Fairfax Media

By Eryk Bagshaw

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's foreign policy prowess was remembered by politicians and commentators around the world on Tuesday.

But to the world's biggest superpower, the rise of Australia in the Asia–Pacific signalled a threat to US hegemony.

Australia's relations with the US were at breaking point under Gough Whitlam, excerpts from a yet to be released book have revealed.

According to diplomatic cables obtained by an academic at the University of Sydney, President Nixon ordered a top secret US national security study into cutting all intelligence-sharing operations with Australia in the final year of his doomed presidency.

The breaking point was reached after more than 18 months of diplomatic mistrust, said James Curran, the author of Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon's Alliance Crisis

"The book draws on sensational new evidence to show just how close Australia came to losing the alliance with the US," the lecturer from the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre said.

Diplomatic cables from the White House reveal that President Nixon labelled the prime minister a "whirling dervish" and a "peacenik, who is certainly putting the Australians on a very, very dangerous path".

Tape recordings from the White House also show that President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger agreed to "freeze" Whitlam "for a few months" so that he would "get the message".

The escalation in tension came after Mr Whitlam's vocal opposition to the Vietnam war, which he had opposed since the US had invaded in 1965.

When Mr Whitlam assumed office in 1972, he wrote a protest letter to President Nixon, urging him to de-escalate the conflict.

He also condemned the Christmas bombings by the US of civilian areas in Vietnam.

The last straw came when Whitlam's minister for labour and immigration, Clyde Cameron, said the White House was "full of maniacs".

Mr Whitlam's attitude was described as an "absolute outrage" and a "cheap little manoeuvre" by President Nixon.

"From the minute the Vietnam war ends," he quipped, the Australians "will need us one hell of a lot more than we need them."

"For Whitlam to imperil his country's relations with the United States," he said, was "one hell of a thing to do."

Despite the jovial appearance of President Nixon and Mr Whitlam during a 1973 visit to the White House by the prime minister, the diplomatic tension was simmering deep beneath the surface, said Professor Curran.

"Whitlam was just moving too quickly in the Asia-Pacific region with his style of foreign policy," said Professor Curran.

"This included very strategic moves towards China.

"They couldn't stand Australia being more independent ... It was a period characterised by alarm and hysteria."

One month after President Nixon ordered his intelligence agencies to explore options for leaving Australia, the Watergate scandal engulfed his presidency.

He became the only US president to be forced to resign from office.

Two years later, Whitlam became the only Australian prime minister to be dismissed by the Governor-General.

This article was originally published at Fairfax Media