Poorly timed clash of tem­pers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Ed­wards

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

Copy­right in­fringe­ment has be­come much eas­ier in the dig­i­tal world

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