Meanjin Quarterly - Winter 1974
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS - The Radicalization of a Conservative
As High Commissioner in Delhi in 1964 he had taken it on himself to recruit the
Indian government as an ally in Vietnam-a stupid - and fruitless task if ever there
were one. But even as External Affairs permanent head shortly after, he instituted
The one qualification was that the dissent remained in the family. Like its UKparent, External Affairs saw itself as something superior to other branches of the public service. And once you admitted your diplomats might succumb to the ideological enemy, how could you draw the superiority line? Students of the Burgess, McLean and Philby affairs will know what I mean. But it was very different if a man felt he should translate his dissenting views into something more specific. That was letting the side down. Bill Morrison was never really forgiven for daring to join the ALP. For twenty years External Affairs refused a posting or political work to Ric Throssell, a sincere humanist whose leftwing viewand contacts were mentioned in the Petrov case.
Only after I left External Affairs did I begin to realize how deeply this 'club' feeling is implanted. For a long time I had the feeling there was something illicit about discussing foreign affairs with outsiders. I still found it easier to relate to myold EA mates than to the people I was supposed to be involved with in the anti-Vietnam war movement. Few in External Affairs were upset when I began to criticize publicly government policy on China and Vietnam. But when I criticizedthe department itself the knives began to come out. - - -
One incident in particular hurt me deeply. When I left EA I turned to theAustralian National University as a haven to begin a new career. I had decidedto move out of the China/communism/politics field and into Japan /economics-_two areas where I thought it possible to work without having to depend on visasfrom capricious governments or the blessing of capricious professors. And in anycase I had had a gutful of arguing communist-anti-communist politics. Later I decided to join the Vietnam debate, only to be badly depressed by the hopelessness of trying to come to grips with opinion in Australia. If you argued the case against the South Vietnam régime the interventionists would present details of NorthVietnamese 'aggression'. If you argued the Geneva agreements they came back with the China threat. If you argued China they replied with the insurance policy argument (a brilliant piece of logic that overlooked the simple fact that interventionagainst possible threats would help to create real threats, particularly when the force used in the intervention was as immoral as in Vietnam). And dominating all arguments was the 'communist terrorism' charge which managed to overlook the obvious fact that if governments use the power of the state to suppress political movements (i.e., state terrorism) then the people suppressed have the right to resort to violence against the state.
But ultimately the arguments returned to the belief that somehow the government must know best, that it had the advice of experts and the secret information to make the right decisions. Needless to say, it was an argument that did not impress me. But the only way to counter it was to point out that the so-called experts were really not so expert. Nor was this the ad-horninen attack it might seem. My ex-perience with Chinese and Russian had convinced me that learning languages was almost the only way people could be forced to project their understanding far enough to see the various sides of foreign affairs problems. At the time, External Affairs was making its decisions on Vietnam without having anyone qualified in any Indochinese language.
Early in 1967 I had been asked to prepare a paper for a Canberra conference, so I decided to focus it on this language question. I asked External Affairs formally for data on diplomats drawing Asian language bounties. I knew this would give a flattering picture since I had qualified for the top A-grade interpretership bounties in Chinese and Russian with a less than fluent knowledge of either language. Evens o, External Affairs figures showed an appalling picture-a handful of middle grade Indonesian and Japanese speakers and that was all. The press took up the issue and went back to External Affairs for confirmation. Plimsoll as department head blandly produced another list showing External Affairs had dozens of Asian language speakers. He did not mention that this list was compiled from self-assessments and included a good eighty per cent who would admit freely they knew no more than a smattering picked up from servants in a two-year Asian posting. External Affairs was out for blood now and they got it.
But I am ahead of my story. The Moscow posting came through on schedule, and Russia in the spring of 1963 was an interesting place. After a severe winter the countryside was breaking into a beauty I had never known before. It was the peak of the Khrushchev liberalization. Contacts with Russians were not difficult.There was a tingling feeling of a new world to discover.
My main discovery-the charm and toughness of the Russian people, their general acceptance of the régime under which they lived-was not new. But finding out for oneself, directly, gave it an edge. For all its efficiency the KGBcould not stop you from visiting a student restaurant, joining one of the 'social walks' the Moscow Tourist Club used to organize at weekends around Moscow,or meeting young Russians at the excellent theatre then being allowed. Later the favourable impression weakened. It was hard to rationalize the KGB bastardy or the corrupt ineciency of the Soviet administration. But even during the bad period in late 1964-65 when the KGB types used to follow constantly in rotating squads there was something about the place and the people which caught theemotions. Nor could I forget that some of what I and others in Moscow had to suffer was a reaction to Western bastardy against the Russians.
Work at the Moscow embassy was dull but tolerable. We spent most of our time administering each other, probably even more than other Australian embassies overseas. Going to other embassy parties and worrying about the KGB attempts to penetrate our security were our other chores. But I was free to travel when I wanted. I could work on the areas that Interested me. Occasionally we would pull together some monumental despatch on the future of the Soviet Union. That was almost the sum total of our productive effort. Then there were the occasional opportunities to see the Soviet leaders in action, like the time the then External Affairs minister Paul Hashick arrived to recruit the Russians as allies against theChinese by warning them of Chinese territorial ambitions to take over Sinkiang.The Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko took it calmly. Then he reminded Hasluckthat Sinkiang had long been Chinese territory. Hasluck was later to make a fool of himself by trying to convince a genuinely puzzled Kosygin that the balance of power was necessary, and that Russia should join us in fighting the Chinese enemy.
I left Moscow with two main conclusions: Instead of spending a million dollars a year on an Embassy to provide a target for the KGB and agony for the 90 per cent non-Russian-speaking Australian staff, we should employ two, maybe three, qualified officials to handle our relations with the Russians, provide them with a set of rooms at a Moscow hotel, and let them fly out to the West every fortnight for rest and briefing. It would be a lot cheaper than running that bloated Embassy. The other idea was to limit so-called political reporting to verbatim conversations with Russians. If Canberra could be made to realize how much many intelligent Russians genuinely distrusted the West and defended their own system that would be worth far more than anything our learned analyses could achieve.
ONE SUCH CONVERSATION OCCURRED ON A TRAIN travelling back from the Crimea in the autumn of 1964. Usually Russians on train trips are inveterate talkers, even with foreigners. But this time the older of the two men in our compartment - a powerful man in his sixties-sat in silence for hours watching the Ukrainian wheat fields moving past outside. Later that evening, after exchanges of food and drink, he began to open up and I learned why he had not wanted to talk. As a younguniversity student he had joined the Red Army with his wife, who was also a student, to fight in the civil war and the Intervention. Together they had been sent to the front south of Murmnansk. The British raided the village where she was working in a field hospital. They handed her over to the Whites who shot her immediately. He had never remarried.
After Murmansk he had thrown himself into Party work. He had been through the collectivization, he had seen the purges of the 'thirties, the second World War.Now he was working as an engineer in a textile factory. Yes, there had been terrible mistakes in the past. And all he could see now was the waste and nepotism of the factory management. But it had never shaken his faith in communism. If we had had a better system, why did we have to send our troops thousands of miles to his country and kill his wife to prove it?
I didn't try to answer his question, because he had put his finger on the key to the stupidity of most of the bloodshed the world has since seen. The immorality of the Intervention set in motion a pendulum of violence which has swung remorselessly through to the cataclysm of Vietnam. Our killing then would give the Soviet leaders the justification for their 'revolutionary' excesses of the 'twentiesand 'thirties. Those excesses would feed the anti-communism that would help to generate Fascism. The memory of Nazi brutality would justify Soviet treachery in Eastern Europe. The fate of the East European democrats would trigger th eCold War, and the cruel interventions against postwar left-wing revolutionary movements-Greece, Malaya, Guatemala, Brunei . . . the list is endless. Today, communist ideologues point to those interventions to justify their own interventionsand their suppression of domestic dissent. Anti-communist ideologues use this suppression to justify their interventions. Our hawks feed their hawks, and theirs ours. The immorality committed by one side justifies the next round of immorality committed by the other.
Vietnam may have slowed the pendulum, at least from our side, just as the Stalin revelations helped to sober the Soviets. When the immorality of one's own side becomes too obvious to ignore, the hawks/ideologues find it harder to operate.
But these brief periods of calm are the exception. Given the normal biases of the normal citizen when it comes to judging the behaviour of foreigners it is only too easy to find the material to inflame the passions needed to get the pendulum moving again.
We all know about Stalin's cynical breaking of the agreements on the future of Poland. It would never occur to our healthily biased ideologue that others migh tview our cynical disregard of the Geneva agreements on Vietnam in the same way.We all know about the suffering of Soviet dissidents. When Asian anti-communist regimes imprison or execute their dissidents we hardly bother to notice, let alone register a protest. We know that in Eastern Europe anti-Nazi patriots were often pushed aside in favour of Nazi collaborators when it suited Soviet interests. Most in the West are hardly aware of, let alone upset by, the fact that we did the same in almost every country of Asia after the war. On the contrary, our ideologues even manage to find something sinister in the way left wing Asians organized resistance movements against the invading Japanese; it proved that long ago the Asian communists were already willing to resort to that sinister weapon called 'guerilla war'.
When the far less successful European resistance leaders emerged from their hiding places after the war we had no difficulty in seeing them as worthy leaders of their countries. In Asia we imprisoned the same people, or gladly provided the weapons for their elimination. Today, almost thirty years after the war, we have continued the same killing under the justification of an even more perverted logic called the bloodbath theory. We believe we can bomb villages and force men to live like savages in the jungle for decades and when they finally emerge to seek a savage revenge we use this to prove the need for our prior and greater, savagery or for more killing elsewhere. In any other field but foreign affairs such logic would be discredited by a child of six. But our diplomats and ideologues never saw any fallacy in using it to justify the napalming of more Vietnamese villages.
FOREIGN AFFAIRS ARE TOO IMPORTANT to be left to the diplomats and the ideologues. We see this in their anguished outcry when a non-diplomat and a non-ideologue called Kissinger takes control of U.S. foreign affairs. For all his faults, Kissinger at least had the intelligence to realize that foreign affairs involves talking to the other side. He has done that, and in the process has begun to roll back the cold war confrontation Two Bloc mentality. For the diplomats, diplomacy hasbeen the art of devising reasons to avoid any contact or exchange of ideas withthe ideological enemy. That is what our foreign policy used to be about. That is why a million or more people had to die in Indochina.
Professional diplomats are like stockbrokers. Their main role should be performing certain services in exchange for payment from their clients. We need diplomats and embassies overseas to handle the mechanics of our relations with other peoples-to issue visas, attend conferences, administer treaties, and so on. But to assume that a man who has spent his time doing this is automatically qualified to make judgments on foreign policy is as foolish as assuming that a life of shuffling buy-and-sell orders gives an insight to the true value of BHP shares. Like the diplomat,the stockbroker is under strong pressure to tell his client what he thinks the client wants to hear. Diplomats will always tell governments that the status quo they want to support is worth supporting and that the status quo they oppose is worth opposing. During the 'fifties and 'sixties the list of our ambassadors in Asia who had reported favourably on the popularity of the local strongman just before his overthrow was too long to be funny. On one famous occasion the report was delayed in the mails and arrived in Canberra after the coup. (The ambassador involved went on to better things and ended up as head of the department.) Conversely our hired experts have consistently underestimated the durability of the communist regimes and movements they dislike. Wishful thinking is one name for it. In share dealing it results in bankruptcy. In diplomacy it is seen as proof that you had your heart in the right place and deserve promotion.
BEFORE I FINISH I want to put on record something that happened when I was leaving External Affairs. During my last few months in Moscow several of the Russians I had known had been put under great KGB pressure to work' against me. I know because I was told by one of them. I do not want to go into the details; it is something most diplomats working in Moscow have to suffer even if in most cases they are never fully made aware of it. In my case it was the final push needed to persuade me to leave the diplomatic service. I had devoted two years to trying to understand the Russian people and their system. I may not have likedthat system but I was certainty prepared to accept that many Russians liked it. That was a big advance on the cold war thinking of most Western diplomats in Moscow. But the only result was that the other side now saw me as a tool for theirparticular cold war. There were better things to do in life than be regarded as a pawn for both sides in this stupid game.
Back in Canberra and preparing to leave I decided to tell the External Affairs administration what had happened in Moscow. I wanted them to know how even our unimportant Embassy was a target for the KGB. Also at the back of my mind was the sloppy thought that I would like them to know part of the reason for my wanting to leave. In any case the move backfired completely. Someone inExternal Affairs panicked, because before I had even left the service I had an ASIO stunt pulled on me to find out whether I was in the secret pay of the Russians. The evidence that it was a stunt was overwhelming-a White Russian ASIO operative pretending over the telephone to be a Soviet diplomat but who gave himself away by using pre-revolutionary vocabulary; the ASIO flap when Ireported the incident and finessed them by suggesting a direct follow up with theSoviet Embassy on the basis of the call being genuine.
The fact that some incompetent ASIO operatives had tried to find out whether I was a Russian spy does not worry me particularly. What upset me was BA's role in the affair. I had put nine years of hard work and slow education into trying to understand the real nature of conflict between the communist and anti-communist worlds. Now I found myself in that nether-nether world between thetwo, where the stupidities and biases of both sides become obvious. But neither side could understand, let alone tolerate, the man who tried to operate from this position. And having been treated as an enemy by both sides I had nothing to lose from behaving as an enemy. It was this, more than my still naïve outrage over the growing Vietnam tragedy, that pushed me into the anti-Vietnam protest movement. As in foreign affairs, every action has its equal reaction. I shouldthank the men who finally stung me into action.