Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

3142 words

Cold war, soft diplomacy

14 January 2014

As the Cold War intensified in the mid fifties, Australia saw a special role for itself in disseminating information and propaganda in Southeast Asia, writes Alan Fewster


In for the long haul: Australia’s external affairs minister, Richard Casey, in 1957.
Australian News and Information Bureau/ National Library of Australia nla.pic-an23287419

In for the long haul: Australia’s external affairs minister, Richard Casey, in 1957.
Australian News and Information Bureau/ National Library of Australia nla.pic-an23287419

AS THE Manila treaty partners – Australia, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan and the United States – prepared for the first meeting of the South East Asian Treaty Organisation, scheduled for Bangkok in February 1955, Australia’s prime minister, Robert Menzies, had before him a Top Secret briefing paper arguing that the Cold War was “generally agreed to have entered the period of the ‘long haul.’” For Australian policy-makers, the paper said, this implied that earlier, ad hoc programs of defensive military and political preparations needed to be replaced by “fully coordinated plans utilising the resources of democratic countries… with due regard to their individual capacities and particular regional interests.”

That January, Menzies’s cabinet had endorsed, with what his minister for external affairs, Richard Casey, described as “rather unusual enthusiasm,” a memorandum entitled “Australian Activities in the Cold War.” According to the memorandum, which is available at the National Archives of Australia, while Australia would certainly need to build up its defences to deter or withstand military attack if it occurred, overt aggression in Southeast Asia was highly unlikely in the period up to the end of 1956. The main threat would be the intensification of the eight-year-old communist insurgency in Malaya, which could, in the absence of effective countermeasures, jeopardise Australia’s position in the region. (Australia would in fact send a battalion of troops to Malaya in October 1955.) “Australia and the democratic nations must… prevail,” said Casey, “so that the communists do not gain their objective by subversion, infiltration and other non-military means.” The West must be prepared to pursue Cold War policies “with no less energy than is required for the preparedness of our armed forces.”

Casey identified four activities that Australia could undertake within the existing Manila Treaty arrangements. It could exchange information about communist activities and techniques and about counter-measures. It could assist in developing local security forces, such as police. It could deploy propaganda and information to combat communism. And it could assist in eliminating communist influence and promote of “democratic and pro-western influences” in civil society.

Acknowledging that the United States and Britain carried the main burden of waging the cold war in the region, Casey suggested that the government ask three questions when determining the precise nature of Australia’s contribution. Is Australia’s contribution worthwhile in itself? Would it encourage the United States and Britain to pay more attention to the region? Would it give Australia more say in the discussion of regional policy with those two allies?

Casey foresaw “no difficulties in principle” in exchanging information with SEATO partners. In practice, matters would need to be worked out on a case-by-case basis with the appropriate Australia military and civil authorities. Likewise, although the British had a longstanding interest in the field, Australia should be able to help train local security forces.

It was in the area of propaganda and information, however, and through eliminating communist influence from schools, unions and the like, that Casey believed Australia could make a “significant” contribution. Radio Australia’s news service, which had built a “valuable reputation” for objectivity, had attracted a wide audience, particularly in Indonesia, where signal reception was excellent. Radio Australia had already decided to introduce a daily Mandarin Chinese session to supplement existing programs broadcast in English, Indonesian and French. Casey argued the desirability of increasing both the number and length of RA broadcasts and increasing transmitting capacity.

Casey also thought it might be useful to try to interest the ACTU in making contact with “free” trade unions, particularly in Indonesia, where they were largely under communist control, with a view to influencing their policies towards “democratic ends.” An Australian unionist might be sent to the Jakarta embassy as a labour attaché, and the government might sponsor visits to and from Australia by unionists and schoolteachers.

As officials had examined options should the Cold War become hot, the shortage of Australians who spoke “far eastern languages” had become quickly apparent. To remedy this, Casey thought that an attempt might be made to introduce Indonesian and Malay language courses in Australian universities with, “if necessary, inducements to undergraduates to take them as part of a normal degree course.”

Casey conceded that these plans would not be cost-free, but argued that “not a large sum” was involved. In the case of Radio Australia, the income the ABC received from listeners’ radio licences would need to be supplemented by government, but any additional cost would be “small in relation to the military expenditure we must in any case contemplate.”

Expressing the view that the matters referred to in his submission were “of the utmost importance,” cabinet invited Casey to assume responsibility for coordinating cold war planning. With the postmaster-general, Larry Anthony, he would prepare proposals for expanding the activities of Radio Australia, and he would arrange for the external affairs and prime minister’s departments to prepare proposals for the teaching of Indonesian, Malaya and “possibly other languages” and to “look into the question of combating subversive propaganda domestically.”

CASEY recalled a senior diplomat, J.D.L. Hood, from Bonn to serve as his “senior backroom thinking boy” on Cold War matters. As Casey told his Canadian opposite number, Lester Pearson, Hood, was “a fellow with the sort of mind who might be good at this.” Reporting the Hood appointment, the Melbourne Herald suggested that while his task may not be easy, Hood, a former journalist, “may be the right man to make our case for democracy convincing to the Asian mind.”

Hood’s boss, Arthur Tange, was not pleased by the publicity and fired off a telegram to an official in London, Jim Plimsoll. Indicating that he wanted public talk of Hood’s functions kept to an “absolute minimum,” Tange said that while it may be inevitable and even desirable that some of the government’s proposals be discussed, ultimately Australia would be embarrassed by “persistent enquiries from other governments.” And if these activities were described as Cold War exercises, “We shall make ourselves suspect all over Asia.”

The secretary of the labour and national service department, Henry Bland, doubted the wisdom of sending a trade unionist to Jakarta. A Burmese union official had told him that the ACTU president, Albert Monk, had been interested only in “the rights of trade unions and not their obligations” during a visit to Rangoon. Most Australian unionists thought only within the framework of the arbitration system, so they would be “quickly out of their depth in an alien environment,” the Burmese (a Mr Ho), had said. Bland suggested that it would perhaps be better to send to Jakarta someone from his department who could “survey the trade union situation up there” and report on the desirability of the appointment of a permanent labour attaché.

Writing from Rangoon, Australian diplomat Colin Moodie, who knew Ho, shared his doubts about the perceived shortcomings of Australian unionists as advisers, but was more sanguine about the outcome of a short visit, “provided we had the right sort of man, i.e. a hard head, strong stomach and a capacity for real interest in things Burmese.” Such a man should not appear “too businesslike,” Moody thought, “or give the impression that he is here to give them a few pointers. He should not talk at length about what we have done… but show a willingness to listen to accounts of Burma’s difficulties and problems and not be too ‘teaching’ about them.”

Officials from External Affairs and Prime Minister’s conferred on the teaching of “oriental languages.” External Affairs favoured the encouragement of the study of Indonesian in Sydney and Melbourne in the first instance, on the basis that better quality staff and students might be available in those cities. A Dr Mendelsohn from Prime Minister’s thought that a “primary question” to be decided was whether “we wanted to have only language technicians for defence and other purposes or wether we hoped to have a number of Indonesian scholars whose academic standards were high.” Mendelsohn’s interlocutor, John Quinn, replied that the immediate need seemed to be for the former but “the latter would not be excluded from our plans.” Quinn suggested that it was important that the government find out what facilities existed for teaching Indonesian in Australia and whether it would be possible to obtain teachers from overseas.

Casey instructed his department to obtain detailed reports on American and British efforts to combat communist subversion in Southeast Asia. From Washington and London came long telegrams setting out in minute detail the priorities of the US Information Service and the British Information Policy Department, which had oversight of Britain’s overt overseas propaganda. Part of the British effort was the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department, which handled unattributable anti-communist propaganda codenamed the “grey material,” which External Affairs was already receiving.

External Affairs’ information branch suggested that in addition to organising visits of Southeast Asian journalists to Australia, the government might make films focusing on SEATO itself, the Colombo Plan, Asian students in Australia, trade unionism, progress towards self-government in dependent territories the “equalitarian” nature of Australian society and the techniques of communist infiltration and subversion. Another idea, assisting selected newspapers to improve their quality and circulation, would soon be echoed in a top secret report Casey had commissioned from a British intelligence officer, Dudley Wrangel Clarke, on clandestine Cold War propaganda.

According to an External Affairs paper drafted at the time, feudal habits were so deeply rooted, and the exploitation of public office for personal ends so endemic in the region, that that the application of reform programs would be difficult. In supporting non-communist regimes, the West must ensure that the leaders of those administrations did not exploit “unduly… for their own ends,” either monetary or moral support. “We should endeavour to see that the patience of the population is not extended too far,” the paper said.

The West still needed to “convince the Asians at large that the communists are their enemies and that we are their friends… not only in fair weather but also when armed conflict threatens. We have to assure them that we are prepared to fight not only for our national investments… but also to preserve their freedom and what is important for them.” It was particularly important that the West resist thinking that Asians were “more expendable than our own forces and civilian populations.”

According to External Affairs, a factor working in the West’s favour was the distrust of the Chinese felt throughout Southeast Asia and the strong desire in the region to find a “counterweight” to Chinese influence. “The austere ideology of Communism does not appeal to most people in the area and they would much prefer to be left alone than organised in the communist fashion.” Although nationalist administrations had been set up in former colonies to provide and outlet for “ambitious young patriots,” these people may become impatient with the weakness and inefficiency of these regimes and may be attracted by the “more efficacious Chinese methods of organisation.” It was, therefore, important that efforts be made to strengthen the authority of the “state apparatus” to maintain anti-communist regimes in power.

As a country with virtually no colonial baggage, Australia had a better standing in Southeast Asia than either Britain or the United States, External Affairs believed. Australia’s continuing effectiveness as an “interpreter” for the Great Powers of the democratic world depended on continued recognition of her independent outlook. “Already, we tend to be associated, by the more ‘neutralist’ Asian opinion, with US policies including those… that find least favour in Asia… We should try to preserve the independent standing which enables us to offer advice and assistance of the kind which when provided by greater powers are likely to be suspected.”

IN EARLY February, Casey and the British Commissioner General for Southeast Asia, Malcolm MacDonald, met in Scotland to discuss cold war planning. McDonald thought there was room for improving propaganda in Southeast Asia. In Thailand, for example, a major US effort was “somewhat blatant” and strongly anti-communist in tone. This was quite unsuited to “the ignorant peasantry” who might well not know that communism existed, still less what it was. Such propaganda served to arouse interest in communism, MacDonald said, and was therefore likely to backfire. The best propaganda publicised the virtues of non-communist governments and emphasised what they were doing for the country. Thus, in Vietnam, the West should “for the present try to sell [Ngo Dinh] Diem.” Indonesia was “more difficult” because the government “were such a poor bunch,” but even there it was desirable to support them against the communists.

Casey told MacDonald of two Australian innovations: to provide community radio receivers to assist in the distribution of government propaganda, and to have Australian posts in the region obtain from their host governments points that could usefully be made on Radio Australia programs.

Both men bemoaned the lack of a positive philosophy which the West could develop and sell “instead of constantly taking the defensive position.” Some of those present thought that one of the virtues of “our way of life” was that it did not put forward one way of life but stressed the right of everyone to think and act as he pleased.

By June 1955, cabinet had approved the appointment of members of the Australian News and Information Bureau as information officers in Bangkok and Jakarta. Radio Australia was recruiting broadcasters in Mandarin, Indonesian and Thai, and additional journalists would also be appointed to prepare a short news commentary five days a week in close consultation with the Department of External Affairs.

In discussions with Hood, a “much more important aspect” had dawned on the director-general of posts and telegraphs, Sir Giles Chippendall. This was that “if the Cold War continued for a lengthy period, or if it developed into a Hot War” an increase in Radio Australia’s broadcasting facilities would be necessary. This, too, proved a not insurmountable hurdle, and £110,000 was quickly found for this purpose. At the same time, there came news that the universities of Sydney and Melbourne had agreed to introduce courses in Indonesian and Malay – again, provided that additional funding could be organised. A “specialist in films” would also be appointed as a field distribution officer for Southeast Asia, headquartered in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. The ABC would appoint a “special representative” based in Singapore, whose duties would include “reporting on the general requirements of the area with a view to ensuring the maximum impact of Radio Australia programmes.”

All of this was brought together in policy guidance issued to all posts by External Affairs in November 1955. Headed “Future Development of Australian Information Activities,” this was a blueprint for the conduct of Australian Cold War propaganda in South and Southeast Asia.

According to the policy, a “positive attitude” should be adopted to countering the appeal of communism. This should entail promoting an appreciative understanding of democratic principles, institutions and methods, as well as exposing the danger of communist doctrine and policies. Posts should discuss world problems in ways appreciative of the interests of Asians. “We should … stress our relatively advanced development but at the same time indicate that we have many economic and defence problems in common.”

Posts were also told to encourage the idea that although the region needed outside assistance, the solution to its problems should properly come from the efforts of its people. The advantages should be emphasised of voluntary cooperation on defence, development and social welfare, and the importance stressed of countries in the region supporting the United Nations.  In this context, Australians realised that their own future was bound up with that of the whole Asia Pacific region. This was “one of the most important reasons why we are so anxious to cooperate with our neighbours.”  The policy stressed that in offering assistance to Southeast Asia, “we are not seeking to secure special privileges or influence.” Australia was not a militarist power and our influence need not be feared – “on the contrary, the existence of a stable neighbour should be a source of reassurance.”

An “individual” Australian point of view should be maintained, posts were told. Officials were enjoined to contest any “automatic assumption” that Australia’s policy would necessarily be identical with that of Britain or the United States, although attention could be drawn to the advantages of cooperation with them.

The policy document noted that criticism of Australia in the region primarily arose as a result of the White Australia Policy and Australia’s support for the Netherlands retention of West New Guinea. Wherever possible, it was best to avoid discussing these policies; if unavoidable, they should be presented as being based on “legitimate considerations of national welfare… and not involving any animosity towards Asians.” Similarly, the government was concerned to dispel the notion that Australia’s interest in Southeast Asia was confined to using it as a strategic buffer, and that its motives were reflected by “our close identity with United States defence and political policy.”

In 1956, the United States would use SEATO to justify its refusal to proceed with reunification elections, and later, Vietnam’s status as an “observer” at SEATO as legal cover to prosecute a war against the north. As the conflict unfolded, Australia, by virtue of its membership of the ANZUS alliance, also became embroiled, escalating its commitment in 1966. In declaring that Australia would go “all the way with LBJ” in Vietnam, Menzies’s successor, Harold Holt, swallowed the line that the Asian dominoes would fall if South Vietnam collapsed, thereby endangering Australia. For Holt, it seemed, “the long haul” had only just begun. •

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