AS an Australian soldier in Vietnam, I could have legitimately shot Wilfred Burchett, if my unit had fired on any of the enemy soldiers he accompanied to get a story. Such an event would have been hypothetical; we were never in the same place at the same time. But as a reader of this book, I think he would not have deserved such a fate.
Rebel Journalism: The Writings of Wilfred Burchett
Edited by George Burchett and Nick Shimmin
Cambridge University Press, 314pp, $37.95
Burchett’s story goes back a long way. Heated claims of him being a communist propagandist arose after he went to Korea in July 1951 to report the Korean War peace talks for left-wing Paris journal Ce Soir. He soon became involved in wider events and his work openly "supported" the North Korean and communist Chinese side. "This camp looks like a holiday resort in Switzerland," he said of a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp in early 1952, not seeing what PoWs rightly saw as a hellhole. "The atmosphere is also nearer that of a holiday luxury resort than a PoW camp."
Placing Burchett farther beyond the pale, he was also widely perceived to have been a communist interrogator and psychological warfare expert. This was after some meetings with Australian and American prisoners in Korea. Later, he again generated tremendous resentment when he similarly "supported" the "other side" in the Vietnam War.
To account for Burchett’s actions, many explode with assurances that he was a Stalinist hack ready to lie for the communist cause. Yet I am not convinced this explains what he did. Bad faith is only one reason why reporting can be grossly erroneous; perhaps Burchett was not as close to the reality of the PoW camps as he thought. There are also reasonable arguments that when visiting some PoWs he saw himself as a journalist chasing a story. Additionally, there is evidence in his ASIO file and elsewhere that he assisted Australian and American PoWs.
The fact that conservative Australian governments post-1949 tried but failed to prosecute Burchett also gives pause for thought. After the last attempt, attorney-general Tom Hughes told prime minister John Gorton on March 3, 1970, that the government had no evidence against him. Hughes also commented that a prosecution for treason under the Crimes Act "cannot be mounted unless the war is a proclaimed war and there is a proclaimed enemy", and the Australian government had not declared war on the peoples it had sent troops to fight in Korea and Vietnam.
But still, the malice of the official response to Burchett’s activities was so far-reaching that it must be clarified in any attempt to fairly assess what he did. In a remarkable breach of the human rights of an Australian citizen, successive conservative governments simply exiled him for 17 years by refusing to replace the passport he lost on his way from China to Indonesia in 1955. The Whitlam Labor government returned his passport without any difficulty in 1972. But neither that act of justice nor Burchett’s death in 1983 stilled the gossip, diatribe and fantasy that has dominated public comment on him.
The official malice could provoke opposition, but generally supported the rumour mill by helping to frustrate democratic debate. The making of David Bradbury’s 1981 documentary film on Burchett, Public Enemy Number One, illustrates this point. Bradbury was partly driven to make the film because of his gritty opposition to a primitive case of ABC censorship that occurred around 1967. ABC journalist Tony Ferguson had filmed an interview with Burchett in Phnom Penh. But the film disappeared. Bradbury says he later found out from Ferguson and others that, in a fit of fear and loathing, the general manager of the ABC, Talbot Duckmanton, had ordered its destruction.
Then, in the ’80s, although Bradbury’s earlier film on news cameraman Neil Davis, Frontline, had been nominated for an Academy Award, only a very short segment from Public Enemy Number One, which also won several film festival prizes, was ever shown on Australian television. The ABC refused to buy it.
So what did Burchett do? The question is vexed. But something he undoubtedly did was write — voluminously, including more than 30 books — and this fact opens a large window on the motives for his political advocacy and actions.
Rebel Journalism, edited by Burchett’s son, George, and Nick Shimmin, could be read anywhere as a reader in Cold War journalism. But in Australia this anthology presents a convenient opportunity to show how transparent Burchett’s work was, and how its transparency confused the governments that persecuted him.
The editors frame Burchett’s writing with The Atomic Plague, his epochal scoop published in the Daily Express in London on September 5, 1945. Three days before, while the Allied press pack was focused on the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay, he had bravely boarded a train full of surly Japanese soldiers in Tokyo and travelled 600km to Hiroshima.
There, his report covered the "terrible and frightening desolation" 30 days after the atomic bomb had obliterated the city: "… it looks as though a monster steamroller had passed over it and squashed it out of existence". People were still dying "mysteriously and horribly". Their hair was falling out and their flesh rotting. Meanwhile, general Douglas MacArthur’s propaganda machine was vigorously denying any post-atomic problems. If Burchett had written nothing else, he would still have an estimable place in the history of journalism.
The nuclear holocaust inflected Burchett’s thinking for life — he wrote about Hiroshima the year he died — and his original story helped to establish him as a foreign correspondent. Many of the remaining 28 readings in the anthology also display the same fearless drive to get exclusive stories that seems inconsistent with the making of a Stalinist hireling.
Nevertheless, I think the anthology could also be framed with its second reading: With Mick Griffith, which was extracted from Burchett’s 1941 book, Pacific Treasure Island, and which reads like Henry Lawson.
Burchett went to New Caledonia to investigate Japanese activities and met Mick Griffith, an indigent nickel miner. Mick had just blown his money back home in Australia, but assured Burchett that "there’s plenty more holes in the ground" where he could remake a fortune. Burchett spins a yarn about a trip across the island with Mick, who wanted to show him vast, untouched deposits of iron ore that could be turned to riches "with a few sticks of dynamite".
The link with Lawson’s short story The Loaded Dog is irresistible. Dave Regan and his mates are failed miners on the Australian gold fields. They have fantasies about dynamiting the ground to get at inexhaustible seams of precious ore. So Dave sets a dynamite charge, only to have a dog pick it up and run around causing mayhem.
In Burchett’s reportage, Mick’s schemes fall apart less terrifyingly. The iron ore deposits are illusory, his dynamite charge is never set. His loaded dog is the bottle: "Mick admits that he likes a drink or two — or more — but always hastens to tell you when he’s Mick in the bush he’s ‘off the likker’." Both stories are culturally linked, telling of forgivable failure in the face of uneven odds, and are set in a wider political agenda of the colonial underdog in opposition to empire or of anti-colonial nationalism.
Burchett was never racist as were Lawson and his main employer, The Bulletin. Burchett’s anti-colonialism included support for colonised Asians. Scholars writing in Burchett, a 1986 collection of essays edited by Ben Kiernan, noted Burchett’s anti-colonialism in Pacific Treasure Island, where he wrote that "the Pacific is the world of the future". Another idea represented in Pacific Treasure Island, but not in Rebel Journalism, also did much to shape his career. This was, as historian Beverly Smith puts it, "the way in which Australian culture and mores, as they emerged from the pioneers’ experience, could develop in harmony with those of the liberated peoples in neighbouring Asia".
Burchett’s family was a pioneering one from Poowong in Gippsland, Victoria, where his strong-minded father, George, imbued him with a progressive approach to British India, the Soviet Union and republican China. A Methodist lay preacher and political pamphleteer, George was part of the strong tradition of nonconformist Protestantism that has spawned other Australian iconoclasts, including Katherine Susannah Prichard and John Burton.
In this context, it’s unfortunate that Rebel Journalism contains no extract from Burchett’s 1946 book, Democracy with a Tommy Gun. In that book Burchett registers his strong approval for the World War II effort of the "free, independent" Australian people. Accompanying this is his sense of the coming crisis in Western imperialism in Asia: "the British Raj in India and the Kuomintang dictatorship (in China) represent decaying systems of government" and "immediately the war ended, subject people in the East began to rise" to take their "freedom and independence".
Burchett’s interest in the ideals of freedom and independence was so pronounced that he sometimes mistook the real events going on in their name. Such was the case after he broke away from the press pack in Berlin and based himself in Budapest in 1949. In 1951, he published People’s Democracies, which attempted to show the democratic spirit of a new world rising in the east from the ashes of the war. And from this book the editors have chosen two readings to show Burchett’s judgment at its most fallible: The Trial of Cardinal Mindszenty, and Liberty in Eastern Europe.
The first offers a left-wing melodrama on the people’s victory over the clerical backlash against the Hungarian republic. In the second, workers and peasants are on the move and "great construction projects" are going on all over the place. Burchett has come to a startling conclusion: "… the mass of the population has been granted an extension of basic liberties on a generous and ever-expanding scale, the opposite is the case in western Europe".
The bad news is that, like almost everyone on the Left in about 1950, Burchett did accept the Stalinist line in relation to eastern Europe. But this did not necessarily mean his thinking remained tied to it.
Towards the end of Liberty in Eastern Europe, Burchett links the political change he imagines going on there with the liberation struggles of people "over a great part of the earth’s surface today", particularly those of "the Korean people" and of "the miserable peasants of China". He also mentions "the Vietnamese shot down" by German SS troops. And indeed many SS troops had evaded European justice post-1945 by joining American-armed French Foreign Legion units that were sent to France’s Indochina War.
Burchett’s Stalinism in Liberty in Eastern Europe, is thus preceded by his prior Australian identification with the subject peoples of Asia rising to take their "freedom and independence". This identification also foreshadowed his later agenda: three readings on the Korean War and some 12 on the Indochinese wars interspersed with others on the Soviet Union and China fill out the anthology.
Of course, in this context, it would be a large error to apply willy-nilly the Stalinist tag to the communist regimes in Korea, China and Vietnam. Moscow’s archives recently revealed that Stalin only acceded reluctantly to Kim Il-sung’s primary determination to launch the Korean War in 1950 in the hope that he could unify Korea. Mao and Stalin were never friends. Ho Chi Minh only turned to the socialist bloc to support the Vietnamese drive for independence post-1945 after he failed to enlist US support. The primary goal of all three Asian leaders was national unity and independence.
Still, Rebel Journalism conveys the kind of unabashed bias that is sometimes confused with state-managed propaganda. The socialist heroes are invariably brimming with life. Kim Il-sung, aged 55, was "still a young man of exceptional mental and physical vigour". When Burchett met cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin after his historic space flight in 1961 the aura was dazzling: "the first impression was of his good-natured personality; big smile — a grin, really — light step and an air of sunny friendliness … His hands are incredibly hard; his eyes an almost luminous blue."
By contrast, American images are satanic. Metaphors of American "Nazi" and "SS" barbarism in Korea and Vietnam abound. Saigon is "a witches’ brew" of American and French imperial competition. Held up for our mortification in At Ground Level (1966) is the US bombing of the leper colony at Quynh Lap along with eight hospitals in northern Vietnam between June and August 1965. Burchett’s Cold War view of good socialists and bad Americans is very committed. But it was one side of a dichotomy. It would be easy to harvest images of evil communists and wholesome images of Americans from right-wing reportage. The question of journalistic independence also raises issues in any political context.
The assistance Burchett received from the Chinese, Vietnamese and Russian regimes at various times is not necessarily sinister. Given local difficulties of language and cultural difference, those regimes realised then, as now, that foreign correspondents can rarely function in their countries without the provision of accommodation and official access, which also keeps them in a bubble. Likewise, journalists supporting the UN in Korea were fundamentally dependent on the US military, which kept them in a bubble. "They fed us, provided our clothing, anything we wanted," says former AAP Reuter correspondent Norman Macswan who, now 90, knew Burchett in Korea. "We would have welcomed reporting the other side to get a balanced picture, but went along with the Americans because we had no alternative." Think also of the embedded journalism in Iraq today.
Much distinguishes Burchett’s writing from state-scripted propaganda. A self-taught man, he felt it was his mission to tell working people about the Soviet and Asian revolutions. As historian Gavan McCormack stresses, Burchett believed those revolutions were on the cutting edge of the history of "human liberation" and that as a result "deserved his full support". This idiosyncratic, ego-driven sense of his mission then ran into his almost automatic application of certain writing methods.
Writing on the world stage, he maintained the Lawson-like device of the involved narrator. This fitted with the politically engaged, social realist reportage — the I narratives — that swept progressive journalism in Europe and Asia in the ’20s and ’30s: George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), for instance.
Burchett’s personal links with a European master of the genre, Egon Kisch, are well known. Similarly, sinologist Michael Godley says the camera verite method — the journalist’s eye as camera lens — was in vogue in Beijing in 1951 when Burchett was there.
This technique is at work in Patriots and Mercenaries (1965), about a Vietnamese National Liberation Front terrorist squad:
So I swung out of the hammock and was guided to a little clearing where the tiny bottle lamps had been set upon tree stumps, the flickering flames lighting up the faces of three exhausted-looking but triumphant men. Almost exactly three hours previously they had exploded a 25-pound bomb inside Saigon’s "US Only" Capitol Cinema.
The squad member who handled the explosive had "the rather exalted face of a poet". Such were the faces of Burchett’s underdogs at the vanguard of history. He never seems to have doubted the legitimacy of their cause and always predicted that the Americans would "inevitably lose the war".
Overall, his set position and cinematic eye suited his inclination to move quickly between stories and produce his enormous output of travel, social, political and military writings. Many scoops follow the Hiroshima story in Rebel Journalism. Koje Unscreened (1953) contains questionable details, but first drew wide attention to UN atrocities against North Korean PoWs in Korea. Gagarin: First Interview with Western Journalists (1961) was indeed an exclusive with the first man in space. The War on Trees (1963) may offer the first clear report of US defoliation operations in Vietnam. Other chapters present early views of the nature of the Vietnamese revolutionary forces in the mid-’60s, including their tunnel systems and organisation.
Burchett’s stories were written rapidly and outside the structures of Western journalism. But out there lay the strength as well as the weakness of his work. As he kept popping up in hard places, the underdogs saw themselves in his bias and sweeping view of history. By reading his columns and books, the underdogs then supported him.
As a staff correspondent for major dailies in London, New York and Paris he managed to keep his family. This was especially so when, except in Paris after 1969, he was based in cities where the cost of living was low: Peking in 1951, Hanoi 1955, Moscow 1957 and Phnom Penh 1965.
If one doesn’t erroneously assume that the communist world was monolithic, such an itinerary reinforces the sense that Burchett was independently minded. In fact, he kept moving across the many political lines and animosities that ran between the communist capitals he lived in, not to mention the non-communist ones.
Something else that made him self-supporting should not be forgotten either. With perhaps a dozen books doing well in several languages and some documentary film royalties adding to his usual press income, by the mid-’60s he enjoyed financial independence in Phnom Penh and Paris. This prosperity lasted until interest in Vietnam waned after 1975. So there was nothing necessarily sinister or mysterious about Burchett’s work. It was unusual; it was unashamedly biased. But it was open and explicable and so it hardly matters whether he was a communist or not. The fact that his voluminous writing was so transparent then draws one’s attention to the confusion he caused conservative governments and the construction of his ASIO file.
Even if Burchett’s motives were innocent, I think he was misguided to have had dealings with PoWs and report favourably on their camps. If he added to his unpopularity by being inordinately gung-ho in his attacks on Americans then, again, he had to cop the kick back. But the larger point is that, while ASIO was fascinated by his activities, it never had evidence of any offence by him against the national interest.
So why was ASIO so suspicious of him?
Significantly, his security file was not opened by ASIO when he became infamous during the Korean War. The Commonwealth Security Service had opened it by 1943 for reasons that had nothing to do with Australian national security. Indeed, a September 1943 report by that service covers the entire Burchett family. It reveals suspicion of father George’s interest in helping Jewish refugees around Melbourne, and his "liberal views" of the Soviet Union and republican China, which were Australian allies at the time.
A separate military intelligence report on Wilfred Burchett in February 1944 noted: "This man is a native of Poowong and his past life has been such that his activities are worth watching closely. He is an expert linguist and has travelled extensively. A comparatively young man who married a German Jewess with a grown family, he seldom misses an opportunity to speak and act against the interests of Britain and Australia."
Note the fascist, anti-native and anti-Semitic components of the report. Note the apprehension aroused by the silky "expert" in other languages. Note the layered moral concern: the "German Jewess" was also a divorcee. As for being anti-Australia, remember that in Democracy with a Tommy Gun Burchett applauded the 1939-45 war effort of the "free, independent" Australian people.
Clearly, his security file is based on the premise that his liberal views and bohemian cosmopolitanism threatened the blood-race patriotism of the British Empire in Australia.
No doubt after ASIO took over the file in 1949 his associations with Asians as well as German Jews stirred its racism to a quite deep loathing. Then, as the British Empire declined in Asia post-1945, ASIO was concerned by his outspoken criticism of the rise of US imperial power. His file contains numerous documents that reveal the Australian government’s sensitivity to his scathing criticism of American imperialism, and also testify to the fact that he rarely criticised Australia.
The fact is that an unspoken desire to maintain imperial values in Australia was the basis for ASIO’s interest in Burchett. And so we see what he really did to provoke official confusion and revenge: he asserted old Australian ideals of national freedom and independence (without racism) in Asia — and Australia — in the period of decolonisation.
An anecdote about Burchett’s literary interests near the end of his career connects with his real agenda by taking us full circle to an important early influence on it.
In 2005, Trinh Luu, a Vietnamese translator, published a bilingual edition of Australian short stories in Hanoi. In the preface he writes of driving through Kampuchea in 1980, behind Burchett, who was working on Bradbury’s Public Enemy Number One. Suddenly, the Khmer Rouge fired on the convoy with rockets and machine guns and the driver in Burchett’s vehicle was shot through the face but kept driving with a T-shirt wrapped around his head.
Back in Phnom Penh’s Samaki Hotel, Trinh Luu tells how "I became acquainted with Mr Burchett who gave me a collection of Henry Lawson’s stories. The Loaded Dog was my first reading in Australian literature."
Appropriately, at that time, the Australian government supported Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the UN. This was because it valued Pol Pot’s opposition to the Vietnamese forces that, in the course of their occupation of Kampuchea from late 1978, had largely stopped the killing there.