Chapter 11 – Back to Canberra, and the Vietnam War
BETWEEN FOUR WORLDS: CHINA, RUSSIA, JAPAN AND AUSTRALIA.
BETWEEN FOUR CAREERS and FOUR LANGUAGES
1. A New Career
2. ANU Connections
3. The China Slot. Giving it Away?
4. Discovering Canberra’s True Role over Vietnam
5.Becoming a Student Again
6. Discovering the World Outside
7. Cutting the Umbilical Cord?
8. The External Affairs ‘Family’
9. Rude Reality
1. A New Career
Arriving in Canberra from Moscow early 1965, the EA reception was chilly, as expected. I set about planning the new career I had promised myself.
First move was to check out that large Canberra employer of ex- bureaucrats – the Australian National University.
2. ANU (Australian National University) Connections
In 1962, when I had just returned from Hongkong, I had been approached with a good job offer from John (later Sir John) Crawford of the ANU. He wanted to set up a research centre on the Chinese economy.
I should add that his offer came well before I had emerged as a critic of government policies,
I also had an offer from J.D.B.Miller, the head of the ANU international relations department, to become a researcher in his own department.
Both were keen to recruit Chinese language speakers, and I was one of the very few in Canberra at the time. With Crawford I also had a personal connection; he had co-authored a book with my father on the Australian economy.
I turned down both offers, saying EA were already hinting that I would posted to Moscow in a year or so, and that when I returned from the USSR I would be more valuable to the ANU as a Sino-Soviet specialist..
(Deep down was also the faint hope that if I went to Moscow I might be able to fulfil my promise to D. of Oxford days – that I would get back to Europe after entering the Australian diplomatic service and find her.)
Not just Chinese, I would also have Russian and Sino-Soviet experience – a hot topic at the time. Both Crawford and Miller seemed to go along with that idea.
But when I did return in 1965, it was fairly clear we would not have much to say to each other.
Crawford was making headlines with savage tirades against ANU students with the good sense and conscience to demonstrate against the Vietnam War.
Miller was handing out grave warnings about the threat from China, and his department had been stacked with a lot of strange people from strange places who seemed to have briefs rigidly to support government positions on China and Vietnam.
I was obvious I would have no future working with people who were so obviously biassed over the growing atrocity of Vietnam
In any case I had already had a gut-full of studying Communist societies.
China was still off limits to all but the most pro-Beijing of academics. And it would be a long time before I would want to return to Moscow.
I decided to move into economics and Japan, partly because my earlier Oxford and Canberra University College interest in economics still lingered, and partly because Japan was already emerging as an important economic power.
I also wanted follow up on the personal interest in Japan I had picked up when I was in Hongkong and Moscow.
At the time, the Research School of Pacific Studies at the ANU was giving quite generous scholarships for PhD research into Asian countries.
The economics department there was headed by my former Canberra University College economics teacher, Heinz Arndt.
I contacted Arndt soon after my return. He said he could recommend me for a scholarship to study some aspect of the Japanese economy.
It would be a three year scholarship, with the promise of an extra year to do field work in Japan and learn Japanese.
Arndt even suggested a research topic for me – Japan’s private direct investment abroad – mainly because of his interest in the unusual ways in which the Japanese were beginning to invest in Indonesian resource development.
As for my hard-gained China and Russia involvements, I could return to them after I had finished up with Japan and economics.
But my China connection was soon to be demolished, largely due to a chance meeting with another Chinese language student, Stephen Fitzgerald.
3. The China Slot. Giving it Away?
Fitzgerald had joined External Affairs directly from university some years after me.
He had followed me into the Chinese language course at Point Cook and then on to the two year Hongkong posting.
I ran into him by chance mid-1962 shopping in Canberra’s Civic Centre. He had just returned from Hongkong and was looking for a job.
He too had decided he could not put up with Canberra’s anti-Beijing hysteria and wanted out, he said.
But with a degree in English literature from Tasmania, and like me (after Pt. Cook and Hongkong) still inadequate Chinese, his prospects for a new career outside EA were bleak.
Did I have any ideas?
As we discussed possibilities I began to feel sorry for him. Jobs for graduates in English literature are less than astounding.
I had postponed the China offer from Miller’s International Relations department back in 1962. And while in 1965 I seemed secure for the PhD scholarship in Japan and economics, I still wanted to keep China as a backstop if anything went wrong.
It was a dilemma.
On the one hand I felt the need to have someone else sharing my interest in China at the ANU. On the other hand if I passed on the slot offered me in 1962 I would be creating a future rival in China studies.
True, I already had Russia and was about to get Japan. But China had always been my main love, and qualification. I did not want to pass it up lightly.
But Fitzgerald was seemingly desperate for any help I could give him. And I needed someone who could back me up if and when I got involved in the looming China debate.
Out of sympathy, or stupidity, or whatever I relented. I decided to check out whether the China slot offered me three years earlier by Miller might still be open and if so would they accept Fitzgerald.
Miller was out of the country so I made an appointment to call on George Modelski, a sensible US academic temporarily in charge of the International Relations department while Miller was away.
I told him how I was planning to move into the economics department and would not be taking up Miller’s earlier offer. But that Fitzgerald, my successor by several years as EA’s Chinese language trainee, might be available.
Modelski confirmed that the department still needed a Chinese speaker, and that while they could not give Fitzgerald the research post they had originally offered me, they could offer him a PhD scholarship to work on China.
I passed the offer on to Fitzgerald. He accepted it, eagerly.
(And so, so easily, the die was cast. It was something I would be made to regret deeply in years to come when my career came back to China.)
But for the time being I would not be so isolated, I consoled myself.
The world would come to know that both the people External Affairs had trained as China specialists had moved out because of Canberra’s eccentric view of China.
I would not be so vulnerable to rightwing/conservative attack, or so I thought.
But I was soon to be made to realise the enormity of that mistake. For when I did come under rightwing/conservative attack Fitzgerald did little to back me up.
He wanted to keep his head down, his nose clean and avoid being branded as a public dissenter in the same camp as Clark.
His refusal to back me up during the Vietnam/China debate hurt. But there was little I could do about it.
Later, when Whitlam decided it was safe to embrace Beijing, Fitzgerald made a spectacular run as a China expert within the ALP (a party which I had with difficulty encouraged him to join back in 1965).
He ended up in 1972 as Canberra’s first Australian ambassador to Beijing – to an embassy which might not even have existed till much later but for some moves I was to make in 1971 while based in Tokyo (details later).
He also made quite sure that one Gregory Clark never had a chance to get back into anything concerned with China (details later). That really did hurt.
4. Discovering Canberra’s True Vietnam Role
With my ANU scholarship decided, I was able finally to work out my future with External Affairs.
They had been at a loss to know what to do with me after my Moscow tantrums. But I was still formally a member of their department, and they continued to treat me as such.
They even sent me to Malaysia for a few weeks to star in a training film on how a young diplomat sets about opening a new mission in an Asian country.
They also sent me to Melbourne for the standard ASIO post-Moscow de-briefing. There I discovered the depth of ASIO ignorance and its ingrained anti-Russia bias.
At one point ASIO’s alleged expert on the USSR confronted me with a report I had written from Odessa in 1964.
In it I had noted that the local KGB headquarters was just around the corner from my hotel.
Convinced he had trapped a KGB agent red-handed, alleged expert stood up suddenly and asked threatenngly how I knew such a secret detail as the KGB location.
I had to tell him that the KGB was a public organisation, and that it liked to display its title – Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopastnosti -in large letters on brass plates at the entrance to its buildings.
Such was the level of ‘intelligence’ among the trusty protectors of Australian security.
De-briefing over, I was parked in the East Asia section where I kept myself busy going back over the files on China and Vietnam policy, making sure I avoided suspicions by keeping my eyes away from top secret material.
But I did discover one very important fact: this was that Canberra had been even more hawkish than Washington over Vietnam, mainly because of its visceral fear of China.
Early in the war when some in the US, notably George Ball, the U.S. Undersecretary of State, seemed to be doubtful about the Vietnam intervention, our Washington Embassy in the form of then counsellor, Alan Renouf, had with Canberra approval lobbied Washington to stay the course.
(Post-Vietnam, with Whitlam in power, Renouf was to pretend to be progressive with a book saying Australia was a ‘frightened country.’ Frightened enough to set out to persuade the US to continue its Vietnam atrocity?))
At the time the media, the leftwing and many others wanted to believe that Canberra had only got involved in Vietnam under pressure from its powerful US friend.
The reality was the complete opposite. Great and powerful friend was being lured back into Vietnam by a China-fearful Australia.
Obviously I could not run out into the streets and broadcast this important fact. I had to wait several years to bring it out into the open.
But even then that biased, complacent, concoction that passes for informed Australian foreign affairs opinion showed little interest.
Another researcher (Michael Sexton ) stumbled on the same facts many years later when under Whitlam some official records were released.
But his excellent and informed writings too were largely ignored.
Public, media and academic attention focused on so-called mid-road gurus such as Bruce Grant with their long and irrelevant treatises on whether or not the ANZUS security treaty had obliged Australia to support US policies over Vietnam.
(ANZUS was a treaty designed at Australian request to protect Australia from renewed Japanese aggression.)
But I am getting away from my story, again.
5. Becoming a Student, Again
As part of my EA end game, I also asked for, and was granted, time off to return to Point Cook to take the UK Foreign Office interpreter exam in Russian.
If I was to leave EA (as was increasingly likely), I would need all the qualifications I could get to put on my CV.
I had gained the same qualification in Chinese while still in Hongkong. I knew the Russian qualification also would not be too demanding.
A week later my CV was able to boast two languages: Chinese and Russian, both at Foreign Office, A level.
Meanwhile Heinz Arndt had come through with the promise of a PhD research scholarship in his ANU department.
With the ANU scholarship confirmed, I sought a formal meeting with James Plimsoll, then the EA permanent head.
I said I was reluctant to leave the organisation which had helped train me in Chinese and had given me opportunities in Moscow.
On the other hand, I did have a serious disagreement with Canberra’s China and Vietnam policies, and that this made it hard for me to continue to work in an organisation committed to those policies.
Plimsoll was, as many others have said, a very courteous man.
He treated me most politely, even though I was in effect saying that he and his department were a bunch of misguided murderers.
He said his Department did not want to lose a Chinese speaker, even if at the time they had little use for such people. Then he added some words that stayed with me for a long time:
‘Why don’t you just take a few years study leave and come back to us after the Vietnam thing is over.’
It seemed a sensible compromise. I applied for and got the unpaid study leave from EA he had recommended.
Soon after I began my new career as a post-graduate student on a stipend of 2,500 pounds a year. I would wait ‘till the Vietnam thing was over.’
6. Discovering the World Outside
It was still only May, and the scholarship did not begin till September. My first move was to do something about my post-Podolsk resolution to try to gain more experience of the real world outside diplomacy and bureaucracy.
One move was to buy guitar (it remained almost completely unused). Another was to start to get involved with ANU student life. And yet another was to subject myself to hard, physical, proletarian work.
I got a 20 pound a week day job with a gang of workers planting radiata pine trees in the rocky hills outside Canberra.
At night I was indulging in the mild hedonism of Canberra student life. I also sought out Russian speakers to enjoy some post-Moscow nostalgia.
Setting out on a frosty Canberra morning to drive a dozen or so miles to work eight hours with a bunch of rough labourers (most were on probation from the local jail I discovered later), planting trees and returning exhausted in the evening to shower and clean up before going off to yet another free-wheeling student party, was one of life’s more interesting contrasts.
7. Cutting the Umbilical Cord?
Meanwhile I had to decide whether I really did want to return to EA after the few years promised by Plimsoll.
The Vietnam War was heating up. Almost daily I would wake to the sickening news of yet another B52 bombing raid over North Vietnam and the gloating US body count numbers.
At the Canberra University College they had just held Canberra’s first ‘moratorium’ debate over Vietnam.
The leftwing anti-war arguments had been weak; little effort was made to answer rightwing claims that the war was part of Beijing’s aggressive moves southward. Meanwhile the rightwing ranted on that the Vietcong were dreadful people guilty of atrocities etc. etc.
I remember particularly one ‘moratorium’ meeting where the rightwing lawyer and later prominent Liberal Party politician, Tom Hughes, had quoted a statement from the North Vietnamese newspaper, Hoc Tap, predicting ‘the inevitable failure of the US aggressors to defeat the spirit of the Vietnamese people.’
‘Hoc Tap!’ Hughes repeated sarcastically, as if a newspaper with such a ludicrous name could possibly dare to challenge the world’s super-power. The crowd loved it.
I knew then that sooner or later I would have to go public and try to answer these people.
Apart from anything else, I had a mine of information, about China especially, that could help the anti-war arguments.
But to be criticising government policy while still a government official on study leave would be impossible.
Logic demanded I should make a clean break.
On the other hand, I still had that emotional attachment to my former employer.
8. The External Affairs ‘Family’
EA in those days was a strongly familial organisation.
We saw ourselves as members of a tightly knit club, separate not only from the rest of Australian society but from other departments and bureaucrats also.
People looked after each other. Promotion at the early levels was mainly through seniority; the dog-eat-dog of today’s Canberra bureaucracy did not exist.
I still remember with affection the two mid-rank officers above me in East Asia section in 1962 – Ken Rodgers and Keith Douglas-Scott.
Both went out of their way to teach me how to prepare submissions, use files etc. It was a very natural version of the sempai-kohai (older generation-younger generation) phenomenon I was later to find in Japan.
(Not much of that altruism can be found in today’s Canberra, where helping some young firebrand today could well mean seeing him promoted over your head tomorrow. But in those days it was a very attractive and, as in Japan, a very efficiency-promoting aspect of the bureaucracy.)
Nor was there was ever any hint of reprimand or ostracism for people who disagreed with official policies; Plimsoll’s tolerant attitude to me was but one example.
After all, we were all members of the same elite club, weren’t we? Did I really want to wander off into the cold world outside, simply so I could bite the hand that had fed and looked after me for so long?
9. Rude Reality
That sentimentalism was not to last long. Soon after I was to run into a particularly ugly piece of ASIO stupidity and EA cowardice.
That helped me easily to forget any kind of emotional obligation I might have felt towards my former employer.
(ASIO is Australia’s domestic spy organisation.)