Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia

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Meddlesome Countries in Glass Houses ...

By Kevin W. Fogg, Jan 16 2017 03:13PM

I think it is no secret that I really like to exercise my right to vote in American elections, and that I supported the presidential candidate who won my home state of Virginia this last autumn. Like so many people who fit that profile, I am appalled by the allegations that Russia may have tried to rig American elections. I am appalled, but not surprised. Furthermore, I am not surprised, and also struggling with whether to have feelings of indignation. This is because I know a bit too much about America’s history abroad.


For all our decrying of a foreign government meddling in our electoral process, we Americans should remember that we have frequently throughout the twentieth century been documented to meddle in other country’s elections!


When I taught Cold War history under Prof. John Lewis Gaddis (a rather outspoken conservative and pro-America historian), it was taken as a well-established fact that America had engaged in a campaign on multiple fronts to influence the Italian elections of 1948. Fearing another repeat of Czechoslovakia, where Communists had come to power through elections and immediately joined the developing Communist bloc, the US put all kinds of money plus both overt and covert actions into supporting the Christian Democrats in this election. Apparently, this tactic (using everything short of military intervention) came to be called “political warfare.” Certainly there was a campaign to get Italian-Americans to write home to relatives and discourage voting for Communists. Media events were staged to make the Christian Democrats look good. All signs point to suitcases of cash being handed to America’s preferred party. There were also engineered political stand-offs to create circumstances favorable to the Christian Democrats. Some of the interventions were just careful propaganda from abroad; some (like shipping over weapons with minimal or no reimbursement, just in case of a Communist victory) seem to have violated both US and Italian law at the time.


The case I know best, which is much less documented, is American intervention in the 1955 elections in Indonesia. Much more work has been done on the American support for a 1958 regional rebellion on Sumatra and Sulawesi, but it seems that the United States also intervened in the democratic national elections three years earlier. Indonesian historian (and priest, incidentally) Baskara Wardaya has written in his book about American policy towards Indonesia about a $1 million US dollar “donation” provided to the Masjumi party—with no strings attached. This was a tremendous sum in Indonesia in those days, but it is not entirely surprising that the CIA would dump it into a party that had both led the most pro-American administrations of Indonesia (almost explicitly crossing over to the American bloc) a few years earlier and would generate the leaders of the CIA-backed rebellion a few years later. Joseph Burkholder Smith, in his rather questionable tell-all memoir of his CIA agent days, also alleges that the US was subsidizing the Masjumi-aligned newspaper Abadi and that Masjumi’s failure to win an outright victory was a big surprise.


The big revelation from the Smith memoir, though, is the entirely believable allegation that the United States attempted to create a scandalous sex-tape with a Sukarno look-alike. The CIA apparently hired a balding Chicano actor in Los Angeles to play Sukarno, and filmed him in flagrante with a blonde woman portrayed as the wicked KGB operative pushing his policies to the left. If this is true, or even if a former CIA-agent wished people to believe it was true, it sounds an awful lot like kompromat.


So, although I am sad about recent foreign disinformation and influence games related to American elections, I’m not sure my country can throw many stones from our glass house. What the United States did in interfering with other country’s elections was morally wrong, and what the Russian Federation has done interfering in American elections was morally wrong, but no American intelligence official should claim that we do not understand or could not foresee these tactics.

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The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent any institutions or other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

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The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.