Gough Whitlam’s dismissal and the CIA

Buried in the Palace Papers was a letter from Governor-General Sir John Kerr to Sir Martin Charteris. Kerr scorned an article in New York’s Village Voice that he was a CIA agent, and that America’s spy agency was involved in Whitlam’s sacking. “Nonsense of course”, Kerr wrote.

On the “Day of Infamy”, 11 November 1975, when Sir John Kerr sacked Prime Minister Whitlam angry Labor supporters walked off the job in cities and towns all over Australia. Some converged on Canberra’s (old) Parliament House to protest while others went straight to the American Embassy.

Banners, placards, speeches, headlines and news reports were unanimous in declaiming the unprecedented assault on Australia’s liberal democracy. In most people’s minds, Kerr and the CIA were the villains of the piece. Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II and her family were scarcely mentioned.

In April 1975 I was in New York and short of cash: working for Britain’s socialist daily newspaper, Workers Press, it was a perennial problem. I offered an article to the left-wing Village Voice about CIA activities in Britain masterminded by its UK station chief Cord Meyer.

My two-page article, The Spy Who’ll Come in From the Heat, with the sub-heading, Parliament is calling for the deportation of 10 CIA spooks, including British station head Cord Meyer, was published. I was paid with a bundle of $US10 bills out of petty cash.

In the batch of newly-released Palace Papers, Sir John Kerr’s letter to Queen Elizabet’s Private Secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, is published in full with this final sentence: “Would you please assure Her Majesty of my continued loyalty and humble duty.”

His loyalty was amply rewarded. In 1977 Kerr was elevated to Britain’s highly secretive Privy Council on Queen Elizabeth’s advice. The UK, then bankrupt and having to beg for funds from the IMF, needed his wise counsel and experience.

In 1978, at a Canberra dinner marking the third anniversary of his dismissal, Whitlam said: “A lot of people have said, ‘Why didn’t I defy him? Why didn’t I tear up his letter [appointing
Liberal Malcolm Fraser as prime minister]?

“The answer is that this man would have called out the armed forces. There would have been a divided loyalty in the armed forces. They would not all have obeyed him but there would have been chaos in the country.”

Journalist John Pilger has unswervingly maintained the rage and his conviction that outside CIA influence was involved in Whitlam’s sacking. “There is an historical amnesia among Australia’s polite society about the catastrophic events of 1975,” he wrote this week. “An Anglo-American coup overthrew a democratically elected ally in a demeaning scandal in which sections of the Australian elite colluded. This is largely unmentionable.”

Pilger believes Washington’s move against Whitlam was triggered by Whitlam’s warning to the US ambassador: “Try to screw us or bounce us and [the US spy base at Pine Gap] will become a matter of contention.”

An ex-CIA officer and author, Victor Marchetti, told Pilger: “This threat to close Pine Gap caused apoplexy in the White House … a kind of Chile [coup] was set in motion.”

Canberra journalist Bill Pinwell provided the information that the CIA referred to the Governor-General as “our man Kerr” while Jonathan Kwitny of The Wall Street Journal explored Kerr’s links to the CIA fronts known as the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Asia Foundation.

Canberra journalists uncovered the background of Marshall Green who was appointed US Ambassador after Whitlam’s re-election in 1974. Green had played a central role in the 1965 coup against President Sukarno in Indonesia in which millions of Chinese-Indonesians were slaughtered in one of history’s greatest bloodbaths.

Brian Toohey, Australia’s most authoritative security investigator, devoted a chapter of his masterly book SECRET to the CIA’s plotting against Whitlam. Toohey revealed that when Ted Shackley became head of the CIA’s East Asia division he told his operatives to “have no dealings with the Australians … [They] might as well be regarded as North Vietnamese collaborators”.

This week’s partial release of Palace papers has ignited debate between the Royalists (“Queen Elizabeth cleared: she knew nothing about Whitlam’s dismissal”) and the Roundheads (“Of course Queen Elizabeth knew Whitlam would be sacked: she had to know”).

I don’t believe that the CIA’s involvement excludes the Palace’s involvement: the CIA was following Washington’s agenda and the Palace was following London’s. They were both in it up to their necks. The Village Voice was right all along.

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Alex Mitchell is a former Sydney Sun-Herald State Political Editor whose commentary appears every Friday. His latest book is Murder in Melbourne – The Untold Story of Palestinian exchange student Aiia Maasarwe.

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