JOURNAL | COVER STORY
“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.” – Thomas Jefferson
For nearly 30 years as a diplomat, I promoted US values through cultural diplomacy, explaining America overseas to promote understanding of US ideals through activities such as exchanges of scholars, sports camps for youth and American libraries filled with quality books and magazines.
So, I was startled to learn that one of these former United States Information Service (USIS) libraries, the Thomas Jefferson Library in Yogyakarta, in Central Java, was converted into a chamber of torture and rape in October 1965 by the Indonesian Army, after being after shuttered by the United States and taken over by Indonesian authorities. This occurred at the onset of the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians (estimates range from 350,000 to a million-plus killed) following the Oct. 1, 1965, aborted coup d’état, known as G-30-S (September 30 Movement).
In 2016, the International People’s Tribunal on the 1965 Crimes Against Humanity in Indonesia, in The Hague, ruled that the state of Indonesia was responsible for crimes against humanity, and that the US, British and Australian governments were complicit. This ruling confirmed findings by Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission and is bolstered by declassified American government reports from 1965-66. While the US government likely played no direct role in G-30-S, its cultivating of relations with the Indonesian Army to counter communism in Indonesia enabled the Army to carry out the atrocities of 1965-66. Furthermore, the United States made no effort to halt or even criticize those actions.
This essay will shed some light on American views and actions related to the events of 1965-66 and explain why US complicity is still relevant today.
Early in my diplomatic career, between 1987 and 1990, I was the USIS branch public affairs officer at the US Consulate in Medan, North Sumatra Province, and also the director of the Indonesian-American Friendship Center (PPIA) library and cultural center. We screened the latest American films, held readings of translated American poetry and discussed how democracy and freedom work in the United States. In Indonesia, senior government officials and graduate students were regular patrons. Almost all well-educated Indonesians who lived near USIS libraries spent time there. Generations of future leaders spent their high school and university days in these USIS libraries, bonding with America.
During those years in Medan, Indonesia was in the iron grip of President Soeharto. Indonesians had zero freedom to discuss domestic issues. Students were hesitant to express an opinion on any topic. As in other authoritarian countries, the USIS libraries in Indonesia offered a refreshing breeze of freedom in a country where people believed that anywhere two Indonesians gathered, one was a Soeharto spy. Critics were commonly called into Army headquarters for interrogation. Careers could be ruined. A prominent journalist in Jakarta told me about being detained for printing a rather innocuous article that offended the regime. The Army officer who interrogated the editor, still powerful today, pointed a gun at him as a warning.
Persons caught in the 1965-66 Army dragnet and accused of being communists or sympathizers, along with their immediate family, children and even grandchildren, were blacklisted from government jobs and had difficulty getting other influential work, such as in teaching or journalism. Their children were bullied and kicked out of public schools. Until 2000, their national identification cards labeled them as “ET” (eks-tapol), meaning ex-political prisoners. I once complained to a newspaper editor in Medan that an editorial writer wrote anti-American editorials. This writer came to me visibly shaken to apologize. It turns out that he was the son of an eks-tapol and was lucky just to have that job. I apologized to him, told him he should be able to write whatever he wanted about the United States without fear, and invited him for an official visit to the United States to observe freedom of the press.
When I learned that the Thomas Jefferson Library in Yogyakarta, Java’s cultural center, had been used as an interrogation center in October 1965, I was shocked. I visited the building and interviewed some of the witnesses who survived interrogations, abuse and subsequent imprisonment. The Jefferson building is now occupied only by a display window mannequin. Indonesians told me that the screams of the 1965 victims haunt the building, scaring away occupants. Human rights activists would like to convert the building into a memorial museum to help Indonesia learn from the victims’ stories.
There are many theories about who carried out the attempted coup. US Embassy diplomats at the time believed it was carried out either by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) or PKI elements, or masterminded by Soekarno, Indonesia’s founding father and president at the time, with PKI support. These diplomats mostly discounted complicity by China, although some believed the People’s Republic was informed beforehand. Some scholars believe that Soeharto’s cadre of right-wing generals masterminded the coup as an excuse to remove Soekarno from power and purge leftists. Some suspect the United States may have been complicit with the Indonesian Army in crushing the coup, or at least complicit in preparing a plan to decimate the PKI if the opportunity arose.
What is certain is that the ensuing massacres were led by the Indonesian Army, and abetted by Muslim, Christian, Catholic and Hindu organizations that feared communism. US Army training of the Indonesian Army, aimed at helping it to quash communism, enabled it to more effectively carry out the massacres. Communism also threatened many traditional Indonesian values and religious beliefs, and racist feelings against ethnic Chinese-Indonesians also played a major role. The main target was communists, but the bloodbath also claimed massive numbers of noncommunist ethnic Chinese, socialists, artists, teachers, students, unionists, their family members or anyone subject to vendettas. Likely, only a handful of those killed had any connection with G-30-S.
By late October 1965, the Army began rounding up suspects in Yogyakarta. In recent years, human rights organizations extensively interviewed survivors of this purge in Yogyakarta, concluding that many were interrogated at the Jefferson building. After forced confessions, often coerced by torture and rape, the Army sent victims to be executed or to years of imprisonment under horrible conditions. During 1964 and 1965, USIS libraries in Yogyakarta and other cities were easy targets for attacks by anti-American mobs, encouraged by Soekarno to attack American diplomats and facilities. On Aug 15, 1964, a mob of 3,000 stoned the Jefferson Library, forcing its permanent closure. The Indonesian government took over the building in early 1965. All the USIS libraries were sacked and their books burned, forcing the temporary closure of libraries in Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan in early 1965, reopened only after Soekarno fell from power and was replaced by then-General Soeharto.
On the 2017 anniversary of G-30-S, I visited Yogyakarta to speak with several people who had been interrogated at the Jefferson building and subsequently imprisoned for many years. One of them, Leo Mulyono, 73, and his wife, Oni Ponirah, 69, invited me to their home. A student at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts and an avowed anti-American Soekarno supporter, Leo recalled that he nevertheless enjoyed visiting the Jefferson Library, where he could read the magazine Suara Amerika (Voice of America) in a “tidy” environment. Like most university students inspired by Soekarno, he had joined the leftist Unified Movement of Indonesian Students (CGMI), which was associated with the Indonesian Communist Party. He remembers singing the popular refrain that everyone of that generation memorized: “Watch out for England and America, enemies of the people of The World … destroy whoever is our enemy, that is England and America.” “I could not be faulted because CGMI and PKI were part of the government,” said Leo, a Christian and religious like many who were arrested as communists in 1965.
A few days after G-30-S, Leo remembers posters appearing in Yogyakarta, fueling anti-communist sentiment, such as, “Communists are Dogs.” When Leo was arrested on Oct 20, along with 135 students at a university campus, he was confused whether police came to protect or arrest them. The Army interrogator who questioned him at the Jefferson building condemned him as a political criminal because he was a student activist. He spent the next 14 years in prison, the final years on the infamous Buru Island. After his release, no one would employ him. Because of his artistic talent, Leo eventually found work as a batik designer. From memory, he has made detailed drawings depicting his life in prison to record for posterity.
Leo and Oni fell in love at first sight at church in 1980, not long after their respective releases from prison in 1979. Oni, a 17-year-old high school student in 1965, was bewildered at her arrest because she had never been politically active. Upon arrival at the Jefferson building, she was beaten twice with a stick and a pistol, damaging her hearing. She was taken to the second floor of the former library, where torture and rape were routinely conducted. They tried to take off her dress but she screamed and fought off the Army officer, and another officer intervened, saying she was only a child, saving her from rape. Oni witnessed other women and girls emerging from interrogations bloodied and with torn dresses. She heard the screams of men and women whose genitals were subjected to electric shocks. Oni was moved from prison to prison for the next 14 years before her release.
Leo and Oni decided to have four children in defiance of Soeharto’s two-child policy, figuring that the dictator owed them this privilege. Even though the children were blacklisted for years as children of former political prisoners, they nevertheless are today all successful university graduates. “We and our children feel free today,” Leo said.
Sri Muhayati, 76, was a star volleyball player and a medical student at Yogyakarta’s elite Gadjah Mada University when she was arrested on Nov 19, 1965, along with her mother. Muhayati was also a CGMI member but not politically active. She often visited the Jefferson Library as a student. She recounted that around the time she was arrested, her friends, who had just returned to Indonesia the week before from US graduate school study on Ford Foundation scholarships, were also imprisoned, for no apparent cause, other than being educated.
Muhayati witnessed other girls and women with torn clothing after being raped, but she refused to be taken to the second floor, so escaped being violated. She said she suffered more for her family than herself. Her father, Muhadi, a fighter in the Indonesian revolution against the Dutch and a PKI member, had been arrested the month before. She saw him for the last time as he was being taken away for execution to a forest north of the city and dumped into one of more than 50 mass burial sites in Central Java alone that have been discovered by human rights groups.
Mostly, Muhayati anguished for her little brothers and sisters, left without parents or a big sister to look after them. Labeled as “PKI minions,” her siblings, still children, were expelled from public schools and later could not get government jobs. After five years in prison, she and her mother were released. Muhayati devoted the rest of her life to ensuring her siblings got a good education and start in life. While some of those arrested by the Army after G-30-S would have been dedicated Communist Party members, Indonesian scholars in Yogyakarta told me that mostly they were ordinary citizens with lose associations to the Communist Party or socialist organizations. In those years, Soekarno was immensely popular and many Indonesians were excited to join his post-independence movement of “nationalism, religion and communism,” known by the Indonesian acronym Nasakom.
Despite his anti-American sentiment, Soekarno had strong support from US Ambassador Howard P Jones, who served in Indonesia from 1958 to May 1965, diplomats who served under him said in interviews conducted by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST). Jones’s unflagging support for Soekarno greatly chagrined many American diplomats. They described Jones as someone who saw the best in everyone, possibly due to his Christian Science beliefs.
Jones also hoped to pursue a diplomatic rapprochement with Soekarno in the wake of the CIA’s 1958-59 support for rebel movements in Sulawesi, Maluku and Sumatra, which the Indonesian military easily quashed. Infamously, a former US Air Force pilot, Alan Pope, allegedly hired by the CIA, caused mayhem with his bombing raids in the outer islands and was shot down, captured and sentenced to be executed. Soekarno released him after a personal plea from Attorney General Robert Kennedy in Jakarta.
Jones’s relationship with Soekarno was so close that he visited him almost every morning, said by embassy officers to be beguiled by Soekarno’s mythic charm. Theodore Heavner, consul in Medan from 1964 to 1966, said in a 1997 interview with ADST: “Jones believed Soekarno, himself, was a nice person who was being pushed this way by the communists, and they were able to drag him that way because of the strong feeling of antagonism toward the US role in Vietnam and Asia. The United States also tried to interfere in Indonesia’s internal affairs earlier, and there was a strong residue of distrust.” Edward C Ingraham, a US Embassy political officer in the late 1950s, further explained in a 1991 interview: “Jones had established a unique personal relationship with Soekarno. Jones has been widely criticized for being taken to the cleaners by Soekarno, but that is nonsense. He knew exactly what Soekarno was doing. He would explain to me, ‘Ed, we have got to hang on here. Soekarno is moving away from us. He has given us … due cause to break relations, but we will be the losers if we leave Indonesia to the other side. If we have to undergo humiliations here, we are a big country and can stand it … . But something is going to happen and we have to be here when it does. And perhaps to try to help it happen.’” Jones was attempting to forestall Washington from breaking relations with Soekarno’s government while not giving Soekarno an excuse to break relations with the United States. Indonesia was too important a country to abandon.
In Washington, the Eisenhower administration hated Soekarno, regarding him as a communist and a playboy. The CIA director, Allen Dulles, personally oversaw the covert operations against Indonesia. Later, President Kennedy and Averell Harriman, Kennedy’s assistant secretary of state for East Asia, supported Jones’s more optimistic and nuanced approach. “I felt he clearly saw what the role of the US Embassy had to be in those very delicate and difficult years,” Jack Lydman, who served under Jones for four years, the last two as economic counselor from 1960 to 1962, said in an interview with ADST.
The more commonly held view among US officials who worked for Jones was expressed by Heavner, the consul in Medan, who said: “He was a terribly nice man but in my view quite ineffective vis-à-vis Soekarno, who really made a monkey out of him in many ways and publicly humiliated him.” In an interview with the John F Kennedy Presidential Library, Jones described his approach as follows: “The differences ranged around the point as to whether we should recognize a fact of life that Soekarno in that period was a charismatic leader of his country who literally was the idol of the masses; and recognizing this as a fact of life, we should do our best to influence the direction in which he was going. This was one view, and this was mine. The other view was that we could not cooperate with him, and that ranged to the extremes that we should attempt to bring him down. The view that I espoused is the one which prevailed.” Jones continued: “There was a difference of view on that policy only when Soekarno … began to kick us in the teeth. By 1964, he became extremely difficult to work with … he was finding it difficult to distinguish between fantasy and reality.”
By 1965, Soekarno had become convinced that the CIA was trying to topple him. Jones hosted a dinner to introduce him to the CIA station chief and assure him that the CIA was not after him, an unprecedented display of transparency. Edward Masters, political counselor under Ambassador Jones, said that Jones “was pretty much alone, feeling that it wasn’t really him [Soekarno] at all – it was these bad guys around him.” The United States had three irritants with Indonesia during the late 1950s to early 1960s: resolution of the dispute between Indonesia and the Netherlands over Irian Jaya, which the Netherlands did not want to relinquish; Soekarno’s confrontation with Malaysia to take control of the former British colonies in Borneo, which were ceded to Malaysia; and Soekarno himself.
American-Indonesian relations improved temporarily after Kennedy appointed Ellsworth Bunker, a seasoned US diplomat, to mediate a resolution of the Irian Jaya dispute, an effort which Jones helped to spearhead. The 1962 New York Agreement resulted in Indonesia taking control of Irian Jaya in 1963. This assuaged Soekarno somewhat. Soekarno allowed the Peace Corps into Indonesia as a concession for US help in brokering the deal.
Jones constantly pleaded with Soekarno to stop Indonesia’s attacks against Malaysia and the British, which began in 1963 and did not end until Soekarno fell. Jones did this both to protect British interests and so that the Indonesian Army could focus its resources on confronting the PKI, US diplomats said in interviews. US diplomats posted to Indonesia in the early 1960s worked in a hostile environment, fueled by Soekarno’s anti-American rhetoric and instigation of attacks against Westerners. The Dutch had been expelled for refusing to turn over Irian Jaya. The British Embassy and a British home were torched by protesters, encouraged by Soekarno, in 1963, after Britain ceded its Borneo colonies to Malaysia. Soekarno turned against the United States because of its involvement in Vietnam and any number of neocolonial issues.
Mass demonstrations by communist youth (described by embassy officials as perpetual students, pedicab drivers, thugs and the like) against the US Embassy occurred daily. They threw stones and used bamboo sticks to break windows. In one attack, demonstrators penetrated the ambassador’s residence. As political officer Richard Howland described it: “The demonstrators chased Ambassador [Marshall] and Mrs Green to the safe haven in the bedroom upstairs.” Demonstrators also attacked the US consulates in Surabaya and Medan, occupying the buildings, with slow or no response by police.
The Peace Corps was in Indonesia only briefly, from 1963 until the middle of 1965. Alexander Shakow, the Indonesian Peace Corps director, recounted that the Peace Corps consisted of 49 physical education teachers and coaches and one English language teacher assigned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Volunteers served in 24 of the 26 provinces with no incidents, with one exception. Shakow describes how one volunteer, Bob Rakan, “a sort of California beach bum, was assigned to Semarang, in Central Java, where he fell in love with the beautiful Eurasian daughter of the Communist Party chief of Central Java. The youth groups from the Communist Party tried to run him out of town.” One protest sign read, “Beware of Bob’s Smile.” Rakan later married the woman, Maya.
Ambassador Jones’s credibility in supporting Soekarno took a hard blow after Soekarno publicly shouted in a January 1965 speech, looking directly at Jones: “To hell with your aid,” according to Masters. Howland, the political officer, described how the situation deteriorated drastically from that time, prompting President Lyndon B Johnson to dispatch Bunker to Jakarta in May 1965 to evaluate the situation because of mixed signals coming from the embassy in Jakarta. Howland said: “As a result, both the Peace Corps and the AID Mission were withdrawn from Indonesia. USIS was drawn down to one officer and other nonessential personnel were withdrawn along with some dependents. Best of all, Ambassador Jones announced his retirement and left soon thereafter, in June 1965.”
Ambassador Marshall Green’s arrival in July 1965 marked a sea change in the US approach to Soekarno. “Most importantly, unlike Jones, Ambassador Green stood up to Soekarno publicly, and Soekarno started making the demonstrations worse … Soekarno was afraid of Green, I think. He thought Green had been sent to Indonesia to overthrow him,” Howland said. Howland, whose political analysis of Indonesia included cultural insights, said “some Indonesians speculated that this was the era of the ‘three greens.’ Green was an important mystical color in Java.” Ambassador Green had been the chargé d’affaires when President Syngman Rhee was overthrown in South Korea in 1960. Many who opposed Soekarno were Muslim, whose color was green. The Indonesian Army, which was anticommunist, wore green uniforms. Soekarno might have believed in that superstition.
The United States had only one ace up its sleeve to confront communism in Indonesia: the relationship between the US Army and the Indonesian Army. A 1998 master’s thesis by Captain Bryan Evans, “The Influence of the United States Army on the Development of the Indonesian Army,” explains how a modest American assistance program for the anticommunist Army enabled it to face down the Indonesian Communist Party coup attempt, crush the communists and establish a functioning authoritarian government under General Soeharto’s New Order regime. This assistance was promoted by Ambassador Jones. In an April 15, 1958, cable to Washington, he urged that covert actions supporting Indonesian rebels cease. He asked for a tangible commitment to the Indonesian Army in order to support pro-American Army leadership. “If the Army remains anti-communist, I believe it can be induced to take positive action to prevent communist takeover by political means or otherwise,” Jones wrote in that cable.
This strategy was possible largely due to one military attaché, US Army Colonel George Benson, a legend in Indonesia. During his first tour, from 1956 to 1959, he established close relationships with Indonesian military leadership, including generals Nasution, Yani and others. During the rebellions, he rejected the CIA policy of supporting the rebels, actually giving the Indonesian Army maps of Sumatra to help them fight the rebellion. He convinced US Army Chief of Staff General Maxwell Taylor to assist the Indonesian military, which was crucial to Indonesia’s fate (Evans).
The US Token Material Aid Program for Indonesia during the years 1958 to 1965 was small, for example $21 million in 1959 in return for $700,000 in payment. However, the return the US derived from training Indonesian Army officers was incalculable. An October 1996 CIA report stated that approximately 2,800 Indonesian officers had been trained in US service schools, between 17 and 25 percent of the Army’s general officers (Evans). This number doubled in the following decade and continued to grow until the suspension of the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program for Indonesia in 1992, due to the Army’s human rights violations in East Timor. (IMET was restored on a limited basis in 1996 and has since expanded.)
The US Service Schools training for Indonesian officers focused on operations, including intelligence, and they returned to Indonesia to important assignments in the field. Significantly, a key component of the US Military Assistance Program for Indonesia was the US Civic Action Program (CAP), a priority of President Kennedy to counter communism in the developing world. Indonesia had its own similar civic mission program developed earlier to fight the extremist Darul Islam rebellion. US support of the CAP program enabled the Indonesian Army to “foster a new mission in the villages, securing its presence in the community and confronting the PKI,” Evans wrote. The CAP program overshadowed the massive Soviet and Chinese aid programs to the Indonesian Air Force and Navy, enabling the United States to supplant the communists after October 1965. In an Oct 11, 1962, meeting, Ambassador Jones told Kennedy “that we are pinning our hopes on the Army in our efforts to curb the power and influence of the communists.” He said the CAP program was necessary to maintain the Army’s pro-American orientation (Oct 11, 1962, Memorandum of Conversation). In addition, the Indonesian Army’s modernization of its education system was based on Army education. For example, the Military Academy at Magelang, in Central Java, was modeled after West Point (Evans).
The Civic Action Program for Indonesia focused on projects such as transmigration, cooperative farming, logging, fisheries, communications and roadways. US aid was used to train Army officers and provided heavy engineering equipment, farm tools, etc. Of course, the Army civic action presence in villages also enabled it to draw away support from the PKI and gave it valuable intelligence to target communists after G-30-S. After 1965, the Army permeated all aspects of Indonesian society, from farming to banking, its officers holding all key government positions. Under this dual function (dwi fungsi) policy, the Army took on both military and social-political responsibilities. US training played a major role in the Army’s preparation for this role. (This dual function policy was abolished after Indonesia transitioned to democracy beginning in 1998.)
Besides military training programs, the US provided other valuable education to Indonesians before 1965. USAID had sent thousands of Indonesians for degrees in the United States – in agriculture, medicine and other technical fields. Ford Foundation scholarships trained many economists, part of the “Berkeley Mafia” that would guide Indonesia into healthy economic growth during the Soeharto regime. Prior to G-30-S, some US Embassy officers suspected a communist coup was imminent. Political officer Bob Martens saw signals from Soekarno’s Aug 17, 1965, national day speech, and PKI statements in the press that “Soekarno was trying to set the stage for a Leninist act of terrorism … so that PKI could be moved into power,” according to an interview with Howland (ADST). Martens predicted Sept 1 as that day and believed the date was moved to Oct 1 only because Soekarno had fallen sick.
Martens also observed Soekarno’s July 25, 1965, speech, saying that “Soekarno praised the earlier communist uprising of 1926-1927, by identifying himself with the PKI of the 1920s, which went underground after the failure of that revolt. In effect, Soekarno was saying that he had been a member of the 1926 PKI.” Martens added, “Soekarno was the real leader of the PKI, in essence.” Ambassador Green said: “Circumstantial evidence would indicate that, as soon as the PKI coup succeeded, Soekarno would then set up a Nasakom government, possibly in Yogyakarta or in Jakarta” (ADST).
Clearly, however, the US Embassy was taken by surprise by the events of Oct 1, 1965, interviews, memoirs and official cables indicate. Some lived in central Jakarta, a few homes from where General Yani was killed, and heard gunshots that night. They were not aware until a 7:30 am radio broadcast announced that a revolutionary council had taken over. In ADST interviews, US State Department officers all agreed that the CIA was not involved in those events, saying the CIA was not very active at the time. Also, Ambassador Jones had put a tight leash on CIA covert operations in Indonesia. The CIA did have a contingency plan of covert action for Indonesia, according to a declassified Sept 18, 1964, CIA memorandum, “Prospects for Covert Action.” The five-phased program cited in the memorandum is still classified so that content was redacted. However, the memorandum did state that covert action had been limited to contacting and influencing people, plus limited harassment of the PKI. The CIA apparently was taking covert actions against PKI but not against Soekarno.
US officials did see Indonesia as the most important Southeast Asia domino of the Cold War. Commenting on G-30-S, Ambassador Green said years later: “Had Indonesia gone communist, American forces in Vietnam would have been caught in a kind of huge nutcracker. Indonesia came perilously close to going communist … all Southeast Asia might have come under communist domination. As it turned out, it was just the other way around, with Indonesia today playing a constructive role in international affairs … it was a great turnabout. It reversed the whole course of history, not only of that region but probably of the world.” Green also commented on Soeharto: “In fact, I was impressed with Soeharto from the beginning. He was rational, pragmatic, balanced, objective and also modest.” Green said immediate assistance to the government was very limited. He turned over 14 embassy walkie-talkies to Soeharto to help with his security. Green said he had very limited contact directly with Soeharto but went through Adam Malik, the foreign minister at that time. Green said: “Malik’s message to me was, ‘Wait until the Soekarnoists are clearly out. Then we will let you know what we want in the way of aid. We are certainly going to need it some time.’”
The United States did not have funding to offer much aid until 1967, so instead offered a package of $26 million of food and cotton aid in 1966, and put together a donor group so that aid would be multilateral, Green said. Aid in subsequent years was substantial. In reporting cables sent in 1965 and 1966, and in interviews given years later, American officials had very little to say about the rape, torture and massacres. A decade later, they did press the government to release people who went into prison as teenagers, as young as 12 years old. “We didn’t see any role to be played,” recalled Martens, a political officer at that time. “And, in fact, one could argue whether that was right or wrong, but that was basically our policy. We stayed out of it.” Howland, another political officer, said: “They did a fabulous job. In six months they mopped up an insurgency. So the Indonesian Army decided they had to handle it themselves, which, had it spread, could have been quite serious. How did they do it? They did it through superb intelligence techniques and covert action techniques.”
Ambassador Green and others said no one in the embassy saw any killings, and many claimed that they spoke to no one who had witnessed any killings. They explained that killings took place at night and in rural areas, with urban victims taken outside the city to be killed. In February 1966, Green asked the embassy staff to come up with its best estimate of the number killed, and they came up with a “wild guess” figure of 300,000. He said 300,000 “plus or minus two hundred fifty thousand” would have been closer to the truth.
To be fair to US diplomats, I have asked many Indonesians living in Jakarta at that time if they knew about the killings, and no one I asked was aware until years later. Soeharto kept a close lid on information. Cable reports to Washington occasionally cited killings of a mass scale, with the Army soliciting help of Muslim, Catholic, Christian and Hindu organizations in the slaughter. The cables reported little communist resistance, which surprised US Embassy officials.
A Nov 30, 1965, cable estimated 10,000 to 15,000 killed in recent weeks, adding that “American movies may be shown again.” In East Java, a missionary reported to the embassy seeing 25 bodies in the Kediri River, with an estimated 15,000 communists killed in one village. An embassy officer wrote: “Victims who have had the temerity to continue to cast aspersions at Islam have had throats cut by Ansor youths” (the youth wing of Nahdlatul Ulama, the mass Islamic organization). A Dec 21, 1965, telegram from the US Embassy reported an estimated 100,000 PKI deaths, commenting on “the fantastic switch over 10 short weeks,” and that the embassy “is busily doing what it can to meet the need and to take advantage of new opportunities … .”
Soeharto’s government was very good for American business. As Paul Cleveland, economic officer from 1965 to 1968, observed in a 1995 interview (ADST), American oil, mining, communications, aviation, manufacturing and so forth did brisk business in Indonesia in the following years. He said, “The embassy, after the coup, was definitely pushing US investment, not only because we thought it would be good for American companies, but because we too viewed Indonesian economic development as essential to political stability and growth.” During Soeharto’s entire era, all the way to 1998, US diplomats seldom if ever criticized him publicly, and oftentimes defended him publicly. No one wanted to rock the boat.
Clearly, the 1960s were different times, before President Jimmy Carter put human rights at the forefront of foreign policy and before gruesome images of the Vietnam War caused outrage among many Americans. Even the US media was sanguine about the 1965-66 massacres, also trumpeting the change of fortune for America. I do wonder, however, how different it might have been if the American message to the Indonesian Army in 1965 was one that condemned the massacres and other atrocities, and what if the United States had led its allies in that message? Could the communist putsch have been stopped with far fewer deaths and no massacres? What if our diplomats had made more of an effort to seek out the families of victims? Perhaps that would have led them to the doors of the former Jefferson library.
The United States also could have taken a stronger human rights stance on the laundry list of atrocities that occurred under Soeharto: Tanjung Priok; Talangsari; the kidnappings of activists in 1997-98; the May 1998 riots; the Trisakti, Semanggi and Semanggi II shootings; the further disappearances of activists; atrocities in East Timor, Papua and Aceh. The United States could have hastened Soeharto’s demise, not through regime change but by not supporting him.
To this day, the victims of years of human rights abuses in Indonesia continue to press for accountability, or to at least know where their loved ones are buried. In 2016, President Joko Widodo ordered the government to document the location of an estimated 122 mass burial sites of the 1965-66 victims. Human rights activists have told me that authorities will not let families of victims near one mass grave near Yogyakarta where those family members believe their loved ones are buried. While human rights abuses continue in Indonesia – as does official impunity – Indonesia is in a much better place today, with a thriving democracy, a strong civil society that fights for human rights and a president who genuinely cares about his people.
I am less sanguine about the United States, led by an immoral president who has the power to destroy nations. America has a penchant for instigating unholy wars of regime change that cause decades of severe repercussions. For example, in 1953 the CIA helped to covertly overthrow a democratically elected government in Iran. President Donald J Trump’s neocon advisers, such as John Bolton, are threatening regime change in today’s democratic Iran. The US invasion of Iraq in the name of regime change to install democracy pushed the Middle East into chaos and gave birth to the Islamic State. The war in Afghanistan is endless. Some American experts on nuclear weapons believe that Trump has put the world a tick closer to nuclear annihilation with his cavalier attitude. Trump himself has defended torture and his new CIA director, Gina Haspel, refused to condemn the torture of suspected terrorists, some of whom were tortured under her direction. What would the world be like today if the United States simply never intervened, except perhaps for humanitarian reasons or to prevent genocide? One can only imagine.
So, the massacres of 1965 still do matter. Accountability by Indonesians who committed human rights abuses during Soeharto’s harsh 32-year regime (some of whom are still powerful) is needed to prevent future such abuses. Much more importantly, the United States needs to be held accountable. The only way that can happen is for Americans to go to the polls in November and elect moral leaders who care about human rights. America remains the most consequential country in the world. If America sticks with its Jeffersonian ideals, perhaps the world will follow suit.
Stanley Harsha is a retired American diplomat who formerly served as US consul general for Sumatra and multiple other roles during four tours of duty in Indonesia between 1986 and 2011. He is the author of a book on US-Indonesian relations and comparative cultures, “Like the Moon and the Sun,” which touches on issues addressed in this essay. This essay does not represent the views of the US government.