Remembering East Timor


On April 14, 2018 President Donald Trump announced a successful missile strike in Syria. American citizens and leaders in the United Nations questioned whether this action was the right one. When trusting foreign policy to our government leaders it is hard to know the correct decisions, but we can look back at history to see what mistakes have been committed in order to avoid more. On December 9, 1975 Dictator Muhammad Suharto invaded East Timor and slaughtered its citizens. Americans mustn't forget a crime of this horrific scale.

Philip Liechty, a senior CIA officer, described the crimes, “There were people being herded into school buildings and set on fire. There were people herded into fields and machine-gunned.” In other accounts it is described that family members were executed in front of each other, children were beat to death against rock cliffs, and many of the witnesses that described these crimes to the outside press would eventually disappear.

These events should be remembered not only for the sake of history and the victims, but also for us to recognize the participation of the United States government in these events. At the time the United Nations and United States both publicly condemned Suharto’s actions, but due to declassified files and a UN sanctioned commission report, it was later revealed that the U.S. actively backed the invasion. The State Department reported that the Ford Administration provided approximately 90% of the arms that were used in the invasion between 1975 and 1979. President Jimmy Carter accelerated the arming during his tenure. Liechty further explained, “We sent them rifles, ammunition, mortars, grenades, food, helicopters. You name it; they got it. ... None of that got out in the media. No one gave a damn. It is something that I will be forever ashamed of.”

In the days leading up to the invasion President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with Suharto and discussed their relationship. In the meeting Suharto said, “We want your understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action [in East Timor]." Ford replied, "We will understand and will not press you on the issue. We understand the problem you have and the intentions you have.”

Kissinger urged Suharto not to invade until Ford returned to America because "we would be able to influence the reaction in America if whatever happens happens after we return. This way there would be less chance of people talking in an unauthorised way.” The U.S. also blocked intervention from the United Nations’ humanitarian efforts to alleviate the crisis. As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Daniel Moynihan explained, "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 not inconsiderable success.”

Historian Dr. Douglas Brinkley confronted former President Ford for his biography, Gerald R. Ford (The American Presidents Series: The 38th President, 1974-1977). Ford expressed great regret for his responsibility for the atrocities. He explained that he trusted his close officials, and did not think to doubt their assessments. They told him that if they supported Indonesia in this endeavor that they would gain clout in the region that they desperately needed after the loss in Vietnam.

The lesson we should take from this is not that the United States is evil, but instead that the government is run by normal people who are fallible. It is hard for me to imagine that Ford would have made the same decisions if he had the knowledge of their consequences. Trump’s recent actions in Syria and Hillary Clinton’s tendency to take advice from Henry Kissinger reveal that both political parties are filled with warhawks. The government cannot handle the responsibility of policing the world.

About one third of the population of East Timor was killed, with one estimate that the death toll can have been no lower than 102,800. The Indonesians committed human rights violations such as torture, sexual violence, and forced displacement. Government is not run by saints who know what is best for everyone, Governments are made up of people just like you and I, and inevitably they will make mistakes. The difference between us and them is that if they make a mistake, thousands of lives could be destroyed. That is why we must limit their power as much as possible. The United States cannot keep acting as the world’s police because one organization having that much power will ultimately lead to more East Timors.


John Pilger, Hidden Agendas. (London: Vintage, 1999) Pages 285-286.

Chomsky, Noam, and Edward S. Herman. The Political Economy of Human Rights. The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism. Nottingham: Spokesman, 1979.

Moynihan, Daniel Patrick, and Suzanne Weaver. A Dangerous Place. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1978. Page 247.