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few years after a military junta took power in Indonesia in 1965, Agung Alit went looking for his father’s body on a beach in Bali. The tragedy of his father’s death was compounded by the lack of proper funeral and cremation, and Alit and his family hoped to rectify the matter. On the beach they instead found a tangle of bodies, still piled on the shore all these years later. As they sifted through the human remains,
Someone shouted, “This is Mr. Raka!”
But no, that skull didn’t look right. Maybe the hair was wrong. Maybe that one? They kept sorting through decomposing bodies, desperately, for minutes, before someone realized it was impossible, crazy. There were just “too many skulls, too many skeletons.” (Bevins 2020: 150)
Alit never did find his father. And more than half a century after the violence that took his father’s life, Indonesia has buried the memory of all those skulls and skeletons. Vincent Bevins’s The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World (2020) reformulates these forgotten Indonesian anti-communist massacres into a central event of the Cold War, particularly the Cold War as experienced in the Third World. The successful extermination of the Indonesian communist party PKI—in 1965, the world’s third largest—became shorthand for a hyperviolent approach to communists and their fellow travelers that would soon be exported to Brazil, Chile, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Sudan, and many other countries besides. This international campaign, helmed by the CIA, disciplined countries across the decolonizing Third World into engaging the global economy as resource exporters with markets available to transnational capital from the United States and its allies. It has shaped the global political economy to an enormous degree.
Yet the events in Indonesia in 1965-66 have been largely forgotten, not only within the country—where the group who came to power created a civic mythology around anticommunist myths—but also in the United States. Bevins suggests that this is because “the events of 1965-66 were such a complete success for Washington” and because “faraway countries that are stable and reliably pro-American do not make headlines” (Bevins 2020: 3). It is also because, as the son of the CIA chief during the brutal operations in Indonesia Frank Wisner suggests to Bevins, the United States is “the land of the great amnesiac” (Bevins 2020: 254).
Amnesia, though, is selective, normalizing certain political projects through elision of their historical construction. Two recent books highlight different chapters of the violence that shaped the modern liberal world order, reaching distinct conclusions about the nature of the order that this violence built. In Geopolitical Amnesia: The Rise of the Right and the Crisis of Liberal Memory (Tjalve 2020), a group of mostly European political theorists argue that the liberal world order, such as it is, grew out of the chastening experiences of two world wars and the virulent nationalisms that begot them. Now, across the Global North, the fading memory of that earlier violence has provided a renewed opening for a suite of reactionary nationalisms taking aim at the flabbiness of hegemonic liberalism. Yet Bevins’s Jakarta Method shows that this conception of a hesitant, cautious liberalism on the global stage itself depends on a selective geopolitical amnesia: the liberal, capitalist First World not only benefitted from unequal relations with the Global South, but enforced these relations with tremendous force. Scholars hoping to diagnose a crisis of liberalism cannot afford to elide the brutality that underwrote its global reach. Only by forgetting the savagery through which American-led globalization occurred can the order it built come to seem natural or just.
Liberal Civilization and its Discontents
To begin his project of recollection, Bevins treats the United States and USSR naively, foreign correspondent that he is. “The United States, a Western European settler colony in North America, emerged from World War II as by far the most powerful state on Earth,” he opens. “This was a surprise to most Americans, and to most of the world” (2020: 9). The founding of the U.N. in 1945, with the US and USSR both on the Security Council, aimed to curb conflict among newly empowered nations by approaching international relations with “sober pragmatism” rather than armed standoff (Andersen 2020: 137). Conflicts of interest nonetheless continued. Vying with the Stalinist USSR for global hegemony, the US launched its Marshall Plan to rebuild a Europe in tatters, providing material assistance to Western European countries and working to ensure that they remained capitalist and democratic.
The authors of Geopolitical Amnesia argue that despite its imperfections, the liberal world order and the institutions that shape it are themselves a bulwark against a more violent geopolitics that they displaced. Europe emerged from World War II “laden with a profound realism about the shockingly destructive potential of humans, nations, and states” (Tjalve 2020a: 8); this chastened sensibility led both to political subjects that distrusted the virulent nationalisms responsible for two world wars and to the creation of transnational institutions that could manage interstate relations without recourse to violent conflict. While the USSR worked to advance communism globally, the US furthered its developmentalist capitalism through a number of institutions created at war’s end—the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in 1944 and the UN, of which it was the most powerful member, the following year. The European Coal and Steel Community, created in 1951, would eventually give rise to the European Union. These institutions undergird the liberal world order that now largely determines social, economic, and political relations across the globe.
Yet the authors of this slim volume look around the Global North today and find seemingly everywhere threats to this order, from Brexit and Trump to burgeoning rightwing anti-immigrant movements in France, Italy, and Germany to strongman governments in Russia and Hungary. Why the resurgence of right-populism? Writes volume editor Tjalve (2020a: 5):
The crisis of what is now routinely referred to as the Liberal World Order, and what drives those geopolitical sentiments that increasingly threaten to explode it, is not just the rise of anti-liberal sentiments among a growing number of American and European critics. The current crisis stems at least as much from the transformation of fearful or hesitant liberalism itself: its slide from caution to triumphalism, and then a further descent into cynicism, chauvinism, and disillusion. (ibid: 12)
With time, it seems, the lessons of the world wars have been forgotten, and memory’s sobering effect eroded in favor of an approach to politics that is once again more aggressive, masculinist, and nationalistic—in opposition to what right-wing critics decry as the feminized, deliberative style of liberals (for this charge in the US see Lang 2020, in France Crone 2020, in Russia Holm 2020, and in Italy Ginsborg & Tassinari 2020). Such is the strength of the forgetting that even the US and UK, the heartlands of (neo)liberal empire and among the chief beneficiaries of this world order, have turned instead to aggressive geopolitical stances, as exemplified by President Trump’s adoption of paleoconservative talking points (Drolet 2020) and Brexit as a reaction to imperial decline (Hinds 2020).
Tjalve argues that resurgent nationalisms “anchored in… hybrid twenty first-century technological and organizational transformations” are not simply a recapitulation of the “territorial, geo-strategic, and statesman-driven politics that defined the pre-45 period” (2020b: 149). The new “nationalisms” are not even always strictly nationalist, since the resurgent right populists in question build transnational networks and often frame their arguments in civilizational or ethnic terms. Instead, these authors suggest, the newer nationalisms under examination are fundamentally reactionary projects, born in opposition to the prospect of loss and upending of older hierarchies. Right-populists are simply one among a number of political groups engaged in the “hyper-remembrance” of history in a way that exhausts and depletes the past; awash in a sea of decontextualized information, reactionary nationalists offer one politically purposeful set of memories among many (Tjalve 2020b: 154). We are all forgetting and remembering, in the end; it’s just a question of what.
Disciplining the Third Worldists
A number of distinct right-wing movements appear in Geopolitical Amnesia: traditionalist and Christian in Russia (Holm 2020), techno-populist in Italy (Ginsborg & Tassinari 2020), intellectual and identitarian in France (Crone 2020). All share an anti-immigrant stance. Less clear is the liberalism that these theorists hope to defend. Mostly what emerges as positively defined is the institutions themselves—the EU, the UN—which come to stand in for a multilateral, supposedly humbled approach to politics. While the essayists recognize the imperfections of these institutions—the tendencies toward technocratic management of the political sphere and insulation from exertion of popular will—their contrast with a politics drawing from the pre-‘45 era ensure they are nonetheless worth defending from critics. Beyond these imperfect institutions, liberalism signifies a sort of political bearing, a sensitivity that exemplifies those values that emerged in the postwar years: “skepticism, hesitation, guilt, trauma, self-inspection, and in a certain sense, self-suspicion” (Tjalve 2020a: 5)
The liberal world order, however, was hardly built by such hesitant subjects, as Bevins reveals. In postwar Europe, the Marshall Plan was accompanied by the Truman Doctrine, named for the US President who had overseen the end of the war. In Greece, communists who had fought against the Nazis refused to lay down their arms, nor to recognize the new government created under British supervision. Truman insisted the United States would “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” (cited in Bevins 2020: 15). A year later, the US- and UK-backed Greek government deployed napalm for the first time in history, squashing the communist rebellion.
Notably, Stalin had instructed the Greek communists to accept that government. But at the time, Truman and the Americans were looking to “scare the hell out of the American people” in the words of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Arthur Vandenburg, about the threat communism posed (Bevins 2020: 15). Not only was the system antithetical to founding American ideals of individual pursuit of happiness and strong property rights, but it also represented an alternative route for development in poor nations. The threat, then, was both real and inflated. As Noam Chomsky would argue after the Cold War had progressed and intensified: “it’s perfectly obvious that Russian imperialism is not an invention of American ideologists. It’s real enough to the Hungarians and the Czechs, for example. What is an invention is the uses to which it’s put… It’s important in both [the American and Russian cases] in providing an ideology for empire and for the government-subsidized system here of military capitalism” (2003: 145). The hysterical approach to anti-communism, based on the supposed Soviet threat, would turn even moderate leftists into boogeymen and Global South nationalists into agents of Moscow, and lay the groundwork for the escalation of anti-communist violence worldwide.
With the world partitioned into a liberal and capitalist First World, centered around the US, and a socialist Second World, aligned with the USSR, countries in the decolonizing Third World sought to maintain their newfound independence even as they developed. In Indonesia, President Sukarno had led republican independence forces against the Dutch, defeating communist revolutionaries along the way. While this made Sukarno palatable to the West as an ally against communism, he kept his distance, becoming a leader of the non-aligned Third Worldist movement. In 1955, Sukarno and Indonesia hosted the Bandung Afro-Asian Conference. Participating countries accounted for more than half of the world’s population. In a fiery opening speech railing against colonialism in both its classic form and through economic control, Sukarno aimed to assuage the US: it was 180 years exactly since Paul Revere’s ride, and Sukarno trumpeted the anniversary while lauding “the first successful anticolonial war in history.”
The United States was unimpressed. Two years earlier, the left-liberal president of Guatemala Jacobo Árbenz had bought up land the US-based United Fruit Company owned but was not using, paying the rate the land had been valued at for tax purposes and distributing it to indigenous populations and peasants. This proved a bridge too far, and even after Árbenz offered to pay an inflated rate the US began a bombing and psychological warfare campaign to destabilize the country (a radicalizing experience for a young Che Guevara, then a doctor in Guatemala City). The government that was installed after Árbenz abdicated power would go on to massacre three to five thousand of the presidents’ supporters. This approach—successful in the US’s eyes—would be repeated by an increasingly emboldened CIA in Indonesia. Two years after the Bandung Conference, rebellion broke out on outlying islands against Sukarno’s government; Americans were revealed to be involved when a pilot with the CIA was shot down and captured. The US ambassador at the time recognized that any further open engagement was curtailed by that high profile failure, so recommended that the United States bolster their connection with the Indonesian military, now empowered within the country by their battles with the separatists. The military paid off this faith in 1959 by forcing the cancellation of national elections, in which the communists were performing increasingly well—British intelligence concluded that year that the Indonesian Communist Party would have won had elections been held.
Indonesia remained incompletely aligned with US interests, however. In the early 1960s, with the economy ailing, the country began to rewrite the regulations governing its oil in such a way that nationalization seemed possible, troubling the US. The IMF in turn “demanded what amounted to a structural adjustment program in Indonesia, which dictated spending cuts, an increase in production of raw materials for export, currency devaluation, monetary tightening, and an end to government subsidies” (Bevins 2020: 118). When war broke out in Vietnam, Sukarno established relations with the communists. The military were unhappy with Sukarno’s apparent turn left; in the country, rumors of a coup swirled.
Then, on the night of September 30, 1965, military officers kidnapped six generals, killing all of them. To this day, it is not exactly clear who plotted the action—communists, or anticommunist forces creating a false flag—but within a day right-wing General Suharto was in charge of the country. He set about spreading the news that the communists had planned the coup, and that communist women “danced naked… mutilated and tortured the generals, cutting off their genitals and gouging out their eyes, before murdering them” (Bevins 2020: 133). Washington aided in promulgating this narrative. The story would serve as fodder for a terror campaign both state-sponsored and popular. Over the course of the next year, with the explicit approval of American statesmen, around a million communists were killed in Indonesia, extinguishing communism as a political force in the country and bringing Jakarta ever since into alignment with Washington.
Bevins’s other lush case study is Brazil, whose anti-communist coup came a year earlier than Indonesia’s and depended less on American interference. The country’s armed forces already had a powerful anti-communist tradition after having put down a minor insurrection among low-ranking military members in 1935. When President João Goulart planned a series of liberal reforms after taking office in 1961—including land reform and extension of the vote to all Brazilians—he upset anticommunists at home and abroad. As Washington plotted a coup in 1964, Brazilian armed forces beat the CIA to the putsch. The general who took over for Goulart had trained, like many Indonesian officers, at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
The consequent junta in Brazil became a Cold War partner of Washington’s in the hemisphere; the two countries would collaborate in laying the groundwork for the coup that ousted Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 and installed the murderous general Augusto Pinochet in his place. The regime in Chile hoped not to emulate the US, Bevins writes, but instead to ape Brazil. In both cases, Jakarta became a rallying cry: “Jakarta viene”—“Jakarta is coming”—was graffitied on walls in affluent areas of Chile, where indeed some 3,000 communists were killed. In Brazil, Operação Jacarta—“Operation Jakarta”—killed a few hundred people, and included the torture of future social democratic president Dilma Rousseff. The Jakarta method had become multipolar. The Chileans and Brazilians would partner with armed forces from Argentina—where a junta killed tens of thousands in a one-sided “Dirty War” beginning in 1976—Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay to found Operation Condor, planning the murder not only of domestic communists but also dissidents abroad. When US President Jimmy Carter began to roll back anticommunist operations, Operation Condor countries themselves provided aid to counterinsurgent terror campaigns in Central America.
The list of countries to which the US exported terror is ghastly; Bevins nonetheless manages his narrative with humanity. Drawing on his years as a reporter in Indonesia and Brazil, he traces the network of anticommunists across borders, with state department workers and CIA agents transferred between posts bringing tactics and sensibilities along with them. More poignantly, survivors of anticommunist terror migrate throughout the Global South: one Chinese-Indonesian woman, Ing Giok Tan, fled anti-Chinese riots at home fomented by the US-backed Indonesian military. In Brazil, where she landed, she lived through the 1964 coup; a year later, her relatives back home were caught in the spree of violence surrounding the Indonesian rendition. Later, she learned one of her best friends at university in São Paulo had his father disappeared by the military dictatorship that took power in Uruguay in 1973.
To What End?
The violence throughout Jakarta Method is so wanton as to leave the reader wondering what, exactly, its practitioners imagined themselves to be doing. One obvious rationale is the expansion of frontiers through which US capital might flow, and the securing of the expanding empire’s resource base. The threat of oil nationalization precipitated increased aggression by the United States against leftists in at least Indonesia, Brazil, and Iran. (The threat of a revolution in oil-rich Iraq by the country’s communist party led to US support for a coup by the anticommunist Baath Party, in which Saddam Hussein was a young officer.) More difficult to ascertain is exactly how much of a threat an imperial USSR really posed, and the level of threat perceived by relevant actors of the US and allied states. Many of the leaders the US ousted were liberal reformists, hardly revolutionary Castros or Maos. Bevins gives the violence that communist states and parties commit much less attention. That is because, he writes, “we do not live in a world directly constructed by Stalin’s purges or mass starvation under Pol Pot. Those states are gone. Even Mao’s Great Leap Forward was quickly abandoned and rejected by the Chinese Communist Party, though the party is still very much around. We do, however, live in a world built partly by US-backed Cold War violence” (2020: 240).
Yet the violence that shaped the liberal world order, particularly that in the Third World, is largely forgotten in the US. To treat the liberal world order as primarily a bulwark against a more violent world, as the authors of Geopolitical Amnesia do, is to ignore that the order is itself soaked in blood. The bouts of viciousness through which decolonizing states were brought to heel are moreover now solidified through the very transnational institutions that give that world order its structure. “When the Second World collapsed,” Bevins writes, “those countries [of the Global South] were integrated into a global system that only had two basic structural types—Western advanced capitalist countries and resource-exporting crony capitalist societies shaped by anticommunism—and they slid right into the second category” (2020: 241).
Presumed threats to the liberal world order are more apprehensible in light of this history. Russia’s anti-Western stance, for instance, is less mysterious in light of their lagging behind the growth rates of OECD countries, and the experience of skyrocketing inequality after the fall of the USSR. Central American migrants hoping to make their way northward are leaving behind countries whose developmental possibilities were stunted with tremendous violence by the very country now aiming to keep them out. If global migration patterns are informed by migrants leaving poorer areas for richer, then the liberal world order’s coercing the Global South into resource export and into trade regimes favorable to the North helps to make sense of those migrations as well. This particular act of remembering is crucial given the salience of immigration for right-populists taken to threaten the liberal world order from within its centers of power.
The forestalling of possibilities for social reform in the Third World itself blows back into the imperial core. Bevins writes that:
When anticommunism is the ruling ideology, almost the national religion, any legitimate complaint from below can easily be dismissed as communist… categorized as dangerous revolution, and cast aside. This includes any whiff of socialism or social democracy, any land reform, and any regulation that would reduce monopoly power and allow for more efficient development and market competition. It includes unions and any normal demands for workers’ rights. (2020: 182)
Fanatical anticommunism has long shaped domestic American politics—the Truman Doctrine abroad was mirrored by McCarthyism back home. As inequality within the US grows and monopoly power consolidates, anticommunist rhetoric will be used to protect the social order. Aimé Césaire posited that fascism represented the involution of colonial methods back to the metropole (2000). In one recent and on-the-nose moment of inversion, one of the right-wing rioters who stormed the US Capitol on January 6 was revealed to have family ties to the Argentine military junta.
In the end, Bevins’ reader is left with a deep sense of tragedy: appalled by what transpired in building the liberal world order and haunted by what might have been otherwise. His interlocutors in Indonesia, which remains in thrall to post-coup anticommunist myths, are “living out their last years in a messy, poor, crony capitalist country, and they are told almost every single day it was a crime for them to want something different” (2020: 238). In Brazil, president Jair Bolsonaro, a military man who came into power in the aftermath of a judicial coup deposing Rousseff in 2016, has suggested that the country’s problems would be solved with the murder of thirty thousand leftists. When it became clear that the Brazilian strongman would be elected, markets in the country surged.
This, too, is the liberal world order. It may well be that, as the authors of Geopolitical Amnesia suggest, right-wing populists in the Global North offer an alternative far worse. But it is folly to defend this order without recognizing the brutality through which it was built, and upon which it depends. Bevins writes that he would ask his subjects who had been committed leftists two questions. “Think back to 1963, 1964. In those years, what world did you believe that you were building? What did you believe the world would be like in the twenty-first century?” Then: “Is that the world you live in now?” (2020: 237). Those in the wealthier heartlands of liberalism would do well to likewise remember those years themselves, and to ask: is this the world we hoped to build?
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Sammy Feldblum studies geography at UCLA and writes about the southern half of the United States.