Unholy fury, p.1

Unholy Fury, page 1


Unholy Fury

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Unholy Fury


  ‘An utterly compelling story wonderfully told. A new prime minister, Australia’s first Labor head of government in almost a quarter of a century, confronts a wilful, no less spiteful US president newly re-elected yet one already under siege to domestic events which ultimately destroy him. The visitor is determined to set Australia on a more independent foreign policy. Washington, grown used to sycophants from Canberra, is equally adamant to bring him to heel. James Curran has written one of the most important books of recent memory.’

  Alan Ramsey

  ‘This path-breaking book is filled with revelations and insights. It is the story of Australia coming to maturity.’

  Paul Kelly, Editor at Large, The Australian

  ‘This important book reveals for the first time the full depth of the rift between Australia and its key ally during the Whitlam years. Enlightening and entertaining in equal measure, sparkling with wit and insight, Unholy Fury shows how Gough Whitlam’s effort to redefine the alliance so antagonised the Nixon administration that it considered abandoning ANZUS altogether. Drawing on rich research in newly declassified sources in both countries, the book provides a compelling, sometimes laugh-out-loud account of the personalities and politics of the era—and offers much to ponder for anyone interested in the Australian—US relationship today.’

  Barbara Keys, Associate Professor of History, University of Melboune

  ‘Unholy Fury is both an elegant and illuminating account of a crucial moment in Australian and American diplomatic history, and a much-needed meditation on the tangle of risk and politics at the heart of the ANZUS alliance.’

  Michael Wesley, Professor of International Affairs, Director,

  Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific

  ‘The Australian–American relationship has probably only suffered one really bad moment: and this is it, the subject of James Curran’s superbly researched and written account of the Nixon—Whitlam era. It’s more than a history of this moment, however. It’s a book about the dilemma both Australia and America face in managing an alliance relationship—bristling with dangers as well as mutual advantage.’

  Bob Carr



  (MUP, 2004)

  ‘a rare and welcome beast: a work of scholarship that is eminently and compellingly readable’.

  Adelaide Review

  ‘Curran … is persuasive in showing how much ideas matter. This comprehensive history of the stories our prime ministers have told is essential reading.’

  James Walter, Age

  ‘An important, intriguing book that demonstrates how politicians have wrestled with the idea of what makes an Australian and how we should relate to the world since the 1940s … Curran is a subtle thinker who has distilled meaning from a mass of documents

  Stephen Matchett, Weekend Australian

  ‘this important book is not only a significant contribution to the identity debate and to prime ministerial biography but to contemporary Australian history. Curran has succeeded in showing how prime ministers from Curtin and Chifley to Keating and Howard have interpreted Australian history, Australian society and Australia’s place in the world.’

  NSW History Awards, 2005


  With Stuart Ward (MUP, 2010)

  ‘this excellent study … presents what is likely to be an influential interpretation of an important aspect of the recent past … a significant book, and certainly a landmark.’

  Frank Bongiorno, History Australia

  ‘illuminating and entertaining … this book sheds new light on the political, cultural and intellectual history of the post-war period in Australia’.

  Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History, 2011

  A ‘thoughtful book … Curran and Ward show skill in handling the history of ideas’.

  Geoffrey Blainey, Spectator Australia


  (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

  ‘a fine and important book … sheds new light on the shadowy and evasive Curtin’.

  Hugh White, American Review

  ‘an elegant mix of scholarly research and accessible prose … an important addition to Australia’s history’.

  Canberra Times

  ‘Curran is one of a number of historians who have identified this phenomenon of British race patriotism, which exercised such a powerful influence in this first half of the last century and is so incomprehensible today.’

  Stuart Macintyre, Australian Book Review





  For Priscilla, Pia and Ella


  An imprint of Melbourne University Publishing Limited

  11–15 Argyle Place South, Carlton, Victoria 3053, Australia



  First published 2015

  Text © James Curran, 2015

  Design and typography © Melbourne University Publishing Limited, 2015

  This book is copyright. Apart from any use permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 and subsequent amendments, no part may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted by any means or process whatsoever without the prior written permission of the publishers.

  Every attempt has been made to locate the copyright holders for material quoted in this book. Any person or organisation that may have been overlooked or misattributed may contact the publisher.

  Cover design by Design By Committee

  Typeset by Megan Ellis

  Printed in Australia by McPherson’s Printing Group

  National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

  Curran, James, 1973- author.

  Unholy fury: Whitlam and Nixon at war/James Curran.

  9780522868203 (paperback)

  9780522861754 (ebook)

  Includes bibliographical references and index.

  Whitlam, Gough, 1916–2014.

  Nixon, Richard M. (Richard Milhous), 1913–1994.

  Vietnam War, 1961–1975—Australia.

  Vietnam War, 1961–1975—United States.

  Australia—Foreign relations—United States.

  United States—Foreign relations—Australia.



  1 ‘On the Right Side’: Nixon in Australia

  2 ‘Put on Notice’: Lessons from America

  3 ‘Entangled’: Labor’s Cold War Dilemma

  4 ‘The Most Generous … Idealistic Nation’: Whitlam and the Americans

  5 ‘Pathfinder for Nixon’: Whitlam’s China Coup

  6 ‘An Absolute Outrage’: The Christmas Bombings

  7 On Nixon’s ‘Shit List’: A ‘Downward Slide’ in Relations

  8 American ‘Trouble Shooter’: Marshall Green Comes to Canberra

  9 ‘One Hour’ in Washington: Defining the New ‘American Connection’

  10 ‘Heating up the Crucible’: An Alliance in Peril

  Conclusion: ‘Almost Incomprehensible’


  Select bibliography



  ‘He’s one of the peaceniks … [and] certainly putting the

  Australians on a very, very dangerous path.’


  ‘For all its enduring importance, adherence to ANZUS

  does not constitute a foreign policy.’


  ‘He is a bas





  In October 1953 the United States vice president, Richard Milhous Nixon, arrived in Australia as part of an extensive tour of Asia and the Pacific. He was the most senior serving American politician ever to visit the country. Coming only eight years after the end of World War II and barely two years after the signing of the ANZUS treaty in September 1951, Nixon’s arrival served as a powerful reminder of American triumph in the battles of the Pacific and a symbol of the US commitment to Australia in a dangerous Cold War world. During a seventy-day international odyssey Nixon also called in on nineteen other countries, as well as Hong Kong and the Japanese island of Okinawa. None of these places had ever before had a visit from an American vice president or president. For a political figure whose later time in the Oval Office would come to be dominated by Asia, the trip was an unprecedented opportunity to meet many of the leaders with whom he would do business over the next two decades. It gave him a chance, he later recalled, to ‘assess Asian attitudes toward the emerging colossus of Communist China’. Nixon, who was well known for his relentless anti-communist crusade on the American home front, was now stepping onto the world stage.1

  During his short time in Australia, Nixon visited Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, meeting with Prime Minister Robert Menzies and the federal Cabinet, Opposition leader HV Evatt and a number of trade union leaders. He addressed Australian parliamentarians at a lunch in Canberra, sat in on Question Time, laid a wreath at the war memorial and visited a nearby sheep station where he saw shearers in full cry. In Melbourne, the local press badgered him for his inability to hold a cricket bat properly during a visit to the Melbourne Cricket Ground while he inspected the progress of preparations for the 1956 Olympics. ‘Oh, No, Mr Nixon, Not that way!’ blared the Argus, its reporter marvelling at the vice president’s ‘mock cricket strokes’, as he held the bat and swung it ‘violently in a baseballer’s grip over his shoulder several times’. Flattering his hosts, Nixon told Australians to ignore the criticism and inevitable wrangles that came with the organisation of a world sporting event. ‘You’ll hold the best Olympic Games ever’, he said. ‘You have the climate, the stadium and one other asset—you have a wonderfully sports-minded people’.2

  The vice president was characteristically meticulous in preparing for each leg of his Asian tour. He carried with him a message of goodwill from President Eisenhower and came armed with rhetoric of reassurance for regional friends and allies. En route to Australia he read of the country’s struggle to emerge from the physical and psychological horrors of the Pacific War. The Australians had ‘not forgotten the Japanese bombing of Darwin, nor the cruelties of prisoner of war camps’. Though his hosts were concerned by the threat of Communist China and Soviet Russia, ‘the average Australian still thinks of Japan as the historic enemy’, an anxiety which was ‘but one aspect of the fear that the “teeming millions” of Asia might be attracted to the relatively empty spaces of Northern Australia’. Both political parties ‘fully realize that Australia’s security depends on firm ties with the United States … even if history, geography and the current power structure in the Pacific did not dictate that Australian foreign policy align itself closely with that of the United States, the similar democratic social institutions of the two countries would inevitably lead them to see world problems in much the same light’.3 In short, he was on the terra firma of a future staunch ally.

  Nixon’s credentials as a Cold War warrior were impeccable, and he gave full voice to this ideological fervour during a live radio broadcast over the ABC. He was speaking to a society which, much like his own, believed communism posed a fundamental threat to liberal democracy, religion and property. In the face of what many perceived to be an existential threat to their values and way of life, Nixon emphasised that the United States and Australia were ‘on the right side … the side of freedom of justice’.4 His country had ‘no intention of constituting itself as the sole bastion of military strength for the free world’. In a further clarion call for western unity, he said ‘we must stand together or we will fall together … the only people concerned in dividing us are the men in the Kremlin’. Addressing the people during his nationwide radio talk, Nixon assured them of American resolve in meeting this challenge, a homily honed over many years: ‘the only major threat to the peace of the world today’, he told listeners, ‘is the international Communist conspiracy, with its power centre in the Soviet Union’. History had shown that ‘four times since they came to power in 1917 the Communists have talked peace while in reality preparing for war. We don’t want to be fooled … we cannot let down our guard’.5 It was a classic enunciation of the lessons of Munich for Cold War geopolitics. Like many of his contemporaries in America, Europe and Australia, Nixon argued that the pusillanimous response of western leaders to the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, and especially at the September 1938 Munich conference, was a catastrophic loss of nerve that caused World War II and must not be repeated. If unchecked, the Kremlin’s ambition, like Hitler’s armies, would sweep all before it. Soviet aggression had to be stopped and the spread of communism contained. ‘Appeasement’ was no longer an option.

  Not all, however, were entirely enthusiastic about Nixon’s presence in Australia. Local officials in Canberra were sorely disappointed that their distinguished guest seemed oblivious to a memorial then under construction on Russell Hill: a soaring column surmounted by an emblematic eagle to mark Australian gratitude for America’s defence of the country in World War II. A surprised and somewhat embarrassed Nixon hastily inserted a line into his radio broadcast to give ‘heartfelt thanks’ to the Australian people, saying how ‘moved’ he had been by this tribute to America’s ‘fighting men’.6 The memorial still towers over the Defence Department complex in Canberra today.


  American diplomats spoke glowingly of Nixon’s ‘substantive and courageous talk’ to politicians in Canberra, but the rhetoric did not soothe every ear. Menzies told the British high commissioner, Sir Stephen Holmes, that while the speech was ‘admirably phrased and produced’, he had been aghast to learn from journalists travelling with the vice president that it was Nixon’s eleventh performance of the same act. Clearly the prime minister, himself a silken orator, believed that the visiting vice president should have crafted a speech uniquely for his Australian audience. But Menzies also confided to Holmes that Nixon ‘did not have a clue’ about what being in government meant. Such a verdict on Nixon’s lack of experience in high office was, however, overwhelmed by Menzies’ ongoing doubts about America’s rapid rise to global pre-eminence, and what that meant for the role and responsibility of the British Commonwealth. In their private conversation, the prime minister told Nixon he was ‘worried that the United States had assumed responsibility with unprecedented power’, a clear indication of his ongoing unease about American credentials for world leadership. Nevertheless he added that ‘Though he was British to [the] bootheels, we must work together in the Pacific’.7 No doubt, too, Menzies was frustrated by Nixon’s handling of delicate questions put to him during the meeting with ministers, when the vice president deftly dodged the thorny topics of why American tariffs were hurting Australian farmers, and why Washington was refusing to share atomic secrets with the British government. News of Nixon’s arrival in the country had jostled for space with headlines detailing the detonation of Britain’s first atomic weapon at Woomera in the South Australian desert.

  On the other hand, this Australian prime minister would not be quickly forgotten by Richard Nixon. In his private, handwritten notes from the visit, Nixon wrote warmly of Menzies being ‘big, blue-eyed and grey haired’, ‘good at cutting people to size’, and ‘nice to the common people’.8 Later, in his memoirs, Nixon added that Menzies had made an ‘indelible impression’ on him during this 1953 visit. He was convinced that, ha
d he been born in Britain, Menzies ‘would have been a great British prime minister in the tradition of Winston Churchill’.9 An appraisal of Menzies in his subsequent book Leaders was even more glowing, Nixon describing his friend being ‘as big as all Australia in body as well as spirit and outlook’. But along with Menzies’ knack for repartee and his talent in the art of conversation—on that skill Nixon ranked him highest amongst all the world leaders he had met—there was praise for his oratorical prowess, staunch anti-communism, even his contempt for the press and big business.

  A deeper current, however, flowed through their respective political lives. ‘Like so many other great leaders’, Nixon wrote, ‘Menzies was toughened by his years in the wilderness. When he took power again, he was much more confident of his abilities and sure of his goals’.10 That theme, of rejection and isolation followed by electoral redemption, was the narrative that bound these two leaders together. It was a shared experience, a tale in which two prominent political figures, both deemed finished after previous stints in leadership roles, return in triumph to dominate the stage in their respective countries. It was an experience often discussed at their meetings over that decade and into the next. No Australian leader with whom Nixon would subsequently deal—be it John Gorton, Billy McMahon or Gough Whitlam—could ever have hoped to attain the cherished place occupied by Menzies in Nixon’s pantheon of world leadership. Indeed, it would be fair to say that in Richard Nixon’s eyes, Robert Menzies was the epitome of the Australian statesman.

  So began a friendship of mutual respect between the two men that was to last until the late 1970s. After this first meeting in Canberra, Nixon and Menzies were to meet regularly during the Australian leader’s trips to the United States and the two would often correspond, send each other their respective books, and swap notes on the political issues of the day. Speaking to the House of Representatives in August 1959, Menzies spoke of the ‘several long talks’ he had with the vice president on his latest trip to Washington, praising his ‘bold approach to international problems’. Menzies was referring specifically to Nixon’s visit to Latin America in 1958—where his motorcade was viciously attacked by angry rioters in Venezuela—and to the famous kitchen debate between Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow, in which the two had squared off in an impromptu debate over the respective merits of capitalism and communism. The vice president’s approach, Menzies said, was one that ‘commends itself to the Australian mind. It is quite clear that [Nixon] is a great believer in going to the seat of the trouble and meeting other people freely and frankly … this seems to me to be essential in the near future of the world’.11 Although these were plaudits typical of a leader in an alliance with a great power, the compliment was returned. Nixon wrote in praise of TIME magazine’s cover story on Menzies in April 1960, saying he had been most pleased by the article’s ‘frank recognition that the conservative economic policies which your government has so courageously and effectively applied have been primarily responsible for Australia’s remarkable progress since World War II’.12 And in early February 1969, only a matter of weeks after Nixon’s inauguration as president, Menzies was the guest of honour at a specially convened White House dinner, along with Secretary of State William Rogers, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and former Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey. As Menzies recounted to his daughter, ‘the new president and all the others put questions to me and were anxious to get my views’. Writing subsequently to Nixon in appreciation, the former Australian leader expressed confidence to his long-time friend that ‘the team you have around you will be highly successful and … you will play a notable part in the administration of your great country’.13 The Nixon—Menzies relationship was much more than a link born of mutual appreciation and admiration: they were the essence of an Australian and American Cold War conservative political culture in which the way to handle the challenges of domestic politics, the region and the world tended to merge.

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