Poorly timed clash of tempers
Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War By James Curran MUP, 232pp, $39.99
It is a truth universally acknowledged that diplomatic history is boring. Even historians have been known to scorn it as ‘‘what one clerk wrote to another’’. Perhaps it is more appropriate to think of another aphorism, that soldiers pay the price for diplomats’ failures. If we define as diplomats not only the officials in foreign offices and embassies but also their political masters, heads of government and foreign ministers, the lesson of the centenary of the 1914-18 war is that entire nations bear the cost of diplomatic failure. The world, not least Australia, is still paying a heavy price for the failures of European diplomats before August 1914.
James Curran’s Unholy Fury is centred not on the outbreak of a war but on the near-rupture in the 1970s of the Australian-American alliance. Given every government since 1951 has regarded the ANZUS pact as fundamental to our national security, the potential ramifications of the diplomatic rift between Gough Whitlam and Richard Nixon were huge.
The bare bones of the story have long been known. In December 1972 the Labor Party came to office for the first time in 23 years. Whitlam, as prime minister and foreign minister, was determined to place the relationship with Washington on a new basis, with Australia playing a more independent, less subservient role.
Whitlam’s first weeks in office happened to coincide with a crucial stage in the protracted negotiations by which Nixon was trying to end American involvement in the Vietnam War. To reassure Saigon of US commitment, he ordered an intense bombing campaign against Hanoi. This ‘‘Christmas bombing’’ was denounced around the world, and among the most vocal critics were ministers in Australia’s new Labor government, who called Nixon and his aides thugs, maniacs and murderers. Maritime unions imposed bans on American shipping.
In this super-heated climate Whitlam wrote a letter to Nixon questioning the bombing campaign, while trying to convey that he wanted to maintain the alliance, but on a more equal basis. Nixon reacted with the unholy fury of Curran’s title, calling into question the very existence of the ANZUS alliance.
The tensions continued for some years, centred mainly on the security of the ‘‘joint facili- ghino is one figure of eminence who makes that case. Yet McGuinness has the intellectual honesty to include a powerful essay by two dissenters (“fifth columnists”, she jests).
Academics Dan Hunter and Nic Suzor belong on the so-called copyleft. It is true, as Borghino points out acidly, that such tenured commentators can opine from a position of (relative) financial security: “No copyleft activists that I know of have ever gone broke because they’ve risked all their capital on an idea.” Yet I’m bound to say I found Hunter and Suzor’s arguments persuasive.
They are not philistines, agreeing that creative artists merit better financial rewards. But they point out that there is nothing new about artists’ impecuniosity. They also question whether this genuinely stifles creativity. Down the ages, most artists — including most of the greats in all genres — have created out of deep personal need, not with an eye to their bank balance.
In the candid words of another contributor, rock musician Tim Derricourt: “When we started there was never the slightest idea that we’d make any money at all.”
The copyleft’s best point is that when it comes to artistic remuneration, copyright laws are not the main problem. Nor is digital techno- ties’’ on Australian soil, described by the Left as ‘‘American bases’’. Only after Nixon was forced from the White House in August 1974 and Whitlam was dismissed in November 1975 could their successors re-establish the alliance with a degree of mutual confidence.
The first reason for welcoming this book is the amount of detail with which Curran has fleshed out the story, after extensive research on American and Australian sources. He identifies precisely the basis of the American reaction. Whitlam’s letter indicated that he intended to co-ordinate an international approach to both Hanoi and Washington. As Henry Kissinger explained bluntly to the Australian embassy, it was simply unacceptable for Australia to treat its most valued ally and an enemy nation on equal terms.
At another time, this might have been treated as a flesh wound to the alliance, which a few weeks of diplomatic effort could heal. But at this juncture Nixon, under enormous pressure at home and abroad, was in no mood to forgive an insult from a country that had not only supported American policy but had urged the US to stay in Vietnam.
At such times, events are shaped not only by logy. The main problem is neoliberalism. In the acerbic words of author John Birmingham, whose essay concludes the book: “There is enormous wealth being ‘created’. But it is very tightly held. And not by you, unless you’re a lucky member of the One Per Cent.” the vast impersonal forces of history but also by the personal qualities and emotions of key individuals. The personalities of Nixon and Whitlam played a vital role in bringing the Australian-American alliance to the brink of a fatal rupture.
The second reason to welcome the book is that it is commendably even-handed. Some of the publicity surrounding the book gives the impression that Curran blames Nixon alone for the rift. In fact he says, borrowing a phrase from Christopher Clark’s recent book on the origins of World War I, The Sleepwalkers, that this story is ‘‘saturated with agency’’. In other words, Whitlam, Nixon and many other participants could have acted differently.
Whitlam’s goal of a more equal relationship was worthy. It was not his fault that Nixon ordered the Christmas bombing just as Labor came to office, nor that his ministers made undisciplined statements, nor that the maritime unions erupted. But Whitlam should have recognised that in politics timing is all-important. This was not the time to try to bring Washington to a new basis for the alliance. Nor was one letter, no matter how carefully drafted, going to achieve this goal without preparing the ground carefully, even in more benign circumstances.
Whitlam’s rapid recognition of China has often been noted. Curran makes the point that this was almost automatic, and not of concern to Washington. A greater issue was Whitlam’s haste in establishing diplomatic relations with Hanoi, on terms that indicated an eagerness to establish close ties with the likely conquerors of Australia’s South Vietnamese allies. Whitlam was keen to avoid the mistake of non-recognition of communist China after 1949, but the opening to Hanoi should have been more skilfully handled.
Curran cites other examples of Whitlam’s lack of judgment, such as his tardiness in silencing his ministerial colleagues and his tendency to make unnecessarily acerbic and damaging comments.
Furthermore, he sets the Whitlam-Nixon rift in the wider history of the relationship, especially the personal relationships between leaders on both sides. He begins by describing the mutual admiration between prime minister Robert Menzies and vice-president Nixon in the 1950s, which set a benchmark for Nixon’s assessment of Australian leaders. Between Menzies and Whitlam came the meetings of Harold Holt, John Gorton and William McMahon with Lyndon Johnson and Nixon, marked by effusive public statements and, in some cases, embarrassingly awkward private sessions.
This context makes it easier to understand both how the severe tension arose between Whitlam and Nixon and what all the parties might have done to avoid it.
Curran has published, either by himself or jointly with Stuart Ward, a number of important works on Australia’s relations with Britain and the US, and the ways in which Australian leaders have defined our national identity in terms of these relations. His writing is always vigorous and readable.
By the later chapters of this book the striving for effect leads him into some journalistic cliches and mixed metaphors. At one point he speaks of people being ‘‘constrained by the miasma of a mindset’’. At such points one hopes for a little less colour and little more sober analysis — ‘‘more matter and less art’’, as Hamlet’s mother recommended to Polonius.
This is an important book about a crucial episode in Australia’s most significant foreign relationship. It has valuable lessons for present day policymakers. And it is most certainly not boring.
Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, left, with US president Richard Nixon
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