Who was really behind the dismissal of the Whitlam Government? As we approach the 40th anniversary of the dismissal, Dr George Venturini* critically examines the giddy rise of Gough Whitlam, his reforms, his cold relationship with the Nixon Administration, the Khemlani loan scandal, the dismissal of the Whitlam Government on 11th November, 1975 and the questions that have lingered since. This is a four part series which will conclude on the anniversary of the dismissal.
Is this an ally?
In November 1972 the American people re-elected Richard Milhous Nixon to the Presidency of the United States. Nixon would have on his side Henry Alfred Kissinger, a proponent of Realpolitik, who played a dominant role in United States foreign policy between 1969 and 1977.
Both turned out to be war criminals. Nixon’s name is indelibly connected with Watergate. There was nothing that Kissinger would/would not do in pursuit of one of his ‘principles’ – a ‘philosophy’ thus formulated: “The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer”. He said so in the presence of Melih Esenbel, Turkish Foreign Minister, in Ankara, on 10 March 1975.
In December 1972 the Australian people elected Edward Gough Whitlam’s party to form the government. Left in those hands, the American Administration response to the Whitlam Government could only be sinister.
But there was also from the very beginning a ‘problem of acceptance’ of the new government. In outlining his ‘Program’ Whitlam offered much, perhaps too much: “We have a new chance for our nation. We can recreate this nation. We have a new chance for our region. We can help recreate this region”.
He asked the electors:
“Do you believe that Australia can afford another three years like the last twenty months? Are you prepared to maintain at the head of your affairs a coalition which has lurched into crisis after crisis, embarrassment piled on embarrassment week after week? Will you accept another three years of waiting for next week’s crisis, next week’s blunder? Will you again entrust the nation’s economy to the men who deliberately, but needlessly, created Australia’s worst unemployment for ten years? Or to the same men who have presided over the worst inflation for twenty years? Can you trust the last-minute promises of men who stood against these very same proposals for twenty-three years? Would you trust your international affairs again to the men who gave you Vietnam? Will you trust your defences to the men who haven’t even yet given you the F-111?”
The response from an electorate attuned to periodical ‘plebiscites’, when part of a parliament is ‘chosen’ through an electoral system which defies any decent notion of democracy by compulsory exhaustive distribution of the votes cast in the ‘two-party’ system to which 23 years of torpor had lulled a largely indifferent populace, was rather disappointing. Labor-with-Whitlam obtained a slim but working majority of nine in the House, but did not gain the Senate.
Any explanation would require a lengthy discussion. Perhaps a historical master-servant relationship would go a short way – but precisely: people who share the rhetoric of ‘mateship’ and the illusion of “fair go”, who satisfy themselves with the notion that “she’ll be right” and who trust that the essence of life is “no worries”, easily become accustomed to ‘things as they are’ under the reassuring ‘presence’ of the Hanovers – who would guarantee from abroad what passes as form and propriety, even if in time expressed by a majordomo in top hat and tails; from across the ocean security would come with the ‘protection’ from a Great and Powerful Friend.
Ask any squatter, race fixer, bookie, real estate agent, ‘producer’, obsequious toady, solicitous lobbyist with their ambulance-chasers and classist judges – and all receivers of, dealers in, stolen goods since 1788 – and they would, though misbelievers, confirm that is ‘as designed by Divine Providence’.
And who would want to deliver the government of ‘this great country of ours’ to the tallest poppy ever seen around?
A literalist would be time-wasting in accepting verbatim Donald Horne’s view of his countrymen.
In chapter four of his The lucky country, dealing with it as ‘Between Britain and America’, Horne wrote: “Australians are anonymous, featureless, nothing men. This modest anonymity reveals itself in the argument that Australia does not run to the kind of person we could turn into a president [of a future Australian Republic]. Is Australia alone in the world in being unable to rig up its own head of state? This is backwater colonialism, nervous of its final responsibilities”.
Horne had already asked himself ‘What is an Australian?’ The response was as cruel as before: “The demand for mindlessness can be so pervasive that able men deliberately stumble around with the rest lest they appear too clever, and therefore too ‘impractical’ … Much energy is wasted in pretending to be stupid. To appear ordinary, just like everybody else, is sometimes a necessary condition for success in Australia”. He had already said: “Many of the nation’s affairs are conducted by racketeers of the mediocre who have risen to authority in a non-competitive community where they are protected in their adaptations to other people’s ideas”.
Those harsh words were written in 1964, and the spirit of such people could not possibly have changed in eight years, towards the coming of the Whitlam Government.
There was perhaps more than the search for a witty expression in the words of Senator Reg Withers of Western Australia, who denounced the arrival of the Whitlam Government as an ‘aberration’ for which he would hold responsible some fringe seats around the two main Australian cities. In and out of the Senate Withers was known as ‘the Toe-cutter’. He was a monarchist, ‘non-ideological’, famous for ‘getting the sensible things done’, and regarded as ’the architect of the supply-withholding’ from the Whitlam Government. It became de rigueur to portray the new government as a troupe of amateurs – noisy clowns, rather – led by an ‘idealist’, and who had come to town but would not stay long, anyway.
A crisis arose almost immediately after the formation of the government. In December 1972 Nixon ordered massive bombing of Hanoi – not to coerce Hanoi, perhaps, but to convince the vassals in Saigon. During the ‘Christmas season’ more bombs were dropped on northern Vietnam in three weeks than in the previous three years. Such action could not be condoned by the Whitlam Government.
What, it seems, the governments of the Menzies era did not know, or pretended not to know, is that between 4 October 1965 and 15 August 1973 the United States would drop far more ordnance on Cambodia than was previously believed: 2,756,941 tons in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites. The bombing was designed to deny help through that unfortunate country to the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. The impact of the bombing is now clearer than ever: civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged population into the arms of an insurgency which had enjoyed little support until the bombing began, setting in motion 1) the expansion of the Vietnam war deeper into Cambodia, 2) a coup d’état in 1970, 3) the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately 4) the Cambodian genocide under Pol Pot. To put 2,756,941 tons into perspective, the Allies dropped just over 2 million tons of bombs during all of the second world war. Cambodia may be the most heavily bombed country in history.
On 20 December 1972 Whitlam sent a personal message to Nixon through the Australian Embassy in Washington expressing concern at the course of events in Vietnam. The matters raised in the message were discussed in Washington with Kissinger, National Security Adviser, and in Canberra with the U.S. Ambassador, Walter Rice.
The letter to Nixon was polite, but firm. “The disappointment caused by the recession of the prospect [of reaching a cease-fire agreement], coupled with anxiety about the resumption of the bombing, is producing a feeling of grave concern in this country … I question most earnestly whether the resumption of bombing will achieve the result that I know you desire, the return of the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table in a more forthcoming frame of mind”.
Whitlam was “well aware of the difficulties and frustrations which Dr. Kissinger and the other American negotiators have experienced in dealing with the North Vietnamese. We admire the patience and resolve that they have shown … It is of particular concern to me that my first personal message to you on a matter of substance since assuming office as Prime Minister of Australia should not be misconstrued. I want to reassure you, therefore, that I look forward to a period of positive cooperation between our two countries on a wide range of matters in the years ahead and that, on this particular question of Vietnam, I am moved as much by a positive and, I hope, helpful desire to put negotiations back on the rails and by feelings of distress at one particular aspect of your Government policy”.
The letter was not published at the time, but Whitlam reserved the right “to make some public reference to [his] having sent [the message to Nixon]”.
If Whitlam’s intention became public, Kissinger intimated to the Australian Embassy No. 2, “it must have great consequences for our relationship”. Kissinger hardly needed to spell it out. He was talking about the future of the U.S.-Australian alliance.
It seems that the American Embassy in Canberra had been instructed ‘to keep its hands off’ as regards the election of December 1972 – at least officially. What Kissinger might have told Task Force 157 will never be known.
However, the official attitude to the Whitlam Government changed quickly after the election when members of the government Jim Cairns, Clyde Cameron and Tom Uren strongly criticised renewed bombing of Hanoi. They accused Nixon and his men of being “maniacs” and “acting with the mentality of thuggery”. Jim Cairns called the bombing “the most brutal, indiscriminate slaughter of women and children in living memory”.
The military offensive had been Nixon’s attempt to break the will of the North Vietnamese at a time when its leaders were deemed unresponsive to renewed American pressure for peace. As Kissinger had remarked to Nixon, 100 B-52s was akin to “a 4000-plane raid in World War II … it’s going to break every window in Hanoi”.
Whitlam had already written to Nixon that in the circumstances the best means open to him was “to approach the heads of government of some of our neighbours in the Asia/Pacific area to join [him] in addressing a public appeal; to both the United States and to North Vietnam to return to serious negotiations”.
Kissinger’s reaction on reading those words hardly disguises the American Administration’s anger. He instructed the U.S. Embassy in Canberra “to convey that we are not particularly amused being put by an ally on the same level as our enemy and to have an appeal equally addressed to us and North Vietnam”. He thought that it was not “the way to start a relationship with us”. He told the Ambassador: “So, I don’t think we are going to reply to this message. I’ve just talked to the President about it”. But, he added, “this is not an official communication … such an act taken publicly” – that is to say, releasing the letter – “would really not have very good consequences …” (Kissinger to Charge d’Affaires, US Embassy, Australia, 3.25pm, 20 December 1972, Box 17, HAK Telcons, Nixon Presidential Archive).
The sudden shift in the tenor of American-Australian relations had ramifications in the world of media which reverberated all the way through to 1975.
Australian ‘men-of-power’ reacted immediately and with the desired servility. On 4 January 1973 Nixon received a memorandum from his Communications Director, Herbert G. Klein to say that Sir Frank Packer, father of Kerry and then managing director and major share-holder of Australian Consolidated Press, had sent his New York representative “to express to [Nixon] his [Packer’s] personal support and that of his magazines and his television network”. Packer’s message was that he understood Nixon’s motivation in bombing Hanoi, that he was “disturbed” by Whitlam’s comments and that the majority of Australian’s did not share Whitlam’s views. At the same time, according to the memorandum, Packer’s representative “…offered [Nixon] any use [he] may like of [Packer’s] magazines and network”. Packer’s voluntary acquiescence to the U.S. shows how the Australian press did not need to be part of a conspiracy to do the bidding of the United States. The Packer empire were willing collaborators before the American Administration even conceived of using them. As Klein said in his memo to Nixon: “I declined [the offers of help] at this time”. In the event, when John Kerr installed Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser as Prime Minister in 1975, one of Fraser’s first calls was to Kerry Packer, who immediately went to Canberra to give the caretaker prime minister “a great deal of moral support” both then and during the rest of the election campaign.
The Whitlam Government’s relationship with the American Administration never really recovered from this poor start and the relationship was further exacerbated by an ‘unusual’ act by Attorney-General, Lionel Keith Murphy, Q.C.’s on 15 March 1973.
The Attorney-General had repeatedly requested from A.S.I.O. satisfactory information concerning ‘intelligence’ on suspected terrorist groups operated by Croatian Australians. Murphy’s concern about the matter was heightened by the impending visit to Australia of the Yugoslav Prime Minister Džemal Bijedić. Out of incompetence, or perhaps of sympathy, A.S.I.O. had been un-cooperative. The agents could not find the necessary files. Attorney-General Murphy held the conventional view that even a security service, like any other arm of executive government must be accountable to the relevant minister, in this case to the Attorney-General. Murphy decided to go and get the information himself. Early in the morning of the designated day he followed the Australia’s Commonwealth Police which had been ordered to enter the headquarters of A.S.I.O. This unannounced as well and un-conventional visit was immediately branded by the bene-society as a ‘raid’. The word has been used ever since to vilify the Attorney-General and his government. It has become part of the Australian s/language, sanctified ‘at the pub’ as in every ‘respectable’ salon.
What is forgotten in the process is the irresponsible behaviour of A.S.I.O. The Attorney-General had sought the files of the six most dangerous or subversive people in Australia who could constitute a threat to peace on the occasion of the Yugoslavian visit. What he had been given, maybe out of imbecility more than hilarity, were files of several Communist Party unionists and people connected with the peace movement.
Needless to say, the American Administration took seriously the ‘raid’; Attorney-General Murphy came to be regarded as a ‘Communist sympathiser’. ‘Washington’ formed the view that that kind of ‘raid’ could endanger secrets shared between A.S.I.O. and the C.I.A.
Early in 1973 Nixon selected Marshall Green as Ambassador to Australia, a post he held until 1975. Green was a protégé and a key aide to new Secretary of State Kissinger. He had accompanied Nixon on his 1972 visit to China.
His qualifications were impeccable: in 1961 he was the senior American diplomat in South Korea during a coup which toppled a democratically elected government. He was named Ambassador to Indonesia in July 1965, only weeks ahead of an anti-Communist coup which would see President Sukarno replaced with President Suharto and would lead to the deaths of an estimated 500,000 Indonesians. In 1969 Nixon nominated Green as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Green held this office from 5 May 1969 until 10 May 1973.
He arrived in Canberra with the reputation of a ‘coup master’.
Marshall Green’s appointment was a sign of the United States’ uneasiness over the election of the Whitlam Government. By the time of Green’s departure, in September 1975, many in the Labor Party felt similarly unease over the role played by the master diplomat in destabilising the Whitlam Government – many but not all.
There is ample evidence from many unsuspected sources that both Robert James Lee ‘Bob’ Hawke and Robert John ‘Bob’ Carr, in their respective position – the first of President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (1969-1979) and future Prime Minister (1983-1991), and the second of education officer for the Labor Council of New South Wales (1972-1978), future Premier of New South Wales (1995-2005) and Foreign Minister from March 2012 to September 2013 – kept close contact with American officers and consuls in Melbourne and Sydney. The central office of the C.I.A. is said to be in Melbourne.
“Recently declassified U.S. State Department cables offer a fresh way to tell the story of Australia … through the loose lips of the main players in the Labor government … The documents are both painful and amusing, for they reveal the petty treachery of Australia’s elite. Bob Hawke briefed against Whitlam” (George Megalogenis, The Australian moment: How we were made for these times (Melbourne 2012).
In fact, according to James Curran, “Hawke had been speaking to the Americans for years beforehand. I mean the Americans knew Hawke very well. He would talk to American diplomats right through the 1970s and give them briefings on Australian politics and there’s no doubt and that the Americans felt very comfortable with Hawke” (A.B.C., Radio National, Rear vision, ‘A true friend? The US/Australia alliance’, Broadcast: Wednesday 16 November 2011 8:30 a.m.).
Hawke was not alone. In fact the number of informers coming from the Labor Party has been large and embarrassing for a long time.
On 9 December 2010 The Sydney Morning Herald revealed that Senator Mark Arbib, a federal minister and Right-wing Labor powerbroker, had been a confidential contact of the United States Embassy in Canberra, providing inside information and commentary on the workings of the Australian Government and the Labor Party.
His candid comments had been incorporated into secret cables and reports to the American Administration with repeated requests that his identity as a ‘protected’ source be guarded.
A former secretary of the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party between 2004 and 2007, a member of the Party National Executive – from 2004, and a member of the National Executive Committee – from 2007, Senator Arbib was a key backroom figure and an expert on coups within the Party. He first appeared as a contributor to U.S. Embassy political reporting while he was Labor State Secretary.
After one more coup, Arbib resigned from the ministry on 2 March, and from the Senate on 5 March 2012. The following day Arbib was replaced as a Senator by former Premier of New South WalesBob Carr, who on 13 March became the Foreign Minister (Philip Dorling, ‘Arbib revealed as secret US source’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 December 2010).
“Senator Carr’s diplomatic involvement goes back to at least August 1974, when the U.S. Embassy in Canberra reported “‘a pervasive sense of gloom and anxiety”’ within the Labor movement as the Whitlam government “’struggle[d] in [a] disorganised fashion to stem growing inflation”.
Together with N.S.W. Labor president John Ducker, he told the U.S. Consul-General in Sydney that] “economic policy has never been Whitlam’s bag” and criticised his “tendency to delegate practically everything” (Philip Dorling, ‘New database shows US informants were inside Whitlam’s ALP’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 April 2013).
Officials in the American Administration were worried about the possible closure of the American bases in Australia, and generally about the possibility that Australia would pursue an independent policy particularly with reference to foreign investments. Ambassador Green was the first career diplomat, unlike the sort of person Australia receives, who is ordinarily one rewarded for contributing money to the Republican or Democratic parties campaigns.
Green had been mentioned in the Pentagon papers as being a high-level policy maker for America in Southeast Asia and he had known C.I.A. connections.
Suspicions about Green were shared by Clyde Cameron, Minister for Labour, who had many face to face meetings with the American Ambassador.
This is what Cameron would say: “Marshall Green was for many, many years a top C.I.A. operative who orchestrated the overthrow of the Sukarno government which led to the installation of President Suharto. He was involved in the C.I.A. intrigue in Vietnam and in the overthrow of the government of Greece. He’s a very, very skilled operative in the art of destabilisation of governments that the United States doesn’t approve of”.
Cameron described Green’s method of operation: “[It] was to make close contact with the military of a particular country, those who own and control the media, and generally [to] infiltrate the sections of governments where policy or decision-making takes place. And if he is unsuccessful in getting the right decisions there, well, the next step would always be to get the army to organise a coup. That’s what happened in Indonesia, a phony uprising was organised by the C.I.A. in order to give justification for the military coup that followed. And the same happened with the assassination of Deben in South Korea. Where a ruler is unable to bring about the kind of decisions that suit the C.I.A. or where a ruler doesn’t even try to do so, then, the next step is to organise some pretence for military action. The same sort of thing happened in Chile in 1973. And one of the first people he called on, after visiting the Prime Minister and having already put in his credentials to the Governor-General, was me. And as he was walking through the door of my office I saluted him in the normal way, ‘please to meet you your excellency, take a seat,’ and before he could take a seat I said ‘what would you do if our government decided to nationalise the Australian subsidiaries of the various American multinational corporations?’ and he’d been caught by surprise, he wasn’t accustomed to a minister asking that sort of question whilst he was in the process of taking his seat, and he blurted out: ‘oh, we’ll move in’. I said, ‘oh, move in? like bringing the marines in?’. He said, ‘oh…’ he looked a bit uncomfortable by now, although he’s a senior man he didn’t expect being caught off guard, he was very uncomfortable and he said, ‘oh, no, the days of sending the marines has passed but there are plenty of other things we could do’. I said, ‘for example?’. He said, ‘well, trade’. And I said, ‘do you realise that if you stop trading with Australia you would be the loser to the extent of 600 million dollars a year’, that was the balance of trade figures at that time. He said, ‘oh, well, there are other things’. And he didn’t elaborate but, of course, there are other things” (The C.I.A. in Australia, Transcript of Part 2 of 6, Watching Brief, Public Radio News Services, October-November 1986, Melbourne).
Whitlam’s attitude to politics was exactly opposite to that of Nixon, particularly under the advice of Kissinger and ‘operations’ by the C.I.A.
Whitlam saw international law as an essential component of efforts to avoid conflict, resolve disputes, and restructure international relations (Michael Kirby, ‘Whitlam as internationalist’, The Whitlam Lecture, University of Western Sydney, 25 February 2010).
It was on this basis, in part, that the Whitlam Government embarked on a vigorous process of ratifying international law treaties. Indeed, under that government, over 133
international treaties entered into force for Australia, including 26 Exchange of Notes Agreements, 32 Bilateral Agreements, 16 Multilateral Agreements, 17 Protocols, 8 International Statutes, and 34 Treaties/Conventions.
Commenting on the international engagement of his Government, Whitlam said:
“We have done a great deal more, I believe, than all previous governments. We have communicated to the world our commitment to international law and our eagerness to contribute to co-operative endeavours. We have displayed a breadth of legal skills. And Australia has come to be regarded as an independent voice” (Gough Whitlam, ‘Australia and International Law’, Address by the Prime Minister to the Seminar on Public International Law, 26 July 1975, Canberra).
This is what Ross Terrill, an ex-patriate Australian author, recalls of the American Administration’s reaction to Whitlam protest on the bombing of Hanoi in December 1972:
“On 23 December 1972, waiting in the White House to see Henry Kissinger, I realised he might broach the Whitlam tornado. I occasionally talked with Kissinger (my former teacher at Harvard) on China; only once did we discuss Australia, when he requested to meet Wilfred Burchett. In an ante-room I phoned the Australian embassy and asked the Deputy Chief of Mission – in the absence of Ambassador Jim Plimsoll – if he would read me Whitlam’s 21 December cable to President Nixon protesting the ‘Christmas bombing’ of Hanoi. He declined.
Entering Kissinger’s office, I found him waving the cable. ‘It’s unforgivable for this new Australian government to put Hanoi and Washington on the same footing,’ he said angrily. ‘How can an ally behave like this?’ I told Kissinger that Whitlam considered ANZUS ‘unshakeable’. He riposted, ‘CAN it be unshakeable? You can’t apply ANZUS on some points and not on others’.
Kissinger said the White House wouldn’t answer Whitlam’s cable, and C.L. Sulzberger wrote in the New York Times that the cable was ignored. In fact, an ‘unofficial’ reply was sent to Whitlam. ‘I have never seen such language in a cable from one government to another’” [Sir (John) Keith Waller, the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs] told the writer.
“All this made 1973 a difficult year for Canberra-Washington relations. It seemed Whitlam had overplayed his hand.
However, Kissinger presciently floated a solution that morning. Calming down about Whitlam’s cable to reminisce on Zhou Enlai, Kissinger said, ‘For American policy [in East Asia] there are two phases. In the first, Thailand has to be linchpin. But that will give way to a second phase, when détente with China will be the best guarantee of security in Asia.’
A week later, at Kirribilli House – the second official seat, and second official residence, of the Prime Minister of Australia, Whitlam told Terrill: “We’re going to pretend Kissinger’s cable never came”. The Prime Minister asked Terrill: “What am I going to say at my press conference about the Hanoi bombing?” I explained Kissinger’s view of ‘two phases’, which pleased him. When phase two came, with China central, it seemed likely Australian-American relations would stabilise. This eventually occurred”.
Two more problems roiled the Washington-Whitlam relationship. One was the strident protests by the Left wing of the Labor Party immediately after 2 December. Jim Cairns, Minister for Overseas Trade launched insults to Nixon. Other ministers, Cameron and Uren, referred to American ‘maniacs’ and ‘mass murderers’.
All this troubled Whitlam almost as much as it did Washington, as his memoir The Whitlam Government, 1972-1975 indicates. He left the U.S. defence facilities in Australia undisturbed, but he did please the Left with complete withdrawal from Vietnam. Like many Left-of-centre leaders, Whitlam’s main concern during the war was looking for the exit door.
A further problem was the Nixon and his advisers’ ignorance about the Labor Party, such as it was after its 23 years out of power. Kissinger at first referred to the Prime Minister as ‘Mr Whitelaw’. Secretary of State William Rogers was unaware that a Labor prime minister did not [then] choose his cabinet members. Walter Rice, the U.S. Ambassador in Canberra, had not told him.
Andrew Peacock, a Liberal politician, deserves credit for trying to persuade Washington ‘in early 1973’ not to snub Whitlam, but still, in late April 1973, the Australian Embassy in Washington had no certain assurance that Nixon would receive Whitlam on a planned July trip.
Whitlam’s top aide Peter Wilenski, concerned that no meeting with Nixon was fixed for Whitlam’s time in Washington, phoned Terrill on 14 April 1973. He said: “The PM agrees with you that the [Washington] embassy’s access to the White House is not very good”. And went on: “He wants you to arrange a meeting for me with Kissinger”. The Prime Minister feared that requests to Nixon through the Embassy, if refused, would reach the press and besmirch the government.
Nevertheless, Kissinger quickly agreed to see Wilenski on 2 May. Kissinger assured Wilenski that Nixon would receive Whitlam.
Wilenski told Ambassador Jim Plimsoll about his talk with Kissinger only an hour beforehand. Plimsoll struck an odd note in saying to Wilenski: “Argue for our common common outlook as Anglo-Saxons”. Wilenski was born in Poland, Kissinger in Germany (Ross Terrill, ‘Whitlam, Nixon and ANZUS’, The Spectator, 12 May 2012).
Whitlam’s foreign policies would develop – and also quite remarkably – against U.S. interests. He would break ranks with previous Australian Prime Ministers by reaching out to other Asian leaders to create trade and diplomatic relationships. He would become one of the first ‘western’ leaders to attempt normal relations with Chinese leaders. He also, in the midst of the war, established a consular relationship with Vietnam by opening an embassy in Hanoi and later allowed the opening of a Cuban consulate in Sydney.
In other words, for all intents and purposes, Australia under Whitlam was not serving at the behest of British or American dictates. It was independently establishing its own relationships. This was not appreciated by the Nixon Administration, least of all Henry Kissinger who disliked the Labor leader immensely.
Prior to Whitlam and since, American governments have considered Australia as a strategic location and partner in their military ventures. The Americans have bases in Australia, not the least of which being the ‘secret’ base known as Pine Gap in the Australian desert. In time, Whitlam would seek to have more specifics on what the Americans were doing there. He discovered that Pine Gap, a satellite surveillance base, was run by the C.I.A. and he made a public announcement about this. Whitlam would also ask the Americans for a listing of all C.I.A. operatives in Australia.
The Americans were supposed to share information with the Australians from their satellite findings but since the Labor Party had won it was thought that much of the information was being denied the government. Whitlam threatened he would not sign an extension of the Pine Gap lease due in December 1975 and this again infuriated the Nixon Administration.
The fact is that the Pine Gap base activities were making Australia vulnerable to attack and this angered Whitlam, as he had no control over the base activities.
There were at least three occasions when the Americans did not share vital information about the bases.
1) The transmitters at the North West Cape were used to assist the U.S. in mining Haiphong harbour in 1972. The Whitlam government was opposed to the mining of Vietnamese harbours, and would not have appreciated U.S. facilities on Australian soil being used to assist such an undertaking.
2) The satellites controlled by Pine Gap and Nurrungar were used to pinpoint targets for bombings in Cambodia. Again, this was an activity to which the Whitlam Government was opposed.
3) Whitlam was furious when he found out after the fact that U.S. bases in Australia were put on a Level 3 alert during the Yom Kippur war – 6 to 25 October 1973. The Australian bases were in danger of attack, yet the Australian Prime Minister was not alerted to this.
There was one other element which would play a role in terms of foreign policy and it has to do with Chile. A little known fact is that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, A.S.I.S. was involved in the overthrow of President Salvadore Allende in 1973. Clyde Cameron said that the A.S.I.S. operatives were serving at the behest of the C.I.A. to help in the coup against Allende, as the C.I.A. was not able to work effectively in Chile under Allende. “They had to do their dirty work through somebody else”. Cameron noted “and they chose the Australian intelligence organisations”. When Whitlam discovered this he demanded that the A.S.I.S. be withdrawn from Chile yet they paid no attention to his orders. When Whitlam discovered they had not yet left Chile he was furious and, as Cameron said “put the knife through a lot of these people responsible for ignoring his directions”. By that time, however, Allende had been assassinated and Pinochet had taken over (The CIA in Australia, Part 3, Australia Public Radio News Service, Melbourne 1986).
The Labor Government’s changes in both domestic and foreign policy earned Whitlam Henry Kissinger’s epithet of “one more effete social democrat”. Neither Kissinger nor Nixon had any time for Whitlam or Left-wing politicians in general.
Many others in the intelligence community were concerned, including Ted Shackley, head of the East Asia Division of the C.I.A., who was said to be paranoid about Whitlam; and James Jesus Angleton, head of the C.I.A.’s Counter-Intelligence section, who despised the Labor Government.
Nixon, needless to say, was not amused. Some insiders said he was apoplectic with rage and resented the implications that he was immoral and had to be told his duty by an outsider. Kissinger added that Whitlam’s “uninformed comments about our Christmas bombing [of North Vietnam] had made him a particular object of Nixon’s wrath” (Mother Jones, Feb.-Mar. 1984, at 15).
Soon after Whitlam took office, the American Ambassador to Australia, Walter Rice, was sent to meet with Whitlam in order politely to tell him to mind his own business about Vietnam. Whitlam ambushed Rice, dominated the meeting, and spoke for 45 minutes rebuking the U.S. for its conduct of the Vietnam war. Whitlam told Rice that in a press conference the next day, “It would be difficult to avoid words like ‘atrocious’ and ‘barbarous’” when asked about the bombing.
Whitlam also brought up the issue of the American bases in Australia, and warned Rice that although he did not propose to alter the arrangements regarding the U.S. bases, “to be practical and realistic,” Whitlam said, “if there were any attempt, to use familiar jargon, ‘to screw us or bounce us’ inevitably these arrangements would become a matter of contention” (Minutes of the meeting were reproduced in The Eye, July 1987).
Nixon did agree to a meeting with Whitlam, and it took place on 30 July 1973. Kissinger’s brief to Nixon said the primary purpose of the meeting was “to restore the level of confidence between our two governments at the highest level that existed before the Whitlam government took office” (Kissinger, HA, “Meeting with the Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, Memorandum 4172, CO10 Australia, WHC Files, Nixon Presidential Archive).
Whitlam felt that he had earned the meeting because he had muted criticism of Nixon’s Asian policies, praised détente but primarily because “he has defended our defense installations in Australia against attack from his party’s left wing”. Kissinger’s briefing also mentioned Whitlam’s problems with the Senate before finally discussing ‘US Defense Installations in Australia: No Substantial Change in Prospect’ and noting that Whitlam modified his position “after being briefed on the functions of these facilities” and turned debate at the recent party conference away from vital installations and on to the “less important” Omega navigation system. The briefing says that Pine Gap and Nurrungar merely monitor adherence to arms limitations agreements and missile developments in China and Russia. The briefing also holds out promise of “cosmetic changes” to give the impression of Australian control at North West Cape.
In the lead up to Whitlam’s meeting with Nixon, Kissinger met with the recently appointed Ambassador Green. He told Kissinger: “I would define US interests in Australia as: 1) preserving our defense installations; 2) maintaining our investment and trade there…” (HAK Memorandum of Conversation, 28 July 1973, Prime Minister Whitlam’s Coming Visit, Box 1027, NSC Files, Nixon Presidential Archive).
When Kissinger met Whitlam just before their meeting with Nixon, Kissinger summarised the situation: “We do not see recent changes in Australia as a greater assertion of Australian autonomy. Rather we look at it as a change in some of the mechanics in our relations … We can’t deny that we have had some strains recently – but we consider these matters of the past” (HAK Memorandum of Conversation 30 July 1973 10-11am, Box 1027, NSC Files, Nixon Presidential Archive). (Stephen Stockwell, ‘Beyond conspiracy theory: US presidential archives on the American press, national security and the Whitlam government’, Paper presented to the Journalism Education Conference, Griffith University, 29 November-2 December 2005).
Neither the bases nor investment and trade came into discussion. Whitlam expressed an interest in talking with Nixon about French nuclear testing in the Pacific but the most striking thing is his nervousness about meeting Nixon. Because of legal issues emanating from the Watergate break-in, Nixon had stopped taping conversations before he met Whitlam with the result that there is no record of their conversation. Nevertheless, as relations between Australia and the United States appeared to have stabilised following the meeting, certainly at the leadership level, one might assume that Whitlam and Nixon agreed to leave the past behind them.
In May 1974, after the double dissolution and return of the Whitlam Government, Jim Cairns was elected as Whitlam’s deputy. The news displeased the Americans, because Cairns had been one of the most adamant critics of American foreign policy. He was the natural successor to Whitlam as prime minister. The future of the bases was again in question and Nixon and Kissinger took time out from the management of the Watergate debacle and the disengagement from Vietnam to issue National Security Study Memorandum 204 to the Departments of State and Defense and the C.I.A. on 1 July 1974.
That Memorandum noted, from what is publicly available, the “recent changes in the Labor Government” and proposed to examine “the impact of these changes on basic US objectives toward Australia, particularly in the political-security area”. The Memorandum also called for more than theoretical analysis: “It should define and evaluate policy options for giving effect to the resulting objectives”. In particular the Memorandum called for study of issues around “keeping US defense installations in Australia … relocating essential existing US security functions outside Australia … locating additional US functions in Australia and the policy options for trying to do so” (NSSM 204, 1 July 1974, Box 205, NSC Institutional Files, Nixon Presidential Archive). It gave the N.S.C. Interdepartmental Group for East Asia only two weeks to prepare a report. That remains classified. Nixon resigned from office on 8 August 1974, so it is possible that one of his last acts in office was to establish new policy objectives with regard to Australia but there is no evidence in the archive that this was the case.
With the coming of President Gerald Ford’s administration, no further national security studies or decisions about Australia are available in the archives. Whitlam called for a meeting with Ford and that was held on 5 October 1974. Briefings for that meeting emphasise Whitlam’s acceptance of American bases. Ambassador Green reported “… there would be no move by an Australian government to terminate these facilities as long as Labor was headed by Whitlam …”. There was concern about Jim Cairns: “Once in the top position [Cairns] would probably veer … towards a foreign policy based on neutrality and the removal of American bases from Australian shores” (Green, M, Telexes 21/30 September 1974, Box 2, NSA-Presidential Country Files for East Asia and the Pacific, Ford Presidential Archive). Kissinger’s briefing for Ford pointed out that Whitlam was mellowing with regard to the bases as he understood their significance for arms limitations but in the event the bases did not come up in their conversation which covered everything except the bases (Memcon, President’s Meeting with Australian Prime Minister Whitlam, 5 October 1974, Box 6, NSA Memcons, Ford Presidential Archive). (Stockwell, op. cit.)
Secret cables which had only come available in May 2013 disclosed that Rupert Murdoch had discussed Australian public figures with Ambassador Green in 1974.
It was known that, by mobilising his newspapers to the advantage of the Labor Party, Murdoch thought that he had played “a substantial role” in Labor’s December 1972 victory.
He was “satisfied that he took the correct position at that time, since it was essential to have a change after 23 years [The] Liberal/Country leadership had become increasingly weak intellectually”.
However, by November 1974 Murdoch’s brief enthusiasm for Whitlam had waned.
“He expects to support the opposition in the next election” Green reported to Washington.
Murdoch savaged Labor’s economic management. He wanted policies with “a more selfish domestic focus”. He particularly slated Australia’s first moves towards economic liberalisation, the Labor government’s 25 per cent across-the-board tariff reductions “which appealed to Whitlam’s orderly legal mind and liberal outlook, [but] were a bad mistake and contributed needlessly to unemployment”. Murdoch said that a number of Australian industries needed tariff protection and he thought the problem should have been “studied on a sector by sector basis”.
A ‘change of heart’ would make Murdoch more credible in 1974.
During a “wide-ranging and apparently very candid conversation” over lunch on 15 November 1974, Murdoch – described in a cable released by the U.S. National Archives and published by WikiLeaks as ‘well informed and extremely influential’ – spoke freely on the mis/fortunes of the Whitlam Government which had been re-elected six months earlier. Almost exactly a year to the day of ‘the Ambush’, Murdoch was predicting the fall of Whitlam.
Still, he could not anticipate that Fraser would usurp the prime ministership. His choice was on Hawke, then president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. “Bob Hawke is fiercely ambitious to become prime minister of Australia and could make it someday”, Murdoch observed. “He is intelligent and essentially moderate”. However Murdoch thought Hawke would not rush to seek election to Parliament because he saw the Whitlam Government “going down to defeat and does not want to board the sinking ship”.
Murdoch was discounting Fraser, whom he regarded as “the most brilliant as well as the most courageous of the Liberals”, but he judged “too inflexible and too arrogant” by his colleagues. Fraser also tended to be “overly absorbed in foreign affairs and defence”.
Still, Murdoch and his newspapers would enthusiastically support Fraser and the Coalition in the 1975 election campaign, so much so that journalists at his newspapers took industrial action in protest. Labor would not return to government for more than seven years when Hawke defeated Fraser at the March 1983 federal election.
Against the backdrop of the Middle East oil crisis of the previous year, Murdoch was gloomy about the global economy in November 1974, but saw the United States as “the only economy of sufficient stature to provide world leadership in these parlous times”.
Although the Liberal-Country Party Opposition did not at that time have the numbers to block the Labor government’s budget in the Senate, Green reported Murdoch’s confident view that Whitlam’s days as prime minister were numbered.
“Australian elections are likely to take place in about one year, sparked by refusal of appropriations in the Senate. All signs point to a Liberal-Country victory, since the economy is in disturbingly bad condition and will probably not improve much of that time” said Murdoch.
It is not explicit in Ambassador Green’s report, but it is possible that Murdoch may have been drawing on the ultimate inside source: it is known that Kerr attended a social function at the Murdoch’s country estate at Cavan near Yass in New South Wales in late 1974. A journalist in attendance later revealed that over drinks Kerr – a closet-alcoholic – indiscreetly gave Murdoch a “very detailed and elaborate outline” of his constitutional options as Governor-General in the event that the Opposition secured the Senate numbers to block the budget. (Philip Dorling, ‘Whitlam radical, Fraser arrogant, Hawke moderate: Secret cables reveal Murdoch insights’, The Age, 20 May 2013).
Twelve days after Murdoch’s talk with Green, Fraser failed in a bid to remove Snedden as Liberal leader. However he went on to defeat Snedden in a second party room ballot four months later.
To be continued. Tomorrow . . . The economy against headwinds, and concluding with A coup conceived in secret and deceit.
* Dr. Venturino Giorgio ‘George’ Venturini devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975, invited by Attorney-General Lionel Keith Murphy, Q.C., he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra – to serve the Whitlam Government. In time he witnessed the administration of a law of prohibition as a law of abuse, and documented it in Malpractice, antitrust as an Australian poshlost (Sydney 1980). He may be reached at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.