How Two Brothers Tried to Start a Civil War in Indonesia
Season 2, Episode 1
And away we go!
Welcome to the second season of Skipped History! Our first episode investigates how Allen and John Foster Dulles led one of the largest and most foolish covert operations in US history:
New this season, you can also watch the video on Instagram here.
This week’s story comes from The Jakarta Method, by Vincent Bevins, and The Brothers, by Stephen Kinzer. Both are eye-opening books that touch on US activity in numerous countries, and we’ll revisit them as the season progresses.
Next time on Skipped History…
We’ll head back to 1954 when the Dulles Bros led one of the most devastating acts of foreign policy in US history in Guatemala. I was set to tour a humorous multimedia performance on the US coup in Guatemala when the pandemic struck, so I’m pumped to share part of the story with you here.
Paying subscribers will receive some delicious behind-the-scenes content on Indonesia next week. If you’re jealous, you can sign up below! Otherwise, see you in two weeks with the nefariousness in Guatemala.
This week’s transcript
Hello, I’m Ben Tumin and welcome back to Skipped History. The weather may be cold, but this new season will be hot! Today’s story is about the Dulles Brothers and their attempt to start a Civil War in Indonesia. I read about them and Indonesia in The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins and in The Brothers by Stephen Kinzer.
Daylight’s burning, so let’s jump right into 1956 when the US launched one of the largest covert operations in its history. Backed by the State Department and the CIA, and with support from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, the US trained and equipped a rebel army of over 10,000 fighters in Indonesia. The fighters were supported by US submarines, B-26 bombers, and the most dangerous weapon of all: pornography.
Yes, Sukarno, Indonesia’s president, and whom American officials really didn’t like, was a known womanizer, so to make him appear immoral, the CIA hired Bing Crosby (not a joke) to make a fake pornographic film depicting Sukarno sleeping with a blond KGB agent posing as a flight attendant. And because Sukarno was supposedly sensitive about his receding hairline, Bing had the “Hispanic-looking” actor they hired to play Sukarno wear a latex bald mask to try and embarrass him further.
There was one problem, besides the racism: few people in Indonesia actually cared about Sukarno’s personal habits, and the film crashed and burned. But if this sounds like a screwball idea concocted by a couple of bros with way too much power and way too little understanding of the proper place to wear latex in pornography—the hands: come on, practice hygiene—well, maybe that’s because the operation was the brainchild of two brothers: Allen and John Foster Dulles.
It was the height of the Cold War, and the Dulles Brothers held massive influence over world affairs. Allen, the gregarious, oblivious younger brother, served as Director of the CIA from 1953 to 1961. Foster, the prudish, preachy older brother, who was known for habits like stirring his drink with his index finger and stretching to reveal pale patches of skin, was not only the world’s worst dinner guest but also Secretary of State from 1953 until 1959. And as you might expect of two intimately close and devoutly religious brothers, they often only consulted God and each other on decisions of foreign policy before getting sign-off from President Dwight Eisenhower.
And that spelled trouble for a lot of countries, particularly Indonesia.
After years of fighting the Dutch, Indonesians won their independence and elected Sukarno as their first president in 1949. He faced a tough task. Indonesia is an enormously diverse set of thousands of islands spanning an expanse of ocean roughly equal in width to the continental United States, and entering the 1950s was home to hundreds of millions of people with various political leanings. On top of that, Sukarno had to guide the country through the Cold War, negotiating the interests not just of the two major superpowers but four major domestic political parties, and lord knows having two of them is hard enough.
So Sukarno adopted a position of neutrality in the Cold War, neither aligning with the US nor the USSR, but when he tried to explain this position to Foster, he quickly discovered that, one, Americans are “too full of fear. Afraid of B.O. Afraid of bad breath. They’re haunted by the fear that they’ll never get rid of dandruff”—true—and two, that “If you don’t go along with [America] totally, you’re automatically considered to have entered the Soviet bloc.” Also true.
Raised in the Calvinist missionary tradition, Dull and Duller saw the world as an eternal battleground between good and evil: between the capitalist USA and the communist USSR. You were either with them or against them. And after choosing neutrality, Sukarno was firmly in their minds against them. So, in late 1956, in a consequential decision that there’s no record of being made because it likely occurred during one of their many private conversations, Foster and Allen hatched a plan to lead newly independent Indonesia into civil war.
In the operation, called Archipelago, the US sent tons of weaponry to dissident members of the Indonesian army stationed on the country’s outer islands. There, US operatives secretly trained thousands of fighters, providing them with rockets, grenades, landmines, and machine guns. The US also launched bombing raids on the Indonesian military and commercial vessels. One of the only official accounts of Operation Archipelago describes Foster as “the most aggressive and consistent in forwarding” this plan, but publicly he denied any US involvement in the brewing war (classic), and he was backed up by publications like Time Magazine, which increasingly portrayed Sukarno as a dangerous figure, and the New York Times, which on May 9, 1958, wrote the US “is not ready to step in to help overthrow a constituted government. Those are the hard facts.”
Even harder than the facts was the crash landing of a plane nine days later carrying a CIA agent named Allen Pope. When Indonesian interrogators caught Pope after he parachuted into a coconut grove, they found not one, not two, but thirty compromising documents, including a copy of secret orders, a log of bombing raids he’d conducted, and, I’m guessing, a name tag that read, “Hello, I’m in the CIA.” What’s more, it turned out the fighters the CIA armed were largely unenthusiastic high school students, and the proper Indonesian army put them down with ease. Add in Bing’s porn production not going as planned, and the very next day after Allen Pope was caught, the Dulles Brothers pulled the plug on the operation.
Even though they abandoned the bungled plan, does that mean it failed entirely? Unfortunately, no, because if there was one thing the Dulles Brothers lacked, other than common sense, it was regard for long-term consequences.
Tune in next time to learn more about that bit of Skipped History.
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