By James Curran
Today's state farewell to the life of Gough Whitlam is unlikely to put an end to the seemingly endless speculation about the termination of his prime ministership in November 1975 by governor-general John Kerr.
Novelist Peter Carey recently joined the rollcall of conspiracy theorists who believe the CIA was behind the dismissal. Carey is “angry” that the “US government destabilised and helped overthrow our elected government”.
Sadly this kind of hysteria typically overlooks questions of real substance: not only how close Australia came to losing the alliance in this era but how Whitlam, despite his occasional delight in ruffling American feathers, engendered a new respect for Australia in Washington.
But sensational new evidence shines a torchlight on the depth of frustration in the Nixon White House with Whitlam’s Labor government. It shows that in the middle of 1974 some elements in Richard Nixon’s administration gave serious consideration to ending the alliance altogether. For the first time since the signing of the ANZUS treaty in 1951, Australia’s formal, strategic relationship with the US was perched precariously on the edge of an abyss.
That it had come to this suggests a certain red line had been crossed. And that line related to the question of whether US intelligence facilities at Pine Gap, Nurrungar and North West Cape would come under threat from what the Americans assessed to be Australia’s “continuing turn to the left” under Whitlam.
The fact Nixon requested a top-secret study of relations with Australia — National Security Study Memorandum 204 — has been in the public domain for nearly two decades. Relevant government agencies in Washington were asked to explore options for relocating key US military installations in Australia elsewhere and to assess the “impact on our alliance with Australia of curtailing or ending … intelligence sharing” and the “prospects for growing divergence between Australia and US policy in Asia and elsewhere”.
The questions underline the seriousness of the White House’s intent: Nixon and Henry Kissinger were asking for options that, if implemented, would have amounted to reducing the alliance to little more than a brittle chrysalis. This was a US administration seriously considering moving out of Australia.
But the highly classified inter-agency report that flowed from that request has been closed to researchers — until now.
NSSM 204 brought together all the American anxieties about the first Labor government in 23 years. It followed the controversy over the December bombings of North Vietnam in 1972, Nixon’s studied refusal — for nearly five months — to invite Whitlam to the White House, and a series of significant disagreements between the two countries over Asia policy. The report represented the collective wisdom of the departments of State and Defence, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the National Security Council and the Defence Intelligence Agency.
Its objective was to relate the future of the US intelligence installations to the context of other policy problems with the Australian government, especially the direction Whitlam was taking in Asia. Everything was subordinated to this: a telling indication, if one were needed, of the importance Washington attached to the facilities. For the US, they came first: the facilities defined the alliance.
NSSM 204 pulled no punches. It depicted a relationship “under pressure” for several years because of Australia’s desire for greater self-reliance in foreign affairs and Whitlam’s style of governance. The hallmark of the “Australian approach” to the world was an “aversion to anything that smacks of the Cold War or superpower condominium and … a desire to associate with the causes of the world’s underprivileged”. The report also had been triggered by the results of the May 1974 federal election, after which Jim Cairns became deputy prime minister.
Not long after the poll, Cairns had given an interview in which he stated his explicit opposition to the continuation of US defence facilities and his desire to “get Australia out of the big power military system”. US officials wondered whether Cairns “could be trusted with information on our sensitive installations in Australia and on the data we obtained from them”.
Earlier that year Whitlam had said there would be no “extensions or prolongations” of the agreements covering the US installations. At the very least, Whitlam wanted to increase Australia’s role in operating the facilities.
NSSM 204 generated considerable debate among the various agencies in Washington, and not a little bureaucratic infighting. Defence secretary James Schlesinger took the hardest line. Even before the study was completed, he authorised the Pentagon to begin looking at where and when it could relocate its intelligence installations.
The CIA wanted to leave the intelligence relationship unchanged and pushed to postpone any decision on removing Pine Gap, “hoping (that) there might be a chance of leaving it in Australia into the 1980s”. That explained why the move was on to accelerate the development of alternative sites for the US installations. Nevertheless, the harder Defence line did make it into the final version of the NSSM and formed Option 1:
Begin immediately to attenuate certain ties in the US–Australian alliance relationship, on the assumption that this will induce the Whitlam government to reverse those major elements of its foreign policy which are inimical to US interests.
That option included a reduction in the flow of the most sensitive intelligence and joint military exercises, “vigorous” reaction to Australian foreign policy initiatives that “undercut our own” and “increased restrictions on US–Australian trade and capital flows”.
The pros and cons of this approach were clearly spelled out: in this case the most glaring pro being that if Option 1 were “unsuccessful in influencing the current Labor government, (it) could undermine it with the Australian people, setting the stage for an opposition victory”. It was a remarkable comment: the administration contemplating what course of action would have the most devastating domestic political effect.
In the end, Option 1 was deemed far too high a risk, potentially producing a “downward spiral” in the relationship and possibly resulting in the “early loss” of the Pine Gap facility, which had been in operation for only four years.
But NSSM 204 also noted that “it is less than certain that the government of Australia will continue to provide this installation a favourable, protected environment, or that it will not exercise its option to terminate the existing agreement upon one year’s notice anytime after December 1975”.
However, it noted that Whitlam understood the importance of the installations and that they should remain “for the time being”. Seeing him as “a strong proponent of detente policy”, the report judged that he would “want to avoid any action that he recognises would make progress in that field more difficult for the United States”.
By the time the report was due to be handed to the White House, the mood in Washington had settled. As one briefing note also highlighted, “the Australians have been trying to show that they do not want to get too far away from us”. And the background documents to NSSM 204 had noted that “although Australians are increasingly sensitive to implications of US domination, they are not anti-American”.
In addition, Cairns said publicly that he would neither press for the early removal of the installations nor seek a security clearance to know more about their functions.
Ultimately, the study recommended preservation of the ANZUS alliance, support for Australia’s stabilising role as a regional power, and encouragement of “Australian foreign policies that harmonise with, rather than undercut, those of the US”. It showed that the US still expected to be able to haul its junior ally back into line. The study also advocated maintenance of US access to defence installations in Australia and careful regard for political pressure that may require their eventual relocation.
But the tumult and the shouting were not quite all done. When US ambassador Marshall Green returned to Washington for briefings in early 1975, he had a private conversation with Schlesinger.
And here, the old Cold War statecraft was back in action. The two spoke of Whitlam, and Australian politics more generally, in the way a puppeteer would talk of his marionette. “Hard-nosed” was how Green initially had been instructed to approach his task in Canberra, but now Whitlam was “on our side”. They agreed that where Cairns was concerned, Whitlam was certainly the lesser of two evils, and that even a conservative takeover would not solve all the problems in the alliance.
In short, they wanted Whitlam to stay in office for “a respectable period”, as he had continued to publicly defend the installations. Indeed it was better for the US “if the two parties alternate in power at respectable intervals”.
Schlesinger was happy to play the game as long as the Australians behaved, and Green believed a “low profile”, for the moment, was best. But as Green put it, “we could heat up the crucible at any time, either accidentally or intentionally”. And even though the installations were safe for the time being, two factors could always intervene to throw their survival into question: Cairns’s elevation to the leadership of the Labor Party, and “if current investigations in the US became linked with Australia”.
If that happened, Green added, “the resulting storm might shorten our stay”. Although neither man mentioned precisely what these “investigations” were, much less their possibly explosive nature, it is highly likely Green was referring to a Senate select committee, formed in early 1975 and chaired by Democratic senator Frank Church, that was inquiring into American intelligence activities abroad and examining in particular covert US attempts to subvert foreign governments.
At the very least, the conversation suggests a distinct edginess at the highest levels about the possible revelation of some kind of CIA activity in Australia.
In the end, however, the Nixon and Ford administrations had to adjust to the Australian winds of change, and even the inflamed throats of Labor ministers criticising Nixon’s policies in Vietnam. By the middle of 1975 American officials were talking about the “mellowing of Gough Whitlam” and how his government had “providentially matured in its views”. Even when considering the relocation of US intelligence installations — facilities that were, in the words of one senior State Department official, “damned near irreplaceable” — the financial and strategic costs of doing so ultimately were prohibitive.
US officials struggled to come to terms with Whitlam’s Australia: it was unlike anything they had seen before. As one said, the change in the country’s politics since the end of World War II was “almost incomprehensible”.
And across time the paranoia about Labor in some US circles intensified. When Bob Hawke came to office in 1983, the CIA saw fit to remind its readership that Labor’s foreign policy under Whitlam appeared to “serve some Soviet interests”. It was a ludicrous assessment, and showed that on this question, paranoia and hysteria were by no means uniquely Australian phenomena.
This article was originally published at The Australian