The Curious Case of Harold Lovestrand

Summers in Indonesia are notoriously hot, which is not really much of a surprise for a nation of islands that straddles the equator.  The summer of 1965 was much hotter if you were an American in Indonesia.  In August of that year, missionary Harold Lovestrand, his wife and four children discovered what it meant to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.  The Classified Central Subject Files of the United States Embassy in Djakarta from 1963-1966, a record series currently undergoing declassification processing, contains a pair of folders from 1965 and 1966 dedicated to the Lovestrand case, a poignant example of United States embassies’ role in assisting American citizens in trouble overseas.

To understand what happened to the Lovestrand family, one has to look at the broader picture of U.S. – Indonesia relations, especially as they stood in 1965.  Indonesia in that year was still a young country, only 16 years removed from its violent separation from its erstwhile colonial master, the Netherlands.  Indonesia’s population was extremely diverse, as one would expect for an archipelago nation that spreads over an area of nearly three-quarters of a million square miles and whose peoples speak more than 700 languages.  Indonesia’s initial attempts at parliamentary democracy in the late 1940s and 1950s failed as the many political parties founded in the wake of Indonesian independence could not govern the nation.

The Father of the Nation, Sukarno, had determined by the late 1950s that the country needed to follow a different path of governance.  With both a large Muslim population and an politically ambitious Army officer corps both looking for increased roles in government, Sukarno crafted a nationalist state dominated by a Sukarno cult of personality that began a leftward drift towards turning Indonesia into a full-blown communist state, forsaking the much admired non-aligned stance that Sukarno embraced after the Bandung Conference of 1955.  The country suffered much from local revolts, those in the west of the country caused by Muslim separatists being complimented by independence uprisings in West New Guinea (a territory later to be known as West Irian).

In foreign affairs, Sukarno was outraged by the creation of the Malay Federation in 1963, where the former British Crown Colonies of Malay, Singapore, North Borneo, and Sarawak were unified into a single country.  Sukarno condemned a United Nations survey that established the borders between the new nation and Indonesia, thus beginning Indonesia’s move to isolate itself from the world community that did not support its territorial ambitions.  The confrontation with Malaysia brought Indonesian armed forces into battle against British Commonwealth forces, a conflict that would span the next three years.

By the beginning of 1965, Indonesia was a witch’s brew of sectional tensions, inflationary economy, internal security threats, military action over Malaysia, and a government increasingly prone to paranoia.  The mood of both the government and the people grew increasingly anti-Western.  Sukarno moved to take Indonesia out of the United Nations early in 1965, followed shortly thereafter by departure from other international bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.  Diplomatic establishments also suffered harassment–the British Embassy in Djakarta was virtually destroyed in 1963 during a riot over Malaysian independence.  This harassment extended to  American diplomatic posts as well, as U.S. support for Malaysia as well as the developing conflict in Vietnam made the U.S. a prime target for Sukarno’s and Indonesians’ anger .  The U.S. Consulates in Medan and Surabaya, as well as the Embassy in Djakarta were all subject to riots and protests, and the United States Information Service libraries in several locations were broken into and sacked by mobs.  Protesters displayed signs calling for a formal severance of relations between the U.S. and Indonesia right in front of the Embassy’s entrance.  It was in this environment that the case of the Harold Lovestrand family entered the world stage.

Reverend Lovestrand was a missionary from the Evangelical Alliance Church living with his wife and four children near the town of Manokwari, West Irian (on the bird’s heard shaped peninsula extending to the west of the large island of New Guinea).  West Irian was a hotbed of revolt against the Indonesian government after its United Nations-sanctioned incorporation into Indonesia in 1963.  When Sukarno’s regime made it clear that the UN-mandated plebiscite that was to be held to determine West Irian’s future would not be held as promised by the UN agreement with Indonesia, an armed revolt by the population was inevitable.  By August 1965, the Lovestrand family, caught in the middle of what was virtually a civil war, became unwilling witnesses to the conflict between elements of the Indonesian Army airlifted to the theater and the Papuan separatists of West Irian.  Ultimately the Indonesian Army prevailed; however, Indonesian troops found what they considered to be suspicious items around the Lovestrand mission, a location recently the scene of fierce fighting, and the family was taken into custody on the tentative charge of subversion on August 7.  By August 11, the Indonesian Army moved to the Lovestrands to the island of Java by slow boat, as the family did not reach their destination–Djakarta Army Prison, until August 27th or 28th.

The U.S. Embassy became aware of the Lovestrand’s plight only on August 21st, when news of the family’s detention appeared in an Indonesian news agency report.  That information was confirmed two days later at a press conference given by the Indonesian Army general charged with ruling West Irian.  After that day, the Embassy used all avenues of approach to gain access to the missionary family.  However, given the strained state of U.S.-Indonesia relations, U.S. Ambassador Marshall Green was unable to see the Lovestrands until the evening of September 13th, more than a month after the family was taken captive.

After the interview with the Lovestrand family, Ambassador Green continued his efforts with the Indonesian government to secure the release of the Americans.  Various reports coming into the Embassy confirmed the suspicions of the Embassy staff that the Indonesian government had no evidence of Reverend Lovestrand’s participation in sedition.  A positive development did take place on September 25th, when Indonesian authorities released Mrs. Lovestrand and her children, a full week after the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Subandrio, formally notified Ambassador Green that they would be set free.  Mrs. Lovestrand and the rest of the family moved into housing in the Djakarta area, where the children were allowed to attend school once again.  However, Reverend Lovestrand continued to be held by the Indonesian Army.

A complicating factor in the Lovestrand case was the attempted revolt within the Indonesian Army that led to the deaths of six senior generals on the night of September 30th/October 1st.  The revolt was influenced to some extent by Indonesia’s communist party (PKI), although recent scholarship disagrees as to the extent.  Regardless, the incident created chaos throughout the country that made it much more difficult for the Embassy to monitor the Lovestrand case.  Changes in the Indonesian government and constant shifts in power and influence of various officials overseeing the Lovestrand case prevented the Embassy from finding out even basic information concerning Lovestrand, much less being able to work for his release.

As the days in September unfolded, Indonesian authorities finally granted the Consul access on September 27th.  Embassy officials were told that they could visit the prisoner at two-week intervals, but the documents in the 1965 Lovestrand folder do not confirm visits on that schedule.  Similarly, available documents indicate that a medical visit was scheduled for November 22nd, again with no evidence in the folder that the visit actually took place.  The 1965 file does confirm that medical visits did take place on December 20th and 21st.  By this time Lovestrand faced significant medical issues that added more tension to the situation.  The Embassy’s final document in the Lovestrand folder for 1965 is a December 22nd telegram describing a conversation between an Embassy official and the wife of the Indonesian Armed Forces Chief of Staff, where once again the Embassy pressed for the release of Reverend Lovestrand.  As had happened with previous meetings with Indonesia’s power elite, promises to seek release were made, but the desired result still proved elusive.

By the time of an Embassy update back to the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, on January 6th 1966, Lovestrand was showing great improvement to his health following a period of hospitalization.  The same telegram also showed Ambassador Green’s determination to push for the release of Lovestrand, both locally in Djakarta and through the Indonesian ambassador in Washington D.C..  A subsequent telex from the State Department to the Embassy recounted a January 14th meeting between Indonesian Ambassador Lambertus Palar and Samuel D. Berger, Assistant Deputy Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, where the Ambassador admitted that there were no charges against Lovestrand, that there was no incriminating evidence found against Lovestrand, and that the subversion investigation against the missionary was completed and, finally, he would be released soon. The major difficulty at this point was that the case was in Sukarno’s hands, as no lower-ranked Indonesian official would make the decision to release the captive American.

By late January, the Lovestrand case exerted significant pressure on U.S.-Indonesian relations.  Secretary Rusk telexed Ambassador Green on January 29th to pursue the matter closely with Foreign Minister Subandrio.  The resulting conversation did not take place until February 9th, during which Ambassador Green discovered from the Indonesian that the Indonesian Attorney General had a signed confession from Lovestrand stating that he failed to report evidence of a Papuan revolt.  Subandrio volunteered to press the case with the Attorney General in the hope of resolving the case.  Other intermediaries continued to press Sukarno for Lovestrand’s release–the Embassy realized that its continued pressure on Sukarno was creating more problems than progress.  Finally, on March 18th, the Embassy indicated in a telegram to Rusk that the Indonesian Attorney General began processing paperwork to deport Lovestrand.


On March 22nd, the Embassy acknowledged receiving the deportation order, and the Lovestrand family was booked on a KLM flight leaving Djakarta on March 23rd.

Although the documents concerning the Lovestrand case fill only two slim folders out of the 31 boxes in the Djakarta Embassy’s Classified Central Subject Files series, they provide an prime example of the effort they put forth for American citizens in trouble in a foreign country, one of the oldest missions an embassy performs.  The 7 month 16 day ordeal of the Lovestrand family took place at a tumultuous time in Indonesian history, but the family was indeed fortunate in being able to overcome dire circumstances a long way from home.  Harold Lovestrand subsequently wrote about his Indonesian experience in the book Hostage in Djakarta, published by the Moody Press in 1967.

6 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Harold Lovestrand

    1. The NDC blog says the Lovestrand case that happened to the masses put significant pressure on US-Indonesia relations. Rusk Secretary urged Ambassador Green on January 29 to resume talks with Foreign Minister Subandrio. The resulting conversation did not last until February 9, where Ambassador Green found that the Indonesian Attorney General received a signed confession from Lovestrand stating that he did not report evidence of a rebellion in Papua. Other brokers continue to urge Sukarno to free Lovestrand. The embassy realized that the ongoing pressure on Sukarno created more problems than progress. Finally, on March 18, the Indonesian Embassy indicated by telegram to Rusk that the Indonesian Attorney General began processing documents to deport Lovestrand. […]

      Apakah ini terjemahan yang adil dari komentar anda?

  1. Harold Lovestrand is still alive, at age 92. His book describes the incidents surrounding his incarceration, the communist-led coup d’etat and the power of prayer in much more detail, but these papers corroborate what is in his book. Though it is out of print, it is still available on eBay and in some libraries, and it is well worth reading. Thank you for publishing this synopsis of the state department’s role in the story.

Leave a Reply