Surely one of the more misleading terms when discussing late 20th Century history is that of the “Cold War”. It’s used to describe the four decades of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union that didn’t quite boil over into all-out war. The problem is that the term – unwittingly or not – masks the fact that for millions around the world there was war, and it was extremely hot. From the point of view of people caught up in the various crossfires in Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, and Central America and beyond, the conflicts were not nearly cold enough. Exactly fifty years ago Indonesia, one of the world’s most populous yet least-understood nations experienced a change of leadership, after a brutal military coup – which was very much a symptom of this inter-superpower tension – which cost no fewer than half a million lives. Precisely twenty years before that, an American president delivered a momentous speech that arguably started the process, making the proxy wars between the allies of America and Russia – both between and within various countries – more, rather than less, likely.
As writers such as Andrew Alexander have shown, the fierce tension between the US and USSR was not inevitable in the aftermath of the Second World War. Although he was just as ruthless a totalitarian tyrant as Hitler (arguably more so), Stalin’s foreign policy was more pragmatic than ideological: it was not, after all, in his or his country’s interests to get involved in a war with his wartime allies in the West, since the Soviet Union was hardly in a fit position after four shattering years of conflict with the Axis powers. Franklin D Roosevelt and his main cabinet ally Harry Hopkins certainly hoped to maintain positive and constructive relations with the Soviets after the war was over. But FDR died in April 1945, on very cusp of victory, while Hopkins succumbed to cancer the following year. Roosevelt’s successor, vice-president Harry Truman, took a more ideological approach to foreign policy, and despite his lack of experience in foreign affairs considered the carve-up at Yalta in January 1945 a betrayal of everything he considered America to stand for. Long before he delivered his eponymous Doctrine to Congress, Truman spelled out starkly how strongly he felt in his October 1945 Navy Day speech. Whereas Woodrow Wilson had prescribed 14 Points for Peace in January 1918, Truman explained what he took to be the 12 fundamentals of US foreign policy, of which Point 6 was particularly revealing:
We shall refuse to recognise any government imposed upon any nation by the force of any foreign power. In some cases it may be impossible to prevent forceful imposition of such a government. But the United States will not recognise any such government.
Truman was thus making none-too-subtle references not only to the post-Yalta takeover of Eastern European governments by Communist Parties allied to Moscow. His Navy Day speech was, however, just a warm-up for what became known as the Truman Doctrine, delivered in a speech to Congress on 12 March 1947, in which he compared the “alternative ways of life” that differed between Western and other nations:
One way of life is based on the will of the majority and is distinguished by free institutions, representative governments, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and freedom of political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of the minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression of a controlled press and radio; fixed elections and the suppression of personal freedom.
I believe it must the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure.
In other words, the American president was saying that if there was a civil war somewhere in which one side was Communist (or thought to be Communist) then the US would get involved and back the other side, almost reflexively – regardless of the rights and wrongs or ins and outs of each individual nation concerned. In this way the “Cold War” would henceforth proceed to get very hot indeed for countless people around the world – though not (significantly) for politicians and policy planners in either Washington or Moscow.
As tends to be case with self-righteous-sounding politicians, Truman’s position can hardly be called principled: his Doctrine made much mention of the Greek Civil War, in which the Communist KKE (who were in fact genuinely popular in Greece at the time) were fighting against an oppressive conservative monarchical government. As Alexander puts it:
The Athens government had asked for aid and the USA would provide it, in the form of economic, political and military assistance. The disappearance of Greece as an independent state, the President went on, would have a profound effect upon those countries in Europe: ‘…who are struggling against great difficulties to maintain their freedom and their independence while they repair the damages of war.’
The President acknowledged that the Greek government was “not perfect”. It had made “mistakes”. The aid programme did not mean that the USA condoned everything that had been done there. This was something of an understatement. The “mistakes” had included mass arrests and widespread brutality which shocked British and American newspaper correspondents.
No matter, as far as the planners in Washington were concerned. The double-standards over America’s treatment of Communist atrocities and anti-Communist atrocities had actually been glibly explained by FDR himself shortly before the US entered the Second World War: when asked to explain his government’s support for Nicaragua’s brutal dictator Anastasio Somoza, Roosevelt merely replied that Somoza ‘may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.’ The determination to back America’s own “sons of bitches”, while casually disregarding the principles in which her politicians supposedly believed, surely indicates that America’s “Cold War” policy was really nothing to do with “supporting free people” at all, and actually to do with the usual foreign-policy motives of maximising economic power. Exactly twenty years after Truman delivered his Doctrine, the people of Indonesia would starkly see for themselves a hugely costly result of this policy, as, on 12 March 1967, General Mohamed Suharto was officially installed as the country’s new president, after a two-year-long savage civil war.
While most of the world’s media were fixated on the war in Vietnam, the Indonesian army was running amok, and waging war on its own people. As part of a violent coup against the popular nationalist government of Ahmed Sukarno, the troops, led by General Mohamed Suharto, massacred no fewer than 500,000 Indonesians – though some have estimated the death toll to have been as high as 1 million or 2 million. It was a takeover in which Suharto and his forces enjoyed considerable support from the US government: so paranoid were the Americans about Indonesia “going Communist”, in the wake of Sukarno’s open desire for his country to be non-aligned (ie, genuinely independent of both Washington and Moscow), that State Department operatives in Indonesia supplied the coup leaders with the names of members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). As Robert J Martens, a political officer in Jakarta’s American embassy, bluntly put it:
It was a big help to the [Indonesian] army. They probably killed a lot of people and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad. There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.
What’s more, for all the rhetoric about preventing Communist terror, one of the motivating factors behind the whole Washington operation was economic, as the BBC’s then South East Asia correspondent Roland Challis remembers:
My British sources purported not to know what was going on, but they knew what the American plan was. There were bodies being washed up on the lawns of the British consulate in Surabaya, and British warships escorted a ship full of Indonesian troops down the Malacca Straits so that they could take part in this terrible holocaust. It was only much later that we learned the American embassy was supplying names and ticking them off as they were killed.
There was a deal, you see. In establishing the Suharto regime, the involvement of the IMF and the World Bank was part of it. Sukarno had kicked them out; now Suharto would bring them back. That was the deal.
And whether they are genuinely popular with their people or not, Communist governments have, after all, historically resisted the takeover of their countries’ economies by foreign firms, keen as they are for money made in their countries to be spent in their countries.
Gen Suharto’s brutality would continue for more than thirty years, until sustained popular protests against his government, coming in the wake of economic meltdown, finally forced him from power in May 1998. This was not, however, before he and his family had enriched themselves at their country’s expense, as at least $15 billion from Indonesia’s coffers somehow found its way into his bank account. His downfall was, moreover, too late for the hundreds of thousands tortured and murdered on his watch, including no fewer than a quarter of a million in East Timor, invaded by his army in 1975.
Words have power, and speeches resonate a long way, particularly if they are made by influential world leaders. It is certainly curious how many of the costliest foreign-policy decisions in history have emanated from politicians with little (if any) foreign-policy experience, from Truman to Bush jnr and Blair and beyond. Harry Truman’s Doctrine would set the tone for US foreign policy for a long time to come, and millions across the world would suffer because of it – more often than not simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.