[This post draws directly from Tim Wiener’s compelling book Legacy of Ashes, published by Doubleday in 2007. It is highly recommended. Many thanks to Tim for allowing the use of his material.]
If you’ll remember, on September 25, 1957, President Eisenhower orders the CIA to overthrow Indonesia. He sets out 3 missions:
- to provide “arms and other military aid” to “anti-Sukarno military commanders” throughout Indonesia.
- to “strengthen the determination, will, and cohesion” of the rebel army officers on the islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi.
- to support and “stimulate into action, singly or in unison, non- and anti-Communist elements” among political parties on the main island of Java.
U-2 planes fly over the archipelago and plot the delivery of arms and ammunition to the rebels by sea and air. It takes 3 months to plan the operation. US operatives make contact with a handful of Indonesian rebels on Sumatra and another contingent of commandos seeking power on the island of Sulawesi, northeast of Java. The Pentagon puts together a package of machine guns, carbines, rifles, rocket launchers, mortars, hand grenades, and ammunition sufficient for 8,000 soldiers. Plans are made to supply the rebels on both Sumatra and Sulawesi by both sea and air.
January 8, 1958: The first arms shipment leaves Subic Bay in the Philippines on the USS Thomaston, bound for Sumatra. The arms arrive the following week in the northern Sumatran port of Padang. There is no pretense of secrecy.
January 31, 1958: The US successfully launches its first satellite, the Explorer.
February 10, 1958: The Indonesian rebels broadcast a challenge to Sukarno from a newly established CIA radio station in Padang. They demand a new government and the outlawing of communism within 5 days. Hearing nothing from Sukarno, they announce a revolutionary government. Their foreign minister is Colonel Maludin Simbolin, an English speaking Christian handpicked and paid by the CIA. Meanwhile, the CIA prepares new weapons shipments from the Philippines and waits for the first signs of a nationwide popular uprising against Sukarno.
February 21, 1958: The Indonesian air force demolishes the revolutionaries’ radio stations in Central Sumatra. The Indonesian navy blockades rebel positions along the coast. The CIA’s Indonesian agents and their American advisers retreat into the jungle.
The CIA seems not to know (or care) that some of the most powerful commanders in the Indonesian army have trained in the US and refer to themselves as “the sons of Eisenhower.” The army, led by anticommunists, is at war with the CIA.
March 1, 1958: Khrushchev is named Soviet premier.
March 9, 1958: John Foster Dulles makes a public statement openly calling for a revolt against “Communist depotism” under Sukarno. General Nasution, Sukarno’s army chief, responds by assembling forces off the northern coast of Sumatra.
The new US ambassador to Indonesia, Howard Jones, cables Foster Dulles that General Nasution is a reliable anticommunist and the rebels have no chance of victory. The message is ignored.
General Nasution’s chief of operations , Colonel Ahmed Yani, is one of the “sons of Eisenhower” and a friend of Major George Benson, the American military attache in Jakarta. The colonel is preparing a major military offensive against the rebels and asks Major Benson for maps. The major, unaware of the CIA’s covert operation, gladly supplies them.
CIA flights carry 5 tons of weapons and ammunition and bundles of cash for the rebels on Sumatra. The flights are detected by General Nasution’s patrols moments after they enter Indonesian air space. Nasution’s paratroopers pick up every one of the crates that the CIA’s pilots drop.
On Sulawesi, the CIA’s war also is a disaster.
April 19, 1958: The CIA’s pilots begin bombing and strafing Indonesia’s outer islands in contravention of Eisenhower’s orders. The president wants to keep the operation deniable. He orders that no Americans can be involved “in any operations partaking of a military character in Indonesia.” Dulles disobeys him. The pilots are described in a written CIA briefing for the White House and the president as “dissident planes” — Indonesian planes flown by Indonesians, not American aircraft flown by agency personnel.
April 27, 1958: For the next 3 weeks, CIA pilots hit civilian and military targets in the villages and harbors of northwestern Indonesia. Hundreds of civilians die. Dulles says the bombings “stirred great anger ” among the Indonesian people. It is charged that American pilots had been at the controls. The charges are true, but the Eisenhower and his secretary of state deny them.
End of April, 1958: Sukarno’s soldiers destroy the rebels on Sumatra. The CIA flees Sumatra.
The American Embassy and Admiral Felix Stump, commander of American forces in the Pacific, alert Washington that the CIA’s operation is a failure. Moreover, the failure of secrecy involved violates the agency’s charter and the president’s direct orders.
May 19, 1958: Allen Dulles sends a flash cable to his officers in Indonesia, the Phillipines, Taiwan, and Singapore telling them to stand down, cut off money, shut down the arms pipeline, burn the evidence, and retreat.
May 21, 1958: The agency tells the White House that the Indonesian army is suppressing communism and that Sukarno is speaking and acting in ways that are favorable to the United States. They announce that it is the CIA’s former friends who are threatening American interests.
Sukarno knows that the CIA tried to overthrow his government, his army knew it, and the political establishment of Indonesia knew it. The ultimate effect was to strengthen communism.
June 1958: Frank Wisner returns from Indonesia and his last operation as chief of the clandestine service. He is diagnosed with “psychotic mania.”
The president is wondering if the CIA knows what it is doing. He asks Allen Dulles: “Allen, are you trying to scare me into starting a war?”
June 23, 1958: At a deputies’ meeting, Dulles says he is “at a loss as to what component of the Agency he can turn to when he desires specific information on the USSR.”
December 16, 1958: Eisenhower receives a report from his intelligence board of consultants advising him to overhaul the CIA. Its members fear that the agency is “incapable of making objective appraisals of its own intelligence information as well as of its own operations.” Led by former defense secretary Robert Lovett, they plead with the president to take covert operations out of Allen Dulles’s hands.
Dulles fends off efforts to change the CIA. He promises the president that Wisner’s replacement will fix the missions and organization of the clandestine service.
End of 1958: Abbot Smith, one of the CIA’s best analysts, wrote:
We had constructed for ourselves a picture of the USSR, and whatever happened had to be made to fit into that picture. Intelligence estimators can hardly commit a more abominable sin.
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Photograph: US Embassy