Cables Show US Complicity in Indonesia Genocide
Newly published cables detail the critical U.S. role in the Indonesian military’s genocidal campaign against communists and dissidents in 1965. We speak to scholar Brad Simpson, who oversaw the documents’ publication for the National Security Archive
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. In 1965, the Indonesian general Suharto launched a genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. Suharto’s campaign targeted Communists and dissidents and led to the overthrow of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno. This happened with critical US support, and now a release of classified documents helps explain how.
The documents show US officials received regular updates and cheered as the bloodbath unfolded. They offered help to quash media coverage, and even supplied a list of people to target. What emerges from these documents is the vital U.S. role in what Human Rights Watch calls,”one of the 20th century’s worst atrocities.”
Joining me now is Brad Simpson, Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies at the University of Connecticut. He is founder and Director of the Indonesia / East Timor Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, which made the documents public last week.
Welcome, professor Simpson. Before we get into what these documents say, can you provide us with a little bit of background on what they’re talking about? The situation in Indonesia; a place where the U.S. had been trying to undermine Sukarno for many years before ’65.
BRADLEY SIMPSON: And thank you for having me on, Aaron. In Indonesia in the the early to mid-1960s, President Sukarno, Indonesia’s founding president and an anti-colonial radical, and a figure of third worldism and non-alignment through the world, had been growing increasing radical as the country was basically split between the Communist party, the army, and Muslim and other conservative religious groups.
Now, the United States had once before tried to overthrow Sukarno and break apart the country in the late ’50s by helping to provoke a civil war. And after that civil war collapsed in failure, the US under the Kennedy administration set about trying to cultivate the Indonesian army as an ally, and to engage in covert operations that they hoped would lead to a clash between the army and the unarmed membership of the Indonesian Communist Party, which was one of the world’s largest at the time.
By 1965, Indonesia was embroiled in a low intensity war with Britain over the formation of Malaysia, the US was embroiled in Vietnam, and the Johnson administration – fearing the growing power of the Communist party – had accelerated these covert operations in the hopes, as many Western officials put it, of inducing the Indonesian Communist Party to launch a failed coup attempt in the expectation that the army would defeat it and then hopefully exterminate the Indonesian Communist Party.
Something like this happened on September 30th, 1965, when a few high ranking members of the Indonesian Communist Party, known as the PKI, collaborated with a number of Indonesian military officers to launch an attempted purge of the armed forces. This September 30th Movement was very quickly defeated and, in the aftermath of the Movement, General Suharto and his allies launched what historian John Rousseau has called a “counter-coup” in which they used the pretext of the September 30th Movement as an excuse for launching a campaign of mass murder against member of the Indonesian Communist Party, other affiliated organizations, and basically anyone who they thought might stand in the way.
And over the next five months between October and March of 1966, the army and the paramilitary allies killed somewhere in the neighborhood of 500,000 unarmed civilians and imprisoned up to a million more, all while the United States provided crucial political and military and economic support.
AARON MATÉ: Sorry. Over how long a period?
BRADLEY SIMPSON: Over a five to six month period, from October of 1965 to mid-March of 1966.
AARON MATÉ: So that’s a relatively short period to kill that many people. The victims number up to, what, a million?
BRADLEY SIMPSON: The best scholarly estimates are that around 500,000 people were killed and up to a million more were imprisoned. And the Indonesian army at that time was a relatively small institution. There was great concern over the loyalty of many army units. And so General Suharto relied largely the Western-trained special forces brigades which were under his command, and which were loyal to him rather than the Indonesian president as the sort of spearhead for launching these campaigns in various parts of the archipelago.
The mass murders began first in the northern Sumatran territory of Aceh, and they worked their way across the archipelago. The army would usually arrive in force with its special forces brigades. They would engage in some demonstration killings, give weapons and brief training to allied paramilitary groups, and then set them about their task and then move on to the next region of the country.
And we see that over the course of these many months that as the United States became aware of what was happening, that it began to work with the Indonesian armed forces to inventory its needs for waging this campaign of mass killing, and to provide it with a small but crucial amount of covert military, technical, financial, and communications assistance that enabled it to carry out this massacre.
AARON MATÉ: So “inventory its needs,” how?
BRADLEY SIMPSON: Well, right after the September 30th Movement failed, the Johnson administration set up an Indonesia working group comprised of members of the National Security Council and other related and interested organizations to begin inventorying the Indonesian army’s needs in the event that they decided they wanted to move against the PKI.
There was a recognition as these documents that we recently released show, that the Indonesian Communist Party as an organization had almost nothing to do with the September 30th Movement; that at best, a handful of Communist party leaders were involved; and that the rest of the organization, which numbered upwards of 3 million people had no involvement and no knowledge of what was happening, and was therefore being targeted for murder and arrest solely for being members of a legal political party, which the Indonesian Communist Party was in 1965.
The only problem is that Sukarno had made anti-Americanism a staple of his public campaigns against the United States in the 1960s, and US officials were very reluctant to ensure that any assistance they gave to the army remained hidden and covert. And so they had to rely on providing a limited but nevertheless crucial amount of covert assistance that would enable the army to carry out its campaign of mass murder, while at the same time masking the role of the United States in providing assistance.
AARON MATÉ: I want to get more to the US role in a second, but I want to ask you about Sukarno, the president who was overthrown by General Suharto. Sukarno made overtures to the US early on, right? But he was rebuffed. I remember he went to visit, and he visited Kennedy; tried to foster a relationship with the U.S. But meanwhile, the US was trying to overthrow him. So it makes sense- it’s not that he came to his anti-Americanism out of some animus towards the US in general. This is a country that had been trying to overthrow him for many years, right?
BRADLEY SIMPSON: Yes. The U.S. had already tried to break apart Indonesia through a massive covert operation in 1957, 1958, which led to the deaths of at least 10,000 Indonesians. And President Kennedy had made overtures to try and reign in Sukarno and his militant brand of anti-colonial nationalism. But it became clear that Sukarno was unwilling to pay the price demanded by the US, which included a restructuring of the Indonesian economy along the lines demanded by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, a sort of early version of structural adjustment.
As the Johnson administration came to power once Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson rejected the more sympathetic approach of President Kennedy and adopted more of a hard line towards Indonesian President Sukarno. And as a result, Sukarno began to tilt Indonesia more and more in the direction of the Soviet Union and China, both of which were also attempting to curry favor with the Indonesian Communist Party.
By 1965, the Communist Party had aligned itself with China against the Soviet Union, and that raised the prospect for American officials that the Indonesian government might align itself with China and thereby negate the strategic importance of Vietnam in the war in Indochina, and cause a great defeat for the United States in the Cold War.
AARON MATÉ: Professor, you know there’s something interesting there that I just want to point out. So the hard line of Johnson that you mentioned was supporting mass murder. But the soft line of Kennedy, you mentioned this earlier that he still launched a covert campaign to influence the Indonesian military, right? And also as you said, to get Sukarno to accept Western economic policies that he didn’t want. So the soft line from Kennedy was actually not that soft. It was still trying to coerce Indonesia into following US dictates.
BRADLEY SIMPSON: Yes. In the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration launched a massive military aid program to try and turn the Indonesian army and select units of the Indonesian army into counterinsurgency forces; basically equipping them to wage war against their own population. The United States also helped to create the mobile police brigades, which were one of the crucial institutions and organs of repression in the Suharto period after Sukarno had been overthrown.
But Kennedy believed that Sukarno could be induced with economic and military assistance, as well as diplomatic support on issues that were of great concern to him, such as recovering the territory of West Papua from the Dutch that he was willing to to some degree accommodate Sukarno’s radical nationalism.
Johnson, when he came to power, simply rejected this policy. And as the US escalated the war in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson turned to a much harder line, much more interventionist line. And in August of 1964, right as the United States launched “Operation Rolling Thunder” in Vietnam, the CIA launched an expanded program of covert operations aiming directly to provoke an armed clash between the army and the Indonesian Communist Party.
AARON MATÉ: And so again, the reason I highlight that is because it showcases the constraints of the US spectrum. The soft line from Kennedy is coercion, covert support for the military, trying to get them to change and advance US goals. The hard line is supporting genocide from Johnson. And also, Kennedy, in the revisionism about his record, his record on Indonesia is often portrayed as being laudable, but I think you’ve just painted a different picture.
So in terms of what Johnson supported, let’s talk about what the U.S. did as this bloodbath was unfolding, especially in what we learned from these new documents that have been released.
BRADLEY SIMPSON: Well, one of the first things we learned is that US officials were aware from the very beginning that the overwhelming majority of members of the Indonesian Communist Party had no knowledge or involvement of the September 30th Movement. And that therefore, the US was supporting a campaign of mass murder against innocent, unarmed civilians whose only crime was to belong to a legal political party that was on the wrong side of the Cold War.
The second thing we have found out from these documents is that U.S. officials were keeping very close tabs on just who was being arrested or killed. One document shows that the US Ambassador, Marshall Green, was sending back updates for the State Department listing which members of the Communist Party politburo had been arrested and which members had been killed.
And we know from previous declassified documents that U.S. embassy officials had helped to create lists of PKI party members and leaders down to the village level in part to make up for the army’s own rather inadequate and incomplete record keeping. And so the United States was working actively with the army to keep tabs on who was being killed or arrested, and actually telling the army that they would do what they could to try and downplay coverage of the massacres in the American press.
AARON MATÉ: Hmm. Right, offering – as I mentioned earlier – to suppress negative media attention? How did they propose doing that?
BRADLEY SIMPSON: There was very little that the US could do to directly influence media coverage. But what the Johnson administration could do and what the U.S. embassy could do was to try and keep very closely with the army’s line, landing the events of the September 30th Movement on Communist China, suggesting that the PKI was itself preparing to launch a bloodbath in Indonesia, and basically regurgitating army propaganda at face value for American audiences as reflecting the true state of affairs in Indonesia, rather than an army campaign designed to whip up hatred against the Communist party and justify the massacres that were then underway.
AARON MATÉ: One example of this campaign’s success is there’s a column from June, 1966, in the Times, and it’s entitled, “A Gleam of Light in Asia.”
BRADLEY SIMPSON: Yes. This was that column by the New York Times journalist and writer, James Reston, who had actually spoken with Johnson administration officials in the fall of 1965. And Reston wrote after the massacres had been completed that Indonesia was a ringing success for the United States in southeast Asia in the midst of a disastrous war in Vietnam.
But in November and October of 1965, Reston was actually meeting with the Assistant Secretary of State at the time, a man named George Ball, and urging Ball and other members of the Johnson administration that the Indonesian army had to strike quickly and strike hard. And Reston, I found a memo in which Reston tells George Ball that if the Indonesian army strikes quickly, they have the chance to wipe the earth with the PKI, and if they don’t take advantage of this opportunity, they may never get another chance.
And I think that this suggests that many American officials recognized that although virtually everyone in the Communist party was uninvolved in the movement, that this was nevertheless a crucial opportunity to annihilate the largest Communist party outside of the Soviet bloc, and to destroy the alternative to a military dictatorship in Indonesia. And US officials acted enthusiastically to support this campaign.
AARON MATÉ: It’s interesting to talk about how the New York Times covered it back in the mid-60s and how the New York Times covered it now. So back then, a columnist as you said, called it “a gleam of light in Asia.” This is how, though, the New York Times described the documents that you released last week when they reported on it. Their headline says, “The US stood by as Indonesia killed a half million people, papers show.” Professor Simpson, your thoughts on that phrase, “stood by.”
BRADLEY SIMPSON: The phrase “stood by” suggests that the US was an unwitting bystander to the massacres as they unfolded rather than an accomplice and an active participant. I know that the journalist for the Times who wrote this story is relatively young and does not write about Indonesia for her beat. So I think that it is important to recognize that this is not just a problem of the lack of perspective by the American press, but the lack of area knowledge on the part of many Western journalists who know virtually nothing about Indonesia, and don’t know the history of US relations with Indonesia, and with the Suharto regime more generally. But the New York Times has long been reluctant to, I think, frame the story of US relations with Indonesia as one in which the US was active participant and accomplice in what the CIA called “one of the great massacres of modern history.”
And I think this is a line that is often endorsed even by mainstream progressives and liberals such as Samantha Power in her book, “A Problem From Hell” in which she gives a laundry list of genocides in the 20th century in which the United States was a sort of passive bystander, refraining from using its generous and benign power to stop these sorts of mass killings from taking place, rather than viewing the United States as a sometimes willing participant and accomplice in helping murderous regimes to carry out these massacres in the first place.
AARON MATÉ: That right there is the outer limit of acceptable criticism in the political spectrum of U.S. policy; it’s that we were well meaning bystanders who didn’t do enough.
So finally, professor Simpson, your thoughts on what the release, what this batch of documents means, and what else needs to be done? Because there are still some documents that we haven’t seen yet.
BRADLEY SIMPSON: Well, there are many documents that remain to be released from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and other Executive Branch agencies. I hope that these documents support the ongoing calls by Indonesian human rights and civil society organizations for the Indonesian government to both acknowledge the magnitude of the crimes of 1965 and ’66, and to do something to ensure accountability for the perpetrators and justice for the victims.
Right now, Islamic organizations in Indonesia, the military and others are attempting to revive the club of anti-Communism as a weapon for waging war against human rights activists, against LGBT activists, against women’s activists and others, including even Indonesia’s moderate president, Jokowi, in an attempt to turn back the clock and help the military and conservative Islamic organizations to regain some of their power. And I think that civil society organizations in Indonesia need all the support that they can get to try and ensure that the truth comes out about 1965, and that Western governments and Western civil society organizations and human rights groups support their efforts to demand justice and accountability for what took place.
AARON MATÉ: Brad Simpson, Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies at the University of Connecticut. He is founder and Director of the Indonesia / East Timor Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, which has just released these new U.S. documents. Professor, thank you.
BRADLEY SIMPSON: Thank you very much.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.