Beyond  /  Book Review

The Murderous Legacy of Cold War Anticommunism

The US-backed Indonesian mass killings of 1965 reshaped global politics, securing a decisive victory for U.S. interests against Third World self-determination.

... coup on September 30, 1965, the PKI was destroyed and Marxism was outlawed, with the approval and support of U.S. diplomats and national security officials. Thanks to a program of thoroughgoing political repression, any positive memory of the PKI has been almost entirely erased in Indonesia today.

... coup on September 30, 1965, the PKI was destroyed and Marxism was outlawed, with the approval and support of U.S. diplomats and national security officials. Thanks to a program of thoroughgoing political repression, any positive memory of the PKI has been almost entirely erased in Indonesia today.

The international scope of this history is the subject of Bevins’s powerful new book, which documents the U.S. government’s role in fostering systematic mass murder across the globe—from Southeast Asia to South America—in the name of fighting communism. A California-born journalist who has worked in Indonesia and Brazil and speaks both Indonesian and Portuguese, Bevins is particularly well suited to investigate these legacies—including as they manifest in the administration of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who represents the irruption of this vicious history from beneath the thin veneer of contemporary liberalism.

A guiding question for Bevins is how the 1950s metonym of Bandung, indicating the hopefulness of self-determination, anticolonial independence, and Afro-Asian solidarity, came to be replaced by the 1970s idea of Jakarta, symbolizing the anticommunist terror of forced disappearance, death squads, and political murder. In addition to interviewing survivors and chronicling their struggles, Bevins draws on the latest historical scholarship on the “global Cold War,” which, contrary to its name, entailed hot, violent conflicts in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. He translates the findings of complex scholarly accounts into smooth and readable, if often heartbreaking, prose.

By illuminating the international reach of the machinery of anticommunist violence that reshaped the world order in the late twentieth century, Bevins shows how the memory of the Jakarta method reverberates today.

An analytical challenge for scholars of these proxy conflicts is to explain how the United States both facilitated and benefited from the violence while rarely controlling specific events on the ground. As Bevins indicates, outside Vietnam, U.S. citizens themselves rarely pulled the trigger. Instead, as demonstrated by Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling documentary The Act of Killing (2012), the most immediate perpetrators were armies and police forces aided by the United States, or else loosely organized petty gangsters and members of right-wing paramilitary organizations for whom America meant popular icons such as James Cagney or Elvis Presley, not powerful men of state such as John Foster Dulles (Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959) or his brother Allen (CIA director from 1952 to 1961). Though Bevins focuses on U.S. relations with Indonesia, Brazil, Guatemala, and Chile, he is attentive to local dynamics. But by illuminating the international reach of the machinery of anticommunist violence that reshaped the world order in the late twentieth century, Bevins shows how the memory of the Jakarta method reverberates today.


As the book details, the Indonesian genocide relied on structures put in place by U.S. foreign policy operations beginning the prior decade, due to suspicions that Sukarno was going to turn the country communist. Based on the blueprint of the successful 1954 coup it had orchestrated in Guatemala, which deposed the democratically elected Jacobo Árbenz and installed the corrupt dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas, the CIA under Dwight D. Eisenhower secretly supported rebels scattered on islands in central Indonesia, delivering weapons and even paying mercenary pilots to drop bombs on government targets. Sukarno was able to confirm the CIA’s role when Indonesian forces shot down a mercenary plane in May 1958. This fiasco had two consequences: the United States now had to rely on cultivating forces opposed to communism within Sukarno’s government (as it would turn out, primarily in the army and national police), and Sukarno came to mistrust the United States, vitiating the leverage of traditional diplomacy.

Like most Americans, Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, believed the past was no precedent. But Sukarno, like most leaders of newly independent nations, was unwilling to forget recent history. Still, the two had a lot in common and developed positive relations at first. One might say that ...