United States presidential elections still have the power to make some people wistful for the days when presidents got some respect. Barack Obama entered office on a wave of “hope” that was felt as much globally as within the United States itself. No president has been so revered globally since John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy is hailed for a firm hand in foreign policy, a willingness to change course and move towards peace where warranted, and nimble “crisis diplomacy.” One apparent success came in Kennedy administration mediation of the Indonesia-Netherlands dispute over control of West Papua (then known as West New Guinea, and later renamed Irian Jaya by its Indonesian rulers). Although the administration’s mediation efforts leading to Indonesian control of the colony are generally hailed as a success, they failed to address the roots of the conflict, which continues today.
Kennedy’s intervention arguably prevented an immediate explosion, but it did so at the cost of forty years of instability. If it prevented an immediate war, it permitted a simmering low-intensity war that cost thousands of lives. Here, as in so many of Kennedy’s initiatives, the New Frontiersmen concentrated on short-term crisis management. Their failure to consider local aspirations – a failure rooted in inability to see the “primitive” dark-skinned Papuans as legitimate international actors – created the conditions for an ongoing insurgency. Histories of the dispute have only been able to see it as a Kennedy success because they, too, have ignored the Papuans themselves
The Netherlands had retained West New Guinea as a colony when it recognized Indonesian independence in 1949; Indonesia demanded the territory be “returned to the fold of the motherland” and threatened an irredentist war. By pressuring both sides into an American-authored agreement, the Kennedy administration felt it had managed to avoid a Dutch-Indonesian clash, which would have benefited only the Soviet Union, and also hoped to maintain stability in Southeast Asia at a time when it was increasing American commitments in the region.
American involvement in the dispute ignored the local population entirely. Yet West New Guinea remains in dispute between the Indonesian government and a nationalist movement among the indigenous Papuan population, a conflict rooted in the aborted decolonization process. Apart from the removal of Dutch colonial rule, the dispute today remains similar to that in the years 1960–1962: should the territory be part of Indonesia, or an independent country? Kennedy’s intervention arguably prevented an immediate explosion, but it did so at the cost of forty years of instability. If it prevented an immediate war, it permitted a simmering low-intensity war that cost thousands of lives.
Fifty years after the 1955 Bandung Conference of 29 Asian and African governments, considered to be the birth of the “Third World,” the Indonesian government celebrated the anniversary of its first major international conference. Papuan nationalists delivered a letter to most foreign embassies in the Indonesian capital, calling their land’s struggle an issue of unresolved colonialism. There are regular Papuan suggestions that the US role in the Indonesian annexation of West Papua implies a responsibility for the outcome, half a century later.
In the attached article, originally published in the journal Diplomatic History in 2009, I explore the conflict from U.S., Indonesian and indigenous standpoints, and address background influences on Kennedy administration policy. These include the influence of mental maps derived from the cold war and colonial anthropology, perceptions of race that equated the inhabitants of West New Guinea with ideas of stone age primitivism, gendered perceptions that privileged vigorous action and crisis management, and modernization theory that defined stages and places of development.