US And British Complicity In Indonesia 1965

US officials at the time called a “reign of terror” and British officials “ruthless terror”. However, unlike the terrorists responsible for the outrage of September 11, precisely nothing has ever been done to bring those responsible in Indonesia – and their supporters in Washington and London – to account.

The killings in Indonesia started when a group of army officers loyal to President Sukarno assassinated several generals on 30 September 1965. They believed the generals were about to stage a coup to overthrow Sukarno. The instability, however, provided other anti-Sukarno generals, led by General Suharto, with an excuse for the army to move against a powerful and popular political faction with mass support, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). It did so brutally: in a few months hundreds of thousands of PKI members and ordinary people were killed and the PKI destroyed. Suharto emerged as leader and instituted a repressive regime that lasted until 1998.

The declassified documents show five ways in which the US and Britain were complicit in this slaughter. First, both the US and Britain wanted the army to act and encouraged them to do it. US officials expressed their hope of “army at long last to act effectively against Communists” [sic]. “We are, as always, sympathetic to army’s desire to eliminate communist influence” and ”it is important to assure the army of our full support of its efforts to crush the PKI”, other officials noted.

The British were equally enthusiastic. “I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change”, the ambassador in Jakarta, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, informed the Foreign Office on 5 October.

The following day the Foreign Office in London stated that “the crucial question still remains whether the Generals will pluck up enough courage to take decisive action against the PKI”. Later it noted that “we must surely prefer an Army to a Communist regime” and declared: “It seems pretty clear that the Generals are going to need all the help they can get and accept without being tagged as hopelessly pro-Western, if they are going to be able to gain ascendancy over the Communists. In the short run, and while the present confusion continues, we can hardly go wrong by tacitly backing the Generals”. British policy was “to encourage the emergence of a General’s regime”, one intelligence official explained.

Support for army actions continued throughout the period of the worst killings; there is no question that US and British officials knew exactly what they were supporting. US Ambassador Marshall Green noted three weeks after the attempted coup and with the killings having begun, that “Army has… been working hard at destroying PKI and I, for one, have increasing respect for its determination and organisation in carrying out this crucial assignment”. Green noted in the same despatch the “execution of PKI cadres”, putting the figure at “several hundred of them” in “Djakarta area alone” [sic]. “To date, army has performed far better than anticipated in attacking PKI and regrouping”.

On 1 November, Green informed the State Department of the army’s “moving relentlessly to exterminate the PKI as far as that is possible to do”. Three days later he noted that “Embassy and USG generally sympathetic with and admiring of what army doing” [sic]. Four days after this the US Embassy reported that the Army and allied elements “has continued systematic drive to destroy PKI in northern Sumatra with wholesale killings reported”.

By 16 November, the US Consulate in Medan was reporting that “much indiscriminate killing is taking place”. “Something like a reign of terror against PKI is taking place. This terror is not discriminating very carefully between PKI leaders and ordinary PKI members with no ideological bond to the party”. A British official reported on 25 November that “PKI men and women are being executed in very large numbers”.

By mid December the State Department noted approvingly that “Indonesian military leaders’ campaign to destroy PKI is moving fairly swiftly and smoothly”. By 14 February 1966 Ambassador Green could note that “the PKI has been destroyed as an effective political force for some time to come” and that “the Communists…have been decimated by wholesale massacre”.

The British files reveal that by January the US estimated the number of dead at 150,000, although one Indonesian armed forces liaison officer told US attaches of a figure of 500,000. By March one British official wondered “how much of it [the PKI] is left, after six months of killing” and believed that over 200,000 had been killed in Sumatra alone. By April, the US Embassy stated that “we frankly do not know whether the real figure is closer to 100,000 or 1,000,000 but believe it wiser to err on the side of the lower estimates, especially when questioned by the press”.

Summarising the events of 1965 the British Consul in Medan referred to the army by noting that: “Posing as saviours of the nation from a communist terror, they unleashed a ruthless terror of their own, the scare of which will take many years to heal.” Another British memo referred to the “an operation carried out on a very large scale and often with appalling savagery”. Another simply referred to the “bloodbath”.

The US and British files reveal total support for these massacres. I could find no reference to any concern about the extent of killing at all – other than constant encouragement for the army to continue. And it was not only PKI activists who were the targets of this terror. As the British files show, many of the victims were the “merest rank and file “ of the PKI who were “often no more than bewildered peasants who give the wrong answer on a dark night to bloodthirsty hooligans bent on violence”, with the connivance of the army.

The second way in the US and Britain supported the slaughter concerned the “Confrontation” between Malaya and Indonesia. Here, Britain had deployed tens of thousands troops, mainly in Borneo, to defend Malaya against possible Indonesian encroachments following territorial claims. British policy “did not want to distract the Indonesian army by getting them engaged in fighting in Borneo and so discourage them from the attempts which they now seem to be making to deal with the PKI”. British Ambassador Gilchrist proposed that “we should get word to the Generals that we shall not attack them whilst they are chasing the PKI”, described as a “necessary task”. In October the British passed to the Generals, through a US contact “a carefully phrased oral message about not biting the Generals in the back for the present”.

The US files confirm that the message from the US, conveyed on 14 October, read: “First, we wish to assure you that we have no intention of interfering Indonesian internal affairs directly or indirectly. Second, we have good reason to believe that none of our allies intend to initiate any offensive action against Indonesia” [sic]. The message was greatly welcomed by the army: One of the Indonesian Defence Minister’s aides noted that “this was just what was needed by way of assurances that we (the army) weren’t going to be hit from all angles as we moved to straighten things out here”.

Third is the “hit list” of targets supplied by the US to the Indonesian army. As the journalist Kathy Kadane has revealed, as many as 5,000 names of provincial, city and other local PKI committee members and leaders of the mass organisations of the PKI, such as the national labour federation, women’s and youth groups, were passed on the Generals, many of whom were subsequently killed. “It really was a big help to the army” noted Robert Martens, a former member of the US embassy. “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”.

The declassified US files do not provide many further details about the provision of this hit list, although they do confirm it. One list of names, for example, was passed to the Indonesians in December 1965 and “is apparently being used by Indonesian security authorities who seem to lack even the simplest overt information on PKI leadership at the time”. It also notes that “lists of other officials in the PKI affiliates, Partindo and Baperki were also provided to GOI [Government of Indonesia] officials at their request”.

The fourth means of support was propaganda operations. On 5 October a “political adviser” at the British intelligence base in Singapore reported to the Foreign Office in London that: “we should not miss the present opportunity to use the situation to our advantage… I recommend that we should have no hesitation in doing what we can surreptitiously to blacken the PKI in the eyes of the army and the people of Indonesia”. The Foreign Office replied: “We certainly do not exclude any unattributable propaganda or psywar [psychological warfare] activities which would contribute to weakening the PKI permanently. We therefore agree with the [above] recommendation… Suitable propaganda themes might be… Chinese interference in particular arms shipments; PKI subverting Indonesia as agents of foreign communists”.

On 9 October the political adviser confirmed that “we have made arrangements for distribution of certain unattributable material based on the general guidance” in the Foreign Office memo. This involved “promoting and coordinating publicity” critical of the Sukarno government to “news agencies, newspapers and radio”. “The impact has been considerable”, one file notes.

The fifth means of support was provision of equipment – although this remains the murkiest area to uncover. Past US support to the military “should have established clearly in minds Army leaders that US stands behind them if they should need help”, the State Department noted. US strategy was to “avoid overt involvement in the power struggle but… indicate, clearly but covertly, to key Army officers our desire to assist where we can.”

The first US supplies to the Indonesian army were radio equipment “to help in internal security” and to help the Generals “in their task of overcoming the Communists”, as British Ambassador Gilchrist out it. The US historian Gabriel Kolko has shown that in early November 1965 the US received a request from the Generals to “arm Moslem and nationalist youths…for use against the PKI”. The recently published files confirm this approach from the Indonesians. On 1 November Ambassador Green cabled Washington that “as to the provision of small arms I would be leery about telling army we are in position to provide same, although we should act, not close our minds to this possibility… We could explore availability of small arms stocks, preferable of non-US origin, which could be obtained without any overt US government involvement. We might also examine channels through which we could, if necessary, provide covert assistance to army for purchase of weapons”.

A CIA memo of 9 November stated that the US should avoid being “too hesitant about the propriety of extending such assistance provided we can do so covertly, in a manner which will not embarrass them or embarrass our government”. It then noted that mechanisms exist or can be created to deliver “any of the types of the materiel requested to date in reasonable quantities”. One line of text is then not declassified before the memo notes: “The same can be said of purchasers and transfer agents for such items as small arms, medicine and other items requested.” The memo goes on to note that “we do not propose that the Indonesian army be furnished such equipment at this time”. However, “if the Army leaders justify their needs in detail…it is likely that at least will help ensure their success and provide the basis for future collaboration with the US”. “The means for covert implementation” for the delivery of arms “are within our capabilities”.

In response to the Indonesia request for arms, Kolko has shown that the US promised to provide such covert aid, and dubbed them “medicines”. The declassified files state that “the Army really needed the medicines” and that the US was keen to indicate “approval in a practical way of the actions of the Indonesian army”. The extent of arms provided is not revealed in the files but the amount “the medicines would cost was a mere pittance compared with the advantages that might accrue to the US as a result of ‘getting in on the ground floor’”, one file reads. A meeting in Washington of 4 December approved the provision of such “medicines”.

The British knew of these arms supplies and it is likely they also approved them. Britain was initially reluctant to see US equipment go to the Generals lest it be used in the “Confrontation”. Thus the British files show that the US State Department had “undertaken to consult with us before they do anything to support the Generals”. It is possible that the US reneged on this commitment; however, in earlier discussions about this possibility, a British official at the embassy in Washington noted that “I do not think that is very likely”.

The British files in particular show very close relations between the US and British embassies in Jakarta. They point to a somewhat coordinated joint US-UK operation to help install a Generals regime and bring about a government more favourable to Western economic and political interests. The Indonesia campaign is one of the most bloody in the postwar history of US-UK collaboration that includes the joint overthrow of the Musaddiq regime in Iran in 1953, the removal of the population of the British island of Diego Garcia to make way for a US military base in 1965, UK support for US aggression in Vietnam, Central America, Grenada, Panama and Libya and covert operations in Cambodia and Afghanistan. The current phase of the special relationship is witnessed in joint military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Basic US and British concerns and priorities regarding mid-1960s Indonesia are laid out in the files. For the British the importance of Southeast Asia was partly explained by the fact that “Southeast Asia is a major producer of some essential commodities” such as rubber, copra and chromuim ore. “Economically, Southeast Asia is a major producer of raw materials… and the defence of the sources of these products and their denial to a possible enemy are major interests to the Western powers”. Indonesia also “occupies a key position in world communications”, straddling important sea and air routes. And Britain wanted, of course, to see a change in regime in Jakarta to bring an end to the “Confrontation” with Malaya.

British Foreign Secretary Michel Stewart wrote at the time that “it is only the economic chaos of Indonesia which prevents that country from offering great potential opportunities to British exporters. If there is going to be a deal in Indonesia… I think we ought to take an act and try to secure a slice of the cake ourselves”. The British feared “the resurgence of Communist and radical nationalism”.

For the US, Under Secretary of State George Ball had noted that Indonesia “may be more important to us than South V-N [Vietnam]” (251). “At stake”, one US memo read, “are 100 million people, vast potential resources and a strategically important chain of islands”. Basic US priorities were virtually identical in Vietnam and Indonesia: to prevent the consolidation of an independent nationalist regime, with communist components and sympathies, that threatened Western economic and political interests and that could act as a successful development model.

The US Ambassador in Malaysia cabled Washington a year before the October 1965 events in Indonesia saying that “our difficulties with Indonesia stem basically from deliberate, positive GOI [Government of Indonesia] strategy of seeking to push Britain and the US out of Southeast Asia”. Ball noted in March 1965 that “our relations with Indonesia are on the verge of falling apart”. “Not only has the management of the American rubber plants been taken over, but there are dangers of an imminent seizure of the American oil companies”.

The Sukarno regime clearly had the wrong priorities. According to one US report: “the government occupies a dominant position in basic industry, public utilities, internal transportation and communication”. “It is probable that private ownership will disappear and may be succeeded by some form of production-profit-sharing contract arrangements to be applied to all foreign in vestment”. Overall, “the avowed Indonesian objective is ‘to stand on their own feet’ in developing their economy, free from foreign, especially Western, influence” – clearly all heretical priorities to basic US-UK strategy that – as today – needed to be defeated.

The problem with the PKI was not so much its communism but its nationalism: “it is likely that PKI foreign policy decisions, like those of Sukarno, would stress Indonesian national interests above those of Peking, Moscow or international communism in general”, one memo reads. The real danger of a Communist Indonesia was outlined in a Special National Intelligence Estimate of 1 September 1965. This referred to the PKI’s moving “to energize and unite the Indonesia nation” and stated that “if these efforts succeeded, Indonesia would provide a powerful example for the underdeveloped world and hence a credit to communism and a setback for Western prestige”. The problem was that Indonesia would be too successful, a fear in the minds of US planners well documented by Kolko and Noam Chomsky in policy towards numerous other countries.

The Army was by no means the perfect ally of the US in Indonesia – as the files note, it “was strongly nationalist in orientation and strongly favours the takeover of Western economic interests”. Nevertheless in the choice between Sukarno and the PKI on the one hand and the army on the other, “the army deserves our support”. And over time a combination of Western advice, aid and investment did transform the Indonesian economy into one that, although retaining an important nationalist element, provided substantial opportunities and profits for Western investors, aided by an increasingly corrupt President Suharto. The West supported Suharto throughout the three-decade long rule of repression, including in the regime’s murderous policies in East Timor after the invasion of 1975. The hundreds of thousands of deaths then were as irrelevant to US and British officials as those in 1965.

For notes and sources, see the forthcoming book, The Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, Vintage, 2003. Mark Curtis can be contacted at He is the author of The Great Deception: Anglo-American Power and World Order, Pluto, London (

Note: The US files referred to were published last year in the Foreign Relations of the United States series by the US Government Printing Office. British files are in Public Record Office, London.

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