Inside Story

Manning Clark and the Man in Black

ASIO’s ambivalence about Manning Clark might not have incited a diplomatic training incident, writes Alan Fewster. But Clark’s response, thinly veiled as fiction, was uncompromising

Alan Fewster 25 May 2015 3463 words

Bitter revenge: historian Manning Clark in 1957. W. Pederson/National Archives of Australia

In 1949, the year the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, or ASIO, was established, the Canberra University College was considering the appointment of Melbourne historian Charles Manning Hope Clark to its chair of history. A routine security check was required.

Clark had come to the attention of ASIO’s forerunner, the Commonwealth Investigation Service, in 1947, while he was teaching at Melbourne University. He had taken the negative position in a radio debate on the subject, “Is communism white-anting our education system?” The following year, it was noted that he had signed an open letter calling on the government to recognise the new state of Israel.

ASIO went about its work. After discussing Clark with someone who knew him “intimately,” a security operative was confident that the historian would not propagandise his views, “whatever they may be,” if he were appointed. Clark’s line in the radio debate did not indicate his sentiments, but rather “an academic approach to a contentious subject by a student of theory.” Although Clark’s political views were “Leftist” (he was a “socialist”), he was not a communist nor was he “in close affiliation with the ACP” – the Australian Communist Party – “or its subsidiaries.” Clark was not considered someone who would submit himself to the dictates of others “whether they be party or otherwise.” His loyalty to country was “unquestioned,” the security service concluded.

One ASIO officer who would rise to become the organisation’s deputy director, Michael Thwaites, was less inclined to take a lenient view. He made the following handwritten notation on the relevant folio of Clark’s file: “I would suggest treating this informant’s statement with considerable reserve. It appears a partisan rather than judicial opinion.”

Thwaites’s reservations about Clark were, however, insufficient to prevent his appointment to the university college – which later became part of the Australian National University – and, later, to the position of director of its School of Diplomatic Studies, which the university operated on behalf of the Department of External Affairs. As director, Clark was a key member of the panel that selected Australia’s future diplomats.

In its edition of 26 August 1953, the communist newspaper Tribune named Clark among ten academic supporters of a communist front organisation, the Australian Convention on Peace and War, which was scheduled to meet in Sydney in September. The External Affairs officer in charge of the department’s administration, Keith Waller, sought ASIO’s assurance that this development was “no reason for the department to discontinue availing itself of Clark’s services” as a member of the cadet selection panel, which was about to begin its deliberations on the 1954 intake.

ASIO duly repeated the Commonwealth Investigation Service’s advice that it had no evidence to suggest that Clark was or ever had been a member of the Communist Party of Australia. But ASIO went on to say that Clark’s support for the “underdog” was evidence that he was “not altogether unsympathetic” to its policies. ASIO had, moreover, recorded the following points against Clark:

• In 1949, in a discussion group at the rooms of the United Nations Organisation in Melbourne, Clark had argued that the Atlantic Pact was a “disastrous blunder” and that the Berlin airlift was “feeding Russia with suspicion” of the West.

• In 1950, Clark had lived in the Canberra house formerly occupied by Jim Hill, whose elder brother, Ted, was a prominent communist lawyer. (The file does not record that in 1951, the younger Hill was himself eased out of the Department of External Affairs, his own loyalty under a cloud.)

• A former student had volunteered in 1951 that Clark was “very pro-communist” and that Clark had “indoctrinated” him.

• Clark had dedicated the second volume of his Select Documents in Australian History to a friend and prominent communist, Noel Ebbels, who had died in a car crash.

As ASIO’s regional director in the Australian Capital Territory, W.M. Phillipps, conceded, none of these points seemed very important when taken in isolation, but “as a whole,” he told Waller, “they do present a picture which cannot be discarded. They indicate at best, an unawareness of the dangers of communism and can be regarded as evidence of an association with communism and a sympathy with some of its policies.” On this basis, Phillipps felt unable to provide the assurance Waller sought.

Two days later, Clark contacted Waller, seeking a confidential chat. Invoking the “old boys” network (Waller and the historian had been contemporaries at Melbourne University), Clark sought to ascertain if it would compromise External Affairs if he were to act as president of the Australian Convention on Peace and War in Canberra. Despite believing that Clark would never have anything to do with communism, Waller answered that it would.

Waller would later tell Phillipps that the department “did not take a serious view” of the information provided by ASIO. They would not interfere with cadet selection arrangements that year (1953), but they “would probably drop him next year.” Phillipps then recounted to Waller a conversation he’d had with his colleague, Thwaites, who, he said, knew Clark personally. According to a note on Clark’s ASIO file, Thwaites would not be surprised to find that the academic was a “secret Party member.” If Phillipps was seeking to pique Waller’s curiosity, he succeeded: Waller indicated he wished to discuss this information further with Thwaites. It “could make a difference,” he wrote.

It was against this background that in December 1953, Waller attended a meeting with officials from the Public Service Board and the Treasury, at which they considered the future of the diplomatic cadet scheme. The Treasury representative was Lenox Hewitt, with whom Waller had served at Australia House in London. Brought back to Canberra at the same time as Waller by the head of Treasury, Sir Roland Wilson, Hewitt ran the Treasury’s budget and accounting branch. The meeting agreed that the present cadetship, based on a full-time course at the Canberra University College, was no longer appropriate in view of the high qualifications of potential departmental recruits.

Waller had concluded there were only two alternatives: the scheme should be maintained more or less in its current form as a complete course, or it should be “virtually abolished and cadets should be required to study individual subjects which were needed to fill a particular gap in their educational background.” In the light of its cost (over £16,000, of which £5500 was paid as a subsidy to the Canberra University College), the very high academic standard of applicants, and the small intake for 1954 (only seven), the committee felt obliged to recommend the second option, which would be described as “in service” training.

There is no hint in the official record of this meeting that External Affairs was considering dispensing with Clark’s services; in fact, quite the opposite. The officials thought that Clark’s Australian studies course “was a useful subject,” but given the very small intake expected in the next year, they decided that the class of 1954 would take Clark’s course alongside the 1955 intake of cadets.

The new course would comprise induction, administrative training (accounts, property and personnel, external communications, record keeping) and “in service” training in the department. On completing the first two parts of the course the cadets would spend five months on the “in service” element, working in the department’s various branches. At the end of the first year, each cadet would undergo an interview by two assistant secretaries, one of whom would be Waller, similar to the selection interviews. These would be viva voce examinations of a cadet’s “knowledge, poise and quick wittedness.”

Waller sought the Public Service Board’s assistance in drawing up a test designed to show a cadet’s ability to deal with practical problems of the kind found at a post or on a “geographic” desk. “Such a test, if properly designed, could show a cadet’s speed of working, his ingenuity, judgement and ability to write English,” thought Waller. Familiarisation tours to factories, places like the Newcastle steelworks, the CSIRO, and the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, introduced in 1953, would also be retained in future years. These tours provided cadets with opportunities on report on real projects, much as they would during overseas postings.

External Affairs ended its almost decade-long relationship with the Canberra University College in a meeting between Waller, new department secretary Arthur Tange, college principal Herbert Burton, and Manning Clark in early February 1954. Afterwards, Burton wrote to Tange conveying his reaction to the news:

What concerns the college even more [than the department’s decision to cease sending cadets to it] is the way in which the arrangement… was terminated. This was done by… “unilateral action.” To continue the use of diplomatic language it can only be regarded therefore as an “unfriendly act.”… This brusque action has come as a very unpleasant shock. It will certainly make the college very chary about entering into any further arrangements to provide special courses for a government department in return for an earmarked special grant.

External Affairs’s action wounded Clark deeply, not least because it left the historian virtually bereft of students. He took bitter revenge against Waller and his department in a series of semi-autobiographical short stories written not long after the department’s decision.

In one of them, “The Men in Black,” we meet Charles Hogan, a teacher of Russian to the External Affairs cadets, who is, like Clark, a member of the department’s cadet selection panel. Hoping it will get him “noticed,” Hogan signs a “peace petition” and writes some words of support, which are subsequently published. Word of this reaches the egregious Grant Polkinghorne, the department’s head of administration. Polkinghorne, whom Hogan “remembered… vaguely” from their days together at the university, reassures Hogan: “Don’t worry too much about it Charles old boy… we have complete confidence in you as a teacher of Russian. And as for politics, don’t do anything to embarrass us. I leave it to you to judge for yourself. I think you have a pretty clear idea of what our minister would like.”

Later, however, “it was only poetic justice” when Hogan hears from John Flanagan, a character who could have been based on Jim Hill, the news he had been dreading:

People who talk to communists can’t be trusted to teach our cadets. So Grant has, as it were, relieved you of your duties. You’ve got the sack old boy… And the bastard is transferring me to the Department of the Interior because I’m too great a security risk… We’re martyrs, I tell you Charles, the first martyrs in the new witch-hunt.

“One day we’ll have a decent government in Australia, and a decent society too – a place for free souls,” Clark has Flanagan declare. “Then we won’t suffer for our opinions. And bastards like Polkinghorne won’t be deciding what jobs we get.”

For Hogan, it takes “a long time and much suffering before he discovers the big lie” in the shallow but comforting idea that “if only you wore the right clothes and kept out of the hotels the men in black would not torment you.”

Polkinghorne’s credentials as a racist snob are underlined in “The Guardians,” another unpublished short story written at this time, which begins with him urging Mrs Hogan to get domestic assistance:

If you want to get your head above the ruck in Canberra, take my advice and get someone to help in the house. Far better to let the tradespeople wait for their money than to do without help.

My wife was delighted with this.

“Get one of those Balts,” Polkinghorne told her. “They work like niggers and have some idea of rank in society… They know their place.”

Meanwhile, the debate about Soviet infiltration in Australia had been given new life by the defection in April 1954 of the third secretary at the Soviet Embassy, Vladimir Petrov, and his wife, Evdokia. To investigate Petrov’s allegations about Moscow’s sources of information in Australia, the Menzies government established a Royal Commission on Espionage. As the Australia–Soviet relationship began quickly to unravel, Tange, protocol chief Charles Stuart, and Waller came under intense pressure from the Soviet embassy.   According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Waller had been “in charge” of the Petrov case in External Affairs from the outset. This was true enough, but Waller’s job was limited – Tange and the head of ASIO, Charles Spry, had already agreed that ASIO should handle the two defectors.

On 14 September 1955, the royal commission found that two former External Affairs officers, Jim Hill and Ian Milner, were responsible for disclosing documents that eventually made their way to the Soviet intelligence service. The former head of External Affairs, John Burton, upon whom suspicion also fell, was cleared. While Clark had been living chez Hill, MI5 was interrogating the diplomat in London. When, against expectations, Hill failed to confess to leaking anything, he was recalled and transferred to the attorney-general’s department. Milner had been edged out of the department in 1947 on account of his association with the Communist Party and since 1950 had been living in Prague.

When Milner’s family sent him a copy of the royal commission report he responded with a ten-page “personal statement.” He denied all allegations against him, pointing out, among other things, a number of inaccuracies in the report. Asking that his statement be given to the commission, Milner sought its inclusion in the official record, and its release to the media. By May 1956, the Milner statement had made its way to the secretary of the prime minister’s department, Allen Brown, who asked his counterpart at the attorney-general’s department, Kenneth Bailey, whether Milner should be furnished with a reply. Bailey asked Tange’s view, and Tange sought Waller’s advice.

Waller’s view was clear; the Milner document should be buried:

If we release the statement it will presumably throw doubt on the accuracy of the commission’s findings as there seem to be several questions of fact on which the commission was in error. If, however, we do not release it, then Milner could ask the Tribune who probably already have a copy, and could claim that the government had suppressed evidence which cleared him, as well as hiding from the public inaccuracies in the report. My reaction would be to suppress the report. If Milner releases it, we can say it added nothing to what is already known.

The events of this period seem to lie behind Clark’s story, “Monologue by a Man in Black,” a vicious satire on the Department of External Affairs and the intellectual aridity of cold war Canberra, published by Quadrant magazine in autumn 1959. Here, Polkinghorne emerges in all his excrescent glory, and the historian takes his sweetest revenge.

The narrator, Polkinghorne/Waller, ridicules the left, deriding those, like John Burton, who came to work in Canberra after 1941 with “dubious doctorates from the London School of Economics.” Polkinghorne, after telling his wife to “put away your crystal and sterling silver, they won’t be wanted again for a generation,” begins “not exactly to swim with the tide but shall we say, to float along with it.” He makes concessions: a belt instead of braces; a soft instead of a stiff collar. He is embarrassed by his colleagues’ uncritical admiration of the Russians, which he sees as having “as much discrimination… as a bitch on heat.”

If, for Polkinghorne, these were the days of “unleavened bread,” who could have foreseen then, at the end of 1944, that within ten years, when the Petrov royal commission was beginning its public inquisition, “we should scatter our enemies like chaff before the wind?”

Polkinghorne wonders if he can live another day “with men who thought civilisation meant putting a sink in every farm kitchen.” Eventually, like Waller, he is posted to London and at last finds servants who are “prepared to serve dinner at eight o’clock.”

On his return to Canberra he is given oversight of security. His modus operandi is simple: “anyone who tries to improve he conditions of the workers is either a Red or likely to become one.” Similarly, “anyone who has studied history, politics or philosophy at Melbourne is red at heart.” As the royal commission commences its hearings, those who had supped with the Soviets are, in Polkinghorne’s words, “trembling in their shoes wondering whether they would be called.”

In Clark’s stories, Polkinghorne is abetted by a cadet who seeks to ingratiate himself with the men in black by reporting on Hogan and Flanagan. There is no evidence to suggest that Clark was aware how closely life mirrored art in his case. In the External Affairs file dealing with the diplomatic cadets lies a note signed by two of them. It reads in part:

Professor Clark said that he would not be taking any classes himself, the reason being that he was “not considered worthy to teach such brilliant people.” From the bitterness of his attitude and the sarcasm of his words it is apparent that this decision was prompted by pique, by wounded pride and a considerable animus against this Department.

It is submitted that Professor Clark be asked whether Australian History forms part of the Australian Affairs course and, if it does not and if Professor Clark is unwilling to change his attitude, that some other person competent in this field be asked to fill the gap.

For his part, Waller was “amazed rather than horrified” when he read Clark’s “Monologue” story in Quadrant in 1959. Diplomacy was “a priggish and rather pompous trade,” which was very easy to satirise, he wrote to a friend in London, and he did not think Manning had done a very good job of it. “One or two” of Clark’s “barbed shafts” got under Waller’s skin, but for the most part, he thought it “pretty dull stuff.”

Waller conceded that there was little doubt that Clark had modelled Polkinghorne on himself, but could not understand why Clark had used so many obscenities in his story: “It certainly does not relate to my manner,” he told his friend. Waller said he had stopped the one-year cadet course mainly because it was no longer relevant. He went on to say that he had taken particular pains to preserve those sections of the course in which Clark was involved. Waller had done this, moreover, “in spite of opposition… which stemmed initially from gossip among Old Geelong Grammarians at the Melbourne Club.” Waller did not regret his action. “My only sorrow is that I should have left poor Manning in such a state of vulgar fury.”

When, in his retirement, it was suggested that he was the Man in Black, Waller did not deny it, although he noted that others (such as a colleague, Peter Hayden) had also claimed the honour. Waller thought that Manning Clark “saw something personal” in the decision to remove him.

Conceding that there was “considerable fear and suspicion of people who expressed a communist point of view,” Waller said he thought Clark “saw traces of McCarthyism, which weren’t really justified. There was a genuine feeling that there had been a lot of communist penetration, as indeed there had. I mean it wasn’t the Menzies government that set up ASIO.”