Chapter 23 – Escaping the Vietnam War Debate


Defeated by Black-Information Lies and Irrationality

1. Last Straw: Pringle of the SMH
2. Black Information
3. The Other Last Straw: The Burchett Persecution
4. Escape to Japan

The deceitful irrationality of a 1969 run in with the Sydney Morning Herald editor – the Englishman, John Pringle – was a psychological push I needed to get me out of Australia and its futile Vietnam debate. 

1. A Last Straw: Pringle 

Pringle had a reputation as a genuine liberal.

He had used a full page of his newspaper prominently to publish a long and agonised think-piece by himself in which he called for open debate on the great issue of the day, namely Vietnam and China. 

In it he said how he too was horrified by the ugliness of the Vietnam War. 

But he had then gone on to argue point by point how Beijing’s ominously aggressive behaviour, towards India especially, gave the world no choice but to intervene in Indochina. 

Concerned liberals had to accept this reality, he concluded, heavily. 

I mustered all the authority and information I had to write something that would rebut his arguments about China, point by point. It was a topic on which I was bound to be as, or more, informed than he was. 

I told myself that if he had the integrity he claimed, he would be willing to publish my piece. He could, of course, run his rebuttal of my rebuttal. But I would at least have the chance to get a few facts into print. 

If I could spark that kind of debate in the pages of the media, there might be some point in staying on in Australia. 

But all I got was a letter from him, polite enough, but refusing point-blank to publish. 

When Pringle retired, he went on to become the darling of Australian progressives, with his agonising over the environment and other trendy leftwing issues. The Australian was to publish a lot of his mushy wailings. 

But when it came to something serious like Vietnam, nothing.

2. Black Information 

What one saw in minds like Pringle’s was the drip-drip effect of the relentless black information activities underway at the time. 

That China had attacked India in 1962, for example, had become an item of gospel truth. 

Indeed, the implication in Pringle’s letter to me was that only a nutter or a pro-Beijing fanatic could suggest the opposite. 

That fact that I got my information from being China desk officer in Canberra at the time, while his information clearly came from black information sources, was irrelevant. 


The black information people operated in various ways. One of the more influential was the Current Affairs Bulletin, then being put out by Sydney University. 

The CAB had every appearance of being an unbiassed, even if anonymous, outlet for views and information prepared for public benefit by concerned Australian scholars via the politics department of Sydney University, run by one Henry Mayer. 

On this basis most assumed it had to be impartial. Many – ABC commentators especially – liked to rely on it for facts and opinions.


At the time I was puzzled by CAB’s persistent anti-communist slant.

I had no illusions about Australian scholars knowing much about the realities of world affairs, Asian affairs especially. 

But why were so many of these CAB contributors so seemingly willing simply to rehash in nicer words the crude anti-communist venom of the US and Australian spy-financed and other conservative establishments? 

Only later did we find out, via insider Sydney University revelations, that the CAB had become, or maybe had even started out as, a willing channel for covert spy disinformation activities. 

Yet even those revelations did little to disturb consciences in Australia’s irresponsible intelligentsia. 

Another black information technique was the sending out of seemingly impartial fact and background sheets to inform concerned journalists and academics about Asian developments. 

The slanted material would soon start appearing in allegedly objective articles about Chinese intentions, Vietnam events, the Sino-Indian dispute and so on. 

For some reason the UK disinformation agents were especially active and effective in this kind of activity. The British skill at measured understatement gave their material the cloak of seeming objectivity. 

One of their larger coups was the phoney Forum Features magazine operation, which for years was able to feed articles directly into conservative media – the Fairfax Press in Australia especially – until it was eventually exposed as the spy outfit it was. 

3. The Other Last Straw: The Burchett Persecution

The finale, for me at least, was the continual persecution of Wilfred Burchett. 

Burchett had seen the dreadful devastation in North Korea caused by US (and Australian) bombing, in the countryside especially.

He had been taken to POW camps and had done – as I or any other person with a shred of humanity would have done – berated the POWs for the destruction and killing they had helped cause.

For this he had been labelled a traitor in Australia and denied a passport.

He had since roamed the world with his Bulgarian wife, reporting on some of the other East-West wars current at the time.

Since he was able to see from the other side of these wars, his reporting was especially valuable, even if ignored by our hardened Cold War warriors.

During the Vietnam War his reporting was especially valuable.

That a very ordinary Australian who single-handedly had made it out into the world of international journalism, and had been on the inside of so many crucial Cold War events, could be treated so shabbily by his own country was for me the final proof that I did not need to waste any more time in Australia trying to bring sense to the foreign affairs debate. 

(For details of Burchett’s feats and sufferings, see that excellent even if largely forgotten book “Burchett” edited by Ben Kiernan. Also Burchett’s own book “At The Barricades.”) 

Some time in 1968 Burchett had asked me to come to Sydney to testify in a defamation case he was running against yet another right-winger who had said he, Burchett, was a KGB agent because he had lived in a luxury Moscow apartment for a time. 

I had seen the apartment and I knew it was not luxury. 

Burchett was also able to find the evidence needed to refute the other allegations of KGB agent activities. 

But the right-winger was able to win the case by claiming that he was just repeating claims made by someone else under parliamentary privilege. 

By law, a repetition of such claims was exempt from defamation suits.

The burden of heavy court costs was unfairly imposed on Burchett. This forced him to become a refugee from his own country, till his death in 1980. 

One of Burchett’s bitterest enemies and public critics was the journalist, Denis Warner. 

Warner liked to pillory Burchett for the help he got from the communist side in covering events – help that was often the only way the world could get to know something about the views and activities of other side in many of the Cold War disputes and wars at the time. 

But the same Warner himself made no secret of the help he got from the US and Australian military and officials in providing us with his heavily biassed accounts of what was supposed to be going on in Vietnam. 

Much was in the form of helicopter rides to battle sites.  The most Burchett got was the loan of a North Vietnamese bicycle down jungle trails.

While working in EA I had noticed a strange thing about Warner and the several other conservative journalists claiming to cover Asian developments and dominating the media mainstream at the time – Peter Hastings of the SMH, for example. 

Often memos from the intelligence agencies in Melbourne would cross our desks saying that a reliable Australian contact would be visiting such-and-such Asian country, and did we have any intelligence requests for him. 

Sure enough, a week or so later one or other of these journalistic worthies would turn up in said country and begin filing his allegedly objective reports for his media outlets. 

4. Escape to Japan

It was a battle I knew I could not win. 

If I was to keep my sanity I had to get out of Australia and back to Japan.

In those better days Japan was still regretting its past militarism. Its progressives were quick to realise the similarities of that militarism with the militarism of US and Australian behaviour in Indochina.

Its commitment to pacifism seemed genuine, even if the rightwing hawks were already beginning to try to spread their wings.

At the very least I would be able to feel I was with a non-militaristic society.  I would not have to feel I was paying the taxes needed to feed any militarism. I would be out.