Inside Story

My cold war: from Brunswick to Berlin (via the Labor split)

Within months of the end of the second world war, an iron curtain had fallen across Europe. Its impact reached into the inner suburbs of Melbourne, writes Geoffrey Barker

Geoffrey Barker 27 September 2013 4983 words

Prelude to the end: US president Ronald Reagan Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev after meeting in Reykjavik in October 1986.
White House/ Wikimedia

IF YOU were born in the early 1940s and were even dimly conscious of the emerging postwar world, you were aware of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. This was the pervasive global nuclear standoff that loomed over the second half of the twentieth century. Even if, like me, you were born and lived in remote Melbourne, Australia, you could not escape the shadow of uncertainty, of existential doubt and fear, that hung over life in the age of rising prosperity and shifting political and cultural values that followed the second world war. The cold war affected lives and behaviour, influenced attitudes, and formed prejudices and neuroses that persisted from the cradle to the grave. For many people it still defines their place and time in the slice of world history through which we lived.

As early as March 1946, barely a year after Germany’s defeat, Winston Churchill famously proclaimed that an iron curtain had descended across Europe “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.” The victorious American and British war leaders had become increasingly concerned as their former ally, the Soviet Union, ruthlessly consolidated its eastern empire. But there was little the West could do: Russian troops were on the ground in Eastern Europe and they had, after all, broken the German army. So the Western capitalist powers, generally tolerant and liberal-democratic, chose to prosper in peace, creating mass consumer economies that could deliver both guns and butter. Eventually they spawned and ultimately absorbed the dissident, sometimes anarchic, youth counterculture movements that were to sweep the world and challenge their own values and policies from the 1960s. The Soviets, meanwhile, under brutally authoritarian communist rulers, focused on entrenching one-party power, seeking to acquire more powerful arms than those possessed by the West, and crushing domestic resistance to their rule wherever it appeared in their empire.

So the cold war was a Manichaean forty-five-year struggle between liberal capitalism and authoritarian communism. During that time a nuclear sword of Damocles hung over the planet, even as the United States and the Soviet Union developed techniques for managing what became a stable balance of terror based on the notion of deterrence through mutual assured destruction (or MAD, to give it its chilling acronym). Despite periods of thaw and detente, and periodic arms limitation agreements, both blocs retained thousands of ballistic missiles, many armed with multiple independently targeted nuclear warheads, on permanent hair-trigger alert.

Yet, as it played out from 1945 to 1991, the cold war fell short of outright warfare. It was a tense and at times terrifying conflict in which the nuclear stockpiles were sufficient to destroy both sides as functioning modern societies. While it didn’t trigger a nuclear exchange, it was punctuated by frequent crises in which the use of nuclear weapons was contemplated by both sides. There were Berlin crises starting with the communist blockade of 1948 and including the construction of the Berlin wall in 1961, the Korean war (1950–53), the Soviet invasions of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), the Cuban missile crisis (1962), the Vietnam war (1959–75), and other proxy wars in which the United States and the Soviet Union supported and armed rivals in Afghanistan, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. It ended with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990.

THIS IS a personal memoir of the cold war in Melbourne and, more specifically, in the northwestern suburbs of Brunswick, Coburg and Pascoe Vale. It is also a memoir of how the cold war influenced my experiences as a child and my career in newspapers at home and abroad for more than fifty years. As a foreign correspondent in Europe and Washington, I covered some of the great world-changing events that eventually precipitated the end of the cold war, including the five summit meetings between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush between 1985 and 1990.

During my Australian childhood and youth, cold war tensions interacted with old sectarian social and political divisions between non-Catholics and Catholics in Australia, and particularly within the Labor Party. In 1955, Labor was split asunder by irreconcilable differences about domestic and international cold war issues, and at the heart of these differences was the role and influence of communism locally and globally. Both groups possessed some of the truth, but, blinkered by religious hatred in some cases and political fear in others, they retreated into hostile tribal camps that could not stay united inside the Labor Party.

In 1955 and 1963, Australia’s conservative government, as part of its contribution to the Western cold war effort, permitted atmospheric testing of British nuclear devices at Maralinga and the Montebello Islands with devastating long-term environmental consequences. By the 1970s Australia was hosting top-secret American nuclear early-warning systems at Pine Gap and Nurrungar, as well as a US navy communications relay station at North West Cape in Western Australia. These bases were called “joint facilities” and operated with full Australian knowledge and concurrence (as Pine Gap and North West Cape still do). But the presence of the bases intensified fears that Australia had made itself a potential nuclear target and fuelled the anti-American sentiment of disarmament advocates and the broader left.

Looking back on it all, much of the passion and anxiety of those years seems exaggerated, but it was deadly serious at the time – even in the dull tree-lined streets of Pascoe Vale South. But the smaller provincial cold war manifestations of my Brunswick childhood and youth loomed large at the time. So did the trade union and political conflicts that I witnessed as a young reporter covering industrial and political Labor affairs in the early 1960s. And in 1996, when it was all over and I was back at home, I sat down to talk with two of Australia’s preeminent cold war warriors, the Catholic political activist Bob Santamaria and the former Communist Party secretary, Bernie Taft. They were aged eighty-one and seventy-eight respectively, with all passion spent but with intellects undimmed. During a long conversation the two men seemed pleasantly surprised by how similar they really were, and seemed genuinely to respect and like each other. Both have since died, but their encounter in Santamaria’s North Melbourne office seemed to me a fitting and intensely personal conclusion to the vast impersonal and international contest, some of which I was privileged to witness and to write about.

IT STARTED early, at North-West Brunswick primary school. My father worked at the time on the tramways, the extensive state-owned public transport network that still covers much of inner Melbourne. His union was led by a well-known communist, Clarrie O’Shea, and when I was six or seven O’Shea called a strike over pay rates that stopped the trams for some six weeks. “Your old man’s a commo” was shouted at me daily in the school playground by playmates echoing the anger of parents whose lives were being disrupted by the strike. When I asked my father if he was indeed a commo, he said he voted Labor but because he thought that communist union leaders fought hardest for their members he supported them unreservedly in union matters. It was a common viewpoint among working men at the time.

Our Catholic neighbours, and they were many, believed that the godless Soviet communists were trying to destroy our democratic freedoms and that one of their strategies was to “hold the country to ransom” by winning control of the trade unions and weakening the economy. These were the tense early years of the cold war and attitudes in Brunswick were inevitably influenced by it. Berlin was the flashpoint and the Americans were running the Berlin airlift to ensure that the city, a non-communist oasis in the communist half of divided Germany, received supplies of coal and fuel after the Soviets closed ground access to the city. There was no airlift at North-West Brunswick State School, but we had to run the gauntlet of some tough Catholic kids when we were returning home. There were fights, name-calling, stone-throwing. “Catholic dogs stink like frogs,” we shouted. “Protty dogs go to hell,” they retorted. There were similar and frequent encounters between Catholic and non-Catholic kids in the street where I lived. Shamefully, some parents on both sides encouraged these hatreds, labelling each other “commo stooges” or Catholic fascists. Our little cold war at times seemed warmer than the big one – at least until the Korean war broke out in 1950.

North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in June 1950 caused deep gloom in our corner of Melbourne. Was this the start of the third world war? Would the Americans use the atom bomb? The Soviet Union was backing North Korea; the United States was backing South Korea. Although it was conducted under the flag of the United Nations, the defence of the south was a true proxy war. When China poured in eighteen divisions the gloom in Brunswick deepened: now the Yellow reds were making common cause with the Russian reds! It was the sum of all our fears of hostile outside invaders poised to pour over our country. So Australia, with little dissent, joined the UN action at America’s request, sending a RAAF squadron and an army battalion. When the armistice was signed three years later, Australian military casualties totalled 1500, with 340 killed. Even in Brunswick that was seen as a serious taste of the big cold war and a possible prelude to the next world war. “I just thank God that you and your brother are too young to be sent away,” my mother once said, echoing the eternal mother’s cry from the heart. They were frightened people.

Yet there were occasional outbreaks of rationality. Suddenly, in 1951, the words “Vote No” appeared on walls and railway overpasses and bridges all over Melbourne. They were painted at night by protesters opposed to the decision by the Menzies government to conduct a referendum to outlaw the Communist Party. By a solid majority, Australians did indeed Vote No in September 1951 on the grounds that the proposed ban would limit freedom of speech and association. It was a clear rejection of the government’s relentless efforts to exploit cold war uncertainties for political advantage.

But we got another dose of the big cold war with the high drama of the so-called Petrov affair in 1954. Vladimir Petrov, a Soviet KGB operative working under diplomatic cover, sought political asylum in Australia, fearing that he would be executed if he returned to Moscow. Offering Australian authorities evidence of Soviet espionage in Australia, he defected in April 1954. Soviet authorities sent two burly couriers to Australia to retrieve Petrov’s wife Evdokia, a cypher clerk at the embassy. She was photographed, minus a shoe and deeply distressed, being hustled to an aircraft at Sydney. In Darwin she was escorted from the plane to safety by Australian security officers. Photographs of this drama dominated the newspapers and shocked the nation: Red brutes had been caught and photographed in the act of dragging a hysterical woman onto an aircraft to return her to Moscow! The black-and-white pictures are still among the most dramatic Australian news photographs of the 1950s.

The Petrovs were granted asylum, and prime minister Robert Menzies played the issue for all it was worth, announcing a royal commission to investigate Soviet espionage in Australia. Things got even better for Menzies when the Labor opposition leader H.V. Evatt appeared before the royal commission as attorney for two of his staff members named in documents provided by Petrov, and when the commission withdrew Evatt’s leave to appear following his controversial cross-examination of a security service witness. Of course Labor was in league with the commos and even the party leader was ready to defend Red spies! Menzies went on to win the impending federal election and diplomatic relations between Australia and the Soviet Union were broken for five years. In Brunswick, my father said it was all a political conspiracy cooked up by Menzies to help him win the election; the Catholic neighbours saw only the evil hand of the Reds and praised Menzies’s actions.

By this time mistrust and suspicion were palpable in daily life. Australia’s domestic security service, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, or ASIO, was by now photographing people entering or leaving leftist, particularly Communist Party, meetings. They were following people suspected of “disloyalty,” trying to infiltrate their meetings, and keeping files on individuals. The “special branches” of the state police forces kept their separate files. Together, they were the loyal and extremely active arms of conservative federal and state governments who wanted tabs kept on their critics and material amassed that could be used against them. The cold war had spawned the age of “reds under the bed” paranoia in which spies and spy-catchers pursued each other in a frantic and futile dance of deceit.

But the Petrov affair was only the prelude to the great political explosion of 1955, when the Labor Party split irreparably along sectarian and ideological lines. There was, at the time, deep unrest in the Labor Party over the zealous, secretive anti-communist campaign of Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement as it sought to break communist influence in trade unions. But the Split was precipitated finally by Dr Evatt who, in an explosive statement, referred to the damaging activities of a small group “largely directed from outside the Labor Party.” Evatt said Santamaria’s weekly newspaper, News Weekly, appeared “to act as their organ.” Within months the party was torn apart. The predominantly Catholic and anti-communist Democratic Labor Party, or DLP, emerged as an effective electoral force and split the Labor vote, especially in Victoria and Queensland, helping to keep Labor out of office until Whitlam’s victory in 1972.

These were bitter years in Brunswick and Coburg, where the Labor split was keenly felt. Protestants and moderate and militant Labor supporters loathed the DLP and all its fervently anti-communist works, and they loathed its intellectual leaders, Santamaria and the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, who supported and inspired Santamaria (himself a Brunswick boy). During this time Menzies’s governing conservative coalition of the Liberal and Country (later National) parties promoted the view that Labor was soft on, and probably in cahoots with, the Soviet communists, while they themselves were loyal supporters of the ANZUS alliance, led by the United States, and would keep Australia safe in Uncle Sam’s enveloping arms from the horrors of expansionist Marxism.

Personal encounters sharpened the impact of the cold war for me, although I was mainly aware of only one of them at the time. In 1954, as a high school junior, I met and formed a life-long (and still strong) friendship with Juris Hrynko, a White Russian boy who had arrived in Australia as a “displaced person” with his parents and grandparents after the second world war. Juris’s father Anatol had been an agricultural scientist before the war but his qualifications were not recognised in Australia and he worked as a storeman in the state railways, where a well-known communist, J.J. Brown, was the local union leader. Anatol was fiercely anti-communist, a pillar of Melbourne’s Russian Orthodox church, a talented water-colourist, and a kindly and cultured man. He liked to talk to me about Soviet iniquities in Eastern Europe and insisted that Brown was, as he said in heavily accented English, “a red snake.” Obviously he did not share my father’s views and, because I liked and respected them both, I found myself wondering how to reconcile their views.

So even a Brunswick schoolboy faced personal dilemmas that sprang from cold war politics. Those dilemmas were sharpened in 1957 when the Soviet Union put its first Sputnik satellite into orbit. As we gazed upwards to see the tiny thing traverse the night sky we were told by the overheated media that the Sputnik showed how dangerously the Russians had forged ahead in the space race and how vulnerable we were to a Red attack. Even in Brunswick we didn’t relax until 1969, when America’s Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon.

The Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, separated by twelve years, had a direct impact on Melbourne because numbers of Hungarians and Czechs sought and were granted asylum in Australia. But it was the later Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam war that had the most profound impact on the collective psyche and political unity of citizens of my generation, and there was no hiding place in the suburbs of Melbourne.

In 1961 the Age appointed me as a shipping, and later industrial, reporter. Both jobs brought me into close contact with trade union leaders still scarred by the Labor split. They were a mix of communists, Labor Party militants and moderates, and DLP “industrial group” supporters known pejoratively as Groupers. The toughest group was probably the mixture of communists, Labor militants and groupers in the stevedore’s union, the Waterside Workers’ Federation, but the general industrial union officials headquartered at the Trades Hall and the Australian Council of Trade Unions also represented the full spectrum of non-conservative political attitudes. Their primary focus, of course, was the wages and working conditions of their members, but many were also heavily engaged in wider international affairs and were prepared to call “political strikes” on international issues. These trade union officials were intense and deeply committed men, and I was particularly impressed by the emotional engagement and dedication of the communists, however much their militancy discomforted some Labor Party officials and disrupted industrial plants. One in particular deserves mention: George Seelaf of the meat workers union, who almost single-handedly set about establishing a major trade union clinic and hospital in the industrial western suburbs of Melbourne.

“COMMUNIST influence” remained a high-profile issue. The Trades Hall provided rooms for something called the Victorian Labor College, at which trade union officials could attend lectures on mechanistic Marxism and purchase books and leaflets published in Moscow on Marx’s thought and theories. Soviet propaganda films were shown free in the evening to anyone who cared to attend; generally they showed happy peasants toiling in collective fields to bring in the bountiful crops, or heroic Soviet soldiers in heavy overcoats charging towards terrified German invaders. You could easily see this activity as a communist effort to establish a Leninist revolutionary vanguard elite in Australia. The most promising trade union officials were taken on trips to party schools in Moscow and Beijing and inevitably returned full of praise for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Labor Party declared that the names of Labor Party members could not appear with communist candidates on “unity tickets” for union elections. Finding and exposing unity tickets was a favourite sport of the media and anti-Labor interests. Some unions expressed support for the construction of the notorious Berlin wall by the communist authorities, and some actively anti-American unions vigorously opposed Australian participation in the Vietnam war and supported the Soviet Union and Cuba through the Cuban missile crisis. Even for a young reporter covering trade union affairs, there was no avoiding the political and foreign policy implications of the cold war.

The brief but desperate 1962 Cuban missile confrontation between president John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was arguably as close as the cold war superpowers came to a nuclear exchange. As allies of the United States, Australians found themselves wondering anxiously and impotently whether they would be targeted. When, after a tense stand-off, Khrushchev finally agreed to remove Soviet missiles shipped clandestinely to Cuba in return for the US withdrawal of missiles from Turkey, the sighs of relief in Australia were as heartfelt as they were elsewhere in the world. Even the Brunswick churches held thanksgiving services for a world reprieved. In fact, the year 1983 would be, as we shall see, even more dangerous.

The Vietnam war was a true proxy war between Soviet-supported North Vietnam and the US-supported South. At huge costs to the nation’s political unity, the conservative Australian government committed forces to the conflict. It argued that Australia’s participation was the premium that had to be paid to preserve the US alliance and to stop “the downward thrust of communism.” It introduced selective conscription of twenty-year-old boys to ensure a supply of troops and it threw conscientious objectors into jail. To Labor and its supporters, Vietnam was a dirty, unwinnable war that was really a nationalist insurrection aiming to reunite the country after centuries of colonial repression. Selective conscription was seen by Labor as profoundly immoral; the so-called conscription birthday ballot created social divisions and strains (reflected in the Save Our Sons movement, the burning of draft cards, and the mass Vietnam Moratorium marches through city streets) that had not been seen since the failed conscription initiatives of the first world war.

When the war ended in 1975, more than 58,000 Americans and 521 Australians had died in Vietnam, and the US-led Western powers had suffered a debilitating defeat. In Brunswick and elsewhere, the dead were mourned by their families, but the nation treated the returning troops with little glory. The new Whitlam Labor government simply didn’t want to know or remember. And the political agenda became determinedly domestic even as Whitlam brought Australia’s troops home from Vietnam, released the conscientious objectors, and headed the then burgeoning international push to recognise the People’s Republic of China.

POSTED to London in 1977 as European correspondent for the Age I was confronted afresh by the reality of the cold war in ways far removed from the anxieties of Brunswick and the conflicts of the Trades Hall. The security debate was about the British independent nuclear deterrent and the “special relationship” with Washington. There was speculation about a neutron bomb, which was said to be particularly desirable because it destroyed people without destroying buildings. The rising British politician was Margaret Thatcher, a hardline anti-communist called “the iron lady” by the Soviets. As British prime minister she was to play an influential role in the closing years of the cold war, when she met the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and pronounced him “a man I can do business with.” Visits to NATO headquarters in Belgium were obligatory, and the dominant topic of conversation was how NATO forces would stop and defeat a Soviet battle tank thrust across the North German plain.

It was immediately clear that Brunswick and the Trades Hall, while views were sometimes fevered, didn’t really appreciate the sense of danger that troubled the Western Europeans, especially the Germans. A trip to East Berlin and Weimar in the German Democratic Republic revealed how poor, shabby and isolated life could be for people in the police state on the other side of the wall. A visit to a Soviet officers’ mess outside Weimar revealed that the best time to end the cold war would be after nine o’clock on any Saturday night: by then, the Soviet colonels and their wives were drunk on very bad brown vodka. Even the ordinary old pubs in Brunswick were classier than that officers’ mess.

And then in 1979, only a year before the Moscow Olympic games were due to take place, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Western powers responded with a partial boycott of the games, and what was meant to be a sporting event become a cold war political story. The Americans stayed away, drug-enhanced East German and Russian athletes dominated, and the patchy Australian team put on a fitful performance. The Soviets plainly didn’t enjoy the presence of the reporters from the West. At the daily Olympic Games press conferences a certain Mr Popov, speaking in English, told visiting reporters they would be expelled from the country if hostile reports kept appearing in the Western press. The games went on, but the cold war cast its chilly shadow as Russian soldiers were killed in increasing numbers by the US-armed and supported Mujahideen in Afghanistan. By the time they withdrew in 1989, some 15,000 Soviet troops had been killed. It was the Soviet Union’s Vietnam experience.

By 1984 I was in Washington, where President Ronald Reagan, in his second term of office, was restoring American self-confidence after the Vietnam debacle by challenging Soviet military power with a major conventional and nuclear arms build-up and declaring that it was “morning in America.” Reagan had made his “evil empire” and “Star Wars” speeches in 1983, foreshadowing a “strategic defence initiative” that would use an impervious, space-based defensive shield to destroy any missiles targeted on the United States. A Soviet fighter jet had shot down Korean airliner KAL007 in September 1983, and in November 1983 the NATO military command exercise, Able Archer, so terrified the ageing Soviet leadership that it ordered a full-scale nuclear alert. In the judgement of many experts, 1983 was the most dangerous year of the cold war.

In June of the following year, prime minister Bob Hawke acknowledged the country’s cold war fears in an important statement to parliament. Hawke’s assessment of East–West relations was grim. He spoke of the devastation of nuclear war and made an unprecedented acknowledgement that hosting the Pine Gap, Nurrungar and North West Cape joint facilities involved “some degree of added risk of nuclear attack.” But he outlined for the first time the bases’ role in giving the United States early warning of a nuclear attack, insisted that they contributed to global stability, and rejected calls for unilateral disarmament and their closure. It was an argument that was never accepted by thousands of Australians who, over the years, demonstrated outside the bases and took to the streets in Palm Sunday parades.

BY 1985 the procession of decrepit Soviet leaders – Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko – had all died and the vigorous Mikhail Gorbachev, freshly installed in the Kremlin, was aware that the cold war contest was becoming economically, technologically and politically unsustainable for the Soviet Union. The size, cost and lethality of US and Soviet arsenals was out of control. Arms reduction talks were taking place as the two sides argued about intermediate-range missile deployments to Western Europe; in the United States there was deep concern that Gorbachev was “the Russian Kennedy” and constituted a threat to American global superiority; in Eastern Europe long-suppressed populations were increasingly defiant of their puppet rulers backed by Soviet military power.

And so, in Geneva in November 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev started the series of summit meetings that became the prelude to the end of the cold war. They were to meet in Reykjavík, Washington DC, Moscow and finally, in December 1988, on Governor’s Island in New York. Any astute observer could see the post–cold war world coming into being despite uncertainties and setbacks.

Visiting Berlin in 1987, Reagan made his famous “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech. Standing with Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate it was possible to sense that the world created in 1945 was starting to collapse under the pressure of history and popular feeling on both sides of the wall. In the end Gorbachev didn’t have to tear down the wall: the German people took matters into their own hands and, watched by the world, breached it with sledgehammers and joy in November 1989 and set in motion the events that led to Germany’s reunification. In Washington, my neighbour was Mario Dederichs, correspondent for the German magazine Stern. He and his family rushed to Berlin to witness the destruction of the wall and his daughter returned with a fragment as a gift for me. It is still among my most valued souvenirs, a memento of the cold war that had shadowed my life since the taunts at North West Brunswick state school more than forty years earlier.

It was another seven years before I had the wit to invite Bernie Taft and Bob Santamaria to meet for the first time. A full account of the meeting was published in the Australian Financial Review magazine on 29 November 1996. The two old cold war warriors – Taft, the German-Jewish communist, and Santamaria, the Italian Catholic anti-communist – found that their economic and social views had converged significantly since the collapse of the Soviet system and the rise of fundamentalist free-market economic orthodoxy. They shared a deep sense of the injustices created by prevailing maldistributions of wealth and power, and Taft acknowledged his pleasure at Santamaria’s declared sympathy for parts of the Marxist view.

For all their influence both men said they were somewhat disappointed at what they had achieved in life, but both said they were still fighting hard to change economic and moral values that affronted them and threatened the future happiness of their grandchildren. They obviously enjoyed the meeting and each other’s company, and Taft, deeply impressed, later said, “You know that man could have been prime minister.” Regrettably, we didn’t traverse the history of the cold war, but their personal rapprochement in Santamaria’s North Melbourne office seemed at the time a modest but appropriate coda to the vast, impersonal world struggle in which they had fought and that had started painfully for me when some kids at school called my father a commo. •