William Blum

Indonesia, 1957-1958: War and pornography

“I think it’s time we held Sukarno’s feet to the fire,” said Frank Wisner, the CIA’s Deputy Director of Plans (covert operations), one day in autumn 1956. 1 ¬†Wisner was speaking of the man who had led Indonesia since its struggle for independence from the Dutch following the war. A few months earlier, in May, Sukarno had made an impassioned speech before the US Congress asking for more understanding of the problems and needs of developing nations like his own. 2

The ensuing American campaign to unseat the flamboyant leader of the fifth most populous nation in the world was to run the gamut from large-scale military maneuvers to seedy sexual intrigue.

The previous year, Sukarno had organized the Bandung Conference as an answer to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), the US-created political-military alliance of area states to “contain communism”. In the Indonesian city of Bandung, the doctrine of neutralism had been proclaimed as the faith of the underdeveloped world. To the men of the CIA station in Indonesia the conference was heresy, so much so that their thoughts turned toward assassination as a means of sabotaging it.

In 1975, the Senate committee which was investigating the CIA heard testimony that Agency officers stationed in an East Asian country had suggested that an East Asian leader be assassinated “to disrupt an impending Communist [sic] Conference in 1955”. 3 (In all likelihood, the leader referred to was either Sukarno or Chou En-lai of China.) But, said the committee, cooler heads prevailed at CIA headquarters in Washington and the suggestion was firmly rejected.

Nevertheless, a plane carrying eight members of the Chinese delegation, a Vietnamese, and two European journalists to the Bandung Conference crashed under mysterious circumstances. The Chinese government claimed that it was an act of sabotage carried out by the US and Taiwan, a misfired effort to murder Chou En-lai. The chartered Air India plane had taken off from Hong Kong on 11 April 1955 and crashed in the South China Sea. Chou En-lai was scheduled to be on another chartered Air India flight a day or two later. The Chinese government, citing what it said were press reports from the Times of India, stated that the crash was caused by two time bombs apparently placed aboard the plane in Hong Kong. A clockwork mechanism was later recovered from the wrecked airliner and the Hong Kong police called it a case of “carefully planned mass murder”. Months later, British police in Hong Kong announced that they were seeking a Chinese Nationalist for conspiracy to cause the crash, but that he had fled to Taiwan. 4

In 1967 a curious little book appeared in India, entitled I Was a CIA Agent in India, by John Discoe Smith, an American. Published by the Communist Party of India, it was based on articles written by Smith for Literaturnaya Gazeta in Moscow after he had defected to the Soviet Union around 1960. Smith, born in Quincy, Mass. in 1926, wrote that he had been a communications technician and code clerk at the US Embassy in New Delhi in 1955, performing tasks for the CIA as well. One of these tasks was to deliver a package to a Chinese Nationalist which Smith later learned, he claimed, contained the two time bombs used to blow up the Air India plane. The veracity of Smith’s account cannot be determined, although his employment at the US Embassy in New Delhi from 1954 to 1959 is confirmed by the State Department Biographic Register. 5

Elsewhere the Senate committee reported that it had “received some evidence of CIA involvement in plans to assassinate President Sukarno of Indonesia”, and that the planning had proceeded to the point of identifying an agent whom it was believed might be recruited for the job. 6 (The committee noted that at one time, those at the CIA who were concerned with possible assassinations and appropriate methods were known internally as the “Health Alteration Committee”.)

To add to the concern of American leaders, Sukarno had made trips to the Soviet Union and China (though to the White House as well), he had purchased arms from Eastern European countries (but only after being turned down by the United States), 7 he had nationalized many private holdings of the Dutch, and, perhaps most disturbing of all, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had made impressive gains electorally and in union-organizing, thus earning an important role in the coalition government.

It was a familiar Third World scenario, and the reaction of Washington policy-makers was equally familiar. Once again, they were unable, or unwilling, to distinguish nationalism from pro-communism, neutralism from wickedness. By any definition of the word, Sukarno was no communist. He was an Indonesian nationalist and a “Sukarnoist” who had crushed the PKI forces in 1948 after the independence struggle had been won. 8 He ran what was largely his own show by granting concessions to both the PKI and the Army, balancing one against the other. As to excluding the PKI, with its more than one million members, from the government, Sukarno declared: “I can’t and won’t ride a three-legged horse.” 9

To the United States, however, Sukarno’s balancing act was too precarious to be left to the vagaries of the Indonesian political process. It mattered not to Washington that the Communist Party was walking the legal, peaceful road, or that there was no particular “crisis” or “chaos” in Indonesia, so favored as an excuse for intervention. Intervention there would be.

It would not be the first. In 1955, during the national election campaign in Indonesia, the CIA had given a million dollars to the Masjumi party, a centrist coalition of Muslim organizations, in a losing bid to thwart Sukarno’s Nationalist Party as well as the PKI. According to former CIA officer Joseph Burkholder Smith, the project “provided for complete write-off of the funds, that is, no demand for a detailed accounting of how the funds were spent was required. I could find no clue as to what the Masjumi did with the million dollars.” 10

In 1957, the CIA decided that the situation called for more direct action. It was not difficult to find Indonesian colleagues-in-arms for there already existed a clique of army officers and others who, for personal ambitions and because they disliked the influential position of the PKI, wanted Sukarno out, or at least out of their particular islands. (Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago, consisting of some 3,000 islands.)

The military operation the CIA was opting for was of a scale that necessitated significant assistance from the Pentagon, which could be secured for a political action mission only if approved by the National Security Council’s “Special Group” (the small group of top NSC officials who acted in the president’s name, to protect him and the country by evaluating proposed covert actions and making certain that the CIA did not go off the deep end; known at other times as the 5412 Committee, the 303 Committee, the 40 Committee, or the Operations Advisory Group).

The manner in which the Agency went about obtaining this approval is a textbook example of how the CIA sometimes determines American foreign policy. Joseph Burkholder Smith, who was in charge of the Agency’s Indonesian desk in Washington from mid-1956 to early 1958, has described the process in his memoirs: Instead of first proposing the plan to Washington for approval, where “premature mention … might get it shot down” …

we began to feed the State and Defense departments intelligence that no one could deny was a useful contribution to understanding Indonesia. When they had read enough alarming reports, we planned to spring the suggestion we should support the colonels’ plans to reduce Sukarno’s power. This was a method of operation which became the basis of many of the political action adventures of the 1960s and 1970s. In other words, the statement is false that CIA undertook to intervene in the affairs of countries like Chile only after being ordered to do so by … the Special Group. … In many instances, we made the action programs up ourselves after we had collected enough intelligence to make them appear required by the circumstances. Our activity in Indonesia in 1957-1958 was one such instance. 11

When the Communist Party did well again in local elections held in July, the CIA viewed it as “a great help to us in convincing Washington authorities how serious the Indonesian situation was. The only person who did not seem terribly alarmed at the PKI victories was Ambassador Allison. This was all we needed to convince John Foster Dulles finally that he had the wrong man in Indonesia. The wheels began to turn to remove this last stumbling block in the way of our operation.” 12 John Allison, wrote Smith, was not a great admirer of the CIA to begin with. And in early 1958, after less than a year in the post, he was replaced as ambassador by Howard Jones, whose selection “pleased” the CIA Indonesia staff. 13

On 30 November 1957, several hand grenades were tossed at Sukarno as he was leaving a school. He escaped injury, but 10 people were killed and 48 children injured. The CIA in Indonesia had no idea who was responsible, but it quickly put out the story that the PKI was behind it “at the suggestion of their Soviet contacts in order to make it appear that Sukarno’s opponents were wild and desperate men”. As it turned out, the culprits were a Muslim group not associated with the PKI or with the Agency’s military plotters. 14

The issue of Sukarno’s supposed hand-in-glove relationship with Communists was pushed at every opportunity. The CIA decided to make capital of reports that a good-looking blonde stewardess had been aboard Sukarno’s aircraft everywhere he went during his trip in the Soviet Union and that the same woman had come to Indonesia with Soviet President Kliment Voroshilov and had been seen several times in the company of Sukarno. The idea was that Sukarno’s well-known womanizing had trapped him in the spell of a Soviet female agent. He had succumbed to Soviet control, CIA reports implied, as a result of her influence or blackmail, or both.

“This formed the foundation of our flights of fancy,” wrote Smith. “We had as a matter of fact, considerable success with this theme. It appeared in the press around the world, and when Round Table, the serious British quarterly of international affairs, came to analyze the Indonesian revolt in its March 1958 issue, it listed Sukarno’s being blackmailed by a Soviet female spy as one of the reasons that caused the uprising.”

Seemingly, the success of this operation inspired CIA officers in Washington to carry the theme one step further. A substantial effort was made to come up with a pornographic film or at least some still photographs that could pass for Sukarno and his Russian girl friend engaged in “his favorite activity”. When scrutiny of available porno films (supplied by the Chief of Police of Los Angeles) failed to turn up a couple who could pass for Sukarno (dark and bald) and a beautiful blonde Russian woman, the CIA undertook to produce its own films, “the very films with which the Soviets were blackmailing Sukarno”. The Agency developed a full-face mask of the Indonesian leader which was to be sent to Los Angeles where the police were to pay some porno-film actor to wear it during his big scene. This project resulted in at least some photographs, although they apparently were never used. 15

Another outcome of the blackmail effort was a film produced for the CIA by Robert Maheu, former FBI agent and intimate of Howard Hughes. Maheu’s film starred an actor who resembled Sukarno. The ultimate fate of the film, which was entitled “Happy Days”, has not been reported. 16

In other parts of the world, at other times, the CIA has done better in this line of work, having produced sex films of target subjects caught in flagrante delicto who had been lured to Agency safe-houses by female agents.

In 1960, Col. Truman Smith, US Army Ret., writing in Reader’s Digest about the KGB, declared: “It is difficult for most of us to appreciate its menace, as its methods are so debased as to be all but beyond the comprehension of any normal person with a sense of right and wrong.” One of the KGB methods the good colonel found so debased was the making of sex films to be used as blackmail. “People depraved enough to employ such methods,” he wrote, “find nothing distasteful in more violent methods.” 17

Sex could be used at home as well to further the goals of American foreign policy. Under the cover of the US foreign aid program, at that time called the Economic Cooperation Administration, Indonesian policemen were trained and then recruited to provide information on Soviet, Chinese and PKI activities in their country. Some of the men singled out as good prospects for this work were sent to Washington for special training and to be softened up for recruitment. Like Sukarno, reportedly, these police officers invariably had an obsessive desire to sleep with a white woman. Accordingly, during their stay they were taken to Baltimore’s shabby sex district to indulge themselves. 18

The Special Group’s approval of the political action mission was forthcoming in November 1957 19 , and the CIA’s paramilitary machine was put into gear. In this undertaking, as in others, the Agency enjoyed the advantage of the United States’ far-flung military empire. Headquarters for the operation were established in neighboring Singapore, courtesy of the British; training bases set up in the Philippines; airstrips laid out in various parts of the Pacific to prepare for bomber and transport missions; Indonesians, along with Filipinos, Taiwanese, Americans, and other “soldiers of fortune” were assembled in Okinawa and the Philippines along with vast quantities of arms and equipment.

For this, the CIA’s most ambitious military operation to date, tens of thousands of rebels were armed, equipped and trained by the US Army. US Navy submarines, patrolling off the coast of Sumatra, the main island, put over-the-beach parties ashore along with supplies and communications equipment. The US Air Force set up a considerable Air Transport force which air-dropped many thousands of weapons deep into Indonesian territory. And a fleet of 15 B-26 bombers was made available for the conflict after being “sanitized” to ensure that they were “non-attributable” and that all airborne equipment was “deniable”.

In the early months of 1958, rebellion began to break out in one part of the Indonesian island chain, then another. CIA pilots took to the air to carry out bombing and strafing missions in support of the rebels. In Washington, Col. Alex Kawilarung, the Indonesian military attach√©, was persuaded by the Agency to “defect”. He soon showed up in Indonesia to take charge of the rebel forces. Yet, as the fighting dragged on into spring, the insurgents proved unable to win decisive victories or take the offensive, although the CIA bombing raids were taking their toll. Sukarno later claimed that on a Sunday morning in April, a plane bombed a ship in the harbor of the island of Ambon – all those aboard losing their lives – as well as hitting a church, which demolished the building and killed everyone inside. He stated that 700 casualties had resulted from this single run.

On 15 May, a CIA plane bombed the Ambon marketplace, killing a large number of civilians on their way to church on Ascension Thursday. The Indonesian government had to act to suppress public demonstrations.

Three days later, during another bombing run over Ambon, a CIA pilot, Allen Lawrence Pope, was shot down and captured. Thirty years old, from Perrine, Florida, Pope had flown 55 night missions over Communist lines in Korea for the Air Force. Later he spent two months flying through Communist flak for the CIA to drop supplies to the French at Dien Bien Phu. Now his luck had run out. He was to spend four years as a prisoner in Indonesia before Sukarno acceded to a request from Robert Kennedy for his release.

Pope was captured carrying a set of incriminating documents, including those which established him as a pilot for the US Air Force and the CIA airline CAT. Like all men flying clandestine missions, Pope had gone through an elaborate procedure before taking off to “sanitize” him, as well as his aircraft. But he had apparently smuggled the papers aboard the plane, for he knew that to be captured as an “anonymous, stateless civilian” meant having virtually no legal rights and running the risk of being shot as a spy in accordance with custom. A captured US military man, however, becomes a commodity of value for his captors while he remains alive.

The lndonesian government derived immediate material concessions from the United States as a result of the incident. Whether the Indonesians thereby agreed to keep silent about Pope is not known, but on 27 May the pilot and his documents were presented to the world at a news conference, thus contradicting several recent statements by high American officials. 20 Notable amongst these was President Eisenhower’s declaration on 30 April concerning Indonesia: “Our policy is one of careful neutrality and proper deportment all the way through so as not to be taking sides where it is none of our business.” 21

And on 9 May, an editorial in the New York Times had stated:

It is unfortunate that high officials of the Indonesian Government have given further circulation to the false report that the United States Government was sanctioning aid to Indonesia’s rebels. The position of the United States Government has been made plain, again and again. Our Secretary of State was emphatic in his declaration that this country would not deviate from a correct neutrality … the United States is not ready … to step in to help overthrow a constituted government. Those are the hard facts. Jakarta does not help its case, here, by ignoring them.

With the exposure of Pope and the lack of rebel success in the field, the CIA decided that the light was no longer worth the candle, and began to curtail its support. By the end of June, Indonesian army troops loyal to Sukarno had effectively crushed the dissident military revolt.

The Indonesian leader continued his adroit balancing act between the Communists and the army until 1965, when the latter, likely with the help of the CIA, finally overthrew his regime.


  1. Joseph Burkholder Smith, Portrait of a Cold Warrior (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1976) p. 205.
  2. New York Times, 18 May 1956.
  3. Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Foreign and Military Intelligence, Book 4, Final Report of The Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (U.S. Senate), April 1976, p. 133.
  4. New York Times, 12, 30 April 1955; 3, 4 August 1955; 3 September 1955; 22 November 1967, p. 23.
  5. John Discoe Smith, I Was a CIA Agent in India (India, 1967) passim; New York Times, 25 October 1967, p. 17; 22 November, p. 23; 5 December, p. 12; Harry Rositzke, The KGB: The Eyes of Russia (New York, 1981), p. 164.
  6. lnterim Report: Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders, The Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (U.S. Senate), 20 November 1975, p. 4, note.
  7. David Wise and Thomas Ross, The Invisible Government (New York, 1965, paperback edition) pp. 149-50.
  8. Julie Southwood and Patrick Flanagan, Indonesia: Law, Propaganda and Terror (London, 1983) pp. 26-7.
  9. Wise and Ross, p. 148.
  10. J.B. Smith, pp. 210-11.
  11. Ibid., pp. 228-9.
  12. Ibid., p. 240.
  13. Ibid., pp. 229, 246.
  14. Ibid., p. 243.
  15. Sex-blackmail operations: ibid., pp. 238-40, 248. Smith errs somewhat in his comment about Round Table. The article’s only (apparent) reference to the Soviet woman is in the comment on p. 133: “Other and more scandalous reasons have been put forward for the President’s leaning towards the Communist Party.”
  16. New York Times, 26 January 1976.
  17. Truman Smith, “The Infamous Record of Soviet Espionage”, Reader’s Digest, August 1960.
  18. J.B. Smith, pp. 220-1.
  19. Referred to in a memorandum from Allen Dulles to the White House, 7 April 1961; the memo briefly summarizes the main points of the US intervention: Declassified Documents Reference System (Arlington, Va.) released 18 December 1974.
  20. The military operation and the Pope affair: a) Wise and Ross, pp. 145-56; b) Christopher Robbins, Air America (US, 1979), pp. 88-94; c) Col. L. Fletcher Prouty, US Air Force, Ret., The Secret Team: The CIA and its Allies in Control of the World (New York, 1974) pp. 155, 308, 363-6; d) New York Times, 23 March 1958, p. 2; 19 April; 28 May, p. 9; e) Sukarno, An Autobiography, as told to Cindy Adams (Hong Kong, 1966) pp. 267-71; first printed in the US in 1965; although a poor piece of writing, the book is worth reading for Sukarno’s views on why it is foolish to call him a Communist; how he, as a Third-Worlder who didn’t toe the line, was repeatedly snubbed and humiliated by the Eisenhower administration, apart from the intervention; and how American sex magazines contrived to make him look ridiculous. f) J. B. Smith, pp. 246-7. There appears to be some confusion about the bombing of the church. Smith states that it was Pope who did it on 18 May before being shot down. Either he or other chroniclers have mixed up the events of April and May.
  21. Wise and Ross, p. 145.

Books by William Blum

America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy

America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy

The Truth About US Foreign Policy and Everything Else

Rogue State

Rogue State

A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower

Killing Hope

Killing Hope

U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II

Freeing the World to Death

Freeing the World to Death

Essays on the American Empire

West-Bloc Dissident

West-Bloc Dissident

A Cold War Memoir