Cold War imperatives: Whitlam and the US National Security Council. Part 3

Nov 10, 2023
Pine Gap

In July 1975, Malcolm Fraser spoke to US Ambassador Marshall Green about the Labor government’s alleged “desire for a ‘non-aligned position in world affairs’”. In fact, he added, ‘Whitlam and others may be trying to cause the US to take the lead in abandoning ANZUS’.”

Source: James Curran, Unholy Fury

In late 1974, the US National Security Council, chaired by President Ford and with Henry Kissinger effectively its chief executive, took over jurisdictional responsibility from the State Department for America’s relationship with Australia. This was an unprecedented action. Why take that step? It implies that the Administration intended to intervene in the political affairs of a close ally at the highest level, almost certainly with the aim of destabilising its government to the extent it would lose office.

As outlined in part 2 of this series, the reason the Americans took this extreme option was to safeguard their defence installations in Australia. The most immediate issue was the lease on Pine Gap, which would expire in December 1975. Gough Whitlam had never publicly retracted his Parliamentary statement in April 1974 that he would not renew the leases when they expired.

But why were these facilities of such overriding importance?

US Ambassador Marshall Green, who was nothing if not a straight talker, had already provided the answer immediately following Whitlam’s April 1974 statement. He told the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Alan Renouf, that the decision “represented a grave threat to the global western balance against the Soviet Union, and ANZUS would be called into question”.

Green’s explanation takes us to the doomsday calculus of nuclear exchange that dominated American foreign policy in the Cold War. As a former British ambassador to Moscow has written, “American grand strategy proceeded from the premise that the Soviet Union was essentially evil, that it was unremittingly aggressive and expansionist and that it planned to impose its philosophy on the rest of the world by peaceful means if possible, but by force if necessary.” In consequence, the US was an aggressive strategic competitor that even today has never rejected the option of launching a first strike. Anatoly Dobrynin, who served as Soviet Ambassador in Washington for 23 years until 1986, “never lost his conviction that one day the US would attack his country”.

The military Cold War warriors in Washington never truly believed that a nuclear war would necessarily lead to mutual assured destruction. America’s strategy to avoid annihilation has always relied on the ability to deploy superior technology and vast resources. It was here that the Australian facilities played a vital part. By the mid-1970s, the US had developed a critical strategic advantage. While they believed they knew where their opponent’s land-based ICBMs were located and could shoot down manned aircraft, these constituted only two elements of a nuclear strike force. It was generally assumed that the location of ballistic missile submarines, lurking deep in the oceans, was unknown. In fact, by the 1970s this was a false assumption.

One of the great secrets of the Cold War was that, by dint of enormous investment in sensor technologies and the necessary military assets, the US Navy developed the capability to detect Soviet nuclear submarines when they emerged from their base and then to track them covertly so as to be able to eliminate them immediately at the outset of any war. It was not until the 1980s, courtesy of the Walker-Whitworth spy ring, that the high command in Moscow realised to its horror that the US and allied navies “could sink Soviet ballistic missile submarines at will in the northern Atlantic and Pacific seas”. Mutual destruction was no longer assured.

Both Pine Gap and Northwest Cape were essential elements not only in America’s defences against an attack but also in launching a nuclear strike. Pine Gap, in collaboration with its sister facility, Menwith Hill in the UK, would provide the Americans with early warning of a nuclear strike. Soviet liquid fuel missiles required several hours of pre-launch preparation, allowing time for the US to undertake a pre-emptive counterstrike before they could be launched. Northwest Cape provided the vital command-and-control facility to transmit orders to US attack submarines in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific to destroy the Soviet SSBNs and to American SSBNs to launch ballistic missiles into the Russian heartland.

If Whitlam gave the required one year’s notice of termination of the lease on Pine Gap, in the view of US Cold War warriors its national security would be put at significant, potentially existential, risk. So, what would the Americans do? The only outcome under which the preservation of the critical facilities in Australia could be guaranteed would be if the Whitlam government lost office and was replaced by the conservative opposition. A rational option, therefore, would be to help destabilise the government sufficiently to see it prematurely forced from office and then be defeated in a subsequent election.

Successive Administrations had sanctioned operations designed to achieve a change in a foreign government, with varying degrees of success. These were generally led by the CIA and were under a high-profile investigation in 1974-75 by the Church committee in the US Senate. None had been directed at a loyal ally and Five Eyes partner before. Total secrecy would have been imperative. No wonder the key decisions on NSSM 204 remain redacted nearly 50 years after the event.

Since by definition a successful covert operation leaves no fingerprints, we must now enter the world of the hypothetical. But the hypothesis is informed by additional declassified information that has emerged over time and can be tested against observed outcomes.

Two US agencies, the State Department and the CIA, were available to the NSC to undertake a political operation in Australia. CIA involvement will be discussed in Part 4 of this series.

The US Ambassador in Canberra, Marshall Green was a career foreign service officer, steeped in the diplomatic traditions of the State Department. His proposal to move the Pine Gap facility out of Australia, rejected by the NSC, suggests he had some sympathy for Whitlam’s position. He would no doubt have tried to persuade Whitlam to publicly walk back his commitment not to renew the leases. Yet failing that, he may well have regarded a destabilisation operation against the democratically elected government of a loyal ally with some distaste. That would explain why he rejected Kissinger’s request that he extend his stay as Ambassador beyond July 1975. It would also explain the warm and empathetic “Dear Gough” letter he wrote to Whitlam after his defeat at the December 1975 election.

Nevertheless, until he returned home, Green would continue to pursue what he had described to an Australian journalist as his number one priority, namely to secure the American facilities in Australia. In undertaking his regular ambassadorial duties, he would repeat the message that the Administration was highly concerned about the possible cancellation of the leases and it could cause the US to abandon ANZUS. He would be particularly concerned to reach those powerful players who could influence the ultimate decision makers – the Governor-General, who had the power to dismiss Whitlam, and the Australian people in the event of an early election. Two significant players who he would seek to influence, for example, would have been Rupert Murdoch and Malcolm Fraser.

In late 1974, following a meeting with Kerr, Murdoch told Green that “Australian elections are likely to take place in about one year, sparked by refusal of appropriations in the Senate. All signs point to a Liberal-Country victory, since the economy is in disturbingly bad condition.” Green reported that Murdoch, who would have been receptive to any message about the danger of losing ANZUS, “expects to support the opposition in the next election”. In January 1975, the US Consul-General in Melbourne reported back to Washington that “Rupert Murdoch has issued [a] confidential instruction to editors of newspapers he controls to ‘Kill Whitlam'”.

In October and November 1975, Murdoch’s newspapers waged a relentless campaign against Whitlam, even to the extent that some of his journalists staged a walk-out. As Stockwell writes:

‘Front-page articles from The Australian show the role it played in promoting the Liberal’s strategy: 18 October “Governor-General will act soon, says Fraser”, 20 October “Fraser says Kerr must sack Whitlam”, 24 October “Fraser accuses PM and says he must go” and October 27 “Whitlam acts like dictator – Fraser”.’

Murdoch also told Green that Malcolm Fraser was “the most brilliant as well as the most courageous of the Liberals” but was “overly absorbed in foreign affairs and defence”, not a failing that would have troubled the Ambassador. Fraser was obviously the key individual the Americans needed to influence. In a telephone call in July 1975, Fraser suggested to Green that the Labor government had a “desire for a ‘non-aligned position in world affairs’. In fact, he added, ‘Whitlam and others may be trying to cause the US to take the lead in abandoning ANZUS’.

James Curran dismisses this as “an absurd suggestion”, but arguably it was not. ANZUS had been negotiated by the Menzies government in 1951 and was an article of faith on the conservative side of Australian politics. Fraser, whom Whitlam called a “sabre rattler”, was certainly a Cold War warrior at this time, who promoted a strong western alliance unified in opposition to the USSR. “Unlike most foreign policy leaders in the west, he believed the Soviet Union was still aggressive and expansionary.” Fraser had been Minister for Defence in 1970, when Pine Gap began operations, with Sir Arthur Tange as his departmental secretary. It is probable that Tange, a fellow Cold War warrior, would have shared the secrets of the facilities with Fraser as he refused to do with Whitlam, providing him with a far better understanding of their importance to the western alliance. It seems plausible that Fraser genuinely believed that Whitlam, by threatening the American defence installations, was endangering the US alliance.

This could explain why, as a conservative, Fraser would take reckless action to gain power by flouting Australian constitutional conventions. On 15 October 1975, when Fraser announced the opposition would take the unprecedented action of blocking the government’s Supply bills, he said that he had acted because of “extraordinary and reprehensible circumstances”, namely the government’s quest for a large foreign loan. As shown in Part 1, this stretches credibility; while the loans affair was incompetent and messy, it did not justify trashing multiple constitutional and Parliamentary conventions.

The media were generally critical of Fraser’s justification for denying supply. As Don Whitington, a veteran political correspondent, wrote:

“Mr Fraser, fairly obviously, has no great stomach for the fight facing him. A conservative himself, all his instincts would be to follow the conventions that have existed since his grandfather sat in the first Australian Senate in 1901. … No political leader in my 35 years in Canberra has performed so ineffectually and been so embarrassing to his own supporters as Mr Fraser at his press conference in Canberra yesterday.”

It is surely more likely that the reprehensible circumstance that most troubled Fraser, but that he couldn’t discuss publicly, was the threat to the ANZUS alliance.

In 1975, Whitlam had both the Australian and American Five Eyes security services in his sights. A week after his press conference, Fraser was presented with another circumstance he considered reprehensible. A month after sacking the head of ASIO, Whitlam dismissed Bill Robertson, the longstanding and highly respected Director-General of ASIS, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service that was still not publicly acknowledged. Whitlam accused Robertson of not advising the Foreign Minister that ASIS was running an agent in Timor Leste, causing him to mislead Parliament. This was incorrect, and Robertson was later allowed to correct the record in the archives.

Whitlam himself wrote “I have never had to dress anybody down so ferociously as Robertson. I terminated his services immediately.” Robertson’s recollection was: “Red in the face, he shouted at me: ‘You are finished. That’s the end of you and I will probably dispose of your service, too’. I was shocked and disgusted. … I had been summarily and unfairly dismissed without any investigation of the facts.”

At a stroke, Whitlam had transformed a reliable lieutenant into an influential adversary. He left Robertson in his post until 7 November, plenty of time to contact Bill Colby of CIA and Maurice Oldfield of MI6. In the close-knit, covert world of the Five Eyes, Whitlam’s threat to abolish ASIS would have been regarded as ‘enemy action’. Justice Robert Hope, Chair of the Royal Commission into the security services, was overseas and did not endorse the dismissal of Robertson, whom he admired. Indeed, he took Robertson as his guest to the 1975 ASIS Christmas party, to great acclaim, and, under the Fraser government, appointed him as an adviser to the Royal Commission.

It is also highly likely that Robertson had an exit interview with the Governor-General, C-in-C of the Australian Defence Force, with whom he was accustomed to briefing on security issues while His Excellency “imbibed an 11am whisky”. Kerr was concerned about Robertson’s dismissal and sought advice from the Solicitor-General before signing the minute confirming it.

Robertson’s former Deputy in ASIS, Dickie Austin, who had resigned in 1973 because of his disapproval of the Whitlam government, advised him that Malcolm Fraser was angered at Robertson’s treatment and suggested he write an aide memoire for the Opposition leaders. In his memoirs, Whitlam notes that when Fraser met media chiefs to justify blocking supply, “they were surprised to hear that his greatest complaint against me was that I had removed Robertson”.

As Hocking records, in the first week of November Senator Withers was in Fraser’s office when the Governor-General called on his private line – it was believed that only Fraser’s wife had the number. It was suggested in Part 1 of this series that in early November Kerr took Fraser into his confidence and began working with him against Whitlam. Particularly when the CIA’s intervention is factored in (to be covered in Part 4 of this series), it is difficult to believe that security issues were not at the forefront of the case, not just for a general election to be called, but for Whitlam to be dismissed as prime minister at the earliest opportunity.

On becoming caretaker prime minister on 11 November, one of Fraser’s first actions was to renew the lease on Pine Gap.

You may also be interested to read Parts One and Two of this series:

“Shame Fraser, shame”: The overthrow of Edward Gough Whitlam. Part 1

Stress testing the US alliance: Whitlam and the secrets of Pine Gap. Part 2

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