Kissinger gave ‘green light’ for the invasion of East Timor
By Dr George Venturini
Heinz Alfred ‘Henry’ Kissinger obtained a Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1954. His interest was on Castelreagh and Metternich – two empire builders. He devoted his life to sublimate them.
In an incendiary, studiedly defamatory book the late Christopher Hitchens described him as “a mediocre and opportunist academic [intent on] becoming an international potentate. The signature qualities were there from the inaugural moment: the sycophancy and the duplicity; the power worship and the absence of scruple; the empty trading of old non-friends for new non-friends. And the distinctive effects were also present: the uncounted and expendable corpses; the official and unofficial lying about the cost; the heavy and pompous pseudo-indignation when unwelcome questions were asked. Kissinger’s global career started as it meant to go on. It debauched the American republic and American democracy, and it levied a hideous toll of casualties on weaker and more vulnerable societies.”
The story is all here: from the martyrdom of Indochina to becoming the real backchannel to Moscow on behalf of his new client: Donald Trump.
Editor’s note: This outstanding series by Dr Venturini is published bi-weekly (Wednesdays and Saturdays). Today we publish Part Eleven. Here is the link to Part Ten; Henry Kissinger: the man behind the rise of a dictatorship.
East Timor – Timor-Leste
A visit to the George Washington University’s National Security Archive would yield Electronic Briefing Book No. 62, dated 6 December 2001 and edited by William Burr and Michael L. Evans. (East Timor Revisited: Ford, Kissinger and the Indonesian invasion, 1975-76).
The work provides new evidence that President Ford and Kissinger gave ‘green light’ to Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor – as it as then known, now Timor-Leste – in 1975. New documents detail conversations with President Suharto.
The Indonesian invasion of East Timor in December 1975 set the stage for the long, bloody, and disastrous occupation of the territory which ended only after an international peacekeeping force was introduced in 1999. President Bill Clinton cut off military aid to Indonesia in September 1999 – reversing a longstanding policy of military cooperation – but questions persist about United States responsibility for the 1975 invasion and, in particular, the degree to which the American Administration actually condoned or supported the bloody military offensive.
Two newly declassified documents from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, released to the National Security Archive, shed light on the Ford administration’s relationship with President Suharto during 1975. Of special importance is the record of Ford’s and Kissinger’s meeting with Suharto in early December 1975. The document shows that Suharto began the invasion knowing that he had the full approval of the United States. Both of these documents had been previously released in heavily redacted form, but with Suharto out of power, and following the collapse of Indonesian control over East Timor, the situation had changed enough that both documents could be released in their entirety.
Other documents found among State Department records at the National Archives elucidate the inner workings of American policy towards the Indonesian crisis during 1975 and 1976. Besides confirming that Kissinger and top advisers expected an eventual Indonesian takeover of East Timor, archival material shows that the Secretary of State fully understood that the invasion of East Timor involved the ‘illegal’ use of U.S.-supplied military equipment because it was not used in self-defence as required by law.
Indonesia was a major site of American energy and raw materials investment, an important petroleum exporter, strategically located near vital shipping lanes, and a significant recipient of U.S. military assistance, the country – much less the East Timor question. Yet it barely figures in Kissinger’s memoirs of the Nixon and Ford administrations. President Ford’s memoir briefly discusses the December 1975 visit to Jakarta but does not mention the discussion of East Timor with Suharto. Indeed, as important as the bilateral relationship was, Jakarta’s brutal suppression of the independence movement in East Timor was a development that neither Ford nor Kissinger wanted people to remember about their time in power. That the two decided on a course of action of dubious legality and that resulted in the slaughter of thousands of Timorese may well have also discouraged further reflection, at least in public. No doubt the omissions from Ford’s and Kissinger’s memoirs also reflect the low priority which East Timor had during the Ford Administration. For senior officials, the fate of a post-colonial East Timor paled in comparison to the strategic relationship with the anti-communist Suharto regime, especially in the wake of the American defeat in Vietnam, when Ford and Kissinger wanted to strengthen relations with anti-communists and check left-wing movements in the region. (Benedict R. Andersen, ‘East Timor and Indonesia: Some Implications’, in Peter Carey and G. Carter Bentley, eds., East Timor at the Crossroads: The Forging of a Nation (University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu 1995), 138-40) But it is not simply a matter of omission; on several occasions Kissinger has explicitly denied that he ever had substantive discussions of East Timor with Suharto, much less having consented to Indonesian plans. At a 1995 press conference Kissinger told former East Timorese resistance leader Constancio Pinto: “Timor was never discussed with us when we were in Indonesia” and then qualified this remark by stating that he learned about the invasion plans at the airport as the presidential party was about to leave. (See “Ask Kissinger about East Timor: Confronting Henry Kissinger,” East Timor Action Network, August 1995. During a radio interview in 1999, Kissinger continued to treat the discussion with Suharto on East Timor as incidental and nonsubstantive: “We were told at the airport as we left Jakarta that either that day or the next day they intended to take East Timor.”
The new evidence contradicts Kissinger’s statements: Indonesian plans for the invasion of East Timor were indeed discussed with Suharto, and Ford and Kissinger gave them the green light. As Kissinger advised Suharto on the eve of the invasion: “it is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly” but that “it would be better if it were done after we returned” to the United States.
New documents shed important light on U.S. policy towards the East Timor question in 1975, but much more is yet to be known about U.S. policymaking during 1975 and 1976. Unfortunately, most of the relevant sources are classified. The large collection of Kissinger-Scowcroft office files at the Ford Library remains unavailable, as are the records of the State Department’s Indonesia desk and the Bureau of East Asian Affairs for the 1970s. (Brent Scowcroft was National Security Advisor to Presidents Ford and Bush Senior between 3 November 1975 and 20 January 1977. He was preceded by Kissinger and followed by Brzezinski).
The military revolt which overthrew Portugal’s authoritarian regime in April 1974 encouraged nationalist movements in the Portuguese colony of East Timor calling for gradual independence from Lisbon – a position also initially favoured by the new Portuguese government.
Two groups supported different degrees of independence: the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) was a moderate – bourgeois one would say – force, while the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) was for a social democratic programme. In January 1975 the two groups formed an uneasy coalition. Increasingly, Fretilin enjoyed the greatest public support and led the push for rapid independence.
Early signals from the Indonesian government indicated that it also was prepared to support East Timorese independence, but the Indonesians soon became interested in turning the region into the country’s twenty-seventh province. Fears that an independent East Timor could be used as a base by unfriendly governments or spur other secessionist movements in Indonesia had convinced hardliners in the military to press for annexation of the territory. In February 1975 the Indonesian military conducted a mock invasion of East Timor in South Sumatra. Military hardliners also supported the pro-integration Timorese Popular Democratic Association (Apodeti) with financial assistance and launched a propaganda campaign against the pro-independence groups. Apodeti, however, never had the popular support enjoyed by Fretilin or the Timorese Democratic Union.
The new Portuguese government was preoccupied with its own internal political controversies and could do little to ensure a steady transition towards independence. During 1974 and 1975 Indonesian authorities hoped that the Portuguese would acquiesce in Jakarta’s plans to acquire East Timor. At first the Portuguese seemed responsive, but by mid-1975 it had become evident that Lisbon supported self-determination for the people of East Timor. In July 1975 Lisbon rebuffed Jakarta with the issuance of Constitutional Law 7/75, setting forth a timetable for home-rule, including the election of a popular assembly which would determine East Timor’s future, with Portuguese sovereignty ending no later than October 1978.
Events in East Timor, however, did not proceed in accordance with Lisbon’s schedule. The delicate UDT–Fretilin alliance had fallen apart in May 1975, in part due to a propaganda campaign launched by the Indonesian government to inflame the Timorese Democratic Union concerns about Fretilin’s alleged communist tendencies. (Hamish McDonald, Suharto’s Indonesia (Fontana,Blackburn, Australia 1980) at 202-204).
UDT’s fears were bolstered in June when Fretilin refused to attend an all-party conference on decolonisation hosted by Portuguese officials on Macao due to the presence of Apodeti representatives. To Fretilin the issue of independence was not up for discussion, least of all with the Indonesians. The extent of Fretilin’s popularity – and thus popular sentiment for independence from Indonesia – became evident in July 1975 when the party won 55 per cent of the vote in local elections. Convinced by Indonesian intelligence that Fretilin was planning a coup, the Timorese Democratic Union staged its own in August 1975 in the capital Dili in an effort to drive out Fretilin supporters. A Fretilin counterattack pushed the Timorese Democratic Union forces out of the city, however, and by September Fretilin controlled nearly all of East Timor. the Portuguese administrators having fled to the island of Ataúro.
Despite having gained de facto control of the territory, Fretilin ended its call for immediate independence and now supported a plan similar to the gradual independence programme proposed in June by the Portuguese.
The Indonesian government did not seize the opportunity to move troops into Dili on the premise of restoring order. President Suharto was still concerned about the reaction from ‘the West’ and needed more time to get the Timorese Democratic Union and other anti-Fretilin groups to support integration. While the Timorese Democratic Union had taken refuge on the Indonesian side of Timor and, in need of food and shelter, had no choice but to sign a pro-integration petition drawn up by Indonesia, in October 1975 Indonesian special forces began to infiltrate secretly into East Timor in an effort to provoke clashes which would provide the pretext for a full-scale invasion. When these incursions – including the murder by Indonesian forces of five journalists employed by Australian television networks – failed to elicit any noticeable reaction from ‘the West’, Indonesia stepped-up its attacks across the border.
Indonesian airborne troops – outfitted with American equipment – prepared to take Dili. Meanwhile Fretilin petitioned the United Nations to call for the withdrawal of the invading forces. Four days later, on 28 November, Fretilin declared East Timor’s independence – apparently in the belief that a sovereign state would have greater success appealing to the United Nations, but also thinking that Timorese soldiers would be more likely to fight for an independent state. Indonesia countered the next day with a ‘declaration of integration’ signed by Apodeti and Timorese Democratic Union representatives and coordinated by Indonesia’s military intelligence service. (H. McDonald, Suharto’s Indonesia, 207, 210).
The invasion, originally scheduled for early December, was apparently delayed by the visit of Ford and Kissinger to Jakarta on 6 December.
Operation Komodo which had begun in October 1974 was named after the giant, slow-moving lizard found in the Indonesian archipelago, and was designed to ensure East Timor’s annexation through a covert process of slow but methodical destabilisation, turned into Operation Flamboyan (armed, covert action) and, finally, into Operation Seroja (the full, overt invasion of East Timor).
Seroja commenced on 7 December 1975, the day after Ford and Kissinger’s visit.
In the following weeks a series of United Nations resolutions – supported by the United States – called for the withdrawal of the Indonesian troops. An estimated 20,000 Indonesian troops were deployed to the region by the end of the month. While casualty estimates vary, anywhere from 60,000-100,000 Timorese were probably killed in the first year after the violence began in 1975. In 1979 the U.S. Agency for International Development estimated that 300,000 East Timorese – nearly half the population – had been uprooted and moved into camps controlled by Indonesian armed forces. By 1980 the occupation had left more than 100,000 dead from military action, starvation or disease, with some estimates running as high as 230,000.
The National Security Archive offers seven documents.
Document 1 (5 July 1975) records a conversation between President Suharto and President Ford at Camp David on 5 July 1975, five months before the invasion of East Timor. Speaking only a few months after the collapse of the Thieu regime in South Vietnam, the two presidents shared a tour d’horizon of East Asian political issues, U.S. military assistance to Indonesia, international investment, and Portuguese decolonisation. Fearing greater political and ideological ferment in the region following the Communist victory in Vietnam, Suharto saw his ideological concoction ‘Pancasila’ (possibly misspelled “Pantechistita” in the document) as useful, no doubt because its emphasis on consensus excluded any oppositional political activity. Not taking ‘consensus’ for granted, Suharto wanted American help in building up his military machine to increase its mobility for dealing with insurgent elements, noting that, “Especially at this moment, intelligence and territorial operations are very important.” Ford proposed setting up a joint commission to scrutinise Suharto’s military request but wanted Kissinger to settle the details.
Suharto brought up the question of Portuguese decolonisation in East Timor proclaiming his support for ‘self-determination’ but also dismissing independence as unviable: “So the only way is to integrate [East Timor] into Indonesia.” Without mentioning Fretilin by name, Suharto misleadingly characterised it as “almost Communist” and criticised the group for boycotting the decolonisation meeting in Macao. Suharto claimed that Indonesia did not want to interfere with East Timor’s self-determination but implied that it might have to because “those who want independence are those who are Communist-influenced.”
While Lisbon still had legal sovereignty over East Timor, apparently neither Ford nor Suharto discussed the implications for Indonesian policy. The United States had worked closely with the Salazar dictatorship which ruled Portugal for decades, but it was now deeply suspicious of the new social democratic regime in Lisbon. With its exaggerated concerns about a Communist coup, the Ford Administration considered the possibility of expelling Portugal from N.A.T.O. and supporting an independence movement in the Azores – where the U.S. had important military facilities. Thus, from Ford’s and Kissinger’s perspective in 1975, Portugal’s role in the region was of little interest and did not pose an important obstacle to Indonesian action. That some left-leaning Portuguese officers had contacts with Fretilin undoubtedly made the United States even less inclined to concern itself with Portugal’s response to Indonesian action in East Timor. (Source: Gerald R. Ford Library, National Security Adviser Memoranda of Conversations, Box 13, July 5, 1965 – Ford, Kissinger, Indonesian President Suharto).
Document 2 (12 August 1975) records that, apparently encouraged by his meeting with President Ford, President Suharto returned from Washington on 8 July and made his first public statement suggesting that an independent East Timor was not viable. Only days later, UDT leaders launched their coup with the hope that they could suppress Fretilin. During a 12 August discussion of the coup, Kissinger and his close advisers were not altogether sure what was happening, but did not disagree with Assistant Secretary Philip Habib’s statement that the Indonesians would not let a “communist-dominated group,” i.e., Fretilin, take over. Kissinger, in particular, assumed that an Indonesian takeover would take place “sooner or later.” Believing that Australia, a key regional ally, would feel “impelled” to support self-determination for the Timorese, Kissinger and his advisers wanted to avoid controversy over the issue. They quickly agreed that the State Department should make no comment on the coup or related events.
A few days later, Richard Woolcott, the Australian ambassador in Jakarta, relayed a statement by the American ambassador John Newsom which summarised the United States Government’s approach but alluded to a problem that Kissinger and his advisers had not specifically discussed on 12 August. The message noted Newsom’s 16 August comment that if Indonesia were to invade East Timor, it [should] do so “effectively, quickly, and not use our equipment.” (The comment is cited in a telegram written by Australian Ambassador Richard Woolcott on August 17, 1975 (Cited in Munster, G.J. and Walsh, R. (eds), Documents on Australian Defence and Foreign Policy, 1968-75 (Sydney, 1980) 200.
The American ambassador recognised that there was a congressional prohibition on Indonesia’s use of military gear financed by United States aid for anything but defensive operations.
Kissinger would have come to understand the problem, if he did not already, but as document four suggests, he was not willing to let it tie Jakarta’s hands. (Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Transcripts of Staff Meetings of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 1973-77, box 8).
Document 3 carries a memorandum “to President Ford from Henry A. Kissinger, ‘Your Visit to Indonesia,’ ca. 21 November 1975.” The document attaches an enclosure (document 3A) referring to the same subject.
The Kissinger memorandum, prepared for President Ford some two weeks before the two were to visit to Jakarta, indicates that the Administration’s larger strategic interests in Indonesia made it unlikely that Washington would make a fuss over East Timor. The eventual fate of East Timor was evidently a relatively low priority for Kissinger and his staff – it was the twelfth and final item mentioned in the memorandum. While Kissinger, in the memorandum, acknowledged that the Indonesians have been “maneuvering to absorb the colony” through negotiations with Portugal and “covert military operations in the colony itself,” he apparently did not expect an overt invasion using United States-supplied military equipment. Indeed, his memorandum and the briefing paper on “Indonesia and Portuguese Timor” both indicated that to do so would violate U.S. law, suggesting that this consideration had induced “restraint” on the part of Jakarta; moreover, and in contrast to Habib’s view, that Fretilin was “Communist-dominated.” Actually the author of the briefing paper more accurately characterised Fretilin as “vaguely left-wing.” But, to Kissinger, that would turn out as ‘Communist’. (Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Executive Secretariat Briefing Books, 1958-1976, Box 227, President Ford’s Visit to the Far East – Indonesia Nov-Dec. 1975).
On the eve of Indonesia’s full-scale invasion of East Timor, President Ford and Secretary Kissinger stopped in Jakarta en route from China where they had just met with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. During his meeting with President Suharto, Ford emphasised America’s continuing commitment to Asian affairs despite the “severe setback of Vietnam.” Document 4 contains the text referring to the Ford-Kissinger-Suharto conversation (See: Embassy Jakarta Telegram 1579 to Secretary State, 6 December 1975, Secret/Nodis (which means “no distribution”). Discussion then turned to the problem of Communist influence in the Non-Aligned Movement and the insurgency movements in Thailand and Malaysia. Ford told Suharto that he would be “enthusiastic” about building an M-16 plant in Indonesia to provide small arms to help Southeast Asian governments counter regional insurgency movements. Kissinger also approved of the proposed arrangement “because of its indication of wider cooperation.”
On 4 or 5 December 1975, while still in Beijing, Kissinger had received a cable from the State Department suggesting that the Indonesians had “plans” to invade East Timor. Thus, Ford or Kissinger could not have been too surprised when, in the middle of a discussion of guerrilla movements in Thailand and Malaysia, Suharto suddenly brought up East Timor. Suharto noted that while Indonesia “has no territorial ambitions,” Fretilin has not cooperated with negotiations and has “declared its independence unilaterally.” The current situation, he said, “will prolong the suffering of the refugees and increase instability in the area.” Suharto then assured the Americans that “the four other parties” favour integration, with the apparent implication that a mere majority among the “parties” to the conflict – absent a popular referendum – alone constituted an act of self-determination. “We want your understanding,” Suharto continued, “if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action.”
Ford and Kissinger took great pains to assure Suharto that they would not oppose the invasion. Ford was unambiguous: “We will understand and will not press you on the issue. We understand the problem and the intentions you have.” Kissinger did indeed stress that “the use of US-made arms could create problems.” but then added that, “It depends on how we construe it; whether it is in self defence or is a foreign operation.” Thus, Kissinger’s concern was not about whether American arms would be used offensively – and hence illegally – but whether the act would actually be interpreted as such, process he clearly intended to manipulate. Indeed, later that month Kissinger asked his advisers whether “We can’t construe a Communist government in the middle of Indonesia as self-defense?” (See Mark Hertsgaard, “The Secret Life of Henry Kissinger; minutes of a 1975 meeting with Lawrence Eagleburger,” The Nation, October 29, 1990).
In any case, Kissinger added: “It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly.” [Emphasis added]
Indeed, timing and damage control were very important to the Americans, as Kissinger told Suharto: “We would be able to influence the reaction in America if whatever happens happens after we return … If you have made plans, we will do our best to keep everyone quiet until the President returns home.” Kissinger also asked Suharto if he anticipated a “long guerilla war,” apparently aware that a quick military success would be easier to spin than a long campaign. Suharto acknowledged that there “will probably be a small guerrilla war” but he was cagey enough not to predict its duration. Nevertheless, his military colleagues were optimistic; as one of the architects of Indonesian policy, General Ali Murtopo had explained to an American scholar some months before the invasion, “the whole business will be settled in three weeks.” (M. Andersen, ‘East Timor and Indonesia: Some Implications,’ in P. Carey and G. Carter Bentley, eds., East Timor at the Crossroads: The forging of a nation (University of Hawaii Pess, Honolulu 1995, at 137).
With the U.S. position on the East Timor ‘business’ settled, Suharto turned to economic problems, especially petroleum investments. With the then recent bankruptcy of the state oil company, the regime needed more revenue and Suharto wanted to get it from the oil companies which invested in Indonesia. Noting that the oil companies were sharing larger shares of their profits with Middle Eastern states than they were with Indonesia, Suharto told Ford and Kissinger that he wanted to negotiate an “understanding” with them. Both Americans were sympathetic and said that he would have their support. Kissinger, however, noted carefully that whatever Suharto did he should “not create a climate that discourages investment.” The possibility that the East Timor affair could prove to be a disaster for Indonesia and someday impair the “climate for investment” never seems to have occurred to either Kissinger or Ford. (Source: Gerald R. Ford Library, Kissinger-Scowcroft Temporary Parallel File, Box A3, Country File, Far East-Indonesia, State Department Telegrams 4/1/75-9/22/76).
Document 5 (5 and 6 December 1975) contains brief schedule details of Secretary Kissinger’s two-day visit to Indonesia with President Ford. But there is no record of Kissinger’s meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Adam Malik. (Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Executive Secretariat Briefing Books, 1958-1976, Box 227, President Ford’s Trip to the Far East (Follow-Up) Nov-Dec. 1975).
The last document, No. 6, is the transcript of Staff Meeting of Secretary Kissinger with personnel at the Department on 17 June 1976. It is only by excerpts, most it being secret.
The document records that the United States’ initial response to the invasion was to delay new arms sales to Indonesia pending an administrative review by the State Department, ostensibly to determine whether Indonesia had actually violated the bilateral agreement stipulating that U.S.-supplied arms could only be used for defensive purposes. Military equipment already in the pipeline continued to flow, however, and during the six-month review period the United States made four new offers of military equipment sales to Indonesia including maintenance and spare parts for the Rockwell OV-10 Bronco aircraft, designed specifically for counterinsurgency operations and employed during the invasion of East Timor. The administrative delay and the subsequent offers had been the subject of an 18 December 1975 meeting between Secretary Kissinger and his advisers in which he chastised his staff for writing a memorandum recommending that arms sales to Indonesia be cut off for violating the end-use agreement. While the memorandum was not widely distributed, Kissinger was angry that word might leak about how “Kissinger overruled his pristine bureaucrats and violated the law.” Kissinger told his staff that he “took care of it with the administrative thing by ordering [the Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance] not to make any new sales.” If Congress asked about the policy, Kissinger said, “We cut it off while we are studying it. We intend to start again in January.”(Mark Hertsgaard, “The Secret Life of Henry Kissinger; minutes of a 1975 meeting with Lawrence Eagleburger,” The Nation, October 29, 1990).
Next installment Saturday: Diplomacy! What diplomacy?
Dr. Venturino Giorgio (George) Venturini, formerly an avvocato at the Court of Appeal of Bologna, devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reach at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.
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Australia, is really Helpfull, again.
PS. Nearly finished Hitchens book on Kissinger.
As usual, I have to take a blokes word as being “possibly True”, or reject, as “possibly not true”. All this stuff about check your facts, is technically nigh on impossible. Trust is something that should be given, only in special cases. Our Trust is often abused, by commentary, spin and crap.
PPS. Indonesia, will be a problem, in the near future. Methinks.