Chapter 41 – The Vietnam Cables Fiasco


Feckless Stupidity Rampant

1. Sending the Cables
2. Enter The Peacock
3. And the Reality?
4. Rescue Whitlam
5. Problem solved?  Not quite.
6. Deep Injustice 

The NARA Treaty debacle was bad enough. 

But an even lower moment was to come later in 1975, in what I label as the Vietnam Cables fiasco. 

It was the result of my efforts to rescue Whitlam, once again, from the same Foreign Affairs conservatives as those who had wrecked his NARA initiative. 

Michael Cook in particular, as head of the Asia division in Foreign Affairs, has to bear the major responsibility for this particular fiasco.

1. Sending the Cables

It began with Cook, presumably with the approval or urging of Alan Renouf, Foreign Affairs head, deciding on the eve of Saigon’s April 1975 fall to send cables to both Hanoi and Saigon calling for both sides to desist from hostilities. 

It was a typical piece of Canberra foreign affairs stupidity.

With one brilliant master-stroke we would put ourselves in the center of the global diplomatic stage, seeking single-handedly to put an end to a saga that had been going on for decades, which had seen two great Western powers defeated and well over three million Vietnamese killed. 

There were of course a few difficulties. One was the fact that by this time the Saigon government had ceased to exist – for all meaningful purposes.

It never even got to receive Canberra’s ‘desist fighting’ cable. 

As for Hanoi whose troops were already at Saigon’s door, its reaction to this piece of impertinence from a government that used to label it as a Peking puppet and had sent troops to kill and maim many hundreds of its compatriots, can be imagined. 

A former colleague in Tokyo and mission head in Hanoi, the rather conservative Graeme Lewis, had had to deliver the cabled message. 

He reported back that for some reason not only was Hanoi not very interested in Canberra’s brilliant proposal. In fact it seemed to be rather angry. 

2. Enter The Peacock 

It happened that Andrew Peacock, opposition spokesman on foreign affairs and on a world trip including Saigon, somehow managed to get hold of a copy of the abortive cable to Saigon. 

Arriving back in Australia he began to announce loudly that he had secret documentary evidence of how Whitlam had tried to force our brave Saigon ally into having to cease military resistance to its North Vietnamese enemy. 

A stab in the back for our ally in its moment of travail. Final proof of Whitlam’s incompetence and evil. 

Peacock then proceeded to whet media appetite by selectively revealing parts of the cable’s text over the next few days. 

He was helped by Whitlam’s initial denial of the cable’s existence (the fact that Whitlam did not know about the cable was good proof that it had been composed and sent out in Whitlam’s name by those nice people in Foreign Affairs.) 

The result was a typical media frenzy, with the Fairfax media calling almost daily for Whitlam’s resignation. 

‘He has lied to the House. He has betrayed our Saigon ally.’ 

3. And the Reality?

The whole affair was a puzzle to me.

We, in PMC (Prime Minister and Cabinet Department), had no record of Whitlam sending any cable.  

And it was highly unlikely he would want on his own initiative to send such a ridiculous message to Saigon.

So if it was sent on his behalf then it would have to be by someone in Foreign Affairs. Reveal Foreign Affair’s role and Whitlam would be off the hook, or so I thought.

But Renouf, who owed his job entirely to Whitlam, refused to do anything. 

He was quite happy to see Whitlam sink deeper and deeper into the mess that his, Renouf’s, own ministry had created, and which had been triggered by the treachery of the Foreign Affairs official who had fed the Saigon cable to Peacock. 

As for the gullibility of the Australian media – thinking that a cable from Whitlam to Saigon could somehow have a bearing on the outcome of the Vietnam War – the less said the better. 

4. Rescue Whitlam

At this point I decided it was part of my brief to try to do something to help rescue Whitlam, even if I had never met the man during my year in Canberra and had little reason to like him. 

No one else in the large bureaucracy that was supposed to looking after him was interested in doing anything. They were all happy to see him stew in a juice of their’s and other’s making. 

Using my very limited contacts in Foreign Affairs, I was able to discover that an identical cable had been sent to Hanoi. 

I then reckoned that if we were to release the Hanoi cable the hubbub, the calls for Whitlam’s resignation etc., would be over. Or so I thought.

But Renouf refused to release the Hanoi cable claiming he could never be party to the release of secret documents –  a secrecy that his mates in Saigon had already been only too ready to abuse and which had already been revealed to the enemy in Hanoi.

So I then got Menadue’s permission to release the Hanoi cable to the media (Menadue and Whitlam were abroad at the time). 

Once the cable to Hanoi was released, the crisis was immediately defused. Even the blinkered, rightwing media would have to admit that if a similar cable had gone to Hanoi, then the exercise could hardly be labeled as a call to Saigon to surrender. 

5. Problem solved?  Not quite.

Having received the Menadue OK I then had the  problem of releasing it to the media. Normally that should have been done by Brian Johns, whose PMC job was to represent Whitlam to the media.

But Johns refused, very bluntly. It was not his job to get involved in political scandals, he said. 

So it was left to me to do everything. 

Meanwhile the situation – the Fairfax media demands for Whitlam’s resignation especially – was getting worse by the day.  I had to move quickly.  

In retrospect, I should have just leaked the Hanoi cable to the journalist making most of the fuss about the Saigon cable, someone like Creighton Burns of The Melbourne Age.  

He would have had enough scoop hunger to run with the Hanoi cable, even if it did completely contradict his earlier anti-Whitlam posturing. 

Instead, I decided to do everything openly, passing on the information to any and every journalist who happened to be available, and who was interested. 

Inevitably someone was going to get the story late or wrong, and that someone happened to be Gay Davidson of the Canberra Times (former wife of Ken Davidson). 

She tried to make up for her mistake by turning it into a story about Foreign Affairs (i.e. Renouf) being seriously concerned over a senior PMC official leaking secret information. 

That not only fed neatly into Renouf’s ambition to cut the role of PMC in handling foreign policy. It also left me open and exposed.

Questioned in the House whether his department was leaking secret information, Whitlam replied that if true such behaviour by one of his officials would be most reprehensible 

In front of the PMC assembled ranks, Menadue then went through the motions of transmitting the Whitlam condemnation of the ‘senior official’ who was said to have leaked the Hanoi cable. 

All eyes looked in my direction. 

For me, it was the end.

I was living and working in a bureaucratic nightmare, and a society lacking basic commonsense when it came to foreign policies. 

As well, I had lost all role and effectiveness within PMC.

6. Deep Injustice 

The injustice of it all rankled deeply. 

As with NARA, I had done everything I could to rescue Whitlam from the stupidity or even treachery of his underlings. 

All I got in return was a slap in the face. 

That injustice was to gnaw at me for a long time to come, maybe too long.