The American view of the world from the Mediterranean to the Pacific was black and white: a firm American hand was needed in every capital from Damascus to Jakarta to keep the dominoes from falling. But in 1958, the CIA's effort to overthrow the government of Indonesia backfired so badly that it fueled the rise of the biggest communist party in the world outside of Russia and China. It would take a real war, in which hundreds of thousands died, to defeat that force.
Indonesia had fought for freedom from Dutch colonial rule after World War II and won it at the end of 1949. The United States supported Indonesia's independence under its new leader, President Sukarno. The nation came into the CIA's focus after the Korean War, when the agency realized that Indonesia had perhaps twenty billion barrels of untapped oil, a leader unwilling to align himself with the United States, and a rising communist movement.
The agency first raised the alarm over Indonesia in a report delivered to the National Security Council on September 9, 1953. After hearing the CIA's dire account of the situation, Harold Stassen, then director of the Mutual Security Agency, the military and economic aid organization that succeeded the Marshall Plan, told Vice President Nixon and the Dulles brothers that they "might well give thought to measures by this Government that would cause the fall of the new regime in Indonesia, since it was obviously a pretty bad one. If it is being as heavily infiltrated by Communists as CIA seemed to believe, it would be more sensible to try to get rid of it than to prop it up." But when Nixon briefed CIA officers in Washington four months later, after meeting Sukarno during a world tour, he reported that the Indonesian leader had "a tremendous hold on the people; is completely noncommunist; and there is no doubt that he is the main 'card' of the United States."
The Dulles brothers strongly doubted Nixon. Sukarno had declared himself a noncombatant in the cold war, and there were no neutrals in their eyes.
The CIA seriously considered killing Sukarno in the spring of 1955. "There was planning of such a possibility," Richard Bissell recounted. "The planning progressed as far as the identification of an asset"--an assassin--"whom it was felt might be recruited for this purpose. The plan was never reached, was never perfected to the point where it seemed feasible. The difficulty concerned the possibility of creating a situation in which the potential agent would have access to the target."
"SUBVERSION BY BALLOT"
While the agency weighed his assassination, Sukarno convened an international conference of twenty-nine Asian, African, and Arab chiefs of state in Bandung, Indonesia. They proposed a global movement of nations free to chart their own paths, aligned with neither Moscow nor Washington. Nineteen days after the Bandung conference disbanded, the CIA received a new covert-action order from the White House, numbered NSC 5518 and declassified in 2003.
It authorized the agency to use "all feasible covert means"--including payoffs to buy Indonesian voters and politicians, political warfare to win friends and subvert potential enemies, and paramilitary force--to keep Indonesia from veering to the left.
Under its provisions, the CIA pumped about $1 million into the coffers of Sukarno's strongest political opponents, the Masjumi Party, in the 1955 national parliamentary elections, the first ever held in postcolonial Indonesia. That operation fell short: Sukarno's party won, the Masjumi placed second, and the PKI--the Indonesian Communist Party--placed fourth with 16 percent of the votes. Those results alarmed Washington. The CIA continued to finance its chosen political parties and "a number of political figures" in Indonesia, as Bissell recounted in an oral history.
In 1956, the red alert was raised again when Sukarno visited Moscow and Beijing as well as Washington. The White House had listened when Sukarno said he greatly admired the American form of government. It felt betrayed when he did not embrace Western democracy as his model for governing Indonesia, an archipelago stretching more than three thousand miles, encompassing nearly one thousand inhabited islands, with thirteen major ethnic groups among a predominantly Islamic population of more than eighty million people--the world's fifth-largest nation in the 1950s.
Sukarno was a spellbinding orator who spoke in public three or four times a week, rallying his people with patriotic rants, trying to unify his nation. The few Americans in Indonesia who could understand his public speeches reported that he would quote Thomas Jefferson one day and spout communist theory the next. The CIA never quite grasped Sukarno. But the agency's authority under NSC 5518 was so broad that it could justify almost any action against him.
The CIA's new Far East division chief, Al Ulmer, liked that kind of freedom. It was why he loved the agency. "We went all over the world and we did what we wanted," he said forty years later. "God, we had fun."
By his own account, Ulmer had lived high and mighty during his long run as station chief in Athens, with a status somewhere between a Hollywood star and a head of state. He had helped Allen Dulles enjoy a romantic infatuation with Queen Frederika of Greece and the pleasures of yachting with shipping magnates. The Far East division was his reward.
Ulmer said in an interview that he knew next to nothing about Indonesia when he took over the division. But he had the full faith and trust of Allen Dulles. And he remembered vividly a conversation with Frank Wisner at the end of 1956, just before Wisner's breakdown. He recalled Wisner saying it was time to turn up the heat on Sukarno and hold his feet to the fire.
Ulmer's station chief in Jakarta told him that Indonesia was ripe for communist subversion. The chief, Val Goodell, was a rubber-industry magnate with a decidedly colonialist attitude. The essence of his fire-breathing cables from Jakarta was conveyed in notes that Allen Dulles carried to his weekly White House meetings in the first four months of 1957: Situation critical.... Sukarno a secret communist.... Send weapons. Rebellious army officers on the island of Sumatra were the key to the nation's future, Goodell told headquarters. "Sumatrans prepared to fight," he cabled, "but are short of arms."
In July 1957, local election returns showed that the PKI stood to become the third most powerful political party in Indonesia, up from the fourth spot. "Sukarno insisting on Commie participation" in Indonesia's government, Goodell reported, "because of six million Indonesians who voted for Communist party." The CIA described this rise as "spectacular gains" giving the communists "enormous prestige." Would Sukarno now turn toward Moscow and Beijing? No one had the slightest notion.
The station chief strongly disagreed with the outgoing American ambassador in Indonesia, Hugh Cumming, who said Sukarno was still open to American influence. From the start, Goodell fought the new ambassador, John M. Allison, who had served as the American envoy in Japan and the assistant secretary of state for the Far East. The two quickly reached an angry impasse. Would the United States use diplomatic influence or deadly force in Indonesia?
No one seemed to know what the foreign policy of the United States was on this point. On July 19, 1957, Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Charles Pearre Cabell "recommended that the Director again attempt to find out State Department policy on Indonesia," say the minutes of the CIA chiefs' meeting. "The Director agreed to do this."
The White House and the CIA sent emissaries to Jakarta to assess the situation. Allen Dulles dispatched Al Ulmer; President Eisenhower sent F. M. Dearborn, Jr., his special assistant for security operations. Dearborn reluctantly advised Eisenhower that almost all of America's allies in the Far East were shaky. Chiang Kai-shek was leading "a dictatorship" in Taiwan. President Diem was running a "one-man show" in South Vietnam. The leaders of Laos were corrupt. South Korea's Syngman Rhee was deeply unpopular.
But the problem in Sukarno's Indonesia was different, the president's man reported: It was "subversion by ballot"--one of the dangers of participatory democracy.
Al Ulmer believed that he had to find the strongest anticommunist forces in Indonesia and support them with guns and money. He and Goodell argued furiously with Ambassador Allison over "a long and fruitless afternoon" on the veranda of the embassy residence in Jakarta. The CIA men did not accept the fact that almost all the Indonesian army leadership remained professionally loyal to the government, personally anticommunist, and politically pro-American. They believed that CIA support for rebellious army officers could save Indonesia from a communist takeover. With the agency's support, they could create a breakaway Indonesian government on Sumatra, then seize the capital. Ulmer returned to Washington denouncing Sukarno as "beyond redemption" and Allison as "soft on communism." He swayed the Dulles brothers on both counts.
A few weeks later, at the CIA's recommendation, Ambassador Allison, one of the most experienced Asia hands remaining at the State Department, was removed from his post and reassigned on short notice to Czechoslovakia.
"I had great regard for Foster and Allen Dulles," Allison noted. "But they did not know Asians well and were always inclined to judge them by Western standards." On the question of Indonesia, "they were both activists and insisted on doing something at once." They had been convinced by the station's reporting that the communists were subverting and controlling the Indonesian army--and that the agency could thwart the threat. The CIA had engraved a self-addressed invitation to an insurrection.
"THE SONS OF EISENHOWER"
At the August 1, 1957, meeting of the National Security Council, the CIA's reporting sparked a pent-up explosion. Allen Dulles said Sukarno had "gone beyond the point of no return" and "would henceforth play the communist game." Vice President Nixon picked up the theme and proposed that "the United States should work through the Indonesia military organization to mobilize opposition to communism." Frank Wisner said the CIA could back a rebellion, but he could not guarantee "absolute control" once it started: "explosive results were always possible." The next day, he told his colleagues that "the deterioration of the situation in Indonesia is being viewed with the utmost gravity in the highest circles of the U.S. Government."
Foster Dulles threw his full weight behind a coup. He put former ambassador Hugh Cumming, five months out of Indonesia, in charge of a committee led by officers from the CIA and the Pentagon. The group delivered its recommendations on September 13, 1957. It urged the United States to supply covert military and economic aid to army officers seeking power.
But it also raised fundamental questions about the consequences of American covert action. Arming the rebellious officers "could increase the likelihood of the dismemberment of Indonesia, a country which was created with U.S. support and assistance," members of the Cumming group noted. "Since the U.S. played a very important role in the creation of an independent Indonesia, doesn't it stand to lose a great deal in Asia and the rest of the world if Indonesia breaks up, particularly if, as seems inevitable, our hand in the breakup eventually becomes known?" The question went unanswered.
On September 25, President Eisenhower ordered the agency to overthrow Indonesia, according to CIA records obtained by the author. He set out three missions. First: to provide "arms and other military aid" to "anti-Sukarno military commanders" throughout Indonesia. Second: to "strengthen the determination, will, and cohesion" of the rebel army officers on the islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi. Third: to support and "stimulate into action, singly or in unison, non-and anti-Communist elements" among political parties on the main island of Java.
Three days later the Indian newsweekly Blitz--a publication controlled by Soviet intelligence--ran a long story with a provocative headline: AMERICAN PLOT TO OVERTHROW SUKARNO. The Indonesian press picked up the story and ran with it. The covert action had remained secret for roughly seventy-two hours.
Richard Bissell sent U-2 flights out over the archipelago and plotted the delivery of arms and ammunition to the rebels by sea and air. He had never run paramilitary operations or drawn up military plans. He found it fascinating.
The operation took three months to plan. Wisner flew to the CIA station in Singapore, just across the Malacca Straits from northern Sumatra, to set up political-warfare operations. Ulmer created military command posts at Clark Air Force Base and the Subic Bay naval station in the Philippines, the two biggest American bases in the region. John Mason, Ulmer's Far East operations chief, assembled a small team of paramilitary officers in the Philippines; many were veterans of the CIA's Korean War operations. They made contact with a handful of the Indonesian army rebels on Sumatra and another contingent of commanders seeking power on the island of Sulawesi, northeast of Java. Mason worked with the Pentagon to put together a package of machine guns, carbines, rifles, rocket launchers, mortars, hand grenades, and ammunition sufficient for eight thousand soldiers, and he made plans to supply the rebels on both Sumatra and Sulawesi by sea and by air. The first arms shipment came out of Subic Bay on the USSThomaston, bound for Sumatra, on January 8, 1958. Mason followed the ship in a submarine, the USS Bluegill. The arms arrived the following week in the northern Sumatran port of Padang, about 225 miles south of Singapore. The off-loading took place without a shred of secrecy. It drew an impressive crowd.
On February 10, the Indonesian rebels broadcast a stirring challenge to Sukarno from a newly established CIA-financed radio station at Padang. They demanded a new government and the outlawing of communism within five days. Hearing nothing from Sukarno, who was sporting in the geisha bars and bathhouses of Tokyo, they announced the establishment of a revolutionary government whose foreign minister, picked and paid by the CIA, was Colonel Maludin Simbolon, an English-speaking Christian. Reading their demands over the radio, they warned foreign powers not to interfere in Indonesia's internal affairs. Meanwhile, the CIA readied new weapons shipments from the Philippines and awaited the first signs of a nationwide popular uprising against Sukarno.
The CIA's Jakarta station told headquarters to expect a long, slow, languid period of political maneuvering, with "all factions seeking to avoid violence." Eight days later, on February 21, the Indonesian air force bombed the revolutionaries' radio stations in Central Sumatra into rubble, and the Indonesian navy blockaded rebel positions along the coast. The CIA's Indonesian agents and their American advisers retreated into the jungle.
The agency appeared unmindful that some of the most powerful commanders in the Indonesian army had been trained in the United States and referred to themselves as "the sons of Eisenhower." These were the men who were fighting the rebels. The army, led by anticommunists, was at war with the CIA.
"THE BEST CROWD WE COULD GET TOGETHER"
Hours after those first bombs fell on Sumatra, the Dulles brothers spoke by telephone. Foster said he was "in favor of doing something but it is difficult to figure out what or why." If the United States became "involved in a civil war" on the other side of the world, he said, how would it justify its case to Congress and the American people? Allen replied that the forces the CIA had assembled were "the best crowd we could get together," and he warned that "there is not too much time to consider all we have to consider."
When the National Security Council met that week, Allen Dulles told the president that "the United States faced very difficult problems" in Indonesia.
The NSC minutes say "he sketched the latest developments, most of which had been set forth in the newspapers," and then he warned: "If this dissident movement went down the drain, he felt fairly certain that Indonesia would go over to the Communists." Foster Dulles said that "we could not afford to let this happen." The president allowed that "we would have to go in if a Communist takeover really threatened." The CIA's false alarms were the basis for believing in that threat.
Allen Dulles told Eisenhower that Sukarno's forces "were not very enthusiastic about an attack on Sumatra." Hours later, reports from Indonesia came pouring in to CIA headquarters saying that those same forces had "bombed and blockaded dissident strongholds in first effort to crush rebellion by all available means" and were "planning airborne and amphibious action against central Sumatra."
American warships gathered near Singapore, ten minutes by jet from the coast of Sumatra. The USS Ticonderoga, an aircraft carrier with two battalions of marines aboard, dropped anchor along with two destroyers and a heavy cruiser. On March 9, as the naval battle group assembled, Foster Dulles made a public statement openly calling for a revolt against "Communist despotism" under Sukarno. General Nasution, Sukarno's army chief, responded by sending two battalions of soldiers on a fleet of eight ships, accompanied by an air force wing. They assembled off the northern coast of Sumatra, a dozen miles from Singapore's harbor.
The new U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Howard Jones, cabled the secretary of state that General Nasution was a reliable anticommunist and the rebels had no chance of victory. He might as well have slipped the message into a bottle and tossed it into the sea.
General Nasution's chief of operations, Colonel Ahmed Yani, was one of the "sons of Eisenhower"--devotedly pro-American, a graduate of the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff course at Fort Leavenworth, and a friend to Major George Benson, the American military attache in Jakarta. The colonel, preparing a major offensive against the rebels in Sumatra, asked Major Benson for maps to aid him in his mission. The major, unaware of the CIA's covert operation, gladly supplied them.
At Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, the CIA's commanders had called in a twenty-two-man team of aircrews led by Polish pilots who had been flying for the agency since the ill-fated Albanian operation eight years earlier. The first of their flights carried five tons of weapons and ammunition along with bundles of cash for the rebels on Sumatra. It was detected by one of General Nasution's patrols instants after it entered Indonesian airspace. Nasution's paratroopers had the pleasure of picking up every one of the crates that the CIA's pilots dropped.
To the east, on Sulawesi, the CIA's war went just as well. U.S. Navy fliers took off on a reconnaissance mission pinpointing potential targets on Sulawesi. The American-backed rebels showed their mettle by using .50-caliber machine guns supplied by the agency to shoot up the plane. The American team barely survived a crash landing two hundred miles to the north in the Philippines. The CIA's Polish pilots received fresh targets from the reconnaissance flight. Two sets of two-man crews arrived at a Sulawesi airstrip. Their refurbished B-26 aircraft were equipped with six five-hundred-pound bombs and heavy machine guns. One of the planes successfully attacked an Indonesian military airfield. The second crashed on takeoff. Two brave Poles went home to their British wives in body bags; an elaborate cover story disguised their deaths.
The CIA's last hope lay with the rebels on Sulawesi and its outlying islands, in the far northeastern reaches of the archipelago. For in the final days of April, Sukarno's soldiers destroyed the rebels on Sumatra. The five CIA officers on the island ran for their lives. They headed south in a jeep until they ran out of fuel, then walked through the jungle to the coast, stealing food from little shops in isolated villages to sustain themselves. When they reached the ocean they commandeered a fishing boat and radioed their position to the CIA station in Singapore. A navy submarine, the USS Tang, came to their rescue.
The mission on Sumatra had "practically collapsed," Allen Dulles glumly reported to Eisenhower on April 25. "There seemed to be no willingness to fight on the part of the dissident forces on the island," the director told the president. "The dissident leaders had been unable to provide their soldiers with any idea of why they were fighting. It was a very strange war."
"THEY CONVICTED ME OF MURDER"
Eisenhower wanted to keep this operation deniable. He ordered that no Americans could be involved "in any operations partaking of a military character in Indonesia." Dulles disobeyed him.
The CIA's pilots had begun bombing and strafing Indonesia's outer islands on April 19, 1958. These agency air forces were described in a written CIA briefing for the White House and the president of the United States as "dissident planes"--Indonesian planes flown by Indonesians, not American aircraft flown by agency personnel. One of the Americans flying those planes was Al Pope. At age twenty-five, he was a four-year veteran of dangerous secret missions. He was distinguished by bravery and fervor.
"I enjoyed killing Communists," he said in 2005. "I liked to kill Communists any way I could get them."
He flew his first mission in Indonesia on April 27. For the next three weeks, he and his fellow CIA pilots hit military and civilian targets in the villages and harbors of northeastern Indonesia. On May Day, Allen Dulles told Eisenhower that these air strikes had been "almost too effective, since they had resulted in the sinking of a British and of a Panamanian freighter." Hundreds of civilians died, the American embassy reported. Four days later Dulles nervously recounted to the National Security Council that the bombings had "stirred great anger" among the Indonesian people, for it was charged that American pilots had been at the controls. The charges were true, but the president of the United States and the secretary of state publicly denied them.
The American embassy and Admiral Felix Stump, commander of American forces in the Pacific, alerted Washington that the CIA's operation was a transparent failure. The president asked the director of central intelligence to explain himself. A team of officers at CIA headquarters scrambled to piece together a chronology of the Indonesia operation. They noted that although the "complexity" and "sensitivity" of the operation was immense, demanding "careful coordination," it had been improvised "day-to-day." By virtue of its size and scope, "it could not be conducted as a completely covert operation." The failure of secrecy violated the agency's charter and the president's direct orders.
Al Pope spent the early hours of Sunday, May 18, over Ambon City in eastern Indonesia, sinking a navy ship, bombing a market, and destroying a church. The official death toll was six civilians and seventeen military officers. Then Pope began to pursue a seven-thousand-ton ship transporting more than a thousand Indonesian troops. But his B-26 was in the crosshairs of the ship's anti-aircraft guns. It was also being tailed by an Indonesian air force fighter. Hit from behind and below, Pope's plane burst into flames at six thousand feet. Pope ordered his Indonesian radioman to jump, jettisoned his canopy, hit the ejection seat's release, and bailed out. As he tumbled backward, his leg struck the tail of his plane. His thigh shattered at the hip. His last bomb missed the troopship by about forty feet, sparing hundreds of lives. He fell slowly back to earth, writhing in pain at the end of his parachute. In the zippered pocket of his flight suit, Pope had his personnel records, his after-action flight reports, and a membership card for the officer's club at Clark Field. The documents identified him for what he was--an American officer bombing Indonesia on orders from his government. He could have been shot on sight. But he was placed under arrest.
"They convicted me of murder and sentenced me to death," he said. "They said I wasn't a prisoner of war and was not entitled to the Geneva Convention."
The news that Pope had gone missing in battle reached CIA headquarters that same Sunday evening. The director of central intelligence conferred with his brother. They agreed they had lost this war.
On May 19, Allen Dulles sent a flash cable to his officers in Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Singapore: stand down, cut off the money, shut down the arms pipeline, burn the evidence, and retreat. The minutes of that morning's meeting at headquarters reflect his fury over a "glaring mix-up."
It was time for the United States to switch sides. As quickly as possible, American foreign policy reversed course. The CIA's reporting instantly reflected the change. The agency told the White House on May 21 that the Indonesian army was suppressing communism and that Sukarno was speaking and acting in ways favorable to the United States. Now it was the CIA's former friends who threatened American interests.
"The operation was, of course, a complete failure," Richard Bissell said. For the rest of his days in power, Sukarno rarely failed to mention it. He knew the CIA had tried to overthrow his government, and his army knew it, and the political establishment of Indonesia knew it too. The ultimate effect was to strengthen Indonesia's communists, whose influence and power grew for the next seven years.
"They said Indonesia was a failure," Al Pope reflected bitterly. "But we knocked the shit out of them. We killed thousands of Communists, even though half of them probably didn't even know what Communism meant."
The only contemporary record of Pope's service in Indonesia is one line in a CIA report to the White House, dated May 21, 1958. It is a lie, and it reads in full: "Dissident B-26 aircraft shot down during attack on Ambon on 18 May."
"OUR PROBLEMS WERE GETTING GREATER EVERY YEAR"
Indonesia was Frank Wisner's last operation as chief of the clandestine service. He came back from the Far East in June 1958 at the edge of his sanity, and at summer's end he went mad. The diagnosis was "psychotic mania." The symptoms had been there for years--the desire to change the world by force of will, the soaring speeches, the suicidal missions. Psychiatrists and primitive new psychopharmaceuticals did not help. The treatment was electroshock. For six months, his head was clamped into a vise and shot through with a current sufficient to fire a hundred-watt lightbulb. He came out less brilliant and less bold, and went off to serve as chief of station in London.
After the Indonesia operation fell apart, Dulles meandered through a series of National Security Council meetings, voicing vague and ominous warnings about the threat from Moscow. The president began wondering out loud if the CIA knew what it was doing. He once asked in astonishment: Allen, are you trying to scare me into starting a war?
At headquarters, Dulles asked his most senior officers where exactly he had to go to find intelligence on the Soviet Union. At a deputies' meeting on June 23, 1958, he said he was "at a loss as to what component of the Agency he can turn to when he desires specific information on the USSR." The agency had none to speak of. Its reporting on the Soviets was pure wind.
The CIA's Abbot Smith, one of its best analysts and later the chief of the agency's Office of National Estimates, looked back on a decade's work at the end of 1958 and wrote: "We had constructed for ourselves a picture of the USSR, and whatever happened had to be made to fit into that picture. Intelligence estimators can hardly commit a more abominable sin."
On December 16, Eisenhower received a report from his intelligence board of consultants advising him to overhaul the CIA. Its members feared that the agency was "incapable of making objective appraisals of its own intelligence information as well as of its own operations." Led by former defense secretary Robert Lovett, they pleaded with the president to take covert operations out of Allen Dulles's hands.
Dulles, as ever, fended off all efforts to change the CIA. He told the president there was nothing wrong with the agency. Back at headquarters, he told his senior staff that "our problems were getting greater every year." He promised the president that Wisner's replacement would fix the missions and organization of the clandestine service. He had just the man for the job.