In one of the greatest scandals of Australian cultural warfare, the Australia Council has cut off funding to the literary and creative pages of conservative cultural-intellectual magazine Quadrant (see my article in News Weekly, June 18, 2016).
It has maintained or increased grants, now totaling six-figure sums, to various minuscule leftist magazines, such as the tiny-circulation Overland (Which, incidentally, black-lists creative writers who have appeared in Quadrant, a fact that the council, while voting it taxpayers’ money, regards with apparent equanimity).
One of the real services Quadrant has done Australian history recently is to publish three major articles by Rob Foot, a long-time career intelligence officer, in the editions of November, 2013 (“The Curious Case of Dr John Burton”), October, 2015 (“Dr Burton at the Royal Commission on Espionage”), and June, 2016 (“Was John Burton Australia’s Alger Hiss?”).
These document the appalling fact that a head of the Australian Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs), Dr John Burton, was to all intents and purposes a Soviet agent, working with his patron, ALP leader and sometime External Affairs Minister Dr H.V. Evatt, by then already at least half-mad, to destroy Australia’s alliance with America, and covering up the activities of other Soviet spies such as Ian Milner.
Extreme leftist John Pilger alleges that in Evatt’s “Brave New World” Australia was to be “non-aligned … and absent from other people’s wars”. Naturally, Pilger declares, on no evidence whatsoever, that Washington undermined Evatt, a claim that will surprise no one familiar with his writing. This is, however further testimony that Evatt was trying to destroy the American alliance, even if in Pilger’s view of international relations this is a matter for praise rather than censure.
Former intelligence officer Dr Andrew Campbell has written definitively on Evatt’s own disloyalty.
When writing my MA Thesis on “peace” fronts in Australia, I documented Burton’s participation in a “peace” conference in Red China in 1952 – during the Korean War – which accused America, falsely, of germ warfare.
Burton kept his own head down on the “peace” conference’s accusations of germ warfare by the US. He did, however, dispatch a number of telegrams to the Canberra press gallery supporting allegations of germ warfare composed by KGB agent Wilfred Burchett, who had extracted and helped embellish false confessions from starved and tortured allied prisoners.
Burton’s former mandarin position (for which he had hardly been qualified apart from being Evatt’s protégé) lent some spurious gravitas to them.
Burton seems to have been careful to cover his tracks up to a point. Foot’s three meticulously researched articles, however, blow Burton’s cover away.
In the first, Foot says there was “between 1945 and 1948 a highly successful espionage network within the department [of External Affairs]. It operated under the direction of the Soviet foreign intelligence service.”
Burton was close to most of its agents and facilitators. On two occasions he intervened to protect it from exposure. After top-secret defence planning documents went missing (nearly causing a fatal rupture of relations with the United States), it was found eventually that Burton had called for the file and directed the search for it. When it was discovered that the file had been taken by spy Ian Milner and its contents were on the way to Moscow, Burton never reported or acknowledged the matter. There was, he said, “no irregularity” and the files were safe in Milner’s hands (Milner later defected to Prague). It was, of course, a very serious breach of security for any officer to take a top-secret file from the building.
When asked by British intelligence to investigate the leakage of top-secret information from External Affairs, Burton (his memo is quoted here) “seemed much more interested in how the British had learned of the leak than whether his department had been responsible for it”. Had he learned that the U.S. had cracked Soviet cipher traffic (the “Venona” decrypts) the results could have been catastrophic for the West.
“In mid-1948,” Foot writes, “Australia’s [intelligence] relationship with the United States was in ruins over a wholly avoidable intelligence debacle, and that with Great Britain gravely compromised as a result. How could the Chifley government have been so imprudent as to allow this to happen? Much of the explanation can be found in the attitudes and actions of the secretary for External Affairs towards Australia’s relationship with the UK, and by extension, the USA.”
When, the previous year, it had been proposed to greatly tighten the security regime in preparation for greater intelligence-sharing by Australia, Burton had raised a number of objections.
Burton fought tooth and nail against the establishment of ASIO, even after it had been agreed upon at prime-ministerial level, and, when its establishment was a done deal between heads of government, fought to have it limited to “two or three” officers! There should, he emphasised, be no British participation.
“It would seem, then, that Burton was seeking not only to undermine Australia’s intelligence relationships with its principal allies but also to engineer its withdrawal from the Western alliance in favour of the emerging ‘non-aligned’ group in the United Nations.”
Burton resigned the secretaryship of the department in 1950 soon after the installation of the Menzies government, and in 1951 was posted as High Commissioner to Ceylon, a large demotion which meant he was far from the centre of events. He resigned from the diplomatic service shortly after to contest – unsuccessfully – an ALP seat. This was followed in 1952, at the height of the Korean War, by his trip to the notorious “germ warfare” conference in China.
Burton’s return from Peking was marked by an embarrassing incident. Four other delegates, returning on a later plane, had certain items impounded by immigration authorities. Burton claimed these were merely Hong Kong newspapers. However, they turned out to include two copies of a Chinese propaganda film, The United States’ Crime of Bacteriological Warfare. One copy was marked the property of Burton, the other the property of the revolting “peace parson”, Reverend G.R. van Eerde.
The films purported to show the “voluntary” confessions of two American POWs that they had dropped germs on North Korea. Wilfred Burchett was shown taking notes and interrogating them.
Burton, minus his film, then took to touring the country giving lectures that blamed South Korea for starting the war and extolling the virtues of North Korea and Maoist China.
Petrov a “typist”!
Burton on his own initiative appeared before the Royal Commission on Espionage set up in 1954 following Petrov’s defection. Most of what he said was so vague as to be valueless, but he suddenly became very clear and precise when attempting to discredit Petrov’s evidence – which he had apparently been tasked to do.
Foot writes: “In clunky argument reminiscent of classic Soviet propaganda, he said that Petrov’s claims to be an officer of the MVD was false; he was no more than a lowly cipher clerk whose status was equivalent to that of the typists at Australia’s embassy in Moscow … [He claimed Petrov’s] evidence of MVD operations in general and its espionage against Australia was grossly exaggerated. At this point one, of the commissioners, Justice Ligertwood, interjected impatiently to ask if Burton realised that what Petrov had said in evidence was backed up in material form by the documents he had brought out with him. Dr Burton brushed the objection aside.”
This seems to me to raise an obvious point, which does not, however, seem to have been pursued. Just how did Burton know, or at least profess to know, that Petrov was no more than a lowly cipher clerk? Why was Burton not asked this? There was no point in his career when he would have innocently had knowledge of the ranks of Soviet spies in Australia. He would have been most unlikely to know as secretary of the department or as high commissioner to Ceylon, or as the private citizen he had been for two years.
When he was a public servant, of whatever grade, if he knew of Soviet spies, however lowly, if would have been his duty to report the matter to security authorities. The Report of the Royal Commission on Espionage does not mention this point, but it does state that Petrov was in fact at least a lieutenant-colonel, and the most senior Soviet intelligence officer to defect to the West in decades. Burton’s behaviour can only be explained as a brief from his controller to discredit Petrov, the commission and ASIO.
Following this, Evatt, then leader of the opposition, re-appointed Burton as his private secretary, despite the fact that ASIO, External Affairs and the Solicitor-General all judged Burton to be a security risk.
Burton claimed that a secret cabal of military intelligence officers engineered the Petrov defection, a claim later amplified by Gough Whitlam’s son and Malcolm Turnbull’s business partner Nicholas Whitlam in his bizarre book, Nest of Traitors – an attempt to cement a leftist version of the affair into Australia’s historical mythology.
Foot argues that it was probably Burton – on instructions from Moscow – who supplied Evatt with the notorious “Molotov letter” which proved to be his public political suicide. Only the Russians, he argues, marinated in Stalinism, would have believed that for Evatt to deny in Parliament that there were Soviet spies in Australia because Molotov had told him so, would settle the argument for Evatt, rather than bringing not only his judgement but his sanity into question. If Burton was indeed responsible for the Molotov letter and destroying Evatt’s career, it was at least one, albeit unintended, service that he did his country.
This former head of the External Affairs Department also alleged that Mao’s China provided a model for the “transformation” of Australia (of course, Malcolm Turnbull claimed that Mao had made the Chinese “stand up” – except for those tens of millions he had murdered, who were presumably still lying down).
While Labor PM Ben Chifley was no communist, had his government not been defeated by Menzies in 1949, and communism in its union strongholds radically set back by the actions of the Industrial Groups, Evatt with Burton as his puppet-master (or “red eminence”), might well have succeeded in having Australia withdraw from the Western alliance. As a covert shaper of policy Burton – Australia’s Alger Hiss – would have been far more important than any mere spy purveying secret papers.
We can be grateful to Rob Foot and Quadrant for writing and publishing what must stand as the definitive account – only very briefly summarised here – of the activities of this deceitful and treacherous man who climbed so very close to the top of Canberra’s greasy pole.