When the Indonesian army’s strategic reserve crushed an internal army mutiny on 1st October 1965, the reserve’s leader, General Suharto, seized the opportunity to link the mutiny – which had claimed the lives of six leading Generals – to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). At this point, the PKI was the largest communist party outside the officially communist nations, posing a credible and legitimate threat to the Indonesian army’s long-standing primacy in Indonesian public and economic life. Capitalising on unsubstantiated reports that the upper echelons of the PKI had endorsed the abortive mutiny, the Indonesian army effected a mobilisation of anti-communist opinion with the single aim of exterminating the PKI once and for all.
The six-month campaign culminated in the violent deaths of between 500,000 and a million people, the overwhelming majority of whom were rural peasants who had joined the PKI because of the party’s progressive position on land reform issues. The massacre – one of the most devastating mass murders of the Twentieth Century – removed the PKI as a viable political force in Indonesia, paving the way for Suharto to seize power and install a 32-year dictatorship that became notorious for corruption and human rights abuses. Endorsed by the United States and Great Britain as political ‘moderates’ on account of their willingness to integrate Indonesia into the global capitalist system, Suharto’s junta was provided with logistical and propaganda support during the massacre, and decades of economic and military aid thereafter.
If their failure to raise humanitarian objections to the mass killings was attributable to a Cold War bias not untypical of the age, the Western media were remarkably candid about what was happening in Indonesia, as Noam Chomsky explains: ‘The media actually gave a pretty fair account of the slaughter itself. Time magazine devoted a large part of an issue to the “boiling bloodbath”. The New York Times described it as a “staggering mass slaughter” – with unconcealed pleasure. Its leading liberal columnist, James Reston, described the events as “a gleam of light in Asia.” Same elsewhere.’ As early as December 1954, the National Security Council determined that the United States should use ‘all feasible covert means’, including ‘armed force if necessary’, to prevent the richest parts of Indonesia falling into communist hands, and by the early 1960s the US had decided that co-option of the Indonesian army was the surest route to achieving this goal. From 1959 to 1965, the US had provided extensive training and funding for the Indonesian military, in the hope of immunising the archipelago against the communist menace. ‘Gaining access to Indonesia’s resources was a motive’, says Chomsky, ‘as it was in Eisenhower’s support for a military uprising in 1958 to strip off the outer islands, where most of the resources are. But there was much more than that.’ The US State Department viewed Indonesia as the largest and most important in the row of South Asian ‘dominos’, not only because of its importance as a source of oil, tin and rubber, but also because of its important geo-strategic location (next to important submarine routes), huge demographic weight and vast geographic expanse.
Chomsky has touched upon the subject of the Indonesian killings in a number of his books, in connection with his broader study of the skewed moral framework in which the mainstream media interpret important world events. In Necessary Illusions (Pluto Books, 1989), Chomsky compared the media’s reaction to the Indonesian killings with their reactions to the domestic terror carried out by the Shah of Iran in the 1970s. In both cases the US and British media showed more or less consistent support for dictators accused of serious and sustained human rights violations. Asked to sum up the general pattern, Chomsky identifies a basic modus operandi which has survived the Cold War by two decades: ‘My friend and occasional co-author Edward Herman made a distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims. The unworthy victims are those who are targeted – maybe in mass slaughter or in other ways – by us or our allies. The worthy victims are those we support. It’s pretty straightforward, and highly consistent. These two cases are typical, but there are dozens of others.’
In a 1996 interview with David Barsamian (published in The Common Good, Odonian Press, 1998) Chomsky expressed cautious optimism with regard to the emergence of a small number of progressive voices in mainstream US publications like the New York Times. Thirteen years later, and in view of the apparent unanimity of mainstream US sources on major international questions, what – if anything – has changed? ‘Hard to say, but there may be some improvement, particularly in domestic affairs. Paul Krugman, for example, in the New York Times, on economic issues primarily. Anthony Shahid in the Washington Post, a very fine Middle East correspondent. Overall there hasn’t been a general change, so far as I can detect.’
Traditional accounts of the massacres of 1965-66 tend to portray them as an inevitable consequence of an internal conflict between a power-hungry PKI and an Indonesian army on the defensive. Chomsky insists this is a misleading narrative: ‘The “conflict” in Indonesia was the brutal destruction of a mass popular movement, a “party of the poor” (as Australian scholar Harold Crouch described it), which was threatening to gain power in parliamentary elections. Such circumstances have often led to violent repression, and are likely to again, particularly when resources and geo-strategic importance are factors.’ Since the end of the Cold War, some scholars have questioned the validity of the anti-communist campaign as the prime motivation behind US foreign policy since 1947. Examining recent US policy in Latin America (in America’s Other War, Zed Books, 2005), Doug Stokes argues that ongoing US efforts to destabilise reformist regimes in the post-Soviet era demonstrate that the primary goal of US policy all along was to undermine the prospects for independent economic development – a policy to which anti-communism per se was merely incidental: the respective ‘wars’ on drugs and ‘terror’ are merely new strategies in the same campaign.
‘He’s quite right,’ says Chomsky, ‘I’ve been writing about it for forty years, and what’s come after the fall of the USSR simply reinforces the story. In fact, it was quite clear at once in the decisions and the documents of the Bush administration right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I reviewed these in Deterring Democracy. It only became clearer since. The ‘war on terror’, it should be recalled, was declared by Ronald Reagan, as a cover for his enormous terrorist atrocities in Central America, support for South Africa, and so on around the world. There are of course changes in policy. The US and UK would have been unlikely to place large armies in the desert in 1990 if the USSR had still been functioning. And the campaigns differ in a great many respects. Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s “wars on terror” were different, for example.’
Noam Chomsky is Professor of Linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
‘Constructive Bloodbath’ in Indonesia: The United States, Britain and the Indonesian Killings of 1965-66 by Nathaniel Mehr is published by Spokesman Books.
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This post was written by Nathaniel Mehr