American Anti-Communism Abroad

Vincent Bevins, author of The Jakarta Method, discusses the legacy of US intervention in Indonesia and Brazil.

Noah Kulwin
September 9, 2020
Vincent Bevins

In 1965, an anti-communist purge in Indonesia killed as many as a million people, a level of devastation made possible by American intelligence and logistical support. Yet Americans tend to have little knowledge of this history, in keeping with a general ignorance of the full viciousness of  20th-century anti-communism and the United States’s complicity in it. But for people in Indonesia and Brazil—another country where mid-century leftist political movements were squelched by US-supported violence—the stench of these dark episodes and the military governments they ushered in has never dissipated. 

Over the last decade, American journalist Vincent Bevins has witnessed the ripple effects of this history firsthand from his posts in both countries, where he’s worked as a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. These positions became a launchpad for an inquiry into the American anti-communist legacy. The Jakarta Method, published this past May, is something like a guidebook to the dark heart of American empire. In exploring Third Worldist political movements and their swift repression at the hands of Washington, Bevins examines the roots of the global resurgence of far-right politics. 

I spoke with Bevins while he was living in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to discuss his book and the history of US anti-communism abroad. The text has been edited for length and clarity.

Noah Kulwin: How did your experiences as a reporter in Brazil and then in Indonesia lead you to write this book? 

Vincent Bevins: I was a Brazil correspondent for The Los Angeles Times for six years. Over that time, I saw probably the most successful social democratic experiment in a large country fall apart. It was dispiriting and it prompted the question: Does this even work? Can you even try this in the developing world? But that was only very far in the back of my head.

When I got to Indonesia in 2017, I went there to cover the whole region for The Washington Post. No matter what story I did, the violence of 1965 was right below the surface. Everywhere I looked, the story of 1965 was right there. When I would tell this story to people back in the Western Hemisphere, it became clear they really didn’t know about it, that it was shocking to them, and that no one knew the extent to which this really mattered to this day.

The way that the global financial system is set up at the moment is that in moments of crisis, capital flows to the safest nations. The dollar always does fine in moments of global crisis, while other currencies throughout the world are just decimated. Countries that are still dependent on the export of raw materials are similarly decimated, which is what [Indonesian independence leader] Sukarno and the rest of the Third World movement wanted to change before they were crushed with shocking violence. The countries that are still dependent on the price of copper or iron ore or oil or whatever—they get totally demolished.

NK: In the book, you address this striking gulf in knowledge about the atrocities committed in the name of anti-communism: People in Indonesia are extremely aware of American involvement in history, and Americans have no idea. How does the history of American journalism on anti-communism help explain this difference in perception all these years later?

VB: I did this close reading of The New York Times and the Indonesian Communist Party newspaper in the early ’50s up to the ’60s. Through talking to lots of survivors of this era in Indonesia, I was able to understand the way that they saw their position in the world. They understood that they had just gotten their decolonization—they’d just gotten freedom from the white people—and they weren’t sure if they were going to be able to keep it. They were very afraid that the new big white country, the United States, would act like the old white countries, the imperial powers that they’d been used to for hundreds of years. If you look at Indonesian journalism in the early ’50s, they paid a lot of attention to US intervention in Iran and in Guatemala, and it wasn’t just because they were conscientious—they were operating from a desire for self-preservation.

Now, the way The New York Times and most of mainstream media in the United States covered early Cold War interventions was very different. And it becomes clear through memoirs and declassified documents that a lot of journalists after World War II still saw it as their patriotic duty to help the CIA with whatever it needed.

In Guatemala, for example, there’s a very famous case where an enterprising reporter for The New York Times was on to the CIA’s attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government of Jacobo Árbenz, who was only a liberal reformer, nothing close to a communist. The CIA called the Sulzberger family and asked them to take the guy off the case, and they did. I think ultimately the book is about what that episode suggests about the nature of American hegemony, and how it established the world that we inhabit now.

NK: One of the characters in your book is Howard Jones, a US ambassador to Indonesia who was an administrator of a softer, friendlier Indonesia policy prior to Lyndon Johnson becoming president. When Jones leaves, the Indonesians recognized, “Oh, this one possible peacemaker, a real diplomatic conduit for us, is going. This is the end of an era.” Then, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times basically say, “This guy was actually in bed with Sukarno and the Indonesian leadership. He was a patsy anyway.” Why the hostility in American media institutions toward that softer approach? 

VB: I think we have to ask the question of how fanatical anti-communism, as I call it, became a civic religion in the United States in the ’50s and ’60s. Everybody knows about McCarthyism and that it was bad, but I don’t think it’s widely understood the extent to which it removed everybody who was not a fanatical anti-communist from positions of power in the United States. By the ’70s, anybody that could be credibly accused of not holding such beliefs was already removed from public life.

I also think the adversarial nature of the US democratic system exacerbated this. It made sense for each politician to keep upping the stakes as they accused the other guy of being soft on communism. This is what gets Lyndon Johnson in the end. He has less political capital than JFK. He has less of an understanding of what’s happening in Indonesia. So he gives up on this fight; he doesn’t want to take the heat for being in bed with an anti-American or “communist” Indonesian leader. Meanwhile, most of the American press is listening to Congress accuse JFK and Johnson of [of being in bed with Sukarno] even though historically—and especially if you ask an Indonesians or Latin Americans—these people were very anti-communist.

NK: Reading The Jakarta Method today, some of what happened during that period is eerily familiar. For example, the 1954 attempted assassination of Carlos Lacerda, the Brazilian journalist, by a bodyguard of Brazilian [anti-communist] president Getulio Vargas, reminds me of the Marielle Franco case, in which the left-wing Rio de Janeiro council member was murdered in a drive-by shooting—specifically the connections between her paramilitarist killers and the family of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. 

VB: When I started writing this book, I made the case that across the world, but especially in Brazil, the ghosts of violent anti-communism never left. They’d never been exorcised. I turned out to be way more right than I ever hoped to be: Jair Bolsonaro is very directly linked to the most violent anti-communist period in Brazilian history. He isn’t just haunted by them, he is those ghosts come back to life. From President Vargas to Jango [João Goulart, the left-wing Brazilian president who was deposed in a 1964 military coup] to the dictatorship to [contemporary] Brazil is a fairly straight line, and along that axis, you see the resurgence of intentional myths used to justify the violent enforcement of these existing social orders.

Brazilian anti-communism is very old. It goes back to before the Cold War starts, and it has this in common with the United States. If you take a really big step back and try to look at things globally, which I tried to do in the book, the best explanation for this commonality between North and South America is settler colonialism. Both countries have a lot in common, if you take that big step back. They’re both Western-European-language, Christian, white-dominated settler colonies established in the last few hundred years. Built deep into their histories is the fear of those people “down there”—the “cowboy and Indian” myth is very powerful in both countries. I think the reason these mythical communist conspiracies are so powerful is because they struck a chord that already existed deep somewhere in the Brazilian and North American psyche, this sense of, “Oh, the masses are going to come and get you.”

That’s why there is this really stark and interesting contrast in Indonesia. When the US foreign policy industrial complex got to Indonesia in the ’50s and tried to influence elections there, even the [Indonesian] Muslim party receiving funding from the CIA turned to Richard Wright, the author of Native Son, who was there as a journalist attending the Bandung Conference, and they said, “Yeah, the United States doesn’t understand what we’re doing. All they care about is anti-communism. We don’t think that’s a good basis for a partnership.”

There was nobody in Indonesia in the ’50s that [the US] could find who was terrified of communism. There was no reason for them to think that way. Whereas in Latin America, it was very easy.  

NK: People like Bolsonaro are viewed, rightfully, as a dangerous threat. But many of them are also highly incompetent. That’s not new—the people in the stories you tell, including the CIA, have a mixed record of success. They succeed in Guatemala, and they succeed for a time with the Shah in Iran, but then they fail completely elsewhere in an embarrassing fashion, like with the Bay of Pigs. They’re at times unable to accomplish their goals because of the ways in which they trip over themselves.

VB: I think that’s right. There’s this binary in the literature on the CIA and the right-wing authoritarian movements [supported by the CIA]. I think either you get people thinking that the CIA does everything—that they have this grand plan and that they’re behind everything that ever happens in the world—or you have this thesis, like what Tim Weiner puts forward in his book, Legacy of Ashes, that they screw everything up, and they make things worse for the United States.

What I found led me to try to move beyond this binary. If you think of the job of these right-wing movements as creating the perfect conditions for markets and for growth, they often fail.  But if you understand their role as just disciplining threats to a hegemonic system, all you really need is a hammer. You can be pretty imprecise if no one’s going to get you in trouble if you mess up, and this is really important to understanding the CIA. The reason they can mess up over and over and over again is because they just can’t [get in trouble]. 

NK: Right. You might think that the Bay of Pigs would be considered such a catastrophic screw-up that it would end or at least significantly alter the American approach to involvement in Cuba. But instead, the Miami CIA office became the largest CIA office outside of Langley, Virginia, and they doubled down on their efforts.

VB: They didn’t get fired. They’d never get in trouble. I think that’s an important thing to understand. I think it’s really fundamental to understanding what kind of privilege these people had to fail as the covert operation squad of the most powerful nation in history. In Guatemala in ’54, they had three different coup attempts. With the third one, which was ultimately successful, Jacobo Árbenz caught them and published the plans, and they still just did it anyway. There’s no referee when you’re the CIA.

Noah Kulwin is a writer and contributing editor at Jewish Currents. He is also co-host of the podcast Blowback, and an associate editor at The Drift. He lives in New York.