Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Atomic Bomb and Indonesian Independence: A Tragic Gift of Time

When Col. Paul Tibbets, the commander of the Enola Gay B29 bomber, dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, little did he know that he had inadvertently helped in the birth of the Indonesian nation.

By accelerating the end of World War II, the bombings of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and Nagasaki three days later provided a once-in-a lifetime opportunity for Indonesians to seize the moment, declare independence and set up a semblance of a working nation that would unite everyone, regardless of race, class and religion. It was a gift of time that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave to Indonesians in those two terrible moments of fire and destruction.

Most studies on the origin of Indonesian independence rightfully praise the role of Sukarno, Mohammed Hatta, the youth movement, Japanese Rear Adm. Maeda Tadashi, who lent his support to the declaration, and many patriots in navigating the difficult and uncertain days just ahead of independence.

Still, their efforts might not have been successful had there not been the brief vacuum of power and uncertainty between when the bombs were dropped and when the British finally arrived in Indonesia in September 1945. The vacuum itself was caused by the unpreparedness of the British to take over Indonesia, thanks to years of mutual distrust between the British and the United States in the Pacific theater.

Allied Distrust

Even though the British and the United States were on the same side in World War II, there were many disagreements between them on their vision for the postwar world. The British were especially distrustful of US intentions toward the European colonies.

As early as 1942, wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill rejected US suggestions about decolonization. “I have not become the king’s first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” Churchill famously proclaimed in 1942. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, he rejected the idea of trusteeship, which he saw as “40 to 50 nations thrusting interfering fingers into the life’s existence of the British Empire.”

By April 1945, the British Joint Planning Staff bluntly stated that they preferred that the Dutch and the French deal with the British rather than the Americans to recover their colonies. By 1947, of course, it was largely over for the British as India gained its independence and the empire did indeed crumble in a postwar — and postcolonial — world dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the American commander in the Pacific, fought tooth and nail against transferring jurisdiction over the “European colonies” to the British, believing that it would be difficult to pry the British loose from Dutch territory. At the same time, MacArthur himself was sympathetic to the Dutch, and he believed that the United States could have restored the Netherlands’ “orderly administration” in Indonesia with “full success at a minor cost”; he pressed to have the US liberate Java in 1944-45.

The US State Department, however, was not sympathetic to MacArthur’s arguments. An unnamed analyst argued that “US soldiers should not lose their lives for the sake of recovering the British colonial empire and its French and Dutch acolytes,” according to Dutch historian Frances Gouda. The analyst and others feared getting involved “in the politically explosive colonial problems of the British, Dutch and possibly French,” which might offend “the colonial peoples of Asia but also the free peoples of Asia, including the Chinese.”

The debate continued until the plan for the invasion of Japan was finalized in May 1945, after which MacArthur conceded. Churchill and Truman finalized the change that put Indonesia solely under British jurisdiction on July 24, 1945. When Japan surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945, Britain found itself in command of Indonesia, Southeast Indochina and all of South Asia.

Not surprisingly, given the very short time frame, the British were ill-prepared to manage such a vast swath of territory and had to be very cautious in dealing with Indonesians. This allowed enough time for the Indonesians to consolidate independence, adopt a constitution and establish a rudimentary parliament.

Moreover, the youths of this young nation managed to disarm the Japanese and organize themselves into a semblance of an army under the leadership of Sjahrir and Amir Sjarifuddin. By the time the first British battalion, the Seaforth Highlanders, arrived in Indonesia on Sept. 29, 1945, the republicans controlled much of the Javanese and Sumatran interior.

There is much to be said about the impact of the atomic bomb on Indonesian independence. Had Japanese troops not been paralyzed by the news of the atomic bombing and the surrender of their nation on Aug. 14, it is very doubtful that Sukarno and his colleagues would have been able to proclaim Indonesian independence at all. The Japanese were not all in agreement in helping Indonesia to achieve independence. The fact that Sukarno and his colleagues had to rely on the protection of Adm. Tadashi to write the proclamation showed just how wary the fathers of Indonesian independence were of the Japanese.

It was also uncertain that Indonesia would have been able to achieve independence had the well-prepared Anglo-American-Dutch-Australian forces invaded Indonesia between 1944 and 1946. At that time, there was no objective opinion on what was going on in Indonesia. The American view of Indonesia was heavily influenced by Walter A. Foote, its pro-Dutch consul general, who believed that the government of the republic was full of extremists and that the vast majority of the population was “apathetic toward politics and desire only right to return to work in peace.” Nationalist leaders were seen as “politically immature, diplomatically inexperienced and ideologically unreliable.”

Wasted Vision?

Undoubtedly, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were major tragedies, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, most of them civilian. On the other hand, the bombings accelerated the end of the conflict. Otherwise, the war in the Pacific might have dragged on for another year or more until the Allies finally launched an invasion of Japan.

The founding fathers of Indonesia understood this gift of time very well. They knew they only had a very small window of opportunity until the coming of the British to consolidate their newly found freedom. This window of opportunity was not something to waste in debating whether Indonesia had to have an official religion, for example, but to effectively construct an inclusive nationalistic society. It was a sign of their greatness and discipline that they managed to realize a grand vision called Indonesia in less than a month.

Yet in today’s Indonesia, their vision of tolerance and unity seems wasted. Religious minorities are wantonly killed as government ministers and legislative representatives defend light sentences given to their killers, further embarrassing Indonesia abroad. The scramble for power and the rapacious pursuit of wealth after the fall of the New Order, as shown most recently in the Nazaruddin case and other widespread malfeasance by lawmakers and officials, makes a mockery of the grand vision of our founding fathers.

In these days preceding the anniversary of Independence Day on Aug. 17, we may want to reflect on the time before the proclamation and think about how our founding fathers managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat through their decisive use of this small window of opportunity, the tragic gift of the atomic bomb and the lives of the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

By Yohanes Sulaiman lecturer at the National Defense University.

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