United States

Race and US policy on West Papua, 1960-62

E-dossier #8. West Papua came under Indonesian rule largely due to the policy of the Kennedy administration in the United States. Why did the US choose this policy?

From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, the United States’ stance on the self-determination of Papua was not in line with the self-determination principles it had agreed to in the British-American 1941 Atlantic Charter and the first article of the United Nations’ Charter. American decisions were instead based upon several concerns that broadly excepted the will of Papuans. For a brief period in 1961, the US supported Papuan self-governance. In addition, American understanding in the early 1960s that it was against numerous Papuans’ wishes to join Indonesia is well-evidenced. Nevertheless, in 1962, the US briskly shifted to support Indonesian claims over Papua with only a feeble and unelaborated promise for self-determination. The stance the US took can be tied to both strategic and economic concerns as well as racist and colonialist doubt in Papuans’ capability to self-govern.

In 1948, American decision makers supported continued Dutch colonial presence in Papua after Indonesia gained independence from the Dutch. At that time, the US was “uncertain of what would happen to the Indies when the Dutch left it”, especially given the rising power of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). Therefore, in the late 1940s, the US “insisted that [Papua] be kept firmly in the Western Camp” as a Dutch colony to make sure South East Asia (SEA) had ample Western presence. In doing so, the US supported Dutch explanations for the colonisation of Papuans such as how they were “racially different from the Indonesians” and “needed a longer period of tutelage.”

Document 1: New Zealand report on visit to West Papua, NZ high commission to NZ Department of External Affairs, 1961-03-21 (quotes from pp.13-14)

As pressure for decolonisation mounted in the early 1960s, at the UN in particular, the US originally supported a Papuan led plan for self-determination. This is shown in the American advocacy and vote at the UN in favour of the “Brazzaville resolution”. The resolution laid out steps towards Papuan self-government and opposed the Indonesian claim over Papua. The US lauded “French Africans”, who brought forward the resolution after consulting with Papuans, as “real heroes” who had supported it “out of belief in principle of self-determination”. The US also noted that Papuans at the UN were strongly opposed to “Indonesian domination”.

Document 2: US mission to United Nations report, 1961-11-30

In addition, in 1961, Indonesia made no effort to hide its derision for the prospect of Papuan self-determination. In communication with the Canadian government, a counsellor from an Indonesian embassy referred to Papuans as “primitive” and stated that self-determination “would be nothing to them”. The Canadian memo on this conversation also exhibits colonialist Western views of Papuans as stuck in “the Stone Age”, a sentiment shared by American policymakers. Indeed, the New York Times, in 1961, reported Papuans as “a savage tribe focused on war”. These racist and colonialist attitudes legitimised dismissing Papuan self-government.

Document 3: Canada Department of External Affairs internal memorandum, 1961-12-21

As a result of their discriminatory views, American politicians ignored Papuan self-determination when the dispute around the island nation’s sovereignty threatened US Cold War interests. Instead of a nation with admirable aspirations for self-government, by early 1962, an American official started referring to Papua as a “bit of colonial debris”.

Document 4: 1962-01-15)

To some degree, his shift can be linked to American international politics. For instance, in April of 1962, the Soviet Union characterised US support for Papuan self-determination, under Dutch military protection, as a pro-colonial stance. This Soviet critique was well timed for  Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) audience (further described in e-dossier #7): in early February 1962, the US had allowed Dutch troops, keeping Papua from annexation by the Indonesia military, to rotate their forces using American airfields in Southeast Asia. The longer the US was perceived as promoting colonialism by supporting the Dutch, the more they feared criticism might affect US relations with the NAM, perhaps encouraging Indonesia or other NAM nations to develop or strengthen ties with the Soviets.

Furthermore, from the US point of view, the 1962 military standoff over Papua between Indonesia and the Dutch was a worst-case scenario for their interests in the region. From 1957 to 1962, the USSR had “committed $900 million in military aid to Indonesia – more than to any other non-bloc country”. As President Sukarno of Indonesia began, in 1962, to amass his military forces in Indonesia to intimate the Dutch into transferring Papua over, this aid became particularly attractive. As a result, the US feared that if Indonesia did not control Papua, Soviet-Indonesian cooperation would increase shifting the balance of power in the region to the Soviet Union.

Document 5: “The Soviet Attitude Toward West New Guinea,” State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research memoandum,1962-04-27

In addition, after a January 15th, 1962 naval clash between the Dutch and Indonesians, the Papuan dispute seemed close to boiling over. According to President Kennedy, the US could not “afford” to add an Indonesian East-West conflict to the ongoing war in Vietnam. For Kennedy, if the US lost Indonesia to the Soviet sphere, the West’s entire “hold on … mainland SEA” would be compromised. Finally, in his letter to his brother, Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy revealed his colonialist and perhaps racist assumptions about Papuans. Though he had seemingly been willing to support Papuan self-determination with “Dutch aid” when less was at stake, by 1962, he questioned whether a “viable” Papuan nation could exist. In sum, despite American stated values of self-determination for all, to President Kennedy, there were some nations that required more tutelage or were too “primitive” to exist independently altogether.

Document 6: Draft presidential letter to Robert F. Kennedy, 1962-02-22

Two additional factors influenced the American stance on Papua. First, the Americans considered the Indonesian army an important political counterbalance to the PKI and the PKI was strongly calling for armed takeover of Papua by Indonesia. Therefore, if the US could strengthen its relationship with the Sukarno administration and his army while ensuring that Indonesia did not overtly attack Papua, it could better manage the perceived PKI threat to the American strategic interest of limiting communist influence in Indonesia and SEA.

Document 7: Australian record of conversation between Indonesian minister of foreign affairs Subandrio and Australian minister of foreign affairs Garfield Barwick, 1962-07-03

Second, imminent American oil exploitation in Indonesia was likely at stake if no “peaceful” solution to the dispute over Papua were reached. The official American position as stated by US Secretary of State Dean Rusk in April of 1962 asserted that the US government did not shift its foreign policy according to oil industry desires. Nevertheless, oil baron John D. Rockefeller had imparted on Rusk in a direct communication just two months earlier that if a conflict arose over Papua, American oil interests would be “finished” in Indonesia. Therefore, eruption of a conflict over Papua could have been a blow to the Kennedy administration’s foreign economic strategy in addition to its Cold War one.

Document 8: Text of John D. Rockefeller III to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, 1962-02-06

Document 9: Record of State Department conversation with representative of Standard Oil, 1962-03-12

Document 10: US embassy in Indonesia report, 1962-04-28

To appease the ongoing military standoff between the Indonesians and Dutch and solve its Cold War and economic concerns, the US government decided to pressure the Dutch into accepting the Indonesian position on Papua. The American “Bunker plan” gave Indonesia control of Papua with only a distant promise of a plebiscite for independence, one not even externally observed. As pointed out by diplomat Maxime-Léopold Zollner of Dahomey (now Bénin), this sort of plebiscite could involve Indonesian bribes to sway Papuan votes among other forms of intimidation at the polls.

Document 11: Canadian mission to UN report, 1962-06-12

To many, this seemed a peaceful solution which appeased Indonesia while satisfying a Dutch self-determination commitment to Papua. Nevertheless, it is clear even from the contemporary expression of Indonesians and Papuans that the Bunker Plan’s plebiscite would not be freely held under Indonesian supervision and that Papuans’ fears of Indonesian domination were being realised. By August of 1962, Sukarno was “boasting” that Papua was “now Indonesian soil and would remain so to the end of time.” Papuans, meanwhile, continued to protest the transfer of their territory to Indonesia after a brief period of UN administration. Finally, as the UN administered Papua before it was to be handed to the Indonesians, Indonesian armed forces began to move onto the island both officially and covertly with the support of the US. Conveniently for the Americans, the army would, in their view, ensure that the PKI would not gain a foothold in Papua. By the end of 1962, some Papuans began to flee from settlements and into rural areas due to the greater Indonesian presence. A fair and free plebiscite under Indonesian administration was evidently increasingly remote.

Document 12: Canadian high commission in Australia report, 1962-08-23

Document 13: Bureau of Intelligence and Research memorandum to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, 1962-08-30

Document 14: Canadian personnel of UN Temporary Executive Authority visit report, 1962-11-30

In sum, the US did not uphold its international self-determination promises during the dispute over Papua from 1948-1962. The US began this period by supporting Dutch colonialism with the aim of securing US interests in SEA. Then, Americans briefly supported Papuan independence in 1961 at UN when it did not impact American interests. Americans also recognised that numerous Papuans were strongly averse to merging with Indonesia, at least not without the prospect of an externally observed and democratic plebiscite on self-determination. Ultimately, however, when significant US political and economic concerns were at stake in 1962, President Kennedy and his administration did not hesitate to disregard Papuan self-determination. President Kennedy’s discussion of this decision with his brother, contemporary US press and prior American support for Dutch colonialism reveal a legacy of racist and colonialist American attitudes that permeated the denial of Papuan self-determination. Though the US and Dutch could claim to have solved the dispute over Papua peacefully and with regard for its right to democratic expression of sovereignty, to this day Papuans have not been able to freely voice their aspirations for self-government.

Compiled by Duncan Crabtree and David Webster