With the Japanese surrender in 1945, a budding Indonesian nationalist movement declared the country’s independence. The Dutch had other ideas, and attempted to reclaim their former territory. Four bloody years of war ensued. Eventually the Dutch bowed to mounting international pressure (the U.S. government, already concerned with the spread of communism under the banner of anticolonialism, threatened the Netherlands with a cutoff of Marshall Plan funds) and recognized Indonesia’s sovereignty. The principal leader of the independence movement, a charismatic, flamboyant figure named Sukarno, became Indonesia’s first president.
Sukarno proved to be a major disappointment to Washington. Along with Nehru of India and Nasser of Egypt, he helped found the nonaligned movement, an effort by nations newly liberated from colonial rule to navigate an independent path between the West and the Soviet bloc. Indonesia’s Communist Party, although never formally in power, grew in size and influence. Sukarno himself ramped up the anti-Western rhetoric, nationalizing key industries, rejecting U.S. aid, and strengthening ties with the Soviets and China. With U.S. forces knee-deep in Vietnam and the domino theory still a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy, the CIA began providing covert support to various insurgencies inside Indonesia, and cultivated close links with Indonesia’s military officers, many of whom had been trained in the United States. In 1965, under the leadership of General Suharto, the military moved against Sukarno, and under emergency powers began a massive purge of communists and their sympathizers.
According to estimates, between 500,000 and one million people were slaughtered during the purge, with 750,000 others imprisoned or forced into exile.