CO RENTMEESTER / THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION / GETTY IMAGES A young man thorwing a knife in Indonesia, January 1966

Indonesia’s Forgotten Bloodbath

Cold War Crime and Cover-Up

In This Review

The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66
By Geoffrey B. Robinson
Princeton University Press, 2018
456 pp.
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"Forgetting the past was easy to do in Indonesia,” wrote Barack Obama in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope. When the future U.S. president was six years old, he moved to Jakarta with his mother, who had married an Indonesian man. They arrived in 1967, shortly after what the adult Obama would describe as “a massive purge of communists and their sympathizers,” when “between 500,000 and one million people were slaughtered.” Obama’s mother later insisted that they never would have gone to Indonesia if she had known about the massacres. His stepfather, who had been drafted into the Indonesian army, said that “some things were best forgotten.”

Few Americans have any awareness of what happened in Indonesia. Standard histories of the Cold War pay the country only cursory attention. (The historian Odd Arne Westad’s recent book, The Cold War: A World History, is a distinguished exception to that rule.) Today, with Asia central to world politics, what was once dismissed as the strategic periphery has become the core. But most Americans are ill equipped to understand the region and the role their country has played there. 

In The Killing Season, an authoritative and harrowing account of the massacres in Indonesia and their aftermath, Geoffrey Robinson seeks to recover this episode from historical oblivion. Robinson, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who previously worked for Amnesty International, tempers his indignation with scholarly rigor. Confronted with a void, he fills it with archival citations. What emerges is a scathing and persuasive indictment of the Indonesian military and the foreign powers—especially the United States and the United Kingdom—that were complicit in the brutality.

THE DESCENT INTO VIOLENCE

During the Cold War, Indonesia—the fourth most populous country in the world—became an irresistible prize for the United States, China, and the Soviet Union. As these powers vied for influence, they deepened existing divisions within the country. On the right, there was Indonesia’s reactionary army, as well as nationalist and

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