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

Nov 9, 2023
The Second Whitlam Ministry being sworn in by Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck

When Marshall Green, a very senior official in the State Department, was appointed as Ambassador to Australia in early 1973, President Nixon’s briefing regarding the relationship with Whitlam was succinct and on point: “Marshall, I can’t stand that cunt”. Green later reflected this was “a strange kind of parting instruction to get from your president”.

Source: Brian Toohey, Secret

When the Australian Labor Party under Gough Whitlam came to power in December 1972, not one of its members of Parliament had any ministerial experience. Nowhere would this have been more evident than in its approach to foreign policy and, in particular, Australia’s relationship with the United States.

On the left of the ALP, there was a significant faction that had little sympathy for the American alliance and was hostile to the presence of US bases on Australian soil. Although Whitlam himself was by no means anti-American, he opposed Australia’s military involvement in Indochina that had “placed the American alliance firmly in the context of a foolish and futile war”. While still supporting the ANZUS alliance, he sought to develop a more independent foreign policy with less of a Cold War focus.

Having announced the withdrawal of the last Australian troops from Vietnam, the Prime Minister’s first major foray into foreign affairs had unfortunate consequences. As did many other world leaders, Whitlam wrote to President Nixon criticising intense American bombing raids on North Vietnam at Christmas 1972. However, his proposal to engage with other countries in a call to both the US and North Vietnam to return to the conference table caused Nixon to take “great offence” and enraged Henry Kissinger. The National Security Adviser branded it as “being put by an ally on the same level as our enemy”.

Consequently, Nixon characterised Whitlam as a “peacenik” and placed Australia on his ‘shit list’ of countries, ranked number two behind Sweden. As James Curran puts it, “the anger, bitterness, frustration and barely concealed fury that enveloped the Australian – American alliance at this time represents something of a point of departure in the history of the relationship.” This had serious long-term consequences. Rightly or wrongly, the Whitlam government had forfeited the trust that Coalition governments had built up in Washington over many years, and it was never able to win it back.

The Administration’s concerns were reflected in the appointment of Marshall Green, a very senior official in the State Department, as Ambassador to Australia. Green, an accomplished career foreign service officer, formed a cordial and effective relationship with Whitlam. Nevertheless, he went to Canberra with a clear agenda. In a meeting with Kissinger in July 1973, he stated that the first priority in his mission in Australia was “preserving our defence installations”.

Green’s mission encapsulates the fundamental concern in Washington about Australia’s new Labor government. The focus of the Administration’s foreign policy was the confrontation with communism and great power relationships in the context of the Cold War. Australia’s military contribution in Vietnam had been welcome, but of much greater importance from a Cold War perspective were the facilities the US had installed at top secret bases in Australia. It is impossible to overstate the significance of these defence installations to the US-Australia relationship. Whitlam never understood they were regarded as being indispensable for America’s national security.

The origins of the bases can be found in the early 1960s when, as Stockwell points out, ANZUS shifted from being “an alliance based on common traits and aspirations to Australia’s emergence as a geo-political asset”. As explained in a classified 1962 White House position paper, this was mainly a matter of geography:

“Australia …[has] become increasingly important to the US defense and space establishments in recent years as a site for satellite tracking stations, nuclear test detection facilities, space research and related activities. … Australia has become a uniquely desirable base for both military and civilian programs involving operations in the Southern Hemisphere.”

Initially designed to support scientific research for the US space program, the facilities were soon expanded to provide “defence, communications and intelligence installations critical to US global strategic programs and operations”.

The three most important facilities were at Pine Gap and Nurrungar in central Australia and at Northwest Cape. In a Top Secret document prepared in 1974, Nurrungar is described as “the only ground station link to missile warning and nuclear event detection satellites observing Soviet and PRC ICBM [Intercontinental Ballistic Missile] and FOBS [Fractional Orbital Bombardment System] launch sites and nuclear test areas”. The Northwest Cape installation served “as a strategic command and control relay station to SSBNs [Nuclear Powered Ballistic Missile Submarines] on patrol … in the Western Pacific, South China Seas and the Indian Ocean”. It would have provided a critical link in the chain of command for launching Polaris ICBMs from US submarines deployed in these locations. Details of the Pine Gap facility were evidently so sensitive that they remain redacted to this day.

Pine Gap was a significant facility in the all-pervasive Echelon global communications intelligence network. Most importantly, however, because of its remote location far away from Soviet detection facilities, it was also the only ground station serving the four satellites in the Rhyolite system. This program provided critical intelligence on the performance and characteristics of Soviet missiles. According to Richelson and Ball, “any activities – direct or indirect – that could lead to the compromise of the program were regarded as being of the gravest consequence”.

While Whitlam was philosophically opposed to hosting foreign bases, he was willing to accept the American facilities on the grounds of Realpolitik so long as the Australian government was fully apprised of their purpose. He was justifiably concerned they could be instrumental in launching a nuclear attack and thereby may cause Australia to become a nuclear target.

As soon as he took office, Whitlam was briefed on the US facilities by Sir Arthur Tange, Secretary of the Defence department. While Tange emphasised the need for complete secrecy over the facilities, he was economical with the truth as to their true purpose. Most importantly, he neglected to tell Whitlam that the Pine Gap facility supported a massive CIA espionage operation over which Australia neither had any control nor access to the intelligence the facility produced. For nearly three years, the Prime Minister continued to believe that Pine Gap was a communications facility operated by the Pentagon in liaison with Australia’s Defence department, and that it monitored compliance with the strategic arms limitation agreements.

Whitlam’s attitude to the American facilities fluctuated during his three years in office. In January 1973, he told US Ambassador Walter Rice that the US could retain the facilities unless there was any attempt “to screw us or bounce us” in other areas. There was a constant concern in the US that even if Whitlam could be relied on, the left wingers in the ALP would, as Secretary of State Rogers suggested, “try to throw overboard all military alliances and eject our highly classified U.S. defense space installations from Australia”.

In Parliament in April 1974, just before the May election and with no warning to the Americans, Whitlam announced a radically different position: “that there should not be foreign military bases, stations, installations in Australia. We honour agreements covering existing stations. We do not favour extensions or prolongation of any of those existing ones.”

With the Pine Gap lease due to expire in December 1975, Whitlam’s statement caused reverberations in Washington. Green told Alan Renouf, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, that it “represented a grave threat to the global western balance against the Soviet Union, and ANZUS would be called into question”.

Following the May 1974 election, which Whitlam won with a reduced majority, the party made a distinct turn to the left. Jim Cairns replaced Lance Barnard as deputy leader and, therefore, Deputy Prime Minister. Shortly afterwards, Cairns, stated his “firm and explicit opposition to the continuation of US defence facilities and his wish to get Australia out of the big power military system”.

In a State Department staff meeting in June, convened in Kissinger’s absence overseas by Acting Secretary Joseph Sisco, a discussion of the situation in Australia focussed on two main issues – retention of the facilities and the ascension of Cairns, the Americans’ bête noire, who was now only a heartbeat away from becoming Prime Minister.

Concerns were raised as to whether Cairns would be allowed access to the most sensitive material provided by the intelligence sharing arrangements under the UKUSA agreement (now Five Eyes) to which Australia was a party. Robert Ingersoll, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, also expressed a concern about the new Defence Minister, Bill Morrison, who was supposedly a “leftist”.

Ingersoll suggested that Whitlam had changed his Parliamentary statement from the draft provided by officials to appease his left wing. “He deliberately put in that they were going to eventually phase [the facilities] out.” He noted that the “public statement still stands. And we think this is the way Whitlam believes.”

In a heroic interpretation of his role as Australian Defence Secretary, Sir Arthur Tange was responsible for telling the Americans the Prime Minister had acted against official advice over the facilities. Tange had also failed to support the Deputy Prime Minister on his trustworthiness regarding sensitive intelligence. Quite untruthfully, he had undermined his own Minister as an unreliable “leftist”. Tange resented having to work for Morrison, a former diplomat who had once been his subordinate in External Affairs, where they had clashed. In fact, Morrison was on the right of the ALP with views far removed from those of the left.

(US fears that Morrison was a fellow traveller may have been allayed had they known that as a young diplomat in Moscow, having lost a bet to Richard Woolcott, he famously took a taxi to Red Square in the dead of night and bared his buttocks in the direction of the Kremlin).

The outcome from this meeting was mild. Sisco concluded that “in order not to tear down the relationships we have by arbitrary action” a policy of non-intervention would constitute a “proper and mature approach. … so that we don’t engage in spooky fiddling with the situation in which we might get caught”. It appears covert operations against the Whitlam government had been considered and ruled out.

On his return from overseas, however, it seems that Kissinger was dissatisfied with what he would have regarded as a typically ‘limp-wristed’ response from the State Department. He wanted a more robust policy. In July, President Nixon directed that a top-secret National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) be prepared reviewing the US relationship with Australia.

The NSSM concluded the relationship was under pressure “because of Australia’s desire for greater independence in foreign affairs and because of Prime Minister Whitlam’s style. The problems deepened two months ago when the ALP elected left-wing leader Dr Jim Cairns as its deputy party chief and thus, automatically, Deputy Prime Minister.” The central focus of NSSM 204, however, was how to assure the continued presence of the US facilities in Australia.

A multi-agency meeting was held in late August 1974, chaired by Kissinger wearing his National Security Adviser hat. The purpose of the meeting was to “discuss whether we should modify our policy towards Australia because of Canberra’s continuing turn to the left and whether we should plan to shift some of our installations elsewhere”. Several options were considered, of which the most conciliatory was Marshall Green’s proposal to negotiate with Whitlam an extension of the Pine Gap lease to 1978. This would allow sufficient time for a transfer of the facility elsewhere, probably to Guam.

There were some drawbacks in the proposed new location in terms of security, however, and while this was probably retained as a fall-back option, it was rejected as the preferred way forward. Yet we remain in the dark as to the policy approach that was eventually adopted. Nearly fifty years after the event, all the relevant pages remain redacted. Of all the 205 NSS Memoranda commissioned by the Nixon Administration, many of them addressing highly sensitive issues, this is one of only three that remain partly classified. For this reason alone, we can infer that the option selected was highly sensitive and could have had substantial implications for the US-Australia relationship.

Most importantly, Professor Stephen Stockwell, in an analysis published in 2005, has concluded that after this meeting the National Security Council took over from the State Department as having primary jurisdiction over the US relationship with Australia:

“Recent work in the Gerald Ford presidential archives has uncovered clear evidence that the National Security Council, the body responsible for exercising control over the CIA, was active with regard to Australia in 1975.”

One indication of this major change is that the number of State Department documents on the relationship appearing in the records is far fewer after August 1974 relative to the period before. As Stockwell shows, more substantial evidence is provided when, in July 1975, a former US Ambassador to Australia contacted a White House counsellor to seek a meeting between Malcolm Fraser, who was on holiday in the US, and President Ford. The counsellor, who was obviously unaware of the changed jurisdictional situation, made inquiries, but the proposal was summarily rejected. This was because “under no circumstances, did we have any intention of crossing into NSC’s obvious jurisdiction”.

The implications of this change in jurisdictional responsibility for managing the Australian relationship are profound. Until November 1975, Henry Kissinger held the joint positions of Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, but he obviously wanted to direct this matter from the White House rather than Foggy Bottom. One reason could be that President Ford had just taken over following Nixon’s resignation over Watergate and, in matters of national security at least, was still on training wheels. The other reason may well have been that, if his objective was to destabilise the Whitlam government, Kissinger would have more options available at the NSC, including involving the CIA.

The main implication, however, is that the importance of the installations to the US was much greater than was understood by the Whitlam government which, inadvertently, was now seen as a threat to America’s national security.


Read Part One of this five part series on the Whitlam era:

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


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