A Cold War legacy many Americans forget

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The echoes are being heard all over: When the German newspaper Die Welt decried China’s latest moves to squelch Hong Kong’s autonomy, it branded the city the new “West Berlin.” And the renewed specter of great power competition has even led notable policy wonks to contemplate a return to Cold War-era skulduggery.

“A few years from now, Washington might find itself desperately seeking covert options to prevent some important country in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East or Southeast Asia from aligning with Beijing,” wrote Hal Brands, a historian at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies whose professorial chair is named after Henry Kissinger, the inveterate Cold Warrior and U.S. diplomat.

How important is remembering all this history at a time when there’s resurgent ‘Cold War’ talk vis-a-vis China?

For a lot of reasons, I think a “new Cold War” with China would be very different, if it happened at all. But I know we can’t have a responsible conversation about the possibility if we don’t know the full truth of what happened in the last one. And I think we have kept part of it in the dark for self-interested reasons, and the mature thing is to face them.

It has been really maddening, distressing even, to see people celebrate coups and foreign interventions after I spent the last three years really getting to know their victims. Without denying the good the U.S. has done, with this book I have just tried to show their side, too.

What is the ‘Jakarta method?’

The “Jakarta method” is the intentional extermination of leftists or accused leftists. In the Cold War this was done with a specific purpose: to allow for right-wing authoritarian regimes to take power, and hold on to it. So the mass murder of innocent civilians was not random violence that wild dictatorships employed irresponsibly or as revenge, but was integral to the creation of a constellation of U.S.-allied anti-communist regimes. It got this name because right-wing movements in Latin America looked at Indonesia 1965, the worst massacre of the type and the most horribly successful, and came up with names like “Operação Jacarta” or “Plan Yakarta” in Portuguese and Spanish.

The massacres you write about in the book — particularly what took place in Indonesia — seem to have been memory-holed in the U.S., but also to some extent in Indonesia, too. How was this act of forgetting possible?

In Indonesia the answer is clear — the dictatorship hid the truth of what happened, and to this day it is illegal to defend “communism” in any way, so serious discussion of 1965 can be very risky for Indonesians. The military that took power that year is still very influential, and even under President Jokowi they have screened the gruesome Suharto-era propaganda film blaming the left for the violence. In the U.S., I can only guess. But I think that the hugely consequential flip in 1965 — from a left-leaning anti-imperialist nation to a U.S.-aligned authoritarian nation open for business — was quickly overshadowed by the Vietnam War. The conflicts in Indochina actually affected domestic policy and U.S. citizens, whereas Indonesia was just a quick and painless victory for the West. But it was not painless at all for Indonesians, of course.

That kind of American blind spot seems significant.

I think it’s a gaping hole, and a really serious problem. It stops us from understanding the nature of the global system created by the Cold War, and blocks us from understanding the way that many other nations see us.

Is there a danger that, in framing the ‘nature of the global system’ this way, you perhaps obscure the genuine fear that communist factions inspired in parts of the world?

I don’t think it must, and I hope in the case of my book it does not. Some officials in the U.S. and elsewhere acted cynically, exaggerating the communist threat, but many others genuinely believed they were doing the right thing or saving the world. Now, that is also true for individuals acting in every kind of regime imaginable. What matters for us now is the consequences.

I really don’t think there’s a lot of evidence that authoritarian socialism of a North Korean or Stalinist type would have “won the Cold War” if Jacobo Árbenz was allowed to implement land reform in Guatemala, or the unarmed Indonesian communists, who repeatedly did well in elections, were not rounded up and murdered, or if they had let Allende run Chile without facing right-wing terror. But even if you take that more extreme position, I think recognizing the following is important: The Soviet system is gone. But we still live in a world directly shaped by pro-capitalist violence that is often unrecognized and unresolved.

Personally, I have no desire to minimize the real and well-recognized crimes committed by communist leaders. What I hope is that our side is held to the same standards.

How do you interpret the resurgent nostalgia in Brazil, at least on the part of President Jair Bolsonaro, for the era of anti-communist military dictatorship?

When I pitched this book in late 2017, I made the case that the ghosts of violent Cold War fanaticism lurked just below the surfaces in many places, especially in the developing world. In Brazil, I think that thesis has been proven far more right than I ever would have liked to see. Bolsonaro is not just haunted by those ghosts, he is the full resurrection.



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