The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1967Peter Dale Scott
In this short paper on a huge and vexed subject, I discuss the U.S. involvement in the bloody overthrow of Indonesia's President Sukarno, 1965-67. The whole story of that ill-understood period would transcend even the fullest possible written analysis. Much of what happened can never be documented; and of the documentation that survives, much is both controversial and unverifiable. The slaughter of Sukarno's left-wing allies was a product of widespread paranoia as well as of conspiratorial policy, and represents a tragedy beyond the intentions of any single group or coalition. Nor is it suggested that in 1965 the only provocations and violence came from the right-wing Indonesian military, their contacts in the United States, or (also important, but barely touched on here) their mutual contacts in British, German and Japanese intelligence.
And yet, after all this has been said, the complex and ambiguous story of the Indonesian bloodbath is also in essence simpler and easier to believe than the public version inspired by President Suharto and U.S. government sources. Their problematic claim is that in the so-called Gestapu (Gerakan September Tigahpuluh) coup attempt of September 30, 1965 (when six senior army generals were murdered), the left attacked the right, leading to a restoration of power, and punitive purge of the left, by the center.1 This article argues instead that, by inducing, or at a minimum helping to induce, the Gestapu "coup," the right in the Indonesian Army eliminated its rivals at the army's center, thus paving the way to a long-planned elimination of the civilian left, and eventually to the establishment of a military dictatorship.2 Gestapu, in other words, was only the first phase of a three-phase right-wing coup -- one which had been both publicly encouraged and secretly assisted by U.S. spokesmen and officials.3
Before turning to U.S. involvement in what the CIA itself has called "one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century,"4 let us recall what actually led up to it. According to the Australian scholar Harold Crouch, by 1965 the Indonesian Army General Staff was split into two camps. At the center were the general staff officers appointed with, and loyal to, the army commander General Yani, who in turn was reluctant to challenge President Sukarno's policy of national unity in alliance with the Indonesian Communist party, or PKI. The second group, including the right-wing generals Nasution and Suharto, comprised those opposed to Yani and his Sukarnoist policies.5 All of these generals were anti-PKI, but by 1965 the divisive issue was Sukarno.
The simple (yet untold) story of Sukarno's overthrow is that in the fall of 1965 Yani and his inner circle of generals were murdered, paving the way for a seizure of power by right-wing anti-Yani forces allied to Suharto. The key to this was the so-called Gestapu coup attempt which, in the name of supporting Sukarno, in fact targeted very precisely the leading members of the army's most loyal faction, the Yani group.6 An army unity meeting in January 1965, between "Yani's inner circle" and those (including Suharto) who "had grievances of one sort or another against Yani," lined up the victims of September 30 against those who came to power after their murder.7
Not one anti-Sukarno general was targeted by Gestapu, with the obvious exception of General Nasution.8 But by 1961 the CIA operatives had become disillusioned with Nasution as a reliable asset, because of his "consistent record of yielding to Sukarno on several major counts."9 Relations between Suharto and Nasution were also cool, since Nasution, after investigating Suharto on corruption charges in 1959, had transferred him from his command.10
The duplicitous distortions of reality, first by Lt. Colonel Untung's statements for Gestapu, and then by Suharto in "putting down" Gestapu, are mutually supporting lies.11 Untung, on October 1, announced ambiguously that Sukarno was under Gestapu's "protection" (he was not); also, that a CIA-backed Council of Generals had planned a coup for before October 5, and had for this purpose brought "troops from East, Central, and West Java" to Jakarta.12 Troops from these areas had indeed been brought to Jakarta for an Armed Forces Day parade on October 5th. Untung did not mention, however, that "he himself had been involved in the planning for the Armed Forces Day parade and in selecting the units to participate in it;"13 nor that these units (which included his own former battalion, the 454th) supplied most of the allies for his new battalion's Gestapu activities in Jakarta.
Suharto's first two broadcasts reaffirmed the army's constant loyalty to "Bung Karno the Great Leader," and also blamed the deaths of six generals on PKI youth and women, plus "elements of the Air Force" -- on no other evidence than the site of the well where the corpses were found.14 At this time he knew very well that the killings had in fact been carried out by the very army elements Untung referred to, elements under Suharto's own command.15
Thus, whatever the motivation of individuals such as Untung in the Gestapu putsch, Gestapu as such was duplicitous. Both its rhetoric and above all its actions were not simply inept; they were carefully designed to prepare for Suharto's equally duplicitous response. For example, Gestapu's decision to guard all sides of the downtown Merdeka Square in Jakarta, except that on which Suharto's KOSTRAD [Army Strategic Reserve Command] headquarters were situated, is consistent with Gestapu's decision to target the only army generals who might have challenged Suharto's assumption of power. Again, Gestapu's announced transfer of power to a totally fictitious "Revolutionary Council," from which Sukarno had been excluded, allowed Suharto in turn to masquerade as Sukarno's defender while in fact preventing him from resuming control. More importantly, Gestapu's gratuitous murder of the generals near the air force base where PKI youth had been trained allowed Suharto, in a Goebbels-like manoeuvre, to transfer the blame for the killings from the troops under his own command (whom he knew had carried out the kidnappings) to air force and PKI personnel who where ignorant of them.16
From the pro-Suharto sources -- notably the CIA study of Gestapu published in 1968 -- we learn how few troops were involved in the alleged Gestapu rebellion, and, more importantly, that in Jakarta as in Central Java the same battalions that supplied the "rebellious" companies were also used to "put the rebellion down." Two thirds of one paratroop brigade (which Suharto had inspected the previous day) plus one company and one platoon constituted the whole of Gestapu forces in Jakarta; all but one of these units were commanded by present or former Diponegoro Division officers close to Suharto; and the last was under an officer who obeyed Suharto's close political ally, Basuki Rachmat.17
Two of these companies, from the 454th and 530th battalions, were elite raiders, and from 1962 these units had been among the main Indonesian recipients of U.S. assistance.18 This fact, which in itself proves nothing, increases our curiosity about the many Gestapu leaders who had been U.S.-trained. The Gestapu leader in Central Java, Saherman, had returned from training at Fort Leavenworth and Okinawa, shortly before meeting with Untung and Major Sukirno of the 454th Battalion in mid-August 1965.19 As Ruth McVey has observed, Saherman's acceptance for training at Fort Leavenworth "would mean that he had passed review by CIA observers."20
Thus there is continuity between the achievements of both Gestapu and the response to it by Suharto, who in the name of defending Sukarno and attacking Gestapu continued its task of eliminating the pro-Yani members of the Army General Staff, along with such other residual elements of support for first Yani and then Sukarno as remained.21
The biggest part of this task was of course the elimination of the PKI and its supporters, in a bloodbath which, as some Suharto allies now concede, may have taken more than a half-million lives. These three events -- Gestapu, Suharto's response, and the bloodbath -- have nearly always been presented in this country as separately motivated: Gestapu being described as a plot by leftists, and the bloodbath as for the most part an irrational act of popular frenzy.
U.S. officials, journalists and scholars, some with rather prominent CIA connections, are perhaps principally responsible for the myth that the bloodbath was a spontaneous, popular revulsion to what U.S. Ambassador Jones later called PKI "carnage."22 Although the PKI certainly contributed its share to the political hysteria of 1965, Crouch has shown that subsequent claims of a PKI terror campaign were grossly exaggerated.23 In fact systematic killing occurred under army instigation in staggered stages, the worst occurring as Colonel Sarwo Edhie's RPKAD [Army Paracommando Regiment] moved from Jakarta to Central and East Java, and finally to Bali.24 Civilians involved in the massacre were either recruited and trained by the army on the spot, or were drawn from groups (such as the army- and CIA-sponsored SOKSI trade unions [Central Organization of Indonesian Socialist Employees], and allied student organizations) which had collaborated for years with the army on political matters. It is clear from Sundhaussen's account that in most of the first areas of organized massacre (North Sumatra, Aceh, Cirebon, the whole of Central and East Java), there were local army commanders with especially strong and proven anti-PKI sentiments. Many of these had for years cooperated with civilians, through so-called "civic action" programs sponsored by the United States, in operations directed against the PKI and sometimes Sukarno. Thus one can legitimately suspect conspiracy in the fact that anti-PKI "civilian responses" began on October 1, when the army began handing out arms to Muslim students and unionists, before there was any publicly available evidence linking Gestapu to the PKI.25
Even Sundhaussen, who downplays the army's role in arming and inciting the civilian murder bands, concludes that, whatever the strength of popular anti-PKI hatred and fear, "without the Army's anti-PKI propaganda the massacre might not have happened."26 The present article goes further and argues that Gestapu, Suharto's response, and the bloodbath were part of a single coherent scenario for a military takeover, a scenario which was again followed closely in Chile in the years 1970-73 (and to some extent in Cambodia in 1970).
Suharto, of course, would be a principal conspirator in this scenario: his duplicitous role of posing as a defender of the constitutional status quo, while in fact moving deliberately to overthrow it, is analogous to that of General Pinochet in Chile. But a more direct role in organizing the bloodbath was played by civilians and officers close to the cadres of the CIA's failed rebellion of 1958, now working in so-called "civic action" programs funded and trained by the United States. Necessary ingredients of the scenario had to be, and clearly were, supplied by other nations in support of Suharto. Many such countries appear to have played such a supporting role: Japan, Britain, Germany,27 possibly Australia. But I wish to focus on the encouragement and support for military "putschism" and mass murder which came from the U.S., from the CIA, the military, RAND, the Ford Foundation, and individuals.28