Rarely has a head of state anticipated a visit to the United States as eagerly as President Sukarno of Indonesia. American history fascinated him. As a boy he spent long evenings in imaginary conversations with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. In his speech opening the Bandung Conference on April 18, 1955, he summoned Asian and African leaders to “the battle against colonialism,” and then asked them, “Do you know that today is a famous anniversary in that battle? On April 18, 1775, Paul Revere rode at midnight through the New England countryside warning of the approach of British troops and the opening of the American War of Independence, the first successful anti-colonial war in history.”
Sukarno spent much of his time crisscrossing Indonesia on trips that often lasted weeks, leaving little time for foreign travel. In 1956, however, after he had been in power for seven years and become one of the world’s most magnetic leaders, he expressed interest in visiting the United States. John Foster Dulles was dubious. He detested Sukarno, not only for his neutralist politics but also for his personal style, which was unabashedly hedonistic and featured a parade of wives and girlfriends. Nonetheless, this towering figure was a strategic prize. Foster overcame his doubts and recommended that Eisenhower invite him.
“As the leader and personification of his people’s struggle for independence, President Sukarno occupies a position of unique power and influence in Indonesia, the largest and most populous nation of Southeast Asia,” he wrote in a memo to the president. “His lifetime efforts to separate Indonesia from Dutch political and economic influence have biased his attitude toward many aspects of Western economic and political development.… I believe that we may broaden his outlook and increase his understanding by a visit to the United States.”
Foster and Vice President Nixon were at National Airport to greet Sukarno when he arrived on May 16, 1956. The Indonesian leader was elegant as always in an impeccably tailored tunic, black felt cap, sunglasses, and inlaid baton. When he saw the animated crowd—twenty-five thousand people turned out to greet him—he broke away from his bodyguards and plunged in, shaking hands, kissing, and even squatting to introduce himself to a small boy wearing a cowboy outfit. Finally he returned to protocol, and rode with the secretary of state and the vice president to the White House. Eisenhower was waiting at the portico.
Their meeting was pleasant, though the two leaders did not resolve their differences. Sukarno objected to American support for the Dutch claim to western New Guinea, which Indonesia also claimed. Eisenhower, following Foster’s advice, made no concessions and did not offer Sukarno any new aid. The two leaders lapsed into small talk. Eisenhower revealed that his favorite actor was Randolph Scott—not surprising, since many of Scott’s films, like Frontier Marshal and The Stranger Wore a Gun, placed him in the role Eisenhower imagined as his own: a morally centered lawman who reluctantly uses violence to pacify dangerous places.
That evening, at a state dinner, Sukarno spoke warmly of the United States. “I am a brown man, an Indonesian, an Asiatic,” he said. “Yet you accept me as a friend. Is that not real democracy?”
Sukarno charmed Americans. He told them he was “in love with your country” and had come “to appreciate you.” Reporters swarmed around him. Their stories appeared under headlines like “Sukarno Captivates Washington” and “Indonesian President Wows Capital; Stops Tour to Kiss Ladies, Pat Babies.” The New York Times hailed him as him “a sensitive Asian nationalist” with “an open-spirited, democratic nature much like that of the average American.” Anticipation was high when he arrived on Capitol Hill to address a joint session of Congress. He did not disappoint and was interrupted repeatedly by applause—even when he asserted that nationalism, not Communism, was the most powerful political force in the world.
“Understand that, and you have the key to much of post-war history,” he said. “Fail to understand it, and no amount of thinking, no torrent of words, and no Niagara of dollars will produce anything but bitterness and disillusionment.”
Sukarno finished his speech with the wish that God would “give us, America and Indonesia, the best friendship which has ever existed between nations.” The next day, accompanied by his twelve-year-old son, Gunter, he set off on a two-week tour of the United States. He was given a ticker-tape parade in New York, and then began a pilgrimage to honor the imagined companions of his youth. He visited Mount Vernon, Monticello, Independence Hall, and sites associated with Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois. To these he added Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and Disneyland, where he was escorted by Walt Disney himself and photographed driving a “Dumbo” bumper car with his son. The high point was Hollywood, a dream destination for a self-described sybarite. One starlet he wanted to meet, Ava Gardner, was in Europe and could not accommodate him, but his other favorite, Marilyn Monroe, flew in from Canada, where she was filming Bus Stop, to attend a party in his honor at the Beverly Hills Hotel and sing for him.
On serious matters Sukarno took pains to avoid offense. He was mystified by Americans’ fear of Communism, for example, but said so only indirectly. “I find only one fault with Americans,” he observed. “They’re too full of fear. Afraid of B.O. Afraid of bad breath. They’re haunted by the fear they’ll never get rid of dandruff. This state of mind I cannot understand.”
Sukarno later wrote that he “tried to explain our nation’s political color to John Foster Dulles,” but concluded that “nonalignment can easily be misunderstood by America. America likes you only if you’re on the side she selects. If you don’t go along with her totally, you’re automatically considered to have entered the Soviet bloc. Mr. Dulles’ retort was, ‘America’s policy is global. You must be on one side or the other. Neutralism is immoral.’”
As a young man Sukarno had stirred crowds with passionate denunciations of colonizers who ruled what was then the Dutch East Indies. He had served terms in prison and “internal exile” in Borneo, emerged as leader of the anticolonial movement, and then, after the Dutch finally withdrew in 1949, became Indonesia’s first president. Having dedicated his life to pulling his country away from an overlord, he was hardly ready to align it with a new one—even his beloved United States.
This drew Sukarno to neutralism. He called it mendayung antara dua karang—rowing between two reefs. By embracing it, he explicitly rejected Cold War dogma. That made him loathsome in the eyes of Cold War commanders like Foster and Allen.
Indonesia is vast—thousands of islands scattered across an expanse nearly as wide as the United States—and unimaginably diverse. Its central challenge has been to find a unifying identity. This requires synthesis above all: among regions, traditions, peoples, ideologies, languages, belief systems, and cultures. Sukarno rose to power largely because he was a master synthesizer. To transmit his vision of Indonesian identity he used spellbinding oratory, blending traditional and modern rhetorical styles and often evoking call-and-response frenzies. He was the revolutionary who imagined an emerging nation and came to incarnate it.
The success of Sukarno’s trip to the United States led many in Washington to presume they had won him over. They were mightily displeased when, just a few months later, he traveled to China and made speeches praising its economic progress, then proceeded to the Soviet Union and hailed Lenin. The crowning blow came when Soviet leaders announced a $100 million loan to Indonesia.
For Sukarno, praising China and the Soviet Union after praising the United States was a way of “rowing between two reefs.” In Washington it was taken as betrayal. Americans spoke bitterly of a treacherous guest, a knife in the back. Time reported that Sukarno had found “much common ground” with Communist leaders and warned that the $100 million loan “will place Soviet ‘technicians’ in strategic points in the sprawling republic, which already has a well-organized Communist Party.”
Sukarno felt insulted and replied in kind. “To me, both the Declaration of Independence and the Communist Manifesto contain underlying truths, but the West doesn’t permit a middle road,” he complained. “The West keeps threatening, ‘Do you want to be dominated by the Communists?’ We answer, ‘No, but neither do we want to be dominated by you.’ At least Russia and China didn’t call us names when we smiled sweetly at America.”
Foster and Allen considered Sukarno’s trip through the Iron Curtain a humiliating setback. In the months that followed, they watched with interest as two other developments reshaped Indonesia. First was a speech in which Sukarno declared that he was fed up with partisan bickering and wanted to “bury political parties.” Second was a ripple of rebellion from within the military, showing itself in two attempted coups and secessionist rumblings on the islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi. The speech led Foster and Allen to conclude that Sukarno was preparing a leap toward Communism. Upheaval in the army suggested they might be able to stop him.
No known document records the beginning of the American campaign against Sukarno. None is likely to exist, because the idea almost certainly emerged during one of the countless unrecorded conversations Foster and Allen shared during their years in power. The moment when this idea moved into the realm of action can, however, be fixed: November 1956.
One day that month, Frank Wisner, the CIA’s deputy director for plans, summoned the newly appointed chief of the agency’s Far East division, Al Ulmer, and gave him a far-reaching assignment. Ulmer understood that Wisner was speaking for Allen, and implicitly for the secretary of state and president.
“I think it’s time we held Sukarno’s feet to the fire,” Wisner said.
With that, Foster and Allen launched one of the largest-scale covert operations of the decade. Using the resources of the State Department, the CIA, and the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, they armed and trained a rebel army numbering more than ten thousand fighters; requisitioned transport vessels, cruisers, submarines, and a fleet of fifteen B-26 warplanes fitted with .50-caliber machine guns; directed a sustained bombing campaign; and even produced what may have been the first CIA-made pornographic movie.
Less than a year after Americans thronged to welcome Sukarno, he became the fourth monster Foster and Allen went abroad to destroy.
“During the late 1950s, the Eisenhower administration provoked and strongly abetted a major rebellion and civil war in Indonesia that tore the country apart,” begins one of the few accounts of this operation, published forty years later. “Both the available documentary evidence and the consensus among State Department and CIA members interviewed indicate that among the top leaders of the Eisenhower administration, John Foster Dulles was the most aggressive and consistent in forwarding this policy.”
The campaign against Sukarno, which became known as “Archipelago,” remained secret for longer than most others Foster and Allen waged. By the mid-1950s, their involvement in overthrowing Mossadegh and Arbenz was an open secret in Washington, clear to anyone who could read theSaturday Evening Post. Press reports about their campaign against Ho Chi Minh appeared periodically as the Vietnam War escalated. Archipelago, however, went almost entirely unreported, and remained virtually unknown for decades afterward.
If the hidden story of the Dulles brothers is the covert war they waged against six enemies, their anti-Sukarno operation is its most hidden episode.
* * *
A night of ecstasy lay ahead for Sukarno during a visit he paid to Cairo. Being a man of generous spirit, he decided to invite his host, the fiery Egyptian leader Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, to share the delights. He may have guessed that the CIA was tapping his telephone, but this did not inhibit him.
“I have three gorgeous Pan American stewardesses here with me and they’d like to have a party,” the president of Indonesia told the president of Egypt.
Nasser curtly declined and hung up. That showed the two heads of state to be of different temperaments. Politically, however, they were remarkably similar. Both had been anticolonial firebrands, rose to power in the years after World War II, emerged as global leaders at the Bandung Conference of 1955, and considered the Cold War a costly distraction from the world’s true challenges. They were titans of neutralism, twin nightmares for Foster and Allen.
The Americans were stunned when, in 1956, Egypt began receiving weapons from the Soviet Union—not just small arms, but hundreds of tanks and MiG jet fighters. Then, in what may have been an even greater shock, the Soviets agreed to give Egypt a low-interest loan of $1.1 billion to begin construction of the Aswan High Dam.
This was a spectacular triumph for the Soviets. It brought their power to the Arab world for the first time. Most remarkably, this happened not as the result of a coup or subversion of a weak political system, but at the open invitation of a popular leader. Foster’s strategy had produced the very result he had hoped to avoid.
New friendship between Egypt and the Soviet Union was partly the result of miscalculation in Washington, but it also represented the first major success for a changed Soviet approach to the Third World. Marxist dogma taught that revolution would explode in countries where masses of industrial workers were oppressed by factory owners. This excluded Africa and most of the colonial world, and during the Stalin era the Soviet Union had sent no aid to developing countries. In 1956, sensing the energy of emerging postcolonial governments, Nikita Khrushchev changed course. He announced that countries “not part of the world socialist system … now need not beg their former oppressors for modern equipment. They can obtain such equipment in the socialist countries.” Then he set off on a series of trips to neutral countries, including Burma, Indonesia, and Afghanistan—countries Foster believed Eisenhower should not visit because their loyalty was uncertain. Suddenly the United States had an active competitor for influence in countries emerging from colonialism.
This might have led Foster to soften his us-or-them tone when dealing with Third World countries. Instead he did the opposite, becoming angry at any regime he saw as flirting with both Cold War adversaries. That alienated some nationalist leaders and gave the Soviets new opportunities in Africa and Asia.
While Khrushchev cultivated an image as friend of the Third World, he also took a series of conciliatory steps in Europe. He withdrew Soviet troops from Austria and Finland, and made peace with Tito’s neutralist regime in Yugoslavia, which Stalin had stigmatized. The world began seeing a different Moscow.
“Countries with differing social systems can do more than exist side by side,” Khrushchev declared. “It is necessary to proceed further, to improve relations, strengthen confidence between countries, and cooperate.”
Foster and Allen saw this as a clever gambit to win propaganda points, without a shred of sincerity. They circulated intelligence estimates warning that Khrushchev’s softer line was “a strategy to defeat the West without war” and “an even more serious threat to the Free World than … Stalin’s aggressive post-war policies.” Eisenhower agreed, and lamented “the seductive quality of Soviet promises and pronouncements.”
“Far from seeing the policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’ as a cause for optimism, Eisenhower and his advisors viewed it as a greater threat to the free world than Stalinism,” the historian Kenneth Osgood has written. “To American policy makers, peaceful coexistence represented a menacing political warfare strategy of the most treacherous kind. It raised doubts about the entire Cold War enterprise, and it bred ‘false hopes’ that a negotiated settlement might be possible.”
Changing attitudes in the Kremlin did, however, give Allen two new intelligence opportunities.
The first came when Khrushchev announced that he would loosen Stalin-era restrictions on tourism in the Soviet Union. Rather than train CIA officers to pose as tourists, Allen chose to rely on private citizens who decided on their own to visit the Soviet Union. His men interviewed many, determined which ones were willing to cooperate, reviewed their itineraries, and gave them individual assignments. Some were asked to buy specific products, or note details like the color of smoke emerging from an industrial plant. A few, mostly Russian-speaking scholars, were brought to Washington, given several days or weeks of CIA training, and assigned to photograph sensitive installations like submarine bases and missile launchpads.
“These tourists provided an extraordinary amount of information on high-value targets,” one CIA officer later wrote. “The KGB was perfectly aware of the CIA program. They simply chose to turn a half-blind eye on eager tourists who did not go too far.”
Khrushchev also began a program of military aid to neutral countries. This allowed Allen, who had worked intently to obtain information about Soviet weaponry, to begin obtaining the weaponry itself. He authorized CIA officers to pay rewards up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for specific items. They bought everything from machine guns to manuals for surface-to-air missiles. Specialists pored over this trove, and used what they learned to reshape American weapons systems and tactical doctrine.
Egypt was one of the first countries to reap political benefit from the Soviet Union’s new interest in the Third World. Emboldened by Moscow, Nasser intensified his calls for revolution in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Jordan—all ruled by pro-Western monarchs. Then he announced a plan to break down borders between Arab countries and create a giant pan-Arab state. In Washington it was presumed that this new state would be pro-Soviet. “Nasser might have become a tool for the Russians,” Foster told Eisenhower. During a visit to Cairo, Allen erupted in frustration when a case officer briefed him on Nasser’s growing power.
“If that colonel of yours pushes us too far,” he vowed, “we’ll break him in half!”
This bravado faded after the British-led invasion of Egypt in late 1956. Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers saw the invasion as an intolerable attempt to reassert European power in the Middle East. Besides, they had been working on an anti-Nasser plot of their own, and once Nasser emerged from the Suez crisis as a hero, all prospect of mobilizing Egyptians against him evaporated. Yet despite this setback, the Americans were still eager to strike. Eisenhower told the National Security Council that he wanted to take “measures, even drastic ones.”
Those measures became a plan known as “Omega.” It began as a plot to destroy Nasser, but Nasser’s great popularity, sealed by his triumph at Suez, forced Foster and Allen to adjust it. They reduced Omega to a smaller-scale operation aimed at harassing Nasser and limiting the spread of his influence in other Arab countries. This was a long-unrecognized effect of the Suez crisis: it helped lead Foster and Allen to give up their covert campaign to depose Nasser.
“Given the conception of Omega,” the historian Ray Takeyh has written, “Suez must be reduced to its proper dimension: a sideshow that disrupted Eisenhower’s policy of covertly undermining Nasser and his radical allies.”
Omega envisioned a campaign of escalating coercion, but had no fixed goal. At various points, it aimed at forcing Nasser to cut his ties with the Soviet Union, recognize Israel, stop subsidizing nationalists in other Arab countries, and order “a public reorientation of Egypt’s informational media toward advocacy of cooperation and close economic cooperation with the West, including a public statement from Nasser to that effect.” To achieve these goals, the United States would suspend aid programs, refuse arms sales, strengthen pro-American regimes in nearby countries, and work with Britain to counter Nasser’s influence across the Arab world.
Shaping the public face of Omega turned out to be Foster’s last major diplomatic project. Eisenhower unveiled it in a speech to a joint session of Congress on January 5, 1957, and it became known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, but it was mainly Foster’s handiwork. Its core reflected his favorite theme: “Russia’s desire to dominate the Middle East” was threatening freedom and American interests there.
“A greater responsibility now devolves on the United States,” Eisenhower declared. “Words alone are not enough.”
Eisenhower asked Congress for $200 million to support Arab governments “dedicated to the maintenance of national independence.” Applause was modest, and when Foster appeared later at a congressional hearing, he found much skepticism. Senators pressed him to explain how he would spend the $200 million. He became indignant, said he would not “telegraph his punches” to the enemy, and warned that if Congress did not act, “maximum disaster” would soon envelop the Middle East. The Senate waited for two months before approving the appropriation.
Foster and Allen came up with several Omega projects they hoped would dampen the wildfire of Arab nationalism. They promoted King Saud of Saudi Arabia as a rival to Nasser; sought to foment a military coup against the pro-Nasser regime in Syria, only to be embarrassed when several Syrian officers appeared on television to reveal that they had received money from “corrupt and sinister Americans”; and even considered hiring Ugandan mercenaries to attack Upper Egypt. Nothing came of these schemes.
Allen had better luck with an old-fashioned vote-buying operation in Lebanon. The beneficiary was a Christian politician, President Camille Chamoun, who was seeking to pack Parliament so it would lift the ban on presidential re-election. Chamoun struck a deal with the Americans and soon saw results, as Allen’s man in Beirut later recalled:
Throughout the elections I traveled regularly to the presidential palace with a briefcase full of Lebanese pounds, then returned late at night to the embassy with an empty tin case I’d carried away, for [the] CIA finance-people to replenish. Soon my gold DeSoto with its stark white top was a common sight outside the palace, and I proposed to Chamoun that he use an intermediary and a more remote spot. When the President insisted that he handle each transaction by himself, I reconciled myself to the probability that anyone who really cared would have no trouble guessing precisely what I was doing.
The election-rigging project in Lebanon succeeded, but it was a modest operation by the standards to which Foster and Allen had become accustomed. They found Omega unsatisfying. It no longer aimed to destroy a regime. Nasser had stymied them. Meanwhile, half a world away, Archipelago was gaining momentum. Nasser was discouragingly strong, but Sukarno looked temptingly weak.
* * *
As Eisenhower began his second term, he and the Dulles brothers felt deep frustration at the course of events in East Asia. Shock from the “loss” of China was still reverberating through Washington. Ho Chi Minh had wrested a piece of Vietnam away from the “free world” and turned it into a Communist enclave. Now Sukarno seemed to be pulling Indonesia away from the West.
Foster and Allen fought back with a series of covert operations, including sustained campaigns against two of East Asia’s most prominent neutralists, Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia and Prince Souvanna Phouma of Laos. Indonesia was many times larger, richer, and more strategically valuable than Cambodia or Laos. That made Sukarno a far more appealing target.
Sukarno did more than reject anti-Communism as a basis for foreign policy. He considered the local Communist party—known as Partai Komunis Indonesia, or PKI—as simply another faction he had to balance. It was the smallest of Indonesia’s four main political parties, and he believed it deserved influence commensurate with its popular support. This completed the image that Foster and Allen saw when they beheld Indonesia.
To them this newborn and still unstable giant seemed a massive domino liable to fall with devastating force. The Indonesian islands lie within striking distance of Vietnam and China. They straddle vital sea-lanes. Several are staggeringly rich in resources. The leader of this awakening land, Sukarno, not only refused to ally himself with the United States, but openly flirted with Moscow. At home he worked freely with the PKI. He had nationalized several large Dutch businesses and was threatening the foreign-run oil industry—not just Royal Dutch Shell but American oil companies including the forerunners of Texaco, Chevron, and Mobil.
It is tempting to conclude that Foster and Allen targeted Sukarno for geopolitical reasons. They feared that he was leading a hugely important country into Moscow’s orbit. Their experiences in Iran, Guatemala, and Vietnam had honed their skill in subverting governments. Unrest in the officer corps gave them their chance to act. This confluence of motive, means, and opportunity drew them to strike against Sukarno.
Indonesia and its dazzlingly charismatic leader, however, posed a challenge that was not simply strategic but also conceptual, cultural, even spiritual. Never did Foster and Allen set out against an enemy whose worldview was so different from their own. They were shaped by missionary Calvinism and America’s pioneer tradition, believed that godly and satanic forces were at war on earth, and felt called to crush the satanic ones. Sukarno emerged from an opposite tradition, one that emphasizes harmony and conciliation, finds good and evil mixed everywhere, and abhors confrontation. What Foster and Allen took as Sukarno’s abandonment of the West was actually his attempt to make foreign policy according to principles that shape life in Indonesia, and especially on his home island of Java.
“It is regarded as a Javanese characteristic to avoid formulating a long-term plan of action to control the future and to provide a criterion for the making of immediate choices,” one historian has written. “Rather a Javanese will allow the forces around him to work themselves out.”
Although Archipelago was based on a daring use of power—clandestine war—its goal, like that of the Omega project aimed against Nasser, remained curiously ambiguous. Foster and Allen realized they had little chance of deposing Sukarno and replacing him with a submissive client, as they had done with Mossadegh and Arbenz. They did not anoint a candidate of their own for national leadership, as they had in Vietnam. Instead they decided to support dissident officers in the hope of scaring Sukarno into realizing he must make peace with Washington. If things went well, they might even secure the breakup of Indonesia. This would leave Sukarno controlling Java, where most of Indonesia’s population lives, but might bring other resource-rich islands under Washington’s influence.
“Don’t tie yourself irrevocably to a policy of preserving the unity of Indonesia,” Foster told Hugh Cumming, the Virginia-bred diplomat he chose as ambassador to Indonesia. “The territorial integrity of China became a shibboleth. We finally got a territorially integrated China—for whose benefit? The Communists.… As between a territorially united Indonesia which is leaning and progressing toward Communism and a breakup of that country into racial and geographical units, I would prefer the latter.”
Cumming shared the sense of betrayal that coursed through official Washington after Sukarno crossed the Iron Curtain and praised Communist leaders. His anger, and Foster’s, grew when Sukarno invited both the American and Soviet presidents to visit Indonesia. The Soviet president, Kliment Voroshilov—officially the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet—accepted and made the trip. Pictures of him embracing Sukarno appeared in every Indonesian newspaper. Eisenhower never visited.
As Archipelago took shape, Foster recalled Ambassador Cumming and named him chief of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, with responsibility for coordinating projects run jointly by the State Department and the CIA. In that role, Cumming’s preoccupation with Indonesia became so intense that some called him “the assistant secretary in charge of Indonesia.” He helped write an alarmist report that Foster and Allen presented to the National Security Council on March 14, 1957.
“The process of disintegration has continued in Indonesia to a point where only the island of Java remains under the control of the central government,” the report asserted. This was highly exaggerated, since secessionists had emerged only on a handful of islands and did not control any. It also contradicted dispatches from the new American ambassador in Indonesia, John Allison, who portrayed the country as stable and urged a policy of “patience and understanding.”
Foster had eagerly tracked the “dissident colonels” of Sumatra and Sulawesi from the moment they emerged late in 1956. When Ambassador Allison tried to arrange a meeting at which the colonels might iron out their differences with Sukarno, Foster ordered him to desist. Then, in mid-1957, a CIA officer in Sumatra was told that Colonel Maludin Simbolon, the most powerful dissident commander, wished to meet with someone from the agency. A meeting was arranged. Both sides expressed interest in a partnership.
Contacts between CIA officers and rebellious Indonesian colonels intensified over the next few months. The CIA began sending money, arms, and advisers to dissident forces. They had different but overlapping agendas. The Americans wanted to wound Sukarno because they considered him a Communist dupe. Their new Indonesian friends wanted to do it because they sought more power for themselves—Sukarno had refused to name Colonel Simbolon as chief of staff—and for the outer islands. It seemed a good fit.
During the summer of 1957, Sukarno pressed ahead with plans to shape a four-party government that would include the PKI, which had done well in a series of local elections. Vice President Mohammad Hatta, thought of as a bulwark against Communism and an advocate for the outer islands, became disaffected and ultimately resigned. American analysts concluded that construction on an island in western Indonesia was preparation for a new airport, which they warned could become a base for Soviet fighter planes. In Washington, the CIA produced a National Intelligence Estimate that predicted “a continuing increase of Communist influence” in Indonesia.
As Allen’s men worked covertly, Foster applied diplomatic and political pressure. He blocked the sale of replacement parts for the Indonesian army’s American-made weaponry. He directed his new deputy, Undersecretary of State Christian Herter, not to stop in Indonesia on his planned trip through East Asia. Then, rejecting strong advice from Ambassador Allison, he used American influence at the United Nations to block discussion of Indonesia’s claim to western New Guinea.
Foster kept Archipelago secret from Ambassador Allison and almost everyone else involved in shaping official American policy toward Indonesia. On September 3, without consulting or notifying Allison, he asked the National Security Council to authorize “all feasible covert means” to promote military rebellion in Indonesia. Whenever he and Allen presented such a far-reaching plan, all understood that President Eisenhower had approved and that they must vote favorably. They did so without debate. Allen immediately sent $50,000 to Colonel Simbolon.
“Send more books,” Simbolon wrote after receiving it.
Unaware that Archipelago was under way, Ambassador Allison suggested offering Sukarno a deal: the United States would send him generous aid in exchange for a pledge to “strictly control all Communist activity in Indonesia.” Foster and Allen found themselves, as they had in Guatemala, with an ambassador who preferred diplomacy to covert intervention.
“Allison continued to raise annoying questions throughout the development of the operation,” one CIA officer recalled afterward. “We handled the problem by getting Allen Dulles to have his brother relieve Allison of his post.”
Once the troublesome ambassador departed—he was sent to Czechoslovakia—Allen’s men began the intense phase of their training and supply missions. They used ports, airfields, and secret bases in the Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Okinawa, Guam, and Saipan. Frank Wisner later recalled that when he presented Allen with a voucher authorizing $10 million as the first payment for all this, Allen signed it “with a little flourish.”
One of Allen’s ideas was to use Sukarno’s womanizing against him. He first approved the dissemination of news stories about a Russian airline stewardess who had apparently developed a relationship with Sukarno. Then he conceived one of his most bizarre projects, a pornographic film featuring an actor made up to look like Sukarno.
Allen reasoned that the film would seem real given what everyone knew about Sukarno’s habits, and thought it could be used to undermine Sukarno’s authority. The film, called Happy Days, featured an actor wearing a latex mask made by the CIA’s Technical Services Division, with a bald head because Sukarno was supposedly sensitive about his baldness. Prints were discreetly sprinkled around East Asia, but they had no evident effect.
Far more potent were the tons of weaponry that poured onto docks and spilled from the sky in rebel-held Indonesia, courtesy of the CIA. One large shipment alone, delivered by barge in early 1958, included eighteen thousand grenades, four thousand rifles and carbines, more than two thousand land mines, and hundreds of machine guns, rockets, and mortars. Admiral Arleigh Burke, the chief of naval operations, ordered a task force led by the cruiser Princeton, carrying marines and twenty helicopters, to approach the Indonesian coast.
Foster watched with intense interest. He began to hope, as he told Undersecretary Herter, that conflict in Indonesia might “get to a point where we could plausibly withdraw our recognition of the Sukarno government and give it to the dissident elements in Sumatra, and land forces to protect the life and property of Americans—use this as an excuse to bring about a major shift there.” In public statements he said Indonesia might soon have a new government “which reflects the real interests and desires of the Indonesian people,” and that this would make him “very happy.”
Washington’s enthusiasm naturally flowed to CIA officers in the field and, through them, to the disaffected Indonesian colonels who had become their clients. On February 10, 1958, from their base in Sumatra, the colonels issued a public ultimatum: Sukarno must dismiss his defense minister, restore Vice President Hatta to office, and outlaw the PKI. The first two demands were their own. Their new American friends suggested the third.
The dissidents gave Sukarno five days to comply. He ignored them. They responded by declaring themselves the Revolutionary Government of Indonesia. At a press conference the next day in Washington, Foster said their “concern at growing Communist influence” had driven them to this extreme.
“We don’t take any part in, or interfere with, these internal governmental problems,” he hastened to add.
Sukarno, ever the juggler and conciliator, had chosen to ignore rumblings on the outer islands, and treated unhappy colonels as lost sheep rather than enemies. Once they announced their secession, however, he had no alternative other than force. Military commanders rallied to his side. The army chief of staff, General Abdul Haris Nasution, explained why.
“If a government allows several of its subordinate Commands to serve an ultimatum on it, and then fulfills their demands, we can appreciate that no future government will be able to stand,” General Nasution declared in a speech. “Whatever happens, a matter of this kind must be condemned.”
General Nasution swung into action more decisively than Foster or Allen had expected. He dispatched five battalions of paratroopers and marines to Sumatra, ordered naval blockades, and began planning an aerial bombing campaign. The Americans responded with more air drops and by sending a new flotilla carrying two battalions of marines to waters near Indonesia. Clashes broke out on several islands, causing hundreds of casualties.
Foster and Allen had worked to foment civil war in Indonesia. Now it was beginning.
* * *
Late one night, at an exposed government outpost in South Vietnam, two frightened Westerners were forced to take refuge when their car ran out of gas. In the darkness, their conversation turned to the growing American role in Vietnam. One of them, an idealistic young American, said the United States was intervening because the Vietnamese “don’t want Communism.” Then he added, “If Indochina goes…”
“I know that record,” his older, British companion interrupted. “Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does ‘go’ mean?”
“They’ll be forced to believe what they’re told, they won’t be allowed to think for themselves.”
“Do you think the peasant thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?” the older man asks incredulously. “I know the harm liberals do.… I’ve no particular desire to see you win.”
This fictional scene is a fulcrum of Graham Greene’s moody masterpiece The Quiet American, which became a best seller in 1957 and took many American readers to a place they had never known. Geographically it was Vietnam, but politically it was even stranger and harder to understand. The older man tells his young American friend that outside powers always end up oppressing the people they come to help, and being hated for it. The American, who is slowly revealed to be a CIA officer, seems truly to believe he is helping Vietnam, but in the end, his arrogance and “half-baked ideas” provoke disaster.
“I know your motives are good, they always are,” the older man tells him. Later he muses: “His innocence had angered me … but wasn’t he right too to be young and mistaken?”
The Quiet American provoked a storm of protest. One of the outraged was Allen’s man in Saigon, Edward Lansdale, who some believed had been a model for the book’s well-intentioned CIA blunderer. Another was Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the producer, director, and screenwriter who had made Hollywood hits like All About Eve and The Philadelphia Story. Working with the American Friends of Vietnam, a lobby group connected to the CIA, Mankiewicz bought the screen rights to The Quiet American. He told friends he would “completely change” the book’s message, and did. His film starred the war hero Audie Murphy as the American in Vietnam, now portrayed as a selfless defender of freedom rather than a deluded imperialist. Lansdale, who helped write the screenplay, praised it as “an excellent change from Mr. Greene’s novel of despair.” Greene was appalled. Just as it had done with Animal Farm a few years earlier, the CIA helped transform a thoughtful book about the perils of power into a simpleminded Cold War fable.
The Quiet American was still on the best-seller lists when real-life violence exploded in Little Rock, Arkansas. Many Americans were shocked at graphic images of mobs seeking to prevent black children from enrolling at a public school there. The images had an even more potent effect abroad, where they were widely taken as evidence of racism in the United States and gleefully exploited by leftists. Foster saw the damage and was anguished.
“This situation is ruining our foreign policy,” he told Eisenhower. “The effect of this in Asia and Africa will be worse for us than Hungary was for the Russians.”
On the evening of October 4, 1957, millions of Americans sought respite from real-life turmoil by settling in front of their televisions for the premiere of a new comedy series called Leave It to Beaver. Just before the premiere aired, however, evening newscasters reported an astonishing development: the Soviet Union had launched a spacecraft, and it was now circling the earth. Many who were watching rushed outside. They were dumbfounded to see a small dot of light moving across the sky. It was Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth, and it had been launched by a nation most Americans presumed to be backward and without science.
Foster sought to downplay the launch of Sputnik, suggesting that its importance “should not be exaggerated” and assuring Americans that their government had its own space program “under orderly development.” Eisenhower questioned the value of putting “one small ball up in the air.” Neither man anticipated the “Sputnik panic” that swept the country. The Soviets suddenly seemed to control the sky. Many Americans feared it might be only a matter of time before the enemy used this advantage to spy, intimidate, or bomb.
“Let us not pretend that Sputnik is anything but a defeat for America,” Life grimly concluded.
News of the Sputnik launch was taken especially hard at the CIA. One despairing officer told a colleague that despite all that their leaders had done to rouse them, Americans still underestimated the mortal danger of Communism, which he described as “like a cancer.” The colleague later wrote that this officer “wasn’t alone in his pessimism. The agency seemed permeated by it. We all feared that our way of life, our freedom, our religions were directly exposed to the cancer.… We in the agency felt that the battle for the freedom of the world was now, to a large extent, in our hands.”
Fears intensified two months later when crowds assembled at Cape Canaveral to witness the launch of a Vanguard rocket that would carry America’s first satellite into space. There were repeated delays, and finally the launch was canceled. Foster was infuriated. At a meeting of the National Security Council the next day, he called the cancellation “a disaster for the United States” that had “made us the laughingstock of the free world.” Worse was yet to come. When the rocket was finally launched, with millions watching on live television, it hovered above the launchpad for a few moments and then exploded.
These events set off a wave of reactions in Washington, including the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They also reinforced a spreading sense that both the president and secretary of state had grown weak and tired. In the twenty-six months since Eisenhower’s heart attack, he had suffered both an attack of ileitis—an intestinal inflammation—and a mild stroke. His speech slowed palpably. In public he sometimes seemed disconnected and adrift.
Foster also lost his glow and began to slow down. The world was entering a period of profound change, but he remained frozen in intransigence. He treated Nikita Khrushchev just as he had treated Stalin: as an enemy of humanity. At one point he publicly slapped down a feeler from Moscow about the possibility of the Soviet defense minister visiting Washington. His hostility toward “Red China” remained passionate, leading him to extremes like refusing to allow an American zoo to import a panda from China, and approving the indictment of a stamp dealer who sold Chinese stamps. He crisscrossed Europe relentlessly and focused intently on questions related to European security, but could not or would not engage with the ideals of nationalism and neutralism that were surging through the Third World. Senator Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania asserted in a widely covered speech that Foster had lost the confidence of America’s allies and “many of us in Congress.” Conservatives like the columnist Joseph Alsop and liberals like Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota called for his resignation.
During his years in power, Foster had developed an image as prissy, forbidding, and fun-hating. In his last years he seemed sourer than ever. A rising young comedienne, Carol Burnett, seized on this image to write a song satirizing the late-fifties doo-wop hits in which girls sang about falling instantly in love with romantic, sexy boys. Since Foster was known as the opposite of romantic and sexy, Burnett’s gag song grabbed the public imagination and became an offbeat hit.
The first time I saw him ’twas at the UN
Oh I never have been one to swoon over men
But I swooned and the drums started pounding and then
I made a fool of myself over John Foster Dulles.
Most Americans understood that Eisenhower’s weakening was due at least in part to illness. Few knew that the same was true for Foster. At the end of 1956, after complaining of abdominal pain, he had undergone a three-hour operation. The doctors found cancer. Foster spent several weeks convalescing in Key West before returning to work. He weakened slowly over the next year.
As 1957 drew to a close, Foster joined the rest of the Dulles clan for Christmas dinner at Eleanor’s home in McLean. He was in good spirits and ate heartily. His gifts for Eleanor were classic: several yellow legal pads—he bought them in bulk—and a check she could use to buy a new radio.
Foster had the usual panoply of worries. He had just returned from a NATO summit in Paris and was fighting off a new round of proposals for the neutralization of Germany. Third World leaders, meeting in Cairo, had adopted resolutions condemning nuclear tests and affirming the right of governments to nationalize foreign businesses. A highly alarming secret report produced for President Eisenhower, warning that the threat of war with the Soviet Union could “become critical” within a year or two, had been leaked to the press and sent a new shiver of fear through the country.
This fear contributed to pressure for a summit between the American and Soviet leaders. Foster had always opposed such summit meetings, and in his first speech of 1958 he repeated his view. “The great gain for the Soviets would be to have a meeting which, as I say, will utter platitudes about peace,” he warned, “with the implication that there is no need any more to have this military preparation, to pay taxes in order to have a mutual security program and the like. If Khrushchev can get that, that would be the greatest triumph of his career.”
Soon after making this speech, Foster flew off to visit a staunch ally, the shah of Iran, and then on to Turkey. Shortly after he arrived at the American embassy in Ankara, a building on the grounds was bombed. Hostile demonstrators jammed the streets.
Seeking a more reassuring welcome, Foster made his next trip to West Berlin, where his sister was something of a heroine and he was more popular than anywhere else on earth, including Washington. He was received warmly, as always. Janet took the chance to travel to Münster to see their son, Avery, who was studying at a Jesuit seminary there.
Foster celebrated his seventieth birthday on February 25, 1958. That year also marked the fifty-first anniversary of his first diplomatic mission, as John Watson Foster’s secretary at The Hague Peace Conference. In the spring he traveled to Princeton for his fiftieth class reunion. Allen, for whom this was the forty-fourth reunion, accompanied him. He was having an easier time than his brother.
Tensions at home had eased as Allen and Clover settled into an arrangement that absolved him of most spousal responsibilities. By one account they “did not really separate; rather, they developed separate lives that came together frequently but remained on distinctly different paths.” Allen lived like the flirtatious bachelor he always imagined himself to be.
He handled Congress almost as deftly. The CIA budget had grown to around $350 million, equivalent to about eight times that in the early twenty-first century. This figure was never made public. Appropriations were hidden in accounts designated for the Pentagon, the State Department, and other agencies. Congress approved them in secret hearings. According to Allen’s administrative aide Lawrence White, members asked no substantial questions.
The director always began with a summary of the world situation in the most general terms. But the way he said it, it sounded very inside and confidential. Usually that would be it. [Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee] Clarence Cannon more often than not would say, “Now there is one question I want to ask. Do you have enough money to do your business properly?” And Dulles would say, “I think, Mr. Chairman, I have asked for as much as I can spend wisely. If I get into trouble, I will come back to your committee.” And Cannon would bang his gavel, “Meeting adjourned.” That was that.
Sometimes a congressman or senator would actually ask a question, usually something they had read in the newspaper. Just as often as not, Senator [Richard] Russell or Cannon would interrupt, “Now don’t tell us about that if we don’t need to know.”
Occasionally Allen was able to take a break from running covert operations and playing Washington politics. One of his favorite friends, Queen Frederika of Greece, came to the United States on a tour with her son, the future King Constantine II, and just as her trip was about to end, she announced without explanation that she would stay for another week. She came to Washington, discussed “spiritual values” with President Eisenhower in the Oval Office, and then visited Allen. They had been alone in his office for nearly an hour when an aide knocked. Hearing no response, he entered. He found the office empty but heard noises from the adjoining dressing room. Later Allen and the queen emerged. As she was being driven back to the Greek embassy, the queen suggested one reason Greek-American relations were so strong.
“We just love that man!” she exclaimed.
* * *
When fighting began in Indonesia at the beginning of 1958, Allen told President Eisenhower and the National Security Council that the rebels had “a reasonable chance of winning it.” Sukarno had chosen to resist rather than sue for peace. Foster and Allen dared hope they could defeat him.
The outbreak of this war riveted a nervous world. Time put Sukarno on its cover, looking defiant against a dark, turbulent background. Inside was a two-page map with icons locating Indonesia’s resources, including not just oil, coal, rubber, gold, nickel, and bauxite but also orangutans, komodo dragons, and head hunters. The accompanying article portrayed the rebellion just as Foster and Allen wished it to be portrayed: as a patriotic uprising against Communism, with no hint of outside involvement.
Last week Indonesia, racked by civil war, was in dire danger of splintering apart.… All the rebels asked was that Indonesia’s President 1) behave himself constitutionally, 2) abandon his partnership with the Communist party …
Indonesia’s rebellion is less a revolution against Sukarno than a last attempt to shock the self-intoxicated President into a state of sober reason, and the hope that the appeal for a new government may lead him to cleanse his own.
Whether Sukarno listens is of major concern for the free world. Of the string of islands that half circle the great continent of Asia—Japan, Okinawa, Formosa, the Philippines, Indonesia—only Indonesia is not committed to the West. If, as seems possible, Sukarno leads his nation into Communism, the Communists will have made a gigantic leap across a strategic barrier.
Over the next few weeks, Sukarno’s forces pummeled the rebels with a combination of bombing, amphibious assaults, and paratroop attacks. Many rebel soldiers turned out to be poorly trained high school students. Their weaponry was not suited to local conditions, and they enjoyed only modest popular support. More crippling was the non-confrontational nature of Indonesian identity. When ordered to shoot at Indonesian soldiers, some rebels proved reluctant. Their country was newly born after bitter struggle, and fighting to break it apart seemed dishonorable. Religion also restrained them, as one CIA officer reported: “They said they would not fight their Muslim brothers.”
Trouble mounted as the secrecy of Allen’s arms-supply operation was slowly breached. Early in 1958, two barges loaded with weapons arrived near the Sumatran port of Padang in broad daylight and were off-loaded onto trucks as villagers watched. Then, on March 12, government paratroopers stormed onto a base where a CIA plane had just dropped supplies. They found twenty pallets loaded with machine guns, rifles, bazookas, and bundles of cash. Sukarno warned the United States not to “play with fire,” and pointedly observed that if Indonesia’s civil war became internationalized, he could easily raise thousands of “volunteers from outside.”
Foster concluded in a private memo that with evidence of American involvement leaking out, there remained “two possibilities: (a) to give the dissidents aircraft … (b) to carry out bombing operations ourselves.” In public he continued insisting that the conflict in Indonesia was an “internal matter” and that the United States was “not intervening in the internal affairs of this country.” Eisenhower was equally disingenuous, and added a twist of his own.
“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,” he said at a news conference. “Now on the other hand, every rebellion that I ever heard of has its soldiers of fortune.… People were looking out for a good fight and getting into it, sometimes in the hope of pay and sometimes just for the heck of the thing. That is probably going to happen every time you have a rebellion.”
Sukarno gleefully displayed the CIA-supplied weaponry his paratroopers had captured, but did not directly blame the United States. Instead he summoned the American ambassador and delivered a plaintive protest.
“I am called a communist by the American press, and even Secretary Dulles says Indonesia is drifting toward communism,” he said. “I am not a communist. Every word I said in America I still stand by.”
This plea had no effect in Washington. Allen grew concerned, however, when he learned that reporters from Knight Newspapers and U.S. News and World Report had filed stories about covert American intervention in Indonesia. He reacted by telephoning James Knight, the executive vice president of Knight Newspapers, and David Lawrence, the president and editor of U.S. News and World Report, and both agreed to have the offending stories killed or heavily edited. The Chicago Daily News hinted at what was happening—it said that weapons for Indonesian rebels were falling from the sky “like manna from heaven”—but no other newspaper went even that far. Many were spared the necessity of deciding what to print because their correspondents censored themselves.
“We did not write about it,” an Associated Press reporter confessed years later. “Maybe it was a kind of patriotism that kept us from doing so.”
Lack of honest news reporting reinforced the still-widespread presumption that American officials would not lie. This led to a burst of outrage at Sukarno for having the temerity to make charges that, as it turned out, were entirely accurate.
“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 New York Times wrote in an editorial. “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 not ready … to step in to help overthrow a constituted government. Those are the hard facts.”
As the public digested these denials that the United States was intervening in Indonesia, Foster and Allen sought ways to intensify the intervention. On a Saturday at the beginning of April, they met at Foster’s home to discuss options with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a handful of other officials. They came up with three, as Foster reported to visiting British diplomats a couple of days later: recognize the rebel force as a legitimate belligerent so it could be openly supplied with weaponry; promote “the secession of Sumatra from the Republic of Indonesia, which we would then recognize and guarantee its independence”; and/or bait the Indonesian army into attacking American businesses “so there would be so much damage to the U.S. property that U.S. troops would have to be sent in.”
Before any of these tactics could be tested, the lattice of deception that supported Archipelago collapsed. Given its scope, and the sloppiness with which it was carried out, this was probably inevitable. The disaster came just weeks after Foster and his boss had made their misleading public statements, and days after the New York Times had pronounced its scornful verdict.
Before dawn on May 18, 1958, a Florida-born pilot named Allen Pope, who had won the Distinguished Flying Cross in Korea and then had gone to work for the CIA, strode across an airstrip at Clark Air Base in the Philippines and settled into the cockpit of his B-26 bomber. Pope had already flown several bombing missions in support of Indonesian rebels. This time, after destroying a truck and two planes at a government base, he was circling back for another pass when a warplane appeared above him. There was a dogfight, and Pope’s B-26 burst into flames. It was the first and only air-to-air kill of the secret Indonesian war.
Pope ejected from the plane, breaking his foot in the process, and parachuted into a coconut grove. He was quickly captured. Interrogators discovered that instead of flying “sterile,” as CIA pilots were supposed to, he was carrying no fewer than thirty compromising documents. These included an identity card granting him access to Clark Air Base, a copy of secret orders assigning him to Archipelago, and a flight log documenting his past missions. He had bombed military bases, ships, warehouses, a bridge, and even, by accident, a church—inflicting heavy casualties in the most vivid atrocity of the war.
“Tell me why!” Sukarno angrily demanded of the newly arrived American ambassador, Howard Jones. “Why did he do it?”
“Because he heard you were a Communist,” Jones replied, “and he wanted to contribute in the fight against Communism.”
News of the crash reached Allen within hours. According to the CIA desk officer who brought it to him, he listened while puffing on his pipe, and remained “completely calm.” Then he picked up his secure phone and called his brother.
“Foster, this is the situation,” he began. A few clipped sentences followed. Then Allen hung up and turned to the desk officer.
“We’re pulling the plug,” he said. The next day he sent the bad news to his men.
“This is the most difficult message I have ever sent,” he wrote. “It is sent only under impelling necessity and in what we all view here as the highest national interest.”
Allen, who had given Eisenhower optimistic reports on Archipelago, had suffered his first great defeat as director of central intelligence. The agency had not failed so utterly since its ill-fated effort to set off civil war in the Soviet Union a decade earlier. The largest covert operation the CIA had yet launched—if “covert” can describe a project embracing an army of thousands, assets in nearly a dozen countries, and everything from pornography to the Seventh Fleet—had collapsed.
Failing to topple Ho Chi Minh was not this painful, since the conflict in Vietnam was still bubbling and it was possible to hope that Ho might yet be defeated. Sukarno, by contrast, emerged triumphant. He had crushed a rebellion and preserved the unity of his young country. In doing so, he burnished his global reputation, unmasked his chief critics as agents of a foreign power, brought the army to his side, and established himself as Indonesia’s savior. He quickly moved from being a weak leader, forced to conciliate among rival factions, to a strongman who ruled by command. Allen reassigned the two officers who had overseen the catastrophe, Far East division chief Al Ulmer and deputy director for plans Frank Wisner.
This failure was more directly attributable to the Dulles brothers than any other suffered by the Eisenhower administration. They could not restrain themselves from striking against Sukarno when they saw a chance to do so. In their eagerness, they oversimplified the complex political landscape of a newly independent nation, embarked on a major operation without a clear goal, underestimated the army’s determination to prevent Indonesia from breaking apart, and misunderstood their clients, who despite receiving much weaponry did not want to fight.
It took less than a week after Allen Pope’s plane crash for the first signs of conciliation to emerge from Washington. The United States resumed food aid to Indonesia, lifted bans on the export of small arms and airplane parts, and announced that it would help pay for several dozen diesel generating plants and a highway in Sumatra. This was a remarkable reversal: from striking against Sukarno to deciding he could be something like a partner. Foster made the new policy official by inviting the Indonesian ambassador to visit him at the State Department.
“I am definitely convinced that relations are improving,” the ambassador said after their meeting.
* * *
One reason Foster and Allen were willing to concede defeat in Indonesia was that the Middle East was once again in turmoil. Nasser had shown his contempt for the rules of global commerce by nationalizing British- and French-owned industries in Egypt. He pressed ahead with his plan to merge Egypt with Syria into a new United Arab Republic, and made clear that he wished to incorporate other countries as well. Pan-Arabists in Lebanon began marching to demand that Lebanon join. Their protests escalated into civil conflict. Then, before dawn on July 14, 1958, nationalist officers in Iraq overthrew their pro-American monarchy. Soon afterward they executed the king, the crown prince, and Prime Minister Nuri as-Said, who was outspokenly pro-Western and Nasser’s most potent Arab enemy.
Foster and Allen saw the coup in Iraq as a geopolitical loss for the United States, which it was, and as part of a larger plot by Nasser and the Soviets to bring the Middle East under Moscow’s control, which it was not. Immediately upon learning of it, they began fearing for the fate of their client in Lebanon, President Camille Chamoun. Intervening to save Chamoun would be mildly distasteful, since he was seeking to stay in office despite a constitutional ban on re-election. A new president, however, would not be reliably pro-American and might even sympathize with Nasser—who Foster now described as an “expansionist dictator somewhat of the Hitler type.”
Hours after the Iraq coup, Foster told an emergency session of the National Security Council that it must authorize armed intervention in Lebanon. “More important than Chamoun’s second term is the continuous existence of a genuinely independent Lebanon with pro-Western policies,” he argued. “If we were to adopt the doctrine that Nasser can whip up a civil war without our intervention, our friends will go down to defeat.”
The American invasion of Lebanon—the only military operation launched to support a foreign policy doctrine Foster had shaped—was a remarkably peaceful one. It began on the morning after the coup in Iraq, with United States Marines wading ashore at beaches south of Beirut while astonished bathers watched. A few hours later, other American forces landed in Jordan, where nationalists had also clashed with police.
This operation set off anti-American protests in several Arab capitals. Khrushchev warned half-seriously that since the Americans were intervening in Lebanon, he might send “volunteers” to support the nationalist side. Finally a settlement was reached under which Chamoun was eased from office and new elections were called—a formula Foster had rejected when Nasser proposed it at the start of the crisis.
Members of Congress were unusually critical of the Lebanon invasion. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who was preparing a campaign for the presidency, argued that it was “sheer delusion to underestimate the cutting force of Arab nationalism,” and said the United States should stop viewing the Middle East “almost exclusively in the context of East-West struggle” and begin “doing business with Nasser.” Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon lamented “the mixing of American blood with Arabian oil in the Middle East.” When Allen told a Senate committee that “mob action” was behind the Iraq coup, Senator William Langer of North Dakota challenged his definition of “mob.”
“Do you mean the patriotic people of Iraq who were sick and tired of having those in control of Iraq bribed by the United States government?” Langer asked.
This episode also illustrated the changing image of Israel in the United States. President Truman had endorsed the creation of Israel in 1948 after overruling both his secretary of state, George Marshall, and his secretary of defense, James Forrestal, who predicted that the existence of a Jewish state would cause endless conflict in the Middle East. Many early settlers in Israel were socialists, and during its first few years of independence Israel was friendly to the Soviet Union. This kept relations between Washington and Tel Aviv cool. So did Foster’s belief, shared by many in the State Department, that the existence of Israel would complicate the making of American foreign policy.
“I am aware how almost impossible it is in this country to carry out a foreign policy not approved by the Jews,” he said at a press conference during the Suez crisis. “Marshall and Forrestal learned that. I am going to try to have one.… I am very much concerned over the fact that the Jewish influence here is completely dominating the scene and making it almost impossible to get Congress to do anything they don’t approve of.… The Israeli Embassy is practically dictating to the Congress through influential Jewish people in this country.”
The emergence of Nasser and his nationalist ideology in the mid-1950s, however, led Foster to shift his view. He considered Arab nationalism illegitimate and inherently anti-Western. Soviet leaders, sensing an opening, abandoned Israel and embraced the Arab cause. Foster, who had not previously been sympathetic to Zionism, jumped into the strategic vacuum and steered the United States steadily closer to Israel.
This made Foster and Allen midwives of both relationships that framed America’s approach to the Middle East for the next half century: the one with Saudi Arabia and the one with Israel.
Omega and the wider panoply of policies Foster and Allen followed in the Arab world were based on the vain hope that they could tame Arab nationalism and shape it to fit America’s Cold War needs. In Lebanon they flexed American muscle, but at the cost of inflaming Arab multitudes and giving them—many for the first time—a sense that the United States was an imperial power every bit as intrusive as the French and British had been. Nothing they did weakened Nasser. In fact, he emerged from Omega stronger than ever, reveling in his image as the triumphal defender of the Arabs against predatory foreigners.
In Egypt, Foster and Allen acted according to their deepest instincts. Chaos and disorder were the most terrifying enemies of the corporate globalism that was their creed. They saw Arab nationalism and its paladin, Nasser, as bearers of that chaotic disorder, and struck out violently against them.
* * *
Soon after Allen ordered “pulling the plug” on his anti-Sukarno plot, an official at the Indonesian foreign ministry was given a list of American diplomats who were coming for an inspection trip. One name caught his eye: Eleanor Lansing Dulles. Hers was not a popular surname in Indonesia at that moment, and when she arrived, not even a clerk appeared at the airport to greet her. She returned the slight. During a speech by Sukarno, she told an American embassy officer that he sounded “just like Hitler,” and then announced that she wished to leave immediately and fly to Bali. The officer told her that her walkout would not only be noticed, but might spark an international incident.
“Listen carefully,” he finally said. “Wait a minute or two, and then grab your midriff as though you are in terrible pain and make appropriate groans of distress, and I will help you out of the hall.”
That resolved Eleanor’s problem. There remained, however, the larger one posed by the imprisoned CIA pilot Allen Pope. He was tried and sentenced to be shot, but Sukarno proved reluctant to sign the death warrant. As he wavered, Allen ordered intensive work on a “snatch” operation in which Pope would be plucked from his prison—it was actually loose house arrest—by a low-flying aircraft. This proved unnecessary. Sukarno, who admitted that “when it comes to women I am weak,” received Pope’s wife and sister and could not resist their tears. He pardoned the pilot with a private message: “Lose yourself in the USA secretly. Don’t show yourself publicly. Don’t give out news stories. Don’t issue statements. Just go home, hide yourself, get lost, and we’ll forget the whole thing.”
Pope kept his part of the bargain for a while. Years later, however, when the Indonesia operation became public, he became indignant at hearing Richard Bissell describe it as “a complete failure.”
“We killed thousands of Communists,” Pope said, “even though half of them probably didn’t know what Communism meant.”
Rebellions in Sumatra and Sulawesi sputtered on for several years. American support had made them possible, however, and after it was cut off, the fighting was little more than a series of skirmishes. The last members of the ill-fated Revolutionary Government of Indonesia surrendered in 1961.
Archipelago produced three winners: Sukarno, the Indonesian army, and the PKI. All believed they had won the right to more power. They fell into intensifying conflict, culminating with a failed PKI coup in 1965 and a staggeringly brutal response by the generals, who seized power and directed the massacre of hundreds of thousands of PKI members and others. They kept Sukarno in office for a couple of years as a figurehead, and then removed him. He died in 1970.
Besides stoking internal conflicts that would explode into horrific violence a few years later, American intervention shaped Indonesian politics in another decisive way. It produced what one scholar called “the prolonged exclusion from national life of some of Indonesia’s most talented and capable leaders because of their association with the rebellion and the United States.” Enlisting moderates for the CIA’s anti-Sukarno project had seemed like a promising strategy. Once the project collapsed, however, these moderates were exposed as collaborators with the United States and were pushed from politics. Communists filled the vacuum.
The Dulles brothers struck against Mossadegh and Arbenz for reasons that stretched back to their Sullivan & Cromwell days. Their third target, Ho Chi Minh, was a lifelong Communist. Sukarno was different. Panic, ignorance, and stubbornness led Foster and Allen to attack a leader who posed no real threat to American security. Sukarno warned them not to try placing Indonesians into “neat, orderly Western pigeon holes,” but their every impulse pushed them to do so. They never sought to understand Sukarno or Indonesian nationalism.
“I had great respect for Foster and Allen Dulles, but they did not know Asians well and were always inclined to judge them by Western standards,” John Allison, the ambassador they removed from his post in Indonesia, observed years later. “They were both activists and insisted on doing something at once.”
For his part, Sukarno never ceased lamenting the troubles he had with the United States. He saw them as fully unnecessary, the result of colossal misunderstandings. Poignantly, he accepted his share of blame.
“If there is an out-and-out question as to who began the name-calling between Sukarno and Washington, then I have to admit it was Sukarno,” he wrote in his memoir. “But look here, Sukarno is a shouter. He is emotional. If he is angry, he shoots thunderbolts. But he thunders only at those he loves. I would adore to make up with the United States of America.… Oh, America, what is the matter with you? Why couldn’t you have been my friend?”