Blogs > HNN > Jeremy Kuzmarov: Review of Bradley R. Simpson's Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S. Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968 (Stanford University Press, 2008)

Sep 8, 2008 12:57 am

Jeremy Kuzmarov: Review of Bradley R. Simpson's Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S. Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968 (Stanford University Press, 2008)

[Jeremy Kuzmarov is Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Bucknell University.]

Unbeknownst to most Americans, in 1965, following a coup by General Suharto, the Indonesian military massacred upwards of 800,000 people and imprisoned an estimated million more in an attempt to liquidate the communist PKI party. The United States government gave both moral encouragement and logistical support to the mass killings, including the provision of weaponry and “lists” of suspected PKI members to be targeted for assassination. Mainstream newspapers like the New York Times wrote laudatory pieces in praise of the genocidal Suharto government, referring to it as a “gleaming light in Asia” because of its fervent anti-communism and openness towards foreign investment and free-trade. C.L Sulzberger added, in the crude racism of the day, that “the killing had attained a volume impressive even in violent Asia, where life is cheap.”

Bradley R. Simpson’s outstanding new book, Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S. Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968, provides chilling new evidence of American complicity with what the CIA itself referred to as “the worst mass killings” since the era of Hitler and Stalin. He comments that the U.S. “viewed the wholesale annihilation of the PKI and its civilian backers as an indispensable prerequisite to Indonesia’s reintegration into the global political economy and the ascendance of a military modernizing regime.”

Building on George and Audrey Kahin’s invaluable study, Subversion as Foreign Policy: The Secret Eisenhower-Dulles Debacle in Indonesia, Simpson details how U.S. support for the 1965 coup and genocide was part of a much longer destabilization campaign directed against Achmed Sukarno; Indonesia’s first post-independence president whom Washington opposed because of his socialist leanings and leadership of the non-aligned movement of Third World states. Simpson also explores in considerable depth the ideology of American foreign policy-elites and the symbiotic relationship they developed with U.S. trained Indonesian economists who served as key advisers to the Suharto government promoting a mix of privatization, authoritarian development and free-market capitalism. These policies served as a precursor to the structural adjustment paradigm promoted by the World Bank during the 1980s and 1990s, and yielded similarly deleterious effects for the working-class and poor. Significantly, they could only be imposed by fiat, rather than popular consent.

Challenging the romanticized views of the Kennedy administration pervading popular culture and the Obama presidential campaign, one of Simpson’s major contributions is to show the continuity from Eisenhower on in seeking to illegally subvert Indonesian politics and undermine Sukarno. Through the CIA, the Eisenhower administration had funneled arms to dissident generals mounting a series of regional rebellions. Its cover was blown when an Air America pilot, Allen Pope, was captured after shelling an Indonesian village. During the Kennedy era, the special group on counter-insurgency (CI), headed by Robert Kennedy, was particularly influential in trying to build up the paramilitary capabilities of the Indonesian police, who were pro-western in their orientation and seen as a potential counterweight to the power of the military. The CIA further pressed for covert actions – laying the groundwork for the 1965 military coup, which the Johnson administration supported. These policies resulted in part from a growing infatuation with the notion of military modernization developed by prominent intellectuals of the period and RAND Corporation analysts. They believed that through the imposition of order and stability, the military could be the most effective instrument in serving U.S. Cold War interests and promoting economic development and growth. This idea lay behind the U.S. alliance with Suharto, and also shaped its involvement in an assortment of right-wing coups in Latin America and elsewhere during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Going beyond previous scholarship on modernization and the Kennedy administration, which focuses solely on ideology, Simpson advances a political economy analysis, showing how intellectual ideas of modernization were coterminous with the promotion of Western economic interests. Indonesia was particularly valued by policy-elites as a result of its mineral and oil wealth and provided a bonanza to oil corporations like Caltex following the 1965 coup. This was true of many other firms, including General Motors and Morris and Knudsen (precursor to Halliburton) which had been threatened by Sukarno’s movement towards nationalization and thus feared the strength of the PKI. General Suharto was ultimately far more amenable to U.S. interests from an ideological and economic vantage point, resulting in his being embraced in spite of his atrocious human rights record. The long shadow of McCarthyism, furthermore, made his anti-communist pogroms highly appealing to many in the State and Defense Departments who expressed no outspoken criticism of, or dissent against the rising toll of bloodshed. As a State Department staffer once commented, “No one cared as long as they were communists that were being butchered.”

Simpson’s last chapter focuses on the title of his book – the economists who worked as a technocratic elite under Suharto in ushering in the new order. He traces how they were influenced by their training at Berkeley and other Ivy League institutions in free-market capitalist ideals and aimed to promote westernization and modernization through the opening of the country to foreign investors. As Simpson makes clear, their influence on policy stemmed not from any popular consent but rather the violence and repression of grassroots dissent upon which Suharto’s power was based. In an arrogant manner they believed that their specialized technical knowledge of economic theory made them supremely qualified to dictate public policy. Ultimately, however, while Indonesia did experience striking growth levels in its GDP under Suharto, a large majority of the population remained mired in poverty and destitution, lacking in basic social services. Their political freedoms, meanwhile, had long since eroded.

On the whole, as one can see through Simpson’s book, Indonesia provides an important case study for U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War. It demonstrates how ideological and economic objectives came to trump human rights, and how Washington was able to use foreign aid and training programs to effectively promote its interests through native clients who were swayed by Western ideals and had their own power interests at stake. Moreover, it reveals the cold-hearted calculations of American policy-makers who were willing to support murderous violence and genocide in order to advance its objectives.

Simpson’s book is highly significant in one other respect: it shows the perils of authoritarian models of economic development and the fallaciousness of the military modernization theories promoted by Kennedy-era intellectuals, which continue to hold some credence among foreign policy elites today. The catastrophes that befell Indonesia in the late 20th century should serve as a warning as to what can happen again if people continue to think that the end justifies the means.

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