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Australia 1973-1975

Throughout Australian history, establishing just where Australia sits, and how Australia fits, has been a complicated and contentious task in itself. Australia had to reconcile history with geography. Some past Australian policies were a brand of isolationism which combined nostalgia with myopia and wishful thinking. The United States is not an island but, for much of its history, was able to act like one. Australia is an island, the largest in the world, but has never been able to act like one. For Australia, by the 21st Century the place of the United States in the Asian region was incontestable, indisputable and indispensable. US engagement was of bedrock importance to the security and prosperity of Asia. Millions of Asians depend, directly and indirectly, on the strength of that engagement.

On 17 December 1967, just before Christmas in Australia, Harold Holt, the country's Prime Minister and leader of the conservative Liberal Party, decided to go for a dip at his favourite beach. Disregarding the blustery conditions, he waded into the rough surf near Portsea, south of Melbourne, and swam out. Friends on the shore glimpsed him on the crest of a wave and then he vanished, never to be seen again. His body was never found. For Australians, the mystery provided a home-grown version of the President John F Kennedy assassination intrigue. Holt had been prime minister for 22 months when he disappeared. He was coming under immense pressure from the US to continue supporting the war in Vietnam. Holt was having doubts about the wisdom of having Australian troops in Vietnam. Rumors were circulating that he intended to withdraw from Vietnam. Soon, the conspiracy theories began to fly. Had Mr Holt been assassinated by the CIA because he intended to pull Australian troops out of Vietnam? But on 03 September 2005 a coroner officially confirmed what most people already suspected: Holt's death was a matter of accidental drowning.

In 1968, as Leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam said: "For Australia the phrase 'American Alliance' covers two things. The formal part of the alliance is our mutual obligation under ANZUS, which, as the Labor platform says, is 'crucial and must continue'. The other and more important part of the alliance is a matter of spirit and attitude." The incoming Labor government established diplomatic relations with China in 1972.

The principal problem during th early 1970s in US-Australia relations was adjusting to the change between a conservative, pro-American government led by the Liberal and Country Parties, and an Australian Labor Party government led by Gough Whitlam (1972-1975), a figure much in the image of Democratic Party leaders in the United States.

American intelligence had enjoyed a long and close relationship with Australia from the time of the election of Robert Menzies (ofthe Liberal Party) in 1949 through the end of his very long term of office (1961). His successors were also inclined to be pro-American, and the sunny situation continued through the end of the decade. But in 1972 the Australian Labor Party (ALP), headed by one Gough Whitlam, assumed the reins, and relations turned stormy. While conservative Australians generally supported the bilateral relationship with the U.S., the ALP had developed a leftist and decidedly anti-American stance.

In the early 1970s the Labor Party, particularly its left wing, became increasingly critical of the joint facilities, especially those at Pine Gap and Nurrungar. Their operations were seen not only as infringements on Australian sovereignty but also as linking Australia to American military doctrines and strategies, which might lead to a threat to Australian territory in the event of an American-Soviet nuclear exchange. Moreover, a suspicion grew that, under the cover of 'defence space research', these facilities were directly linked to American intelligence agencies, especially the CIA. The Labor Party entered the 1972 election with a policy that opposed foreign facilities on Australian soil, especially if they detracted from Australian sovereignty. Its electoral victory in December and the formation of the fi rst federal Labor government in 23 years coincided with the 'Christmas bombing', a severe campaign of American bombing in North Vietnam.

The change occurred in December, 1972, when President Nixon was already embattled over the Watergate Affair. Several Labor ministers were outspoken in their criticism of Nixon, although they said nothing beyond what was commonly being commonly said in the U. S. by Americans. The problem was that Labor had been in opposition from 1949 to 1972 -- 23 years. Neither Whitlam nor any of his cabinet colleagues had been in government before. They just didn't know how to behave. Moreover, there were joint Australian-American defense facilities set up during the period of the conservative governments, some of which performed highly classified functions. One of the conservative prime ministers, John Grey Gorton, had refused to allow the Labor leaders to be briefed on their significance, though previous Labor leaders had been informed about their purpose and functions. To his credit, Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam knew that the U. S. had wanted to inform the Labor leaders about them and correctly blamed Gorton for the problem. Ultimately, after some alarums and excursions, the US completed the process of transition to a Labor Government without significant damage.

The new Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, sought to steer a course that allowed the alliance to continue, and the joint facilities to remain, while distancing his government from support for American policies in Vietnam and securing enough concessions for Australian sovereignty to pacify his own party. With a mixture of delicate and robust diplomacy, this was narrowly achieved, but left a legacy of intergovernmental tension and extreme suspicion of the Americans within the Labor Party. Whitlam was opposed to Australian participation in the war in Vietnam, and he pulled Australian troops out of the combat zone. He also announced that he would see to it that Australian forces came home no matter where they were; this included a small contingent in the island nation ofSingapore.

The most severe tensions, however, arose from events in the last days of the Whitlam Government. The political crisis that led to Whitlam's dismissal by the Governor-General happened to coincide with a security crisis, precipitated when a journalist revealed information linking the Pine Gap facility with the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA reacted strongly, appearing to believe that the Labor government might be about to terminate the Pine Gap agreement. This combination of events led many in and around the Labor Party to believe that the CIA might have infl uenced the Governor-General's decision to dismiss the Whitlam Government on 11 November 1975. No 'smoking gun' was ever produced to give conclusive support for this theory, but some Labor supporters and left-wing journalists repeatedly revived the allegation in the late 1970s and the 1980s.

The new prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, was decidedly pro-American, and U.S.-Australian relations returned to something approaching an even keel. Cryptology and Whitlam were not done, even after he departed for private life. Soon after he was sacked, the press revealed that Whitlam planned to accept a hefty financial donation to the ALP from the Ba'ath Party in Iraq. Even in 1975 the regime of Saddam Hussein was so odious that Whitlam could not survive the besmirchment. His political career was effectively over.

In May 1977, the SSCI announced that it would investigate allegations appearing in the Australian press that the Agency had secretly intervened inthe early 1970s to undermine and bring about the dismissal of its leftist-leaning government headed by Labor Party leader, Gough Whitlam. Although the committee's report of its inquiry was never made public, it was the first time that an oversight committee had indicated its intent to explore the propriety of the Agency's operational activities in a friendly country.

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Page last modified: 22-11-2013 00:03:02 ZULU