Agent of influence
Reassessing Wilfred Burchett
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Following the collapse of communism in Europe and the conversion of China from Marxism-Leninism to an unpleasantly authoritarian version of Market-Leninism, the reputation of Wilfred Burchett, the most controversial and influential communist in Australian history, seemed destined gradually to sink. Oddly enough, this has by no means been the case. At present two Australians, Ross Fitzgerald and Simon Nasht, are reported to be making films on Burchett. In the past three or so years, Melbourne University Press has published a long pro-Burchett biography, Tom Heenan's From Traveller to Traitor; the University of New South Wales Press, an enormous unabridged autobiography, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist; and Cambridge University Press, an anthology of Burchett's work, Rebel Journalism: The Writings of Wilfred Burchett. The reception to these publications revealed that Burchett is, in general, still supported by leading Australian left-wing academics, like Stuart Macintyre, Gavan McCormack and Ben Kiernan; by some of its most prominent expatriate left-wing journalists, like John Pilger and Phillip Knightley; and by some talented student Leftists as well (last year a stridently pro-Burchett thesis won a University of Sydney undergraduate prize).
The recent rise in Wilfred Burchett's reputation is not difficult to explain. Part of the reason lies in the determination of George Burchett, who has been an intrepid defender of his father's literary legacy and political standing. Part of it lies in the rise of anti-American sentiment among the Australian intelligentsia, following the unlawful and catastrophic invasion of Iraq. Part of it lies in the parochialism of many members of the Australian Left, who seem to be more shocked by the injustice of the Menzies government's denial of a passport to Burchett after his exploits during the Korean War than they are by Burchett's lifelong apologetics on behalf of a string of murderous regimes.
But there is more to it than that. The Burchett revival is founded upon a distinctive form of post-Cold War intellectual inertia, an unwillingness to re-examine judgements made during the Cold War. There are three main reasons for this inertia. The first is vanity or pride. Those who have once been utterly convinced of a cause do not find it easy to admit they were wrong. The second is rancour. Many people find it galling to make retrospective concessions to old enemies over matters on which they had once dug in. The third concerns the peculiar nature of political friendships formed in times of intense ideological dispute. People feel that breaking ranks with old political comrades on whom they once relied involves betrayal or breach of faith. For these reasons many of Wilfred Burchett's supporters seem unwilling to reconsider the Burchett question, despite everything they know about the human catastrophe of communism, the cause on which Burchett gambled in his youth and to which, despite the pyramids of corpses, he clung for the entirety of his adult life.
This kind of inertia is not, of course, restricted to the Left. Many of Burchett's enemies seem incapable of reassessing their support for indefensible causes, like the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian communists in the mid '60s, or the war in Vietnam, where opposition to American behaviour turned out to be right. The unwillingness of politicians like John Howard, or journalists like Greg Sheridan or Gerard Henderson, to confront the military failure and the human cost of Australia's earlier involvement in Vietnam helped make possible our enthusiastic participation in the even more disastrous invasion of Iraq. In the US, the intellectual inertia of the Right has been of real historical significance. The members of the group most responsible for the Iraq invasion - the neo-conservative intelligentsia - were united in their belief that the Vietnam War was just and that America had been defeated only because of left-wing treachery on the home front.
Wilfred Burchett is not well known to a younger generation of Australians. His far from uninteresting life can be outlined like this. Burchett was a self-educated country lad from Victoria whose family was radicalised by the Great Depression. In 1936 he and his brother travelled to London, where Wilfred worked for some time with the Soviet Travel Agency, Intourist, and where he married a German-Jewish refugee, Erna Hammer. In 1938 Burchett and his wife entered Germany. Having witnessed post-Kristallnacht Nazi anti-Semitism, he sought to help Jews escape to Australia. In 1939 Burchett returned home and became a journalist. During the war, he worked as a correspondent for several newspapers in Australia and Britain, reporting from Burma and China. He also published several left-wing but not obviously communist books. At the end of the Pacific War, Burchett followed the Allied troops to Japan. He and a fellow Daily Express journalist, Henry Keys, went to see what had happened at Hiroshima. The report Burchett wrote there, which was published in London as a warning to the world, and which is uncontroversially the most important piece of journalism he ever wrote, did not endear him to American military authorities.
During the early part of the Cold War, Burchett moved to occupied Germany and travelled frequently to the countries of Eastern and Central Europe that the Soviet armed forces had liberated and occupied. He wrote two books, Cold War in Germany and Peoples' Democracies. Both are the works of a committed communist. The former was short-listed for the Stalin Prize; the latter treated the idea that Tito was a tool of Anglo-American imperialism as incontrovertible fact and reported with uncritical enthusiasm the Stalin show trials. In the conclusion of Peoples' Democracies Burchett expressed the hope that in 20 years' time the whole world might share in the liberties already enjoyed by the citizens of Eastern and Central Europe. Burchett now met and shortly after married a young Bulgarian communist, Vessa Ossikovska, with whom he would remain for the rest of his life. Burchett returned to Australia in 1950, where he lectured on the splendid new socialist societies of Eastern and Central Europe and agitated against Menzies' referendum on banning the Communist Party.
Before the referendum was held, Burchett moved to communist China. He quickly wrote a book praising the wonderful achievements already made. This was the time of the Korean War. On 13 July 1951 he went with the Chinese to Korea to cover the peace talks at Kaesong. Burchett worked in tandem with the British communist Alan Winnington. Many of their reports were broadcast over the New China News Agency. They also published three books together. Burchett visited several communist-controlled prisoner-of-war camps. Among the prisoners held in these camps were several hundred Australians, some of whom Burchett either lectured to or met. In early 1952 the Chinese initiated an international campaign accusing the US of waging bacteriological warfare in Korea. Burchett not only reported extensively on this theme with eyewitness accounts. In the POW camps he also became involved in preparing the texts of the "germ warfare" confessions of some of the captured American pilots.
In 1954 Burchett established a connection with the leadership of the Vietnamese communists - with Ho Chi Minh it was "love at first sight" - in the last stages of their war against the French. After the Geneva Conference, which settled the Vietnamese conflict on the basis of a temporary partition and a national election in 1956, he settled in Hanoi. Because of his Korean War activities, which at the time were widely regarded in Australia as treason, when Burchett lost his passport in 1955 the Menzies government decided it would not be replaced.
In 1956 the first anti-communist revolution in history erupted in Hungary. It was crushed by Soviet troops and its leaders executed. Both at the time and subsequently, Burchett unambiguously approved. He chose this time to move his family to Moscow, from where he wrote a number of unreadable books on the Soviet Union's triumphs in space and on Khrushchev's "harebrained" schemes to cultivate the virgin Siberian wastes. In the early '60s relations between Moscow and Beijing broke down. Burchett wholly supported Mao's ideological line, which involved advocacy of a more confrontational policy with the US and Chinese possession of a nuclear bomb. Until he quit Moscow in 1965 he seems, though, to have kept these opinions to himself.
Burchett's life was provided with new meaning by the stirring in the early '60s of the guerrilla war in South Vietnam, led by North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front, following the refusal of the US and the government of South Vietnam to hold the national election. Burchett wrote a series of books, from the communist point of view, on this war and on the politics of Cambodia and Laos. As the American military became embroiled in Vietnam and as anti-war feeling grew throughout the West, Burchett's journalistic and political work became more significant than at any other time in his life. Understanding the value of propaganda, the North Vietnamese government took great pains to facilitate his movement through the NLF-occupied areas of the South. Burchett helped Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times and, later, Mary McCarthy visit Hanoi during the period of American bombing. He acted as a go-between in delicate American-North Vietnamese negotiations over prisoner-of-war exchanges. On one occasion the North Vietnamese foreign minister chose him as the journalist for an interview which offered the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough. At the Paris peace talks Burchett played an important corridor role. During the period of American disengagement the US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, met Burchett in Washington.
During this period, as the political culture moved leftward, the question of Burchett's passport became a cause célèbre in Australia and around the world, for both civil libertarians and the Left. In 1969 Burchett landed passport-less in Australia, but without result. In December 1972, his passport was returned, as one of the first symbolic acts of the Whitlam government's new broom in foreign policy. Shortly after, he returned to China and with the New Zealander Rewi Alley wrote an unambiguously pro-Maoist book.
The last decade of Burchett's life was troubled. In Australia, Burchett sued the Democratic Labor Party senator Jack Kane for an article which reported the evidence given in Washington by a Soviet defector, Yuri Krotkov, about Burchett's mid-'50s connections with the KGB. Although the jury agreed that Burchett had been defamed, he lost both the case, on the grounds that the article represented a fair report of parliamentary proceedings, and the appeal, on the grounds that a retrial would financially disadvantage Kane. Because he could not afford to pay Kane's costs, which had involved bringing witnesses to his behaviour in Korea and Vietnam from around the world, Burchett was forced into a second exile.
He was by now close to Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, who was politically allied to the Khmer Rouge and the Chinese. Before the fall of Cambodia to the communists in early 1975, Burchett wrote with Sihanouk My War with the CIA. Following the fall, he hoped to write the first book on the splendid new Khmer Rouge regime. Cambodian refugees were telling terrible stories of massive killings at this time, but like most of the Left Burchett discounted them entirely. In December 1978 the Vietnamese decided to mount an invasion of Cambodia. Burchett now changed his mind. He flew into action with a series of ferocious articles portraying Pol Pot as the new Hitler. As China supported the Khmer Rouge and placed military pressure on Hanoi, his relations with Beijing, already strained, completely broke down. Burchett had already supported the Soviet side in the civil wars of Angola and Mozambique against the de-facto alliance of China and the United States. His last serious act before his death, in 1983, was to support the Soviet peace campaign in Europe against the pre-Gorbachev Reagan military build-up, with a new book recalling the horror of Hiroshima. Burchett had by now drifted back to support for the general international line of the Soviet Union. He was still partial to the frozen Stalinist regime of North Korea. But the only communist regime he truly loved was the one located in Hanoi. As John Pilger has put it, the Vietnamese alone had never let him down.
On her deathbed Gertrude Stein was asked, "What is the answer?" To which she replied, "What is the question?" Her comment is singularly appropriate in any attempt to assess Wilfred Burchett's life. There are many different Burchett questions. It is important that they are not confused.
Throughout his life Burchett claimed that he was an independent radical who, during the highly polarised era of the Cold War, merely reported on world events "from the other side". He always denied that he was a communist. In general, his supporters believed he was telling the truth. They still do. His enemies claim he lied and that he was a communist throughout his life. Who is right?
The question about whether Burchett was a communist has two possible meanings. One is this: Did Burchett unwaveringly support the cause of communism? The answer could not be clearer. George Orwell once said of himself that every word he had written since 1936 had been in favour of democratic socialism and against totalitarianism. With even greater truth it could be said of Burchett that every word he wrote after 1945 was in favour of communism and against American imperialism. There is only one complication here. Following the split between Stalin and Tito, in 1948, communism was not a monolithic but a fractured movement. All communists were obliged to take sides. In 1948, like virtually all communists, Burchett chose the Stalinist line against Tito's "nationalist" deviation. In the early '60s he (secretly) chose the Maoist interpretation of Marxism-Leninism against the "revisionism" of Khrushchev. During the '70s Burchett was altogether unattracted to a more democratic alternative sponsored by the Western parties, including the Communist Party of Australia, known as Euro-communism. In the late '70s he supported the Soviet-leaning line of the Vietnamese communists against both the Khmer Rouge and the post-Mao economically rational Chinese. Despite these choices between the different lines in the movement that Burchett was obliged to make, regarding the general political question - Was he a communist? - there can be no doubt. From 1945 until his death, he was.
The second question about Burchett's communism is narrower and more precise. Was he a formal, or as it used to be called, card-carrying member of the Australian Communist Party? During the defamation trial in Sydney Burchett was asked whether he had ever been a member of the Australian party. He answered no. It is certain that he lied. Two communist friends of Burchett who later defected to the West - the Soviet KGB operative Yuri Krotkov and the Hungarian journalist-intellectual Tibor Méray, who worked with Burchett in Korea and whose memoir, On Burchett, was published earlier this year - both claimed that he told them he was an undercover member of the Australian Communist Party. Méray's evidence is most convincing.
I always knew that Burchett was a communist. He told me so without delay after we first met. He hastened to add that though he was a member of the Australian Communist Party, this was a secret as far as non-communists were concerned and the outside world should know him as an independent who did not belong to any party.
There was an obvious political reason why Burchett did not admit to being a communist. If he had done so, it would have been far easier for non-communists to dismiss his writing in advance. Méray was not in the least surprised to find that Burchett was an undercover member of the party. Having witnessed the way the Hungarian Communist Party had come to power, he knew that the cultivation of undercover members was for communist parties, whose political culture was rooted in the traditions of the revolutionary Russian underground, a routine political device.
The evidence of Krotkov and Méray is based on memory. Does any documentary evidence exist? The scholar Peter Hruby recently found the smoking gun in the Czechoslovak Communist Party archives. In 1950 Burchett became the target of a Czech whispering campaign which suggested that he was an agent of either American or British imperialism. On 13 July 1951, in an attempt to clear his name, Burchett wrote a letter to the leading Australian communist Ernie Thornton, who was about to go to Czechoslovakia. Burchett denied all the charges directed against both himself and his wife, whom he described as "a loyal worker in the Bulgarian CP or the illegal youth league since the age of 16". He concluded his letter thus: "Needless to say our only wish on getting married was to serve the party together by combining our talents and using them wherever they were needed."
Hruby found other documents. One was a memorandum written by a prominent Czech communist following a conversation about Burchett with the leading Australian communist Jack Hughes: "The Australian party is content with his work and is certain he is a good communist. The party would welcome if his name was cleared." Hruby also discovered a letter of 18 June 1951 from the heads of the Australian party, Richard Dixon and Lawrence Sharkey, to the Czechoslovak Communist Party. "In the case in question comrade Burchette has the trust of the Australian party. His work is considered satisfactory and we have no reason to doubt his loyalty." For all but those whose minds are closed to evidence, the argument about Burchett's membership of the Australian Communist Party is over. In the early Cold War Burchett was an undercover member. How long he remained so, though, is not clear. In the '60s the Australian Communist Party split several times. There is no evidence that Burchett supported any faction. As a very significant asset of the Vietnamese Communist Party, and with political friendships that went as high as Ho Chi Minh and Chou En-lai, it seems unlikely that Burchett maintained membership or accepted the discipline of any one of the tiny factions of the Australian Communist Party: the Euro-communist CPA, the pro-Soviet SPA or the Maoist CPA (ML). He had transcended the world of Australian communism.
There is a contiguous question about Burchett's relations with the communist movement. Throughout his life, Burchett claimed that he was a financially independent journalist reliant on no regime. There is enough evidence to show that this simply was not true. From China, in April 1951, Burchett wrote the following letter to his father: "I don't have to worry about finances here ... although you need not spread this news outside our own circle. I am relieved of financial cares ... Luxury needs are not catered for but basic needs are. Most government employees live on that basis." When Burchett travelled with the Chinese forces to Korea he was indeed a government employee. On 31 October 1951 Tibor Méray recorded in his diary, which he has kept, what Burchett told him late one night. Both Burchett and Winnington "receive their pay not from Ce Soir and the Daily Worker but from the Chinese. W works for them openly, he does not."
There is evidence of a similar kind. In 1957 Yuri Krotkov, of the KGB, helped Burchett get established in Moscow. He was allocated a five-room apartment in a well-appointed block on the Moskva River. As Burchett's biographer Tom Heenan points out, Rainer, Burchett's son from his first marriage, was impressed by the size of the apartment and by the cheapness of the rent. Recently the Australian scholar Ross Fitzgerald talked with a Vietnamese communist about the conditions under which Burchett worked. He was told by a Vietnamese photographer that when Burchett travelled through NLF-controlled territory in the South, he was supported by two battalions and accompanied by two bodyguards, a translator, a cameraman and the photographer himself. No doubt the regime calculated that his reportage was worth the cost. Sometimes, it seems, it was the Soviet Union who bore it. When Edwin Morrisby was making a film with Burchett in Cambodia, at Phnom Penh airport a North Vietnamese presented the latter with a thick wallet of travellers' cheques. A gift from our friends in Tsarigrad or Starigrad, Burchett was told. Even though it is clear that Burchett did not write for money, even though earnings from his journalism in the West increased during the Vietnam War, even though there is evidence that he struggled with money matters for much of his life (especially after he moved to Paris in 1969), nonetheless the idea of Burchett's financial independence from the communist regimes for which he wrote is a myth.
So, I am now convinced, is a story I once believed, namely that Burchett was an agent of the KGB. There is no reason to doubt, as Yuri Krotkov claimed, that Burchett was looked after, while in Moscow, by the press department of the KGB. This is the way things in Moscow worked. Krotkov even mentioned by name the KGB colonel who handled Burchett's case. When Rainer visited him at this time, he noticed that "KGB types" came constantly to the apartment. On the other hand, although Burchett must have had many dealings with the intelligence officers of many different communist regimes over the years, I now think the claim that he was a KGB agent - a claim once made by opponents of Burchett, including me - is probably incorrect. By the early '60s Burchett's loyalties had shifted from Moscow to Beijing and, by the late '70s, from Beijing to Hanoi. The idea implied by the term ‘KGB agent' - of a long-term covert relationship with members of the Soviet intelligence service who guide the agent's work - does not fit the facts. Burchett would more accurately be described as a self-directed but financially dependent agent of influence, who operated with a fair degree of freedom within the communist world, choosing to advance the interests, at different times of his life, of several distinct and sometimes antagonistic communist regimes. Within the communist world Burchett carved out for himself an unusual, perhaps unique, position. A biography which managed to uncover how he managed to juggle his relations with different communist regimes would be fascinating to read. It is unlikely ever to be written. On this question, Burchett's massive autobiography is singularly uninformative. He took his secrets with him to the grave.
The pivotal question in the Burchett debate was not whether or not he was a communist or a KGB agent but what he did while he was a reporter during the Korean War. Burchett's enemies think that he betrayed his country. Because of his activities or supposed activities, Burchett was deprived of his passport for 17 years. Although not many friends of Burchett would go so far as Gavan McCormack in describing him as Australia's Dreyfus, for most of them the gross injustice of the Menzies government's having deprived him of a passport forms the moral and political centre of the Burchett case. For one camp in the Cold War, to which I belonged, Burchett was a traitor. For the other, he was a martyr. Who was right?
According to his supporters, Burchett was an objective and independent journalist during the Korean War whose only sin was that he reported "from the other side". McCormack once put the point like this: "Burchett was a journalist inspired by an uncommon moral passion ... [he] was almost alone in seeing the war primarily from the viewpoint of the suffering Korean people rather than the great powers of his own or any other governments." This judgement seemed to me at the time, and seems to me still, to be absurd. Every word Burchett wrote in Korea was written from the point of view of the Chinese government, for whom he worked. It was not objective reporting but propaganda of the purest kind. One example must suffice. On the basis of information supplied to him by the Chinese and the North Koreans, Burchett described the UN-controlled Kobe prisoner-of-war camp during a period of unrest like this: "the torture rooms, the gas chambers, the steam heat rooms, the branding irons and the tattooers' needles and the gallows were kept busy ... There is little need for me to deal further with the horrifying conditions in these American concentration and extermination camps." He described the conditions in the North Korean-controlled prisoner-of-war camps which he visited, where several thousand UN troops had died and where several hundred Australian prisoners were held, like this: "This camp looks like a holiday resort in Switzerland. The atmosphere is also nearer that of a luxury holiday resort than a POW camp." According to Burchett, the prisoners told him, "we are all getting fat and brown." They were fed daily portions of meat "several times higher than the ration in England". Recently new evidence has been published, bearing on the question of the objectivity of Burchett's Korean War journalism. The young Tibor Méray worked alongside Burchett in Korea. He points out that the Chinese controlled every word Burchett wrote. "It was Shen Chen-tu, the Chinese government official, who told Burchett what to write, and he supervised it every day. Burchett followed directives without fail. Shen was Burchett's boss and he was Shen's subordinate." "Every single report by Burchett on the armistice talks was instigated by Shen ... and he was also Burchett's censor."
In February 1952 the Chinese government initiated a major international campaign alleging that the Americans were involved in germ warfare. The most controversial dimension of Burchett's Korean War behaviour concerns what he did, or is supposed to have done, during this campaign.
Some of the germ-warfare claims made by Burchett's enemies are almost certainly wrong. Although Burchett met with several Australian POWs during his visits to the camps and delivered pro-communist political lectures which some attended, there is no evidence that he interrogated them, as he was frequently alleged to have done. And although he was an energetic and influential reporter of the Americans' germ-warfare attacks, the suggestion - sometimes made - that he was the instigator of the campaign is not merely baseless but inherently implausible. He was then far too insignificant a figure on the communist side to have played such a role. Nor is it reasonable to suggest that Burchett's germ-warfare journalism was consciously mendacious or insincere. In ideological politics people generally believe what suits them. Even so honest a communist as Tibor Méray at the time believed that the Americans were dropping biological-warfare bombs on innocent Korean civilians. The difference was that Méray later recognised that the claim was false and was ashamed about the propaganda he had written.
Yet the most important and most damaging claim made by Burchett's enemies about his germ-warfare activities is, almost certainly, true. During the Korean War more than a hundred US-captured pilots were accused by the Chinese and the North Koreans of germ-warfare attacks. Most refused to confess. Thirty-four agreed. Many were kept in solitary confinement and subjected to brutal interrogations, sleep deprivation, and to different forms of mental and physical abuse. The confessions that were eventually extracted by these means were of great political importance. Films and radio broadcasts were produced. The confessions of several pilots formed the basis of evidence presented to the International Scientific Commission, created by the Chinese and the North Koreans. Among the most important confessions were those of lieutenants Quinn, Enoch, O'Neal and Kniss. After they were released, all provided evidence to their American debriefers that Burchett had been involved in the production of the confessions. In September 1953 Kniss produced a 180-page report, which I have seen. He claimed that Burchett had edited his confession; that he had provided his Chinese interrogator with a written list of questions to follow up; that it was Burchett who worked with him on the recording of his confession and who helped with the translation, from English into French, of the confession when Kniss appeared before the International Scientific Commission. Burchett's role in the production of the forced and false confessions to germ warfare is clear.
In the recent Burchett revival his supporters have not only denied the reliability of all this evidence but also claimed that it is possible that the original germ-warfare accusations were true. The Burchett biographer Tom Heenan tells us that "there are solid grounds for suspecting that the USAF conducted the alleged [germ-warfare] raids." One of the editors of Burchett's posthumously published autobiography, Nick Shimmin, writes that Burchett's germ-warfare reporting "has recently been verified with access to declassified documents". The footnote takes us to a book, The United States and Biological Warfare, which ultimately admits that after years of research not one direct piece of corroborating evidence has been found. All this is seriously strange. In 1998 a Japanese journalist came upon some fascinating documents in the archives of the former Soviet Union. On 21 April 1953, shortly after Stalin's death, one Politburo member, Beria, sent a memorandum to another, Malenkov: "two false regions of infection were simulated for the purpose of accusing the Americans of using bacteriological weapons in Korea and China." On 2 May 1953 the Soviet presidium sent the following memorandum to Mao: "The accusations against the Americans were fictitious." It recommended that China "cease publication in the press of materials accusing the Americans of using bacteriological weapons in Korea and China." It pointed out that "Soviet workers responsible for participation in the fabrication of the so-called ‘proof' of the use of biological weapons will receive severe punishment." Surely the germ-warfare case can now be closed.
Because of their behaviour in the Korean War, the British and Australian governments separately considered bringing Alan Winnington and Wilfred Burchett to trial for treason. Both decided against. In Australia the Crimes Act had no extraterritorial application. There was some ambiguity over whether the ancient common law on treason could be applied to a UN-authorised operation. Yet both governments still took action. The British embassy in Beijing impounded Winnington's passport. He went into a miserable life of exile in East Germany that lasted until 1968. As we have seen, when Burchett lost his passport in 1955 the Menzies government and its successors decided it would not be replaced. They argued that Burchett's assistance to the enemy in a time of war meant that he had forfeited the right to his government's protection when he was abroad, which is implied by the possession of a passport. Tibor Méray argues that it was wrong to deprive Burchett of his passport when the decision had been taken not to bring him to trial. Perhaps he is right. Yet, given what was known about Burchett's activities in Korea, it is not difficult to sympathise with the instinct of the Menzies government that something needed to be done that recognised the depth of Burchett's breach of faith with his fellow citizens.
The deepest of all the questions raised by the Burchett debate is whether or not his life deserves to be honoured. For me at least, in answering this question, even more important than an assessment of Burchett's Korean War activities is an assessment of his political career, at whose centre is his writing, his vast output of journalism and books. Was he one of Australia's greatest journalists, as his supporters claim; or was he, as his opponents maintain, a propagandist whose eyes were closed to what ought always to have been obvious, the economic irrationality and the massive criminality of one communist regime after another?
For the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe, the years following the brutal Nazi occupation brought not liberation but the unmitigated disaster of Stalinisation: ferocious single-party dictatorship; mini-Stalin leadership cults; the end of all hope of national independence; enforced loyalty to Stalin's Soviet Union; omnipresent secret-police surveillance; the crushing of all forms of political and press freedom; concentration camps; show trials; for workers, general economic deprivation; for peasants, the forcible collectivisation of agriculture. Burchett travelled extensively in Eastern and Central Europe during these calamitous years. In his book Peoples' Democracies, his portrait of what was happening in these societies was grotesque.
Take the case of Hungary. To arrive in Budapest, Burchett wrote, was like "emerging from a dark tunnel into spring sunshine with the scent of flowers in the air". He discovered "youths and girls marching through the streets, singing their songs of liberation". He saw "village stores full of consumer goods which peasants have never seen in their lives before". Election day was "a great national feast" where voters took the opportunity "to give the government an appreciative pat on the back". This was well deserved. "There is a quality of brilliance and imagination in the leadership in Hungary today." But all was not well. Burchett attended the show trial of the leading communist László Rajk. It concerned, he wrote, "one of the most fantastic and cold-blooded political conspiracies in the history of Central Europe". Rajk was Tito's cat's paw. In turn, Tito, with his "jewelled fingers and be-medalled breast", was an agent of Anglo-American imperialism. In the trial, "Rajk and his gang were disclosed as miserable, bloodthirsty adventurers." Burchett was delighted "when the chief culprits were condemned to death and speedily executed". What was happening in Hungary was happening throughout the peoples' democracies. "I have been forced to the startling conclusion," Burchett wrote, "that while in Eastern Europe ... the mass of the population has been granted an extension of basic liberties on a generous and ever-expanding scale, the opposite is the case in Western Europe."
Over Eastern Europe, Burchett always remained both stubborn and blind. In his autobiography, published in 1981, he still mistook the Stalinisation of Eastern Europe for liberation, and defended both the brutal Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the execution of the revolution's leaders. Burchett's defence rests on a story about a dinner party he attended where, he claims, plots were devised for counter-revolution and American intervention - even if the cost was the coming of a third World War. Tibor Méray invited Burchett to this dinner. In his memoir he demonstrates, in a devastating deconstruction, that every detail in this anecdote is false.
Burchett's misunderstanding of what was happening in China was even deeper than his misunderstanding of Eastern Europe. In 1958 Mao launched the Great Leap Forward. Peasants were driven onto massive communes. Even though the weather in China over the next three years was normal, for a variety of reasons agricultural production broke down. In an atmosphere of ideological delusion and terror, local communist authorities were forced to pretend that harvests had been splendid and to continue to requisition rice and grain. Granaries were full; people starved. When Jasper Becker, the author of the finest study of the Great Leap Forward, Hungry Ghosts, interviewed peasants across the country, decades later, he did not encounter anyone who was unaware of incidents of cannibalism at this time. By 1961 between 30 and 40 million peasants had starved to death. It was by far the most costly famine in the history of humanity. And it was entirely man-made. The worst of the devastation was reversed with the temporary victory in the party of the more rational economic policies of Liu Shaoqi, which licensed private plots. Mao never accepted this reverse. In 1966 he threw China into new turmoil with the Cultural Revolution, which was aimed at the destruction of those, like Liu, who were driving China back along the capitalist road. In 1973, when Burchett returned to China to write a book, China: The Quality of Life, with his old China friend the New Zealand communist Rewi Alley, living standards, according to Jasper Becker, were lower than they had been before the Great Leap Forward.
What then did Burchett and Alley observe? "According to our on-the-spot observations ... the Great Leap Forward was an epoch-making success, the full dimensions of which are only dimly being realised in the outside world." Burchett wrote movingly of the famine at the time of the Japanese occupation of 1942-43. Of the recent, far more devastating famine there was literally not one word. The communes had led to a leap in production. China had "a better medical service than any other in the world". In a world where there was no longer any gap between what was and what should be, there was no mental illness and virtually no crime. With Mao's "serve the people" ethic, Burchett was convinced that nothing less than "a giant step has been taken toward changing human nature." Even though Burchett tells us in his memoir that he had seen some of the depredations of the Cultural Revolution with his own eyes, in China: The Quality of Life there is nothing about it but breathless enthusiasm.
The only group who seemed not to appreciate the wonder of Mao's China were the Tibetans. They were subjected by Burchett to one of the most vicious attacks on an oppressed nationality I have ever read. One informant told him: "Even to raise my eyes to look at a lord passing by would mean having my eyes gouged out ... Not to poke out my tongue as a sign of reverence ... would be to have it pulled out with red hot pincers or have it slashed off with a knife." After a catalogue of similar horrors, another informant told him: "All our people have seen the difference between a Dalai Lama and a Chairman Mao. No force can turn our people back to the old times."
In the end, Wilfred Burchett, despite his very considerable talent and his genuine instinct for human equality, based his life on a false faith. In his youth he gambled on the communist movement. He continued with this gamble for the remainder of his life. It represented a mistake of the profoundest kind. His prewar work for the victims of the Nazis was noble. He wrote one piece of journalism, on Hiroshima, of world-historical importance. Over Vietnam, he backed the right horse, although for the most part for the wrong reasons. Beyond that, he left nothing of value to remember or to read. All his books written after 1945 were spoiled by grotesque political misjudgement and propagandist intent. He did not betray his country in Korea because he was a bad person but because he thought he was supporting a higher cause. He was too proud to admit error. He was too unreflective to experience remorse.
Even if the denial of the passport to Burchett is seen as an injustice, surely it is clear why that is not the issue central to the assessment of his life. No one would think the case of David Irving can be determined by whether or not his imprisonment in Austria is just. Since the end of the Cold War, the Western Left has been able to escape from the dark shadow communism cast. It is now the most reliable defender of human rights. Why it will not acknowledge the truth about Burchett and others like him is, at one level, easy to understand but, at another, difficult to grasp.
Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent book, The Mind of the Islamic State, will be published in the US this month by Prometheus Books.