59. Memorandum From the Director of the Office of Southeast Asian Affairs (Mein) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Robertson)0


  • Major General Nasution

During the past year, Major General Abdul Haris Nasution, the Chief of Staff of the Indonesian Army, has emerged as a primary political as well as military force in Indonesia. This rise to power has been due in part to the ineffectiveness of civil leadership, in part to the military problems arising from the regionalist rejection of the central Government authority, and in part to the powers invested in the Chief of Staff under the Indonesian Emergency Legislation. General Nasution represents also Indonesia’s most prominent political enigma. By his public activities he has established a reputation for being a staunch anti-Communist and friend of the West. At the same time, he has been a firm supporter of President Sukarno and the present Government. He has insisted on crushing the strongly anti-Communist rebel Government with military force and has shown no current disposition to use his considerable authority to check the growth of Communism on Java. Because of the position he now occupies and the likelihood that he may in coming weeks accede to positions of even greater authority, an investigation of the background, attitudes, and activities of this man appears appropriate.

Curriculum Vitae

General Nasution was born on December 3, 1918 in the Tapanuli area of North Sumatra. Like many senior Indonesian Army officers, he is a Batak, and like his first cousin and bitter enemy, Col. Zulkifli Lubis he is a devout Moslem. Nasution went to Java in 1936 and graduated [Page 102] from the Normal School in Bandung in 1938. He taught school in West Java, and in 1940 entered the Royal Netherlands Academy in Bandung. Following his graduation he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Netherlands East Indies Army. During the Japanese occupation, Nasution performed both civil and military services and following the proclamation of Indonesian independence he was appointed Chief of Staff of the West Java command in 1945. He rose rapidly in the military service becoming Chief of Staff of the Army in 1948 and following the final achievement of independence continued in this office until 1952.

General Nasution was from the beginning a strong advocate of a small professional army, and in September of 1952 joined forces with other senior Army officers in opposition to efforts of some political leaders to maintain a large irregular guerrilla element in the Indonesian military establishment. This conflict erupted into the “October 17 Affair” in which Nasution and other senior officers took control of Djakarta, and urged President Sukarno to dissolve the Government, take power into his own hands, and hold immediate national elections. Sukarno refused to take this action and in December 1952, Nasution was relieved as Army Chief of Staff and placed on inactive duty. Nasution, convinced that the Army needed a political voice in the Indonesian Parliament, participated in the formation of a political party called the Association of Defenders of Indonesian Independence (IPKI). In October 1955, Nasution was again appointed Chief of Staff of the Indonesian Army.

Nasution at present appears to avoid personal contact with foreign military and diplomatic representatives. However, during his first tour as Chief of Staff he was on close friendly terms with a number of U.S. military observers, who regarded him as an outstanding professional Army officer keenly interested in the strategic and technical aspects of this profession, strongly anti-Communist, and outspokenly pro-Western. He speaks excellent English and is fluent as well in Dutch and Japanese. His written works indicate further a good reading knowledge of French and German.

Attitudes towards Communism and the West

The first incident in General Nasution’s career suggesting his attitude towards Communism occurred in July 1947 when as Commander of the First Division in West Java he broke up a local unit of the Bambu Runtjing, an irregular Communist-controlled paramilitary organization commanded by a political disciple of the Trotskyite Tan Malaka. Following the outbreak of the Communist coup effort at Madiun in 1948, Nasution, as Army Chief of Staff, ordered an all-out offensive against the Communist stronghold and succeeded in crushing the revolt in a bloody and ruthless fashion. In December of 1950, as Chief of Staff of the Army, he drew strong criticism from Masjumi and the Indonesian Parliament [Page 103] for a statement to the press strongly implying that Indonesia should take a firm position on the side of the U.S. and the U.N. in the war in Korea. Following the October 17 affair in 1952, he was strongly attacked by the Communist press for his part in the abortive coup, and following his reappointment to the office of Chief of Staff in 1955, was again attacked by Communist representatives on the floor of the Indonesian Parliament. He is credited with preventing the Communist-dominated veterans organization, Perbepsi, from gaining control of the All-Indonesian Veterans Conference which took place in Bandung in December 1956. In March 1957, following Sukarno’s announcement of his “conception”, Nasution was reliably reported to be strongly opposed to the participation of the Indonesian Communist party (PKI) in the Cabinet.

During his period of “inactive duty” between 1953 and 1955, Nasution produced two highly regarded monographs on military subjects; the first, The Essentials of Guerrilla Operations (Pokok Gerilja), a study of the political and tactical aspects of guerrilla warfare, and the second, Notes on Indonesian Military Policies (Tjatatan Sekitar Politik Militer Indonesia), a broad review of Indonesia’s defense potential and the international forces affecting this potential. From these works a clear idea of his views on Communism and the West can be drawn.

In the latter work, Nasution writes that the Communists place before all else the national interests of the Soviet Union. They hold that if the interests of the Soviets are served, all other interests, including Indonesian national interests, can and must be sacrificed. This conception, he states, cannot be accepted by any Indonesian patriot. In the international sphere, Nasution makes it clear that the only important outside military threat to Indonesian independence is Communist China. (This was written immediately after Dien-Bien-Phu.) In considering Indonesia’s foreign policy, Nasution sets as the basic objective of the Indonesian Armed Forces the preservation of a free and independent Indonesia. After cataloging the nation’s political, economic and military weaknesses, he finds Indonesia’s cherished “active and independent foreign policy” a sterile and negative shibboleth. Nasution as a military man refrains from proposing a specific alternative, but in his appraisal of Indonesia’s strategic position his views are made clear.

“To develop military and economic potential [Nasution writes] we must have foreign capital and foreign experts. In attempting to satisfy these needs we must recognize reality. We are in fact in the Western sphere. We can attempt to get assistance from neutral countries, such as India, Switzerland and Sweden, but these sources of supply are of limited value. An effort to balance our economic relations between the Western and Eastern blocs is equally unrealistic. Our geographical position within the Western sphere clearly makes this impossible. We must recognize and adjust to the fact that the bulk of our needs do come only [Page 104] from the West … Indonesia lies inside the Western defense line and among the SEATO nations. It is in Indonesia’s interests to maintain good relations with these countries.”1

Elsewhere in the book Nasution states with equal bluntness that Indonesia must expect Western intervention if a Communist takeover of the Indonesian Government appears imminent.

A cold and realistic judgment of Indonesia’s national self-interest is the standard by which Nasution measures Communism and the West. He opposes Communism at home and abroad, not primarily on the grounds of ideological antipathy, religious conviction, or sentimental attachment to the West, but rather because it represents a menace to Indonesian freedom. His advocacy of closer ties with the West rests on equally pragmatic arguments.

Professional Life

Nasution is one of Indonesia’s outstanding professional soldiers. He is one of a very few in the Indonesian Army who have had formal officer training under the Dutch and served prior to World War II in a commissioned capacity in the Netherlands East Indies Army. He has a superior record as a field officer in the fighting against the Dutch during the revolution, and his published works on military subjects show a broad knowledge of the technical literature of his profession. He has, since Indonesia achieved its independence, devoted himself with single-minded intensity to the task of creating for his country a modern, well-trained, and effective defense establishment. Training of army officers in U.S. service schools was inaugurated under Nasution, and this program has continued without interruption even during the 1953–55 tenure of a strongly leftist Defense Minister, Iwa Kusumasumantri.

Nasution was one of the principal exponents of a small, professional, and highly trained army, and it was his efforts to reduce the size of the army by retiring non-professional officers and discharging irregular guerrilla units absorbed into the army during the revolution which first brought him into conflict with political leaders and President Sukarno and precipitated the October 17th Affair.

During the two year period of enforced separation from active military duty Nasution continued to work towards his objective. From his own experience in the October 17th Affair, it was apparent to him that the Army would continue to be plagued by irresponsible political meddling in its internal affairs. To meet this problem, Nasution, with the support of officers on both active and inactive duty, established a political party, IPKI, which had as its avowed purpose the representation of army interests in Parliament. IPKI succeeded in electing four delegates [Page 105] in the general elections of September 1955, but in general was not a political success. Whatever its possible usefulness to the Army, Indonesia had no need for one more political party.

It is clear that Nasution regards as an essential element of a military establishment a rigid code of military discipline. Without a chain of command an army becomes nothing more than a rabble in arms. His preoccupation with discipline can be seen clearly in his actions following his return to the position of Chief of Staff in 1955. The territorial commanders had by 1955 become to all intents and purposes local warlords. They were in many instances local sons who through long service as the military commanders in their home areas had become deeply embroiled in local problems and local aspirations. They obeyed orders from Djakarta when it suited their purposes. This Nasution regarded as potentially dangerous, and he instituted a program of regular transfers and tours of duty. Kawilarang in West Java was sent to Washington as military attaché, Warrouw in Celebes was sent to Peiping in a similar capacity, and Simbolon in North Sumatra was slated for transfer when Hussein in Padang, another native son, announced in December 1956 that he would no longer recognize the authority of Djakarta.

Political Outlook

A dominant factor in Nasution’s life, clearly evident in his public actions as well as his published works, is a fierce and uncompromising loyalty to the concept of the free and independent Indonesian state. This loyalty appears further to go beyond both his Sumatran Batak origin and his Moslem faith, and determines his attitudes towards his profession, Communism, and the strong regionalist sentiments of many of his brother officers. He is reported to have the support of the NU and the Masjumi, but is at present not known to be associated with any political party. Throughout his books Nasution stresses again and again the necessity of Indonesian unity. This preoccupation stems not from the mystic emotionalism of Sukarno, but from a sober conviction that Indonesia as a state cannot long exist if it is not strong internally. Writing in 1955 he emphasized that Indonesia had no defense potential whatever until it succeeds in ending the Darul Islam rebellions in West Java, Atjeh, and South Sulawesi. Not only is civil war a source of military weakness, but even worse, a standing invitation to foreign intervention. Both he and General T.B. Simatupang, a fellow Sumatran Batak, point out that Indonesia has in the past fallen under alien control principally because Indonesians have shown a tragic readiness to fight each other. This attitude serves to explain, at least in part, his stand on the regionalist movements and the Padang regime. It is clear that he has no quarrel with their anti-Communist posture, and he may well be in sympathy with their demands for greater regional autonomy. Their resort to open rebellion, [Page 106] However, seriously weakens the nation’s overall defense potential and encourages foreign intervention. This he cannot tolerate.

Summary Evaluation

The dominant influences on Nasution appear to be loyalty to Indonesian independence and devotion to his profession. Accepting these as the principal motivating forces, his actions fall into a reasonably consistent pattern, and he emerges as considerably less of an enigma. Like relatively few Indonesians, he thinks in national rather than in local or regional terms—will a certain course of action serve the long-term interests of all of Indonesia, and specifically, will it safeguard Indonesian independence. Like Sukarno, but for completely different reasons, he is convinced that Indonesia must be united to remain free. He is unquestionably opposed to Communism, both at home and abroad, because he regards it as a threat to this freedom. He would oppose with equal fervor foreign intervention from any quarter. Anti-Communism as such, However, is not a dominant motivating factor, and his actions are clearly not determined in the first instance by the service or disservice they do the Communist cause. He believes in discipline, and this to him means obedience to his superiors and from his subordinates. Transcending even this concept, However, is his loyalty to the republic. If after careful consideration he should decide that Sukarno, on balance, has become a divisive rather than unifying force, he would undoubtedly move quickly and decisively to neutralize or eliminate his commander-in-chief. He reaches decisions coldly and logically after sober consideration of all the factors, and once his mind is made up he acts with resolution and firmness. This turn of mind, uncharacteristic of most of his countrymen, has given him a reputation of mental inflexibility. In his self-assurance and dedication to principle he has further tended to ignore the personal and human factors. He has apparently no close friends or confidants, and is admired and respected rather than liked by the colleagues and subordinates. Like most strong personalities, he has also made enemies. His determination to crush the rebels is ascribed in part to the mutual hostility which exists between him and his cousin Zulkifli Lubis, a sentiment which dates at least from the October 17th Affair. He is unquestionably ambitious, but there is in his ambition no discernible strain of self-aggrandizement or megalomania. He is no political theorist, and appears to have no ideological ax to grind. He has no facility for popular leadership, nor the politician’s flair for compromise and the “science of the possible”. Under ordinary circumstances he would appear to be almost the prototype of an effective army chief of staff. The flow of events in Indonesia, However, may force him into a role which he may not be ideally suited, either by talent or temperament.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 756D.551/4–1458. Secret. Drafted by Underhill.
  2. Brackets and ellipsis in the source text.