Given the intensity of competition for attention among 21st century conspiracists, it is noteworthy that a mid-20th century conspiracy theory involving John F. Kennedy and the Central Intelligence Agency still has an audience. JFK vs. Allen Dulles spins a tale about that relationship, the coup d’état that overthrew Indonesian President Sukarno and led to the mass murder of members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), and the post-colonial contest for sovereignty over West Papua. Also, for some reason, the death of Michael Rockefeller. A lot of text was devoted to establishing that Rockefeller drowned rather than was eaten by cannibals.
Unfortunately, Greg Poulgrain, History Lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast, approaches what is objectively important and potentially interesting historical material using the elements of conspiracist thinking. His cast of characters include a hero and archvillain, both American, plus numerous villainous co-conspirators and minions, most of them American but also Dutch, Indonesian, Japanese and, for an additional exoticism, émigré Russian. JFK is the idealistic hero ‘who would have done more good in the world, if only he had lived’ while CIA Director Allen Dulles is the manipulative and murderous puppet master in a sweeping historical tragedy. In keeping with the conventions of conspiracy theorizing that important events are the work of elites and not the masses, the agency of millions of ordinary Indonesians is ignored.
Also consistent with the aforementioned conventions, some of Dulles’s minions have secret identities which are revealed as proof of wrongdoing. For example, much is made of the suspicious surname of oil executive George de Mohrenschildt. He was the son of a Russian émigré of German and Swedish ancestry, Baron Sergius Alexander von Mohrenschildt, who wisely chose to change his surname to de Mohrenschildt after the First World War. Conspiracists instinctively distrust such “rootless cosmopolitans.” When they testify before the Warren Commission about their acquaintance with Lee Harvey Oswald and then later commit suicide, as George de Mohrenschildt did, that distrust may take on a frenzied quality.
In Poulgrain’s telling, Allen Dulles initiates an Outer Islands Revolt to mobilize the Indonesian Army as an aggressive instrument of authoritarian conservative nationalism in Indonesian politics. Recently decolonized Indonesia presented weak or non-existent political and cultural affinities between the ethnically hegemonic Java with the rest of the 6000 island archipelago. Dulles wanted the separatisms to provoke but fail.
Dulles then manipulated U.S. foreign policy to facilitate the transfer sovereignty over West Papua from The Netherlands to Indonesia for the purpose of safeguarding investments by wealthy Americans in gold deposits whose value was concealed first by the Dutch and then by the Americans. Unable to reestablish colonial rule over the Netherlands East Indies after the Second World War because of the strength of anti-colonial nationalism, the Dutch attempted to retain sovereignty over West Papua. Poulgrain credits Allen Dulles with torpedoing a fall back proposal of the Dutch to establish A United Nations Mandate to prepare West Papua for independence.
Finally, the Indonesian Army overthrew civilian dictator President Sukarno and massacred hundreds of thousands of communist party members and ethnic Chinese.
Sukarno’s broad based populist nationalism drew support from a coalition that included Islamists and Communist Party of Indonesia. The new anticommunist regime established by General Suharto after the coup d’état tolerated only the Islamists and then only as junior partners of the Indonesian Army.
There are serious problems with this account. First, it assumes that Allen Dulles spent decades in and out of government overseeing execution of a clockwork master plan, rather than responding to events in the Cold War that were chaotic and contingent. Deep down, conspiracy theorists really want their government officials to display incredible competence even when the objective is morally repugnant. There is psychological security of a sort in believing that those in charge are engaging in the equivalent of the precision heist in Oceans Eleven https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054135/ rather than the clumsy improvisation of Patriot https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4687882/.
Second, it abandons Occom’s Razor. None of the major events referred to in JFK vs. Allen Dulles have to be explained as the results of a spymaster’s machinations. The Indonesian Army was opposed to the disintegration of Indonesia before the Outer Islands Rebellion just as it was already intent on protecting its interests from the Communist Party of Indonesia before the coup d’état that overthrew Sukarno. The Netherlands lacked the military might to hold West Papua against Indonesia without help from the United States, and most observers in Washington understood that supporting European colonialism was a losing bet in the Global South. The Manichean worldview of conspiracy theorists leaves too little space for domestic politics as explanations for regime change. Poulgrain appears convinced that Allen Dulles’s CIA was responsible for the overthrow and assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as the assassination of United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in an air crash. That the former was the result of political ineptitude and the latter an actual accident does not serve his narrative.
Third, the conspiracy as described in the book relies heavily on Allen Dulles knowing and JFK remaining in ignorance of the Sino-Soviet split, the eruption of ideological and geopolitical rivalry between the radical Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China and the ‘revisionist’ Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. Why that asserted failure to share intelligence is crucial is not convincingly explained. Poulgrain writes that, “In 1965-66 he [Dulles] knowingly pursued the PKI to the point of physical annihilation to optimize the split in Sino-Soviet relations.” (p. 210) The problem with that statement is that JFK forced Allen Dulles to resign as CIA Director in 1961.
That the Introduction to the JFK vs. Allen Dulles was written by Oliver Stone gives away the BIG IMPLICATION: the CIA assassinated Kennedy. Poulgrain’s narrative supplies an additional rationale for the supposed conspiracy. Previous rationales have focused on the War in Vietnam. That Allen Dulles was a member of the Warren Commission is part of the narrative that Lee Harvey Oswald was ‘just a patsy’ and a CIA sniper did the dirty work in Dallas in 1963. However, as we witnessed in news from Nashville on Christmas Eve, lone cranks can plan and execute impressive violence.
Image Credit: Photo of John F. Kennedy and Allen W. Dulles are from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is in the public domain – credit: Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.