By Troy Bramston
At the midpoint of Gough Whitlam’s 1970s Labor government, Australia came perilously close to losing the security alliance with the US as a sudden and dramatic shift in foreign policy drew scorn and contempt in the corridors of power in Washington DC.
Richard Nixon, according to newly declassified documents, thought Whitlam was flirting with neutrality and ordered a top-secret study into the Australia–US alliance. The president considered removing US intelligence facilities from Australia, ending intelligence-sharing and ceasing joint military co-operation.
In private conversations, Nixon expressed his strong dislike of Whitlam, refusing to invite him to the White House for five months, and referred to him as a “peacenik” over Vietnam. US secretary of state Henry Kissinger dismissed Whitlam as a “bastard”.
This fresh account of the alliance at its lowest point is contained in a revelatory new book by Sydney University academic James Curran, Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War (MUP), which is extracted in The Australian today. “Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had complete contempt for Gough Whitlam while Whitlam, in turn, had little time or patience for the American president’s policies on Vietnam,” Dr Curran told The Australian.
The early trigger for the near alliance fracture was Whitlam’s rebuke of US bombings in Vietnam in December 1972. “The formal letter he sent to Nixon criticising the bombings,” Dr Curran writes, “so enraged Nixon that it plunged the relationship into a virtual six-month freeze.”
Whitlam also raised US concerns when he moved to establish diplomatic relations with China and East Germany, supported a UN resolution on neutrality and indicated Australia would withdraw from SEATO, a western regional alliance body. In May 1973, Whitlam sent his private secretary, Peter Wilenski, to meet with Dr Kissinger.
“I must tell you,” Dr Kissinger told Dr Wilenski, “there was very bad feeling here towards your prime minister, particularly because the president has a warm spot towards Australia.”
In July 1974, with relations hardly improving, Nixon ordered a review of the alliance. This report, detailed in full in Dr Curran’s book, was designed to pressure the Whitlam government.
“Whitlam was not as radical as the US initially thought,” Dr Curran said.
“He was actually more moderate compared to the likes of Jim Cairns and Lionel Murphy, who were a real concern after the initial rupture died down.
“The great surprise is that Whitlam and Nixon both had so much in common: both had spent sustained periods in the political wilderness, both wanted to embrace the opportunities of a more multipolar world and both were hurtling down the diplomatic path to reach a new accommodation with communist China.
“Also, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a serious disagreement with the US. I think the alliance is better, and stronger, when Australia is a more straight-talking ally. Marshall Green, the US ambassador, admonished an entire generation of Australian politicians for being overly sycophantic.”
The book will be launched tonight by former NSW premier and foreign minister Bob Carr.
This article was originally published at The Australian