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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.3 (2003) 128-130

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Frances Gouda with Thijs Brocades Zaalberg, American Visions of the Netherlands East Indies/Indonesia: U.S. Foreign Policy and Indonesian Nationalism, 1920-1949. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2002. 382 pp. $37.00.

The turbulent period after the end of the Second World War in the Pacific saw the Indonesian struggle for independence reach a climax as the Dutch authorities vainly tried to reimpose anachronistic and alien rule over their sprawling Southeast Asian island empire. One of the prevailing myths surrounding the eventual achievement of Indonesian statehood in December 1949, according to Frances Gouda and Thijs Brocades Zaalberg in the book under review, was that the United States backed the nationalist cause in a consistent and sustained manner, living up to the anticolonial rhetoric that many Americans had championed during the war against Japan. However, as the authors acknowledge at the outset, English-language scholarship on this issue has long since demolished any such notion, most notably Robert J. McMahon's meticulous study, Colonialism and Cold War: The United States and the Indonesian Struggle for Independence, 1945-49 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981). Instead, historians of U.S. foreign relations tend to highlight the fact that the various forms of U.S. aid and assistance to the Netherlands effectively gave indirect support to the Dutch during [End Page 128] their military campaigns against the Indonesian Republic proclaimed by Sukarno in August 1945. American conversion to the independence cause came very late in the day. With this as a starting point, Gouda and Zaalberg go on to dissect U.S. attitudes toward Indonesian nationalism and the colonial policies of the Netherlands, employing prewar, wartime, and postwar perspectives. The result is something of an occasionally untidy melange, which is filled nonetheless with some fascinating material for those who have a special interest in the early phase of the Cold War in Southeast Asia.

That said, in many respects the most interesting part of the book is its treatment of U.S. views of Indonesia before the Second World War, a largely uncharted area. In the 1920s U.S. consuls in the archipelago offered a positive image of a profitable and harmonious colony in which stereotypical Dutch virtues of good governance, courage, industry, and tolerance of local traditions could flourish. The surge of Indonesian nationalist feeling after the First World War, the strikes and unrest in the labor movement, and the political repression that surrounded the Communist rebellions of 1926-1927 on Java and Sumatra (pp.79-81) seemed to make little impression on the U.S. envoys. But in the 1930s, as the Great Depression hit U.S. economic investments and a New Deal-influenced idiom of social justice began to enter the State Department's vocabulary, U.S. assessments of Dutch policy became more jaundiced. This period coincided with the governor generalship of B. C. De Jonge, whose archconservatism elicited the opprobrium of U.S. diplomats. As the decade wore on, the contrast between Dutch contempt for the principles of self-determination and the more reformist U.S. colonial practices in the neighboring Philippines (especially with the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934), became ever more apparent (pp.91-98). During the Second World War itself, the Dutch empire's collapse in the face of the Japanese onslaught was partly redeemed in American eyes by Queen Wilhelmina's (very vague) promise in 1942 of a greater measure of autonomy for the Dutch East Indies. In 1944 Franklin Roosevelt made clear that he would not oppose the return of Dutch rule (p.115).

With the arrival of Cold War tensions in Europe after World War II, the Truman administration gave higher priority to relations with the Netherlands than to colonial issues in Southeast Asia. Direct U.S. involvement in Indonesian affairs was minimal until the summer of 1947. Thereafter, fears that the Soviet Union could exploit nationalist calls for independence, and the patent inability of the Dutch authorities to reach...