NBC's Troubled Documentary on the Indonesian Genocide (Commentary)

NBC News, 1967 51:00 minutes

The transcript discussed here can be found in another posting.

From the opening of Indonesia: The Troubled Victory:

As our war in Asia gets bigger, a largely unnoticed victory over the communists has been decisively won in Southeast Asia. In fact, it is the single biggest defeat ever handed to communists anywhere in the world. And it was won without a single American soldier, American dollar, or bomb. Geographically [Indonesia] dominates Southeast Asia and politically, as the former ally of Peking, threatened to become the communist southern front in the malignant battle for Asia, a massive end run around Vietnam... Sixteen months ago, these beautiful and tranquil-looking islands exploded with stunning violence. Indonesia is still in a state of shock. Without warning, Indonesia’s three million communists tried to seize total control of the government by killing their opposition in a single night of assassination. This act in turn was revenged by the slaughter and arrest of half a million suspected communists. The terror and the trouble is by no means over... With unprecedented violence, Indonesia on her own has handed the world its single biggest victory over the communists. But it is a complex and uncertain victory in the battle for Asia, and it is a troubled victory.

A genocide perpetrator explains to NBC's reporter how
the "holy duty" of mass killing was carried out. 
The way that the security state has undermined democracy has been extensively described in numerous books and alternative media sources. Among the many writers who have covered this theme, there are the famous critics of American media and foreign policy, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, who wrote the classic Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. They described how The New York Times and The Washington Post, as papers of record that establish narratives for all of the media, act like propaganda outlets that faithfully follow US State Department and US security agencies’ messaging. They also do real journalism, speaking truth to power once in a while, but this just serves to raise doubts and counter allegations that they are mouthpieces for government. In spite of deviations, it can be demonstrated that these leading media organizations generally act as cheerleaders for American foreign policy. They may express regrets and mistakes after the fact, or lament that good men had good intentions, but they go on to repeat the same errors when it is time to support the next illegal foreign intervention. Other sources have expanded on the theme of Chomsky and Herman’s book by describing in detail programs such as Operation Mockingbird which recruited journalists, academics, artists, authors and editors to co-operate with the CIA.[1]
Much of the public has unquestioningly bought the narratives told about Syria, Ukraine and Russia in recent years. It is difficult for many to get perspective on the present and see it without the bias imposed on us. If one is skeptical that government agencies influence “objective” reporting of world events, it may be easier to make the case if one looks at historical examples. One can see their absurd and transparent biases more easily, the way one readily sees the strangeness of fashions and hairstyles from decades past.
If one should ever doubt that the CIA could infiltrate major media corporations and lead them by the nose to preferred narratives, the NBC News television report from 1967 discussed here illustrates the point in ways that should shock contemporary audiences.
The one-hour report Indonesia: The Troubled Victory was presented in 1967 as an in-depth look at a complex political and social transformation, but it served as an unquestioning parroting of the preferred narrative supplied by the new Indonesian and American regimes that had recently taken power. Sukarno and Kennedy had been swept aside in their respective countries, and both of the new governments were strengthening their anti-communist offensives. The following discussion will illustrate how NBC News created a blatant piece of propaganda through ideological bias, choices of terminology, editorial decisions, unsupported and unquestioned assertions, historical ignorance and an extreme commitment to a dehumanizing “objectivity.”
The report opens with the statement that “a largely unnoticed victory over the communists has been decisively won in Southeast Asia.” It is true that this “victory” was ignored while so much attention was focused on Vietnam, but behind the scenes America had spent heavily in Indonesia through the previous two decades on covert operations, foreign aid, and supplying weapons to the outer islands rebellions and a border war with Malaysia. This was done in order to keep Indonesia unstable and push it toward military rule, with the aim of destabilizing Sukarno’s government and hindering progressive land reforms. There is no smoking gun evidence that proves the CIA handpicked Suharto and masterminded the coup as it actually happened. If they left such evidence they wouldn’t be doing their job right. Nonetheless, there is much suggestive evidence, and it is a strange coincidence that the outcome was exactly what Allen Dulles, head of the CIA during the 1950s, had wanted.
It may be useful to think of the CIA’s methods in this story as those of a “showrunner” (writer/director) of a long cable television drama. The entire run of the drama lasting several years has a grand story arc, and within that each season has its own story arc. The showrunner establishes the grand arc which outlines major themes, conflicts and a desired end point. Each minor arc within the major arc has its own sub-plots and characters, but they ultimately serve the larger story. The showrunner writes a few episodes and gives instructions to his team of writers, then he leaves them to it. He steps in to supervise and advise occasionally, reacting to the surprising plot twists and character development that his writers have created. The important point is that at the start he only knows where he wants to go, but not how he will get there. He can’t control the whole process and has to improvise along the way. He has to let his writers and characters do what they will, then react to the story as it evolves. This is a useful way of understanding how Allen Dulles got what he wanted out of Indonesia while staying concealed and letting the political events appear to be an entirely domestic phenomenon.
In light of the mass violence that was unleashed after the coup, it is interesting to note the implication made by the narrator in the introduction: that this conflict–which was not a civil war but rather a genocide which consisted of the slaughter and detention of unarmed civilians–was a good thing, a “victory” because, unlike Vietnam, it hasn’t cost American lives or involved America directly in a civil war. It pricks the conscience slightly. It is, admittedly, a “troubled victory,” but all in all we are good with it.

The report makes many exaggerated claims that go unchallenged and unverified. News documentaries don’t have to include a list of references, unfortunately, or have their claims challenged by scientific method. One allegation was that Peking was an “ally” of the Sukarno regime. No evidence is provided about what the nature of this relationship was, yet in other segments the documentary makes it clear that Indonesia had taken foreign aid from several nations in recent years, including both the USSR and the US. It was obviously involved in diplomacy and trade with many nations, so it is not clear why Peking is singled out as a dangerous liaison.
Many wild and fantastic descriptions of the famous coup have circulated for years and have been used as justification for the anti-communist mass murders that occurred afterwards. The truth of the event seems to have been lost forever in rumors, conflicting accounts, disinformation, lies and biased interpretations. One thing is certain, though, and that is that the outcome is exactly what CIA director Allen Dulles worked toward ever since massive gold and oil reserves were discovered in West Papua in the 1930s. His goal was to make sure that West Papua would be absorbed by Indonesia and its resources would be given to American corporations, along with resources in the rest of Indonesia. This required the elimination of socialism and nationalism in Indonesia, and the defeat of Dutch attempts to lead its former colony in West Papua toward independence.
Indonesia specialist Greg Poulgrain studied this history, and evidence he uncovered suggests the CIA backed Suharto in a complex and duplicitous plot to encourage a small faction of the PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia) to detain six generals who were suspected of plotting to overthrow Sukarno.[2] A coup by either left or right-leaning army factions seemed like a certainty during 1965, Indonesia’s famous “year of living dangerously.” Whoever acted first would be able to say they were pre-empting an illegal takeover by the other side. Indeed, the leader, Colonel Untung, said the plan had been only to detain the six generals and bring them to Sukarno so that they could explain to his face whether they were planning a coup or not.[3] Along the way things got out of hand and they were murdered during the struggle to bring them to the palace.

Sukarno was at the center of the conflict between John F. Kennedy and Allen Dulles (Director of Central Intelligence) With the intention of removing Sukarno from power, Dulles’ strategy of ‘regime change,’ was well-advanced before Kennedy became president. Indeed, his career in intelligence had started even before Kennedy was born. In 1958, DCI Dulles was at the height of his power. He was not simply targeting the Outer Islands in Indonesia, but the entire Indonesian archipelago–including Netherlands New Guinea where the world’s largest gold deposit was located (and is today still being mined). Unlike Dulles, neither Kennedy nor Sukarno was aware of this El Dorado. But when the author interviewed Joseph Luns, the former Dutch Foreign Minister who became NATO Secretary-General, Luns said that he had asked the Americans involved to exploit the huge gold deposit jointly with the Dutch. It was their refusal, Luns said, that actually forced the Dutch out of New Guinea. When Kennedy and Sukarno in 1963 resolved to work together, US foreign policy threatened to disrupt–unwittingly–Dulles’ own Cold War strategy which was focused on Indonesia. JFK’s wariness, after Allen Dulles’ role in the Bay of Pigs, drew a tongue-in-cheek but prophetic comment: “Domestic policy can only defeat us,” he used to say, “Foreign policy can kill us.” (from the book jacket)

Suharto was an unknown with no political experience or reputation for any political policies. Poulgrain points to evidence that Suharto was an outsider from the special forces who was backed by the CIA. He had personal contacts with the plotters that went back to the 1940s, and Poulgrain asserts that his plan was to encourage them by telling them he would protect them after they seized the generals. However, he intended to double-cross them, seize power for himself, and terminate communist influence. He had even pre-arranged some aspects of the plan to destroy the PKI throughout the country before the coup took place. The deaths of the generals during their abduction eliminated his rivals in the military leadership and created an atrocity that would fuel the nation-wide rampage against communists. Poulgrain summed up his views in a long interview about his book in 2016:

Increasingly, as further evidence is compiled years after the event, Suharto is taking on the appearance of the Kostrad commander at the center of a web. He had made plans–even before the event occurred–to strike at the PKI for the events which occurred on the night of 30th Sept. And through Sjam he was able to ensure the kidnapping event ... was turned into the murder of the generals; ... Suharto ensured the event was turned into a tragedy of epic proportions, from which Indonesia has yet to recover.[4]

The new regime quickly circulated wild stories about the slow torture of the generals, with lurid descriptions of female torturers aroused to sadistic excesses in sex orgies and satanic rituals. The NBC report repeated this narrative unquestioningly. Even though Ted Yates used the adjective “incredible” to describe it, no doubts were raised about it being just a little too convenient as propaganda for the new regime.
The most interesting omission in the report is that the producers never got an interview with Sukarno himself. He survived the coup and stayed on as figurative head of state for a few more years. It is not clear whether the producers were blocked from having access to Sukarno or whether they were not interested giving an opportunity for rebuttal to the man they slandered repeatedly throughout the report.
Sukarno is portrayed as a corrupt and decadent leader who has led his nation to economic ruin. However, the report never explains the reasons for his popularity and his hold on power, even after the coup when Suharto didn’t dare dispose of him quickly. In the United States a popular president could be assassinated without the event being followed by a revolution, but this wasn’t possible in Indonesia.
The report gives no background about the fact that the US State Department and ambassadors throughout the 1950s had found Sukarno to be a reasonable centrist, an anti-communist nationalist who wanted to find an economic and social system adapted to his country’s unique circumstances. Sukarno had wanted to follow a neutral path in the Cold War, and he was famous for having launched the Non-Aligned Movement in Bandung in 1955. President Kennedy had a plan to support Sukarno, focus on peaceful development, and divert foreign aid to infrastructure projects, and Sukarno said after his assassination that he believed Kennedy was murdered to prevent him from visiting Indonesia and establishing a policy that would block the carefully laid plans of Allen Dulles.
Furthermore, the description in the report of Sukarno as a devout (but hypocritical) Muslim contradicts the allegation that he was sympathetic with communist, atheist, anti-religious forces. It could be that Sukarno, the communists, or both weren’t as anti-religious as they were portrayed to be when their atheism and hedonism were used as an excuse to kill. The portrayal of the PKI as savage heathens ignores the possibility that they were not opposed to religion but were instead interested in blending their religious faith with progressive land reforms, poverty elimination and national independence. Portraying them as evil heathens was a propaganda ploy to turn religious institutions against them, and it worked extremely well.
The documentary also condemns Sukarno for kicking out the United Nations and cursing American foreign aid, but it never explores what led to this deterioration of previously warm relations. An investigation of this matter would have revealed that Sukarno was aware of how the UN mission in Congo had been used by the West to remove Prime Minister Lumumba and have him killed by his domestic enemies.[5] Sukarno too was under such implicit threat, constantly being pressured to abandon land reform and policies that would keep Indonesia’s resources under domestic control. His development policies are portrayed as failures, which they were to some extent, but the report never explores whether these failures were caused by the refusal of Western powers to help Indonesia unless it cooperated with Western economic models. As President Nixon stated the policy when speaking of Chile a decade later, the policy toward an uncooperative government is always to “make the economy scream.”[6]
The report celebrates the return of America and the UN who were now ready to help the New Order. However, Yates never explains why these two saviors were so silent about the genocide and even complicit in it. If Sukarno was wrong to have mistrusted them, surely they would have denounced the outrageous human rights abuses, and taken action to stop them, after they were welcomed back by the new regime. This failure was in the news briefly in October 2017 when documents were released pointing to American complicity in the genocide.[7]
If Sukarno should be condemned for anything, it must be his hypocritical insistence, as the great anti-colonial warrior, on colonizing West Papua, long before 1965. Also, his silence after the coup shows that he preferred to be turned into a figurehead by Suharto rather than to go into exile or speak out against him and against the genocide.
By the time Ted Yates gets finished with his descriptions of Sukarno and the decrepit state of the country, we may be ready to say there is some truth here about Sukarno’s failures, but the reasons for them are never explored, and this report peddles so many lies and unsubstantiated allegations that everything stated in it becomes unreliable.
As mentioned above, this report makes no mention of the significance of Indonesia’s annexation of West Papua, and how central this issue was in plans to control that territory’s resources. Sukarno, the great anti-colonial fighter, was eager to colonize this region that, according to the UN charter, was entitled to self-determination because of its unique cultures and languages that had no connection to Indonesia. President Kennedy was eager to put the territory under Indonesian control in order to keep Indonesia as a Cold War ally, and tragically the Soviets and the Chinese were also eager not to antagonize Sukarno for the same reason, so the hopes for a West Papuan nation were dashed by the UN’s “New York agreement” in 1962. According to this agreement, a referendum on joining Indonesia permanently was required to take place within ten years, but when this was held in 1969, only a thousand tribal leaders were allowed to vote as delegates for their people, and they voted at gunpoint. Indonesian control of West Papua since the 1960s has been described as a slow genocide,[8] but today it is a forgotten part of the world whose importance in Cold War history is almost completely overlooked.
The NBC report is sadly ironic when we know in retrospect what a violent, repressive kleptocracy Suharto established over the next three decades. The report celebrates Suharto as a moderate hero, living in a modest bungalow with “only one wife,” and an enjoyment of hunting tigers, so he was just an all-round American guy. He’s a man of reason who also takes advice from an astrologer. The report celebrates the emergence of his one-man rule right after they have finished condemning the end of the previous era of one-man rule. No serious questions are asked about where this is all headed.
     One cringe-inducing segment is on the reporting of violence against ethnic Chinese. Since the communist influence was blamed on “Red China,” popular anger was directed at the Chinese minority. They were contradictorily blamed for being both socialist and greedy businessmen. Ted Yates describes them as being victimized because they “control the economy and refuse to integrate.” Notably, he doesn’t say, “They are believed to control...” or  “They are accused of controlling...” He states this as an accepted fact which he almost seems to agree with as a justification for their treatment. If the same methodology had been applied thirty years earlier, an American reporter in Germany would have said the same about how the Jews “control the economy and refuse to integrate.” Ted Yates seemed to miss the irony and continued to report on these events as an objective automaton lacking human moral judgment.
A genocide perpetrator explains to NBC's reporter how the "holy duty" of 
mass killing was carried out, followed by footage of Goodyear's prison labor camp.

During the reporting it is not at all clear what Ted Yates thinks about what he is witnessing. He appears to be somewhat sympathetic to the injustices he sees, but he never editorializes, never even raises a question about whether Americans should withdraw support for this regime and protest American involvement in the genocide. The possibility of doing valuable reporting is lost in the delusion that one could report on such events objectively, without reference to morals or ideology, or to one’s pre-existing biases.
Ted Yates visits a detention camp where Chinese have been sent for their own safety until they can be deported to China, a country where they have never lived. He stays there for several minutes while the crowd pelts him, his crew and the guards with stones. They are chanting anti-American slogans, so the NBC crew is the obvious cause of the assault, yet he lingers there for the longest time putting himself, his crew and the guards in danger. What was he thinking? He was shot and killed later in the year while covering the Middle East.
In another segment, we hear a few comments from a dissident journalist who was imprisoned during Sukarno’s rule. But when this newly released dissident speaks on camera, we hear not a word of concern for the million people who have just been slaughtered. Instead the dissidents are described as welcoming a new flourishing of culture and the arts that is now sure to begin. Sadly, it is well known that modern-day Indonesia is a cultural wasteland, as depicted in Joshua Oppenheimer’s two documentary films on the genocide, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. A genocide buried and never confronted in the collective consciousness tends to also kill artistic and intellectual life. Journalist Andre Vltchek described this loss of culture and how inappropriate it was for UNESCO to anoint the city of Bandung as a “world creative city” in 2015:

And how paradoxical and cynical this stamp really is! UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. During and after the 1965 coup, education, culture and science were thoroughly destroyed in Indonesia. Today, this fourth most populous nation on earth does not have one single writer, thinker or scientist of international caliber.[9]

In a later segment of The Troubled Victory, Ted Yates covers an anti-Sukarno student demonstration, still occurring after the coup apparently restored stability. He fails to question how the chaos on the streets might be a carefully orchestrated unbalancing act done just to keep things from settling down too much. Ted Yates points out that the students support Suharto but he must reluctantly send out the army to maintain order. At the end of the scene Ted Yates rushes to help a student reporter whose neck has been broken by a rifle butt, but he refers to him pejoratively as a member of the “commie press.”
The prize for the most shocking and cringe-inducing scene must go to Ted Yates’ interview with a proud genocidaire in Bali, who also happens to be an archeology professor:

Ted Yates: Bali is such a beautiful island. The people are so attractive. The climate is so lovely. It’s hard to believe that so many unpleasant things went on here in the last year.
Rata: Yeah, but now, Bali has become more beautiful without communists and this is the duty of the Balinese people: to clean their own island from the communist influence. This is the holy duty and we did it. In Bali, we really did it.
Ted Yates: What actually happened here in this village?
Rata: Well, the story here is because some of the communist leaders from this village realized they had done wrong, they came to the village council and asked the village council when the village council would clean their village of the communist people.
Ted Yates: You mean the communists themselves asked to be killed?
Rata: Some of them. And then the village council made a list of who must be killed from their village. And some of them wanted to be killed, but they asked for time: “If you want to kill me, you can kill me the next day, but now give me a chance to pray at the temple, at the village temple, to say goodbye to all of my relatives, and the next morning I’m ready to be killed.” So the next morning or next evening, the villagers brought him here and then killed him by sword.
Ted Yates: They killed him with a sword?
Rata: Yes, with a sword. Stabbed them one time and killed them. They were buried, with a headstone like this one, so the family could recognize the next morning where the family member is buried.

Throughout this interview, Ted Yates maintains his composure. At one point he rubs something out of his eye. He may be crying or trying to register some form of disgust at what he is hearing, but he doesn’t seem to be betraying much emotion. We’ll never know what he was really thinking about hearing such a blunt and happy confession to mass murder. Was he under pressure to keep his own views out of the report and raise no doubts about American involvement in these crimes, or did he sincerely accept the need to tolerate the genocide in order to pursue “the greater good” of fighting communism? If the answer to this question is yes, then Americans too sank to the level of fighting a “holy war” against communism. It may be shocking to hear this archaeology professor enthusiastically support the killing, but American intellectuals were also complicit in these acts. The killing of infidels had official blessing for both the Balinese villagers and the politicians, intellectuals and bureaucrats in Washington.
The final outrage comes at the end of the report when Ted Yates reports on one sliver of light shining on Indonesia in these grim times. The New Order wants the Americans back. Public sector spending is going to be reduced, and nationalized corporations are going to be returned to their foreign owners. A Goodyear rubber factory is shown as an example where profits are back and the factory has now been converted into a prison camp. The workers, who could have been killed for their former communist affiliation, have been spared. Now they do their jobs at gunpoint. After Americans had for so long pointed to Stalin’s gulags as the principal failing of Soviet communism, here was an American reporter proudly showing off prison laborers in a military dictatorship toiling at gunpoint for an American corporation.
This eerily calm celebration of a genocidal “victory over communism” should seem outrageous five decades later, but perhaps many people will still say, “But they were communists!” Hopefully, most people watching this documentary today could see what an outrage it was. Doing so may help them to question contemporary interpretations of world events. What will people say in fifty years’ time if they can view the great volumes of reportage from our day advocating military interventions and screaming “Assad must go,” or “the Russians hijacked our democracy!” What will they think about the interview with Hillary Clinton as she smiles about carrying out her “holy duty” to overthrow Gadhafi in Libya: “We came, we saw, he died.”

Read the transcript: Indonesia: The Troubled Victory
The 51-minute video can be viewed at NBC Learn (membership registration required).


[2] Greg Poulgrain, The Incubus of Intervention: Conflicting Indonesia Strategies of John F. Kennedy and Allen Dulles (Petaling Jaya, Malyasia: Strategic Information and Research Development Center, 2015).

[3] Coen Holzappel, “The role of Suharto in the Indonesian genocide of 1965,” Colloque “Les violences de masses en Indonésie (1965-1966) et la question de la reconciliation,” Centre Asie du sud-est (CASE), January 19, 2016, https://youtu.be/O9r2h-gUQP8.

[5] Jihan El-Tahri, Cuba: An African Odyssey, Part 1, directed by Jihan El-Tahri, (2007; Temps Noir) DVD, 00:26:34~. In this film, Vladimir Shubin, former Director of the Africa Department of the Soviet Politburo said, “The UN troops were supposed to protect the independence of Congo, but they wouldn’t allow the Congolese troops which were loyal to Lumumba to operate. The mission of the United Nations troops was misused to topple the government of Lumumba or to at least not protect Lumumba.”

[6] “‘Make the Economy Scream’: Secret Documents Show Nixon, Kissinger Role Backing 1973 Chile Coup,” Havana Times, September 10, 2013, http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=98700. From this source: “In 1970, the CIA’s deputy director of plans wrote in a secret memo: ‘It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. … It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG [the U.S. government] and American hand be well hidden.’”

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