Suchoples on Simpson, 'Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968'

Bradley R. Simpson
Jaroslaw Suchoples

Bradley R. Simpson. Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008. viii + 367 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-5634-1.

Reviewed by Jaroslaw Suchoples (Independent Scholar) Published on H-Asia (June, 2017) Commissioned by Frank Dhont

Bradley R. Simpson’s book discusses the attitude of the United States toward Indonesia and American involvement in Indonesian developments during the administrations of three US presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. Indonesia, led by the radical nationalist, anti-colonialist, and leftist-inclined President Sukarno, precipitated an increasing number of headaches for US policymakers at the beginning of the 1960s. They were concerned about Sukarno establishing close relations between his country and the Soviet Union and Communist China. In this, Sukarno sought support for the policy of Indonesian irredentism, which aimed at the annexation of the Dutch part of New Guinea (West Irian), and confrontation with the United Kingdom and newly formed independent Malaysia perceived by Indonesia’s leadership as the fruit of British colonialism. American anxieties were further aggravated by the deterioration of Indonesia’s badly managed economy and, as a heavily indebted country, its budgetary weakness. The country’s financial resources were mercilessly drained by the army (especially the land forces) aiming to strengthen its own position domestically. The Sukarno government’s attempts to take over the assets of foreign investors in Indonesia (including American oil and mining companies) only worsened relations between Jakarta and Washington. 

Although the need for modernization of the economically backward and indebted (to both the West and the Soviet Union) Indonesia was obvious to local and US elites, there were important differences in relation to its framing. Simpson maintains that the US government was afraid of the increasing influence of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) adhering to the aggressive anti-colonial and nationalistic policy of President Sukarno. According to Washington, the PKI, supported by radicalized masses expecting imminent improvement in living conditions, could seize power in the country, convert Indonesia in the Communist bulwark of Moscow or Beijing in Southeast Asia, and follow patterns of modernization modeled on the Soviet Union and China. Examples of this model of modernization were already visible thanks to the construction of such industrial plants as, for example, a Soviet Union-financed steel mill at Cilegon on the coast of western Java. According to Simpson, this was promoted by Soviet officials “as a harbinger of rapid industrialization” (p. 49). In the eyes of US politicians during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the army represented the only possible counterweight against PKI influence. At the same time, they also perceived the army as the main vehicle of Indonesian stability and modernization, although they understood that giving generals power would create conditions for the establishment of an authoritarian (nondemocratic) government.

Simpson argues that the combination of all these factors was associated with increasing US involvement in the Vietnam War. This made Indonesia especially important for Washington. In other words, the United States could not afford the prospect of Southeast Asia’s most populous country falling into Communist hands. This explains why Sukarno was perceived in the United States as a dangerous populist; in alliance with the PKI, he endangered American policy in Southeast Asia, threatened Western companies doing business in Indonesia, and tried to undermine the position of the land forces of Indonesia’s main anti-Communist factor, initially counterbalancing the pro-Soviet, then the post-1963 pro-Chinese PKI. This American view of Sukarno was also the source of the enthusiastic support for the massive slaughter of PKI members and sympathizers organized by the Indonesian army, or under its tutelage, after the abortive coup of the 30th September movement. Allegedly organized by the Communists, the coup attempt was followed by the removal of Sukarno from his office as president of the Republic and the establishment of the military regime headed by General Suharto.

In addition, Simpson provides readers with information about earlier American attempts to remove Sukarno carried out in 1958 by the Eisenhower administration. (This involved supporting rebels led by the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia [PRRI]). The same concerns (opposed by Congress and torpedoed by Sukarno’s aggressive policy of confrontation against Malaysia) motivated activities of the Kennedy administration, which aimed to develop some modus vivendi in relations with Sukarno’s Indonesia through the provision of economic and military assistance. This longer historical background and longer historical perspective of US-Indonesian contacts in the 1950s and 1960s allows better understanding of the American approach toward Indonesia

Simpson presents well-documented accusations of the Johnson administration for the deliberate sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of totally innocent PKI followers in the name of the eradication of Communist influence in Indonesia. The administration was anxious both to preserve Western economic interests and to ensure the maintenance of Indonesia’s position in the Western world during the Cold War, which was increasingly hot, particularly in postcolonial Southeast Asia. According to plans designed by American policymakers, the United States supported or at least encouraged the physical destruction of the PKI and the installation of General Suharto’s military regime with hopes that the authoritarian government would be able to implement the country’s modernization. The Americans expected that, as a result, Indonesia could reach a sustainable and sufficiently high level of economic and social development. In turn, this would allow the eventual introduction of a democratic political system. These plans, designed in Washington, placed Indonesia alongside countries like Guatemala or Iran, where the United States supported military coups that culminated in the establishment of authoritarian governments oriented toward modernization guided by the army. On the other hand, success of US-sponsored and army-supervised Indonesian modernization would create a significant propaganda boost for the United States. This was badly needed by the Americans in the middle of the 1960s, because they felt that they were losing the Cold War, especially within the Third World community. For President Johnson’s administration, such successes were particularly important in the face of the military and political complications suffered in Vietnam, and the inadequate support from the American public for US military involvement in this country.

To sum up, Simpson notes that, in the longer perspective, the US policy toward Indonesia developed into a fiasco. Suharto’s military regime did not convert Indonesia to a country like Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan—developed and democratic. On the contrary, Suharto’s authoritarian government preserved the position of the army as the factor determining the most important aspects of Indonesia’s life (including its economic sphere) for the next decades. Rather than opposing, in the interests of the military rulers, Suharto approved and adopted the corruption and cronyism characteristic of Indonesian culture and social custom. Eventually, in 1998 after thirty-one years of his rule, the regime collapsed. His corrupt regime was unable to solve the country’s economic and social problems, and could not withstand the mass mobilization of disappointed and angry average citizens. The fall of Suharto’s regime sealed the fate of Indonesia’s attempted army-led modernization, supported from the very beginning (i.e., from the upheaval of 1965-66) by the United States.

The book does not present a breakthrough in terms of revealing totally unknown information about Indonesian developments during the 1960s. Nevertheless, Simpson draws the readers’ attention to many details hitherto omitted by historians. Those of particular value concern a variety of external and internal factors shaping the policy of the United States toward Indonesia, specifically economic dimensions. It is a pity Simpson uses so few Indonesian sources. Therefore, one could question whether the title of his work, which implies that the author mainly discusses the views and activities of Indonesian generals involved in their country’s army-guided attempted modernization (Suharto’s New Order), should instead emphasize more clearly and appropriately US-Indonesian relations and their economic aspects as they were perceived from the American perspective.

Simpson was also unable to avoid some small but irritating mistakes. His knowledge of geography and terminology relating to Indonesia and Malaysia is inadequate. For example, he virtually admits that he has no idea that Celebes and Sulawesi are two names for the same Indonesian island, when he uses them in one sentence as if writing of two different islands (p. 161). He also exhibits confusion when he refers to Kalimantan, the former Dutch and later Indonesian section of the island of Borneo. In one case, he writes of Indonesian “military incursions in Kalimantan and Borneo” during the confrontation against Malaysia (p. 132). In the Indonesian language the name Kalimantan refers to the whole territory of Borneo, but using these two names side by side proves that the author knows little about the geography of Indonesia. It results in a suggestion that, in 1964, the Indonesian armed forces attacked territory in its own country. Similarly, Simpson demonstrates his geographical ignorance about the Malaysian part of Borneo when he writes that “Indonesia accordingly stepped up its attacks and shifted the locus of military activity from Sarawak and Borneo to mainland Malaysia and Singapore” (pp. 133-134). At another point, he calls Sabah an island (p. 250). Multiple errors of this kind convince me that it would be desirable, for the good of the author and his audience, to both check the use of geographical names and to include in the text a map of the region showing the names of all places mentioned by Simpson.

Several other important details could also be corrected. For example, Simpson writes that the Japanese invasion of Indochina took place in 1939 (p. 100). In fact, Japanese troops were only present in Indochina from August 1940. Nikita S. Khrushchev, the first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and prime minister of the Soviet government, is once called the “Soviet president” (p. 101). All such small mistakes can be easily corrected in future editions of this book, and they cannot really undermine the discursive and informative value of the book.

Of greater importance is that Simpson presents an accessible and interesting account of how important Indonesia was for the United States in the 1950s and, especially, the 1960s (the era usually overshadowed by the Vietnam War), and the significance of the economic dimension of American policy toward Southeast Asia and, more generally, the Third World. He also analyzes in detail the United States’ role in the bloody events that took place in Indonesia after September 30, 1965. It is valuable that Simpson, although indirectly, also clarifies that there was no one decisive factor lying behind these events.

In a broader sense, thanks to the author’s effort, readers obtain a comprehensive history of Indonesia after World War II highlighted in the context of US-Indonesian relations. They also can learn much about the economic aspects of rivalry between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Communist China in Southeast Asia. Similarly, the book reveals the importance of postcolonial countries’ choice of the model of modernization in terms of their bilateral relations with the main actors of international relations during the Cold War.

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Citation: Jaroslaw Suchoples. Review of Simpson, Bradley R., Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. June, 2017. URL:

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