Declassified files have revealed new details of US government
knowledge and support of an Indonesian army extermination
campaign that killed several hundred thousand civilians during
anti-communist hysteria in the mid-1960s.
The thousands of files from the US Embassy in Jakarta covering
1963-66 were made public Tuesday after a declassification review
that began under the Obama administration.
The Associated Press reviewed key documents in the collection in advance of
The files fill out the picture of a devastating reign of terror
by the Indonesian army and Muslim groups that has been sketched
by historians and in a US State Department volume that was
declassified in 2001 despite a last-minute CIA effort to block
In 1965, Indonesia had the world’s third-largest communist party
after China and the Soviet Union, with several million members,
and the country’s president, the charismatic Sukarno, was
vociferously socialist and anti-American.
US officials despaired of Indonesia’s apparently unstoppable
drift into the communist fold and were ecstatic when conservative
generals imposed martial law in Jakarta, seized state radio and
set out to annihilate the country’s communist party on the
pretext that it had tried to overthrow the government. Within
months, the army would prevail in its power struggle with
Sukarno, shifting Indonesia’s political orientation to the U.S.
and opening its huge market to American companies.
The newly released files underline the U.S. Embassy’s and State
Department’s early, detailed and ongoing knowledge of the
killings and eagerness to avoid doing anything that would hinder
the Indonesian army. Historians had already established that the
U.S. provided lists of senior communist party officials, radio
equipment and money as part of active support for the army.
The documents also show that U.S. officials had credible
information that contradicted the Indonesian army’s lurid story
that the kidnapping and killing of seven generals in an abortive
coup by junior officers on Sept. 30, 1965, which paved the way
for the bloodbath, was ordered by the Indonesian communist party
The documents specifically mention mass killings ordered by
Suharto, a general who within months would seize total power and
rule Indonesia for more than three decades, and the pivotal role
in carrying out the massacres by groups that today remain
Indonesia’s biggest mainstream Muslim organizations: Nahdlatul
Ulama, its youth wing Ansor and Muhammadiyah.
A Dec. 21, 1965, cable from the embassy’s first secretary, Mary
Vance Trent, to the State Department referred to events as a
“fantastic switch which has occurred over 10 short weeks.” It
also included an estimate that 100,000 people had been
In Bali alone, some 10,000 people had been killed by
mid-December, including the parents and distant relatives of the
island’s pro-communist governor, and the slaughter was
continuing, the cable said. Two months later, another embassy
cable cited estimates that the killings in Bali had swelled to
A cable that was part of the 2001 State Department volume showed
that by April 1966, the embassy was staggered by the scale of the
murders and acknowledged, “We frankly do not know whether the
real figure is closer to 100,000 or 1,000,000.” Even the
Indonesian government had only a “vague idea” of the true number,
the cable said.
The release of the documents coincides with an upsurge in
anti-communist rhetoric in Indonesia, where communism remains a
frequently invoked boogeyman for conservatives despite the
collapse of the Soviet Union nearly three decades ago and China’s
embrace of global capitalism.
Discussion of the 1965-66 period that departs from the Suharto
era’s partly fictional account of a heroic national uprising
against communism is still discouraged. A landmark symposium last
year that brought together aging survivors of the bloodbath and
government ministers sparked a furious backlash. And last month,
an anti-communist mob led by retired generals attacked a building
in central Jakarta where activists had planned to discuss the
“The mass killings of 1965-66 are among the world’s worst crimes
against humanity, and our country’s darkest secret,” said
Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights lawyer. “The 1965-66
survivors are all very old now, and I’m afraid that they will not
see justice before they die. Hopefully with these cables coming
to light, the truth can emerge and perpetrators can be held
U.S. Senator Tom Udall, who in 2015 introduced a resolution in
the Senate urging Indonesia’s government to create a truth and
reconciliation commission, said the U.S. must also confront its
role in these “terrible acts.”
Indonesia’s Muslim mass organizations are among those reluctant
to face scrutiny for their role, which in the fevered atmosphere
of 1965 was characterized by Islamic leaders as a holy war
Under the direction of the army, the Muslim organizations
Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah were enthusiastic participants
in mass murder, carrying out indiscriminate killings as well as
organized executions, according to the documents. They also
mention the army’s recruiting of Catholics to help with its
extermination campaign in central Java.
A December 1965 cable from the U.S. Consulate in Medan,
Indonesia, reported that preachers in Muhammadiyah mosques were
telling congregations that all who joined the communist party
must be killed, saying they are the “lowest order of infidel, the
shedding of whose blood is comparable to killing chicken.”
A detailed four-page report covering mid- to late November 1965
by the U.S. Embassy’s political affairs officer, Edward E.
Masters, discussed the spread of mass executions to several
provinces and the role of youth groups in helping to solve the
“main problem” of where to house and what to feed PKI prisoners.
PKI is the Indonesian acronym for the country’s communist party.
“Many provinces appear to be successfully meeting this problem by
executing their PKI prisoners, or killing them before they are
captured, a task in which Moslem youth groups are providing
assistance,” the report said. A cable from earlier in the month
mentions an estimated 62,000 prisoners in the province of Central
Ansor, the youth arm of Nahdlatul Ulama, was responsible for
“brutal attacks” on communists, according to a Dec. 10, 1965,
cable, but also caused problems by doing the same to
non-communists involved in personal feuds with its members.
Possibly the earliest mention of systematic bloodshed in cables
to Washington is a mid-October 1965 record of conversations
between the embassy’s second secretary and Bujung Nasution, a
special assistant to Indonesia’s attorney general involved with
intelligence matters. Like other intermediaries of the Indonesian
army and its allies sent to approach the embassy, Nasution was
apparently trying to assess whether the U.S. would object to the
According to Nasution, the army had already executed many cadres,
but this information, he said, must be closely held because the
army needed more time to break the communists.
The memo described Nasution as alarmed that reports of atrocities
had been leaked to the Malaysian press. It said he warned that it
was critical that Sukarno did not learn of the extent of the
army’s repression, especially from the foreign media.
In response, the second secretary, Robert G. Rich, reassured
The U.S. government was fully aware of the sensitive nature of
the current events, said Rich, and was “making every effort to
avoid stimulating press speculation.”