I knew you didn’t mean it when you said you’d published the last word on Wilfred Burchett. He has a funny way of making fools of anyone who suggests there is nothing more to say. You shouldn’t be surprised at the level of heat generated by the merest whiff of Burchett’s name. There’s something about him that seems to raise the demons of Australia’s post-war history. He’s the proxy battleground for the bitter, often sad little arguments between what passes for Australia’s Left/Right intellectual debate.
A pity, because I feel these cold-war warriors are missing the point. Burchett was a man, not a demon and just a messenger at that. Yet if they travel beyond the old invective — much of it discredited long ago by solid academic spade-work — there are much more contemporary questions to debate: about the role of media in conflict, about personal morality and about the trust we place in the pronouncements of our Government. On the same day that it was announced Australian ground troops will finally be withdrawn from the tragic Iraqi adventure, these questions seem as relevant as ever. Yet you won’t find these ideas being slogged out in the Crikey‘s Burchett battle these past few days. The arguments are as vapid as ever, ranging from the silly to the sly.
An example of the silly: Bruce Watson writes (Wednesday, comments) that Burchett’s “hack work ludicrously disparaged fundamental freedoms such as to vote and to travel.” Bruce, here’s the news: Without explanation, the Australian Government denied Burchett an Australian passport for 17 years. It ignored a global campaign of support on his behalf and the advice of its own law officers, which informed Cabinet that the action was illegal. So much for fundamental rights. It was exactly this kind of hypocrisy that Burchett railed against.
The Sly: Mark Aarons (Wednesday, comments) argues that lumping Burchett and Nazi war criminals together in the same breath during an ABC radio interview is not guilt by association. He also suggests the audience should obviously know that all he was doing was taking an ironic dig at Robert Manne over an unrelated dispute that has nothing to do with Burchett. Sorry Mark, we’re not in on the joke.
And Mark, you say that I made shocking allegations against Burchett-denouncer Tibor Meray. It’s true, I wrote to you privately at length setting out some very reasonable questions (not allegations) about Meray. You never replied. And now it’s you who have made these question public, not me, transforming them miraculously into “false allegations” that I have left “undenied” An old Communist Party trick that one.
For anyone really interested in reading the factual evidence for and against Burchett, I recommend reading the recent, comprehensively sourced article by Jamie Miller in the University of WA’s journal New Critic. Read it over the holidays and make up your own minds.
I will address just the most interesting contribution to the raging Burchett debate, a long and considered response from Australian Defence Association Executive Director, Neil James. While it does contain some howlers (i.e. Burchett was in the employ of the Bulgarian Intelligence Services. Oops, in fact Burchett was kicked out of the country by the Bulgarians for daring to marry a local, denied re-entry and not reunited with his bride for two years), there is much to ponder in the article.
James writes at length on perhaps the most controversial period of Burchett’s career: his time reporting the Korean War as one of the very few Western correspondents on the Northern side. In particular he accuses Burchett of treasonous acts, especially in relation to the treatment of allied Prisoners of War. These are not new claims, but James goes further than I have ever seen before, alleging Burchett was directly responsible for the torture of Allied prisoners. Needless to say, if true, then we needn’t waste our time arguing about anything much else in Burchett’s career. It would be a monstrous act.
This a confused and complex story, which in preparing a documentary about Burchett’s life, I have obviously spent a good deal of time investigating. For those interested in the known records, they are mostly discussed in Jamie Miller’s essay. I will add only this: whenever these allegations are made against Burchett, without fail, they never mention the substantial documentary evidence from former POWs who are generous in their thanks to Burchett for his efforts on their behalf. Many are available from public archives, other turned up only recently in private collections. They range from notes of deep gratitude to Burchett from the highest ranking POW of the Korean war, Major General William F. Dean, similar notes of thanks from captured American journalist Pappy Noel, to a signed petition supporting Burchett from several POWs he helped.
For Crikey readers, I have included an example of one of these — a letter from Royal Marine commando, Andrew Condron who spent three years in North Korean prisons. It speaks for itself. Condron and a number of other POWs remained life-long friends of Burchett and their testaments of support were written as part of the campaign to have Burchett’s passport issued. They were ignored then, just as they are ignored now.
The Dean case is of special interest. Embarrassed by the capture of such a high ranking officer, the US military claimed he had been killed in action, even though they were aware he was still alive in a North Korean camp. It was Burchett who revealed this cruel deception of Dean’s family. Dean had several long interviews with Burchett, and named a chapter of his autobiography My Friend Wilfred Burchett. In it he captures some of the inherent contradictions of the Australian, a complexity that Burchett’s trenchant and blinkered Australian critics invariably miss:
There is one thing I should make absolutely clear at this point. The final twenty months of my captivity in North Korea were in sharp contrast to the first sixteen; and I’m convinced that Burchett, deliberately or otherwise, was principally responsible for the change. He is widely known, and opinions about him vary, but this man made nearly two years of my life livable…
… I like Burchett and am grateful to him. I’m also very sorry that he is where he is and sees things as he apparently does. In a couple of subsequent meetings I came to know a little more about him, but never arrived at any real explanation either for his choice of the Communist side in this war or for his special kindness to me.
I do hope we can eventually get to the bottom of the many allegations made against Burchett. But as the POW question suggests, there is little about the man that is black and white. A pity his enemies refuse to consider the inconvenient evidence — it prevents a long overdue reexamination of Burchett’s place in Australian history.
For more on the Wilfred Burchett debate visit the “special Crikey Wilfred Burchett section” at the bottom of Crikey comments.