172. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • Conversation Between President Kennedy and President Sukarno of Indonesia


  • Americans
    • President John F. Kennedy
    • Secretary of State Dean Rusk
    • Ambassador Howard P. Jones
    • Deputy Assistant Secretary John M. Steeves
    • Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Walt W. Rostow
  • Indonesians
    • President Sukarno
    • Deputy First Minister Leimena
    • Foreign Minister Subandrio
    • Ambassador Zain

After the usual exchange of courtesies, President Kennedy led the conversation into a general discussion of the attitudes and aspirations of the people of Southeast Asia.

President Sukarno launched forth into a long earnest dissertation on this subject. The crux of the attitude of the peoples of Asia is nationalism, [Page 383] he said. These peoples, long occupied by colonial powers, are longing and fighting for freedom. The need of these nations is not so much for political and economic assistance as for understanding and support of their national aspirations and to ensure their national freedom. This, President Sukarno stressed, is a subject he recognized was well understood in America as result of our own history.

“We know that America wants to reach our hearts,” Sukarno said. “If I am correct in this, please understand us in our national aspirations.” The focal point of Indonesia’s aspirations was West Irian. “How many times have I spoken to your Ambassador and pled for America’s support for the restoration of this territory to us. Let America say just one word to the effect that West Irian is a just claim. Give me something to say to my people. Give me something that will enable me to say that America is our friend,” Sukarno said.

“Before 1950 America helped us on our bid for freedom but after 1950 America seemed uncertain in its relations with us, its voice was no longer positive and clear,” Sukarno continued. “Why don’t you take the same position as you took before 1950,” Sukarno asked. “Before 1950, America said that Indonesia has the right to freedom. Why don’t you say so now? Why don’t you support our just claim to West Irian? The only answer to that question I have had is your friendship with the Dutch, your relations with NATO. America should not play the role of a tightrope dancer between Europe and Asia, always keeping a balance. Excuse me, Mr. President, I am speaking bluntly.”

“Why do you want West Irian?” President Kennedy asked, pointing out that Melanesians were a different race, that the territory cost the Dutch more money to administer than they could get out of it.

“It is part of our country; it should be free, “President Sukarno said.

“But the Papuans are a different race,” President Kennedy objected.

“Are the American people all white?” President Sukarno asked. “A nation is not only a matter of race or the color of skin.” Sukarno pointed to the negroes and to Hawaii to illustrate his point and stressed that Indonesia itself was composed of a mixture of different races.

President Kennedy brought up the subject of Australia’s attitude. President Sukarno commented that Prime Minister Menzies told him that he wanted to see the issue of West Irian settled in a peaceful way. If Indonesia could reach a solution with the Dutch, Australia would agree.

President Kennedy: “What about the eastern part of New Guinea?”

Sukarno: “This was never part of Indonesia, we have no claim to it, but West Irian is different. Long before the Dutch came, West Irian was Indonesian territory.”

[Page 384]

President Kennedy pointed out that the Solomon Islands and New Guinea seemed to be of the same race and shared a common culture and history.

Deputy First Minister Leimena (who is a Moluccan from Ambon) interjected that the Molucca Islands touch West Irian and much of the culture of West Irian is derived from the Molucca Islands.

President Kennedy: “Why do you have such a strong feeling about this territory?”

President Sukarno: “Because it is part of our nation. The Dyaks of Kalimantan (Borneo) are also less developed, similar to the Papuans of West Irian. Hawaii is part of the U. S., but the Hawaiians are another race, the black negroes are another race, the Papuans—yes—they, too, are another race, and so are the Dyaks. But the Dyaks are happy as Indonesians.”

Sukarno pointed out that former Dutch High Commissioner Van Moltke admitted that West Irian was part of Indonesia. He pointed out that after the revolution the Government of the Republic of Indonesia had given the Netherlands the preferred position in the economy. “We wanted close relations with the Netherlands. But when we found no solution was possible to the problem of West Irian, we took drastic measures.”

Secretary Rusk raised the question as to when the problem of West Irian had last been discussed with the Dutch.

Deputy First Minister Leimena responded that it was in 1955 and he pointed out that he had been Vice-chairman of the Indonesian Delegation in Geneva and that he had tried very hard in Geneva to talk with the Dutch, but that the Dutch had insisted that they would not discuss the subject.

“What would the people of West Irian themselves choose,” President Kennedy asked. “Indonesia,” replied Sukarno, emphatically.

“Then why not hold a plebiscite to determine this?” President Kennedy asked, pointing out that such a result would have to be accepted by the Dutch.

President Sukarno queried as to why the use of this device was necessary since the territory had always been Indonesian.

President Kennedy noted that in the case of Hawaii the people had themselves decided by popular vote that they wished to become Americans. If the people of West Irian made such a free choice, then the Dutch claim would automatically be dropped, he emphasized.

“How can you have a free choice?” President Sukarno asked, citing the case of Algeria. “You must see this problem through the glass of nationalism,” he said.

[Page 385]

President Kennedy turned the conversation to a discussion of other trouble spots in Southeast Asia.

President Sukarno referred to the large number of dissatisfied people in the area, citing Laos and Viet Nam as examples, and pled for America’s understanding of social revolution as an essential part of Asian nationalism. President Kennedy referred to the struggle in Viet Nam and asked President Sukarno what his judgment was as to how that situation should be handled.

“Execute what the Geneva Conference decided,” President Sukarno said. He pointed out that dissatisfaction in Viet Nam would continue so long as there was domination of the country by a family group. “How do you determine which group should control the country?” President Kennedy asked.

“I had a long talk with Ho Chi Minh,” President Sukarno observed. In this talk he said he raised the question as to whether Ho Chi Minh was ideologically invading Viet Nam and Malaya. Ho Chi Minh had denied this, saying he was interested in achieving social and economic revolution within the framework of nationalism.

The conversation turned briefly to Laos, Sukarno commenting that the reason that the Pathet Lao were successful in developing a following was that they represented the feelings of the people to a greater extent than the other side. He emphasized that social revolution in Laos was inevitable. He then reverted suddenly to his favorite topic.

“Why does America never say that we have a just claim to West Irian,” he asked. “Moscow is always saying our claim is just, that they support this claim. Please give me something to say to my people.”

President Kennedy pointed out that we had supported independence for Indonesia, that we had our relations with NATO to consider, involving considerable differences of opinion on this and other subjects, but that we were very much interested in ensuring a peaceful resolution of the West Irian question.

The discussion turned to consideration of what constituted progress for the less developed countries of Southeast Asia.

“Do you see a difference between progress and communism?”, President Kennedy asked.

Foreign Minister Subandrio replied, “Yes, based on nationalism; also on Islam.” Indonesians derive some of their socialism from Marx, but they had been searching for a real Indonesian identity. After the revolution there was no change of direction in the country. To progress they had to have a firm national ideology, not something borrowed from outside. President Sukarno had finally developed the philosophy of guided democracy and guided economy.

[Page 386]

In response to a question by President Kennedy as to how he described this philosophy, Subandrio went into a long discussion of the Indonesian origins of guided democracy, pointing out that it was based upon the Pantjasila (the five principles of belief in God, democracy, nationalism, internationalism, and social justice), Gotong-Rojong (the Indonesian philosophy of individuals cooperating for the common good), Musjawarah and Mufakat (the philosophy of thorough discussion of any problem leading to a decision based on the meeting of the minds).

“Our people don’t know or understand the concept of a decision being made by one-half of a group plus one,” Subandrio pointed out, emphasizing that unanimity was the basis on which Indonesians determined policy and action—discussion until agreement was reached by all. A definition of Indonesian socialism thus was impossible to give in specific terms since its development involved a series of discussions and decisions over a period of time. “Over 30 years I can tell you what is Indonesian socialism,” Subandrio commented, emphasizing, however, that the essence of Indonesian socialism was nationalism in the sense of political and economic control of their own destiny.

“How can you be independent with 90% of your economy in the hands of outsiders?” Subandrio asked, pointing out that as a result of actions against the Dutch and Chinese approximately 70% of the economy was now in Indonesian hands.

In summary, Subandrio said one might say the Indonesians were in the process of discovering their national ideology. He emphasized that Indonesia was ahead of other nations such as Egypt and India which had not yet worked out this philosophy. “We haven’t solved our problems, but we know where we stand.” Guided democracy resulted from the failure of parliamentary democracy.

There followed a discussion of the unfortunate results of the parliamentary system and proportional representation, under which, Ambassador Jones pointed out, some forty-five political parties had emerged in Indonesia to create a political situation even more unstable than in France prior to de Gaulle.

President Kennedy raised the question as to why the Indonesians were not accepting communism.

President Sukarno replied that Indonesians believed in God. 90% of the people of the country were Moslems. It was impossible for them to accept communism. One could not pray five times a day and still accept communism.

“Communism interprets life in a material way,” Subandrio interjected. “This is not acceptable to us.”

[Page 387]

“Would it trouble you to have Southeast Asia under communism?” President Kennedy asked.

“Your glass is wrong,” President Sukarno said, indicating that all these countries wanted to be free of domination from outside, that the framework within which the revolutionary forces were operating was the framework of nationalism rather than communism.

President Kennedy queried whether President Sukarno did not think that the Viet Minh were Communists.

“We feel that Moscow is supporting them,” President Sukarno replied. He emphasized that Viet Minh national aspirations were being supported by Moscow just as Indonesia’s aspiration to regain the territory of West Irian was being supported by Moscow, but that this did not mean the support was forthcoming because either the Viet Minh or the Indonesians were Communists. “Use the glass of nationalism to see Asia,” Sukarno added.

President Kennedy asked Sukarno regarding the Communist strength in his own country.

“The Communist Party—PKI—is party No. 4 in Indonesia,” Sukarno said, but even within the PKI, “only 10% are Communists; 90% are revolutionary nationalists.” The PKI is the best organized and most effective party, however.

President Kennedy pointed out that we were interested in supporting the independence of Asian countries regardless of whether they were neutralists or not. If the entire area came under international communism, he emphasized, the U.S. would still survive, whereas Indonesia would inevitably come under the domination of a foreign power. He asked Sukarno whether he thought the U.S. was unwise in supporting Diem in Viet Nam.

Subandrio interjected that the U.S. was supporting the ruling few. President Kennedy noted that the recent elections had indicated considerable popular support for Diem. “Can you really say that the people prefer Ho Chi Minh?”

“The U.S. is safe,” Subandrio said. “We Indonesians don’t want to be dominated by anyone—Peiping, Moscow or Washington. We maintain a firm attitude toward the Chinese Communists. We want to be friends with them because they are a strong nation, but we also want to be firm with them. We do not want to count on the U.S. for our security. We want to stand on our own feet. We want to depend upon ourselves.” He then went into an extensive discussion of the determination of the nations in the area not to be governed or controlled by outsiders and emphasized that in some of these countries social and economic revolution still must take place. Some nations such as Laos, Malaya and Viet Nam are governed [Page 388] by a few ruling families who control the economy. This is insupportable in modern times.

“We have hope for the future,” Subandrio added, “if you are afraid of international communism dominating the area, we are not.” Nationalism is the counter-force. In Indonesia steps are being taken to curb the influence of the PKI, both in ideological and organizational terms. The PKI would be confronted with a real Indonesian nationalist ideology as well as with a National Front which would unify the country organizationally.

At the suggestion of President Sukarno, Subandrio outlined the recent measures that had been taken to limit the number of and direct the philosophy of all political parties within the country. In so doing he emphasized that being anti-communist in Indonesia was not enough, that it was necessary to have a positive program to counter communism and this was what the Government of Indonesia was working toward. He had to admit that only the Communist Party in Indonesia “was progressive” and that the rest of the political parties were corrupt.

“Do you think that the Communist objective in the area is for liberation or to seize power for themselves?” President Kennedy asked.

Sukarno acknowledged that it was probably the latter. He pointed out that, however, since the Communist Bloc supported Indonesia’s national aspirations, it was impossible to convince the Indonesian people that “America is our friend.” At the same time, he stressed that “our people are not Soviet-minded.”

Secretary Rusk emphasized that there was clear recognition in the U.S. of the necessity for revolutionary economic and social progress in Asia and that the influence of the U.S. was “peacefully in support” of this progress. There was no basic conflict between the U.S. interests in the area and these revolutionary programs. What troubles America, Secretary Rusk pointed out, is that international communism has seized upon and exploited the ideals of nationalism and economic and social progress for their own purposes. He noted that it was not in harmony with the Geneva accords for Ho Chi Minh to send his guerillas into Viet Nam.

President Sukarno returned to the question of West Irian. Secretary Rusk pointed out that if the Indonesian claim was a legal claim, then there was a way to settle it through the International Court. We assumed, however, that it was a political claim. Our instinctive reaction in such a case was to ask, “what do the people of the area concerned think about it?” If there was some way that the people of the area could make clear their own desires, settlement of the problem would be much simpler. Dutch opinion, the Secretary pointed out, was changing.

“We are realistic,” Subandrio said, “we are prepared to find ways and means for the Dutch to save face in this matter. The current in Holland is favorable. We would be willing to consider a trusteeship for a [Page 389] period of one or two years to make the transition to Indonesia’s possession easier. West Irian, as you know, is a liability for the Netherlands.”

“What position would you take on recognition of the Netherlands if the claim were settled,” President Kennedy asked.

President Sukarno replied that recognition would follow immediately.

Secretary Rusk raised the question as to whether the Indonesians and the Dutch might get together and talk. He pointed out to pre-determine the time period might be extremely difficult but that the time period might well be left to the UN. If the Indonesians would talk privately and informally to representatives of the Netherlands about a trusteeship or discuss the Tunku’s proposals, this might lead to something.

“We would be willing to borrow the hand of the United Nations to transfer the territory to Indonesia,” President Sukarno said.

President Kennedy pointed out that the West Irian problem was a very great concern to us and that Australia was disturbed. “We want to see this matter come to an amicable conclusion,” he said.

Foreign Minister Subandrio commented on Indonesia’s relations with Australia, pointing out that several years ago these approached hostility. Australia wanted no relations with Asia. This had changed recently, however. Prime Minister Menzies was moving forward, demonstrating greater interest in establishing good relations with his Asian neighbors.

President Kennedy pointed out that Mr. Menzies feels that if communism is successful in Indonesia it would constitute a greater threat to Australia if West Irian were in the possession of Indonesia. He pointed out that the U.S. too was concerned about international communism in the area.

The question, Foreign Minister Subandrio said, is how to face the problem. In Indonesians as well as other Asian nations, nationalism was the only weapon against communism. It must be admitted that the Communists were hardworking, well organized and militant. Solution of the West Irian problem would help tremendously in Indonesia.

President Kennedy expressed the hope that the Indonesian Government would not consider the use of force in this situation, emphasizing that a calm climate was essential if a solution were to be found.

President Sukarno emphasized that this solution must be found quickly. “I cannot always keep my people in my hands,” he said. “Give me more grip on my people.”

President Kennedy again emphasized that the problem would be made more complex and difficult a solution if there were military action in the area.

[Page 390]

Foreign Minister Subandrio pointed out that the Dutch were reinforcing West Irian and that this had caused considerable excitement in Indonesia. He emphasized that the Government of Indonesia had no intention of taking military action against West Irian but that various islands in the area were constantly changing hands and clashes conceivably might occur.

President Kennedy asked how the Government of Indonesia was paying for the military aid it was receiving from the Soviet Union. Subandrio replied that they are paying over 12 to 15 years with a period of grace. He said they would much prefer to spend this money on economic development, but unfortunately in the position they have found themselves this was not possible. He emphasized that Indonesia would not be a liability to the U.S., but an asset “if we are strong.”

During luncheon, President Kennedy brought up the subject of Indonesia’s Eight Year Economic Development Plan, indicated our interest in it, and said we would be glad to send a top level economic team to Indonesia to study the plan and in cooperation with the Indonesian Government determine how we could best contribute to its implementation.1

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 611.98/4–2461. Secret. Drafted by Jones and approved in S on June 6. The meeting was held at the White House. According to the President’s Appointment Book, Sukarno arrived at the White House at 10:25 a.m. and the meeting lasted from 10:28 a.m. to noon. (Kennedy Library)
  2. President Sukarno and his party and President Kennedy were joined by Vice President Johnson, Rusk, Steeves, and Jones for lunch from 1 to 2:45 p.m. (Ibid.)