Gough Whitlam’s victory on 2 December 1972, now encrusted with myth for the Left, was traumatic for a Washington tortured by Vietnam. A cool look back at the 1972-73 US-Australia crisis finds both heroes and villains.
Joe Kelly wrote in the Australian on 16 April that Australian ambassador to the US Jim Plimsoll ‘first sounded the alarm on February 9, 1973 in a secret cable to Canberra’. If so, Plimsoll was tardy. On 23 December 1972, waiting in the White House to see Henry Kissinger, I realised he might broach the Whitlam tornado. I occasionally talked with Kissinger (my former teacher at Harvard) on China; only once did we discuss Australia, when he requested to meet Wilfred Burchett. In an ante-room I phoned the Australian embassy and asked the DCM (Plimsoll was away) if he would read me Whitlam’s 21 December cable to President Nixon protesting the ‘Christmas bombing’ of Hanoi. He declined.
Entering Kissinger’s office, I found him waving the cable. ‘It’s unforgivable for this new Australian government to put Hanoi and Washington on the same footing,’ he said angrily. ‘How can an ally behave like this?’ I told Kissinger that Whitlam considered ANZUS ‘unshakeable’. He riposted, ‘CAN it be unshakeable. You can’t apply ANZUS on some points and not on others.’
Kissinger said the White House wouldn’t answer Whitlam’s cable, and C.L. Sulzberger wrote in the New York Times that the cable was ignored. In fact, an ‘unofficial’ reply was sent to Whitlam. ‘I have never seen such language in a cable from one government to another,’ foreign ministry chief Keith Waller told me.
All this made 1973 a difficult year for Canberra-Washington relations. It seemed Whitlam had overplayed his hand.
However, Kissinger presciently floated a solution that morning. Calming down about Whitlam’s cable to reminisce on Zhou Enlai, Kissinger said, ‘For American policy [in East Asia] there are two phases. In the first, Thailand has to be linchpin. But that will give way to a second phase, when détente with China will be the best guarantee of security in Asia.’
A week later, at Kirribilli House, Whitlam rasped, ‘We’re going to pretend Kissinger’s cable never came.’ The Prime Minister asked me, ‘What am I going to say at my press conference about the Hanoi bombing?’ I explained Kissinger’s view of ‘two phases’, which pleased him. When phase two came, with China central, it seemed likely Australian-American relations would stabilise. This eventually occurred.
Two more problems roiled the Washington-Whitlam relationship. One was unruly shouting by the left wing of the ALP immediately after 2 December. Trade Minister Jim Cairns jumped into foreign policy with insults to Nixon. Other ministers referred to American ‘maniacs’ and ‘mass murderers’. Australian maritime unions refused to service US ships.
All this troubled Whitlam almost as much as it did Washington, as his memoir The Whitlam Government, 1972-1975 indicates. He left US defence facilities in Australia undisturbed, but he did please the Left with complete withdrawal from Vietnam. Like many left-of-centre leaders, including Gillard and Obama, Whitlam’s main concern during war was looking for the exit door.
A further issue was the Nixon people’s ignorance about the ALP after its 23 years out of power. Kissinger at first referred to the Prime Minister as ‘Mr Whitelaw’. Secretary of State William Rogers was unaware that a Labor prime minister did not (then) choose his cabinet members. Walter Rice, the US ambassador in Canberra, had not told him.
Andrew Peacock deserves credit for trying to persuade Washington ‘in early 1973’ not to snub Whitlam, according to Kelly; but still, in late April 1973, the Australian embassy in Washington had zero assurance that Nixon would receive Whitlam on a planned July trip.
Whitlam’s top aide Peter Wilenski, concerned that no meeting with Nixon was fixed for Whitlam’s time in Washington, phoned me on 14 April from a dinner party in Canberra. ‘The PM agrees with you that the [Washington] embassy’s access to the White House is not very good,’ he said. ‘He wants you to arrange a meeting for me with Kissinger.’ The Prime Minister feared that requests to Nixon through the embassy, if refused, would reach the press and besmirch the government.
Whitlam told Wilenski, ‘If you get this meeting with Kissinger and my meeting with Nixon is set for July, you can take a week off on the way back to Australia!’ Kissinger quickly agreed to see Wilenski on 2 May. The pair had much in common: both bright and reflective, with a Central European background. Kissinger assured Wilenski that Nixon would receive Whitlam. Wilenski got to bask on the beaches of Hawaii.
Peter swore me to secrecy before his talk with Kissinger and he told Plimsoll about it only an hour beforehand. Plimsoll struck an odd note in saying to Wilenski, ‘Argue for our common outlook as Anglo-Saxons.’ Wilenski was born in Poland, Kissinger in Germany.
US Assistant Secretary of State Marshall Green took effective steps during the first half of 1973 to improve Washington’s attitude to the Labor government. At a dinner given by the Australian ambassador on 18 April 1973 to bid farewell to Green before he left for Canberra to be US ambassador, I told Green a certain operative at the US embassy in Canberra was offensive to Whitlam. ‘I’m getting rid of him, he’s going to Tokyo,’ said Green. He also remarked, ‘If we can’t get on with Australia we can’t get on with anyone.’
In the end, agreement on the emerging broader regional picture — detente with China — cleared the air between Canberra and Washington. The current ANZUS stability was described to me recently by Ambassador Kim Beazley: ‘Because the views we develop independently are rarely difficult for the United States, they are valuable to the United States. Our relationship with the US is no burden on our relationship with China and vice versa.’
Much easier for Gillard to stand close to Washington than it was for Whitlam in 1972-73, when most of Asia was neutral at best to US policies in Indochina. Today most Asian countries favor strong US influence in the region, which gives ANZUS a natural context. Hand-wringing about ‘choosing’ between China and the US is just dinner party chatter for Australian academics.
Since the Asian Financial Crisis and the War on Terror, regional factors shrink and globalisation good and bad marches on. Gillard is lucky that geography grows ever less decisive. Maps from the Menzies era showing red arrows pointing down from China through South-East Asia to Australia seem laughable in an era of 24-hour trading, the internet and cyber warfare.
Kissinger as Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977 (after his White House post) never once visited Australia, and later I ribbed him for the omission. ‘It was because you never gave me any trouble,’ he beamed. Overcoming ‘trouble’ in Australia-US relations during 1972-73 probably benefited Malcolm Fraser and subsequent prime ministers.
Ross Terrill’s books include The Australians and numerous works on China.