East Timor

excerpts from the book

The Trial of Henry Kissinger

by Christopher Hitchins

Verso Press, 2001


East Timor

... on 7 December 1975, when the armed forces of Indonesia crossed the border of East Timor in strength, eventually proclaiming it ... a full part of Indonesia proper.

Timorese resistance to this claim was so widespread, and the violence required to impose it was so ruthless and generalized, that the figure of 100,000 deaths in the first wave - perhaps one-sixth of the entire population - is reckoned an understatement.

The date of the Indonesian invasion - 7 December 1975 - is of importance and also of significance. On that date, President Gerald Ford and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, concluded an official visit to Jakarta and flew to Hawaii. Since they had come fresh from a meeting with Indonesia's military junta, and since the United States was Indonesia's principal supplier of military hardware ... it seemed reasonable to inquire whether the two leaders had given the invaders any impression amounting to a "green light". Thus when Ford and Kissinger landed at Hawaii, reporters asked Mr Ford for comment on the invasion of Timor. The President was evasive.

So gruesome were the subsequent reports of mass slaughter, rape, and deliberate use of starvation that such bluntness fell somewhat out of fashion. The killing of several Australian journalists who had witnessed Indonesia's atrocities, the devastation in the capital city of Dili, and the stubbornness of FRETILIN's hugely outgunned rural resistance made East Timor an embarrassment rather than an advertisement for Jakarta's new order. Kissinger generally attempted to avoid any discussion of his involvement in the extirpation of the Timorese - an ongoing involvement, since he authorized back-door shipments of weapons to those doing the extirpating - and was ably seconded in this by his ambassador to the United Nations, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who later confided in his memoir A Dangerous Place that, in relative terms, the death toll in East Timor during the initial days of the invasion was "almost the toll of casualties experienced by the Soviet Union during the Second World War." Moynihan continued:

The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.


Henry Kissinger on a lecture tour for his book Diplomacy, August 11, 1995, Park Central Hotel in New York, questioned by investigative reporters Allan Nairn and Amy Goodman:

Allan Nairn: Mr Kissinger, my name is Allan Nairn. I'm a journalist in the United States. I'm one of the Americans who survived the massacre in East Timor on November 12, 1991, a massacre during which Indonesian troops armed with American M-16s gunned down at least 271 Timorese civilians in front of the Santa Cruz Catholic cemetery as they were gathered in the act of peaceful mourning and protest. Now you just said that in your meeting with Suharto on the afternoon of December 6, 1975, you did not discuss Timor, you did not discuss it until you came to the airport. Well, I have here the official State Department transcript of your and President Ford's conversation with General Suharto, the dictator of Indonesia. It was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. It has been edited under the Freedom of Information Act so the whole text isn't there. It's clear from the portion of the text that is here, that in fact you did discuss the impending invasion of Timor with Suharto, a fact which was confirmed to me by President Ford himself in an interview I had with him. President Ford told me that in fact you discussed the impending invasion of Timor with Suharto and that you gave the US . . .

Kissinger: Who? I or he?

Nairn: That you and President Ford together gave US approval for the invasion of East Timor. There is another internal State Department memo which is printed in an extensive excerpt here which I'll give to anyone in your audience that's interested. This is a memo of a December 18, 1975, meeting held at the State Department. This was held right after your return from that trip and you were berating your staff for having put on paper a finding by the State Department legal advisor Mr Leigh that the Indonesian invasion was illegal, that it not only violated international law, it violated a treaty with the US because US weapons were used and it's clear from this transcript which I invite anyone in the audience to peruse that you were angry at them first because you feared this memo would leak, and second because you were supporting the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, and you did not want it known that you were doing this contrary to the advice of your own people in the State Department. If one looks at the public actions, sixteen hours after you left that meeting with Suharto the Indonesian troops began parachuting over Dili, the capital of East Timor. They came ashore and began the massacres that culminated in a third of the Timorese population. You announced an immediate doubling of US military aid to Indonesia at the time, and in the meantime at the United Nations, the instruction given to Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as he wrote in his memoirs, was to, as he put it, see to it that the UN be highly ineffective in any actions it might undertake on East Timor . . .

[shouts from the audience] Kissinger: Look, I think we all got the point now . . .

Nairn: My question, Mr Kissinger, my question, Dr Kissinger, is twofold. First will you give a waiver under the Privacy Act to support full declassification of this memo so we can see exactly what you and President Ford said to Suharto? Secondly, would you support the convening of an international war crimes tribunal under UN supervision on the subject of East Timor and would you agree to abide by its verdict in regard to your own conduct?

Kissinger I mean, uh, really, this sort of comment is one of the reasons why the conduct of foreign policy is becoming nearly impossible under these conditions. Here is a fellow who's got one obsession, he's got one problem, he collects a bunch of documents, you don't know what is in these documents . ..

Nairn: I invite your audience to read them.

Kissinger: Well, read them. Uh, the fact is essentially as I described them [thumps podium]. Timor was not a significant American policy problem. If Suharto raised it, if Ford said something that sounded encouraging, it was not a significant American foreign policy problem. It seemed to us to be an anti-colonial problem in which the Indonesians were taking over Timor and we had absolutely no reason at that time to pay any huge attention to it.

Secondly you have to understand these things in the context of the period. Vietnam had just collapsed. Nobody yet knew what effect the domino theory would have. Indonesia was . . . is a country of a population of 160 million and the key, a key country in Southeast Asia. We were not looking for trouble with Indonesia and the reason I objected in the State Department to putting this thing on paper; it wasn't that it was put on paper. It was that it was circulated to embassies because it was guaranteed to leak out. It was guaranteed then to lead to some public confrontation and for better or worse our fundamental position on these human rights issues was always to try to see if we could discuss them first, quietly, before they turned into a public confrontation. This was our policy with respect to emigration from Russia, in which we turned out to be right, and this was the policy which we tried to pursue in respect to Indonesia and anybody can go and find some document and take out one sentence and try to prove something fundamental and now I think we've heard enough about Timor. Let's have some questions on some other subject. [applause from audience]

Amy Goodman: Dr Kissinger, you said that the United States has won everything it wanted in the Cold War up to this point. I wanted to go back to the issue of Indonesia and before there's a booing in the audience, just to say as you talk about China and India, Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world. And so I wanted to ask the question in a current way about East Timor. And that is, given what has happened in the twenty years, the 200,000 people who have been killed, according to Amnesty, according to Asia Watch, even according to the Indonesian military.... Do you see that as a success of the United States?

Kissinger: No, but I don't think it's an American policy. We cannot be, we're not responsible for everything that happens in every place in the world. [applause from audience]

Goodman: Except that 90 percent of the weapons used during the invasion were from the US and it continues to this day. So in that way we are intimately connected to Indonesia, unfortunately. Given that, I was wondering if you think it's a success and whether too, with you on the board of Freeport McMoRan, which has the largest gold-mining operation in the world in Indonesia, in Irian Jaya, are you putting pressure, since Freeport is such a major lobbyist in Congress on behalf of Indonesia, to change that policy and to support self-determination for the people of East Timor?

Kissinger: The, uh, the United States as a general proposition cannot fix every problem on the use of American weapons in purely civil conflicts. We should do our best to prevent this. As a private American corporation engaged in private business in an area far removed from Timor but in Indonesia, I do not believe it is their job to get itself involved in that issue because if they do, then no American private enterprise will be welcome there anymore.

Goodman: But they do every day, and lobby Congress.


C. Philip Liechty, a former CIA operations officer in Indonesia:

Suharto was given the green light to do what he did. There was discussion in the Embassy and in traffic with the State Department about the problems that would be created for us if the public and Congress became aware of the level and type of military assistance that was going to Indonesia at that time. Without continued heavy US military support the Indonesians might not have been able to pull it off.

The Trial of Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger page

Index of Website

Home Page