By Joe Kelly
THE US threatened the future of the ANZUS treaty, the cornerstone of Australia's security framework, over alarms about Gough Whitlam's foreign policy in mid-1973.
When Mr Whitlam visited Washington in July that year, then US secretary of state William Rogers threatened the alliance in an attempt to pressure the Labor government to support president Richard Nixon's initiatives in Asia.
Documents seen by The Australian reveal a fragile alliance in stark contrast to the new political and military intensity it has assumed over the past decade, culminating in the deployment of US marines to Darwin this month.
Former opposition leader Andrew Peacock has also spoken publicly for the first time about his personal diplomacy behind the scenes to salvage relations. He secured an interview with Nixon in the Oval Office as an opposition MP when Billy Snedden was Liberal leader to persuade the US president to see Mr Whitlam and end the crisis in relations.
A confidential record of the Rogers conversation, held on July 30, 1973, reveals the alliance was threatened over US suspicions about Labor's position on the South East Asia Organisation Treaty, formally dissolved in 1977.
The Australian ambassador to Washington, James Plimsoll, had first sounded the alarm on February 9, 1973 in a secret cablegram to Canberra. He warned that an attempt to withdraw from SEATO -- the military alliance of the US, Australia, Britain, New Zealand and Asian nations, including The Philippines and Thailand -- could result in an American abrogation of ANZUS.
''I have to say quite frankly that the continuance of ANZUS itself could be brought into question by this unilateral act taken in the face of an American attempt to see SEATO modified in steps with us,'' Plimsoll said.
Relations with the US had soured in December 1972 when Mr Whitlam wrote to Nixon expressing concern at the widespread bombing in North Vietnam, prompting presentations to Australian officials in Washington about whether the new Labor government was ''anti-American''.
A confidential cablegram of the July 30 encounter between Mr Whitlam and Rogers was sent to the Department of Foreign Affairs on August 3, 1973.
Mr Whitlam argued SEATO was ''in need of an overhaul'', but Rogers linked it to ANZUS, saying they were both part of a complex system of more than 44 treaties.
In a threat designed to soften the position of the Labor government, Rogers said further attacks on SEATO would damage the future of the alliance. ''The situation regarding the existing system of security treaties was that if any of them appeared to be crumbling or if any US partners in any such arrangements seemed dissatisfied with them, it could have a snowball effect in weakening support, particularly in congress, for other pacts even if they were unrelated,'' the cablegram noted. ''Therefore,'' Rogers continued, ''if SEATO were ridiculed or denigrated it would be harmful to the whole system including ANZUS.
''The secretary of state said if we were to take pot shots at SEATO, if SEATO were to become an object of public contention, it would certainly affect other arrangements that America's partners would wish to see maintained.''
Historian James Curran from the University of Sydney, working on a new book tentatively titled Whitlam and Nixon at War, said this underlined the most ''serious stress and strain since the signing of the ANZUS treaty in September 1951''. ''This was the moment when the Americans could not believe that one of their staunchest Cold War allies had become one of its fiercest critics and that the Americans were prepared to question the very viability of ANZUS,'' he said. Professor Curran has found US documents in which Nixon told intelligence, defence and diplomatic agencies to ''look at options for relocating US installations in Australia'', including Pine Gap, North West Cape and Nurrungar.
Professor Curran says that Nixon commissioned a national security study memorandum in July 1974, one month before he resigned, asking for an assessment on the impact of ''curtailing or ending'' intelligence sharing with Australia. No decision was made but recommendations were made to the National Security Council.
This exposes a sense of crises that would be inconceivable today, with opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop saying it showed the alliance could never be taken for granted. ''We need to work constantly at maintaining the alliance, even though the US is a longstanding ally,'' she said. ''It would be a mistake to think there are no tensions in the relationship. That's why open lines of communication are essential.''
Speaking from Austin, Texas, Mr Peacock recalled how he found out from Plimsoll, on a leaders' grant visit to the US in early 1973, that Nixon was refusing to meet Mr Whitlam.
Mr Peacock said his close friend and then chairman of the Republican National Committee, George Bush Sr, arranged interviews for him, with then vice president Spiro Agnew and Nixon, to help resolve the diplomatic tussle. The meeting with Nixon in the Oval Office lasted for five or six minutes.
''I was concerned when I heard the story from our ambassador so I raised it with a friend of mine who was president of the Republican National Committee and through that we were able to get the message through to Agnew and Nixon,'' Mr Peacock said.
In July 1973, the assistant secretary for the department of state Richard Sneider revealed to the Australian ambassador to Japan, Gordon Freeth, that ''the State Department had had the greatest difficulty in persuading the President to see Whitlam''.
The US suspicion of Mr Whitlam at this time was fuelled by his renovation of Australian foreign policy in which he sought to play down the military hardware of the ANZUS treaty, free strategic policy in Asia from the ideological fetishes of the 1950s and 1960s and project a more self confident image of Australia to the world.