“History Could Be Swallowed Up So Completely”

In his memoir Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama describes the three years he lived in Indonesia during the late sixties after his mother married his stepfather Lolo. This was immediately after the Indonesian military staged a quasi-coup and carried out one of the biggest bloodbaths of the 20th century.

No one knows precisely how the US was involved in the coup itself and the subsequent massacres. However, several things are clear. The US despised Sukarno, the president whom the coup pushed out, because he kept Indonesia in the Non-Aligned Movement and was one of the NAM’s main leaders. Likewise, the US loved Suharto—the Indonesian general who seized power from Sukarno and subsequently ruled the country for 30 years—because he did exactly what we told him to. And there’s testimony and documentation that the US provided lists of people for the military to kill, as well as various kinds of assistance while they were doing the killing. As James Reston of the New York Times wrote (approvingly) in 1966:

Washington is being careful not to claim any credit for this change…but this does not mean that Washington had nothing to do with it. There was a great deal more contact between the anti-Communist forces in that country and at least one very high official in Washington before and during the Indonesian massacre than is generally realized. General Suharto’s forces, at times severely short of food and munitions, have been getting aid from here through various third countries, and it is doubtful if the [Suharto] coup would ever have been attempted without the American show of strength in Vietnam or been sustained without the clandestine aid it has received indirectly from here.

Beyond that, it’s still murky forty years later. And even this basic history is essentially unknown in America, since it reflects on us so badly. (For instance, see this story about a New York Times reporter; interestingly, he started his career as an assistant to James Reston.)

So all in all, this is the kind of thing would-be presidents of the United States don’t talk about. Thus, it’s truly surprising that in his book Obama both (1) provides the history honestly, and (2) discusses how societies forget this kind of thing on purpose, and describes how this is a basic, terrifying aspect of power. According to Obama, “history could be swallowed up so completely, the same way the rich and loamy earth could soak up the rivers of blood.”

Was Obama right about this? Well, according to Google, there is literally just one specific reference anywhere online to his writing about the coup.

In any case, I’ve now stuck the most relevant parts from Obama’s chapter on Indonesia over on my site. And if you want to hear Obama actually say “Even the smart guys at the Agency had lost count,” I’ve also posted an mp3 of the highlights.