country look bad. The first book I tried to write was about international fashion weeks and the global economy. It just happened that I found myself immersed in this particular story.
But there are a few parts of the book where you’re a bit more circumspect about America — for example, you gesture toward Kennedy having good intentions with respect to the Third World Movement, and you talk about Obama’s childhood brush with the aftermath of the events in Indonesia as a kid living there.
I think Obama and Kennedy are interesting cases because they show how powerful the machinery of US foreign policy is. Is there something about the office of the president that made these people do the things they did? But I didn’t want the final outcome to seem inevitable either — that’s why I included these two characters: Frank Wisner, the father of covert operations at the CIA, and Howard Jones, who was the smiling, gregarious ambassador to Indonesia during this period. I think their stories make it all feel more contingent. There’s a human drama between these two deeply American guys and their worldviews, even if the outcome was exactly what the Indonesian leftists most feared America could be.
You write in a very careful way when you make these claims, but this is also an incredibly ambitious book. I’m not sure I’ve read anything exactly like it. It’s a piece of narrative nonfiction, tracing a few characters and their stories, it’s a chronicle of your own journey and research, but then it also aims to be a global history of the Cold War, which tries to tell the whole story, including almost every coup and revolution. How did you choose this specific form?
Well, I made the choice as to the format thinking about my friends and the way they read, and the way that I read for a long time too. I don’t think a lot of people my age or younger are going to read 400 history books a year. A lot of people read just a couple of books a year. There’s a lot of people who might pick up one book about the Cold War, or two, ever. I wanted this to be something that my sister, or a teenager in East Timor, could read and enjoy, and also get an idea of what the mass murder programs during the Cold War were, and what the Cold War was in general. And that is wildly ambitious, I know, maybe even hubristic, but I think that’s how you have to engage with the way my generation reads books.
And this was tough to do. There’s that old cliché — if I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter. It was a lot of extra work to make it something that was easy and quick and didn’t require a lot of expertise. In the end, it’s around 260 pages to cover a lot of people and a lot of countries. And like I said, I have no idea if it works. It’s an incredibly ambitious way to try to do it, but I think that means there’s a greater chance of it being picked up by regular people rather than just people who want to add a little wrinkle to their knowledge of Southeast Asian history. And I think that, by my taking this almost intentionally naïve way of looking at the whole world, connections began to emerge between Latin America and Asia that might not have otherwise.
Like the application of the so-called “Jakarta” method in places like Brazil and Chile?
Exactly. That’s the main connection that gave rise to the book — the discovery that South American countries copied the “success” of the mass murder in Indonesia. This is where I realized, okay, I have the language skills and contacts to potentially really add something here. But as you go deeper and deeper, you realize that the technology of effective anticommunist terror was something that was developed and perfected in collaboration across many more countries.
How does this story affect how you view our contemporary world?
One of the most striking things about spending so much time with the Indonesians and Latin Americans who were active politically in the ’50s and ’60s is that, when you saw them speak about the way they understood how the world was going to unfold, you could see this parallel universe open up behind their eyes. You could see that, in the ’50s and ’60s, they had an idea of what the world would become. It was a wondrous and very plausible vision, one that they never lost. And it was a vision that I never grew up knowing existed. Spending time with these people made me realize that the type of globalization that we’ve got was just one of the possible types we could have had. It was certainly not inevitable or natural. It was not that purely the best system won, and that everyone else was bound to fail and eventually got out of the way. The type of globalization that we got, the type of world that we have now, was shaped to a profound extent by the way that the Cold War was fought. And it was profoundly shaped by the fact that mass murder programs were carried out against unarmed civilians in the service of constructing authoritarian capitalist regimes in the Third World, and in the service of constructing a US-led global system. And to recognize that this world was built by violence, I think, might lead each person to question for themselves if we should stick with this world forever, if this is definitely the best possible world that could ever exist — or if, maybe, you could imagine an improvement. Could you imagine something that’s better?