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Book Review: Feet to the Fire: Covert Operations in Indonesia, 1957-1958 (by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison) : MHQ

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Feet to the Fire: Covert Operations in Indonesia, 1957-1958, by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, Naval Institute Press, $28.95.

The CIA's 1958 covert support for Indonesian army rebels against the government in Jakarta is one of those failures that, like the Bay of Pigs, ended so ignominiously it immediately became famous. The most familiar part of the tale involves the capture and subsequent public trial of a CIA pilot shot down during a mission to bomb government airfields. The pilot, Alan Pope, captured with his flight logs, was subsequently sentenced to death by an Indonesian military court. But he was lucky. The sagacious Indonesian president, Achmed Sukarno, allowed him to sit on death row, as he was useful as a propaganda symbol and eventually as leverage with a new U.S. administration anxious to court Jakarta as an ally. Sukarno played the situation to the hilt, and it took the personal intervention of U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy to obtain Pope's release.

Conboy and Morrison have written a highly useful book about the two Indonesian military rebellions based on interviews with the men on both sides and on formerly classified documents, some (in Indonesia) apparently available for the first time. The result is a gripping, sophisticated view of the operation and the miscalculations that wrecked it. An example is the planning for the bombing campaign, targeting military sites Jakarta would need to defeat the rebels. At first the flights were crewed by foreign nationals to ensure "deniability." But hard luck hit. Overloaded, one of the aging planes crashed and the foreign pilots then quit. In a fatal error, American crews were then substituted. Pope's shootdown exposed the operation.

In backing the rebels, the Eisenhower administration promoted the dissolution of Indonesia. For Indonesians, this was an egregious attack on national identity–more threatening than mere airstrikes. The centerpiece of Sukarno's presidency was an effort to form a nation out of ethnically and ideologically disparate groups. He had a genius for theatrical gestures and knew how to use cultural frames of reference to advertise the idea of nationhood–a complex balancing act. In this respect, he was a man for the times. But Eisenhower (and later John F. Kennedy) acknowledged only one element of the mix: his tolerance of the PKI, the Indonesian Communist party. They targeted Sukarno's Indonesia for covert operations because of this. For Eisenhower, the out-island rebels were merely useful as a weapon.

One wonders if the simmering ire generated by Eisenhower's failure partially explains the jubilation in Washington in 1965 when the Indonesian army–in a reversal of policy and by then a U.S. ally–destroyed the Communists in a national bloodbath. In this, too, the CIA had a hand.

Kathy Kadane




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