In The Act of Killing, one of the nominees for an Academy Award for best documentary, a group of elderly Indonesian men re-enact their role in the killing of alleged Communists following a purported coup attempt in late 1965. Viewers are rightfully repelled by how little many Indonesians today seem to know or care about the killings, and how those who participated in them not only show no remorse for their actions but are celebrated as national heroes.
“No one cared, as long as they were Communists, that they were being butchered,” recalled one observer, whose nonchalance in the face of mass murder should give us pause. This was no Indonesian, however, but rather a State Department official describing the enthusiastic support of Lyndon Johnson’s administration for the efforts of the Indonesian army and local militias to exterminate the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), after years of mounting conflict over the direction of the country’s domestic and foreign policy.
The United States was no mere observer in these events. After supporting Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands in 1949, US officials grew concerned over the growing popularity of the PKI and the increasing radicalism of the mercurial President Sukarno. In the aftermath of a disastrous US-backed regional rebellion in the late 1950s, Sukarno abandoned parliamentary democracy, and the army and PKI emerged as the dominant political forces in a highly polarized Indonesia.
As President Sukarno committed himself to an increasingly radical domestic and foreign policy, the United States and other Western governments began conducting covert operations aimed at provoking an armed clash between the army and the PKI. Following an attempted purge of the army high command by elements of the PKI leadership and a handful of middle-ranking military officers on September 30, 1965, the army struck, using the events as a pretext for a campaign of mass murder aimed at annihilating the PKI and overthrowing Sukarno. With help from a range of civilian militias and some freelance gangsters, including chief protagonist Anwar Congo’s “preman,” the army oversaw the slaughter of perhaps 500,000 unarmed civilians in less than six months.
The US response was enthusiastic. Washington provided economic, technical and military aid to the army soon after the killings started. It continued to do so long after it was clear a “widespread slaughter” was taking place in Northern Sumatra (the site of Joshua Oppenheimer’s film) and other places, and in the expectation that US assistance would contribute to this end. Other nations, in particular the United Kingdom, assisted as well. Not a single US official, however, ever expressed concern in public or private about the slaughter.
“Our policy was silence,” US National Security Adviser Walt Rostow later wrote to President Johnson, a good thing “in light of the wholesale killings that have accompanied the transition” from Sukarno to General Suharto, who would go on to rule Indonesia for thirty-two years.