A Trip Down Memory Lane: The U.S. Media and the Forgotten Massacre of One Million Indonesians


I’ll be running shortly an interview with Mark Pavlick and Caroline Luft about a collection of stories they edited, “The United States, Southeast Asia, and Historical Memory.” It’s a great collection with stellar contributors, including Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Nick Turse and Gareth Porter (the latter who I’ll soon interview on the Washington Babylon podcast.)

I urge everyone to buy the book, which you can do by clicking here. You can also buy it at Amazon but I prefer to buy directly from publishers — Haymarket Books in this case — and give as little money as possible to the vile Jeff Bezos.

In reading the collection, I recalled a recent story I wrote for The New Republic, “Blood Money: Indonesian wage theft and the Massacre Premium.” That story was brilliantly edited by Chris Lehmann, but for space reasons — I wrote far more words than the contract called for — Chris cut most of a section about the appalling, yet entirely predictable, U.S. media coverage of the vile crimes committed by the Indonesian military and militias, with the open support of the U.S. government.

From first page of my New Republic story.

Printed below is the section that got mostly chopped, plus a brief opening that provides the context. I should note that I’m not questioning Chris’s editorial call, as I turned in more copy than he asked for and Noam Chomsky wrote about this subject many years ago. But I believe this is an important topic and that as citizens of this country, we must never forget the terrible crimes committed in our name by the U.S. government.

So, without further adieu, here is the section I am referring to:

Beginning in the fall of 1965, the Indonesian military, with the support of private militias, Islamists and the United States, targeted and massacred one million people in about six months. It was one of the greatest mass murders of modern times.

The level of brutality is almost impossible to fathom. The Indonesian military and Islamic groups whipped up hatred of their “enemies,” and the victims were hacked to pieces, mutilated and had their heads cut off.

The killings were targeted against the PKI, the country’s Communist Party — at the time was the world’s third largest after those in Russia and China — and its members and supporters, who were literally eliminated. It also destroyed the nation’s vibrant labor movement and groups promoting a variety of leftist causes, from agrarian reform to factory-level democracy.

The Communist Betrayal Museum in Jakarta, which honors the killers, not the victims. Photo credit: Ken Silverstein

Because it was Communists that were murdered, the United States government and American media mostly portrayed the extermination in positive terms, and the whole sordid episode disappeared down the rabbit hole of history.

A dictator, Army General Suharto, took full control of Indonesia in March of 1967 when the elected president, Sukarno, was officially deposed. Suharto ruled until 1998 when riots forced him to resign, and became one of the United States’ key allies in Southeast Asia. He stole roughly $30 billion during his years in power and his one-party dictatorship killed many people — know one will ever know how many — and untold numbers were thrown in prisons.

The fear generated by the slaughter still hangs over Indonesia today. The country is technically a democracy, technically, but that term cannot accurately describe Indonesia, which is riven by economic inequalities. and where the Army continues to hold vast power.

During the early-1960s, the United States was perhaps even more terrified than the local military by the population’s growing support for the left. Indonesia is one of the largest countries in the world. Under Sukarno the country had a great deal of international influence and was not a U.S. puppet regime.

There was a serious risk by the early 1960s that the PKI would come to power through the ballot box and that was totally unacceptable to the United States. Hence, it decided to work with the military and Islamists to exterminate the PKI and its supporters.

Direct U.S. support for the massacres is by now a well established fact. You can read State Department cables from the period and in 2017, the non-profit National Security Archive, along with the National Declassification Center, published extensive diplomatic cables covering “that dark period,” as an excellent story by Vincent Bevins in the Washington Post said at the time. “Untold numbers were tortured and killed simply for allegedly associating with communists,” said the story. “Simply for their political beliefs, they were subjected to mass slaughter. Across the country, one by one, Indonesians were shot, stabbed, decapitated or thrown off cliffs into rivers to be washed into the ocean.”

And there was this utterly astonishing section in a story in The Atlantic:

In 1990, a U.S. embassy staff member admitted he handed over a list of communists to the Indonesian military as the terror was underway. “It really was a big help to the army,” Robert J. Martens told the Post. “They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad.”

Other news organizations chimed in. “We conclude that there have been gross human rights violations, which can be classified as crimes against humanity,” Yosep Adi Prasetyo, an Indonesian source, told NPR.

“U.S. Stood By as Indonesia Killed a Half-Million People, Papers Show,” said a New York Times headline that conveniently cut the actual death toll in half. “It was an anti-Communist bloodbath,” read the story. “And American officials watched it happen without raising any public objections, at times even applauding the forces behind the killing, according to newly declassified State Department files that show diplomats meticulously documenting the purge in 1965-66.”

This would have been quite brave reporting if it had been published when it mattered, but these stories came some 50 years after the massacres. The newly released documents contained some important revelations, but it was obvious what was happening at the time, especially to insiders and reporters. Yet journalists whitewashed the bloodshed and helped cover it up. Had the truth been reported back then, it might have stopped — and it certainly would have at least slowed — the carnage.

Yet here are some examples of what the U.S. media was reporting contemporaneously with the bloodbath. In a column in the New York Times entitled “A Gleam of Light in Asia” in June 1966, about eight months after the massacres began, James Reston wrote, “The savage transformation of Indonesia from a pro-Chinese policy under Sukarno to a defiantly anti-communist policy under General Suharto is the most important of these [hopeful] developments. Washington is being careful not to claim any credit…but this does not mean Washington had nothing to do with it.”

“An obscure general named Suharto was catapulted into prominence, an Atlantic story said in 1967. “Indonesia was wrenched back from a headlong leftward slide in both domestic and foreign policy. And eventually Sukarno, the man who had cast his magic political spell across Indonesia for so long, was exposed, discredited, toppled.” The story also said Indonesia “certainly does need the care, attention, and sensitivity of American foreign policy makers” and that the country was in good hands, especially as “General Suharto himself is considered incorruptible. From the beginning he has been careful to make it clear he is no miracle worker, merely a simple, honest soldier who, with some reluctance, has accepted his present responsibilities.”

A 1968 “Reporter At Large” story in the New Yorker was equally craven. “It said Indonesia “is recovering slowly” from the mass killings after Suharto’s coup, which it said had taken between 150,000 and 400,000 lives. Sadly, as “a result of Sukarno’s mismanagement, the country was “still virtually bankrupt and for several more years will be dependent on foreign aid.” But the long term prospects were bright because “Indonesia has a tremendous store of undeveloped and underdeveloped resources, which after years of antagonism toward Western investors, Indonesians are now eager to have foreign companies tap on a profit-sharing basis.”

Even when Suharto died at 86 of heart, lung and kidney problems in 2008 — ten years after he was driven from office by massive protests and 43 years after the massacres began — the New York Times wrote a revoltingly misleading obituary. “His rule was not without accomplishment; he led Indonesia to stability and nurtured economic growth,” it said. “But these successes were ultimately overshadowed by pervasive and large-scale corruption; repressive, militarized rule; and a convulsion of mass bloodletting when he seized power in the late-1960s.”

The obituary also covered up the fact that Suharto was drenched in blood. “His precise role in the violence is not clear,” reads the Times‘s story. “ He managed to keep his name from being directly attached to it.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Previous articleMeme of the Day
Next articleThe Honorable Dumbass Duncan Hunter: Stupid and Corrupt, a Delightful Combination
Avatar photo
Politically eclectic DC-based investigative journalist and CEO, Chief Sleaze Purveyor (CSP) and Creator of WashingtonBabylon.com.