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Churchill's influence on Bob Hawke in the Gulf War

21 December 1990

Published in Australian Society


Australia's Gulf Commitment: How the Ground Was Laid


The Australian Government's commitment to the US Gulf task force is our most significant military action for a generation, yet little light has been shed on the reasons for it. Yes, yes, there was Bob Hawke's summoning of Cabinet's Security Committee, the phone call from George Bush - and the general feeling that regional aggressors must be stopped, that international law must be upheld, and that a gesture of commitment to the American alliance was in order.


But what are the reasons for these reasons?


It is first necessary to recall that, as such, "the Australian Government" had little to do with the decision. The prime mover from the beginning was Bob Hawke. Hawke conferred with a group of only five Ministers and, within eight days of the Kuwaiti invasion, announced "the most serious decision of my prime ministership". Three days after that, the two frigates sailed. Cabinet subsequently fell in behind the Prime Minister on the decision. The Government followed in the wake of Cabinet. The Opposition followed the Government.


But what inspired the first cause - which saw Bob Hawke act so substantially, so quickly and so unilaterally?


The first element was Hawke's strong pro-Americanism, unprecedented for a modern Labor leader - and a reversal of the distrust he himself felt for US foreign policy earlier in his career. The second is the impact on Hawke of Winston Churchill - who, incidentally, exerts more "influence" over the present Gulf crisis than nearly anyone, on either side of the grave.


But first we should look at the pattern of Hawke's changing view of the United States.


The US, usually through the Central Intelligence Agency, has supported - with lawyers, guns and money - a range of right-wing dictators, across the globe, for the entire postwar period. Most were, and are, mass-murderers whose victims number in thousands, or hundreds of thousands. Such claims are no longer regarded as left-wing propaganda, or anti-American paranoia: they are extensively documented. Most of the documentation comes from former servants of the Agency itself.


A significant number of CIA officers (some retired, some serving) make another claim - one startlingly relevant to this country. According to a diverse handful of them - and they include a Station Chief, a Regional Director and a Deputy Director - the CIA played an integral role in the destruction of the Australian Government of Gough Whitlam, in 1975.


In the seventies - well before the above was placed on the public record - several prominent Australians suspected CIA involvement in the Whitlam coup. Chief among them - according to 1977 newspaper reports - was the then President of the ACTU, Bob Hawke.


At the end of last year I asked Hawke about the demise of the Whitlam Government, and the reports that he himself had suspected a CIA role in it.


His answer was terse (and surprising): "I was never so reported. If I was, it was inaccurate."


Typical of the reports was the Sydney Sun of May 3, 1977 - which ran a front page headline:


HAWKE SUSPECTS CIA ON SACKING.


Beneath this, Hawke is quoted: "Circumstantial evidence leads you as a matter of logic to say that it could have happened. But you can't as a matter of logic say it did... As a detached matter of logic, this was a possibility." He called for a public enquiry into "foreign interference into the domestic processes of Australia".


I rang the reporter who wrote the Sun story, Bill D'Arcy, to see what he thought of Hawke disowning these remarks. D'Arcy told me that because of the sensitivity of the CIA question he kept verbatim transcripts of answers from those he quoted. He therefore stands by his story. "Never at any stage were we asked to withdraw those words, nor were we accused by Hawke of quoting him out of context. The Prime Minister is suffering from selective amnesia on this."


The evidence of CIA involvement in the Whitlam coup is gathered together in John Pilger's recent book, A Secret Country. During my interview with Hawke I had tried half a dozen times to engage him on this evidence, even quoting him "confessions" made by former CIA officers. He persistently, and vehemently, refuted it - on two grounds. Firstly, that Whitlam himself does not profess to believe it. (Which is true.) Secondly, that he believes Pilger is unreliable. Actually he used language far more pointed than this, which the laws of libel prevent me from quoting.


Hawke must now know an awful lot about how the CIA operates in foreign countries. He told me that the amount of intelligence material coming across his desk daily from our overseas embassies (which would naturally include secret intelligence) occupies much of his reading time.


Many Australians feel that this country's alliance with the United States could and should be tempered by firm but friendly criticism of our "great and powerful friend" for its foreign policy excesses. Such criticism has not materialised during the life of the Hawke Government. Our attitude towards the Nicaragua - only one example of many - is representative of this. Australia remained silent throughout the eighties as the United States systematically destroyed the Nicaraguan economy, and its democratically elected government. The US additionally funded the "contra" insurgents who raided villages inside Nicaragua's borders, murdering countless men, women and children, often in the most horrifying ways.


Acquiescence in mass murder was not always the Australian way. On January 8, 1973, Gough Whitlam met the US Ambassador in Canberra, and addressed him for the best part of an hour on his determination to criticise the United States publicly for its role in Vietnam - and to use words like "barbarous" and "atrocious" - unless the US rejoined the Paris peace talks.


Whitlam's criticism of our major ally was a one-off in Australia's political history. So was his demise.


Surprisingly, Bob Hawke has a history of anti-Americanism. His comments above - conjecturing a CIA role in the Whitlam sacking - were made only 13 years ago. Blanche D'Alpuget states in her biography of Hawke that he associated himself, in the 1960s, with unity tickets between ALP and Communist candidates for union office; vitriolic anti-Americanism; and a deep suspicion of ASIO and the CIA.


In the early 1960s, Hawke attended a dinner given by the US Consul-General in Melbourne. Justice Kirby, who was also there, recalled Hawke's behaviour that evening for D'Alpuget:


"...he and the other union fellows were contemptuous, almost swaggeringly rude, making snide remarks to each other in voices that were easily overheard. I'd been to numerous functions of that rather grand nature with trade union teams and they had always behaved properly. The next day the Consul-General rang me and...I apologised for them."


In the Gulf crisis of 1990, Hawke and Margaret Thatcher led the world in backing the American intervention, with both rhetoric and gunships. Thatcher has believed in America's global virtue all her adult life. What has caused the change in Hawke?


One former Whitlam minister I spoke to cites Hawke's cultivation by US labour attaches during the 1960s and 1970s. The "cultivation" involved entertainment, accommodation in the USA, and support for Hawke in intra-ACTU power struggles.


All US labour attaches are CIA. Hawke denies having known this, despite the fact that it was well-known in union circles at the time.


Given his openness to people from all walks of life during that period - and his willingness to take people at face value - it is possible that Hawke did know the identities, and mission, of his American friends, but regarded it all as unimportant. His taste in friends, thosedays, was nothing if not eclectic. For instance he also had communist friends - which is hardly proof that he was being subverted by the Soviet Union.


Others would say that Hawke's two decades of cultivation by US "labour attaches" had an interesting denouement in two speeches given to Business International, in the first half of 1981. (BI is the body representing the largest American companies in Australia. According to the New York Times the CIA uses BI to, among other things, manipulate public opinion overseas.) The speeches were given by Alan Carroll, a senior BI Director, in March and April 1981 - two years before Hawke became PM:


"So basically Hawke will be there [in the Labor leadership] by the middle of next year - and that's my business - and we won't go into that in any great depth. But he will be there, it's all under way, the game plan's totally under way, and I forecast 3 to 5 on a Hawke Government in 1983...


"We had a meeting with him [Hawke] about one month ago - the BI Australia group, the 20 companies - and we're meeting with him every six months from now on...


"Quite clearly in the last two months it has become apparent to me - and again this is not for circulation outside this room - it's become totally apparent to me that, in fact, organisationally, he is going to have his act together by the middle of next year, at which time I think there will be a move against Mr Hayden. And against this background, I think Mr Hawke will be in a very, very strong position to deal with the sorts of problems that this group [BI] is going to perceive they're in, in three years time. Bob Hawke's strategy, his whole approach to reasonableness, his whole approach to statesmanship, which he has adopted to some people's great surprise in the last three months, is very much geared to this group."


Such speeches, and their coincidence with events then years in the future, have naturally given rise to the most lurid, and unprintable, theories.


A milder theory is expressed by a senior Canberra journalist. "Since World War Two truly sovereign nations have been the exception rather than the rule. In the West, few politicians have gone very far without supporting, and being supported by, the United States. To put it bluntly, by the end of the seventies Hawke had realised which side his bread was buttered on."


To many others, the obvious explanation - much further across the spectrum of possibilities - is that as Hawke grew older and more experienced, he became less emotional, and less doctrinaire. He began to view the West in its true perspective: that of a benign United States heading up a grand alliance of democratic nations, which included his own.


Global politics is bewilderingly complex, and thus there may be some truth in several theories. Also, its inner machinations are often secret: thus the known facts will only ever constitute a fragment of the truth.


What is known for sure is that - whatever the reasons - by the time he assumed the Prime Ministership in 1983, Bob Hawke's view of the United States had steamed full circle from that which he had held in his early life.


 


THIS LAID THE ground for Hawke's unhesitating response to the first crisis of the post-Cold War era: Saddam Hussein's annexation of the Kuwaiti oilfields, and his perceived threat to those of Saudi Arabia. But if the ground was laid, the scene (to mix metaphors rather clumsily) was not yet fully set.


Enter Winston Churchill.


At the Versailles Peace Conference, after World War One, the superficial consensus against colonialism was breached at least twice. The first time was when Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes announced that Australia wanted the defeated Germany's possessions in the Pacific. US President Wilson was astonished. Did Mr Hughes really intend to defy "the whole civilised world" in a naked grab for colonies? "That's about the size of it, Mr President," Hughes reportedly replied.


The second occasion was perhaps more serious. The representative of Britain's Arab allies, Faisal, argued strenuously for Arab self-determination. He was ignored. Later, Britain and France quietly carved up the Middle East between them.


This situation was naturally intolerable to Arabs. There were uprisings in Syria, Mecca and Jerusalem. Then much of Iraq rose. A British infantry division was sent to Baghdad by Churchill, who was Minister for War and Air. The Iraqis were "pacified".


In 1921 Churchill - now Colonial Secretary - attended the "Cairo Conference", convened to settle the various Arab claims for sovereignty. He was advised by his friend TE Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"). As well as ordering the British High Commissioner in Palestine to "foster a Jewish homeland", Churchill created the nation of Transjordan (now Jordan), and chose its ruler. He also created the modern nation of Iraq - uniting its scattered elements and rival leaders, on Lawrence's advice, under Faisal. Leaving the details for subordinates to work out, he departed for the Pyramids, and a spot of painting.


A decade later Churchill had no power whatever. The failure of the Dardanelles campaign in the World War had (unfairly) been placed on his shoulders, and his judgement was often questioned. In 1931 he resigned from Cabinet over Indian independence, and went into the wilderness. Evidence of Churchill's "bad judgement" continued to mount through the thirties: he stated, time and again, that Adolf Hitler was planning to subjugate the whole of Europe. He had three supporters in the Westminster Parliament. To the remainder he was a pariah. The majority of the press, and of the British populace, agreed.


The best modern account of all this is William Manchester's brilliant story of Churchill in the thirties, The Caged Lion. The book has done the rounds of Australia's Parliament and Cabinet over the last year or so, and recently ended up in the hands of Bob Hawke, whom it affected profoundly.


Churchill (Manchester tells us) warned against the growth of right-wing militancy in Germany from as early as 1924. His prescience inspired many who met him. Several of these were men in British and continental diplomatic services. By the mid-thirties Churchill - a humble backbencher - had perhaps the best intelligence net in Europe. He was forever opening unmarked envelopes from various parts of Britain and the Continent, and receiving their senders at Chartwell, his massive home in Kent.


Churchill would read the latest Foreign Office accounts of the Luftwaffe's growing strength; reports of Nazi propaganda campaigns; columns of figures on artillery, tanks, and other Nazi armaments; and advance copies of Hitler's speeches... In time he became as well informed as the prime minister, and in some ways more so, because certain documents, inconsistent with the catechism of appeasement, were suppressed or altered before they reached the PM's desk.


Some of the minutiae of the period are astonishing. They are worth reiterating here - if only because an astonished Bob Hawke was reading them at the same time as Saddam Hussein was both denying territorial claims upon Kuwait, and preparing his invasion.


In 1935 Clement Atlee, the Labour leader, pronounced the Government's military estimates (which were pitifully small) to be "nationalist and imperialist delusions... We on our side are for total disarmament because we are realists." Churchill - always impeccably briefed - immediately recited a list of over thirty German factories turning out air-frames and engine parts for warplanes. Atlee replied that anyone could draw up lists.


The "Churchillians" were subsequently described in Parliament by the Foreign Secretary as "alarm-mongers and scaremongers". The press agreed. This is Manchester's description of how the Times dealt with the growing Nazi menace:


Norman Ebbutt, the paper's Berlin correspondent filed accurate, perceptive dispatches on Nazi Germany for over three years, until the summer of 1937, when the Nazis, realising that there seemed to be virtually no limit to the humiliation and intimidation London would accept rather than risk war, expelled him. Ebbutt's editors read his stories; they knew what was happening in the Third Reich, though his readers often did not; his dispatches were frequently rewritten or suppressed by Dawson [the editor - who said], "I do my utmost, night after night, to keep out of the paper anything which might hurt Nazi susceptibilities."


At the end of 1935 Churchill wrote in the Strand about his horror at the persecution of the Reich's Jews. (He had long been a zionist.) Thousands of Germans from "world famous scientists" to "wretched little Jewish children" were being locked away in the concentration camps which "pock-marked" German soil. Hitler read the piece in translation and, Manchester writes, "all but flung himself on the carpet and drummed his heels on the floor".


The new Prime Minister, Baldwin, considered a Cabinet post for Churchill. The Times editor talked him out of it. Churchill, he said, "would be a disruptive force, especially since foreign relations and defence will be uppermost".


Baldwin's Tories won the 1935 election. Baldwin again denied Churchill a Cabinet post: Hitler, he feared, would be offended.


Four months later Hitler invaded the Rhineland. Dawson wrote the Times editorial, entitled A Chance to Rebuild. He castigated those "sensationally minded" who saw it as "an act of aggression". France demanded Britain's military intervention, and wide-ranging sanctions. Chamberlain (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) not only refused the request, but told the French Premier he was prepared to buy peace from Hitler by giving him a British colony. Hitler renounced any further territorial claims in Europe.


Hitler immediately began construction of the Siegfried Line: a wall of Rhineland fortresses facing France. Churchill urged the appointment of a Minister of Defence, to co-ordinate the British services. He wanted the job himself. (In the First War he had fathered the tank, founded the RAF, been First Lord of the Admiralty, and commanded a battalion in the trenches.) Finally Baldwin did appoint a Defence Minister - but it was not Churchill. ("If I appoint Winston," he said, "Hitler will be cross.") The job went to Sir Thomas Inskip, whose obscurity and timidity are difficult to overstate. Inskip's sole public achievement to date, Manchester writes, had been "a successful campaign to suppress revisions of the Anglican prayerbook".


In Parliament, Churchill continued to deplore England's lack of preparedness for war. Britain's reservists had no arms at all. The Army was woefully underequipped with everything from weapons to wireless sets. He related the story of a friend who had come across "a number of persons engaged in peculiar evolutions, genuflections and gestures". Were they gymnasts, evangelists, or perhaps "lunatics out for an airing"? No, they were "a Searchlight Company of the London Territorials who were doing their exercises as well as they could without searchlights".


In May 1937 Baldwin resigned, and Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister. Churchill still had only three supporters in the Commons. His warnings about Germany persisted, and (compounded by his support for the abdicating King) his popularity sank to its lowest level ever. Chamberlain gave appeasement a capital A, and enshrined it in official policy.


The remainder of Manchester's account - the key points of which are summarised below - plunges progressively deeper into tragi-comedy:


1938: Hitler annexes Austria. He renounces any further territorial claims in Europe. Churchill proposes a grand alliance with other European nations. Chamberlain says no: it would offend Hitler. Chamberlain visits Hitler, and cedes him the Sudetenland (part of Czechoslovakia). After getting criticism for this, Chamberlain sends his civil service chief, Sir Horace Wilson, to Hitler, to demand that the Czech question be settled by a tri-lateral commission - or Britain would go to war. When the commission is mentioned, Hitler falls to the ground, writhing and shrieking. Wilson decides not to mention war after all. On September 28 the leaders of the German Army are prepared to arrest Hitler, put him on open trial, and occupy all public buildings. When Chamberlain - to their astonishment - fails to challenge Hitler on Czechoslovakia, and instead accepts his invitation to Munich, these plans are shelved, permanently. Then Munich: Chamberlain betrays the Czechs. Hitler declares the Czech problem to be his "last territorial demand in Europe". Nazi massacres of Czechs begin. Chamberlain returns to Britain declaring "peace for our time", and becomes a national hero. Churchill survives a strong attempt to deny him preselection in his seat of Epping, by scornful constituents.


1939: His constituents again move to unseat Churchill: again he survives. The Times and the BBC continue to suppress information about Nazi activities. March 10: Chamberlain tells the House that the Continent is now "settling down to a period of tranquillity". March 15: Hitler enters Prague, and annexes the remainder of Czechoslovakia. "Czechoslovakia," he announces, "has ceased to exist". Chamberlain declares Britain "no longer bound" by its guarantee of Czechoslovakia's borders. Hitler invades part of Lithuania. Italy invades Albania. Churchill moves in the House that a Ministry of Supply be established, to arm and equip Britain's depleted military: he gains three votes, including his own. He proposes another grand alliance, including Russia: the Russians are enthusiastic. Chamberlain, the anti-Bolshevik, vetoes it. Russia signs a pact with Germany. Dawson, the Times editor, refuses to publish photos of dispossessed Jews wandering the roads of Europe, for fear of offending Hitler. Chamberlain reluctantly guarantees Poland. Hitler denies any territorial claim on the country.


At 10 a.m. on Friday September 1, Sir Edmund Ironside of the British War Office received a phone call from backbencher Winston Churchill: had the War Office received further news of the 56 German divisions which, at 4 o'clock that morning, had poured into Poland? Or of the Luftwaffe bombardment which, by the time they were speaking, had caused heavy casualties in every Polish city? The War Office, Churchill was stiffly informed, was not aware of any invasion of Poland. Hanging up on the astonished backbencher, Ironside rang Lord Gort, Chief of the Imperial Staff, with Churchill's claim. Gort refused to believe it.


"Poland", Hitler announced within the month, "is dead".


The Caged Lion is a matchless record of the construction, over a whole decade, of a political and military catastrophe without peer. To read it is to be led through an exhaustive exploration of the reality of appeasement, and to come out the other side not only with all illusions shattered, but angry.


Paul Keating read it towards the end of last year. Then he read it again. It has quickly become his favourite book. Already a Churchill fan, he now believes Churchill to be the pre-eminent political figure of the century.


Someone gave the book to Bob Hawke. (Given the amount of music- and book-swapping between the two men, it is reasonably likely that it was Keating.) And so it came to pass that, as Saddam Hussein was sharpening his knives in Baghdad, the Australian Prime Minister was reading The Caged Lion, and finding himself similarly moved. Hawke was appalled by "the crimes of the appeasers, which were as great as the crimes of Hitler and the Nazis", and struck with admiration for Churchill.


Then the tanks and troops of Saddam Hussein - another leader who had torn up his country's constitution, and murdered his way to the top - poured into Kuwait. One week earlier he had renounced any territorial claim on the country. A week after the invasion, he announced that Kuwait had ceased to exist.


This time the West was not led by the likes of Neville Chamberlain. In fact George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, and nearly every other world leader, alluded to Chamberlain's failure - appeasement's failure - half a century earlier, in announcing a military commitment to meet the aggressor head-on. The Iraqi President was undoubtedly astonished to see the largest mobilisation since World War Two materialise at his doorstep.


As Bob Hawke explained, immediately after his own decision to send Australian frigates:


"For me the intellectual setting was clarified by the fact that recently I've had the rare opportunity to engage in some personal reading... I took the opportunity to read a massive two-volume biography of Winston Churchill written by William Manchester - a magnificent piece of biographical writing...


"After you've read the biography of Churchill by Manchester you come to the conclusion, I think, that there should have been two Nuremburg Trials. There should have been the trials of the Nazis and there should have been the trials of the appeasers. Because without both of them you couldn't have had the Second World War."


"And when you read that biography, the tragedy is that you see that at the very time Hitler made his first move in Czechoslovakia, the general staff of the German army had made the decision that they were going to depose Hitler, and they'd made the decision on the assumption, in the belief, that Britain and France were going to move against him. And if that had happened, as it should have happened, then Hitler would have been deposed, and the infinite, immeasurable tragedy of the Second World War would not have occurred."


Hawke has directly or indirectly referred to Manchester's book dozens of times since the Kuwait invasion. (The Caged Lion, which covers the thirties, is actually the second of the two volumes. The first deals with Churchill's life to 1931.) I have transcripts of all Hawke's post-Kuwait statements, and interviews, before me as I write: they are littered with phrases like "the disastrous decade of the thirties", "dictators who feel they can invade and annex a small neighbour", and "appeasement of dictators is the route to an enlarged conflict".


Hawke's inspiration may be Churchillian, but his language is usually less so: when specifying the frigates' tasks, he began with: "Let me make it quite clear as Senator Evans very articulately has already done."


More coherent was this answer on Melbourne radio: "If the relevant nations, particularly the British and the French, in the 1930s, had stood up to Hitler when he made his first move - as he did in March of 1936 into the Rheinland [sic. The spelling in Hawke's office is uniformly atrocious], breaking every solemn commitment he'd previously made, if the British and French had stood up to him then, that would have been the end."


"Just as in the 1930s appeasement was wrong, and the world paid a terrible price for it," he said on another occasion, "so would appeasement be wrong in the 1990s". And on another: "I mean history shows you that you don't hang around and condone aggression by inaction. Kuwait today, Saudi Arabia tomorrow. Who next? And if the thirties tell us anything they tell us the disastrous nature of that concept." The message of Manchester's book, he added, "is burnt into my mind."


What Australian journalism portrays as the "reason" for an event is usually only the most recent in an ancient, tortuous chain of facts. Even so, the above is only one very thin slice of the current pie. Much could be written about Dwight Eisenhower's role in creating the Middle East's power structures; about the genesis of a sociopathic personality (such as Saddam Hussein's); about how rapidly yesterday's allies become today's enemies (Britain's army has no desert uniforms: they recently sold them all to Iraq); about the West's conflicting signals to Saddam (the US Ambassador's fawning praise, a few days before the invasion, put Sir Horace Wilson in the shade); or for that matter about the one-time anti-Vietnam activists - now Labor MPs - who are so vocally defending our role in the Gulf, and the American alliance.


However this article is a look at Bob Hawke, and his reasons (which were, after all, more important than anyone else's) for wanting to send two frigates, one supply ship and six hundred Australians to the Gulf of Oman: where they have since been firing shots over the bows of Iraqi cargo ships.


The immediate reason for the Gulf task force - oil - is buried in paragraph 18 of the "Gulf resolution" which Hawke put before Parliament on August 21. (It is preceded by long statements on the Iraqi perfidy, national sovereignty, Hawke's hope for "an era of peace", etc.)


Bob Hawke's attitude toward the US has become so well-known as to no longer receive public attention. It is now all but forgotten that it has evolved, in recent years, from vitriolically critical, to cool and suspicious, to ambivalent, and - finally - to a state of uncritical warmth. This warmth has substantially conditioned the views of caucus and the ALP in general since 1983: which explains, at least partially, why the party fell into line so readily after the frigate decision.


And if the manifestation of that warmth in sending the frigates seemed precipitate, we need look no further than Mr Manchester's book, which - whilst superb as history and biography - is, more importantly, one of the more powerful polemics of recent times.


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