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Tag Archives: Vietnam War

Beyond the ‘Palace Letters’ (part 1)

By Dr George Venturini

Beyond the ‘Palace Letters’

Traveller would find a constant element through those three events: the Évian Conference, the Kimberley Plan, and the Dunera odyssey.

That element remains the indifference of the population, of the governments and of the institutions of Australia to ‘the Other’, not only the Jews – but anyone who was not British.

On 3 September 1939 Australia entered the second world war with Prime Minister Menzies making a declaration of a state of war in a national radio broadcast: “My fellow Australians. It is my melancholy duty to inform you, officially, that, in consequence of the persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.”

All of a sudden, thousands of Australian residents found themselves identified as potential threats to Australia’s national security. The war had triggered a mass fear of invasion of England by Germany and later on of Australia by Japan. Panic gripped the country that tens of thousands of Australian residents of German, Italian or Japanese origin – or simply name – might become saboteurs or spies.

Parliament enacted the National Security Act 1939.

Government regulations required ‘enemy aliens’ to register and limit their travel to between work and home and within a specified distance from the local post office. They had to obtain permission from the authorities to travel further or change residence.

The most dramatic response was the internment of many German, Italian and Japanese residents in camps – overseas and Australian-born, as well as naturalised British subjects. Australia interned some 7,000 residents, including nationals from over thirty other countries.

A further 8,000 people were sent to Australia to be interned after being detained overseas by Australia’s allies. At its peak in 1942 more than 12,000 people – mostly men, but some women and children – were interned in eighteen camps around southern Australia, including Cowra and Hay in New South Wales and Tatura in Victoria.

Australian authorities had established internment camps for three reasons – to prevent residents from assisting Australia’s enemies, to appease public opinion and to house overseas internees sent to Australia for the duration of the war.

Internees were usually separated from their families and tried to find ways to keep themselves occupied. In some cases they set up their own study classes, theatre groups and market gardens, and were issued ‘internment currency’ in order to purchase goods within the camp grounds. Many volunteered to work on Australian farms to help with the manpower shortage and some, later in the war, joined the Australian army. Most made the best of the situation, but it was a traumatic experience which left some internees permanently scarred.

Internment camps were administered by the army and run along military lines, affected by poor education, plagued by misconceptions and overcome by xenophobia – and most dangerous carriers of hate-bags.

The first camps were set up at the Enoggera (Gaythorne) and Liverpool military bases in Queensland and New South Wales and at the Dhurringile Mansion in Victoria.

As the numbers of internees grew, the early camps became too small. The Australian Government organised the construction of purpose-built camps at Cowra and Hay in New South Wales, Tatura in Victoria, Loveday in South Australia and Harvey in Western Australia.

Life for the internees varied between the camps, particularly between those which were temporary camps and those which were purpose-built. The conditions also depended on the geographical location of the camp, its climate, the composition of the camp population and importantly, the personality of the officer in charge. (‘Wartime internment’, National Archives of Australia, and (‘Internment during World War II Australia’, Museums Victoria).

On 10 June 1940, when the Fascist Regime declared war on England and its allies, 5,000 person of Italian origin, provenance or simply name became overnight ‘enemy aliens’. Some 33,000 Italians were residing in Australia at the time. By 1940, around 40 per cent of members of the Italian community in Australia were naturalised and several thousand Australian-born. Fascism had grown very well in several states, particularly in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. It had been favoured by the likes of Premier of Victoria, H.S.W. Lawson, Premier of New South Wales, Sir George W. Fuller and Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies, who had much admired Mussolini.

As late as 1939 Mussolini was still viewed in Australia and other English-speaking nations as a model of modern leadership. There was therefore some pride associated with being Fascist and Italian. Many migrants with no real understanding of politics joined the Fascist Party in a gesture of national pride. Those who had been forced to escape Mussolini’s Italy made a desperate attempt to draw attention to the looming threat of Fascism.

Fascist success in Australia had been aided by two Jesuits whom Il Duce had personally chosen for ‘mission’ in Australia the assistance by diplomats’ activity, the setting up of Fasci in several states, and the shared belief that Fascism cold be the only bulwark against Communism. The latter ‘conviction’ had aided Australian rulers and those who had been and were financially supporting in keeping a check on the activity of the unions.

A rough, inexperienced, militantly ignorant police found assistance in well positioned persons of Italian origin, many doctors, lawyers, teachers and officers whom less-educated Italians needed for everyday life. The history of Italian antifascism in Australia is full of names of such informers. Most of them saved their skin by carrying on this way. They joined in tormenting some poorchrist who had thought of coming all the way to Australia to escape from Fascist violence. They would encounter the ignorance and indifference of the police in several states. Some such refugees were herded off to local prisons to be fingerprinted, photographed and numbered. Camp authorities indifferently placed known Fascists and anti-Fascists together in the same barracks.

Internment often resulted in life-long, deep emotional scars, especially for the older men who had families. Many men lost their farms, homes or businesses, whilst other families struggled to survive under extreme conditions including acts of public hatred.

Some internees even lost their lives in Australia’s internment camps or the Civil Alien Corps under successive Australian governments of Menzies and Curtin. Others struggled in forced labour groups in the C.A.C. from 1943 to 1947. Without their breadwinner many families became destitute. Some of these impoverished women and children were even interned at the Tatura Camp in Victoria because they could not survive without an income.

In many military interrogations, Italian internees stated that they would willingly work in non-military essential services to support Australia on the home front, but would not fight. They were simply not fighting men. Most of them were not Fascist. In fact many of the Fascist Italians had succeeded in remaining free, in most cases because regarded with favour by Australians who had favoured and obsequiously visited Mussolini. They were devoted to what they considered ‘law and order’ as imposed by the Fascists in Italy.

Most of the Fascist Italians in Australia were left undisturbed. Similarly many Italians resident in Victoria who were neither pro or against the regime were able to continue to work in the community. To complicate matters, Italian families in Queensland were torn apart in 1942 when the Japanese attacked Darwin. Most of the almost 3,000 Italian cane cutters were sent to Loveday and Cowra internment camps. It was in Loveday that the Australian authorities had not cared to place together Fascist Italians and anti-Fascist Italians. The Loveday camp authorities rendered themselves complicit in the assassination of Francesco Fantin, a mild mannered Anarchist. He was killed by a Fascist thug under the indifferent eyes of the military guards. (M. Spizzica, When ethnicity counts: civilian internment in Australia during WW2’, theconversation.com, 20 September 2012 and V.G.Venturini, ‘Never give in – Three Italian antifascist exiles in Australia 1924-1956‘, Search Foundation, Sydney 2007).

By the end of the second world war the population of Australia was 7,400,000. The closeness of second world war being at Australian shores had a frightening effect upon Australia as a whole with its small population; people realised the need to grow – and quickly.

Therefore, migrants would be provided with government assistance. Europe had been devastated by war: it was easier than salvaging for many to simply uproot and start again – a fresh new start in a fresh new continent. Migrants would come from Italy, Greece, England, Scotland, the Netherlands and a few other European countries.

It all began with the Chifley Government. The government commissioned a report on the subject which found that Australia was in urgent need of a larger population for the purposes of defence and development and it recommended a 1 per cent annual increase in population through increased immigration. In 1945 the government established the federal Department of Immigration to administer the new immigration programme. The first Minister for Immigration was Arthur Calwell. An Assisted Passage Migration Scheme was also established in 1945 to encourage Britons to migrate to Australia. The government’s objective was summarised in the slogan “populate or perish.” To critics of mass immigration from non-British Europe, Calwell replied in 1947: “We have 25 years at most to populate this country before the yellow races are down on us.”

Hundreds of thousands of displaced Europeans migrated to Australia and over 1,000,000 British subjects immigrated under the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme, colloquially becoming known as ‘Ten Pound Poms’.

The migration assistance scheme initially targeted citizens of Commonwealth countries; but it was gradually extended to other countries such as Italy and the Netherlands. The qualifications were straightforward: migrants needed to be in sound health and under the age of 45 years. There were initially no skill requirements, although under the White Australia policy, people from ‘mixed-race’ backgrounds found it very difficult to take advantage of the scheme.

The immigration programme of the Chifley Government gave preference to migrants from Great Britain, and initially an ambitious target was set of nine British out of ten immigrants. However, it was soon apparent that even with assisted passage the government target would be impossible to achieve given that Britain’s shipping capacity was quite diminished from pre-war levels. As a consequence, Calwell looked further afield to maintain overall immigration numbers, and this meant relying on the International Refugee Organisation refugees from Eastern Europe, with the United States providing the necessary shipping. Many Eastern Europeans were refugees from area conquered by the Red Army and thus mostly anti-Communist and so politically acceptable.

There were initially no skill restrictions; the qualifications were straightforward: migrants needed to be in sound health and under the age of 45 years, although under the White Australia Policy, people from ‘mixed-race’ backgrounds found it very difficult to take advantage of the scheme.

The 1 per cent annual increase in population target survived a change of government in 1949, when the Menzies Government succeeded Chifley’s. The new Minister of Immigration (1949-1956) was Harold Holt.

The British component remained the largest component of the migrant intake until 1953. Between 1953 and late 1956, migrants from southern Europe outnumbered the British, and this caused some alarm in the Australian government, which was moved to place restrictions on southern Europeans sponsoring newcomers and to commence the “Bring out a Briton” campaign. With the increase in financial assistance to British migrants provided during the 1960s, the British component was restored to the top position in the overall number of new migrants.

Migration brought large numbers of southern and central Europeans to Australia for the first time. A 1958 government leaflet assured voters that unskilled non-British migrants were needed for “labour on rugged projects … work which is not generally acceptable to Australians or British workers.” The Australian economy stood in sharp contrast to war-ravaged Europe, and newly arrived migrants found employment in a booming manufacturing industry and government assisted programmes such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme. This hydroelectricity and irrigation complex in south-east Australia consisted of sixteen major dams and seven power stations constructed between 1949 and 1974. It remains the largest engineering project undertaken in Australia. Necessitating the employment of 100,000 people from over 30 countries, to many it denotes the birth of multicultural Australia. Should Australians think seriously about a real ‘Australia Day’ that could be the day when Prime Minister Chifley signed the papers for the project to start, or when the construction began: 17 October 1949. Two-thirds of the workers were immigrants from over 40 countries around the world. 121 workers lost their life during construction. The Snowy is a story of social, cultural and political change told through the experiences of those who worked on the Scheme.

During the twenty years of the Snowy Mountains Scheme migration from Europe changed the face of Australian society.

In 1955 the one-millionth post-war immigrant arrived in Australia. Australia’s population reached 10 million between 1959 and 1960, up from 7 million in 1945. (Post-war immigration to Australia’, Wikipedia).

In 1949, when Menzies returned to the prime ministership, Harold Holt became Minister for Immigration (1949-1956). He expanded the post-war immigration scheme and relaxed the White Australia policy for the first time.

Menzies was the archetypal Briton-born-in-Australia-by-accident. As Horne put it: “Perhaps when he was a young man making his way in the world those he admired most were the Australian politicians who cherished the English connection. These were the real provincials: Melbourne gentlemen who adopted what they took to be the standards of the far-distant metropolis. Throughout his long career Menzies stressed ‘loyalty’, by which he did not see to mean loyalty to Australia but to the British connection, and to the monarch (when he was not referring to loyalty to himself).” (D. Horne, The lucky country, Penguin Books, Australia, 1964, at 200-201).

He became a successful lawyer and remained an excellent debater. Of course, he was a great actor. But, as Horne observed: “He was lazy in his reading and – the truth is that he was not particularly well-read, as little interested in things of the spirit as his fellow countrymen, and in so far as he did have intellectual or artistic interests they were extremely provincial and old hat. He was essentially arrogant, although courageous, with a scorn for most other men (perhaps all other men). He used his power to little purpose.” (Id., at 198).

His appeal to the home and family, promoted through reassuring radio talks, matched the national mood as the economy grew and middle-class values prevailed. “But for the most part ordinary Australians have held him in little regard: … he was widely considered old-fashioned and had always been considered insincere.” (Ibid., 198) In return, “he seemed to prefer to frustrate talent, to surround himself with a firebreak of mediocrity.” (Ibid., 200).

To his good fortune the Labor Party was being bitterly divided by the threat of the anti-Communist wing, reinforced by Catholic propaganda. So, after 1955, and ‘the split’ Menzies was able to rely on the support from the Democratic Labor Party, a splinter-group from the Labor Party. Menzies won seven consecutive elections during his second term, eventually retiring as prime minister on 26 January 1966.

Menzies expanded post-war immigration scheme, higher education, and the national security policies.

He was forever on the stage. If he should be remembered for anything, that should begin with the farce of his public love declaration to young Queen Elizabeth II who was visit Australia in 1963. The occasion was a formal dinner at Parliament House.

Menzies took the last two lines of the first stanza of a poem by an obscure English composer, lutenist, viol player and poet of the English seventeenth century: Thomas Ford (1580? – 1648). To the visible surprise of the monarch, during a Canberra dinner in her honour, he told her: “I did but see her passing by, And yet I love her till I die.”

Sir William Heseltine, Private Secretary to H.M. the Queen 1986-1990, would comment: “It was one of the very few occasions I think Sir Robert misjudged his audience. And I can remember that there was a frisson of embarrassment and this was perhaps reflected on the Queen’s own look on that occasion.” And the occasion might have been squeamish.

Menzies, like most Australians, fondly believed that timely help to ‘our great and powerful ally’ would ensure American protection of Australian interests in the future. In 1962, when President Sukarno of Indonesia annexed Netherlands-now-West New Guinea in the teeth of anguished Dutch – and Australian – protests, Menzies sought America’s diplomatic support. The Americans unblushingly gave it to Sukarno, but even such painful experience did nothing to shake the faith of Australian conservatives in American care for and loyalty to Australia.

Concerned Australians will remember Menzies for the ease with which he committed troops to the Korean war (1950-1953), to the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), to the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation (1962-1966), and to the Vietnam war (1965-1975).

Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war began with a small commitment of 30 military advisers in 1962, and increased over the following decade to a peak of 7,672 Australian personnel following the Menzies Government’s April 1965 decision to upgrade its military commitment to South Vietnam‘s security.

He did that upon a phantomatic request from the Saigon Regime which had been installed in February 1965, resulting in Air Marshall Nguyễn Cao Kỳ becoming prime minister and Nguyễn Văn Thiệu becoming nominal head of state. No trace of such communication was ever found – anywhere.

Here is Menzies’s monument and inheritance.

Part of the United States strategy against the Viet Cong, blindly followed by the Menzies Government and executed the Australian command, was to deny them cover and food. Knowing that the area of Vietnam which borders Laos and Cambodia was a key transport route used to move troops and supplies from the north to the south of Vietnam, the United States planned to defoliate large areas of jungle to hamper these movements. The Mekong delta was also marked for defoliation, as were areas used by the Viet Cong for food growing.

The defoliant of choice was a compound of two herbicides: 24-D and 245-T mixed with kerosene or diesel fuel and containing the extremely toxic substance, dioxin. It was known as Agent Orange for the orange stripe on the 55 gallon drums in which it was transported to Vietnam. The chemicals were sprayed from aircraft to kill jungle growth and the thick canopy.

Spraying began as early as 1961 in a campaign coordinated by America’s Central Intelligence Agency. By late 1964 the defoliation campaign gathered momentum, peaking between 1965 and 1967.

Between 1962 and 1971 the United States military sprayed nearly 20,000,000 U.S. gallons (76,000,000 litres) of various chemicals – the ‘rainbow herbicides’ and defoliants – in Vietnam, eastern Laos, and parts of Cambodia as part of the aerial defoliation programme known as Operation Ranch Hand, reaching its peak from 1967 to 1969. For comparison purposes, an Olympic size pool holds approximately 660,000 U.S. gallons (250,000,000 litres).

Australian troops were also involved in the use of herbicides and insecticides, the latter being widely sprayed in Phuoc Tuy province, particularly at Nui Dat. Even during the war herbicide use attracted growing criticism in the United States with the first reports of birth defects in children born in areas subject to aerial spraying appearing in 1965.

Nearly 4.8 million Vietnamese people have been exposed to the defoliant, causing 400,000 deaths. The government of Vietnam says as many as 3 million people have suffered illnesses because of Agent Orange. The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to 1 million people, 100,000 of whom are children, are disabled or have health problems as a result of Agent Orange contamination. The chemical is capable of damaging genes, resulting in deformities among the offspring of exposed victims.

The associated illnesses include cancers, birth defects, skin disorders, auto-immune diseases, liver disorders, psychosocial effects, neurological defects and gastrointestinal diseases. Fifty years after the plague continues.

Concerns about the use of chemical sprays and its effect on people emerged in Australia during the 1970s. Veterans began reporting high incidences of cancer while abnormalities in their offspring were also blamed on Agent Orange. The debate in Australia about links between chemical sprays and veterans’ ill health was reported in the media as growing numbers of veterans came forward claiming Agent Orange had affected their health or that of their children.

Unsurprisingly, the Menzies Government at first denied that Australian troops had been exposed to chemical defoliants, but later retracted that in the face of contrary evidence. The Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia, V.V.A.A. lobbied hard on behalf of their members but the material on which they relied to press their case was sometimes anecdotal and lacking in the kind of rigour necessary to prove a case. In 1982 the V.V.A.A. published a list of symptoms by which a veteran might recognise the effects of exposure to Agent Orange. The list was sufficiently broad that many people could point to at least one sign of illness. Repatriation clinics reported a high incidence of veterans presenting with one or more of the identified symptoms not long after the list was published.

Further studies followed, some commissioned by the government, until, under pressure from the V.V.A.A., a royal commission was established in 1983. The commission’s nine volume report, issued in 1985, admitted the existence of health problems, but found no link to the use of defoliants in Vietnam. It said that Australian exposure to chemicals had been very small, and that it had not affected the soldiers adversely. The commission’s report said the chemicals had prevented health problems “which may have otherwise been a problem in the Vietnam environment.”

It did, however, acknowledge that certain chemicals may cause cancer and that a connection to illness in veterans was unlikely but ‘not fanciful’.

The V.V.A.A. rejected the royal commission report and fought to have the findings overturned. Further reports, including a major study published by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, suggested that veterans’ health was indeed affected by their war service and that in certain types of cancer, links with exposure to dioxin and other chemicals used in Vietnam did exist.

It was not until 1994 that the Labor Government acknowledged that Agent Orange was responsible for the cancers and other illnesses suffered by Australian veterans of the Vietnam war. American veterans had to fight a similar battle for recognition of their symptoms – they eventually won a legal action against seven chemical companies and received a multi-million-dollar compensation payment. In Australia the government began a compensation scheme for those who had cancer caused by their service in Vietnam and for the widows of those who had died from cancer. (‘Agent Orange – The Anzac Portal’, anzacportal.dva.gov.au; see also: J. Bird, ‘In the matter of Agent Orange: Vietnam veterans versus the Australian War Memorial’, honesthistory.net.au, 15 March 2016).

By the time the last Australian personnel were withdrawn in 1972, the Vietnam war had become Australia’s longest war. That was actually the Second Indochina War, the conflict which occurred in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975.

The withdrawal of Australia’s forces from South Vietnam would begin in November 1970, under the Gorton Government, when 8 R.A.R. completed its tour of duty and was not replaced. A phased withdrawal followed, and by 11 January 1973 Australian involvement in hostilities in Vietnam had ceased by initiative of the Whitlam government.

Approximately 60,000 Australians served in the war; 521 were killed and more than 3,000 were wounded. Remains of Australians sent to die against ‘guerrillas’ near the border between Malaysia and Thailand in 1964 were returned last year.

Menzies won seven consecutive elections during his second term, eventually retiring as prime minister in 26 January 1966. At Horne wrote: “It was a feature of Menzies’ long rule that little of what he did seems to matter much. His great talent was to preside over events and look as if he knew what they were all about. His few active interventions proved mainly failures.” (Id. at 195) And again: “The positive characteristics of his ‘Age’ – the spread of affluence, the considerable relaxation in social styles, the increased in national self-assurance, the continued migration programme, the beginning of an interest in Asia and the growing intolerance of Asians residents in Australia, the demands of technology, the increasing power of overseas investment in Australia, were none of them the kind of thing that Menzies had ‘stood for’ and some of them are the opposite of what he said he hoped for before he came to power.” (Ibid., at 196).

Queen Elizabeth II had already honoured him with an exclusive knighthood, the Order of the Thistle – Australians treated such ‘elevation’ as ludicrous. To this was soon added the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports: New Romney, Hythe, Dover, Sandwich. Back 700 years!

In 1973, long after his retirement, the imperial Japanese government conferred on him the Order of the Rising Sun (First Class) for his services to Japanese-Australian friendship. Critics and admirers agreed. It was only fitting that the erstwhile “Pig-Iron Bob” should end his days loaded with overseas honours.

An air of Gilbert & Sullivan surrounded the man born in Jeparit, Victoria. Or would one go to The Government Inspector, also known as The Inspector General, which is a satirical play by the Russian and Ukrainian dramatist and novelist Nikolai Gogol?

Under the name The Inspector General Warner Bros. produced a film, very loosely based on Gogol’s play. The plot is re-located from the Russian Empire into an unspecified corrupted region of a country which suddenly finds itself under the supervision of the First French Empire. The film is dated 1949, the year of the second ascension of Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, K.T., A.K., C.H., Q.C., F.A.A., F.R.S. As Danny Kaye, who impersonates The Inspector, might have said: et cetera, et cetera

Having succeeded Menzies as Prime Minister (1966-1967), Harold Holt also expanded Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war, and maintained close ties with the United States under President Lyndon B. Johnson. While visiting the White House, Holt proclaimed that he was “all the way with L.B.J.”, a remark which was poorly received at home, but which had become – if any was necessary – the evidence of the shift of Australia from the ‘protection’ of the United Kingdom to that of the United States. The majority of Australians were unconcerned about the change of ‘loyalty’.

On the disappearance of Holt while swimming, John McEwen served as Prime Minister from 19 December 1967 to 10 January 1968 in a caretaker capacity. McEwen ceded power to John Gorton after 23 days in office, and in recognition of his service was appointed deputy prime minister, the first time that position had been formally set up.

The new Prime Minister, John Gorton, held power from 1968 to 1971. Not much of a distinguished career may be remembered for Gorton continuing Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, although he began withdrawing troops amid growing public discontent. Gorton’s domestic policies, which emphasised centralisation and economic nationalism, were often controversial in his own party, and his individualistic style alienated many of his cabinet members. He resigned as Liberal leader in 1971 after a confidence motion in his leadership was tied, and was replaced by William McMahon.

A long period of ‘Liberal’ – that is to say ‘anti-Labor Coalition’ government would come to an end with William McMahon. He became prime minister at the age of 63 – the oldest non-interim prime minister to take office. His government (1971-1972) has been described, quite generously, as “a blend of cautious innovation and fundamental orthodoxy”, although one would be justified in comparing him with some classical character which originated in commedia dell’arte of the 17th century. McMahon continued many of the policies of its immediate predecessors, such as Gorton’s phased withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam. Toward the end of his tenure of office Australia was faced with high inflation and unemployment.

McMahon was defeated by Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party at the 1972 federal election, ending 23 consecutive years of Coalition rule.

Twenty-three years of reaction, inertia and ultimately bumbling on the part of the Coalition had given its members the arrogant feeling so clearly expressed by Western Australia Senator Reginald Greive Withers in moving an amendment to the Address-in-Reply critical of the government on 8 March 1973. Withers – who had earned the moniker of ‘the toe-cutter’ – said that he repudiated the idea that the Labor Party had a mandate based on what he referred to as ‘temporary electoral insanity’ in two states at the December 1972 federal election, and warned that “the Senate may well be called upon to protect the national interest by exercising its undoubted constitutional rights and powers.” Behind those words one could easily perceive the anti-Labor ethos: win-at-all-cost, always. The Address, as amended, was finally agreed to on 30 August 1973, and delivered to the Governor-General on 30 September, in a ceremony which no government senator attended.

But Withers had been an easy prophet, as already seen in the initial part of this essay.

Continued Saturday – Beyond the ‘Palace Letters’ (part 2)

Previous instalment – The HMT Dunera scandal

Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some seventy years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reached at George.venturini@bigpond.com.au.

 

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The Anglo-American ambush of the Whitlam Government – 11.11.1975 (Part 3)

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 Wales Bob 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.

 

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