I came to Jakarta by way of the Vietnam War. Especially after the release of the Pentagon Papers, I became concerned by the number of public assertions that a major concern of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia had been to prevent the Communist Party of Indonesia, far and away the largest political party of that country, from ever coming to power there. Nixon in 1967 also reportedly pointed to the Indonesian experience as a model, for how “we should handle our relationships on a wider basis in Southeast Asia generally, and maybe in the world” (Scott, 1985, 263-64; citing Szulc, 16).
The Indonesian experience of 1965-67 had included a military seizure of power, the ouster of Sukarno (an undeniably popular and reasonably constitutional civilian leader), and a civilian massacre, of a scale the world had not seen since the holocaust of World War II. This massacre was attributed by many American journalists and eminent
scholars alike to irrational peasant vengefulness. But more cautious and credible observers recognized that an organizing role in the violence was played by army officers, some of whom were involved with U.S. military advisers in so-called “civic action” programs (Crouch, 140-53; Sundhausen, 171, 178-79, 210, 219, 228; others in Scott, 1985, 244).
In area after area, bloodshed only began after the arrival of the special RPKAD commando units under Col. Sarwo Edhie, a long-time CIA contact (Scott, 1985, 248-51; 1989, IV.viii, 120-21). The Communists were targeted by a year-long psychological warfare campaign, orchestrated from outside Indonesia; according to former CIA officer Ralph McGehee, the CIA was responsible for this deception operation, and used it again in the 1973 overthrow of Allende in Chile (McGehee, 423; Szulc, 724; Scott, 1985, 258-62).
I was drawn to this appalling story for the same reason that, in 1962-63, I had been drawn to the subject of Vietnam: not from any expertise on the subject, but because of the near blackout of news about the massacre in the U.S. press,
and obvious distortions in quasi-scholarly U.S. publications. I believed then that the United States’ crisis was a cognitive one; and that the informed rebuttal of conscious disinformation would be enough to divorce the U.S. from alliances with foreign death squads and drug-traffickers, and bring its foreign policy back to a more humane course.
I had only amateur qualifications for this task of rebuttal. I have never been in Asia, and my Ph.D. in political science was on an unrelated subject. However my brief experience in the Canadian Foreign Service had exposed me to my government’s cable traffic as a member of the International Control Commission for Indochina. Confused memories of its reports on the 1961 skulduggery in Laos helped make me, in 1963, an early critic of America’s increased Vietnam involvement. Through my later writings about Vietnam, and particularly my long essay about the Pentagon Papers, I became aware of the suspicious disappearance of Indonesia from U.S. policy documents, in the years 1961-65, into a black hole of silence. In the absence of more expert spokespersons, I was thus prompted to challenge the absurd propaganda about the 1965 massacre in U.S. journals.
Thus I wrote in 1975
Frequently it takes no scholar to see that the “official” American version is suspect if not indeed deliberately misleading. Those politicians who plotted against Sukarno’s government (the [CIA-subsidized] PSI and Masjumi parties) are repeatedly called “moderates”, while those who supported it are called “unreliable” or worse. The claim that the PKI [Communist Party of Indonesia] inspired the Untung coup of September 1965 (which in the words of one anti-Communist student activist “provided the long-awaited legitimization for a determined assault against the extreme [and unprepared] left;” Bachtiar, 191) is a claim supported by “captured documents” and above all by the so-called “Aidit Confession” — a document quoted even by those who virtually admit it to be a forgery.
[Arnold C. Brackman concedes (before quoting) that “the question of whether or not [PKI leader] Aidit ‘confessed’ before his execution is speculative” (Brackman, 111). Cf. Shaplen, 113, who rationalized that “there are nevertheless a number of points in it that seem valid and that, even if the confession itself was fabricated, may have represented Aidit’s views.” The ensuing [murderous] anti-PKI riots are said to have been “spontaneous” and to have “caught all leaders unprepared” in their vehemence, even though the same student source has conceded they were well-organized by pro-Masjumi student groups with “substantial support from certain sectors of the military leadership,” along with outside “financial aid” (Bartlett, 252; Bachtiar, 193).]
A matter of more immediate personal concern was that men who passed as U.S. academics had publicly urged the Indonesian military to carry out the ouster of Sukarno, the seizure of power, and what was euphemistically called a “strike” to “sweep their house clean” (Pauker, 1962, 224), or “liquidating the enemy’s political and guerrilla armies” (Kintner, 237-38). These incitements to mass murder had not come from corrupt out-of-control adventurers in the field, but from the very heart, as then symbolized by the New York Council on Foreign Relations, of America’s foreign policy-making establishment (Scott, 1975). One of them had taught at my own university.
Thereafter most academic Indonesianists, fearing the loss of their Indonesian visas, tended to accept without criticism the horrors which a few of their colleagues had helped induce, and the false accounts of Communist mayhem, and of an impending Communist coup, which the Indonesian Army had put out to justify its actions. (According to McGehee the CIA itself, in a secret internal document, took credit for the disinformation about the mayhem which helped set the stage for the Army-fomented massacre; McGehee, 423; in Scott, 1985, 258.)
As a Canadian living and teaching as a resident alien in the United States, I initially saw myself as an external witness to these events, one somehow exempted, by self-perceived concerns for decency and humanity, from the prevailing bad faith that more and more tainted the air. Much of part II of my poem, like the preceding paragraphs of this article, is in the spirit of the witnessing in my 1975 article in Indonesia: an un-self-questioning indictment of the sins and shortcomings of others.
Increasingly personal developments made this fiction of outside detachment untenable. The first was a growing self-hatred for carrying around a headful of horrors which most people (including my former editors and publishers) were less and less willing to hear about. An afternoon talk in 1980 with Noam Chomsky about our increasing difficulties in reaching audiences, right after each of us had had a book suppressed by its publisher, did indeed help trigger the very real personal crisis at the opening of the poem, the fear that I might be at the point of losing, like some close friends, my personal sanity altogether.
But deeper than this external frustration with publishers was the sense that my own judgmental head was in some profound sense not right, my disgust (which can still haunt me) at “giving one last broadcast too many/ about…the heroin traffic.” Unlike many Americans whose prevailing discomfort in this era was guilt, my own nausea (I now believe) was from the poisonous facts I had assimilated and could not disseminate.
The first eight sections of the poem record my search for the source of this nausea, and my delayed recognition (in II.iv), that it derived, not from knowledge reiterated, but from knowledge and emotions held back. By appealing to a more human and less compartmetalized audience, poetry, precisely poetry, allowed me to trace more inclusive relationships than those authorized by orderly prose analysis.
Above all I could explore the complex psyches of those patriarchal U.S. mandarins I had encountered, and through these my own complex reactions to them. Thus the poem could pursue my unprovable hunch that a personal friend had been murdered by allies of the CIA Social Register elite whose tennis and sherry parties I had witnessed as a child, at the summer resort of North Hatley on Lake Massawippi, Quebec. At that time I had never felt part of this genealogically intertwined American milieu, which included among others a Dulles cousin, a few CIA officials, and the editor of Foreign Affairs. My experiences at Oxford (where I did not live in a college) and at Harvard (where I used the library, but was not enrolled as a student) reinforced this Canadian self-image of marginality.
But writing Part II led to an increasing sense that my stance of disinvolvement was disingenuous, another instance of the psychological denial I could so easily see at work among my Indonesianist colleagues. My involvement of course was neither with the coup and massacre per se, nor in the pervasive cover-up of the facts. I was however still actively sustaining the cultural establishment which had abetted this horror, and even protecting it, even to myself.
The key example was my own perception in 1975 of the role in the 1965-67 coup of my own institution, the University of California at Berkeley. My article had not hesitated to criticize the Ford Foundation, and in particular one or two of its administrators with a past record in bloody counter-insurgency, for their part in financing the training of the Indonesian military for an eventual take-over of civilian functions (Scott, 1975, 233-35; cf. Scott, 1989, II.xviii, 58).
I had however eased up on criticism of the University of California at Berkeley for its Indonesia project in Jakarta, and on those whom it had trained in economics and management, known in Jakarta to this day as the “Berkeley Mafia” (Scott, 1989, II.xviii, 59). Ford funded my university in this project, UCB trained Indonesians as economists, the Indonesians trained the military for administrative responsibilities which would empower them to displace and replace Sukarno’s civilian advisers.
In 1975 I had dismissed the term “Berkeley mafia” as “perhaps unfortunate,” and I attempted a distinction between training for coups and training in economics (Scott, 1975, 254). But through writing the poem I came to came to decide this was merely one more instance of the powerful, indeed necessary force of denial at work in all of us. (In II.xviii I intertwine this coming to awareness of my own denial with Nadezhda Mandelstam’s words about the optimistic self-deception of the victims at the time of Stalin’s terror: “in our sort of life people with sound mind had to shut their eyes.”)
I do not consider my opinions about the poem to be privileged or authoritative; but I can say safely that in Part III and thereafter I deal with myself as part of the problem, not outside it. As I read Parts IV and V of the poem, where I move towards my first failed efforts to respond to the crisis, I now see in them a recognition of the interdependency, in our civilization and in ourselves, between violence and denial itself, our protective schizophrenia for desensitizing ourselves to televised horrors. Hence the importance of regaining and voicing our suppressed inner protest, in the spirit of the Gospel of St. Thomas, a process for which poetry, precisely poetry, can reach deeper than investigative prose.
The poem arose initially out of the impossibility of reaching any U.S. audience on this unspeakable subject in prose. But the poem itself engendered yet more research, which, thanks to the interest of Noam Chomsky, and of former CIA agent Ralph McGehee, led to one more attempt at prose communication. This was at the 1985 meeting of the Association of Asian Studies, where I presented a paper on a panel with ex-CIA Director William Colby and others (Scott, 1985), to be met with Colby’s usual resounding denial that the CIA was involved in any way.
[This essay was subsequently published as “The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1967,” Pacific Affairs, LVIII, 2 (Summer 1985), 239-64. It was ultimately published in four languages in six countries, but never (except electronically on the Internet) in the United States: Reprinted in Intelligence/Parapolitics (Paris), 79 (July 1986), 13-19. Translated into Dutch as “De Verenigde Staten & Indonesie 1965,” in Indonesie: De Waarheid Omtrent 1965 (Amsterdam: Indonesia Media, 1965), 170-235. Translated also into Bahasa Indonesia, as (1) Peranan C.I.A. Dalam Penggulingan Bung Karno. Buku ini dilatang beredar oleh KEJAGUNG RI. (West Berlin: Perhimpunan Indonesia, 1988); (2) Peranan C.I.A. dalam penggulingan Bung Karno Konspirasi Soeharto-CIA : penggulingan Soekarno, 1965-1967 (Surabaya: Pergerakan Mahasiswa Islam Indonesia: Perkumpulan Kebangsaan Anti Diskriminasi, ); (3) An anthology, Gestapu, matinya para jenderal dan peran CIA (Yogyakarta : Cermin, 1999); (4) Peran AS dalam penggulingan Soekarno, in Joesoef Isak (ed), 100 Tahun Bung Karno (Jakarta: Hasta Mitra, 2001), 278-316.]
The silence with which the evidence in my 1975 and 1985 papers has been received in this country (even in a scholarly article which purports to refute the latter [Brands, passim]) has reinforced my impression that even the United States, perhaps the world’s most open society, has its nefanda, things not to be talked about.
Only this very day, in the last week before the deadline for this article, have former CIA and State Department officials ended 25 years of silence, and admitted one small part of their role in the massacre: the preparation of “death lists” of more than five thousand communists to be eliminated (a role replayed in Chile in 1973; Kadane, 1990).
Of the four American Indonesianists who have been willing to talk to me over the years, at least two have urged me to adopt a more moderate and “scholarly” (and in their words “less conspiratorial”) tone in my prose accounts. I understand such advice, which indeed is echoed by part of my own psyche the poem is engaged with. I would now analyse the difference between us to be less ideological than psychological.
Because we all spend most of our lives trying to achieve something worthwhile within our culture, we also sacrifice much (and deny much about our personal relationships) to maintain a decorum. Under increasing social pressure, this decorum becomes more and more a disguise, as alien as the white wigs at a British murder trial. In the name of self-realization, we accept a contract in which it becomes more and more clear we can no longer be ourselves.
In discussing Coming to Jakarta I have been asked more than once what made me “turn from politics to poetry.” Rightly or wrongly, I believe my poem (at least in its final form) is political, more profoundly political than the ineffective radio broadcasts about the heroin traffic I lament at its opening. I cannot expect the rethinking I went through in the poem to be instantly persuasive to critical masses of people. But I agree with those who argue that the only meaningful politics today is one which restores to economic and security issues the psychological dimension, where one works through personal resistance and disempowerment to re-empowerment.
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