The proscribed scribe
Rebel Journalism: The Writings of Wilfred Burchett Edited by George Burchett and Nick Shimmin Cambridge University Press, 314pp, $ 37.95
ALONG with John Pilger, Wilfred Burchett is arguably the most controversial journalist and war correspondent Australia has produced. Known to 20th- century conservative Australia as public enemy No 1, to many on the Left Burchett was regarded as a courageous rebel who, most often, reported conflicts from behind enemy lines or, at least, from the other side.
This annotated anthology of Burchett’s writings from World War II until his death in 1983 is topped and tailed by his greatest scoop: reporting first- hand on the terrible effects of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The first Western reporter to reach the utterly devastated city, Burchett’s witness report was published on the front page of London’s Daily Express newspaper on September 5, 1945.
With the headline reading ‘‘ I write this as a warning to the world’’, Burchett began: ‘‘ In Hiroshima, 30 days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying mysteriously and horribly — people who were uninjured in the ( initial) cataclysm — from an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague.’’
As American journalist T. D. Allman explained in his eulogy at Burchett’s funeral: ‘‘ It was a considerable ordeal to reach Hiroshima, but it was an infinitely greater accomplishment, back then, to understand the importance of Hiroshima.’’
Strangely, there are two forewords to these selected writings of Burchett.
The first, by Pilger, largely rehashes an essay he wrote in 1986 for editor Ben Kiernan in Burchett: Reporting the Other Side of the World , while the second, by Burchett defender Gavan McCormack, rightly claims that Burchett was close to and respected by a range of world leaders, from Vietnam’s president Ho Chi Minh to US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who sought Burchett’s assistance in negotiating an end to the war in Vietnam.
To me, it beggars belief to argue that Burchett was not a communist.
Yet Pilger recounts that before his death in 1983, Burchett confided to him that he had never become a communist: ‘‘ How could I be a communist? There were so many parties, each drawing on different circumstances, different conditions. Which one was I to choose? I chose none because I wanted to remain just me.’’
The truth is, just to take the case of Vietnam, that Burchett was a close confidant and supporter of Uncle Ho and also of the commander- in- chief of Vietnam’s Peoples Army, general Vo Nguyen Giap, who in 1954 had routed the French at Dien Bien Phu and in 1968 masterminded the Tet offensive against the Americans. Remarkably, to the best of my knowledge, Giap is still alive in Hanoi.
After visiting the former states of Indochina early in 1962, Burchett became convinced that the US was preparing for full- scale military intervention.
From then on he denounced US imperialism in Vietnam and became, according to his biographer Tom Heenan, arguably the war’s most influential journalist.
Rebel Journalism follows on from Burchett’s updated autobiography, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist , published in 2005 and also edited by Burchett’s son George and his colleague at SBS, Nick Shimmin.
As George Burchett and Shimmin explain, in November 1963 Wilfred embarked on his greatest journalistic enterprise since Hiroshima. He spent six months travelling in the jungles of South Vietnam with Vietcong guerillas, marching with National Liberation Front fighters, inhabiting their fortified hamlets and, despite his size, using their extensive network of tunnels.
Published in 1965, Burchett’s Vietnam: Inside Story of the Guerilla War produced enormous media interest. Intriguingly, Burchett highlighted the following remarks, made by John F. Kennedy on April 6, 1954, when he was a senator for Massachusetts: ‘‘ To pour money, material and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory would be dangerously futile and destructive.’’
Kennedy continued, with remarkable prescience: ‘‘ No amount of American assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere, and at the same time nowhere; an enemy of the people which has the sympathy and support of the people.’’
By early 1965, it was clear even to the Americans that if they were to avoid defeat in South Vietnam, troop levels would have to be ramped up. Thus the number of US troops increased from 184,000 at the end of 1965 to 385,000 by the end of 1966.
As the book’s editors put it, in a manner eerily applicable to the present situation in Iraq. ‘‘ Strategists in Washington took some time to realise that increased troop numbers were not likely to win this battle.’’ Indeed, then as now, it may have been useful for American commanders and strategists to have read the assessment of the relative motivations of the combatants in Burchett’s Vietnam .
Whatever may be said about Burchett’s loyalty to Australia and to the West, what cannot be denied is his courage and his capacity as a correspondent to be where the action was. Ross Fitzgerald is working with Peter Cherry on Ho and Me, a feature film about Wilfred Burchett and Ho Chi Minh.
From the front: Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett in 1967 in Vietnam during the war