Firm grasp of foreign affairs
The first generation of Australian diplomats faced challenges and opportunities denied to their successors. As Australia’s foreign office in Canberra and its missions abroad grew rapidly after 1945, many of the young men who joined the Department of External Affairs in the 1930s and 40s advanced quickly to senior positions, where they remained for decades.
The three most prominent members of that generation, Arthur Tange, James Plimsoll and Keith Waller, were successively heads of the department from 1954 to 1974, as well as holding numerous ambassadorial and senior official posts. Following this reviewer’s biography of Tange (2006) and Jeremy Hearder’s of Plimsoll (2015), Alan Fewster’s well-researched and engagingly written study of Waller means that we now have accounts of how all three engaged with prime ministers and ministers in a formative period of Australian foreign policy.
Waller was the first career diplomat to be appointed Australia’s ambassador in Washington, but only because, as prime minister Robert Menzies told him, of the current ministers, ‘‘the ones I consider suitable I can’t spare, and the ones I can spare are not suitable’’.
Waller felt quite sick at the prospect, a surprising loss of confidence, because he had long acquired a reputation for what Paul Hasluck called his ‘‘unruffled diplomatic finesse’’. Hasluck thought that if Waller ever dropped a piece of toast, ‘‘he could arrange that it would not fall with the buttered side down’’.
Waller displayed his skills in dealing with his political masters as much as with foreign governments. As the 31-year-old secretary of the Australian delegation to the San Francisco conference that founded the UN, he skilfully managed the delegation headed jointly by the brilliant but egotistical and manipulative HV Evatt and the congenial but ineffectual Frank Forde, neither of whom had been declared the sole leader. A few years earlier, in his first trip outside Australia, Waller had helped open Australia’s first diplomatic mission to China — in Chiang Kai-shek’s wartime capital, Chungking (Chongqing).
Politicians and journalists often speculate on whether a particular official is more inclined to one major party or another but, as Fewster notes, diplomats are more likely to be inspired, motivated or frustrated by the personal qualities and political skills of their masters.
Waller’s attitudes defied easy classification. Caricatured by Manning Clark as a narrowmindedly conservative ‘‘ man in black’’, he was also a persistent advocate for giving Wilfred Burchett a passport. He dressed conservatively, earning the nickname Spats Waller, and Fewster calls his views on women ‘‘antediluvian’’. Female diplomats, Waller thought, should be unmarried, while young male diplomats were advised to marry, as he had done, a woman of independent means who would make an excellent hostess. But there was much more to him than that. He was a key member of the team that shaped a subtle and nuanced policy towards Indonesian-Malaysian confrontation in the 1960s, often seen as one of Australian diplomacy’s finest hours. Waller had doubts about the Vietnam commitment as early as 1962, when Australia sent a small training team of army advisers. He foresaw then, as few others did, that this might lead to a much larger commitment of combat troops.
It was his misfortune to be ambassador in Washington for most of the Vietnam War. At the White House ceremony where Harold Holt impulsively declared that Australia was ‘‘all the way with LBJ’’, a horrified Waller noticed that president Lyndon Johnson “shuddered” at this enormous gaffe. Waller was seldom involved in substantial discussions on the war, but was an astute observer of US policymakers.
Too much of his time, he lamented, was spent organising visits by prime ministers and other senior politicians. The account of John Gorton’s first visit to Washington is painful to read, but contains salutary lessons.
Waller returned from Washington to become departmental head. With his deputy Keith Shann, he did much to restore the morale of a department that had languished under Plimsoll, a brilliant ambassador but poor administrator, and continued to suffer as a consequence of short-lived ministers.
On the Sunday after a Labor government was elected after 23 years in opposition, Gough Whitlam summoned Waller to Parliament House. While dressed in a tweed suit, looking to Whitlam ‘‘like an English duke’’, Waller demonstrated that the department was well prepared to serve the new government with the unruffled diplomatic finesse of which Hasluck had written. He immediately set in motion the steps necessary to recognise Mao’s China, the second time he had played an important role in establishing diplomatic relations with China.
Soon afterwards, Waller drafted Whitlam’s letter to US president Richard Nixon — quoted in full in this book — on the ‘‘Christmas bombing’’ of North Vietnam, which sparked the greatest crisis in the history of AustralianAmerican relations.
Waller’s comments on Australia’s political leaders of the late 60s and early 70s are revealing and often unexpected. He thought so poorly of Gorton that he seriously contemplated resigning as ambassador in Washington. By contrast, he found William McMahon, so often presented as Australia’s worst prime minister, to be ‘‘85 to 90 per cent good’’.
Waller thought Don Willesee, Whitlam’s foreign minister, lacked his leader’s vision and breadth of knowledge but had a much better sense of what the Labor caucus and the electorate would accept. Heeding Willesee’s advice, in Waller’s view, might have reduced the political damage to the Whitlam government from controversies over Vietnamese refugees, the Baltic states and East Timor.
Fewster mixes insights such as accounts of bureaucratic struggles interest fewer readers.
The title of this book is clumsy. The three duties refer to an unexceptional definition of an ambassador’s task, while Talleyrand’s famous instruction to diplomats — above all, not too much zeal — is more relevant to the mature Waller than to the younger man, who was surprisingly temperamental.
The subtitle is less evocative but more accurate. This is a valuable portrait of a working diplomat that adds significantly to our understanding of Australian politics, policy and policymaking. this with that will is the author of Arthur Tange and several other books on Australian foreign policy.
Australia’s ambassador to the US Keith Waller, centre, in Washington in 1970