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Gough Whitlam, Former Australian PM who Criticized 1972 US Bombing of Hanoi, Dies at 98

October 22, 2014
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Gough Whitlam meets Richard Nixon at the White House for the first time in July 1973. Source: The Australian.

Gough Whitlam, who served as the Australian Prime Minister from 1972 until 1975 when the Queen’s Governor-General dismissed him at the height of Australia’s constitutional crisis – a move Whitlam later inferred was supported by the CIA –, died this week at the age of 98. During his truncated term, Whitlam finished withdrawing Australian troops from Vietnam, criticized the Nixon administration for Operation Linebacker II and the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi, and ultimately supported Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor. His position on Vietnam did nothing to endear him to the Nixon administration, particularly to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, but declassified Kissinger telephone conversations (telcons) previously published through the Digital National Security Archive help depict a more complicated relationship with the man Kissinger once called a “bastard.”

B-52 Stratofortress, US Air Force Photo.

B-52 Stratofortress, US Air Force Photo.

A December 20, 1972, telcon of unknown classification records Henry Kissinger’s conversation with Australian Chargé d’Affaires, Roy Fernandez, regarding a letter newly-elected Whitlam sent President Nixon condemning Linebacker II (the most aggressive aerial bombardment of the Vietnam War that killed as many as 1,600 civilians in what the Washington Post called “the most savage and senseless act of war ever visited, over a scant 10 days, by one sovereign people over another”). Whitlam’s letter, which urged the US to return to peace talks, infuriated Kissinger, who told Fernandez “to convey that we are not particularly amused” by Whitlam’s comments, and that they were “no way to start a relationship” with the Nixon administration. During the conversation Kissinger explicitly says he wants to prevent the discussion of – much less criticism of US action in – Vietnam from becoming part of the “official record.” A seemingly terrified Fernandez readily agrees, saying “Yep. Yes,” Kissinger’s threat was not an “official communication.”

On December 29, Kissinger, still fuming, told Nixon the Australian letter was “a cheap little maneuver,” and both men agreed to freeze-out Whitlam until he got the point it was not his place to chastise the US. When asked during a March 16, 1973, phone conversation why Kissinger refused to ever dignify Whitlam’s letter with an answer, Kissinger said, “there wasn’t much point to it,” since he had conveyed a verbal official communication through the US Ambassador.

"We are not particularly amused"

“We are not particularly amused”

In an ongoing series of chilly conversations regarding Whitlam, on July 31, 1973, Kissinger told New York Times reporter Bernard Gwertzman that Whitlam’s upcoming first visit to Washington was not a “world-shaking” event, though one that was ultimately necessary to “keep Whitlam in line” on Asia policy (in the same conversation, Gwertzman asked Kissinger why the National Security Advisor would consider being the Secretary of State during the Nixon administration, and Kissinger replied, “Everyone is fighting for the number two oar in the lifeboat”). A telcon dated August 10, 1973, shows Kissinger quipping that Whitlam’s difficulties scheduling an audience with President Nixon “were not uncharacteristic.”

American-Australian relations were not much improved by January 8, 1974. An Unclassified telcon from that day records Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger complaining about both Whitlam and Australian Ambassador James Plimsoll. Irked at being snubbed a dinner invitation from Plimsoll, who had previously told Kissinger he wanted “to straighten out the [American-Australian] relationship,” Kissinger called Whitlam a “bastard.”

K: He is a bastard. S: Yes.

K: He is a bastard. S: Yes.

Whitlam again visited Washington on October 5, 1974, before visiting Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa, this time finding more common cause with the Ford administration. Discussions revolved around Indonesia, whose conditions Kissinger said were ripe for a “built-in revolution” (on a tangent discussing student protestors, President Ford remarked that his second son “could have become a Communist or a John Bircher but he turned out to be a middle-of-the-roader”).

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CIA Weekly Review article on Whitlam and Portuguese Timor.

A later Top Secret Umbra April 11, 1975, CIA article details Australian fears that Indonesia was preparing “an imminent move against Timor” in the wake of Portugal granting Timor independence. Whitlam, who championed the rights of indigenous Australians, was initially against intervention, though he ultimately supported Indonesian annexation to maintain stability in the region and to prevent an opening for further American or Soviet intervention in Southeast Asia.

On May 7, 1975, during his final trip to Washington and on the heels of the end of the Vietnam War, Whitlam assured Kissinger and President Ford that Australia would do its part accepting Vietnamese refugees. In a Confidential memorandum of conversation from the same day, the President concedes that Whitlam and the Australians were “helpful in [the evacuation of] Danang,” Vietnam, and both Whitlam and Kissinger agreed on the need to maintain stability in Indonesia and the Philippines.

By 1975 it appeared that Whitlam had achieved a common, if not entirely friendly, ground with Kissinger and the Ford administration. It was not ground he was able to hold, however, and he was dismissed six months after his final visit to Washington.

Several years after Whitlam’s dismissal, Christopher Boyce, an American contractor affiliated with the CIA who spent a quarter-century in prison for selling secrets to the Soviets, claimed the agency played a central role in what was effectively a coup to remove Whitlam from power. Boyce, echoed by investigative journalist John Pilger and Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Jonathan Kwitny, argued Whitlam’s removal was primarily over US concerns Whitlam would withdraw Australia from the Pine Gap Agreement – a pact that allowed the US to maintain a military base in central Australia. One day before he dismissed Whitlam, the Governor-General – a man Kwitny notes continually “went to the CIA for money” – was advised of the “security crisis” Whitlam’s stance on Pine Gap posed. Whitlam was out of office the next day.

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