The Limits of Intervention: U.S. Involvement in Indonesia during the Regional Rebellion (1957-1958) and the Overthrow of Sukarno (1965-1966)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2001 29 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Region: Far East



I. Introduction

II. The Regional Rebellion in Sumatra and Sulawesi, 1957-1958
1. The Genesis of the Rebellion
2. The United States Intervenes
3. Civil War
4. Rapprochement

III. The Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1966
1. Radicalization in the early 1960s
2. The U.S. and the Events Leading up to the 1965 ‘Coup’
3. U.S. Compliance with the Indonesian Army after the ‘Coup’

IV. Conclusion

V. Bibliography


Permesta’s Air War, April-May 1958

I. Introduction

After World War II, the United States became a major power in Southeast Asia. The Americans, who had driven the Japanese occupation forces out of this resource-rich region, assumed what they took to be their historic responsibility: building a more stable, more peaceful and more prosperous world order under their leadership. While at first unwilling to alienate their European allies concerning the colonial question, U.S. leaders remained, albeit somewhat ambiguously, committed to the principle of self-determination and indicated by the late 1940s that they would favor the emancipation of the fledgling, increasingly self-assertive Southeast Asian nations from their European colonial masters. As the Cold War ensued, however, not colonial self-determination, but strategic fear of the potential spread of communism quickly became the overriding concern. Perceiving the region as vital to the global balance of power, U.S. policymakers were eager to keep it within the boundaries of the so-called Free World. From the early 1950s onwards till the Americans retreated from Vietnam in the mid-1970s, successive U.S. governments were heavily enmeshed in Southeast Asian affairs and applied various measures aimed to stabilize the region, contain Communist advances and preserve Western strategic and economic interests. While some of these measures, to be sure, took the form of political support, economic aid, or even accommodation, another “measure” was crude, and sometimes clandestine, intervention.[1]

While the far-reaching consequences of U.S. intervention in the Cold War- battlegrounds of Laos, Cambodia and particularly Vietnam are now, in retrospect, well known, U.S. interventions in the affairs of Indonesia during the 1950s and 1960s have been less widely publicized. Only recently have scholars -equipped with the Freedom of Information Act and inquisitive minds- managed to fully reconstruct the American dimension of the rebellion of regional military commanders in 1957-1958, when Indonesia was pushed into civil war. At that time, the Eisenhower administration clandestinely but actively encouraged dissident colonels in Sumatra and Sulawesi and their civilian counterparts to challenge the central government under President Sukarno and the armed forces stationed on Java, both of which it believed to be under increasing Communist influence. Weapons were dropped to arm the rebels, agents of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were dispatched to train them and even a camouflaged air force was deployed to further their cause. This enormous covert operation, triggered by poor intelligence and an alarmist assessment of the political situation in Indonesia at that time, was calculated on an eventual breakup of that far-flung archipelagic nation. In the event, however, the operation not only dismally failed, but also proved counterproductive to U.S. interests. Among its unintended results were the increased stature, power and influence of each Sukarno, the Indonesian army (which had crushed the rebellion) and, ironically, the

Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, or PKI).[2]

In the wake of the abortive rebellion, Indonesia drifted increasingly into instability and radicalism. The political system that emerged, “Guided Democracy”, became a competitive arrangement between president Sukarno, the army and the PKI, in which Sukarno relied on the PKI as his primary ally to counterbalance the increasing power of the army.[3] Sukarno took the nation on an apparently leftward, anti-Western course, whereas the PKI built up considerable strength.[4] By mid-1965, U.S. policymakers were once again convinced that a Communist takeover in Indonesia was imminent and that, at the same time, Americans could not do much to prevent it.[5] Preoccupied with the escalating war in Vietnam, they seemed genuinely surprised when in the fall of 1965 events in Indonesia suddenly took a dramatic turn creating a situation favorable to U.S. interests: Following a coup on September 30 by army officers allegedly acting at the behest of PKI elements, army units under the leadership of the conservative, pro-Western Suharto stepped in, mounted a counterattack, orchestrated a brutal purge of the PKI leadership and suspected Communists that may have claimed a death toll “anywhere between 250,000 and perhaps 800,000”[6], and ultimately took power from Sukarno. Instead of falling to the Communists, Indonesia became a right-wing military regime.

Whereas it is reasonably clear what manoeuvres lay behind the regional rebellion of 1957-1958, the events of late 1965 are shrouded in mystery to this day and considerable controversy remains as to who masterminded them.[7] Given the inherent complexities of this far-flung nation and the tense social and political environment of the late Guided Democracy period, it seems improbable that a single mastermind controlled all the events.[8] Not surprisingly, the CIA has been among the suspects[9], but it has been credibly argued that Sukarno’s overthrow “had little to do with American machinations” and instead “resulted from developments of essentially Indonesian origin.”[10] This being said, there remains some uncertainty about the CIA’s role or other clandestine activities –whatever limited in scale- both before and after the coup, including the agency’s assistance to the massacre of presumed Communists. Another scholar rejects “premature absolution of the CIA” and concludes: “Though not a prime instigator of those tragic events, the United States was, however, surely an important and witting accomplice.”[11] As will be shown later, this view is supported by written sources recently published in the Foreign Relations of the United States series[12], even though the overall picture still remains unclear.

In offering a brief sketch of both of these two contrasting episodes of U.S. involvement in Indonesian affairs during the Cold War -the CIA-backed regional rebellion of 1957-1958 and the apparently domestically triggered, but American-assisted overthrow of Sukarno in 1965-, this commentary seeks to illuminate how limited U.S. ability to control events in Indonesia was at that time. The first task of this paper is to outline the genesis of the regional rebellion and the objectives of American intervention, and to describe its major events and turning points, before analyzing its outcome and aftermath. Then this commentary turns directly to the events leading up to the 1965 ‘coup’ and its aftermath, discussing the existing evidence of U.S. involvement. A brief conclusion addresses the lasting implications of U.S. manipulation in Indonesia.

II. The Regional Rebellion in Sumatra and Sulawesi, 1957-1958

1. The Genesis of the Rebellion

Indonesia’s regional crisis in the late 1950s had little to do with Communism – initially, at least. In fact, it arose out of widespread disillusionment with the non-achievements of the post-revolutionary period of parliamentary democracy between 1950 and 1957. Successive Indonesian leadership groups had failed to settle divisive issues of state philosophy and structure or to implement problem-solving policy effectively. Disappointment was exacerbated when the national elections in 1955 did not produce the desired improvement in effective governance.[13] Party conflict prevailed along regional, ethnic, religious and ideological lines, corruption was rampant and the economy remained weak.[14] As the only major party not represented in the cabinet, the PKI understandably benefited from this situation as a symbol of protest.[15] But in the context of regional rebellion, two rather different issues stand out: the structural imbalance between Java and the Outer Islands, and the military dimension.

The Java-Outer Islands problem has been described as a “complicated combination of social and cultural, as well as political and economic, hostilities.”[16] Javanese dominated everything: the population figures and thus the electorate, the national leadership elite, national culture - but not the economy. The producers of Indonesia’s major revenue earners

–such as oil, tin, rubber and copra- were located in the under-populated Outer Islands, whereas most of the consumers of imports were located in over-populated Java. Various foreign exchange allocation systems in force during the 1950’s favored consumers over producers by maintaining an overvalued Rupiah exchange rate, thus triggering barter trade and smuggling in the export areas of the Outer Islands as a way of keeping profits at home in defiance of the central government.[17]

Taking the lead in organizing the smuggling operations in Sumatra and Sulawesi were the territorial commanders of the army, whose powerful standing stemmed from their leading role during the independence struggle in their respective regions. They resisted the imposition of civilian control over themselves, had a hand in commercial ventures and thus were firmly entrenched in their positions as virtual warlords in autonomous “fiefs”. Trying to contain such an erosion of central control in army affairs and to consolidate his own position among his most senior rivals, Army Chief of Staff Abdul Haris Nasution in early 1956 announced plans to rotate key territorial commanders as part of a broader move to rationalize, streamline and reorganize the Indonesian army. While Col. Alex E. Kawilarang, commander of West Java’s Siliwangi division, and Col. J.F. Warouw, commander of East Indonesia, in August 1956 accepted their transfer to positions as military attachés to Beijing and Washington, respectively, the move met the fierce opposition of Col. Maludin Simbolon, commander of North Sumatra, and Lt. Col. Zulfiki Lubis, deputy chief of staff, both former contenders for Nasution’s post. In November 1956, Lubis staged a coup against Nasution, but failed and went into hiding, only to reappear later in the rebellion. Simbolon and Lubis had led the opposition to Nasution’s centralizing policies since 1955 and were largely supported by non-Javanese, anti-Jakarta officers and politicians from Masyumi, the Muslim party with the greatest strength in the

Outer Islands. By now army affairs were closely linked to regional interests.[18]

Exacerbating dissent in the regions, Vice President Hatta, an admired native Sumatran and able administrator, declared his resignation from office on December 1, 1956. This removed the major representative of Outer Islands interests from the central government. Following these developments, army commanders in Sumatra and Sulawesi between December 1956 and March 1957 formed regional “councils” and formulated “charters” to voice their grievances, but stopped short of a full break with Jakarta. They managed to rally substantial portions of the civilian populace behind them to demand greater local control of government and finances. On December 20, 1956, the regimental commander from Padang, Lt. Col. Ahmad Husein took over government in West Sumatra. Two days later, Col. Simbolon announced that North Sumatra was no longer taking orders from Jakarta. He was ousted from Medan the day after by his chief of staff, Lt. Col. Gintings, who was loyal to Jakarta, but Simbolon fled the city in time to join Husein in Padang. In South Sumatra, its commander Lt. Col. Barlian moved more cautiously since his region was geographically close to Java and he was personally close to Nasution, but he finally also jumped on the bandwagon of regional protest in March 1957 when it was clear that his colleagues in Sulawesi were doing the same.[19]

In Sulawesi, a shared sentiment against the Javanese troops operating in the South to quell a rural insurgency brought together the previously rivaling Buginese/ Makassarese officers from South- and the Minahasans from North Sulawesi to cooperate against the central government. Warouw’s successor as army commander of Sulawesi and the rest of East Indonesia, Lt. Col. H. N. Ventje Sumual, a fellow Minahasa Christian, was eager to promote Minahasa’s economic independence and joined the Southerners in their demand for greater military, political, and economic autonomy. When an ultimatum that was given to Jakarta to comply had passed unheeded, military and civilian leaders gathered in Makassar in the early morning of March 2, 1957, to declare martial law within the region and sign the Charter of Inclusive Struggle (P iagam P er juangan Se mes ta A lam, or Permesta). By now the island of Sulawesi and whole of Sumatra except the city of Medan were in open defiance of the central government.[20]

In Indonesia’s political center, where parliamentary democracy was paralyzed by internecine party struggle, the regional challenge plunged the existing system into an even deeper crisis. Already in fall 1956 Sukarno had seized the initiative and proposed ideas (konsepsi) for a new system of “Guided Democracy”, a conception he formalized on February 21, 1957, arguing for an inclusion of PKI in a cabinet of national unity, advised by a National Council (Dewan Nasional) made up of functional groups from all segments of Indonesian society.[21]


[1] The story of U.S.-Southeast Asian relations since World War II has been admirably described by Robert McMahon (1999), The Limits of Empire.

[2] The PRRI/Permesta rebellion of 1957-1958 and its American dimension have received considerable scholarly attention, especially in recent years. The revealing study of Audrey R. and George McT. Kahin (1995), Subversion as Foreign Policy, is the most comprehensive account of what was then the largest U.S. covert operation since WW II and its impact on Indonesia, based on an investigation that took the Kahins three and a half decades to compensate for the reluctance of U.S. authorities to declassify relevant documents. While conducting their more recent study Feet to the Fire, Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison (1999) were advantaged by having access to the written sources of the just published Indonesia, vol. 17 in the Foreign Relations of the United States series for 1958-1960. The more instructive feature of their book, however, is their vivid reconstruction of the story as it evolved at that time, based on extensive oral interviews with several key participants, particularly the CIA-agents on the ground. Also valuable are John Prados (1987), Presidents' Secret Wars, 128-148; and Paul F. Gardner (1997), Shared Hopes, Separate Fears, 133-162. An earlier attempt to unveil American involvement in the regional rebellion was made by Jayashri Deshpande (1981), Indonesia, The Impossible Dream, alluding to the title given to his memoirs by the U.S. Ambassador stationed in Indonesia during that period, Howard P. Jones (1971), Indonesia: The Possible Dream. Concurrent journalistic accounts of that period include James Mossman (1961), Rebels in Paradise; and William Stevenson (1963), Birds' Nests in Their Beards. Focussing less on American involvement than on the Indonesian political scene itself, the classic study of the rebellion in Sulawesi is Barbara S. Harvey (1977), Permesta: Half a Rebellion. For the Indonesian national context in which the regional rebellion occurred see: Herbert Feith (1962), The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia; and Daniel S. Lev (1963), The Transition to Guided Democracy. The major Indonesian account of the rebellion published during the later years of the staunchly anticommunist New Order-regime is R.Z. Leirissa (1991), PRRI/Permesta, Strategi Membangun Indonesia Tanpa Komunis, using much oral evidence of the former rebels and arguing for them as having acted in defense of the nation against the threat of communism. A recent book by Phill M. Sulu (1997), Permesta: Jejak-Jejak Pemgembaraan, provides interesting, albeit unscholarly reading about the atmosphere in North Sulawesi and the experiences of common Minhahasans during the years of rebellion.

[3] The most authoritative study on this period is Herbert Feith (1963), “Dynamics of Guided Democracy”.

[4] The expansion of PKI has been analyzed by Rex Mortimer (1974), Indonesian Communism under Sukarno.

[5] On the restraint that shaped U.S. overt policy during that period, see Frederick P. Bunnell (1990), “American ‘Low Posture’ Policy toward Indonesia in the Months Leading up to the 1965 ‘Coup’”.

[6] Robert Cribb (2001), “How Many Deaths?”, 92.

[7] For a careful discussion of various theories about the coup, see Harold Crouch (1978), The Army and Politics in Indonesia, 97-134. One of these theories, the earliest account that ran counter to the official version of the Suharto government, acquired some notoriety as the so-called “Cornell Paper” until finally published by Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey (1971), A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965, Coup in Indonesia. After the downfall of the Suharto regime, new sources have surfaced and new visions of history have arisen in Indonesia itself. For a discussion of recent Indonesian publications on the events of 1965, see Gerry van Klinken (2001), “The Battle for History After Suharto”. See also Benedict R.O’G. Anderson (2000), “Petrus Dadi Ratu”.

[8] Merle Ricklefs (1993), A History of Modern Indonesia, 280.

[9] Among others, the Dutch scholar W.F. Wertheim has argued that General Suharto may have engineered the October 1 coup, possibly in league with the CIA. See Wertheim (1970), “Suharto and the Untung Coup – The

Missing Link”. This theory is discussed in Crouch (1978), 123-125. See also Peter D. Scott (1985), “The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno”. Scott claims there had been U.S. support for the Suharto faction before the coup. The British journalist Roland Challis (2001) suggests there was also a British plot.

[10] H.W. Brands (1989), “The Limits of Manipulation: How the U.S. Didn’t Topple Sukarno”, 787. McMahon bases his conclusions on Brands’ arguments, see McMahon (1999), The Limits of Empire, 119-124.

[11] Bunnell (1990), 60.

[12] U.S. Dept. of State (2001), Indonesia; Malaysia-Singapore; Philippines, vol. 27 of Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968; hereafter cited as FRUS (2001). The CIA prevented the official release of this volume of State Department histories in July 2001, even though the documents included were officially declassified in 1998 and 1999. George Washington University’s National Security Archive, however, has obtained a copy of the Indonesia volume and has posted it on the Web.

[13] For an analysis of the elections, see Herbert Feith (1957), The Indonesian Elections of 1955. Four major parties emerged, but none won a majority: the Indonesian Nationalist Party (Partai Nasional Indonesia, or PNI) won 22.3 percent, the Islamic Masyumi party 20.9 percent, the conservative, mainly Java-based Islamic scholar’s association (Nahdlatul Ulama, NU), 18.4 percent and PKI, with its stronghold in Java, 16.4 percent. It is interesting to note that the CIA discreetly supported the election campaign of the Islamic, anticommunist Masyumi party with one million dollars in an effort to contain leftist forces, Conboy and Morrison (1999),13.

[14] An exhaustive study of this period is Feith (1962); see also Kahin and Kahin (1995), 36-53; Harvey (1977), 1-15 and Ricklefs (1993), 237-256.

[15] Kahin and Kahin (1995), 50.

[16] Lev (1966), 3.

[17] Feith (1962), 487-500; Harvey (1977), 6-7, 34-38. Producers of export crops were paid at the official exchange rate and, at times, got only one-third as much as they would have from direct barter trade.

[18] This account is based on Harvey (1977), 8-13; Kahin and Kahin (1995), 51-57; Conboy and Morrison (1999), 3-6; Ricklefs (1993), 252-253.

[19] Kahin and Kahin (1995), 57-66, Conboy and Morrison (1999), 7-12.

[20] Harvey (1977), 28-34, 39-41; Kahin and Kahin (1995), 63-65; Conboy and Morrison (1999), 7-10.

[21] Lev (1966), 17.


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Limits Intervention Involvement Indonesia Regional Rebellion Overthrow Sukarno



Title: The Limits of Intervention: U.S. Involvement in Indonesia during the Regional Rebellion (1957-1958) and the Overthrow of Sukarno (1965-1966)