Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.”
Now that the Indonesian government has officially opened a probe into what the CIA called “one of the worst mass murders of the 20thcentury,” it’s time for the U.S. government to come clean about its own involvement in the orchestrated killing of hundreds of thousands of Communists, ethnic Chinese, intellectuals, union activists and other victims during the mid-1960s.
President Joko Widodo this week instructed one of his senior ministers to begin investigating mass graves that could shed light on the slaughter of more than half a million innocents by soldiers, paramilitary forces and anti-Communist gangs.
That orgy of violence followed the killing of six generals on Sept. 30, 1965, which the Indonesian military blamed on an attempted coup by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). It marked the beginning of several decades of military dictatorship and further mass murders in East Timor and West Papua.
The PKI, which had some three million members, and millions more sympathizers, was by the early 1960s the strongest political force in the country aside from the military and the revered father of Indonesia’s independence, President Sukarno.
As one CIA adviser warned in 1963, “If the PKI is able to maintain its legal existence... Indonesia may be the first Southeast Asia country to be taken over by a popularly based, legally elected communist government.” Two years later, the military-led bloodbath put an end to that threat.
Indonesia’s government, whose leaders include military veterans of that era, still refuses to open criminal investigations into the mass murder, as called for in 2012 by Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights.
But some survivors nonetheless welcome the chance to expose truths that have been vigorously suppressed over the years by mass political arrests, press censorship, and pervasive indoctrination programs in the country’s schools.
To help tell the whole story, Indonesia’s human rights commission and major international human rights organizations have called on the Obama administration to declassify U.S. government documents related to the massacres, as it did recently with respect to Argentina’s “dirty war” from 1976-83.
But President Obama, like his predecessors, has so far been reluctant to shed light on tragic events in Indonesia more than half a century ago.
“The extent of America’s role remains hidden behind a wall of secrecy,” complained Joshua Oppenheimer, maker of two acclaimed documentaries about the massacres: “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence.”
“C.I.A. documents and U.S. defense attaché papers remain classified. Numerous Freedom of Information Act requests for these documents have been denied,” he observed. “If the U.S. government recognizes the genocide publicly, acknowledges its role in the crimes, and releases all documents pertaining to the issue, it will encourage the Indonesian government to do the same.”
It’s easy to guess why Washington is so reluctant to bare the truth. The limited number of documents that have been released suggest that U.S. officials goaded Indonesia’s military into seizing power in 1965 and then liquidating PKI supporters throughout the archipelago. The full record could look even uglier.
Indonesia became a focus of U.S. strategic concerns as far back as 1940, when Imperial Japan threatened its immensely valuable rubber plantations, tin mines, and oil wells. President Franklin Roosevelt’s showdown with Tokyo, which culminated in the Pearl Harbor attack, stemmed from his determination to resist the loss of the islands’ strategic resources. Years later, Richard Nixon would call Indonesia “by far the greatest prize in the South-East Asian area.”
Prompted by its appreciation of Indonesia’s value, the Eisenhower administration financed a full-scale but unsuccessful military rebellion in 1958 against the neutralist Sukarno government. The Kennedy administration tried to patch up relations, but President Lyndon Johnson — angered at the regime’s threat to U.S. rubber and oil companies as well as Sukarno’s friendly relations with the PKI — cut off economic aid while continuing training and assistance to the anti-Communist military.
As one senior State Department official testified in executive session before Congress just a few months before the 1965 coup, explaining the administration’s proposal to increase military aid, “When Sukarno leaves the scene, the military will probably take over. We want to keep the door open.”
Prompting the Slaughter
To prompt the army to act against Sukarno, U.S., British, and Australian intelligence operatives planted phony stories about PKI plots to assassinate army leaders and import weapons from Communist China to launch a revolt — elements of a “strategy of tension” that would later be used in Chile.
According to former CIA officer Ralph McGehee, the CIA “was extremely proud” of its campaign and “recommended it as a model for future operations.”
Months after the bloodbath began, the well-connected associate editor of the New York Times, James Reston, would write, “Washington is being careful not to claim any credit” for the coup “but this does not mean that Washington had nothing to do with it.”
The events that triggered the military takeover remain murky even today, thanks to the regime’s systematic suppression of evidence. What seems clear, however, is that the PKI was largely caught unprepared when a group of junior officers — acting either on their own or as part of a “false flag” operation mounted by the anti-Communist General Suharto — killed six generals in the name of stopping a right-wing coup against Sukarno.
Suharto and his colleagues quickly arrested the killers, blamed the PKI for the atrocity, and aroused popular outrage by spreading false stories that the murdered generals had been sexually mutilated.
They also charged that Indonesia’s Communists were targeting Islamic leaders. In response, the country’s largest Muslim organization issued an order to “eliminate all Communists.”
On Oct. 5, 1965, U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Marshall Green informed Washington that Muslin groups were “lined up behind” the army, which “now has opportunity to move against PKI if it acts quickly. . . Momentum is now at peak with discovery of bodies of murdered army leaders. In short, it’s now or never.”
Green was hopeful: “Much remains in doubt, but it seems almost certain that agony of ridding Indonesia of effects of Sukarno... has begun.” To help make sure that came to pass, Green advised telling coup leaders of “our desire to be of assistance where we can,” while remaining in the shadows.
Green proposed fanning the flames of popular anger through covert propaganda: “Spread the story of PKI’s guilt, treachery and brutality (this priority effort is perhaps most-needed immediate assistance we can give army if we can find way to do it without identifying it as solely or largely US effort).”
To that end, he later instructed to U.S. Information Agency to use all its resources to “link this horror and tragedy with Peking and its brand of communism; associate diabolical murder and mutilation of the generals with similar methods used against village headmen in Vietnam.”
By mid-October, Green reported that the embassy had discussed strategy with Army and Muslim contacts for a “step-by-step campaign not only against PKI but against whole communist/Sukarno clique.”
Soon he was reporting the good news: the army had executed hundreds of Communists and arrested thousands of PKI cadre, with help from Muslim death squads.
“I, for one, have increasing respect for [the army’s] determination and organization in carrying out this crucial assignment,” he wrote.
To help the army succeed, Green endorsed Washington’s decision to bankroll the military’s clean-up operations against the PKI, adding that “the chances of detection or subsequent revelation of our support... are as minimal as any blackbag operation can be.”
In addition, by December 1965 the U.S. embassy began sending the Indonesian military lists of PKI leaders — facilitating their liquidation.
“It really was a big help to the army,” said Robert J. Martens, a former member of the U.S. Embassy’s political section. “They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad. There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.”
In a December 1965 story, Time magazine offered the first significant account in the American media of the scope of the killing:
“Communists, red sympathizers and their families are being massacred by the thousands. Backlands army units are reported to have executed thousands of Communists after interrogation in remote jails. Armed with wide-bladed knives called ‘parangs,’ Moslem bands crept at night into the homes of Communists, killing entire families and burying the bodies in shallow graves.
“The murder campaign became so brazen in parts of rural East Java, that Moslem bands placed the heads of victims on poles and paraded them through villages. The killings have been on such a scale that the disposal of the corpses has created a serious sanitation problem in East Java and Northern Sumatra where the humid air bears the reek of decaying flesh.
“Travelers from these areas tell of small rivers and streams that have been literally clogged with bodies. River transportation has at places been seriously impeded.”
By February 1996, the U.S. embassy was estimating that at least 400,000 people had already been killed across the country — more than died from the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
C.L. Sulzberger of The New York Times remarked in April that “the killing attained a volume impressive even in violent Asia, where life is cheap.”
Speaking for official Washington, in a column titled “A Gleam of Light in Asia,” the New York Times’ James Reston called this bloodbath one of “the more hopeful political developments” in Asia, one that could not have “been sustained without the clandestine aid it has received indirectly from here.”
The full extent of that clandestine aid remains a contested question, but historian Bradley Simpson, in a 2008 study of U.S. relations with Indonesia in the 1960s, observed that “declassification of just a fraction of the CIA’s records demonstrates that the agency’s covert operations in Indonesia were more widespread and insidious than previous acknowledged. These records also reveal that the Johnson administration was a direct and willing accomplice to one of the great bloodbaths of twentieth-century history.”
New Mexico’s Tom Udall declared last year as he introduced a Senate resolution to promote reconciliation on the 50th anniversary of the Indonesian massacres, “the United States and Indonesia must work to close this terrible chapter by declassifying information and officially recognizing the atrocities that occurred. . .
“The United States should stand in favor of continued democratic progress for our vital ally Indonesia and allow these historical documents to be disclosed. Only by recognizing the past can we continue to work to improve human rights across the globe.”
The world is still waiting on President Obama to heed that call.