Indonesia: U.S. Role in 1965 Massacres

Confessions from the U.S. State Department

November 9, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper | | Originally published in Revolutionary Worker #1116, August 26, 2001


October 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the Indonesian government slaughter of as many as one million people. This 1965 massacre was carried out when the U.S., through the CIA and the Indonesian army, overthrew the nationalist coalition government led by Sukarno. The CIA and U.S. embassy personnel provided the Indonesian military with names of communists, union leaders, intellectuals, and others to be killed.

A September 29 op-ed piece in the New York Times by Joshua Oppenheimer, an American filmmaker who made the Academy Award-nominated movie The Act of Killing about the massacre said: “Today, former political prisoners from this era still face discrimination and threats. Gatherings of elderly survivors are regularly attacked by military-backed thugs. Schoolchildren are still taught that the ‘extermination of the communists’ was heroic, and that victims’ families should be monitored for disloyalty. This official history, in effect, legitimizes violence against a whole segment of society.’” Oppenheimer says his second documentary about the massacre, The Look of Silence, has not been censored in Indonesia, but paramilitary groups have threatened to attack any site showing it.

Leading up to and around the 50th anniversary, there has been an increase in the government’s crackdown on any attempt to remember, discuss, analyze, or condemn this massacre.

This year’s Ubud Readers and Writers Festival in the Indonesian city of Bali was scheduled to have panel discussions, book launches, film screenings, and photography exhibits marking the 50th anniversary of the massacre. But days before the gathering, which was attended by nearly 30,000 people, local authorities ordered organizers to cancel these events. Other programs scheduled to discuss the massacre have faced censorship and there has been a widespread government campaign to suppress activity having to do with the 1965 Massacre.

A 77-year old Indonesian who holds a Swedish passport was detained and deported—and reportedly blacklisted, which means he cannot return to Indonesia—for visiting a mass grave where his father was buried after the massacre. In the Central Java Province, police confiscated and destroyed 500 copies of a university magazine which featured a report on the 1965 slaughter. Human right activists reported that authorities threatened to expel the students responsible for the report.

According to the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy, a rights advocacy group in the capital city of Jakarta, the past year has seen at least 27 instances of repression and censorship in relationship to the 1965 Massacre—including intimidation, threats and official prohibitions by the police, the armed forces and government agencies. In the city of Java the military even confiscated toys from vendors that had “communist” symbols on them (“At a Bali Festival, Indonesia Enforces a Silence About Its Bloody Past,” New York Times, November 6, 2015)

A group of 136 people, including prominent Indonesian and foreign writers and academics have issued a statement condemning the current clampdown, demanding the government “guarantee the safety of those who wish and plan to discuss, review and investigate the 1965 tragedy from all kinds of censorship, intimidation and terror.”

The following article about the U.S. role in the 1965 Indonesian massacre was originally published in 2001. It includes discussion about a United States State Department volume that had just come out, with new revelations about U.S. involvement, which had previously been denied.


"Communists, red sympathizers and their families are being massacred by the thousands. Backlands army units are reported to have executed thousands of communists after interrogation in remote jails…The killings have been on such a scale that the disposal of the corpses has created a serious sanitation problem in East Java and Northern Sumatra where the humid air bears the reek of decaying flesh. Travelers from those areas tell of small rivers and streams that have been literally clogged with bodies."

Time, December 17, 1965

The exact number of people killed in dictator Suharto’s rise to power in Indonesia in 1965-1966 may never be known. A U.S. State Department estimate in 1966 placed the figure at 300,000. Official Indonesian data released in the mid-1970s placed the number of deaths between 450,000 and 500,000. In 1976, Admiral Sudomo, the head of the Indonesian state security system, said more than 500,000 had been murdered. And Amnesty International has quoted one source placing the number killed at 700,000 and another at "many more than one million."

In 1990, 25 years after the massacre, a villager in a city in Northern Sumatra recalled that, "For six months, no-one wanted to eat fish from the river because they often found human fingers inside the fish."


Members of the Youth Wing of the Indonesian Communist Party being taken to a Jakarta prison, October 30, 1965.

Members of the youth wing of the Indonesian Communist Party being hauled to a Jakarta prison, October 30, 1965. AP photo

The people of the world will never forget and never forgive this horrendous crime against the people. But government officials in the U.S. are still trying wash the blood from their hands and cover up how the U.S. supported and aided this mass murder.

In late July 2001, the U.S. government ordered all copies of a research volume recalled from libraries and bookstores. The 800-plus-page volume, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968: Vol. 26—Indonesia; Malaysia-Singapore; Philippines, talks about how the U.S. government provided financial and military support and lists of political activists to the Indonesian military as it carried out the huge 1965-1966 slaughter aimed at communists and other political activists.

The volume, part of a large documentary history of U.S. foreign policy, is an official publication by the U.S. State Department. Released 30 years after the period covered, these volumes are produced as "the official documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity."

The CIA also held up the release of the volume in the series that covers Greece, Turkey and Cypress from 1964-1968. This volume most likely contains information about how the U.S./CIA backed the reactionary junta which seized control in Greece in 1967. In 1990, the CIA censored the volume on Iran in the 1950s—deleting any reference to the CIA-backed coup that brought the Shah of Iran to power in 1953.

But the U.S. attempts to censor the volume on Indonesia have so far been unsuccessful. The volume was obtained by the National Security Archives at George Washington University, which posted them on the internet ( And publicity around the attempts at censorship has only drawn more attention to the volume. At the University of California Berkeley several faculty members have written letters urging the library to refuse to comply with the government’s request to return the book.

In early August, the State Department backed down and released the volume covering Indonesia in the 1960s—denying there had been an attempt to censor the volume.

From the Horse’s Mouth

The new State Department volume on Indonesia, while hardly a complete documentation of U.S. covert actions related to the 1965 coup, does contain some revelations on matters previously denied by U.S. officials.

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Before the coup the government in Indonesia was a coalition government headed by Sukarno. The Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) was a major force in this coalition government. The Sukarno government didn’t stand for genuine independence from imperialism, but it took some actions which reflected bourgeois national interests.

The new State Department book on Indonesia documents communications back and forth between the embassy in Jakarta and the U.S. State Department in 1965 and 1966 reporting on the arrests and killings of the PKI leadership. On August 10, 1966, Ambassador Green sent a memo to the State Department reporting that a "sanitized" [meaning without reference to their source in the U.S. embassy] version of the lists of PKI members was made available to the Indonesian government in December 1965 and "is apparently being used by Indonesian security authorities who seem to lack even the simplest overt information on PKI leadership at the time."

The volume also documents direct U.S. financial support for the Indonesian death squads called Kap-Gestapu. On December 2, 1965 Ambassador Green wrote a memo to Assistant Secretary of State Bundy about providing 50 million rupiahs to a leader of the death squads:

"This is to confirm my earlier concurrence that we provide Malik with fifty million rupiahs requested by him for the activities of the Kap-Gestapu movement…The Kap-Gestapu activities to date have been important factor in the army’s program, and judging from results, I would say highly successful. This army-inspired but civilian-staffed action group is still carrying burden of current repressive efforts targeted against PKI, particularly in Central Java.… The chances of detection or subsequent revelation of our support in this instance are as minimal as any black bag operation can be."

Horrific Massacre: Made in the USA

The U.S. had major strategic concerns about Southeast Asia. At this time, the U.S. was getting in deep trouble in Vietnam. Maoist China had become a powerful revolutionary influence throughout Asia and the world. Anti-U.S. sentiment was growing in Indonesia. And given all this, the U.S. wanted a more reliable pro-U.S. regime in Indonesia.

Right before the coup in Indonesia, U.S. President Johnson said, "There are great stakes in the balance. Most of the non-Communist nations of Asia cannot, by themselves and alone, resist the growing might and the grasping ambition of Asia communism. Our power, therefore, is a very vital shield."

Guy Pauker, an analyst for the RAND Corporation (a U.S. government think tank) who also was on the CIA’s payroll, produced reports advocating military and economic aid to the Indonesian military in order for them to "succeed in the competition with communism." He expressed doubts that Indonesia’s leaders were capable of doing "what was necessary" to combat what the U.S. saw as a "communist threat." In a 1964 RAND memo Pauker wrote, "These forces would probably lack the ruthlessness that made it possible for the Nazis to suppress the Communist Party of Germany." According to Pauker, the military had to be relied on and strengthened and he explicitly mentioned Suharto as a figure the U.S. should groom for power.

By 1965, the United States had trained 4,000 officers in the Indonesian military. The CIA built networks of agents and informants in the trade unions, where the PKI had a lot of influence. And U.S. dollars also went towards strengthening Pertamina, the oil company run by the Indonesian army. Foreign oil money, particularly from U.S. and Japanese oil companies, was channeled through Pertamina and became another way that the U.S. built and strengthened the military forces it wanted to come to power.

The Indonesian army, led by the U.S.-trained generals, played a key role in the massacres—doing a large part of the killing directly, supplying trucks, weapons and encouragement to paramilitary and vigilante death squads, and actively promoting an anti-communist hysteria that spurred on the bloody murders.

The New York Times described the Johnson administration’s "delight with the news from Indonesia" and the private responses of U.S. officials who were "elated to find their expectations being realized." President Johnson’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, cabled his encouragement to the Jakarta embassy. The "campaign against the communists," he wrote, must continue as the military "are [the] only force capable of creating order in Indonesia’’. The U.S. ambassador replied that he had assured Suharto and his generals "that the U.S. government [is] generally sympathetic with, and admiring of, what the army is doing."

U.S. Lists, U.S. Denials


by Bob Avakian, Chairman,
Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, Summer 2015

Read more

In 1990, Kathy Kadane, a reporter with States News Service, published an article that appeared in the South Carolina Herald Journal, the San Francisco Examiner and the Boston Globe. Quoting senior officials in the U.S. embassy in 1965-1966, Kadane’s article documented the role of U.S. officials in providing lists of names of PKI members and leaders to the Indonesian military.

In lengthy interviews, former senior U.S. diplomats and CIA officers revealed how the U.S. compiled comprehensive lists of Communist activists—as many as 5,000 names—and gave them to the Indonesian army.

Robert J. Martens, a former member of the embassy’s political section who was responsible for compiling the lists and turning them over to the Indonesian military, told Kadane, "It really was a big help to the army. They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad. There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment."

Top U.S. Embassy officials approved release of the list, which was a detailed who’s-who of the leadership of the PKI. It included names of provincial, city and other local PKI committee members, and leaders of mass organizations such as the PKI national labor federation, women’s and youth groups. Embassy officials carefully recorded the subsequent destruction of the PKI organization. Using Martens’ lists as a guide, they checked off names of captured and assassinated PKI leaders, tracking the steady dismantling of the party apparatus. Detention centers were set up to hold those who were not killed immediately. By the end of January 1966, the deputy CIA station chief in Jakarta said the checked-off names were so numerous CIA analysts in Washington concluded the PKI leadership had been destroyed.

Former CIA Director William Colby, director of the CIA’s Far East division in 1965, revealed that compiling lists of members and leaders of liberation movements is a key part of the CIA strategy of repression. Colby compared the embassy’s campaign to identify the PKI leadership to the CIA’s Phoenix Program in Vietnam. Phoenix was a joint U.S.-South Vietnamese program set up by the CIA in December 1967 that murdered suspected members and supporters of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam. During Nixon’s first 2 1/2 years, State Department officially admitted that the CIA-run Phoenix program murdered or abducted close to 36,000 civilians. Speaking of the Phoenix program, Colby said, "The idea of identifying the local apparatus was designed to—well, you go out and get them to surrender, or you capture or you shoot them."

In 1962, when Colby took over as chief of the CIA’s Far East Division and discovered the U.S. didn’t have comprehensive lists of PKI activists, he said not having the lists "could have been criticized as a gap in the intelligence system," and that such lists were useful for "operation planning." Without such lists, he said, "you’re fighting blind."

Despite overwhelming evidence, the CIA denied the allegations in Kadane’s article. CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said, "There is no substance to the allegation that the CIA was involved in the preparation and/or distribution of a list that was used to track down and kill PKI members. It is simply not true." Marshall Green, who was U.S. ambassador to Indonesia at the time, told the New York Times that the Kadane report was "garbage."

But now, the U.S. State Department’s own official history of the 1965-1966 mass killings in Indonesia openly admits that the U.S. not only provided Suharto’s butchers with military leadership, political backing, and U.S. dollars—but the hit lists as well.


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