1960-1969 | Backing dictatorships | Indonesia | Instigating coups

Macmillan urges President Kennedy to ‘liquidate’ Indonesian President Sukarno

Macmillan with President Kennedy in 1961.
Don Pinder - CC BY 2.0 - via Florida Keys Public Libraries.
Macmillan with President Kennedy in 1961.
Don Pinder – CC BY 2.0 – via Florida Keys Public Libraries.

27 April 1962

On 27 April 1962, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan arrived in Washington for two days of talks. He was met by a sun tanned President Kennedy, who’s own plane, according to the New York Times, had brought him back from Palm Beach a few minutes earlier.1 The private discussion that followed might shock those who fondly remember Macmillan as the moderate ‘one nation’ Conservative, a chivalrous Edwardian gentleman seemingly out of place in the ruthless underhand politics of the Cold War era.

In their 2016 study of British prime ministers and secret intelligence, The Black Door, historians Richard J Aldrich and Rory Cormac, claim that Macmillan, ‘urged’ Kennedy ‘that they should work together to “liquidate” Indonesia’s president Sukarno.’2 The original revelation of the plot however dates back to William Blum’s 1986 book The CIA: A Forgotten History, in which Blum quoted from a CIA report which summed up their otherwise off record conversation.  The CIA operative claimed that, based on his ‘conversations with Western diplomats’ that the two leaders had ‘agreed to liquidate President Sukarno, depending upon the situation and available opportunities.’3

Even when the Labour Party won the 1964 general election and Harold Wilson became prime minister, British determination to be rid of Sukarno remained just as strong.  In early 1965, Wilson warned President Johnson that Sukarno’s outlook had moved ‘steadily leftward for many years,’ adding that if they could remove Sukarno it was likely that right wing generals would be able to seize control, returning Indonesia to more favourable pro-Western and pro-business policies.4

Contrary to Wilson’s claims, Sukarno remained a relatively moderate nationalist leader who in 1948 had put down a left-wing coup attempt, but by the mid 1960s with the Viet Cong insurgency worsening in Vietnam, Washington and London began to regard him as dangerously neutral in the wider cold war conflict.  When Indonesian generals, under the leadership of Suharto, staged a coup against Sukarno in 1965, a CIA agent enthusiastically provided them with the names of suitable murder victims, while Washington rushed in supplies of arms. Britain also lent the coup invaluable help. London promised Suharto that if he needed to move troops south from Borneo, that British forces in the Western part of the island would not take advantage, and even providing two Royal Navy warships to escort Indonesian troops from north eastern Sumatra to Jakarta where the generals badly needed them to consolidate their hold on the capital.5

According to a surprising admission in a CIA study, the army instigated massacres which followed the 1965 coup ‘rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century’ with between half a million and a million suspect communists, leftists and uncooperative peasants slaughtered.(6) Seymour Topping in the New York Times described it as ‘staggering mass slaughter,’ although another of the paper’s correspondents, James Reston, considered the coup ‘a gleam of light in Asia’ as the country agreed to open up to Western multinationals.(7) British officials were also happy. Historians Aldrich and Comarch observe, ‘Whitehall wanted maximum bloodshed.'(8) As the generals murdered hundreds of thousands, the British resorted to a covert propaganda campaign, inserting articles into Indonesian newspapers and broadcasting from a concealed radio station a message which blackened the reputation of Indonesia’s communist party (the PKI), to smear Sukarno himself as a communist and to laud the generals as patriots who were entirely independent of any western influence.(9)


  1. The New York Times quoted by the JFK Library online – https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/New-York-Times-Chronology/Browse-by-Date/New-York-Times-Chronology-April-1962.aspx#Week4
  2. Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac, The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers, William Collins, 2017, p. 221.
  3. ‘Liquidating Sukarno,’ The Times, 8 August 1986, p. 12 accessed online at urlhttp://www.cambridgeclarion.org/press_cuttings/sukarno_times_8aug1986.html
  4. Roland Challis, ‘Our Dirty Secret Behind Indonesia’s Coup,’ The Sunday Times, accessed online at https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/gelora45/FbAQKakJXv0
  5. Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac, op. cit., pp. 267-268.
  6. Stephen R. Shalom, Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert, ‘East Timor Questions and Answers,’ Z Magazine, October 1999 accessed online at https://chomsky.info/199910__02/
  7. Seymour Topping, ‘Slaughter of Reds Gives Indonesia a Grim Legacy,’ The New York Times, 24 August 1966 and James Reston, ‘A Gleam of Light in Asia,’ The New York Times, 19 June 1966
  8. Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac, op. cit., p. 270.
  9. Rory Cormac, Disrupt and Deny: Spies, special forces and the secret pursuit of British foreign policy, Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 174-175.

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