The Act of Killing essay: How Indonesia’s mass killings could have slowed the Vietnam War.

The Forgotten Mass Killings That Should Have Stopped the Vietnam War

The Forgotten Mass Killings That Should Have Stopped the Vietnam War

Then, again.
July 10 2013 3:52 PM

The Murders of Gonzago

How did we forget the mass killings in Indonesia? And what might they have taught us about Vietnam?

(Continued from Page 2)

Morris: Yes. The vomiting—whether the vomiting is one more performance for himself and for us, or if it is the result of something real. Can we ever know?

Oppenheimer: It’s both—in the same sense that an actor can tap into a real emotion through acting or we can make ourselves sad by choosing to remember something and talking about it in a way that makes us sad. It’s definitely both. He’s performing for my camera. He’s certainly aware of the camera and he’s thinking about that. At the same time, he’s performing in such a way that he allows the past to hit him with an unexpected force in that moment.

Morris: I just don’t know.

Oppenheimer: Really.

Morris: Well, you know him and I don’t. All I have to go on is really talking with you and watching the film. But I’m left in the end with a question. I know that there is a past for people, but do they ever deal with it. or do they just try to reinvent it or just make it up out of whole cloth?

Oppenheimer: You’re raising a very, very scary thought. It’s so disturbing in some way that it would’ve been hard for me to maintain my relationship with Anwar, if this were an operating assumption. It could be right. If Anwar doesn’t have a past and also has these at the very most echoes, reverberations or stains from what he’s done that he doesn’t recognize, and if the final moment is maybe yet another moment of performance, if he then disappears into the night and we’re left in this shop of empty handbags, and there’s no connection to the past on that roof, then it’s almost too chilling for me to contemplate what the whole movie is really saying. It’s a disturbing thought.


Real or faux contrition? It goes back once again to Hamlet—now to Act 3, Scene 3. The confession in the chapel. Claudius on his knees. “My offense is rank. It smells to heaven ...” But should Claudius be forgiven while still holding the crown and the queen? “May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?” And his final thought. “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” Is Claudius saying that his prayers are insincere? That all such prayers are insincere? That mere words can never erase the stain of the terrible crime that he has committed?

* * *

The Suharto regime produced its own film in 1984, called Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, or Treachery of the September 30th Movement/PKI. It is a government-sponsored false history of what happened in 1965.

The hero of the movie? Suharto himself. When he hears that the Communists have assassinated many of his superiors, he is cautious, deliberate—then finally announces that the army will crush the rebellion and avenge the deaths of the generals. The film ends with his funeral oration at the resting site of the dead generals, pleading with the Indonesian people to carry on. 

Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI comes up in The Act of Killing—a few scenes are included. And Adi Zulkadry and Anwar Congo, the two killers at the center of The Act of Killing, are asked about it while getting their makeup done for yet another re-enactment of murder.

Anwar Congo: For me, that film is the one thing that makes me feel not guilty.

Adi Zulkadry: That’s how you feel? Not me. I think it’s a lie. It’s easy to make the Communists look bad after they’re destroyed. Everything is stylized to make them look evil! Communist women dancing naked?

Congo: But we shouldn’t talk about this, Adi. We should talk about our film. We shouldn’t say bad things about the other film to outsiders. What matters is our film. 

5. The Conscience of the King

After finding his Senate testimony on Page 1 of the New York Times, I looked through the paper for much of 1966. The troubles in Indonesia were extensively covered. Kennan was not alone in commenting on mass murder in Indonesia. There were articles by Max Frankel, and, in particular, a four-part series that ran from Aug. 22–25, 1966, by Seymour Topping, the chief Southeast Asia correspondent and future managing editor of the New York Times. On Aug. 24, 1966, “Slaughter of Reds Gives Indonesia a Grim Legacy,” the third part, appeared on Page 1.3

I contacted Seymour Topping, now 91 years old. He had recently published a memoir, On the Front Lines of the Cold War. There was a series of chapters on the 1965 coup and the killings that followed. Early in the book, Topping tells a story about his four-part series and the effect it had on LBJ. Johnson didn’t see the Indonesian killings as obviating the need for escalation in Vietnam. Quite the contrary. He saw his aggressive posture on Vietnam as a good thing because it made the killings in Indonesia possible. It was part of the war against Asian communism.

Here’s Topping:

“Transferred from Moscow to Hong Kong as chief Southeast Asia correspondent, I traveled to Indonesia, where I covered the dethroning of Indonesian president Sukarno after the 1965 leftist putsch that brought on the retaliatory purge coup by army generals in which an estimated 750,000 people died. Bill Moyers, press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, tells of the summer of 1966 when Johnson kept copies of my Indonesia dispatches about the army coup and the genocide that followed ‘in his pocket and on his desk so that he could show them to reporters and visiting firemen.’ Johnson was contending then that his stand in Vietnam had emboldened the Indonesian generals to crush the Communist bid for domination of the archipelago.”

I suppose it’s part of an endless discussion about cause and effect. About history. Did LBJ’s actions in Vietnam embolden the right-wing generals in Indonesia, and as a result help to make the 1965 coup possible? Did the coup obviate the need for the further escalation of the Vietnam War? No more falling dominos, at least in Indonesia. That much was clear to Kennan.

Cullen Murphy, the former editor of the Atlantic and now an editor at Vanity Fair, wrote to me about these issues.

“I was struck by the insidious circularity of the Indonesia/Vietnam dynamic. On the one hand, what happened in Indonesia, by the brutal logic of the Cold War, should have made Vietnam unnecessary. On the other hand, the Vietnam War, by the brutal logic of the Cold War, and as LBJ argued, made what happened in Indonesia possible. Don’t we have to stop thinking this way? But it's the part of the imperial British outlook that was transferred intact into the Washington mindset during the course of World War II––like one of those pathogens carried to a new host by an organ transplant.”

New York Times, August 24, 1966.
New York Times, Aug. 24, 1966

Courtesy of the New York Times

Kennan’s attempt to stop the escalation of the Vietnam War reminds us that if you’re trapped in a narrative, you’re not interested in anything that might contradict that narrative. You’re simply not going to listen. (Doors closed; lights out.) You’re not interested in revisiting the assumptions on which your narrative is based. Kennan wrote about being “enslaved to the dynamics of a single unmanageable situation—to the point where we have lost much of the power of initiative and control over our own policy.”4

Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing opens with questions about historical amnesia. Is it possible to forget about (or to condone) the deaths of 1 million people? It is much easier for us, probably, to imagine such a thing happening in a developing nation. But what started with a story about Indonesia became for me a story about America. About the deep link between Indonesia, Vietnam, and the United States. And our ability to forget.

Have we erased the memory of what happened? Have we denied our own complicity?

When Kennan testified in February of 1966, the real carnage had not yet begun. Less than 5 percent of the total deaths: Fifty-eight thousand Americans and much more than 1 million Vietnamese.


* * *

On Sept. 26, 2002, 35 years later, Kennan spoke out again. Ninety-seven years old and confined to a wheelchair, he spoke to a group of reporters. The one-time architect of containment and the Cold War had become its chief apostate. It was an admonition and a warning. And a re-enactment of what Keenan knew about war. But this time, his remarks were not extensively reported. They did not appear in the New York Times, let alone on Page 1. Nor did they appear in the Washington Post. I know about them because Mark Danner quoted from them in his 2006 article “Iraq: The War of the Imagination,” in the New York Review of Books. Here is what Kennan said:

“Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before ... In other words, war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it. Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.”

The interview took place in the apartment of former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, whose anti-Vietnam War campaign in 1968 was endorsed by Kennan. Kennan was asked to compare Bush and LBJ—Bush’s request to Congress to go to war in Iraq and LBJ’s request to Congress to go to war in Vietnam—the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Kennan was adamant—such resolutions “lead to no good ... You have to look at things all over again, every day, every week, every month, and adjust what you are doing, but do it in the light of the experience of the past ... There is a very, very basic consideration involved here, and that is that whenever you have a possibility of going in two ways, either for peace or for war, for peaceful methods or for military methods, in the present age there is a strong prejudice for the peaceful ones. War seldom ever leads to good results.”

Among other things, Kennan was delivering an argument for the importance of history. “You have to look at things all over again, every day, every week, every month, and adjust what you are doing, but do it in the light of the experience of the past ...” Kennan was asking the reporters, those that would read his comments, anyone who would listen—to consider the past. And yet, the past in 2002 had been all but forgotten.

I returned to Kennan’s remarks as quoted in the New York Times on Feb. 11, 1966, but I wanted to read the entire transcript of what he had said to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It’s not online. It can be found in Foreign Relations of the United States. Long, eloquent, and impassioned, Kennan’s testimony concluded with a quote from John Quincy Adams—his July 4, 1821 address to Congress.

“Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all …”

I would like to thank my interviewees—Bradley Simpson, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Seymour Topping—and other people who I talked to for this project—Ron Rosenbaum, Michael Witmore, Mark Danner, Tom Luddy, Cullen Murphy, Fredrik Logeval, and John Roosa. There were the people who read the piece and checked the facts—Jessica Melvin, Yvonne Rolzhausen, and George Kalogerakis. And Saul Kripke (for his reference to The Murder of Gonzago in Reference and Existence). I’d like to thank Ann Petrone and Max Larkin for helping research and edit the piece. And of course, my wife, Julia Sheehan.

Correction, July 15, 2013: This essay previously listed the dates for the beginning and end of the Johnson administration where it should have had the dates on which McNamara assumed and then left the office of secretary of defense.



Errol Morris is the Oscar-winning director of The Fog of War and several other films. He is an executive producer, along with Werner Herzog, of The Act of Killing.