Inside Story

The undiplomatic diplomat

Extract | Posted to Chungking in 1941, Keith Waller found his allies almost as challenging as the enemy

Alan Fewster 8 February 2018 4444 words

“After a time one becomes conscious of the fact that one is a Sahib”: Keith Waller continues to work while being carried in a “four-man chair,” Chungking, c. 1942. Sir Keith and Lady Waller Collection, National Library of Australia

In September 1941, as Japan threatened the Southeast Asian mainland, a young Australian diplomat, Keith Waller, arrived in China’s beleaguered capital, Chungking (or Chongqing, as it is now known). As Alan Fewster writes in a new biography, Waller, who had never travelled overseas, was to open a new post for a head of mission who was old, inexperienced and in poor health. What could possibly go wrong?

The old Douglas DC-2 gave a lurch and began to weave its way downward towards Chungking. Through the port window, Keith Waller saw the confluence of two muddy rivers. One, the Yangtze, was huge; the other, the Chialing, was smaller and more swiftly flowing. A promontory divided the two bodies of water like a giant, mud-caked finger. Through the haze created by thousands of coal cooking fires, it appeared to Waller as if derelict houses covered every square inch of land. Their mud walls were grey; their roofs were grey. Everything was grey.

The aircraft taxied to a standstill on a rocky island in the middle of the Yangtze. Someone wrenched the door open: the heat was suddenly intense. A strange odour pervaded the cabin. The smell — garlic, smoke, decaying vegetation and human excrement — was a compound that the young diplomat would come to know well in the next three years.

Waller had often fantasised about this moment. Senior diplomats had recounted to him the experience of arriving in a great capital as a head of mission: the blue-and-gold carriages of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits slipping quietly through the snow-covered countryside; the hiss of steam as a giant locomotive glided into a domed railway station; the ambassador stepping onto the platform to be greeted by the flash of press cameras and lantern light glinting on the cuirasses of a royal guard presenting arms. Waller had pictured it all so clearly — yet here he was: alone, friendless, no ambassador, no newsmen or royal guard; not even a comforting sleeping car. Only a derelict aircraft and the smell of shit, which settled on him like a pall.

Clambering down the makeshift steps, he now perceived that what had seemed but a small island from the air was, in fact, quite large. Where he now stood, the round river stones had been cleared away and replaced by a narrow concrete runway. The airstrip was completely bare — no customs shed or waiting room — but there were some officials, clad in grubby khaki uniforms. Waller felt inexpressibly lonely. The group broke up, and two men stepped forward with hands outstretched. Looking more closely, Waller noticed that one of the pair looked European. This was Edmund Victor Burgoyne, a Chinese–Australian engaged locally as a member of the British embassy staff. The other man was a member of the protocol department of the Chinese foreign ministry, the Waichiaopu. Waller’s spirits lifted. One of the uniformed Chinese stamped Waller’s passport as Burgoyne said, “We must climb to the road.”

Picking their way through the boulders and shingle to the river’s edge, the trio reached some sampans, tied together. Two bearers dumped Waller’s bags into the bottom of one boat and he got in, perching gingerly on a narrow thwart. Pushing off, the vessel was immediately caught in the current and carried quickly downstream, apparently bound for Shanghai and Japanese territory. In the stern, working his single oar frantically, Waller’s boatman manoeuvred the craft towards the relatively quiet reaches of the city side of the river.

The riverbank facing him was unlike any he had seen. From sand and shingle at the water’s edge, a muddy cliff rose almost sheer, with odd grey-black houses on stilts somehow perched on the less precipitous sections. There was no sign of the road that Burgoyne had mentioned, although Waller could hear the hum of traffic far above. But that sound was all but drowned out by the rush of the water all about him, and by the grunts of his boatman, poling his sampan towards a patch of sand on the riverbank. Once Waller had disembarked, two sweating men carried him in a sedan chair up 292 stone steps cut into the bank. Waller had the grace to feel sorry for them.

He comforted himself by reflecting that it would have been much worse had they been carrying the portly Frederic Eggleston, his head of mission, who was yet to arrive. A solicitor by profession and a former member of the Victorian parliament, “the Egg,” as Waller nicknamed him, had attended many conferences under the auspices of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, the Institute of Pacific Affairs and similar bodies, and was one of a handful of Australians who had an international outlook during the 1920s and 30s.

Panting a farewell to the protocol officer, Waller and Burgoyne collapsed into the back of an ancient black Ford the British embassy had sent for them. The car took them to Chungking’s premier hotel, the Chialing House, a fine modern building of grey stucco overlooking the river valley. After the smashed city they had just left, the place looked the epitome of luxury. But Waller would find on closer inspection that the bedrooms had no carpet, their furniture was rudimentary, and the bathrooms came with only intermittent cold water (never hot) and their toilets never flushed — principally because they had never been connected to the water.

They might, said Burgoyne, call on the British ambassador. Suggesting that perhaps Waller was a trifle overdressed, Burgoyne explained that working rig for China was khaki shorts and an open-necked shirt. As he bathed and changed from the now less-than-pristine grey tropical suit he’d donned that morning, Waller thought of the diplomatic uniforms, medals, gold braid, striped pants and morning coats of European diplomacy.

As they walked to the embassy, Burgoyne regaled an increasingly unnerved Waller with war stories. Five thousand Chinese had suffocated when a bomb had exploded at the entrance of one of the largest shelters. Fires had raged for days after another big raid. Waller’s gloom mounted. He had already forgotten the correct sequence of air-raid warning signals. Would the servants — who were supposed to rouse him — remember to do so, or should he be left to die in his bed? How would he find his way to the embassy’s dugout in the dark amid an excited crowd of Chinese?

Waller’s first task, to find accommodation for the Australian Legation, was hampered by the manifest unsuitability of the houses identified by the Chinese foreign ministry: they were either not for lease or, having been bombed out, non-existent. But rebuilding had commenced in the heart of Chungking, and the Australians soon moved into a compound of between two and three acres on the south bank of the Yangtze. The building, constructed of simple adobe, was large enough to serve as both chancery and accommodation. He described the site to Alfred Stirling, then serving as the Department of External Affairs liaison officer in London: “We have a pleasant garden and a lovely view across a landscape strongly reminiscent of the strong colours of Cezanne or van Gogh.”

Waller drew pen portraits of his foreign colleagues. He admired the British ambassador, Archibald Clark Kerr (an Australian-born Scot), immensely. “He is tremendously human with a complete and overwhelming contempt for forms and ceremonies and yet an ability to carry them out efficiently and with dignity which leaves nothing to be desired,” he wrote home. The ambassador’s only weakness was his “complete inability” to find fault with the Chinese. This attitude had vitiated his judgement on “vital questions,” said Waller. Clark Kerr’s successor, Sir Horace Seymour, lacked “the almost overwhelming charm” of Clark Kerr, but Waller thought he “may prove a sounder man.”

Waller tried not to dislike the British number two, Sir Andrew Noble, an old Etonian, who had attended Balliol College, Oxford. Noble was “one of the most unpleasant people I have ever met,” he wrote to John Hood, a colleague in Canberra, and described the Englishman’s manners as “chillingly offensive.” Waller knew the US ambassador, Clarence Gauss, from the American’s most recent posting, which had been to Canberra. Gauss’s counsellor, John Carter Vincent, was a revelation — the first person Waller had met who said “boids” and “woids,” and who had found that there were no “goils” in Chungking.

Burgoyne impressed Waller greatly. Born in Shanghai, the young man was the son of an Australian missionary and a Chinese woman. His parents and sisters were now in Japanese territory in Shanghai. He was patient and personable, and his language skills were excellent. Overruling the objections of Noble, Clark Kerr had released Burgoyne to the Australians, and Canberra in due course approved Waller’s recommendation that they employ him as Eggleston’s private secretary on an annual salary of £475.

After only ten days, having left Burgoyne to continue preparations, Waller returned to Rangoon to await the arrival of Eggleston, whose progress, from Singapore, accompanied by John Quinn from External Affairs, had been rather more leisurely than his own. Waller tried to organise for Eggleston the kind of welcome to Rangoon he had been so disappointed not to receive in Chungking. “I had the Military Secretary to the Governor, with a vast car and the modern equivalent of postilions in splendid white uniforms, turbans, red breastplates edged with gold wire, with peacocks worked on them and short swords on their belts,” he wrote to Hood. “They really looked quite splendid.”

But Waller’s Gilbertian plans came to naught when Eggleston failed to emerge from the flying boat when it put down. It took all of Waller’s tact and his profuse apologies to prevent “hasty words” from being said. When Eggleston did finally arrive, the young diplomat was unable to repeat the same gorgeous display, and his excellency “had to be content with a few civilians with flowers in their button holes and a consul or two.” Although Eggleston did not care for the club where Waller had put him up — he saw the “dead hand of the British Raj… upon it” — nor for the Indian servant whom Waller had engaged to minister to his boss, he soon recovered, and quickly grew restless. Waller sought to keep him occupied, while peppering Burgoyne with detailed letters full of information, instructions and questions about domestic issues:

I have ordered two zinc baths… Do you want any pedestals or thunder boxes? Can we have a septic tank built and if so, how soon? I am particularly anxious about this. Do you want any water pipes sent up from Rangoon? What about paint? I presume we will heat the house with stoves. Can you get these in Chungking.

Eggleston found the members of the Burmese civil service, on whom Waller had organised calls, second rate, and a waste of his time. A luxurious rail trip in a private carriage complete with nine servants (the cost of which was borne personally by Eggleston) to the northern Shan states was an interesting enough diversion. At the mining town of Namtu, Waller was staggered to emerge from the jungle to find that an area of ten square miles had been completely denuded by mining operations. Their host, Reginald Dorman Smith, the local governor and a former junior minister in Neville Chamberlain’s British government, was a “decent enough fellow,” Waller thought, “but extremely limited.”

Race and class: Sir Frederic Eggleston’s credentials ceremony, c. November 1941. Keith Waller is standing behind Eggleston’s left shoulder. Sir Keith and Lady Waller Collection, National Library of Australia

Eggleston’s crack about the dead hand of the Raj had given Waller pause to consider questions of race and class. He was honest enough to confess to Hood that while what Eggleston had said was “probably true,” he himself “did not mind it [i.e. having servants] so terribly.” He was, he wrote, “not so sensitive, either to dead hands or the British Raj, as some people.” Waller claimed that in the two months he had spent in Burma he had never become accustomed to seeing an Indian “spring to attention whenever I passed within fifty yards of him.” The young diplomat could still write: “After a time one becomes conscious of the fact that one is a Sahib… my trouble [is] that I couldn’t quite help thinking of the Indians as human beings, and I am told that is fatal.” It was, in fact, this innate egalitarianism that had led to his instinctive dislike of Noble. In an early letter, he had described how the British first secretary had snubbed a woman seated next to him at an official luncheon because she was employed as a typist.

Soon after Eggleston’s arrival in late October 1941, the Australians received advice from China’s foreign ministry about how and when the minister, or head of mission, was to present his credentials. Waller described the day: their own ridiculous attire, “evening dress with top hats and white gloves… a pretty grim rig for 10 o’clock in the morning”; the master of ceremonies in his ancient top hat, “a truncated cone with a good deal of the nap worn off”; and the almost total insouciance displayed by the Chinese as the “eccentric foreign devils” paraded through the city’s ancient streets. In the culmination of the event:

We entered with stately tread, stopping every few yards to bow. Finally, we were all arrayed before the president [Li Sen], a dear old boy who lives in retirement and is only trotted out for performances of this nature. The Minister then read his little speech, which a self-important young man from the Chinese Foreign Office translated. He had a most spectacular although rather grubby celluloid shirt, which took my eye. The president replied and we all proceeded to walk out of the room backwards.

Waller was unable to reconcile himself to the “hideous” inefficiency and corruption of the Chinese government and military, telling Hood that even allowing for the war, there was no comparison with British Burma. “One can’t talk about them in the same breath,” he wrote. He was also becoming increasingly sceptical of “legends” about Chinese culture:

I still hear the Chinese saying, “Of course, when your ancestors wore woad, we were already highly civilised.” But that is only true to the extent that perhaps one-thousandth part of 1 per cent of the population had acquired a very remarkable knowledge of things we now regard as civilisation. For instance, assuming that a knowledge of relativity was taken by some future age to represent the criterion of civilisation, you could hardly say that Germany was civilised because it had produced Einstein.

Waller’s first meeting (with Eggleston) with general Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Chinese republic, was somewhat unconventional. As Waller explained in a letter to a friend, the two Australians, having been summoned to a meeting, “climbed the inevitable steps to the house. Usually… one is shown into a room with no one in it, and the person whom one is going to see comes in to you; [this] enables one to regain one’s breath after climbing the steps.” This time, however, they were shown straight into a drawing room and found themselves shaking hands with “a small inoffensive man before we knew where we were.” The man had his back to the light and by the time that Waller and Eggleston had recovered their breath they were surprised to see that the man was Chiang himself. He was, thought Waller, “very nervous, quite small and of course very like his pictures, with rather nice eyes and a pleasant smile and shakes hands as if he meant it.”

Invited to dinner two days later, they arrived to find Madam Chiang holding court, with “everyone sitting around in a circle listening with an open mouth.” Chiang’s arrival ten minutes later put an end to conversation. “From then on, we just sat and gazed,” reported Waller. He had heard stories that the generalissimo was “pretty fed up” with his wife’s self-appointed role as the power behind the throne, and he was not surprised. At one point, when the translator was interpreting some remark of Eggleston’s, Chiang made a note in small book. “As soon as he had finished writing she leant across to pick up the tablet to see what he had written, whereupon he quietly put it on the bottom shelf of a table where she couldn’t reach it.”

In late November Waller wrote to Angus McLachlan, the news editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, on the pretext of thanking him for the newspaper’s coverage of Eggleston’s credentials ceremony (the “SMH did us proud”). In an extraordinary letter, Waller, who knew McLachlan from his time working as a liaison officer for the Department of Information, unburdened himself in confidence about the Chinese, who, he said, were “just about hopeless”:

The place is riddled with corruption and inefficiency, diluted only by the maudlin sentimentality which foreign visitors, particularly foreign writers, lavish on China. When I think about the number of times I have described China as a democracy I could laugh till I was sick. China is about as far from being a democracy as the earth from the sun.

There is this, however, that almost all people live in the same exceedingly squalid conditions and almost all wear the same filthy rags… you will find, say, the Minister for Agriculture wearing the same clothes as your servant. China is democratic to that extent. For instance, if the American Ambassador has to put on a top hat and go to a reception in the Russian Embassy, he crosses in the same ferry as his coolie who is going to buy vegetables for dinner. They… jostle one another in the squeeze to get out. If that be democracy, China is a democracy, but politically, No.

Citing the example of China’s severe lack of small arms ammunition (at that moment it was down to six months’ supply, which was being consumed faster than arsenals could replace it), Waller told McLachlan he believed that China had no intention of fighting the Japanese. “All she is waiting for is for the Democracies to win the war and help her out of her fix. Having done that we shall then proceed to lend China support which in her turn she will use to kick us out.” Waller saw the only hope for China in “the younger intellectuals and the communists” who were apparently the only people in the country prepared to do an honest day’s work.

By April 1942, Waller’s circumstances had deteriorated sharply. “The situation here looks black,” he wrote to Stirling. Unless there was a “miracle” of the kind that saved the British army at Dunkirk, the Allies would lose China, India and Burma. The whole thing turned on “Russia’s ability to hold Germany and Japan at the same time, or our ability to enter Europe.” Waller could not see how the Allies could possibly do this with the troops at their disposal at that moment. No move against Europe was possible until American industrial production went from “the stage of paper boasting to reality,” and the Allies had steeled themselves for “shipping losses and plane losses on a large scale.”

Burma was “half gone,” Waller continued. Two under-strength British divisions had carried the brunt of the battle since the Japanese entered Burma in January. The Burma Road was cut. China had no means of getting supplies from India. If Mandalay fell, there was no prospect of developing an alternative road for at least two years. Worse, there was little hope of an air route from India unless Mandalay held, because the Himalayan passes were too high to be used during the monsoons or at night with a full moon. “It looks like Chungking will be cut off altogether and we may be faced with the problem of getting out as best we can. Not a pleasant prospect.” Waller could not prophesy how their Chinese hosts would react. “At present we are as popular with them as rats under the house… but they may take us to their bosoms and turn on the Americans. A dreary and uninviting prospect with little in it to inspire hope.”

From almost the day they arrived, Waller and Eggleston had badgered External Affairs in Canberra for official news on the progress of the war. Waller’s entreaties to Hood for a response to his letters, and to telegrams and dispatches he and Eggleston had written, at first jocular, became increasingly desperate as the months passed. Eggleston was almost frantic, sending similar requests for information to the head of the Department of External Affairs, Roy Hodgson. By May, Chungking, with only a “problematic” link with the Soviet Union, was almost cut off by the Japanese advance. Waller blamed their “splendid isolation,” unrelieved by receipt of a diplomatic bag from Canberra for four months, entirely on Hodgson. When, finally, the department in Canberra began sending more regular information bulletins, it received scant thanks from Waller in Chungking:

Your weekly bulletins never really tell us anything about the fighting or the armed forces in Australia. It might interest you to learn that I receive regular reports from a non-British, non-Chinese source on the American troops and equipment in Australia, on the shipping position, on McArthur’s move to Brisbane, not to mention a dozen other things, such as the state of the occupied islands, about which I presume you are informed but do not see fit to tell us. It’s somewhat humiliating to be given information about one’s own country by non-British sources.

Eggleston and Waller sent an average of two reporting telegrams daily but never received the “slightest indication” as to whether their product was of any use. Furious, Waller wrote an extraordinary letter to McLachlan. In it, he recklessly called for Hodgson’s sacking and asked his friend to apprise the external affairs minister, H.V. Evatt, of the situation. The Department of External Affairs may be a “grand place for intellect” but it was “a trifle light on organisation,” Waller wrote:

Hodgson seems quite satisfied as long as he receives his salary and there is never the slightest interest of what is happening here or any attempt to put life into our relations with the Department. He needs either a shaking up or a shaking out. My wrath in the matter is as nothing compared to the Minister’s, who would, I believe, hurl Hodgson out into the road without a moment’s hesitation.

I wish you would get Evatt… and tell him that from reports you receive from your spies abroad, there is grave dissatisfaction with Hodgson’s attitude to the missions abroad. If ever the Minister [Eggleston] reaches his native land again, he will be after Hodgson with a flaming sword so that if you could use your influence with the powers that be, it might save Hodgson from a worse fate.

For an Australian government official to go outside the chain of command in this way, to criticise his superior — and to a journalist, no less — was extraordinary; the letter was a huge risk. Waller had used none of the traditional caveats favoured by diplomats to protect themselves from the damage caused by the public disclosure of controversial comments. He had not, for example, indicated that his criticism of Hodgson was for McLachlan’s eyes only, nor had he asked that his identity as the author of the comments be protected.

If McLachlan chose to publish what Waller had told him, the young diplomat would be unable credibly to claim later that his attack on Hodgson had been taken out of context or was a breach of confidence. Having worked for Keith Murdoch in the Department of Information in the earliest days of the war, Waller, more than anyone in External Affairs, knew the difference between the kind of comment made when, as a “government source,” he wore an official cloak of anonymity and the kind of incendiary criticism of Hodgson contained in this semi-official letter he had taken the trouble to write on headed paper, and to address to McLachlan at the Herald.

Waller was convinced that all the Allies’ recent reverses in the Far East might have been avoided if British policy-makers had made plans based on the very high-quality information they were receiving from their diplomats (and others) abroad. “The British really are very able,” he told McLachlan. “Don’t let anyone try and convince you to the contrary… They have some of the best cloak and dagger experts on the job and they receive some extraordinarily good information. But, as God is my judge, they do not do a single thing with it.” He believed that the Allies’ policy of appeasement towards Japan, based “rightly” on their fear of fighting on two fronts, had been a mistake because they had woefully underestimated Japan’s strength. The reason for this underestimation was easy to identify: “A does not tell B and A’s department does not pass on the information to B’s department; nor does there exist a centralising authority which can co-ordinate the information which is received.”

The Allies’ position in China was indeed precarious. The British were treated with ill-disguised hostility. The pro-Kuomintang attitude of the US press and the “literary saccharine” that had been lavished on China was contributing to a positive attitude towards America, but Waller thought that what would later become the “China lobby” would do nothing in the long term to really improve Sino-American relations. If China pulled out of the war, the Allies could not beat Japan, “at least, not within a generation.”

China’s position was paradoxical. Everything pointed to its collapse: economic chaos, fantastic prices, currency inflation, graft, corruption, the army’s ineptitude, the loss of communication with the United States following reverses in Burma, the deterioration of military morale and civilian war weariness. Waller believed that China would stay in the fight but that it would be a “damned near thing.” About the only spark of light was the “indomitable spirit” of the Russians, who had “not the slightest doubt” of their ability to defeat Germany. The Soviet counsellor in Chungking had spoken to the Australian of his conviction that Hitler would be “caput” by year’s end. “That is the way to talk,” Waller wrote to Hood, “not all this hoo-ha about long wars and winning in the end. Let us have action.” •

Keith Waller survived his experience in China, and thirty years later was an architect of Australia’s recognition of the People’s Republic. He was the first professional diplomat posted as ambassador in Washington, and a reforming Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs from 1970 to 1974.

This is an edited excerpt from Alan Fewster’s Three Duties and Talleyrand’s Dictum: Keith Waller: Portrait of a Working Diplomat, published this month by Australian Scholarly Publishing.