The new WikiLeaks cache of some 1.7 million diplomatic missives from the United States — the so called “Kissinger cables” — cover a particularly interesting time for Australia.

The country’s involvement in the Vietnam War is ending, the Whitlam government is encountering increasing headwinds in the Senate, culminating in Gough’s dismissal, public opinion is turning against nuclear weapons, causing heartburn for the ANZUS alliance, and Indonesia is circling Portuguese Timor, finally invading in December 1975. While the cables, covering the period 1973 to 1976, have been available at an archive in the US for some time, it is WikiLeaks that has made them accessible to the world via an easily searchable website.

In March 1975, a secret cable from Jakarta nine months before Indonesia invaded East Timor suggests Australia has been feeding Indonesia intelligence about the Portuguese government in an attempt to minimise misunderstanding between Portugal and Indonesia.

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In the same month, with the Australian Parliament heading towards a major constitutional crisis, the US concludes “we can live with any of presently foreseeable outcomes”. This was due to Whitlam’s “clear and successful support” for defence facilities at Terrigal (a “humiliating blow” for the Labor Left) while opposition leader Malcolm Fraser was a “deeply conservative man who values Australia’s defense relationship with the United States”.

Whitlam appears lukewarm on the topic of a nuclear-free zone in the South Pacific, supporting the proposal in public but telling the US in private in September 1975 this is only because he “feels obliged to give token support” to a “beleagured” NZ Labour government. The US had prior warning of the New Zealand plan after a source in New Zealand leaked the secret proposal to “refloat” the creation of a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone months earlier. According to the cable, the US planned on leaning on the Australian government before NZ presented the plan in an attempt to derail it, “without indicating US knowledge of latest [New Zealand] proposal”.

Perhaps the most interesting cable for historians of Australian politics is one entitled “ALP’s Iraqi connection”. The cable, from February 1976, shows Whitlam, now opposition leader after the 1975 election, up to his neck in the Iraqi Money affair, a scandal that seriously damaged the ALP and the legacy of the Whitlam government. It shows future prime minister Bob Hawke already calling the shots inside the ALP, with Whitlam expecting to be “gone within the week” after Hawke “hit the roof” upon hearing about the scheme.

It contains Whitlam’s assessment of two future ALP leaders, Bill Hayden, who “lacks the confidence for the job” and Bob Hawke, “a pro-Israeli fanatic”. (In another cable, Hawke returns the favour, complaining Whitlam is too “even handed”).

Unfortunately for historians, all the cables that document private meetings between Whitlam as PM and secretary of state Henry Kissinger remain classified, with only their metadata (date, title, location) available.

And finally, straight from the bizarro-land that is the 1970s, the Liberal opposition strongly condemns Whitlam and the ALP for failing to help refugees from Vietnam and for not doing more to help resettle them in Australia. The US embassy in Canberra noted that “all of Australia’s major daily newspapers have denounced government on issue”.

The past is indeed a foreign country.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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