The US and Indonesia’s independence: History, legacy and lessons

America had many reasons to continue to support Dutch control of Indonesia after World War II. Yet it ultimately chose to back the fledgling nation, altering the history of all three nations.

The US and Indonesia’s independence: History, legacy and lessons AFP Photo/Adek Berry

On Dec 27, 1949, at a solemn, moving and yet restrained ceremony held at a historic auditorium in the 17th-century royal palace in Amsterdam, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands signed the papers that formally transferred sovereignty over the territory the Dutch had called the East Indies to the independent government of Indonesia.

A simultaneous ceremony took place in Jakarta, more than 8,000 miles away, in which Indonesian Deputy Prime Minister Sultan Hamengku Buwono and the Dutch high commissioner solemnly signed an identical copy of the protocol of transfer. A crowd of more than 20,000 cheered vociferously as the Dutch tricolor flag was hauled down for the last time. The Indonesian national anthem was then played as the young republic’s once-banned red-and-white flag was hoisted up in its place, driving the excited onlookers into a frenzy.

But the real Indonesian celebration did not take place until the next day, when Soekarno, the man who had come to personify the Indonesian independence movement, triumphantly returned to Jakarta. Driven from the capital by the Dutch four years earlier, Soekarno was now coming back to take up residence in the former palace of the Dutch governors as the first president of an independent Indonesia. A crowd of 200,000 jammed what was then called Koningsplein Square, facing the palace, as Soekarno gave a stirring five-minute speech from the marble steps. He ended his address with the cry “Sekali merdeka!” One foreign diplomat, gesturing toward the vast crowds, remarked to a colleague: “Could the Dutch ever have held this, in the face of that?”

Although it is less remembered today than it should be, the United States played a major – even decisive – role in helping the Indonesians secure independence. Since American support was essential for the continuance of the Netherlands’ rule over the archipelago, once that support was withdrawn, as it was in the spring of 1949, the Dutch position became untenable and unsustainable. To assume that American policy toward the Indonesian revolution must have been motivated by Washington’s historic opposition to colonialism and support for self-determination would grossly misrepresent the American record in the East Indies during the immediate post-World War II years, however. Quite the contrary, until the final stage of the bitter and bloody Dutch-Indonesian conflict over who would rule the Indonesian islands, American authorities habitually sided with the Dutch, believing that the support of a European ally was more dependable and more useful to US Cold War foreign policy than that of a group of untested Asian nationalists. Only after the second Dutch police action of December 1948 did American policymakers begin to shift their allegiances.

And even then, Washington moved haltingly and often reluctantly, motivated less by idealism or altruism than by more tangible factors: the weight of domestic and international opinion; concern for the viability of the United Nations; careful calculation of broader Cold War priorities; and, not least,
the strength of a vigorous Indonesian guerrilla resistance that thwarted all Dutch efforts to pacify the islands and that exposed The Hague’s policy as an abject failure. It was only then, when the Dutch themselves appeared to be the greatest threat to stability and order in Indonesia, and in the process threatened to endanger high-priority policies and appropriations related to both the Marshall Plan and NATO, that the United States placed its power and prestige behind the republican nationalists. That policy shift paved the way for the simultaneous ceremonies in Amsterdam and Jakarta, 70 years ago, which marked the birth of a new nation.

During World War II, American attitudes and policies toward the status and future of the Netherlands East Indies became subsumed under the broader problem of how to deal with colonial territories.

Queen Juliana, in the presence of Indonesian Prime Minister Mohammed Hatta and Dutch Prime Minister Willem Drees, signs the transfer of sovereignty of Indonesia in the Palace at the Dam Square in Amsterdam. AFP Photo/G vd Werff/ANP

That problem was particularly acute in territories such as the Indies, conquered and occupied by the Japanese during the early stage of the war Throughout the war years, President Franklin D Roosevelt and his top associates proclaimed repeatedly that the United States stood for self-determination and for the progressive evolution of dependent territories toward self-government. Nationalists in the Indies and elsewhere cheered those proclamations, seeing the United States as a potential, even likely, ally in their bids for independence from their colonial overlords.

Throughout the war years, President Franklin D Roosevelt and his top associates proclaimed repeatedly that the United States stood for self-determination and for the progressive evolution of dependent territories toward self-government. Nationalists in the Indies and elsewhere cheered those proclamations, seeing the United States as a potential, even likely, ally in their bids for independence from their colonial overlords.

In August 1941, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter, which called for the “right of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live.” And as if to clear up any ambiguity about the applicability of the charter, in a radio address to the nation on Feb 23, 1942, Roosevelt declared that “the Atlantic Charter not only applies to the parts of the world that border on the Atlantic, but to the whole world.” In a Memorial Day speech in 1942, US Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles declared that the war should ensure the sovereign equality of all peoples and should be followed by “the liberation of all people.” He emphasized: “The age of imperialism is ended. The right of people to their freedom must be recognized, as the civilized world long since recognized the rights of an individual to his personal freedom. The principles of the Atlantic Charter must be guaranteed to the world – in all oceans and continents.” priority. Churchill, the unofficial spokesman for the imperial powers, expressed his unalterable opposition to American meddling in colonial affairs on several occasions, and US leaders, mindful of the need for harmonious postwar relations, chose not to press the issue. In addition, the War and Navy departments, intent on securing American bases in the Pacific, overrode all State Department proposals for a comprehensive international trusteeship program.

Finally, and most significant, American authorities never equated the principles of anticolonialism with support for the early and dramatic independence of all colonized peoples. On the contrary, American policymakers unanimously clung to the view that the dependent areas of the world would be prepared to act as responsible members of the global family of nations only after an appropriate period of preparation under the guidance of their respective European mother countries. American sponsorship of independence for the Philippines was constantly pointed to as an appropriate model and precedent. Native self-government was a distant goal, in the view of US officials, not an immediate prospect. The American devotion to self-determination, then, was sharply limited; Washington favored gradual, evolutionary changes in what it believed to be a hopelessly outdated imperial system. It certainly did not favor or anticipate revolutionary upheaval.

American policy toward the Netherlands East Indies and toward the emergent Indonesian independence movement must be understood within this larger context. Toward the end of the Pacific War, American diplomats had repeatedly reassured Dutch officials that the United States did not question their right to reassert sovereignty over the Indonesian islands. At the same time, those diplomats hoped that Dutch imperial rule could be liberalized so as to eliminate its most exclusionary and exploitive features. The need to cooperate with The Hague in postwar Europe, however, effectively blunted this reforming zeal and prevented the State Department from translating such vague sentiments into substantive policy. The emergence of a broad-based nationalist movement in Indonesia, capped by the proclamation of the Republic of Indonesia on Aug 17, 1945, further complicated the American dilemma. Unwilling to countenance support for an untested and inexperienced nationalist regime, especially one under the fiery leadership of a Japanese collaborator such as Soekarno, Washington gravitated more and more toward the Dutch position. After all, American officials had advocated the reform of the imperialist system, not its destruction; they had pressed for gradual, evolutionary changes, not abrupt, revolutionary ones. Washington had always assumed that European influence and control, while limited, would and should continue in the developing world. By challenging the reassertion of Western hegemony, Asian nationalists were thus threatening the very foundation of American plans for a new order in East Asia.

Given the perspective of 1945, it is difficult to imagine the United States pursuing a different policy. The Dutch were trusted allies who had ruled the East Indies for more than 300 years. While the United

By challenging the reassertion of Western hegemony, Asian nationalists were thus threatening the very foundation of American plans for a new order in East Asia.

States had traditionally objected to the excesses of the imperialist system, it also recognized and applauded the stability and order that the colonial powers had brought to the developing world. Faced with a choice between a native government of revolutionary nationalists and a return to Dutch control over the archipelago, the United States not surprisingly chose to support the Netherlands.

Nevertheless, the United States could not, and did not, completely disavow its identification with the cause of the colonized peoples of the world. To do so would have been inconsistent with traditional American beliefs and contradicted proclamations made throughout the war. Active support for the reimposition of imperial rule, moreover, would have seriously damaged American prestige in the developing world. The United States sought to sidestep this dilemma by maintaining a position of public neutrality and strict noninvolvement toward all colonial disputes. The resulting policy was distorted and contradictory: while declaring its strict impartiality toward the growing rift between the Dutch and the Indonesians in the months that followed Soekarno’s proclamation of independence, Washington consistently bolstered the position of its European ally. As Asian expert and US ambassador to the Netherlands, Stanley K Hornbeck, astutely observed: “We in effect attempted to support neither side, and yet favored one and hoped not unduly to offend the other.”

An early indication of this attitude was revealed by the American government’s stance toward the question of lend-lease supplies. Washington continued to supply surplus property credits and lend-lease equipment to British and Dutch troops in Indonesia long after it had proclaimed its neutrality toward the Dutch-Indonesian dispute, even though it was well aware that the material was being used to suppress Indonesian nationalists. After Soekarno delivered several strongly worded protests to the White House in October and November 1945, the administration of President Harry S Truman ordered the removal of all American insignia from the equipment. But the equipment itself continued to be freely supplied.

Official American sympathy for the Dutch position was most strikingly revealed by the form that Washington’s neutrality took. By recognizing the Netherlands’ right to rule Indonesia as “territorial sovereignty,” as it did in a formal policy statement of Dec 19, 1945, the United States in effect denied the Indonesia republic’s quest for status as an equal party to the dispute. This was a severe blow to the young nationalist regime, which had hoped that America’s repeated wartime pronouncements in favor of self-determination for all peoples might be translated into an aggressive anti-imperialist program. Although the American message was couched in the niceties of international law, its intent was
unmistakable: the United States would not challenge the right of the Dutch to re-establish their imperial control over the islands. American diplomats might try to nudge the Dutch gently into pursuing a more liberal approach to the colonial issue, one that would perhaps grant certain concessions to Indonesian nationalism, but the republic could expect no significant moral or material aid from Washington. When Soekarno appealed to the United States to assume the role of an impartial arbitrator, his request was summarily rejected, since, as Secretary of State James Byrnes explained, such a request could be honored only if it came from the “territorial sovereign.” Indonesia’s leaders quickly learned that American neutrality had a distinctly nonneutral flavor.

By the end of 1945, then, the United States was pursuing a policy that represented a virtual repudiation of the anticolonial ideals expressed in the Atlantic Charter and the Charter of the United Nations. Rather than challenge the reimposition of the Dutch colonial structure, the Truman administration consciously acquiesced in it. The dominant viewpoint within the State Department and throughout the government was that the need for Western solidarity obviated any secondary interest in mounting a crusade to reform European colonialism.

At first, Washington sought to achieve this objective by remaining neutral and uninvolved, but this was hardly a viable policy option for the world’s leading power. As one National Security Council study so aptly put it: “Evasion of major international issues is a real possibility for Costa Rica; for the US, it is an illusion. Our silence is as loud as our words.” In addition, Indonesia was simply too strategically and economically valuable for the United States to remain a passive observer, especially when the dispute threatened to escalate into all-out warfare. Gradually, then, the United States began to exert its considerable influence on the Dutch and Indonesian republicans, first through unilateral pressure and then, beginning in the fall of 1947, through its membership on the UN Security Council’s Good Offices Committee (GOC). The committee was established in the wake of the first Dutch “police action” aimed
at suppressing the Indonesian republic through force of arms. The committee’s goal was to encourage a new round of Dutch-Indonesian negotiations and to find some formula acceptable to the Dutch for granting at least a form of self-rule to the Indonesian islands.

Citizen-diplomat Frank Porter Graham, president of the University of North Carolina and Truman’s appointee as US representative to the GOC, played a pivotal role in negotiating the Renville Agreement of January 1948, signed on board a US naval vessel docked in the Java Sea. Shortly after arriving in the Dutch East Indies, Graham informed Secretary of State George Marshall that he believed the Indonesian republic to be the “rallying center of the largest, ablest and most dedicated single groups of Indonesians in this struggle for independence.” The present leadership, he emphasized, “seems as moderate, reasonable and responsive to Western ideas of any likely to arise in the future.”

When Dutch-Indonesian negotiations faltered again in December 1947, and another military action appeared imminent, Marshall drafted a compromise agreement that, while unfavorable in many respects to the republicans, averted a military clash and brought about a negotiated agreement. In a crucial meeting with republican leaders, Graham urged them to sign what became the Renville Agreement because he said it would at least ensure the continued existence of the republican government. “You are what you are,” he famously stated, “and that is what you will remain.” In other words, he was assuring them that signing the agreement would not adversely affect their current status. That pledge won them over, despite substantial domestic resistance that soon led Prime Minister Amir Sjarifuddin to fall from power. “Tell the American people,” Sjarifuddin implored Graham, “that we count upon them to insure a fair plebiscite here. The plebiscite will chart the future destiny of a people.”

Officially, the United States position toward the Dutch-Indonesian struggle remained one of nominal neutrality, and American participation on the Good Offices Committee helped to bolster Washington’s image as an impartial and even-handed mediator. In actuality, though, American actions consistently tilted toward the Dutch. American policies and statements at the United Nations and mediation efforts on the GOC consistently worked to the advantage of the Dutch, as most interested observers quickly realized. When Marshall Plan aid began to flow to the Netherlands in 1948, moreover, the United States was placed in the anomalous position of serving on a UN commission as a nominally impartial arbitrator when in fact its financial assistance was at least indirectly making Holland’s aggressive policy financially feasible. In short, Washington was helping to settle a dispute it was actually financing.

Its pro-Dutch orientation remained dominant until the early months of 1949. The rehabilitation and reintegration of Western Europe and the corresponding desire to present a solid front against the Soviet Union led the United States to support the Dutch position in virtually all negotiations with Indonesian republican representatives. American support was not uncritical, of course; Washington strongly advised the Dutch against resorting to military force before both police actions and continually urged the Netherlands to reach an equitable settlement with the Indonesian nationalists. It was pressure from Washington, in fact, that led the Netherlands reluctantly to accept the Renville settlement.

But the United States never pushed the Dutch too far. It was extremely careful to maintain friendly relations with its European ally. The success of the containment strategy, the European Recovery Program (ERP) and the unfolding NATO necessitated the steadfast support of Western European
nations, including, of course, the Netherlands. The intensification of the Cold War during these years underscored this need. American officials, moreover, tended to view Indonesia as an adjunct to the vitality of the metropole, especially in economic terms. It would contribute to the economic health of the Netherlands, which in turn would contribute to the economic health of Western Europe. The Marshall Plan, consequently, assumed that the European imperial powers would resume their former positions in Southeast Asia. As Under Secretary of State Robert Lovett reminded Frank Porter Graham in a cable in January 1948: “Netherlands is [a] strong proponent [of ] US policy in Europe. Dept believes that [the] stability [of the] present Dutch Govt would be seriously undermined if Netherlands fails to retain very considerable stake in NEI (Netherlands East Indies), and that [the] political consequences of failure [of ] present Dutch Govt would in all likelihood be prejudicial to US position in Western Europe. Accordingly, Dept unfavorable to any solution requiring immediate and complete withdrawal Netherlands from Indies or any important part thereof.”

In the wake of the second Dutch police action, in December 1948, American policy changed drastically. The nearly universal denunciation of The Hague’s aggression by the international community merged with similar sentiment in the American public and Congress to bring the issue to a head. Events within Indonesia, moreover, exposed Dutch policy as hopelessly flawed: republican guerrilla troops fought the Dutch army to a standstill, while the Dutch-sponsored Indonesian federalist leaders, who they were grooming to be pliable puppets, summarily abandoned the Netherlands.

A policy paper by the US National Security Council helped crystallize long-term American objectives in Southeast Asia, pointing out that “nineteenth century imperialism,” as practiced by the Dutch, was simply “no antidote to communism in the revolutionary colonial areas.” Dutch efforts to pacify the archipelago, the report added, were doomed to failure and were an economic drain on the

President Soekarno addresses a rally of 200,000 people in Macassar, demanding independence from the Netherlands. AFP Photo

United States and the ERP. Given the fact that the republic was “moderate” in character and had already demonstrated its staunch opposition to communism by suppressing a communist-led revolt in Madiun, East Java, in September 1948, the National Security Council recommended that the United States unequivocally support independence for Indonesia. It was a gamble, to be sure, but at that juncture it seemed one well worth risking. “The sympathetic encouragement of Asiatic nationalism is bound to be a rough passage,” the report concluded, “but it is the only channel lying between polarization and Stalinization. It is only by following this difficult course that we can hope to facilitate, in collaboration with like-minded nations, the development of an effective counterforce to communism in the Far East, leading eventually to the emergence of S[outh] E[ast] A[sia] as an integral part of the free world, contributing spontaneously and fully to our welfare and security.”

Ironically, it was primarily European rather than Asian considerations that proved to be the decisive factor in the American decision to pressure the Dutch into granting independence to the Indonesians. As a result of Dutch intransigence in Indonesia, Congress placed substantial pressure on the Truman administration to move in that direction by threatening to cut off all funds to the Marshall Plan and to

Given the thrust of American foreign policy in the postwar period, perhaps the chief significance of
this American support for Indonesian independence lies in its singularity.

hold up passage of the Atlantic Pact. Those programs, which lay at the heart of the administration’s Cold War strategy, were far too important to be jeopardized by a colonial war in Indonesia – a conflict that to most senior American policy experts was an annoying sideshow.

On Feb 7, 1949, Senator Owen Brewster of Maine introduced a resolution, signed by nine other Republican senators, which called for a suspension of all ERP aid and other aid to the Netherlands until it stopped its military action. “It is a well-settled rule,” he noted wryly, “that he who pays the piper is entitled to call the tune.” Speaking before the Senate on February 7, Brewster termed the Dutch police action murderous, “a crushing sneak attack like Japan’s on Pearl Harbor, like Nazi Germany’s on Holland itself.” Applauding the moderate character of the Indonesian republicans, “who have consistently fought all radical tendencies and within the past year have suppressed by force of arms a small communist uprising,” he asked rhetorically: “Do we intend to support 19th-century Dutch-British-French imperialism in Asia, which will create a climate for the growth of communism? Or do we intend to support the moderate republican nationalists throughout Asia?”

Given the thrust of American foreign policy in the postwar period, perhaps the chief significance of this American support for Indonesian independence lies in its singularity. Admittedly, American support came rather late, only after the Dutch had twice violated internationally sanctioned agreements, but the salient fact is that it did come; the United States did align itself with a national liberation movement against a friendly European imperial power. Significantly, at the same time that the United States was applauding the transfer of sovereignty to native nationalists in Indonesia, it was opposing a similar struggle for independence in nearby Indochina, and was already considering plans to underwrite the French colonial war in that embattled land.

There are, of course, some extremely significant differences between the Indonesia and Indochina cases. Unlike the Indonesian independence movement, the Vietnamese nationalist movement was led from its very inception by communists. Captive of a Cold War ideology that viewed all local communists as part of a monolithic communist movement directed by Moscow, American policymakers never seriously contemplated support for Ho Chi Minh and his followers. In Indonesia, the elusive “third force” of moderate nationalism that Washington sought to create in Indochina already existed; it had proved its mettle, moreover, by suppressing the Indonesian Communist Party during the ill-fated Madiun rebellion. As early as 1945, Indonesia’s nationalist leaders recognized that their bid for independence could best be ensured through cooperation with the West; accordingly, they consistently tried to present an image to the world of a responsible, moderate regime interested in Western assistance and intent on protecting foreign investment.

Another key difference between the decolonization struggles in Indonesia and Indochina was that the Indonesian conflict was internationalized after the first policy action of July 1947. United Nations involvement made it virtually impossible for the Dutch to present the world with a fait accompli. And the United States, which sincerely hoped that the UN would not suffer the fate of its predecessor, the League of Nations, viewed the Indonesian case as an early test of that body’s viability. France could use its Security Council veto to block any UN consideration of its colonial difficulties. Vietnam’s international support, in addition, was always much weaker than Indonesia’s. India and Australia consistently placed their prestige on the side of the young republic, and as a predominantly Muslim land Indonesia garnered vigorous support among the emerging Muslim nations of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Eager to maintain its leverage and prestige with those newly emerging areas, Washington had to weigh that factor in its policy deliberations. In contrast, US policy toward Indochina could be formulated without undue concern for strong outside pressure.

A final factor affecting American policy toward the two colonial struggles was the relative power and internal stability of France and the Netherlands. While Dutch support for the Marshall Plan and the Atlantic Pact was always deemed extremely important by American policymakers, all agreed that French support was absolutely crucial. Without French support, the Truman administration’s European policy would have collapsed; and to endanger such support by meddling in French colonial affairs would have been the height of diplomatic folly in the view of senior administration policymakers. The French Communist Party, moreover, would surely have gained great political capital from any “imperialist” intervention by Washington, a fact that was clearly recognized by American officials. In addition, the stability of France itself during the late 1940s was a constant source of concern for American diplomats; any outside pressure by the United States on an issue as sensitive as colonial policy in Indochina would have placed great strain on the French government and possibly led to communist participation in the cabinet. Dutch postwar governments, on the other hand, were seen as largely reliable and relatively stable, and communist strength within Holland was negligible.

The important and dramatic differences between Washington’s response to postwar nationalism in Indonesia and Indochina should not obscure some equally significant similarities. Although the United States eventually supported the Indonesian republic and played a major role in persuading the Dutch to withdraw from their prized colony, the support came only very slowly and reluctantly. Moreover, it was tied less to a deep understanding of the transforming dynamic of Asian nationalism than to global geopolitical considerations stemming from America’s Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Indeed, the tumultuous nature of the post-independence relationship between Washington and Jakarta amply attests to the fact that American understanding of Indonesian nationalism remained quite limited and shallow.



"Robert J McMahon is the Ralph Mershon professor emeritus at Ohio State University. He is the author of several books, including “Colonialism and Cold War: The United States and the Struggle for Indonesian Independence, 1945-49"

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