Hiding the Indonesia Massacre Files

Exclusive: Perhaps nowhere does U.S. hypocrisy over human rights stand out more clearly than Indonesia’s “Year of Living Dangerously” slaughter of vast numbers of people in 1965, dirty secrets that Jonathan Marshall says finally deserve airing.

By Jonathan Marshall

Now that the Indonesian government has officially opened a probe into what the CIA called “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century,” 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.

General Suharto attending the funerals of murdered Indonesian generals in October 1965.

General Suharto attending the funerals of murdered Indonesian generals in October 1965.

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.

Hiding Secrets

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.

Indonesian President Sukarno.

Indonesian President Sukarno.

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.”

President Lyndon Johnson meets with U.S. Ambassador Marshall Green.

President Lyndon Johnson meets with U.S. Ambassador Marshall Green.

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.

Fanning Flames

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 black bag 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.

Media Approval

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.

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.” ]

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16 comments for “Hiding the Indonesia Massacre Files

  1. michael lacey
    April 29, 2016 at 5:51 am

    Well I’m an Australian and I am utterly ashamed of what we did !

  2. robcrawford
    April 29, 2016 at 5:54 am

    Thanks for this article. I haven’t thought about this since I was a student in IR in the early 1980s.

  3. Sam
    April 29, 2016 at 6:21 am

    This is a much-needed glimpse into the US support for the massacres in Indonesia. Estimated deaths are between 1 and 2 million. The US claimed that oil sources, shipping, and Australian security were threatened, there and in Vietnam, but the underlying cause was the US mass media hysteria against communism, the hate target of the 1950s and 1960s. That required enforced ignorance of the democratic motive of the anti-colonial rebellions after WWII, and originates in the desire of the rich to prevent socialism in the US. Right-wing extremism is the primary means of the rich to gain wealth and power, by controlling mass media and elections.

    The anti-socialist insanity has continued with the scores of secret US wars around the world since then, all of them primarily anti-socialist, and always claimed by the mass media to be responses to security threats.

    People in the US should understand these murderous rampages of the rich, using public money and hijacked corporate funds to attack democracy and economic opportunity everywhere for their own gain. They get rich by bullying and theft in large businesses, recruit allies among the bullies and thieves in the military and mass media and political parties, and they continue that into political office, where they install bullies and thieves in the judiciary and public administration.

    If you think that you live in a democracy, think again. The US government is not even related to democracy, It will never again be a democracy unless you have the courage to overthrow the rich, and their right wing tyrants.

    • Sam
      April 29, 2016 at 7:44 pm

      I should add that the Indonesia operation looks much like those in Iran 1953 (coup against its socialist democratic government), AfPak 1980s (where the US essentially built AlQaeda to attack the USSR in Afghanistan), Iraq War II (the Baathist government was socialist), Libya (Ghaddafi was socialist), and Syria today (Baathist socialist). Of course US wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the US sponsorship of Pol Pot in Thailand to attack Vietnamese forces that ejected him to Thailand) were “anticommunist” wars ignoring the fact that these were all nationalist movements using communist means. In every case the US overthrew democracies or other socialist government, installed dictators, and claimed to be defending democracy against vague threats. All of the US secret wars in Latin America have been anti-socialist, and almost all have overthrown democracies and replaced them with dictators.

      • Bob Loblaw
        May 1, 2016 at 12:51 pm

        B but FREEDUMB!

        This is the default response in support of ignoring the actual history of our country. Then the jingo maniac demands that the truth teller love Amurrica or leave.

    • Roch
      May 2, 2016 at 8:55 am

      Yes, wellsaid. The US obsession against communism destroys everything except for the few 1% capitalists — if people,want to be communist, let them be. Capitalism is just to steal everyone else resources as in Nigeria and Iraq and back again for a 3rd round in south america, and the xian churches alwaysnat the forefront!

  4. bill
    April 29, 2016 at 6:41 am

    well one would hardly expect Obama to want any of this to come out!!!!!

  5. Evan Whitton
    April 29, 2016 at 7:18 am

    Marshall Green was ambassador to Australia before CIA-linked Governor-General John Kerr dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975

    • Lutz Barz
      April 30, 2016 at 6:40 am

      I’ve got a political author [lost the book] where she heard from a politician that the CIA would never [in 75] interfere in Australian politics again. Most people back then instinctively knew something had been rotten. However Indonesia is another story altogether. It had the largest communist organisation outside of PRC. All communist parties swore allegiance to world revolution without exception to use Lenin’s words. The coup and the massacres were horrific. Thousand of Chinese [who never give up their Chinese allegiance] were murdered. Not much Australia could do. West Papua which should have been independent and Australia said so approaching the Americans after the Dutch pulled out were told to rack off. No independence there courtesy of freedom loving America.

  6. Charles Watkins
    April 29, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    Remember that Obama was raised Indonesia, his mother being an AID worker. We now know AID was a CIA front and that its ‘missionaries’ were reporting back on who might be a Communist sympathizer.

  7. Greg Schofield
    April 29, 2016 at 8:15 pm

    The Communist Party of Australia, and the Australian maritime union’s helped in many ways in Sakarno’s fight against Dutch rule.

    Prior to the massacre members of the party and the unions (there were a couple of others) were raided by ASIO nation wide in a huge police swoop. Anything that bore an Asian name, a card, a book, a contact address was taken, telephone books also for finding more houses to raid (names underlined, or sometimes just pages that had been regularly opened).

    The names became death-lists, considering that many of the contacts may have been casual, apolitical Indonesians did not save their lives. ASIO aided and abetted mass murder on a grand scale — I have heard it reported, but do not know the truth, that 30,000 lie under Bali airport alone.

    Green organized the coup against Whitlam in 1975, Kerr’s first words to an uncomprehending Fraser we ‘there won’t be reprisals?’ Chile in 1972 and a lot or refugees from their massacres has come to Australia.

    Never forget or forgive. Be they ever so old the guilty should be judged and punished. This has been a bloody post-war, with engineered starvation (IMF), bloody coups, fascist militia and criminals unleashed against ordinary people for the most part. The Daesh is just the latest policy tools.

  8. JayHobeSound
    April 30, 2016 at 1:36 am

    The victims change, but the USA’s game remains the same.

  9. david thurman
    April 30, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    This should be viewed as another result of the JFK assassination, along with the Vietnam war (JFK was pulling EVERYONE out by the end of ’65), the military coup in Brazil and Israel obtaining nuclear weapons, just to name a few of the differences between the Johnson and Kennedy administrations.

  10. David Boyer
    May 1, 2016 at 2:19 am

    This is what Obama’s mother and father in law were doing.

  11. incontinent reader
    May 1, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    I’m glad Jonathan Marshall has recounted Marshall Green’s role in this planned and executed bloodbath. Thanks, also to Mr. Schofield for pointing out Green’s role in the coup against Whitlam 10 years later.

    Green had the reputation as a highly intelligent and creative diplomat, and with a distinguished career that spanned almost 40 years, but he was also a servant of the U.S. Government and its policies, and therefore an active participant in its Cold War ‘to defeat Communism’ and any regime leaning in that direction, and this episode with the hundreds of thousands of innocents slaughtered is a stain on his reputation that will never be eradicated. It was an example of how a cold war ideology and the narrative generating it – in this case fear that the non-aligned Indonesian government would become communist and more closely aligned with Russia and China (the 80 ton elephant in the room with which we did not have diplomatic relations, and, indeed, pretended not to exist) when there were natural economic and political reasons for Sukarno’s policies- could create a result that was unspeakable- i.e., to kill a half million people ‘to save the rest’- and, since then, we have all heard that argument, and seen it implemented by the likes of Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton with Iraq, and the Bush and Obama Administrations throughout MENA and Central Asia. And it is precisely this type of mentality that could bring us to a nuclear war and extinction.

    The massacres in East Timor, beginning with Indonesia’s invasion in 1974 blessed by Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger, were an outgrowth of that policy. Perhaps Mr. Marshall could publish a followup article on that.

  12. David G
    May 1, 2016 at 7:35 pm

    Indonesia’s great strategic value in the eyes of the U.S. was the ostensible reason for the U.S’s escalating involvement in Vietnam in the 1950s and early ’60s. Vietnam itself wasn’t seen as particularly important in itself, I believe, but if the U.S. “lost” it, then that was seen as putting Indonesia in jeopardy of falling out of the U.S. sphere of influence.

    After 1965, of course, Indonesia was locked down tight by Suharto, and the danger—such as it had been—was gone. So the whole, full-fledged U.S. war in (i.e. against) Vietnam of the later 1960s took place after its supposed strategic justification had already evaporated, and instead resulted from mere political timidity and inertia, facilitated by generalized militarism.

    Thus did insanity pile upon insanity.

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