Indonesia 1957-1958

War and pornography

excerpted from the book

Killing Hope

by William Blum


"I think it's time we held Sukarno's feet to the fire," said Frank Wisner, the CIA's Deputy Director of Plans (covert operations), one day in autumn 1956. Wisner was speaking of the man who had led Indonesia since its struggle for independence from the Dutch following the war. A few months earlier, in May, Sukarno had made an impassioned speech before the US Congress asking for more understanding of the problems and needs of developing nations like his own.

The ensuing American campaign to unseat the flamboyant leader of the fifth most populous nation in the world was to run the gamut from large-scale military maneuvers to seedy sexual intrigue. The previous year, Sukarno had organized the Bandung Conference as an answer to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), the US-created political-military alliance of area states to "contain communism". In the Indonesian city of Bandung, the doctrine of neutralism had been proclaimed as the faith of the underdeveloped world. To the men of the CIA station in Indonesia the conference was heresy, so much so that their thoughts turned toward assassination as a means of sabotaging it.


... Sukarno had made trips to the Soviet Union and China (though to the White House as well), he had purchased arms from Eastern European countries (but only after being turned down by the United States), he had nationalized many private holdings of the Dutch, and, perhaps most disturbing of all, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had made impressive gains electorally and in union organizing, thus earning an important role in the coalition government.

It was a familiar Third World scenario, and the reaction of Washington policy-makers was equally familiar. Once again, they were unable, or unwilling, to distinguish nationalism from pro-communism, neutralism from wickedness. By any definition of the word, Sukarno was no communist. He was an Indonesian nationalist and a "Sukarnoist" who had crushed the PKI forces in 1948 after the independence struggle had been won. He ran what was largely his own show by granting concessions to both the PKI and the Army, balancing one against the other. As to excluding the PKI, with its more than one million members, from the government, Sukarno declared: "I can't and won't ride a three-legged horse."

To the United States, however, Sukarno's balancing act was too precarious to be left to the vagaries of the Indonesian political process. It mattered not to Washington that the Communist Party was walking the legal, peaceful road, or that there was no particular "crisis" or "chaos" in Indonesia, so favored as an excuse for intervention. Intervention there would be.

It would not be the first. In 1955, during the national election campaign in Indonesia, the CIA had given a million dollars to the Masjumi party, a centrist coalition of Muslim organizations, in a losing bid to thwart Sukarno's Nationalist Party as well as the PKI. According to former CIA officer Joseph Burkholder Smith, the project "provided for complete write-off of the funds, that is, no demand for a detailed accounting of how the funds were spent was required. I could find no clue as to what the Masjumi did with the million dollars.''

In 1957, the CIA decided that the situation called for more direct action. It was not difficult to find Indonesian colleagues-in-arms for there already existed a clique of army officers and others who, for personal ambitions and because they disliked the influential position of the PKI, wanted Sukarno out, or at least out of their particular islands. (Indonesia is the world's largest archipelago, consisting of some 3,000 islands.)

The military operation the CIA was opting for was of a scale that necessitated significant assistance from the Pentagon, which could be secured for a political action mission only if approved by the National Security Council's "Special Group" (the small group of top NSC officials who acted in the president's name, to protect him and the country by evaluating proposed covert actions and making certain that the CIA did not go off the deep end; known at other times as the 5412 Committee, the 303 Committee, the 40 Committee or the Operations Advisory Group).

The manner in which the Agency went about obtaining this approval is a textbook example of how the CIA sometimes determines American foreign policy. Joseph Burkholdel Smith, who was in charge of the Agency's Indonesian desk in Washington from mid-1956 to early 1958, has described the process in his memoirs: Instead of first proposing the plan to Washington for approval, where "premature mention ... might get it shot down"...

"... we began to feed the State and Defense departments intelligence that no one could deny was a useful contribution to understanding Indonesia. When they had read enough alarming reports we planned to spring the suggestion we should support the colonels' plans to reduce Sukarno's power. This was a method of operation which became the basis of many of the political action adventures of the 1960s and 1970s. In other words, the statement is false that CIA undertook to intervene in the affairs of countries like Chile only after being ordered to do so by ... the Special Group.... In many instances, we made the action programs up ourselves after we had collected enough intelligence to make them appear required by the circumstances. Our activity in Indonesia in 1957-1958 was one such instance."


The issue of Sukarno's supposed hand-in-glove relationship with Communists was pushed at every opportunity. The CIA decided to make capital of reports that a good-looking blonde stewardess had been aboard Sukarno's aircraft everywhere he went during his trip in the Soviet Union and that the same woman had come to Indonesia with Soviet President Kliment Voroshilov and had been seen several times in the company of Sukarno The idea was that Sukarno's well-known womanizing had trapped him in the spell of a Soviet female agent. He had succumbed to Soviet control, CIA reports implied, as a result of her influence or blackmail, or both.


Seemingly, the success of this operation inspired CIA officers in Washington to carry the theme one step further. A substantial effort was made to come up with a pornographic film or at least some still photographs that could pass for Sukarno and his Russian girl friend engaged in "his favorite activity". When scrutiny of available porno films (supplied by the Chief of Police of Los Angeles) failed to turn up a couple who could pass for Sukarno (dark and bald) and a beautiful blonde Russian woman, the CIA undertook to produce its own films, "the very films with which the Soviets were blackmailing Sukarno". The Agency developed a full-face mask of the Indonesian leader which was to be sent to Los Angeles where the police were to pay some porno-film actor to wear it during his big scene. This project resulted in at least some photographs, although they apparently were never used.


The Special Group's approval of the political action mission was forthcoming in November 1957 19 and the CIA's paramilitary machine was put into gear. In this undertaking, as in others, the Agency enjoyed the advantage of the United States' far-flung military empire. Headquarters for the operation were established in neighboring Singapore, courtesy of the British; training bases set up in the Philippines; airstrips laid out in various parts of the Pacific to prepare for bomber and transport missions; Indonesians, along with Filipinos, Taiwanese, Americans, and other "soldiers of fortune" were assembled in Okinawa and the Philippines along with vast quantities of arms and equipment.

For this, the ClA's most ambitious military operation to date, tens of thousands of rebels were armed, equipped and trained by the US Army. US Navy submarines, patrolling off the coast of Sumatra, the main island, put over-the-beach parties ashore along with sup plies and communications equipment. The US Air Force set up a considerable Air Transport force which air-dropped many thousands of weapons deep into Indonesian territory. And a fleet of 15 B-26 bombers was made available for the conflict after being "sanitized" to ensure that they were "non-attributable" and that all airborne equipment was "deniable".

In the early months of 1958, rebellion began to break out in one part of the Indonesian island chain, then another. CIA pilots took to the air to carry out bombing and strafing missions in support of the rebels. In Washington, Col. Alex Kawilarung, the Indonesian military attaché, was persuaded by the Agency to "defect". He soon showed up in Indonesia to take charge of the rebel forces. Yet, as the fighting dragged on into spring, the insurgents proved unable to win decisive victories or take the offensive, although the CIA bombing raids were taking their toll. Sukarno later claimed that on a Sunday morning in April, a plane bombed a ship in the harbor of the island of Ambon-all those aboard losing their lives-as well as hitting a church, which demolished the building and killed everyone inside He stated that 700 casualties had resulted from this single run.

On 15 May, a CIA plane bombed the Ambon marketplace, killing a large number of civilians on their way to church on Ascension Thursday. The Indonesian government had to act to suppress public demonstrations.

Three days later, during another bombing run over Ambon, a CIA pilot, Allen Lawrence Pope, was shot down and captured. Thirty years old, from Perrine, Florida, Pope had flown 55 night missions over Communist lines in Korea for the Air Force. Later he spent two months flying through Communist flak for the CIA to drop supplies to the French at Dien Bien Phu. Now his luck had run out. He was to spend four years as a prisoner in Indonesia before Sukarno acceded to a request from Robert Kennedy for his release.

Pope was captured carrying a set of incriminating documents, including those which established him as a pilot for the US Air Force and the CIA airline CAT. Like all men flying clandestine missions, Pope had gone through an elaborate procedure before taking off to "sanitize" him, as well as his aircraft. But he had apparently smuggled the papers aboard the plane, for he knew that to be captured as an "anonymous, stateless civilian" meant having virtually no legal rights and running the risk of being shot as a spy in accordance with custom. A captured US military man, however, becomes a commodity of value for his captors while he remains alive.

The Indonesian government derived immediate material concessions from the United States as a result of the incident. Whether the Indonesians thereby agreed to keep silent about Pope is not known, but on 27 May the pilot and his documents were presented to the world at a news conference, thus contradicting several recent statements by high American officials. Notable amongst these was President Eisenhower's declaration on 30 April concerning Indonesia: "Our policy is one of careful neutrality and proper deportment all the way through so as not to be taking sides where it is none of our business."

And on 9 May, an editorial in the New York Times had stated:

"It is unfortunate that high officials of the Indonesian Government have given further circulation to the false report that the United States Government was sanctioning aid to Indonesia's rebels. The position of the United States Government has been made plain, again and again. Our Secretary of State was emphatic in his declaration that this country would not deviate from a correct neutrality ... the United States is nor ready ... to step in to help overthrow a constituted government. Those are the hard facts. Jakarta does not help its case, here, by ignoring them.

With the exposure of Pope and the lack of rebel success in the field, the CIA decided that the light was no longer worth the candle, and began to curtail its support. By the end of June, Indonesian army troops loyal to Sukarno had effectively crushed the dissident military revolt.

The Indonesian leader continued his adroit balancing act between the Communists and the army until 1965, when the latter, likely with the help of the CIA, finally overthrew his regime .

Killing Hope