Chapter 9 – The Moment of Decision

1. A Difficult Decision
2. The Vietnam Factor
3. The Seeming Hasluck Farce
4.  Hasluck: Acting at US Request?
5. A Global Tragedy: The Mistaken Views of the Sino-Soviet Dispute
6. The Burchett Factor: A Decision to Leave

My career was at a crossroads. 

At the very young age of 28 I had already been promoted ahead of some others in my cohort to First Secretary.

Canberra had already asked me to accept a posting directly from Moscow to replace Michael Cook as Australian representative on the UN Disarmament Commission in New York. 

It was a prestige posting, especially for someone as young as myself (Cook was already a rising star and later went on to be one of Canberra’s top diplomatic bureaucrats and ambassador to the US).

1. A Difficult Decision

But if I took the post, I would have to spend another two, three more years in the artificial cocoon of diplomatic protocol, meaningless cocktail parties and a cramped personal life. 

I would probably also have had to put up with more KGB stunts. Like their mirror-image opposites in the CIA, once those people think they have had you in their sights they never give up.

As well the Vietnam War was heating up and I would have to represent and defend Canberra’s increasingly ugly foreign policies. 

Did I really want to be part of that kind of nonsense for the rest of my life? Maybe I should forget about the prestige of the New York posting.

Maybe it was time for me to make a fresh start, to go off and do something quite different. I was still young enough for that. 

I could finish out my two years in Moscow, head back to Australia and begin a new life there – a life that had nothing to do with bureaucracy or diplomacy. 

2. The Vietnam Factor 

More than anything else it was the escalating horror of Vietnam that helped me decide. 

The Americans were running regular bombing raids into North Vietnam under the pretext of the phoney Tonkin Gulf ‘incident’. 

Canberra was giving full- throated support. 

The rationale for Australia’s Vietnam policies? That the war in Vietnam had been instigated by China, as the ‘first stage in China’s southward thrust between the Pacific and Indian oceans.’ 

Only a few months earlier we had been instructed by Canberra to visit MID (the Soviet Foreign Ministry) to express Australia’s regret at Moscow’s inability to realise the vicious nature of the Chinese-backed Vietcong bandits and the need for global condemnation. 

Yet already it was obvious that Moscow, not Beijing, was Hanoi’s main supporter. And the North Vietnamese students one met in Moscow were clearly pro-Soviet rather than pro-China. 

True, I did not know much about the Vietnam situation myself.

But on the international stage Moscow was already showing its support for Hanoi rather than Beijing. And I could be fairly sure that our Asia-ignorant bureaucrats knew even less.

I could see the close similarity with the pre-1949 situation in China. 

There the West had thrown its unthinking support behind a corrupt and incompetent government facing strong domestic opposition, and in so doing had guaranteed the victory of a motivated, well-organised guerrilla army backed up by strong nationalism and a seemingly coherent ideology. 

Vietnam would see the same dynamic at work.

But Vietnam was a lot smaller than China. And military technology was much more advanced. 

This time the guerrillas, and much of the rural population, could well be wiped out by the might and viciousness of the US intervention. The obligation to do something quickly was far greater. 

3. The Seeming Hasluck Farce 

Compounding my angst had been the seemingly farcical November 1964 visit to Moscow by Australian Foreign Minister, Paul Hasluck.

He had come, urgently he said, to deliver an important message to the Soviet leadership. 

At very short notice we were instructed to arrange a meeting with premier Kosygin and foreign minister Gromyko.

We conveyed his request to the appropriate officials.  They reacted as we expected: why on earth would an Australian foreign minister want to talk with the top Soviet leadership?  And about what? 

But after making Hasluck wait impatiently for several days, they finally relented and we were told Hasluck could have his meeting, in the Kremlin, the following day. 

(For the extraordinary details I urge readers to see my website for ‘Amazing Scenes : How Australia Influences the World’ in the National Times of March 1979, and my chapter in the book ‘Vietnam, China and the Foreign Affairs Debate in Australia’. 

(After warning the Soviet leaders of Chinese determination to seize Sinkiang and the Soviet Far East, Hasluck made a bizarre request for the Soviets to join the West in resisting China’s ‘aggression’ in Vietnam. 

(A puzzled Gromyko had replied that the USSR was quite happy with China having Sinkiang and that China had no designs on the Soviet Far East (dalniyi vostock).

(So would he please come to the point.)

Sitting alongside Hasluck in the middle of the Kremlin looking across the standard green baize table and listening to an Australian ignoramus taking up the valuable time of Moscow’s two top leaders, simply to make a fool of himself and Australia while not being able even to get his geographical facts right, I began to reflect: 

Did I really want to remain part of this kind of circus for ever? 

Back in Australia Hasluck was to try to explain his quixotic visit as an urge to be the first Western leader to congratulate the new Soviet leadership after the downfall of Khrushchev.

4. Hasluck: Acting at US Request?

(Many years later, however, I discovered via former prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, that this bizarre event might not have been quite as foolishly Hasluckian as I had thought – that it had probably been at US instigation. 

(Washington shared Canberra’s quixotic belief that the Vietnam War had been inspired by and was being controlled by Beijing. Washington also went along with the conventional wisdom that said the Sino-Soviet polemics, then well into their fourth year, were clear proof that Moscow was bent on communist moderation but was having to confront an inherently militaristic Beijing in the process. 

(In short, Washington had decided there was a real chance of Moscow being unhappy about Beijing’s alleged adventurism in Vietnam, and of being able to swing Moscow into an anti-Beijing alliance with the West over Vietnam. 

(But rather than themselves directly approach their Cold War enemy in Moscow with the proposal, the Americans had asked Hasluck to go and test these waters. 

(The US involvement does help explain the puzzling immediacy with which we had been asked to arrange the visit. It was out of Canberra’s nature to want to arrange this sort of grand venture on its own. 

(But neither Moscow or ourselves knew any of this background. Both Kosygin and Gromyko – the latter especially – were thoroughly confused by Hasluck`s seemingly absurd attempt single-handedly to change the course of global politics.) 

( Kosygin had ended the performance abruptly saying there was no way Moscow would abandon its commitment to the brave Vietnamese people facing brutal US attack. He added sarcastically that even Beijing had felt obliged to offer some help of the suffering Vietnamese people.

5.  A Global Tragedy: The Mistaken Views of the Sino-Soviet Dispute 

Looking back, it was yet another example how the mistaken Western view of Sino-Soviet polemics had distorted Western foreign policies, to the tragic disadvantage of the Indochinese peoples. 

At the time I could only look on helplessly while academics and commentators, mainly Anglo-saxon, used the polemics to create their doomsday scenarios of a mad Beijing already on the move in Indochina and the rest of Asia. 

But deep in Canberra’s archives there lies the one dispatch I sent from Moscow that made it into the roundup of dispatches sent to all foreign posts – an analysis questioning the standard ‘Soviet moderate versus Chinese extremist’ interpretation of the polemics. I pointed out that both were basically saying the same things about war, revolution etc.

Needless to say, it made little impression on Canberra’s myopic view of the world. 

Later, after I got out of the diplomatic service, I finally puzzled out the key to it all – Khrushchev`s withdrawal of his nuclear development aid promise to Beijing following the 1958 Taiwan Straits crisis when the US had threatened nuclear attack. 

I wrote up that piece of detective work in my ‘In Fear Of China’ book, but that too made little impression on the conventional wisdom – except to a professor of politics at the University of Sydney, Peter King, whom later I was to get to know well, before his unfortunate death.

6. The Burchett Factor: A Decision to Leave 

A key part of my thinking had been my meeting with the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett in Moscow somewhat earlier. 

Burchett had just returned from a visit to Indochina. He wanted to meet me and I got permission from the Embassy to go to his apartment. 

There he gave me the conclusive photo proof that the Vietcong forces in South Vietnam were far stronger and better organised than anyone in the West seemed to realise. 

I passed all this on to Canberra, as Burchett wanted. (For details, see the reference to book mentioned above. I should add that Australia’s persecution of Burchett, an outstanding international journalist and likeable human being, says volumes about Australia’s intellectual pettiness and shallowness). 

That Canberra could so blithely dismiss not just the reports but also the photographic evidence from the one Westerner to actually get into Vietcong-controlled territory in South Vietnam showed a level of blindness even worse than what I had come normally to expect from our bureaucrats. 

If anything the fact you could get to enter enemy territory and report, with photos, what you had seen there automatically made you suspect – a collaborator with the enemy.

Was I supposed to live with that kind of ignorance forever?

7. The Final Push.

The final coffin nail, so to speak, was Canberra later sending me reprovingly a US appraisal of Burchett’s claim to have visited a Vietcong village on the fringes of Ton San Nuit airport.

The US experts had said Burchett’s claim was clearly false since the area was totally under US and Saigon control and it would have been impossible for him even to get to the village let alone claim it was under Vietcong control.

A few months later rockets from that village began to land on Ton San Nuit airport.

Did I hear any admission of mistake or apology from Canberra? Of course not. Being an ideologue, or a Canberra bureaucrat, really does mean not having to say sorry, ever. 

In my report on the meeting, I had said the dreaded Burchett did not seem to be quite the communist monster most in Australia assumed he was – that he seemed to be a quite reasonable and sane sort of person. 

All I got for that effort was Canberra passing on to me a rebuke from a junior diplomat in Saigon, Kim Jones, pointing out Burchett`s monstrous behavior in praising the bravery of a Vietcong bomb thrower in Saigon who had caused some casualties. 

Jones had been a good friend and colleague back in Canberra. Clearly I was out of touch with my fellow Australians. I had to get out.