Sunday, 28 November 2021 22:48

Review of Greg Poulgrain’s JFK vs Allen Dulles: Battleground Indonesia

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Lauding its brilliant dramatic conceit along with copious and fresh source material and alluring insights, Michael LeFlem reviews Dr. Greg Poulgrain’s JFK vs Allen Dulles: Battleground Indonesia as one of the best reads in its genre.


“Dulles is a legendary figure, and it’s hard to operate with legendary figures.”

-President Kennedy

Let us state the preconditions for the drama that historian Greg Poulgrain is going to compose in his stellar volume, JFK vs Allen Dulles: Battleground Indonesia. Sukarno led Indonesia to independence against both the Dutch and the Japanese. After World War II, he became the first leader of an independent Indonesia. He then became one of the foremost spokesmen for the Non-Aligned Movement, that is, the Third World leaders who did not wish to get involved in American/Russian Cold War struggles but wished to navigate their own foreign policy choices free of those entanglements. Some of his partners in this enterprise were Nehru of India and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. In fact, the first meeting of this group was in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955.

At the time Sukarno was leading this movement, the two men supervising American foreign policy were the Dulles brothers. John Foster as Secretary of State and Allen as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. To put it mildly, they did not appreciate the attempts at neutralism in the Third World. (Robert Rakove, Kennedy, Johnson and the Nonaligned World, pp. 10–11) They believed that there was no such thing as neutrality in what they cast as a rigid, dogmatic Cold War world outlook.

Partly due to this, the CIA tried to overthrow Sukarno in 1958. At that time, this was perhaps the largest Agency operation ever. Ostensibly, it was not successful. And American participation in the attempt was exposed by the shooting down of CIA pilot Allen Pope. To put it gently, Sukarno did not appreciate what the Dulles brothers had tried to do. He also did not like the fact that the United States would not help him in his quest to attain West Irian from the Dutch. Sukarno thought that territory was entitled to Indonesia and should have been turned over at independence.

Thus, another layer of intrigue is placed over the situation. As Poulgrain notes, Allen Dulles and the Dutch knew something about West Irian that Sukarno did not. In 1936, there had been a joint Dutch/American mountain expedition to the highest point in West Irian, this included Dutch geologist Jean Jaques Dozy. Dozy’s report was discovered in 1960 by Forbes Wilson of Freeport Sulphur. Wilson sponsored a second expedition. Both groups found out that there were immense deposits of gold, silver, and copper in the Carstensz Pyramid, in a place called the Ertsberg. Two miles away, in an alpine meadow, was another huge deposit in an area called the Grasberg. The combined value of the mineral resources in those two places staggered the imagination. To make just one statement about it: This was the largest repository of gold in the world at that time. And it is why the Dutch did not wish to give up the area. Allen Dulles was trying to find a way to let American interests exploit both the Ertsberg and the Grasberg.

Besides Sukarno and Allen Dulles, the third major character involved in Poulgrain’s epic tragedy is John F. Kennedy, both as a senator and as president. In 1957, Kennedy made a speech on the floor of the Senate which startled the Dulles brothers, President Dwight Eisenhower, and Vice-President Richard Nixon. He made clear his disagreement with the administration over their support for France in its attempt to keep the North African colony of Algeria as part of the French empire. (Allen Nevins, editor, The Strategy of Peace, pp. 66–80) Kennedy opened that speech by saying that people around the world wanted to be independent and that the enemy of independence was imperialism. Kennedy was saying he understood that the era of European colonialism was ending and he was willing to side with the Third World nationalists in Algeria against the longtime American ally in Paris. Sukarno and the Non-Aligned Movement now had a potential ally in Kennedy. In the election of 1960, that potential was realized.

When Kennedy took office, he arranged a deal. Sukarno would return Pope to the USA and Bobby Kennedy, along with diplomat Ellsworth Bunker, would convince the Dutch to give Sukarno West Irian. This was called the New York Agreement and it was signed at the United Nations in late summer of 1962. The Dutch were out of the picture concerning the Ertsberg, but Dulles still understood what the real situation was. Kennedy and Sukarno did not. With the assassination of Kennedy in 1963 and the overthrow of Sukarno in 1965, Dulles achieved his original goal for his backers, the Rockefellers. How those last two steps were achieved form the backbone of Poulgrain’s work, because they depict the triumph of both Dulles and Freeport Sulphur, which later became the giant mining conglomerate Freeport-McMoran. They also depict one of the most horrible of modern-day atrocities: the attempted extermination of the PKI, the Indonesian communist party, which resulted in the expulsion of Sukarno and the rise of the military dictatorship of General Suharto, who would rule Indonesia for three decades.

[The above prologue was by James DiEugenio]

It’s a rare thing when an author achieves a comprehensive and penetrating analysis of a long-forgotten historical episode, while delivering his story with a pace more apropos to a thriller novel than a groundbreaking addition to the historiography of the C.I.A. at mid-century. Dr. Greg Poulgrain’s sweeping and important book is one of the most exciting reads in recent memory—equal parts Indiana Jones, Ian Fleming novel, and geopolitical tour de force—with keen attention paid to the inner personalities of two of the most iconic figures of the 1960s, Allen Dulles and John F. Kennedy. We watch as they played their delicate chess game to determine the future of the Indonesian government; and, by extension, control of the nation’s vast offshore petroleum reserves, along with the largest gold deposit ever discovered in human history.

Poulgrain’s book stands out for a number of reasons, not least for the flair he possesses as a stylist. Often books on subjects such as this plod through the historical data, citing numerous and turgid anecdotes and stenographic notes from dry briefings that largely put one to sleep. I’ve always found this unfortunate, as the real history of the C.I.A. during the 1960s contains the stuff of the greatest fiction, the greatest cinema. And Poulgrain seems to have noticed. While never shying away from the archives and the documented record, his achievement lies first in his framing of the chance 1936 discovery of the Ertsberg mother lode by a daring prospector working for a Dutch petroleum company as a dramatic hook. He then juxtaposes this earlier timeline against the colorful backdrop of the later power struggle playing out between a freshly elected President Kennedy and his soon to be nemesis, C.I.A. Director Allen Dulles, all the while filling in the relevant gaps to guide the reader through this powerful climactic showdown, which includes a chapter on UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold.

Moreover, Poulgrain was able to meet with Jean-Jacques Dozy, the prospector who struck gold in 1936, as well as with key political figures relevant to the later political drama in Indonesia during the overthrow of Sukarno in 1965. He conducted a series of interviews from the late 1970s to the late 1980s. And he weaves together his personal notes from these interviews to enrich and enliven the story even further, lending a sort of murder-mystery air to the book in high fashion. How much gold was really in the Ertsberg? Were the explorer and his team complicit in the initial coverup? Who really held the keys to Indonesia’s future? Were internal forces and internecine Indonesian strife responsible for the fated events that unfolded over the next three decades? Or were Dulles and friends in Langley solely to blame for another bloody coup by proxy? Such are the questions the author explores in his fine work.

A special notice should go to the portrayal of the night of September 30, 1965. That evening may rank with the Night of the Long Knives as to pure treachery and diabolical aim. Many historical commentators have tried to figure out what really happened on that evening, which created such a reversal of Indonesian history. Due to the interviews he did with some of the survivors of that dark episode, Poulgrain gives us the best explication ever written unraveling that mystery. The book is worth reading just for that chapter. (See Chapter 7)

As most readers of this genre understand by now, Allen Dulles represented an iconic, often sinister, and looming figure in the grand tapestry of mid-century America. From his longstanding ties to the giant law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, to his role in the creation of the Treaty of Versailles, to his vast Rolodex of spies, assassins and international contacts, to his close friendships and admiration for postwar Nazi war criminals like Reinhard Gehlen, he presents an impenetrable and often sociopathic personality, someone who, in his own words, enjoyed the sound of a rat’s neck breaking as the spring trap snapped shut.

Driven in large part by pure imperialistic greed and deception, and at other times by what appears to be a genuine aversion to anything resembling socialism, collectivism, or non-alignment with U.S. anti-communism, Dulles was the perfect foil to the pro-Third World, pro-decolonization John F. Kennedy. Three years prior to his close victory over Richard Nixon, Kennedy delivered impassioned speeches on the Senate floor, championing the freedom of the Algerian people against the French:

I am concerned today that we are failing to meet the challenge of imperialism—on both counts—and thus failing in our responsibilities to the free world. (Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy in the Senate, Washington D.C., July 2, 1957, John F. Kennedy Library)

Yet, in many ways, Sullivan and Cromwell was about imperialism. If one is representing the Rockefellers, as Allen Dulles was, then one is involved with an imperialistic system of beliefs. This ideological impasse between two irreconcilable worldviews serves as the tense thematic backdrop against which the book’s many detours add both color and historical perspective to the dramatic saga of the Indonesian archipelago at the beginning of the decolonization era. As Poulgrain notes, “Kennedy realized during his first year in office that much of the advice on Indonesia from DCI Dulles was premised on the belief that Sukarno’s leadership was Indonesia’s fatal flaw.” (JFK vs. Allen Dulles, p. 46)

While most scholars seem to place the singular showdown between Dulles and Kennedy at the Bay of Pigs debacle—designed to fail by Dulles and associated C.I.A. cohorts in order to force Kennedy to commit U.S. carrier air support—Battleground Indonesia, the subtitle of Poulgrain’s book, presents a fascinating window into a largely overlooked, but critically important, episode in the Pacific. This episode would represent, along with the Congo Crisis, some of the last gasps of pure unfettered imperialism in its most crystalline form, a quixotic adventure involving obscure shell corporations operating illegally under C.I.A. protection, powerful moneyed interests from the shadow world, familiar names from the later Kennedy assassination plot like George de Mohrenschildt and L. Fletcher Prouty, and corrupt Indonesian officials and splinter groups with their own diverse interests. All of this played out under the wary eye of a sitting U.S. president who intimated that some of his closest intelligence advisors were obfuscating and distorting the situation to suit their own agendas. It is, at once, a tragic and incredible story that has been largely lost in the dizzying array of C.I.A. exploits the world over and, as Poulgrain observes, “into this matrix of intelligence entanglements, Kennedy proceeded unawares.” (JFK vs. Allen Dulles, p. 9)

The attraction of this work also lies in another achievement that is often forgotten in books of the genre, namely, the personal touch. Frequently, Poulgrain plays the role—commandingly—of amateur psychologist and adds in important depth and essence to the characters involved in this grand undertaking to gain control of the Ertsberg and its associated billions of dollars of ore, to name but one of the numerous story arcs in JFK vs. Allen Dulles. Too often, we forget that human beings, no matter what their titles or powers, are still just that, human beings and, as such, are often fallible, naive, ruthless, proud, furtive, bold, corrupt, cowardly, impetuous, sanguinary, honorable, and countless other adjectives. They are rarely the simple paper cutouts in the annals of history in the extensive catalog of books attempting to detail their exploits.

This book lives up to its title: JFK vs. Allen Dulles, while tying together a grand panoply of monied interests, international power players, secret agents, and heads of state, ultimately still reads like a battle of two central personalities: President John F. Kennedy, the fresh and enterprising ingenue, filled with a sincere conviction to deliver on his promises to liberate the oppressed people of the developing world—perhaps the last sitting president to legitimately champion the ostensible slogans of the United States overseas and at home—against the Old Guard hardline anti-Communist Director of Central Intelligence Allen Welsh Dulles, Kennedy’s eventual nemesis and the likely architect of his untimely demise in the backseat of a limo in Dealey Plaza. It’s a brilliant dramatic conceit and, when combined with the copious and fresh source material and alluring insights of a first-rate researcher like Dr. Greg Poulgrain, makes for one of the best reads in its genre.

Last modified on Sunday, 02 January 2022 22:40
Michael Le Flem

Michael Le Flem is an independent researcher, author, and musician. He was a professor of history and philosophy in Chicago for ten years and holds a Master's Degree in Western Intellectual History from Florida State University. He currently lives in Mexico.

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