This article was written by Tom Heenan, Ben Kiernan, Greg Lockhart, Stuart Macintyre, and Gavan McCormack.
It is a perverse tribute to the journalist Wilfred Burchett that, 25 years after his death, major Australian media continue to devote space to denigrating him. Robert Manne, Australia’s “Number One public intellectual”, took 10 pages of the June issue of his magazine The Monthly to condemn Burchett. In the same month, Mark Aarons wrote in similar vein for The Australian, and Philip Adams hosted both authors on his Radio National program Late Night Live.
For three decades, as a former columnist and then editor of Quadrant magazine, and now as Chairman of the Board of The Monthly, Robert Manne has been the central figure in the assaults on Burchett’s reputation. His recent rearguard action, conceding much ground but firing loud salvos as he retreats, opens an illuminating window on Australian political and intellectual history. It illustrates Manne’s tendency to consider selectively other scholars’ research and his penchant for redefining the terms of an argument to suit his current agenda.
Robert Manne first took up cudgels against Burchett in 1985, in an article published in Quadrant, which awarded him a prize for it. There he accused Burchett of a multitude of sins: working as a KGB agent; a Korean War torturer and brainwasher of POWs; black-marketeer; black-mailer; black-guard; womaniser; alcoholic; Soviet agent of influence; and fabricator of germ warfare propaganda stories, whose treacherous activities, had they been properly investigated, would have got him hanged for treason.
Twenty-three years later, Manne has modified his view. He now concludes that Burchett was a journalist of “very considerable talent” with “a genuine instinct for human equality”, who had ventured to Berlin under Nazi rule in a “noble” effort “to help Jews escape to Australia”. Manne thus omits his earlier grotesque comparison of Burchett to the Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher.
On Hiroshima, 63 years after the dropping of the first atomic bomb, Manne now acknowledges for the first time that Burchett’s exclusive report from the target city weeks after its destruction was a scoop “of world-historical importance”. He also concedes (again for the first time) that Burchett “backed the right horse” on the war in Vietnam, “where opposition to American behaviour turned out to be right”.
In his most astonishing reversal, Manne now concedes that Burchett “probably” never did work for the KGB.
On many matters, therefore, it seems Manne was totally wrong. His retractions have vindicated the views of his long-time targets, including some of us. (See Ben Kiernan’s essay, “The Making of a Myth: Wilfred Burchett and the KGB,” in his 1986 anthology, Burchett: Reporting the Other Side of the World, 1939-1983, and Gavan McCormack, “The New Right and Human Rights: Cultural Freedom and the ‘Burchett Affair’”, Meanjin 3/1986.) Attempting to explain “the recent rise in Wilfred Burchett’s reputation”, Manne cites the family’s determination, anti-American sentiment since the invasion of Iraq, and the flaws of the Australian Left, but he omits a key factor: the falsity of charges long levelled by Burchett’s critics like himself.
Manne refers to “the Western left” today as “the most reliable defender of human rights”. Yet during the 1980s and 1990s he was most critical of those in “the western Left” who defended Burchett’s human rights.
Indeed, from 1985 to 2008, Manne himself had no word of criticism for the Australian government’s 17-year denial of a passport to Burchett, barring the return home of a third-generation citizen attached to his country. Nor did Manne condemn the gratuitous 15-year official refusal to register the births of Burchett’s Australian children.
Even now, he tiptoes reluctantly around this in the neutral passive voice: “Even if the denial of a passport to Burchett is seen as an injustice …” Maybe, Manne muses, “it was wrong to deprive Burchett of his passport when the decision had been taken not to bring him to trial. Yet, given what was known about Burchett’s activities in Korea, it is not difficult to sympathise with the instinct of the Menzies government that something needed to be done.”
Manne neglects to mention that by 1969 the Australian Security and Intelligence Organization (ASIO) was forced to concede that its intelligence on Burchett’s activities in Korea was so insubstantial that the Gorton Government considered it potentially defamatory. Australians like Burchett, and their children, Manne implies even now, deserve no defence of their citizenship rights.
This raises a serious point about Manne’s mode of argument. In 1985 he debased discussion on Burchett by resorting to character assassination (accusing Gavan McCormack of teaching his students “a neo-Stalinist version of post-war Asian history” and of “doctoring history”). In 2008, Manne diagnoses those who do not follow his own convoluted argument as “pro-Burchett” leftists, sunk in “parochialism” and “post-Cold War intellectual inertia”, who suffer from “vanity or pride”, and “rancour”. His dropping the offensive charge of Stalinism is welcome, but Manne’s new language is no more enlightening.
Declaring Burchett somewhat ambiguously “the most controversial and influential communist in Australian history”, Manne still insists on two points: first, that he was a secret member of the Communist Party of Australia; and second, that he was guilty of treason.
In the first case, whatever the truth, most people have long regarded Burchett as a communist. Throughout the Cold War he was frequently introduced in the Western media as “the Australian communist journalist Wilfred Burchett”. We have no knowledge of evidence proving beyond doubt whether he did or did not belong to any communist party and are open to the possibility that he may have lied by denying such membership. We hope, however, that witch-hunting McCarthyist values now hold little sway outside Quadrant magazine, a journal considered “too right wing” even by its CIA sponsors (Ben Kiernan, “Australia, East Timor and the Aborigines,” Overland, No. 167, 2002, p. 28).
At any rate Manne contradicts himself, saying (in a characteristically tortuous phrase) that Burchett was a “self-directed but financially dependent agent of influence”. To grant that he was “self-directed” is to concede that Burchett was his own master and not a servant of any party. That he also happened to be poor is well known. The term “agent of influence” is in any case a spurious cold war construction used by Western security organisations including ASIO to brand prominent people whose associations they disliked but about whom they had no evidence of wrongdoing. In that way, Manne’s revival of the term to describe Burchett maintains the long discredited ASIO narrative on him.
Manne maintains his core charge that Burchett was a “traitor”. Yet this most serious of allegations he cannot state without equivocation. In print he adopts the formula that Burchett “did not betray his country in Korea because he was a bad person but because he thought he was supporting a higher cause”, and on radio, only when pressed to say whether he still considered Burchett a traitor did Manne reply, “Well, I think he was, to be honest”.
One seeks in vain a clear and consistent definition of this capital crime and any recognition of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. At work here is Manne’s distortion of legal terms to suit his argument. As he knows, the Australian government devoted considerable effort to put together a case to try Burchett as a traitor. It failed, and abandoned the case (Tom Heenan, From Traveller to Traitor: The Life of Wilfred Burchett, Melbourne University Press, 2006).
The United States government too, stated that it had “no independent evidence” for any charges. Henry Kissinger invited Burchett to Washington as a breakfast guest, and in 1977 the United States government granted Burchett a visa to conduct a lecture tour of the United States.
What matters, we have always insisted, was what Burchett wrote, where he got it right and wrong, and how his country treated its leading public dissenter.
He was badly wrong on some things, notably Stalinism in Eastern Europe. Among others, Kelvin Rowley pointed out in his 1986 essay, which Manne’s article ignores, that Burchett's “uncritical reportage” on Stalinism was “terribly mistaken” and “profoundly misleading”. Rowley wrote that “Burchett had witnessed the consolidation of Stalinist control over Eastern Europe. And he didn't even notice it.” (Kiernan, Burchett, pp. 49-54.)
Greg Lockhart has observed the black-white dichotomy of “good socialists and bad Americans” in Burchett’s Cold War writings (“Red Dog? A loaded question,” The Australian Literary Review, March 5, 2008). Burchett may well have been wrong on germ warfare in Korea also (see McCormack, Target North Korea, 2004). Possibly so too were others, like the great Cambridge historian of Chinese science, Joseph Needham, who maintained a similar view till his death. Burchett’s sensitivity to what he saw as signs of bacteriological warfare is scarcely surprising in one who had been the first to report to the world the horror of nuclear war.
On the question of what Burchett did or did not do in Korea, Manne has yet to respond to the detailed evidence and analysis published 20 years ago, especially that concerning the Korean POWs. Among many POWs and other conflicting sources, Manne still chooses to rely heavily on the evidence of one US airman, Paul Kniss, and still ignores the various different and contradictory versions of Kniss’ uncorroborated story (McCormack’s chapter in the Kiernan volume, pp. 188-90, and Meanjin, 3/1986).
Acknowledging that Wilfred Burchett “backed the right horse” in the Vietnam War (about which he wrote nine books), Manne makes his stand that Burchett was a “traitor” primarily on the Korean War, of whose justice he still seems in no doubt. However, in past decades the historiography of the Korean War has changed in fundamental ways.
To mention here just the most shocking recent revelation, within the past month, South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission confirmed that during the first months of that war, in July 1950, “United Nations” forces had slaughtered about 100,000 Koreans, including around 5,000 taken from nearby prisons, massacred, and dumped in improvised mass graves outside the city of Daejeon (formerly written Taejon). The “Daejeon Massacre” has long been recognised and recorded in histories of the Korean War as its worst single atrocity. At the time the US Army deemed it “worthy of being recorded in the annals of history along with the Rape of Nanking, the Warsaw Ghetto” - but wrongly attributed it to North Korea.
Now, the South Korean Truth Commission has unambiguously attributed the massacre to South Korean forces operating under American direction (“Alleged communists massacred under the eyes of American soldiers,” Seoul, June 16, 2008, with photographs released on May 5, 2008 by US National Archives and Records Administration).
To criticise Burchett’s reporting of the Korean War, Robert Manne has to face the fact that among the worst atrocities of that war were those committed, and long covered up, by “our” side. Wilfred Burchett, who reported the Daejeon massacre at the time in his 1953 book, This Monstrous War (pp. 129-31), was the only Australian to do so. As of July 2008, Australian media have yet to report on these matters at all.
We believe that advances in the cause of human rights will come more easily without dividing scholars into "Left" and "Right", or into "pro-Burchett" or "anti-Burchett" parties.
These banal oppositions provide no explanatory power. There are plenty of fine people on both sides, and Burchett's long life displayed plenty of nuances and contradictions. Honest people can disagree about whether he should be honoured for some of the things he did, and criticised for others. But if the cause of human rights in Australia is to progress, there can be no ideological excuse for a government depriving a citizen of his rights, let alone depriving his children of theirs.