April 2010

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Kissinger & Burchett

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Wilfred Burchett was a tad wary when he presented his ID to the sentry at the White House on a foggy morning in October 1971. His passport was Cuban and his UN press pass restricted him to New York. But the marine waved him through and, sure enough, President Nixon’s national security adviser was waiting in the West Wing to greet him.

Burchett reported on wars, making little effort to hide his partisan sympathies. Henry Kissinger made wars, unfussed by notions of neutrality or civilian casualties. Both traded in information and knew their way around the back channels. The peace talks in Paris had stalled and Kissinger wanted to know what the Australian journalist’s friends in the North Vietnamese politburo were thinking.

At first sight, the smiling Kissinger reminded Burchett of an indulgent headmaster from his school days. Breakfast was served and terms agreed. The conversation was to be off the record, but Kissinger would not be heartbroken if the fact of their meeting became known.

To begin, like two dogs circling each other, they discussed China, sharing their mutual admiration for Zhou Enlai. The subject soon shifted to the negotiations in Paris. Kissinger probed Burchett on the top personalities in the Hanoi leadership. He was frustrated by the intransigence of the Reds. They were unwilling to be bombed into submission and allow the Americans to set their own departure timetable. Their language was insufficiently deferential. Their peace plan was “a bore”.

Burchett, as tubby and bespectacled as his host, had just spent six months crawling through Vietcong tunnels witnessing firsthand the effects of American air power. He countered that being stuck with the corrupt Saigon regime must have been an even bigger bore. The coldness of Kissinger’s eyes, he noted, belied the warmth of his smile.

The phone rang. It was Nixon, finetuning a communiqué announcing a presidential visit to the Soviet Union. Talk then circled back to China, where Kissinger was enmeshed in secret negotiations that would shortly lead to its recognition by the US.

Returning to New York, Burchett got word that Kissinger considered their chat “fruitful”. It was not Burchett’s insights he valued, however, so much as the hope their meeting would be read in Hanoi as a signal that America’s intention to withdraw was genuine. For his part, Burchett got a scoop on Nixon’s forthcoming trip to Moscow.

After decades of vilification in his native land, Wilfred Burchett died in Bulgaria in 1983. His ghost still haunts the concentric trenches of Australian academia. The innumerable crimes of Henry Kissinger remain unpunished.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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