Magazine article Monthly Review

The United States and the 1965-1966 Mass Murders in Indonesia

Magazine article Monthly Review

The United States and the 1965-1966 Mass Murders in Indonesia

Article excerpt

On October 1,1965, the teletype in the White House relayed the account of a supposed "coup" by a group of Indonesian army officers calling themselves the September 30th Movement. In Jakarta the movement, which had begun the night before under the alleged leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Untung with the kidnapping and killing of six generals of the Indonesian Army High Command, was already unraveling. The September 30th Movement was a relatively small-scale affair. It was poorly planned and so clumsily executed that it seemed almost preordained to fail. Major General Suharto, the commander of the army's Strategic Reserve Command (KOSTRAD) rapidly routed the meager forces under Untung's command, took control of the army, and blamed what he labeled a "coup attempt" entirely on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Within two weeks, a much more momentous army-led and U.S.-backed movement to exterminate the PKI and its supporters was under way. Working with Muslim organizations, student groups, and other anti-Communist organizations, the army proceeded over the next five months to murder hundreds of thousands of unarmed, alleged PKI members. The slaughter paved the way for the army's ouster of Sukarno in March 1966, its ascension to power, and the reconfiguration of Indonesian politics and foreign policy.1

The liquidation of the PKI in Indonesia was "perhaps the greatest setback for Communism in the Third World in the 1960s" and an event with enormous implications for each of the Great Powers. For the United States, the PKI's destruction changed the political calculus of the Vietnam War and decreased by an order of magnitude the possible regional consequences of victory by Hanoi and the NLF (National Liberation Front), although ironically it was too late to affect the course of the Johnson administration's escalation of the war. For the Soviet Union and China, the destruction of the left in Indonesia increased the importance that each attached to holding firm in Vietnam, lest their credibility as revolutionary powers in the region be further undermined.2

Domestically, the PKI's annihilation destroyed the political balance of power, dramatically undermining Sukarno and removing the only massbased alternative to army rule. However, the emergence of the Indonesian army as the dominant political force and the military's pressing need to address the country's deep-rooted economic crisis also provided the United States and other Western powers with unusual leverage to shape the conditions under which the army would consolidate its power and legitimize its role in a military modernizing regime.

The September 30th Movement and its bloody aftermath are central events in postwar Indonesian history, and competing interpretations of their roots, meaning, and legacy have become a cottage industry.3 Much of the debate has centered on the precise role of the PKI, the degree of Sukarno's and/or Suharto's foreknowledge of the "coup attempt," and the local circumstances of the mass killings that followed.

More important than the September 30th Movement itself was the use to which Suharto, the Indonesian army, and its international supporters put it in order to justify the annihilation of the PKI. Here the recent partial declassification of U.S. and British materials has made it possible to evaluate competing claims on the role of the United States and the United Kingdom with greater precision (and, since Suharto's fall, less ideological baggage) and to come to a few tentative conclusions. First, although the available evidence does not directly implicate the United States in the September 30th Movement or in Sukarno's ouster, quests for Washington's hidden hand in this respect are beside the point. The United States and Britain unquestionably sought to entice the PKI into a coup attempt or some other rash action in the hopes of provoking a violent response by the army and organized covert operations and propaganda efforts to this end for the better part of a year, a fact unmitigated by Washington and London's surprise at the actual timing of events. …

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