AMERICANS are not popular in South and Southeast Asia, and what the inhabitants in that wide area take to be American policy is liked even less. Indonesia, perhaps because she so recently threw off her colonial status, but for a good many other reasons too, is the focal point for criticism and distrust. Taking Java as a center, sentiment toward the United States becomes more favorable as the distance from that island increases; but only the Philippines in the whole region is outright friendly.

The factors in each country which have brought about this unhappy state of affairs are numerous and diverse. No generalization explains them. Indian neutrality, Burmese nationalism, Hong Kong's need for trade, the low price of rubber--all these have their part in creating the picture of Uncle Sam as an overbearing, selfish, malevolent figure whose altruism is but a cloak for sinister designs and whose purposes can result only in the enslavement of the masses, or, worse yet, in provoking World War III. And through this fabric of misunderstanding and fear can be clearly discerned the red thread of Communist propaganda--persistently magnifying differences, ascribing false purposes, manufacturing lies, in fact utilizing any device to bemuse the ignorant, deceive the poor and suborn the ambitious.

There are reasons for the critical attitude of Orientals toward the United States. From their point of view they are good reasons. Americans ought to know what they are, and to try to understand them even though they think them ill-founded. In Indonesia some of the reasons will seem quite irrational. An American going to that country for the first time since it achieved independence looks forward to his visit eagerly. He remembers the early struggle of his own country to throw off its colonial status. He looks back with satisfaction to the part the United States played in the last war in defeating the Japanese and thus rescuing Indonesia from alien occupation. He knows that the United States gave Indonesia strong diplomatic support in her struggle for independence after the war--possibly the decisive support. Strongly anti-colonial and anti-imperialist himself, aware of his friendly interest in this new country, the visitor expects to be greeted as the representative of a friendly nation. But he finds that Indonesians do not think that the United States is anti-colonial at all, but the leading imperialist Power. He finds that many of the people of these islands welcomed the Japanese invaders, who, they believed, were rescuing them from white domination. And he is astonished to realize that virtually all Indonesians take it for granted that the United States never was their ally, but has actually sided with their enemy, the Dutch. Thus they are convinced that it was not American sympathy, arms and influence which assisted Indonesia in gaining freedom, but Russia's "firm stand against Western imperialism."


Indonesia is led by a very small group of men--really only a handful. They received their education under Dutch auspices in the islands, or in Holland. Their political orientation is very considerably left of center, and they seem to be overwhelmingly anti-capitalist although they deny this. Their experience with capitalism has been an unhappy one. On the theoretical plane they know only Karl Marx's version of it, and their practical experience is confined to European varieties discarded by many Europeans now, and by the United States many years ago. The image of the American capitalist which emerges from Indonesian misconceptions is indeed frightening--a figure as abhorrent to us as he is to them; but it is not easy to make them understand that, in fact, he doesn't exist.

The Indonesians, quite naturally, confuse capitalism with colonialism. After 300 years of Dutch rule, they found themselves largely illiterate, with only the rudiments of a system of public health (Djakarta, the capital city, has no adequate water supply and uses open canals for its sewage). Their foreign trade was in the hands of the Netherlands and their retail business in the hands of the Chinese; Indonesians were for the most part common laborers, who worked at a pitifully small wage. Meanwhile, however, their islands had been developed economically to a high degree. Djakarta had an excellent port, there was a good inter-island transportation system, excellent irrigation works, roads and railroads, tin mines, oil fields, vast rubber and tea and tobacco and palm oil estates--all built to develop the riches of the Indies but to funnel them away through Holland "for somebody else's benefit."

Capitalism was used as an instrument of colonialism. There were no social controls such as America has devised, no attempt to seek the just distribution of the rewards of effort which can make capitalism the servant of the people. To the Indonesian, experience seemed to prove the Communist thesis that capitalism is simply the exploiter of the masses, and against this background it is difficult, if not impossible, for Indonesians to understand the American system which is called by the same name. We like to point out to them that this system has brought 160,000,000 Americans the highest standard of living the world has ever known, but still they mistrust it; and they mistrust us the more because we are so sure it is the best possible plan for organizing society.

It is not easy to estimate how much the difference in race and color affects the feelings of Indonesians toward Americans. We are regarded, of course, as a white country, although perhaps 10 percent of our citizens are Negroes and many millions more are of mixed blood; and we have a greater variety of races and more racial intermarriage than any other nation. Americans who live in Indonesia do not sense antagonism on racial grounds, and find the people extremely tolerant. It is true that there have been excesses against the Chinese (as there have been in the United States), but this has more likely been for economic than for racial reasons. But race and color cannot be ruled out as a cause for hostility, even though they may not easily be recognized as such. Nationalism flourishes by pointing up, and exaggerating, differences. And certainly nationalism is one of the strongest forces in Indonesian society today.

Religion is, perhaps, a greater cause of misunderstanding. Indonesia is estimated to be 90 percent Moslem, and while the people seem not to be very devout, their beliefs and customs and attitudes toward others are clearly affected by their faith. Indonesia counts herself as a member of the Moslem bloc in the United Nations. She reacts strongly whenever there is an international issue affecting a Moslem country, as in the recent case of Tunisia. The United States, considered a Christian country, must expect to be regarded with less warmth than if she looked to Mecca; and with open hostility if she has differences with any of the Islamic bloc.

The greatest opportunities for misunderstandings and bad feeling, however, seem to lie in the economic field. The United States is capitalist, Indonesia left-wing Socialist; the United States is highly industrialized, Indonesia a raw-materials country; the United States has the highest per capita income of any country in the world, Indonesia almost the lowest; while both Indonesia and America are rich in resources, the United States is rich in capital while Indonesia is poor. Since the United States needs copra, rubber, tin and oil, and Indonesia all manner of manufactured goods and capital, one would expect that cordial economic relations would result. This condition did exist to a certain extent in the past, but it is diminishing. World War II was fought to a successful issue though the rubber and tin of Southeast Asia were in the hands of our enemies. America obtained tin in the Western Hemisphere, and manufactured much of the needed rubber; and since the war our synthetic rubber industry has supplied more than 65 percent of our demands.

Indonesia gained her independence from the Dutch in 1949. It was predicted at that time that while this new country could look forward with confidence to the long pull, the economic difficulties of the early years would be almost insurmountable. Actually, the exact opposite happened. The first three years were unexpectedly favorable, the fourth year proved to be a year of crisis, and the future seems extremely uncertain. The outbreak of the Korean war in 1950 helped to set the new régime going economically. But this quick prosperity also engendered a degree of optimism and a profligacy of expenditure which laid the basis for 1953's troubles.

Rubber dominates Indonesia's foreign trade. It comprises more than 50 percent of her exports; and since it is sold for the most part to a hard-currency country (the United States), it provides an even larger share of her dollar exchange. The average price for rubber, 1935-1939, was 16.09 cents a pound. In 1949 it was 17.6 cents. In 1951 it skyrocketed to an average price of 60.9 cents. In 1953, the exceptional needs of the Korean war having been satisfied, it fell to around 20 cents. Tin, which comprises about 10 percent of Indonesia's exports, followed a somewhat similar pattern. From 1950 to 1953 the revenues of the Indonesian Government increased abnormally, and the reserve of foreign exchange mounted even more gratifyingly. The inexperienced government, not realizing the temporary character of this phenomenon, went in for an orgy of spending--not an unprecedented response among either Socialist or capitalist governments, one must admit. But while such policies will damage any state, they can be well nigh fatal to a new country. Indonesia bought 6,000 automobiles for government officials to ride in, 100 modern diesel engines for a railway system which, because of unsettled conditions, was hauling only about 50 percent of the normal amount of freight, hundreds of air-conditioned passenger cars (even including third-class carriages). The Ministry of Health bought large quantities of medical supplies and equipment. The Ministry of Economic Affairs made huge funds available for new enterprises. Thousands of new houses were built for government employees--an admirable accomplishment had there been the money for it.

But, alas, in 1952, the money began to run out, and the foreign exchange reserves to dwindle. A young, energetic and able Minister of Finance finally saw the danger. He hammered out a budget which, while not balanced, inclined in that direction; drastic foreign exchange regulations were imposed; buying abroad was discouraged. But the horse was more than half way out of the barn, and the task of pushing him back in has not yet been accomplished.

This unfortunate situation bears with increasing heaviness on Indonesian business, and on the standard of living of the people. One can have nothing but sympathy for them in this predicament. But an American finds that sympathy somewhat hard to maintain when it is suggested on every side that these troubles are due in large measure to United States greed and the machinations of Wall Street.

Of course, no one would seek to deny that the drop in the price of tin and rubber had a direct effect on the Indonesian economy; but that the fall in those prices was the result of an evil plot on the part of the United States is nonsense. In retrospect, it is easy to see that the American stockpiling program was badly handled, but the war against aggression was the cause, not American "greed." Actually there is an appreciation in America of the difficulties of the countries whose economies are based on raw materials, and a real desire to see an improvement in their lot. But these basic, inherited problems are complex, and only time and patience can bring solutions.

A meeting of the Rubber Study Group on which there are representatives of both the producing and the consuming nations was held in Copenhagen in the spring of 1953. The producing countries brought forward a "bufferstock plan" designed to assure more stable and higher prices, but it was not accepted by the consuming countries. The leading Indonesian newspaper, commenting on the conference, said that the scheme was rejected "by the Eisenhower Administration because it is composed of big business representatives whose purpose is to protect the synthetic rubber industry." Another paper which supports the conservative Moslem Party said: "Judging from facts, the suspicion that the United States wants Asian nations to remain always in the same bad conditions so that they will always feel the need of American aid and live on American charity is well grounded . . . what is given away with one hand is taken back with the other." These comments are typical.

It is apparent that there is confusion in the minds of many Indonesians concerning the real objectives of American aid. (There is confusion in many American minds too.) We say that we want to improve their economic position, and they say: "If that is so, give us a better price for rubber." Perhaps they want both the aid and the better price for rubber; but if it is only the latter, they are certainly right that it is a less embarrassing way to receive assistance.

The announcement of the United States Government that it desired to return the American synthetic rubber industry to private ownership had the unexpected effect of eliciting an official communication from the Indonesian Government. One might have thought that this proposal would be greeted with satisfaction in Djakarta, since the cost of producing synthetic rubber would no longer be subsidized by the United States Government. But the deep-seated mistrust of American intentions apparently caused the Indonesians to assume that the plants would be sold to private owners at a figure which took no account of their actual cost or worth, thus enabling the "rubber interests" to force down the price and destroy the growers of natural rubber in Indonesia. The idea that the new owners of the plants would beat down prices disregards the fact that private companies are operated for profit. The price at which they could sell the product profitably is the price which the growers of natural rubber would have to meet. This is their problem. It is not the problem of the American taxpayer. Of course, if the United States Government did, in fact, sell the plants to private owners at an unreasonably low figure, there would be some justification for complaint; but there is no evidence that this is intended.

Underneath all such differences of approach to economic questions in the United States and Indonesia lie the different attitudes toward the organization of society. As has been said, the few Indonesian leaders who were educated abroad went almost exclusively to the Netherlands. Since they were anti-colonial and anti-imperialist, they naturally fell in with left-wing groups. During the war years many took part in the underground work against the Germans. Thus they were trained as conspirators and revolutionists, and some of them joined the Communist Party. They learned nothing at first hand about the United States, and little about any other Western country. It is, thus, natural that Indonesian leaders should think of government as an agency intended to control all the activities of a country. They have had no experience of a government belonging to and accountable to the people. There has never been a national election in Indonesia, either before the revolution or after it. These leaders like the idea of democracy, despite their lack of experience with it; they are suspicious of private enterprise; and they despise capitalism, or what they have been told is capitalism.

These prejudices, this unsureness, and withal this sincere wish to build a democracy, supply the clue to Indonesia's attitude toward foreign affairs, which her leaders describe as a "positive, independent policy." They are determined to isolate Indonesia politically from the rest of the world until the country gets on its feet. This is not called neutrality, but independence; and by "positive" they mean that it will, they hope, leave the new state free to move in whatever direction seems most advantageous. From Indonesia's recent votes in the United Nations, it would appear that, in the view of the government, this advantage lies more in siding with the Russians than with the free world. For example, at the 1953 conference of the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East, which was held in Indonesia, there was a split between the U.S.S.R. and the other nations; but the Indonesian delegation separated itself carefully from the free nations. In fact, during the whole conference the delegation did not once vote against the Russians; when it could not go along with them, it abstained. But on several occasions Indonesia did not hesitate to vote against the United States. Perhaps this is a left-handed compliment. At any rate, her delegates are following a similar course in the United Nations General Assembly. Unfortunately, it is a trend away from an earlier, more friendly attitude; at the beginning of the Korean war Indonesia voted with the Western countries. She also signed the peace treaty with Japan, but seems now to have regretted it and has failed to ratify the treaty.

The vast majority of the Indonesian people are not yet politically conscious. They were, of course, in favor of ending Dutch rule and of gaining their freedom. The process of political education which freedom requires, however, they find slow and painful. The villages have an old form of communal organization, and are essentially self-governed as far as social and local economic affairs are concerned; but their political experience does not go beyond the community. They have little interest in national affairs, and international questions are entirely beyond them. It is unreasonable to expect that they would have an understanding of America on which real friendship could be based. Indeed, reciprocal knowledge and appreciation of Indonesia by Americans is almost as completely lacking, and it will take more than press releases and broadcasts to provide an atmosphere in which real understanding can develop.


In a world at peace the United States could be quite indifferent to being misunderstood; but in the world of today, when we are subjected to both military and psychological attack, friends are not luxuries. America has gone to some lengths to try to make her motives clear and to gain support for the policies--backed by treasure and blood--which, we feel, will help us and all free nations. There are many ways in which nations influence people and make friends (or enemies). Some of the methods we are using are nongovernmental, and have been used for a long time. Others are official, and adopted fairly recently. Of those which may be called private, some are man-to-man--the informed and very influential letters that travelers, or new citizens of the United States, write to the folks at home; some are group-to-group--the activities of missionaries, or businessmen, or scientists. Such influences can be both good and bad, but on balance we in the free world believe them to be good. The barriers that totalitarian states erect against such easy international intercourse shows that they are afraid of it.

Governmental programs, much emphasized in recent years, seek to charm the alien by gifts of money, by wide distribution of the printed or spoken word, by the sharing of technical knowledge. There are debits as well as credits here too, when the accounts are honestly cast up. Grants or loans of funds are an old device. From the earliest times nations have given assistance to their allies and bribed neutrals and their enemies. As an emergency measure such methods have utility, but they soon become self-defeating. Once an emergency seems past, the pride of the recipient turns him against the donor. The subsidy is a mark of inferiority; and, indeed, if continued long may bring the giver to the same level of poverty.

The use of "propaganda" is a newer development. The United States, a country with a free press, took it up reluctantly and looks upon it skeptically. It has been accepted largely as a necessary measure of retaliation. "Is it right that the only voice that is heard in the world is the voice of our enemies? We must speak even louder with the voice of truth." We get some satisfaction when we feel we have put the record straight, and no doubt our active friends do also, but there seems good reason for skepticism as to the effect of all of this argument on the neutral. In Southeast Asia they merely say, "Now we are getting two lies; we won't listen to either." (But actually they seem to heed more the voice of Moscow than the Voice of America.)

The sharing of knowledge with other nations seems by all odds the most acceptable method of assistance to them and the least damaging to us. Of course, this, too, is subject to misrepresentation. Technical advice to governments can be portrayed as an effort to control their policies; technical assistance to industry or agriculture can be pictured as a plot to take over the economy. But the advisers operate largely as individuals, and if they are carefully chosen, and establish cordial relations with the people, they can indeed be messengers of good will.


In Indonesia there are particular handicaps--the suspicion and hostility of government and people toward American policy, already noted; the ceaseless effort of the Communist Party to discredit every American action, governmental and private, and belittle every accomplishment; the newness of the nation and its lack of experience with the United States. Non-official American contacts with Indonesia are few. When it was a colony, relationships of all kinds between the inhabitants and other countries were discouraged by the Netherlands. But there are some American business enterprises there: the Standard Vacuum Oil Company, which has a producing division, a refinery in Sumatra, and a marketing organization throughout the islands; the California Texas Oil Company; General Motors, which has maintained an assembly plant in Djakarta since 1925; the Goodyear Rubber Company, with its plantations in Sumatra and tire factory at Bogor; and, of course, there are agents, mostly Dutch or Chinese, for the importation and distribution of American manufactured products and for the export of raw materials to the United States. Hollywood moving pictures are preferred to all others. There is no American bank. Only a handful of travelers from the United States visit the islands. There are a few missionaries. Since the war the Ford Foundation and the China Medical Board have given some assistance in the educational field.

On the official side, the American effort in Indonesia is also small, due, among other things, to two basic causes: first, the reluctance of Indonesia to accept assistance except on her own terms, and the extraordinary delays which occur in the definition of those terms; second, to the lack of organization and trained personnel through which assistance can be channeled. It must be remembered that "underdevelopment" in a country is almost always a result of lack of human, not material, resources. No amount of money will produce a steel mill without the skill to plan and operate it. The slow processes of education and training must precede effective aid in such cases.

The official United States program to win Indonesian friendship has consisted of an Export-Import Bank loan of $100,000,000 granted in 1950, not yet entirely spent; an offer of military assistance which was declined; a Technical Assistance program of a few million dollars annually; the provision of books, moving pictures and press handouts through the United States Information Service; and an "exchange of persons" program which has made available travel funds for Indonesian visitors to the United States and opportunity for study and training in this country. Compared with assistance programs in other countries it is small, but if the Indonesian Government and people had welcomed it in the spirit in which it was offered, it would have been very much larger.

It is important for us to reflect on the fact that the attitude of Indonesians toward schemes of assistance sponsored by the United Nations, such as the Technical Assistance program, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, is far more cordial than it is toward purely American programs. Doubtless the U.N. missions also suffer from lack of trained local people through whom to work. But the readiness of the Indonesians to coöperate with their efforts is apparent, and there is no criticism of their purposes by the people or the press.

The entire assistance program of the United States in the Far East was evolved to counter the open aggression and covert infiltration of Communism. The necessity for prompt action resulted in the adoption of particular measures before the basic purposes were thought through. It was suggested, for example, that if underdeveloped countries could be industrialized and the standard of living of their people improved, they would embrace democracy and love peace. How such a notion could have gained currency in the face of the experience with Japan is hard to understand, for Japan was an underdeveloped country until the early years of this century. She industrialized at an astonishing rate and the standard of living of her people was enormously improved. But this new-found strength was used not for peace but for aggression.

Now we are told that if people in the underdeveloped countries can be made more prosperous they will join our side in the cold war. But this is certainly still open to proof. There are very good reasons for seeking the improvement of conditions of life everywhere, and for a more equitable distribution of the world's riches; but to think such a consummation automatically produces political friendship is naive indeed. Perhaps the notion is an echo of the Communist assumption that the causes of war are economic, a theory which history belies.


In the light of the particular situation in Indonesia, what might our policy be? In the first place, if we want to make friends of the Indonesians we had better give up those aspects of our activities about which they are suspicious and hostile. This would mean discontinuing purely American financial assistance. If we are sincere in our desire to help build up the country, however, and I think we are, we should apply whatever we feel able to spend through the United Nations Technical Assistance program which the Indonesians welcome with enthusiasm. The United States Information Service should be informational. We should be ready to supply the facts about the United States when asked; but we should give up all propaganda activities. Nobody believes self-serving pronouncements, and more progress can be made in real enlightenment by sticking to unvarnished facts and leaving the interpretation to others. The program for exchange of persons should be enlarged to include as many as possible who are willing to go abroad for observation and training, and competent to profit by the experience.

Even this reoriented program would suffer from its official character, but it would not yield as many opportunities for effective Communist attack. Meanwhile, every avenue for coöperation of a private nature should be encouraged. The American people have a genius for perfecting ways of being helpful, group-to-group and man-to-man. Through foundations, committees established for special purposes, trade associations, professional societies, labor unions, the dynamic forces of our free society are always seeking means for improving man's lot. Some way may perhaps be found to extend these activities more widely beyond our frontiers. The Boy Scouts of America can help the Boy Scouts of Indonesia. American universities can benefit themselves, and can benefit education in the islands, by exchanging professors with Indonesian universities. Opportunities can be found for studying each other's culture; probably the recent visit to the United States of the Balinese dancers did more to bring Indonesia to favorable American attention than any other single event. A small beginning has been made in all these ways; their development is limited only by the will on each side to be friends.

Given the proper conditions, the opportunities for economic coöperation are great. But with the best will in the world, American investors cannot be expected to risk their capital in a country where security is still lacking, where the government is in the process of nationalizing foreign holdings, and where labor, tax and other laws make profitable operation almost impossible. The Indonesian Government has stated that it seeks foreign investments, but the terms have not yet been defined. They must rightly ensure that the Indonesian people will be master in their own house, but it is to be hoped that the terms will give sufficient benefits to friendly investors to make a real development plan possible. The American economy was built up by means of loans from abroad, but we did not lose our freedom in the process. There is no reason, given fair dealing on both sides, why Indonesia cannot develop and be free. Incidentally, the training of Indonesian managers and technicians can most expeditiously be accomplished coincident with foreign investment, especially if the terms of the contract provide for that. The initial staff would, of course, be foreign, but provision for training their replacements could be made. But it should be remembered that it takes some 15 years in the United States to fit an executive or a shop manager for his post. Indonesians cannot be expected to learn faster.

Much has been said here of Indonesian hostility. It should be made clear that this applies to Americans in general, more particularly to American institutions, and most particularly to American policy. It does not apply to individuals. Actually Indonesians are extremely courteous, friendly and kind. They are a simple and easy-going people who have undertaken great responsibilities and are acutely aware of the difficulties they face and of their lack of experience. We, on our part, must recognize these difficulties and be ready with both forbearance and courtesy. This will help more than our money.

Everyone wants to be liked, whether acknowledging it or not, nations as well as individuals. To be sure, Britain bore with wonderful complacency the opprobrium of most of the world for generations, for she was regarded as an imperialist nation in those days. She wanted peace in order that her trade might prosper, and she had the power and the will to secure it for a hundred years. But in the end her strength alone was not equal to the task, and the wars came.

Now the leadership has passed, at least for the moment, to the United States. We likewise wish peace. But we seek to secure it not by our strength alone, but by the combined strength of the free world. In such an enterprise the trust of the other nations is not only desirable, but essential; and it is not in the least easy to secure. It cannot be forced; it cannot be bought; and it cannot be won by clever salesmanship. In the end, if it comes at all, it will be because the basic concept of human freedom has been encompassed in policies so broad that men everywhere can rally to them without sacrificing their pride or their dignity, and without being diverted by petty jealousies, fears or prejudices.

These policies, and the instrumentalities to make them effective, are in a fair way to being forged; but they have not won popular understanding abroad, much less support. Whether the masses of mankind, especially in the newly-established countries, steeped as some are in superstition, handicapped by ignorance, and faced with the overriding task of making even a meager living, can recognize the issues and choose the way of freedom is a question. Those who believe in democracy think they can. But they would do well to remember the hugeness of the problem, and to school themselves in persistence and patience.

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  • WALTER H. MALLORY, Executive Director, Council on Foreign Relations; recently returned from a year's residence in Indonesia; author of "China: Land of Famine"
  • More By Walter H. Mallory