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The Case of the Shaky Ally

The U.S.-Australia Cold War of 1972-73.

Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By ROSS TERRILL
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A Washington tortured by Vietnam was flummoxed in 1972 when Australian voters made the Labor party’s antiwar Gough Whitlam prime minister after 23 years of conservative rule. Entering Henry Kissinger’s office at the White House on December 23 for a conversation about China relating to President Nixon’s new opening there, I found the national security adviser (and my former professor, to whom I acted as an informal adviser) waving Whitlam’s December 21 cable protesting the “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi. Angrily Kissinger said, “It’s unforgivable for this new Australian government to put Hanoi and Washington on the same footing. How can an ally behave like this?” I meekly replied that Whitlam considered the mutual security treaty ANZUS (New Zealand is the third signatory) “unshakable.” He riposted, “Can it be unshakable? You can’t apply ANZUS on some points and not on others.”

Photo of Gough Whitlam in 1972

Gough Whitlam in 1972

Keystone / Getty Images

The Nixon White House had run into a storm not expected from pliant Australia. They did not grasp the significance of Whitlam’s recent triumph within the Labor party​—​in which I (then an Australian citizen) had played a small role. The struggles between a liberal democratic right wing and a Marxist left wing within the Labor party had been as wrenching as the Truman-Henry Wallace feud in the Democratic party in the 1940s. For his part, Whitlam was unaware of how much Washington knew of Moscow’s spying in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s and the huge Communist influence in Australian unions over the years. 

Kissinger went on grimly: “We’re going to pretend this cable from Whitlam never came. I’m not even going to show it to the State Department.” C. L. Sulzberger, however, got wind of it and wrote in the New York Times that the cable was ignored. In fact, Whitlam was sent an “unofficial” reply. “I have never seen such language,” Australian foreign ministry chief Keith Waller later told me in Canberra, “in a cable from one government to another.” All this made 1973 a lousy year for the Canberra-Washington relationship, hitherto one of the closest alliances in the world.

Unruly shouting by the left wing of the victorious Labor party did not help matters. The trade minister jumped into foreign policy with insults to Nixon. Other ministers, who had partnered with Communists in “Stop Work to Stop the War” anti-Vietnam war events, referred to American “maniacs” and “mass murderers.” Australian maritime unions refused to service U.S. ships.

All this vexed Whitlam, as his memoir The Whitlam Government, 1972-1975 indicates. He was not on the left of his party on many policies (though, like Jimmy Carter, he veered ever leftward after leaving office). He retained the vital U.S. defense facilities in Australia, but he did please the left with a quick withdrawal from Vietnam. Like many left of center leaders during wars, then and since, he was looking for the exit.

Whitlam often said he backed ANZUS but disdained SEATO (the South East Asia Treaty Organization), which included France and the United Kingdom but no major Asian country. Yet information possessed by Nixon and Kissinger about Moscow’s meddling in Australia suggested they were dealing with a Janus-faced party with a “Truman wing” and a “Henry Wallace wing,” and they rejected the ANZUS-SEATO dichotomy. Kissinger said to me, “No government, perhaps other than the British, has been given the intelligence information that Australia has received under [conservative prime minister William] McMahon and his predecessors. Whether that can continue under Whitlam remains to be seen.”

A week after visiting Kissinger I was in Australia and related his words to Whitlam at Kirribilli House, a prime ministerial residence overlooking Sydney Harbor. A U.S. warship sat in the blue waters beyond the sweeping gardens. “It cruised up yesterday,” the prime minister said sardonically, “and has been anchored there ever since.” He said of the White House reply to his Vietnam cable, “We’re going to pretend Kissinger’s cable never came.”

Heady with his electoral victory, Whitlam minimized the known facts about Soviet spying in Australia and the problems this had caused Washington. A 2010 book, The Family File, by Mark Aarons​—​son of Laurie Aarons, a Communist Party of Australia (CPA) leader equivalent to Earl Browder or Gus Hall​—​contains a taped confession of the chief local Soviet agent within the CPA. “I had some very high-level information,” the agent told Laurie Aarons in 1993 not long before he died (post-spying he became a fisherman). “I gave it to [Moscow]. What was I to do?”

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