158. Memorandum From Secretary of State Rusk to President Kennedy0


  • Proposal for Dealing with the Dutch-Indonesian Dispute over West New Guinea (West Irian)

I transmit herewith (Tab A) a paper outlining the background and history of the dispute between the Netherlands and Indonesia over West New Guinea (West Irian), and suggesting a United States course of action for dealing with it This would be for the United States to seek the agreement of the states concerned to the establishment of a United Nations trusteeship for the area. We would first attempt to promote a trusteeship to be exercised by Malaya, which has taken an active interest in finding some way of settling the dispute. It would have to be assisted, financially and otherwise, by a consortium of powers. If we cannot work out a trusteeship by Malaya, which appears the most suitable candidate, we would intend to fall back upon a proposal that the United Nations organization might itself become the trusteeship authority.

I approve this line of approach. It has been discussed with Senator Fulbright, and also has his general approval.1

Dean Rusk2
[Page 337]

Tab A


West New Guinea is the one part of the Netherlands East Indies, redesignated Indonesia in 1948, which the Netherlands refused to transfer to the Republic of Indonesia at their 1949 round-table conference. They agreed then to decide its future status by negotiations within a year. These negotiations failed, with West New Guinea remaining under Dutch sovereignty, and Dutch-Indonesian relations have been deteriorating ever since. Indonesia resorted to direct pressure, successively expropriating Dutch properties, expelling many Dutch residents, and breaking diplomatic relations. It also took the matter to the UN, last in 1957 when the growing Afro-Asian bloc lined up behind a resolution which in effect urged further negotiations on the Dutch. It won a majority but failed of the necessary two-thirds vote.

West New Guinea comprises 150,000 square miles of perhaps the most primitive territory in the world, part of it unexplored mountainjungle-swampland. Most of the estimated 700,000 inhabitants are seminomadic, stone-age, Papuan tribesmen, speaking a couple hundred mutually-unintelligible tongues. Half have had no contact with the Netherlands administration. About 16,000 work in the employ of the government or economic enterprises (there are also about 17,000 Dutch, 18,000 Chinese and some immigrants, mainly Eurasian, from Indonesia). The indigenous inhabitants are closely related to the people of adjacent Australian-administered territories but to no inhabitants of the Republic of Indonesia excepting some on nearby islands. West New Guinea is an economic and fiscal deficit area for which the Netherlands recently initiated a program of economic and educational development intended to culminate in self-determination within ten years.

The continuing dispute over West New Guinea far transcends in importance the object of the dispute. It has permitted Sukarno, as leader of a popular national crusade, to make any challenge to his leadership appear unpatriotic; helped enable the Communists to undermine the conservative influence of Army leaders; and diverted attention from urgent internal problems. Externally, it has embroiled third powers in a series of related disputes; resulted in a drift by Indonesia towards the Soviet bloc; and threatened hostilities. We long tried to stay neutral, though Secretary Dulles did promise the Dutch some kind of support in case of Indonesian attack.

The US hands-off policy towards the dispute over West New Guinea was abandoned consequent to Secretary Herter’s approval of a Policy Planning Staff paper of October 12, 1960, in which the dispute and alternative [Page 338]approaches to its solution were considered in detail.3 The recommended course was to seek a trusteeship to be exercised by the UN organization itself. Implementation, however, did not proceed beyond preliminary discussion with the Australians before the difficulties of the UN and its Secretary General in and over the Congo raised the question of whether effort should really be made to get the UN to attempt this new task.

Meanwhile, Indonesia had responded to the sending of a Dutch aircraft carrier and reinforcements to West New Guinea by carrying out armed infiltrations; contracting for about $500 million of Soviet military aid; and issuing belligerent statements. We discount the likelihood of major military operations in the next six months, but expect the military balance to shift in favor of Indonesia by late 1961. Accordingly, the problem has become more urgent.

We believe: (1) Most nations of the world community are increasingly unwilling to back politically the exercise of tutelage by a white colonial power over any large overseas area inhabited by non-white people. (2) Attempts to maintain it must therefore increasingly depend on deterrent military force. (3) The Netherlands is not a power which can maintain unchallengeable deterrent force half a world away from its shores. (4) Indonesia doubtless hopes that the threat of superior force coupled with political and diplomatic action will suffice, but fighting between an Indonesia backed by the Soviets and the Netherlands is a growing possibility. (5) Such hostilities would be a catastrophe for the Free World; could disrupt NATO unity; would set colored peoples against whites in and out of the UN; and might cause Indonesia—whose external orientation and internal political trends already are a cause for grave concern—to land wholly in the Communist camp.

We accordingly believe that recent developments only reinforce the conclusion that the Netherlands should withdraw from West New Guinea. We believe that the last proposal the Netherlands would accept would be that it turn West New Guinea over to the Republic of Indonesia. We seek rather a means whereby it may be able to meet the parliamentary and other problems involved, and retire gracefully. We can see no alternative except a UN trusteeship and hope that both the Netherlands and Indonesia can be persuaded to agree. (We do not expect the neighboring Australians to be happy about it, but hope they will come along.) It seems to us that the Dutch might agree, since their professed aim is self-determination for the native peoples, and as that principle is inherent in a trusteeship. Indonesian agreement is likely to be more difficult: they have so far indicated only that they might accept a brief trusteeship [Page 339]intended to lead to their acquisition of the territory. They should, however, regard Dutch departure as a favorable development, and need not feel that self-determination would rule out determination for a union with the Republic of Indonesia.

Malaya, as the country nearest to Indonesia geographically, linguistically and racially, should be the prospective trustee most acceptable to Indonesia, and it is not antagonistic to the Netherlands. It could not be expected to undertake the task except in consequence to the agreement of the two disputants, as it would not want to inherit Indonesian animosity from the Dutch. Nor could it be expected to bear the financial and other burdens without outside help: a consortium of states interested in a solution would have to help finance costs, and outside (perhaps UN) personnel assistance would doubtless be required.

If such a trusteeship cannot be worked out, we could fall back on the original proposal for a direct UN trusteeship. The added burden on the UN Secretary General might be minimized if an administrator of world stature were found whose prestige would rally support, and if he were made directly responsible to the Trusteeship Council. West New Guinea does not present a situation quite like the Congo where rival regimes pit armed forces against one another, and only police and constabulary forces should be required to maintain internal order in those areas which are now administered. If Indonesia is willing to accept and live with a UN trusteeship, external defense should present little problem; if it challenges the trusteeship authorities with the threat of armed force, such a threat should at least be easier to handle than one aimed at Dutch colonialists. The UN would, of course, have to foot the bill and we our share of perhaps $15 million a year, as we would under a consortium of financing powers. If it be argued that a UN trusteeship would alter the terms of the West New Guinea problem without settling it, we can only observe that those terms need to be altered and that we can see no really good solutions.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 656.9813/4–361. Secret. There is no drafting information on the source text.
  2. No record of the discussion with Fulbright has been found.
  3. Printed from a copy that indicates Rusk signed the original.
  4. See Foreign Relations, 1958–1960, vol. XVII, pp. 564 565. The study is published in full in the microfiche supplement to that volume.