The Cuban Missile Crisis, Indonesia and the JFK Assassination

You have no idea how much bad advice I received in those days.[i]
- John F. Kennedy referring to advice given to him during the Cuban Missile Crisis
by the members of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council,
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Congress

Do you remember that time when the United States placed nuclear weapons in Okinawa and the Soviet leadership, enraged about nuclear missiles being so close to Vladivostok, placed a transportation “quarantine” on Okinawa and threatened a massive aerial bombardment if the weapons were not withdrawn, pushing the world to the brink of global nuclear war? Did you ever learn about it in school or see a Hollywood movie about that time when the Americans recklessly brought the world close to nuclear war, a movie about how the calm and heroic Soviet president deftly took the world back from the brink? No? Of course not, because it never happened—at least not the part about the enraged response and threat of war. There really were nuclear missiles in Okinawa, but the Soviet leadership never reacted to them the way Americans reacted to the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba in October 1962.
When the Cuban Missile Crisis took place, America had in recent years tried to assassinate Castro and invade Cuba in the failed Bay of Pigs attack. It had essentially declared war on Cuba. During the missile crisis, America had again announced its intention to invade Cuba, this time with a massive air raid meant to destroy all of its military capacity and overthrow Castro. So Cuba definitely had good reason to feel threatened, and the only way that such a small country could defend itself from a large, nuclear-armed threat was to get help from a big ally and have its own nuclear deterrent. The Cubans and Soviets defined these weapons as “defensive” deterrent, and the Americans described their nuclear weapons the same way. There was a general taboo against “first use” of nuclear weapons, so everyone who had them considered them to be “defensive.” Thus, when the Americans asked the Soviet UN ambassador during the missile crisis if the USSR had placed “offensive” weapons in Cuba, he was not exactly lying when he said “no.” It depends on what one calls “offensive” and “defensive.” Nonetheless, the Soviets were portrayed at the time, and later in films such as Thirteen Days, as liars.
During the missile crisis, while America had been making clear preparations for war and announcing its intent to attack Cuba, an American fighter jet flew over Cuba and the Cuban military shot it down. How could Cuba not see this, at this time of high tension, as an act of aggression and decide to not shoot down the plane? Cuba could have decided not to shoot at it, in order to not worsen a dangerous situation, but it is not at all surprising that they shot it down under the circumstances. However, the Americans referred to this, at the time and forever after, as an act of war and an escalation of the conflict by the Cubans, not by the Americans. Surely, a similar act by the Soviets or Cubans at this time, for example a surveillance flight over Florida, would have been seen by America as an act of war. Another blind spot of many Americans, even those who say they have learned the importance of empathizing with the enemy, is that they fail to see that the Cuban Missile Crisis may never have happened if America had not…

  1.     tried on numerous occasions to assassinate Castro and invade Cuba and continued to threaten future aggression,
  2.     placed nuclear missiles in Turkey which were as close to the USSR as Cuba is to Florida,
  3.     failed to acknowledge that it was the “quarantine” (blockade) that was illegal, not Cuba’s request to seek protection from the USSR–-international law did not forbid one nation from requesting protection from another, whether the weapons shared were nuclear or conventional[ii]

The crisis was resolved only when the Americans agreed to remove the missiles from Turkey and pledged to make no further attacks on Cuba–two things which it could have done long before the crisis emerged. There was irony in the fact that the Americans intended to remove the missiles in Turkey anyway because they were old, but they didn’t want to do it in a situation that would look like they were bending to Soviet pressure. In the final agreement, Kennedy insisted that the agreement about the missiles in Turkey be kept secret so that he wouldn’t look weak to the American public. Indeed, news media of the time did not mention the missiles in Turkey and they portrayed the Soviets as the side that had backed down.
In a certain sense, the Cuban Missile Crisis was much ado about nothing. It didn’t have to happen, and there are many ways it could have been avoided before it became a crisis. Americans still seem to have a lot of difficulty admitting their share of responsibility for it.
One thing omitted in many historical studies is how little consideration there was of the possibility of ecological catastrophe. Even if nuclear war could have been avoided, there was great risk in the plan to destroy nuclear missiles before they were loaded with nuclear warheads and launched. The Americans assumed that the nuclear warheads were not yet on the missiles, but they had no way of knowing for certain. The warheads (we hope) could have been destroyed without causing nuclear explosions, but their destruction would have caused enormous amounts of plutonium and other poisons to be spread over Cuba and much of the Caribbean Sea, and the southeast USA as well. It could have been a catastrophe of nuclear and chemical contamination without nuclear explosions, but in 1962 awareness of such environmental problems was extremely limited. From today’s perspective, it is shocking that Castro was willing to risk this happening to his own country, and shocking that the Americans and Soviets had such disregard for the risk as well.
The Soviet and American leaders had a shocking lack of ability to communicate with each other directly during the crisis. After the crisis, they fixed this problem by creating a “hotline” system. Both sides had great difficulty in understanding who was in charge during the crisis. The military commanders on both sides had their own agendas separate from the political leaders, so each side felt great confusion about what was going on in the other government. Who was really in control? Many of the commanders were veterans of WWII, and they were “fighting the last war”; that is, their attitudes and their strategies were completely unsuited for the nuclear age. The Soviet leadership had lived through Hitler’s betrayal and surprise attack in WWII, so they trusted no one and thought another surprise attack could happen. Military commanders were slow to understand that risk of global nuclear war called for new tactics and much greater caution. They had a frightening lack of understanding about how the nature of war had changed—how every gesture and small incident on the battlefield was an act of communication relayed instantly to the enemy’s political leadership in Washington or Moscow. 
Even during a moment of crisis, the bureaucracy of the Cold War was still in operation. The left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. Far away in the middle of the Pacific, American bureaucrats in the military and Department of Energy didn’t realize this was not a good time to be carrying out nuclear bomb tests that had been planned for late October, and Kennedy, preoccupied as he was, didn’t think about cancelling them. He also didn’t stop bomber patrols near the Russian Far East, but he was shocked to find out that these routine operations were still happening during the crisis. They were further signals that made the Soviets wonder if America was out of control and unpredictable.
Such incidents, along with the threats to attack Cuba, gave the Soviets reason to be the first to attack, a fact that both sides were aware of. When the Americans announced that they would attack on Monday, if certain conditions were not met, this just gave the Soviets good reason to reject the demands and be the first to attack on Sunday. Fortunately, they didn’t. The Americans were being quite reckless in this regard, and, in fact, the military commanders were eager to have this confrontation so that they could (in their imaginations) finish off Castro’s government quickly before the warheads were loaded onto missiles.
Civilization “lucked out” as Robert McNamara said in the film Fog of War. The crisis made it clear that no government had figured out a way to keep a nuclear war from starting by accident, misunderstanding, minor acts of aggression, recklessness, independent actions by military personnel, or just bureaucratic inertia. The problem still exists today, even though the world has developed a false sense of security since the USSR broke up in the early 1990s and some, but far from all, of the two superpowers’ nuclear weapons were destroyed. Donald Trump’s reckless provocation of North Korea doesn’t compare well with Kennedy’s ability to coolly extricate his government from a complex Mexican standoff.
The Soviets were reckless for the decision to let a good part of their nuclear arsenal go to the opposite side of the world to be left with a government they had very little experience with. They sent nuclear-armed diesel-powered submarines, designed for Arctic waters, to distant tropical waters where they lost contact with Moscow. The famous story of the man who saved the world tells of how one officer on one of these subs over-ruled another who was ready to launch his nuclear torpedoes.[iii]
After the crisis, Castro was angry that the Soviets had backed down and agreed to remove the missiles. As compensation, he wanted to keep the 100 tactical (low-yield, battlefield use) nuclear weapons which the Americans didn’t know about. The Soviets considered it for a time, but soon realized they could never again risk having any of their arsenal outside of their direct control. They insisted on taking them all back.[iv]
Castro saw possession of nuclear weapons as the only way to deter further American aggression, and he had thought the Soviets were committed to providing this shield. Instead the Soviets got a promise of non-aggression toward Cuba in exchange for withdrawing the weapons, which is not a bad compromise as far as Cuba is concerned. Toward the end of the crisis Castro wrote a message to Khrushchev suggesting that, in order to avoid what then seemed like the inevitable first strike from America, the USSR should strike first. Khrushchev later wrote, “It became clear to us that Fidel totally failed to understand our purpose. We had installed the missiles not for the purpose of attacking the United States, but to keep the United States from attacking Cuba.” He later replied to Castro, “You proposed that we be the first to carry out a nuclear strike against the territory of the enemy. You, of course, realize where that would have led. Rather than a simple strike, it would have been the start of a thermonuclear world war.”[v]
In a review of The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory, Benjamin Schwarz summarized how the book’s author, Sheldon M. Stern, overturned the long-held view that Kennedy heroically led America away from the nuclear brink.[vi] In fact, Stern shows that Kennedy took the world recklessly to the brink, then, once there, endangered the world further by prioritizing political survival and saving face. Kennedy could not let Republicans portray him to domestic voters as weak, and America had to show the world that it would not back down in the face of a challenge or give up its goal of overthrowing Castro. Yet in spite of the fundamentally hypocritical assumption that Cuba had no right to invite an ally to place weapons on its territory, and despite Kennedy’s role in creating the crisis, he saved the world by ignoring the near-unanimous advice to attack Cuba that came from ExComm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council), the Joint Chiefs and Congress.
In spite of what was said at the time, and repeated in histories that came later, the record shows that in 1962 American officials knew that the missiles in Cuba didn’t alter the strategic balance. They also knew that American missiles in Turkey had upset the balance because they required hours to prepare for launch. This meant that they had no deterrent effect and were only destabilizing because they were useful only for a first strike, or they were a target to be taken out by a Soviet first strike. Everyone knew this and knew that this was the primary motivation for the Soviets to put missiles in Cuba. Everyone also knew that there was no missile gap, as Kennedy had claimed during his election campaign against Richard Nixon. Americans had overall superiority in nuclear weapons and a sufficient deterrent capacity, regardless of any missiles that might be deployed in Cuba for Cuba’s own deterrent purposes.
It should have also been obvious to world opinion, if not American perceptions, that if one country could have nuclear weapons, any country could have nuclear weapons. Cuba had as much right as Japan to ask to be put under the nuclear umbrella of an ally. It was the blockade of Cuba during the crisis, euphemistically called a “quarantine,” which was illegal. Khrushchev is often described as “crazy” for having sent the missiles to Cuba, but it is possible that he reasonably expected that the right to do so would be accepted just as the Soviets had accepted American missiles in Turkey and Okinawa, without threatening to invade Turkey and start WWIII. Khrushchev was reckless only because he was foolish enough to assume Americans had a sense of balance and fairness.
By the time the Americans offered to remove the missiles in Turkey, the Soviets were just as terrified as anyone and eager to back out of the crisis. They even agreed to make the withdrawal of the Turkish missiles a secret that wouldn’t be revealed to the public in either country. Kennedy also promised to stop aggression against Cuba, another gesture that could have been made long before the crisis developed, seeing as how it went against international law and the UN Charter to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, or to threaten war, or make war on them. The crisis arose from America’s belief that international law didn’t apply to itself.[vii]
Nonetheless, even on the eve of the planned massive air raid on Cuba that had a 50–50 chance of resulting in global nuclear war, Kennedy was worried about losing face domestically and internationally–-worried about letting down allies and about the political fallout more than about the radioactive fallout. It is to his credit that, as the audio recordings of the ExComm meetings make clear, in the end he didn’t listen to the hawkish advice of the men around him. Almost all of them, including his brother Robert Kennedy, had pushed for invasion and non-nuclear bombing of Cuba, and Sheldon Stern’s book on these recordings suggests that if anyone else had been president, even Robert Kennedy, nuclear war would not have been avoided. John F. Kennedy was responsible for creating the crisis, but he was also wise enough to ignore the near–unanimous opinion that he should attack Cuba and take a 50–50 risk of initiating global nuclear war.
At the approximate mid-point of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis may be the best single episode of the era for highlighting many of its important characteristics. The willingness of the superpowers to risk nuclear holocaust revealed their ugly priorities and the sorts of lesser damage that they would tolerate to pursue their goals. As humanity faced up to the real possibility of nuclear war for the first time, it was a stark revelation of the new frontier in human awareness that the nuclear age ushered in. Stern calls it the most significant non-event of the 20th century. By 1968, an entire generation of youth in Chicago, Paris and Prague would be on the streets protesting this world that their elders had created for them.
Since the crisis, the two superpowers have never recognized their own fundamental hypocrisy. By claiming the right to have thousands of nuclear weapons for their own security, they cannot admit that smaller nations like Cuba would want them too for the same deterrent purposes. Furthermore, because of America’s vast superiority in conventional weapons and military spending, all other nuclear powers have motives to keep their nuclear deterrent, and other countries have reasons to want one. This is an inconvenient truth that nuclear disarmament activists are curiously silent about. Everyone wants to abolish nuclear weapons. It is an easy thing with which to signal one’s virtue. On the other hand, if nuclear disarmament activists are ignorant of the imbalance of conventional military power, they are political naïfs, operating narrow-mindedly in the field of international relations, oblivious to what kind of world we will be left with when nuclear deterrence is gone. They are consciously ignoring the concerns of nations that feel threatened by American dominance.[viii]
In light of the current crisis in which Russia has been re-branded by the US-NATO bloc as a “hostile foreign power” and North Korea has been placed in the role of Cuba fifty-five years ago (labelled as an aggressor rather than a possessor of a deterrent), Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke recently of his desire to recommit to disarmament treaties and of the dangers posed by new developments in conventional weapons:

While Putin insisted that Russia “still wants and will pursue” new agreements with the US to achieve nuclear disarmament, these may be harder to negotiate in an era of more diverse weapons systems, being produced by more states than ever before. “Countries’ readiness to talk about getting rid of nuclear weapons is in direct proportion to their advances in other weapons systems,” said Putin, noting that both conventional and high-tech weapons delivered with modern targeting system “offer almost as much damage, with far superior accuracy.”[ix]

The Cuban Missile Crisis could have been avoided if America had simply accepted Cuba’s nuclear arsenal for the time being and then begun leading the world out of the arms race–through the example of unilateral reductions if necessary. That was always an option, if they were truly interested in avoiding the risk of accidentally stumbling into a nuclear conflict. The crisis could be traced back precisely to America’s refusal to follow Leo Szilard’s advice in 1945 to avoid an arms race and put nuclear weapons under a system of international control.
The Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrates the recklessness that political leaders are capable of in the handling of nuclear arsenals. On the other hand, an element of this recklessness was the superpowers’ creation a situation in which the tail wagged the dog. Cuba took them both on a wild ride in which it ultimately obtained America’s promise to cease military aggression.

“Well, like everyone else in my generation, I can remember exactly where I was standing on the fateful day when John Fitzgerald Kennedy nearly killed me because I can remember the Cuba crisis and I can remember him, so far from hating nuclear war and nuclear weapons, being prepared to risk nuclear war for a quarrel with Cuba that he was conducting by means of a hit team, originally, employing the Mafia to try and kill Castro.”

On the less conservative side of the American political spectrum there are generally two views about how Kennedy changed because of the awakening he experienced during the Cuban Missile Crisis. One view says that he became a different man and wanted to alter course drastically. He sought détente with Khrushchev and wanted to end the Cold War. He wanted to break up the CIA, end American involvement in Vietnam and reconcile with Cuba. In June 1963, he made his famous speech at American University which seemed to indicate this new direction was sincere and serious. Many believe this is the reason he was assassinated by enemies within national security complex.
The other view holds that this talk of a new direction was just talk, the elegant speechifying that Kennedy and other presidents tailor according to what an audience wants to hear. It may have frightened his domestic enemies into plotting against him, but he never got a chance to carry out his plan, so we will never know what he might have tried to accomplish. It is more likely that he couldn’t have accomplished much. Fidel Castro heard about Kennedy’s plan for an Alliance for Progress, which was to be a new third way between capitalism and communism for developing countries. He saw some merit in the plan, but he believed it would ultimately fail. Two days before Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Castro told the journalist Jean Daniel:

Suddenly a president arrives on the scene who tries to support the interests of another class (which has no access to any of the levers of power) to give the various Latin American countries the impression that the United States no longer stands behind the dictators, and so there is no more need to start Castro-type revolutions… The trusts see that their interests are being a little compromised (just barely, but still compromised); the Pentagon thinks the strategic bases are in danger; the powerful oligarchies in all the Latin American countries alert their American friends; they sabotage the new policy; and in short, Kennedy has everyone against him. The few liberal or allegedly liberal presidents who were chosen as instruments of the new policy are swept out of office…[x]

This interview with Jean Daniel is famous because it was paired with his interview with Kennedy one month earlier. Quotations of these two interviews are often held up as proof that Kennedy and Castro could have established a lasting peace, if Kennedy had not been killed. Some parts of the interviews can be used to support this view, but the full article shows that there was still a lot of distance between both men. Kennedy started by saying:

I believe that there is no country in the world, including the African regions, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I believe that we created, built and manufactured the Castro movement out of whole cloth and without realizing it. I believe that the accumulation of these mistakes has jeopardized all of Latin America. The great aim of the Alliance for Progress is to reverse this unfortunate policy.

This sounds like a genuine olive branch offered to Castro, and it was a surprising statement coming from an American president who had recently done so much to undermine the new Cuban government, but he continued:

I am the President of a free nation which has certain responsibilities in the Free World. I know that Castro betrayed the promises made in the Sierra Maestra, and that he has agreed to be a Soviet agent in Latin America. I know that through his faulteither his ‘will to independence,’ his madness or Communism–the world was on the verge of nuclear war in October, 1962. The Russians understood this very well, at least after our reaction [emphasis added]; but so far as Fidel Castro is concerned, I must say that I don’t know whether he realizes this, or even if he cares about it… the nations of Latin America are not going to attain justice and progress… through Communist subversion. They won’t get there by going from economic oppression to a Marxist dictatorship which Castro himself denounced a few years ago.

These words were not conciliatory at all, and it should be noted that the harsh tone contradicts what Kennedy had said a few months earlier in his lofty speech at American University which lauded the Soviet Union for its achievements and sacrifices without uttering harsh warnings about Soviet-sponsored communist subversion in the world. In this case, it would be better to judge the man by his deeds rather than his words.
There was much in Kennedy’s interview with Daniel that Castro took offense to and rejected: can the American government seriously believe that Cuban subversion is at the root of explosions taking place all over the South American continent? In Venezuela, for example, are you familiar with the situation there? Do you think the Venezuelans need us to understand what’s going on in their country? Do you think we don’t have enough problems of our own? ...This doesn’t mean we do not feel solidarity toward nations that are struggling and suffering, like the Venezuelan people. But it is up to those nations to decide what they want, and if they choose other regimes than ours, that isn’t our business.

Castro also responded to the charge that it was his “madness” which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. He revealed that a meeting early in 1962 between Khrushchev’s son-in-law and President Kennedy was the primary cause of Cuba’s decision to seek a nuclear deterrent:
...we had received an accumulation of information that a new invasion of the island was being prepared under sponsorship of the Central Intelligence Agency... but we had doubts as to the attitude of the President... Then one day Khrushchev’s son-in-law, Adzhubei, came to pay us a visit before going on to Washington at the invitation of Kennedy’s associates... Adzhubei had been received by the American Chief Executive, and their talk centered particularly on Cuba... [Adzhubei’s report] triggered the whole situation... he had said that the new situation in Cuba was intolerable for the United States, that the American government had decided it would not tolerate it any longer; he had said that peaceful coexistence was seriously compromised by the fact that ‘Soviet influences’ in Cuba altered the balance of strength, was destroying the equilibrium agreed upon and Kennedy reminded the Russians that the United States had not intervened in Hungary, which was obviously a way of demanding Russian non-intervention in the event of a possible invasion. To be sure, the actual word ‘invasion’ was not mentioned... But... the Russians too began to interpret the Kennedy-Adzhubei conversation as we saw it... By the end of a month, the Russian and Cuban governments had reached the definite conviction that an invasion might take place from one moment to the next... [Khrushchev] asked us what we wanted. We replied: do whatever is needed to convince the United States that any attack on Cuba is the same as an attack on the Soviet Union... The Russians explained to us that their concern was twofold: first, they wanted to save the Cuban revolution... and at the same time they wished to avoid a world conflict. They reasoned that if conventional military aid was the extent of their assistance, the United States might not hesitate to institute an invasion, in which case Russia would retaliate and this would inevitably touch off a world war.

With this line of reasoning, Castro explained how the missiles were placed in Cuba as a deterrent in order to prevent the “inevitable” world war. Of course, war was not inevitable. The Soviets could have decided to abandon Cuba, but they had made a commitment, and it was logical for them to assume America could be deterred with nuclear weapons. They just didn’t foresee the irrational American response of threatening an invasion even after the deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba. Castro went on in the interview to add that they never tried very hard to hide the missiles because he was eager for deterrence to take effect. He was surprised that it took Americans two months to notice them. Castro had wanted them to notice earlier because he had assumed that the threat of invasion would then be gone.
Adzhubei’s message reveals the tragic misunderstanding at the root of the crisis. Ironically, Khrushchev was acting more “Stalinist” than Stalin. During Stalin’s time, spheres of influence had been respected. The Americans stayed out of Hungary and the Soviets had stayed out of Greece, based on agreements between Roosevelt and Stalin regarding the way the world had been carved up after WWII. Now Kennedy expected Khrushchev to stay out of Cuba, but he didn’t realize things had changed. Cubans had spontaneously and independently chosen socialist revolution, and the Soviets did not want to abandon them. By misapprehending the situation, Kennedy blundered by letting his enemies know that an invasion of Cuba was definitely going to happen. In assuming the Soviets would stay out of Cuba, Kennedy made a categorical error—thinking Cuba was similar to the European nations that had been allotted to Soviet or American domination. He was, so to speak, fighting the last war, something he famously warned his ExComm team not to do during the thirteen days of the crisis.
Thus this pair of interviews doesn’t actually display very much reconciliation between Kennedy and Castro. Their positions were likely to stay wide apart, and American hostility toward Cuba would have continued if Kennedy had lived to be re-elected. It might be a mistake to assume that Kennedy’s “peace offering” to Cuba was enough to motivate a conspiracy to assassinate him. There were other anti-communist projects underway at the time in Congo, Indochina (Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos) and in Indonesia. A compelling theory about the motives behind the Kennedy assassination can be found in Greg Poulgrain’s The Incubus of Intervention.[xi],[xii] This important study directs conspiracy theory attention away from the common tropes about Cuba, Vietnam policy, mafia connections and compromised positions with mistresses to perhaps what was the largest but most neglected piece of the chessboard: the imminent triumph of socialism in Indonesia, a nation of 200 million that was the biggest domino likely to fall toward the socialist bloc.
Poulgrain traces the root of the struggle over Indonesia back to the discovery in 1936 of massive deposits of gold (and later oil) in the Dutch colony of West Papua. Allen Dulles, who would later become head of the CIA, was instrumental in keeping these discoveries secret until issues of decolonization were settled and the resources could be placed under control of American corporations. To do this, he plotted to stop the Dutch from decolonizing the territory and transferring sovereignty to West Papuans. Instead, he favored allowing Indonesia to colonize the territory, which was ironic considering that Sukarno, and later Suharto, liked to fly the banner of their nation’s anti-colonial struggle and victory.
During the 1950s, Dulles played a long, patient con to move Indonesia away from communism, which was a powerful and almost dominant force by the 1960s. He instigated rebellions in the outer islands and supplied the rebels with weapons as a strategy for de-stabilizing the country. This de-stabilization would provoke a hardline response, cause the military to reform and centralize its command, and weaken democracy and popular movements.
Kennedy came into this situation unaware of what Dulles had already been plotting for years. He warmed up to Sukarno just when Dulles was hoping to push the American president toward a coup to oust Sukarno. Kennedy wanted a program for Indonesia similar to his Alliance for Progress for South America. The plan called for foreign aid to be channeled into infrastructure projects that would be built by the military. Dulles had other plans for how to use military personnel. One can speculate over whether Kennedy’s plan could have ever succeeded in deflating support for the PKI (the communist party) in Indonesia. Allen Dulles, like Castro, was probably perceptive enough to realize that it would never work. There was no middle ground, no kinder, gentler face for capitalist development. For Dulles, the plan was just interference in what he had been working on since the 1930s. The strategic importance of Indonesia was just too crucial to allow any risk of it drifting out of American control. It had vast natural resources, and shipping lanes through the region were vitally important for the transport of oil from the Middle East.
In actual practice, the Alliance for Progress accompanied a vicious policy shift toward South America. In 1962, the Kennedy administration shifted its focus toward internal security, which involved severe repression and the rise of right-wing dictatorships in Brazil and other nations in the region. The policy went hand in hand with Kennedy’s kinder, gentler Alliance for Progress development program.[xiii] It leaves one to wonder what the alternative to this progressive policy would have been, and the genocide in Indonesia is perhaps the answer.

From Indonesia: A Troubled Victory, Ted Yates reporting for NBC News, 1967:

Reporter: Bali is such a beautiful island. The people are so attractive. Climate is so lovely. It’s hard to believe that so many unpleasant things went on here in the last year.

Genocidaire: 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, really, we did it.

Kennedy wanted to reform the CIA and reduce its power, so he fired Allen Dulles in 1961, with Indonesia policy being just one of the reasons for the dismissal. Soviet leaders had options for permanent neutralization of such threats to their power, but after losing his official title, Dulles was a free man, still able to influence his former associates in the CIA. Within two years of his dismissal, Kennedy had been assassinated, and two years after that a pro-American military dictatorship had been installed in Indonesia. After a genocide that purged one million communists from the population, Indonesia was open for American business.[xiv] West Papua had been given to Indonesia in 1961 in a UN deal brokered by Kennedy, and in 1969 its status was ratified by a gun-point referendum in which only one thousand tribal leaders participated. The licenses for gold mines and oil fields were given to Western corporations. The slow-motion genocide there continues to this day.[xv]
Allen Dulles was one of the lead members of the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Ponder that fact as long as you need to.

“The ultimate goal of regime change would have disappeared once Sukarno was really embedded as ‘president for life’ and this fact itself would have reversed decades of planning on how to gain political access to the gold in Papua. Sukarno himself suggested that “Kennedy was killed precisely to prevent him from visiting Indonesia.” Well-known for grandiose rhetoric and design, this explanation of Sukarno’s may yet prove to be correct.[xvi]

From the back cover of the book: 

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.”


[i] Sheldon M. Stern, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths versus Reality (Stanford University Press, 2012), 158.

[ii] Nick Green (director), The Man who Saved the World (2012; PBS),–man–who–saved–the–world–watch–the–full–episode/905/. This PBS documentary on the crisis, produced in 2012, still described the Cubans as “smuggling” weapons into their own country.

[iii] Nick Green, ibid.

[v] Stern, 142.

[vii] Noam Chomsky, “Why the Rest of the World No Longer Wants to be Like U.S.,” Alternet, November 5, 2013.–who–wants–be–us. Chomsky cites a famous statement by American statesman Dean Acheson made to the American Society of International Law in 1962: “No legal issue arises when the United States responds to a challenge to its power, position, and prestige.”

[viii] ICAN, winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, provides information in several languages, but all of them are Western European, Turkish being the only exception. No information is provided on their website in Russian, Chinese, Japanese or Korean. The leadership is also entirely from Western Europe. Membership is open to NGOs from anywhere, but these signs indicated that the group does not have universal reach or appeal, particularly in Russia and China.

[x] Jean Daniel, “Unofficial Envoy: An Historic Report from Two Capitals,” The New Republic, December 14, 1963,15-20. Published online at:‌/‌UnofficialEnvoy.html.

[xi] 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).

[xiii] Noam Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot (South End Press, 1993).
[xvi] 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), 247.

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