INDONESIA 1965: Lessons of a catastrophic defeat


Indonesia1965Who wants to study defeats? It is much more satisfactory to study victories. To read about conquering heroes instead of fallen ones.

Yet any soldier can tell you that warriors shun the study of defeats at their own peril. The lessons to be learned from past setbacks are essential to future successes.

If for no other reason, the progressive social movements now rising in this period of deepening capitalist decay need to learn about the cataclysmic defeat that occurred in Indonesia starting on Oct. 1, 1965 — half a century ago.

Within a few short months, rivers throughout that populous Southeast Asian nation were clogged with bodies. The army had gone from island to island and from village to village asking local henchmen to round up those who had any association with the Indonesian Communist Party — the PKI — or its mass affiliates: associations of workers, peasants, women and youth who had been demanding justice and greater equality.

Once identified, they were either murdered on the spot or sent to concentration camps. Estimates in the Western press of the number who died in this months’-long bloodbath, reported without emotion, ranged from 300,000 to a million.

You won’t hear about any of this in the self-serving histories that present the U.S. government and military as defenders of world freedom and democracy. But the U.S. was deeply involved, even as it was expanding its neocolonial war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos at the same time.

In recent years, courageous Indonesians and some Western researchers have dredged up bits of this horrendous history. Two documentaries by the filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer — “The Act of Killing” in 2012 and this year’s “The Look of Silence” — are based on interviews with Indonesians who carried out some of the killings and still brag about it, as well as family members of their victims.

Oppenheimer says that working on the films was like going to Nazi Germany 40 years after the Holocaust — and finding the same people still in power.

Journalist Kathy Kadane in 1990 interviewed former State Department and CIA officials who not only admitted that the U.S. had given lists with the names of thousands of PKI members to the Indonesian military at the time of the killings, but tried to justify it. (Chicago Tribune, May 23, 1990)

Opposition to massacres in U.S.

What has not been mentioned, however, is that an active opposition existed in the United States at the time of the killings. Youth Against War & Fascism, the youth arm of Workers World Party, held demonstrations against the U.S. role in these massacres and exposed what was happening in Indonesia through articles in this newspaper.

YAWF also organized a Public Inquest at Columbia University on June 2, 1966, attended by 1,000 people. The group placed an ad about the inquest in an international edition of the New York Times so that the world could see there was opposition in the United States to the terrible crimes being perpetrated by Washington, in collusion with a cabal of right-wing Indonesian generals.

The famous mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell sent a message to the inquest on behalf of his Peace Foundation. Two of his representatives had been attending a conference in Jakarta at the time of the coup.

Russell wrote that “few had any doubt about what was taking place around them. The United States Seventh Fleet was in Javanese waters. The largest base in the area, feverishly constructed by the United States but a few months earlier on the southernmost point of the southernmost island of the Philippines, was ordered ‘on alert.’ General Nasution had a mission in Washington. The United States was directly involved in the day to day events.”

Speakers at the Inquest included William Worthy, a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American who had visited Indonesia three times; Professor Andrew March, of Columbia’s East Asian Institute; journalist Eric Norden; and Mark Lane, a former New York State Assembly member who later conducted an independent inquiry into the John F. Kennedy assassination. The Inquest was chaired by this writer.

The corporate media boycotted the event, but a transcript of the entire meeting was published by YAWF that year in book form under the title “The Silent Slaughter: The Role of the United States in the Indonesian Massacre.” Copies are still listed by online booksellers.

YAWF continued to expose and protest the horrific physical extermination of the left in Indonesia, which before the coup had numbered at least 20 million people — 3 million members of the PKI and 15 million to 20 million activists in various allied groups.

In February 1970 YAWF published “Indonesia: The Second Greatest Crime of the Century,” which went into the country’s struggle to overcome its legacy of extreme poverty after defeating Dutch colonial rule. Under Sukarno, its first president, Indonesia had become a magnet for newly independent countries trying to survive in a world dominated by imperialism.

The book also showed that U.S. politicians were well aware of the monumental crimes carried out by their allies in Indonesia, beginning in 1965, and regarded the tens of millions spent in military aid to the generals as having “paid dividends.” (Testimony of Alabama Sen. John Sparkman at hearings on the Foreign Assistance Program, 1967)

An important player in the Lyndon Johnson administration’s dealings with the Indonesian generals was Vice President Hubert Humphrey, whose “liberal” reputation provided a good cover for his secret contacts with Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik. Malik told journalist Marianne Means, of the World Journal Tribune, that Humphrey had played a secret, but important, role in encouraging the “democratic forces” in Indonesia, meaning the murderous generals. (WJT, Sept. 28, 1966)

Next: Political, social and environmental impact of Indonesia’s wrenching transition into the New World Order.

Griswold authored the book “Indonesia: Second Greatest Crime of the Century.” It is freely available online at

“The Second Greatest Crime” was reprinted in October 1975. A third edition was published four years later.