Some questions about ‘The Boy from Poowong”


Image: Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945., public domain

Bob’s taking a week off as we are booked to perform at a folk festival this weekend. More about that next week. It seemed the right time to give this contribution a run. Norm originally presented this as a talk to a U3A group in Brisbane. We thought it merited wider exposure as the subject is a journalist who reported vital news from the frontline yet was suspected of being a spy. This should remind us that the McCarthy era was alive and well in Australian in the 1950s.

By guest writer NORM BONIFACE

Who was the Australian journalist who married a German Jewess in London in 1938, had one child but was divorced after 10 years? He married again and had three more children who were refused Australian citizenship by Prime Minister Robert Menzies.

He was known for being the first western journalist to report from Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb, and for his reporting from “the other side” during the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

He began his journalism at the start of WW2, during which he reported from China, Burma and Japan and covered the war in the Pacific. After the war, he reported on the trials in Hungary, and later the Korean War, the Vietnam War and on Cambodia under Pol Pot.

The Australian national security department (Commonwealth Security Service, which became Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) in 1949), opened a file on his whole family in the 1940s. Australian security was concerned by his father’s interest in helping Jewish refugees in Melbourne, and his views on the Soviet Union and republican China. A document on his own file dated February 1944 noted:

“This man is a native of Poowong (a small dairy farming town in South Gippsland, Victoria) and his past life has been such that his activities are worth watching closely. He is an expert linguist and has travelled extensively. A comparatively young man who married a German Jewess with a grown family, he seldom misses an opportunity to speak  and act against the interests of Britain and Australia.

Other documents on his file show ASIO was concerned by his “scathing criticism of American imperialism”.*

* Described in Wikipedia these days as: “American imperialism consists of policies aimed at extending the political, economic and

cultural influence of the United States over areas beyond its boundaries. Depending on the commentator, it may include military conquest, gunboat diplomacy, unequal treaties, subsidization of preferred factions, economic penetration through private companies followed by intervention when those interests are threatened, or regime change.”

He is in the Melbourne Press Club’s Hall of Fame, principally because he was the first correspondent to file from Hiroshima after the dropping of the atom bomb and described the effects of radiation sickness and death for the first time. His reports from Hiroshima were heavily censored in the United States, but they helped set the mood for a global era of nuclear deterrence.

The Australian government sent ASIO agents to Japan and Korea to collect evidence, but in early 1954, conceded it could not prosecute him.

In 1955 while overseas, he lost his passport (reported stolen). The Australian government refused to issue a replacement. Though born in Melbourne, Victoria he was refused re-entry to Australia and as a consequence became stateless. Successive Conservative Australian governments between 1949 and

1970 tried to construct a case to prosecute him, but were unable to do so. Cuba came to the rescue and provided him with a passport to permit international travel.

Around 1967, ABC journalist Tony Ferguson filmed an interview with him in Phnom Penh. It is reported that Ferguson said that the general manager of the ABC, Talbot Duckmanton, ordered its destruction.

The Australian government still refused him re-entry for his father’s (in 1969) and later his brother’s (in 1970) funerals. In 1970, attorney-general Tom Hughes admitted to prime minister John Gorton, that the government had no evidence against him. Hughes said that a prosecution for treason under the Crimes Act “cannot be mounted unless the war is a proclaimed war and there is a proclaimed enemy”, and the Australian government had not declared war in Korea or in Vietnam. (NB: Could a similar argument apply in Iraq and Afghanistan in relation to Julian Assange?)

It was not until the Whitlam government came to power in 1972 that he was permitted to return home. A documentary film including interviews with this journalist, entitled “Public Enemy Number One” by David Bradbury, was released in 1981. At the time the ABC refused to show the film. The film expressed the journalist’s views and was criticised in Australia for the coverage of “the other side” in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and posed the questions: “Can a democracy tolerate opinions it considers subversive to its national interest? How far can freedom of the press be extended in wartime?”

From a legal standpoint his lawyers argued that both of these wars were “undeclared”. In fact the former (civil war) remains an open conflict even today (2021).

“He will be remembered by many during the Cold War years as one of the more remarkable ‘agents of influence’ of the times, but by his Australian and other admirers as a folk hero.” – Dennis Warner, war correspondent and historian.

In 2011 Vietnam celebrated his 100th birthday with an exhibition of his work in the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi.

It is in no doubt that he was a controversial figure during the Cold War years. Some hated him and some loved him. Some said he was a spy in the pay of the Soviet KGB, a secret agent for the

Communist Chinese, North Koreans or North Vietnamese, or a clandestine communist “fellow traveller”. Others said he was an “agent of influence” for one or all of the above.

Or was he just a journalist who had strong views, who saw injustice and hardship, and criticised those he believed responsible for it?

Writing in The Australian in 2008, journalist Greg Lockhart described the previous governments’ actions as “a remarkable breach of the human rights of an Australian citizen” in which it “simply exiled him for 17 years” without any legal reason.

He died in Bulgaria in 1983 at age 72 years.

Wilfred Burchett (1911-1983).

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