Untold story of Canberra’s first coup: The political assassination of PM John Gorton – Part 9

PM Gorton with Australian troops in Nui Dat, Vietnam, 1968

John Gorton’s Road to Bali

SAIGON, Sunday 9 June 1968

When John Gorton became Prime Minister in January 1968 the major item on his domestic and foreign policy agenda was the Vietnam war. Against the strenuous advice of his own military, political and intelligence advisers, Gorton decided to visit Australian troops in Vietnam at the height of the Tet offensive. At her insistence, Gorton’s American-born wife, Bettina, accompanied him. It was the first time a serving PM and his wife had toured an overseas war zone where Australian forces were fighting.

Their departure from Canberra on two chartered planes was delayed by 24 hours for unexplained operational reasons and accompanying journalists slept overnight at Fairbairn   Airport. Then news broke from Los Angeles that Bobby Kennedy, front-runner in the Democratic primaries to be the party’s presidential candidate, had been assassinated. Only two months previously, the Rev Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated in Atlanta, Georgia. The air of excitement among the travellers was replaced by a mood of apprehension.

Bettina Gorton signs the Sergeants’ Mess visitors’  book at  Nui Dat

After a whistle stop visit to Singapore airport the prime ministerial party flew to Saigon, the besieged city in the American puppet state of South Vietnam. On arrival the Gortons, their senior advisers and security team were driven to a state guest house which was surrounded by troops and tanks. The Australians were alarmed to learn that 24 hours earlier a missile had lobbed into the backyard of the guest house and they requested additional protection. Across the city, the media team settled into their hotel with occasional gunshots echoing down the broad avenues. Most sought refuge in the bar.

The visitors were told it was too dangerous to travel by road to the Australian base at Vung Tao so they would be travelling by plane. Eric Walsh, bureau chief of Sydney’s Daily Mirror, recalled: “From Saigon to Vung Tao was the equivalent of a trip from Brisbane to the Gold Coast but we had to fly because the situation on the ground was so dangerous. It didn’t make sense: back home in Australia we were being told that we were winning the war.”

Mike Willesee reporting in Vietnam

Mike Willesee, then a reporter with the ABC’s Four Corners programme, was one of the Canberra reporters who believed Vietnam was “the biggest story in our region”. He ridiculed the stiff-necked policy of only covering one overseas story per year. “Four Corners had this ridiculous notion that there would be only one overseas trip a year, and that it be awarded to whichever reporter was deemed most worthy.” He told his ABC bosses: “Let’s become the experts in South-East Asia, IndoChina, and sell our stories back to them. We’ve got a war in our area and we don’t even cover it.”

On his first visit Willesee admitted: “I was still trying to get my head around Vietnam. I had friends who were marching in the anti-war protests. Other people I respected were saying we had to be there: the yellow peril was marching down and we’d be the last domino to fall in the chain.” By the time of his second and third assignments he had realised the Vietnamese independence-fighters were not only winning “hearts and minds” around the world but their cause was a just one.

As an American, Mrs Gorton believed her presence was necessary to show the united purpose of Washington and Canberra to the war effort. When he flew to the Australian army’s base at Vung Tau she joined her husband – against security advice – and signed the visitors’ book from the sergeants’ mess of the First Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (RAR). She planted her autograph in the book – at her insistence – when it was brought to her by Sgt Brian Tobin of Holsworthy army camp, south-western Sydney. Some of the officer class at the camp were not impressed while the generals back in Canberra were horrified.

Was she ever frightened by the ongoing war? “Not really,” she said nonchalantly. “You feel this is a place where any thing could happen. Either it will or it won’t.” It wasn’t the reply one would expect from Dame Pattie Menzies or Dame Zara Holt or any of today’s “First Ladies”. She had farewelled some of the troops at their final parade at Holsworthy, and now she was seeing them on active service in a war zone. “They may be only 20 but they are men, not boys,” she said.

South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem meets Gorton, left, and then PM Robert Menzies in Canberra

During his week in South Vietnam Gorton was locked in talks with Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, the CIA-appointed “prime minister” and senior US military advisers. They were surprised by the clarity of his arguments about the conduct of the war and his forthright opinion that US and its allies should scale back their commitment and prepare to leave. As a former fighter pilot and a avid student of recent wars in Europe and the Far East, Gorton had a grasp of the deteriorating situation as well as the loss of public support back home.

High-up war advisers in Washington received Gorton’s bleak assessment in “Top Secret” cables 12 hours later. On the day the Australian PM left Saigon, America’s war policy changed when General William Westmoreland was replaced by his deputy, General Creighton Abrams. Instead of Westmoreland’s full-scale strategy of attrition – bombing the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army – into submission Abrams favoured a “hearts and minds” strategy of systematically destroying villages, farms, crops, tunnels and supply lines using bombs, chemical weapons, agent orange, herbicides and napalm.

General Westmoreland – replaced in 1968

Some journalists later described the change in command this way: “Westmoreland embodied the traditional approach: a hard-charging, hammer-swinging leader who used search-and-destroy tactics that focused on the enemy. Abrams favoured counter-insurgency methods, and focused on winning the hearts and minds of the population.” I think that was pure bullshit. My view is that the CIA took charge of the war and the Pentagon was sidelined. When President Nixon became commander-in-chief later that year the changeover was formalised.

Westmoreland’s strategic views were diametrically opposed to Gorton’s and they clashed during private talks. “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high value on life as does a Westerner,” he said. “Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the Orient expresses it: Life is not important.”

General Giap – Vietnam’s commander-in-chief

In a 1990 interview with prize-winning New York Times journalist Stanley Karnow, General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of Vietnam’s National Liberation Army, said: “We were not strong enough to drive out a half-million American troops, but that wasn’t our aim. Our intention was to break the will of the American Government to continue the war. Westmoreland was wrong to expect his superior firepower would grind us down. If we had focused on the balance of forces, we would have been defeated in two hours. We were waging a people’s war. America’s sophisticated arms, electronic devices and all the rest were to no avail in the end. In war there are two factors – human being and weapons. Ultimately, though, human beings are the decisive factor. Human beings!”

Behind closed doors Gorton spoke his mind, telling the Americans top brass to prepare to go home. But his own party was divided between hawks and doves and he was not prepared to confront the right-wingers. He needed unity to fight a Federal Election in 1969 and he also feared the rightists might mobilise against his leadership and he was uncertain that he could survive their challenge. He gave notice to his Saigon hosts that after the next election, Australia would set a timetable to start withdrawing its troops.

The Gortons were looking forward to the next phase of their journey – Indonesia. Both of them had connections with the world’s largest Moslem nation. The sprawling archipelago had achieved independence after imperial Japan’s defeat and the withdrawal of the Dutch colonialists. Gorton had served as a fighter pilot with RAF for the first two years of World War 2 in the Battle of Britain before returning home to join the newly formed RAAF to serve in Malaya and then New Guinea.

Left, PM Gorton with President Suharto; right, Bettina Gorton delivers her speech in Bahasa Indonesia

According to media briefings, Mrs Gorton’s fascination with Indonesia was scholarly. However, it had not begun that way. In 1960 she and John holidayed in Sarawak, a province in the northern part of the island of Borneo. At the time Sarawak was in the grip of a civil war between the British army and Indonesian-supported communist insurgents. It was a murderous tug-of-war eventually won by the British who incorporated Sarawak into their new state of Malaysia, after junking the name Malaya.

Malaysia was born as a pro-British, pro-Commonwealth and pro-monarchy entity. It was a Foreign Office power play in a region where both major UK parties, Tories and Labour, were committed to ending Britain’s hugely expensive role as “east of Suez” policeman. Australia and the Far East are still living with the consequences of this flawed policy as Malaysia sinks into bitter religious sectarianism, bigotry and corruption.

Privately, John Gorton welcomed Britain’s withdrawal from “east of Suez”. He believed the power vacuum should be filled by regional cooperation with Australia joining Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and other Far East countries in a trade, cultural and defence pact. His proposal was ridiculed in London and Washington because it threatened their interests. By today’s standards the Gortons’ fact-finding mission to Sarawak would be the equivalent of a senator and his wife holidaying in Libya, Yemen, Syria or Venezuela. What on earth were they doing there?

On arrival in Jakarta from Saigon, it was Mrs Gorton’s turn to share the limelight. At the airport she addressed President Suharto and other dignitaries in fluent Bahasa Indonesia and Javanese. In response a clearly flabbergasted Suharto said: “It is indeed an honour. It is even very moving for the Indonesian people that this time, outside the Malay race, we have a state guest who is well versed in our language and has a thorough knowledge of the Indonesian culture. I feel that Mrs Gorton’s fluency and her knowledge of the Indonesian language are a manifestation of the friendly feelings and the understanding of the Australian people about the Indonesian people.”

She presented braille typewriters, a printing press and other equipment to children from a school for the blind, a gift from the Australian Government. Ironically, back in Canberra the mainstream media was carrying a torrent of articles warning Australians about General Suharto’s territorial ambitions against Singapore, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and northern Australia. In September 1965 his bloodstained “New Order” regime had slaughtered an estimated one million civilians, arrested and imprisoned hundreds of leftists and shunned world opinion. Every day a synopsis of the media’s obsession with Indonesian “aggression” was sent from the embassy to Jakarta. The Indonesians must have been amazed by the contradictory messages from Mr and Mrs Gorton on one hand and Canberra’s media on the other.

John and Bettina Gorton relaxing in Bali

Ray Whitrod, Commissioner of the Commonwealth Police, had just ended a fatiguing overseas trip with Prime Minister Gorton and he was looking forward to a relaxing beer. Against the strenuous advice of military, political and intelligence advisers, the PM insisted on visiting Australian troops in Vietnam at the height of the Viet Cong’s Tet offensive. At her insistence, Bettina Gorton accompanied him. It was the first time a serving PM and his wife had toured an overseas war zone where Australian forces were fighting.

Everyone was on tenterhooks. Just six months previously Prime Minister Harold Holt had lost his life in a reckless swim in dangerous surf at a beach in Victoria. Whitrod, a highly trained professional officer, wasn’t taking any chances. He chose an A-team to avoid the possibility of another tragedy. Whitrod was in the hotel bar with journalist Eric Walsh, an old friend and one of the media team on the trip, when Inspector Jack Franklin burst onto the scene shouting: “We’ve lost the Prime Minister. He’s gone missing.”

Whitrod was off like a shot. “Ray was a big, heavy-set guy but he had been a good athlete and a good swimmer in his younger days,” Walsh recalled. “He ran off at top speed and headed towards the front of the hotel facing the sea. I think they were expecting to see Gorton swimming in the ocean and were ready to dive in and pull him out. But the water was so shallow there. You could walk out half a mile and the water would only be up to your knees.” Other police had checked local bars but he hadn’t been seen.

Whitrod’s next move was to run to the guardhouse and ask the security guards whether Australia’s Prime Minister had left on foot or in the taxi. None of the guards had seen him and there were no suspicious entries in their log book. “Ray went tearing back to the hotel room when he ran into Mrs Gorton,” Walsh said. “She had been alerted to her husband’s apparent disappearance and she was worried too.” At that moment, Gorton emerged asking: “What’s all the fuss about?” He explained that he’d been with his private secretary Ainsley Gotto.

Ray Whitrod

An enormously relieved Whitrod wasn’t finished just yet. In private, he told the Prime Minister in no uncertain terms that his behaviour was unacceptable. “I’m just doing my job, but I need your cooperation as well. If you want to go off somewhere for one hour, two hours, three hours or six hours, that’s fine with me. But just tell me and I won’t be alarmed.” Gorton was furious that his actions had been challenged a Commonwealth employee. They hardly spoke a word to each other on the return flight to Australia. Whenever Gorton did speak to Whitrod it was colourfully abusive.

A few weeks later Whitrod got his marching orders. He was replaced as Commonwealth Police Commissioner and sent to Papua New Guinea to organise security arrangements for the gradual handover of independence to the local population. Alarmed to learn that Canberra was preparing to send a large consignment of machine guns, hand grenades and personnel carriers to combat any outbreak of civil unrest. Whitrod cabled Canberra saying that armed peace-keeping was the army’s job and not a police job. He was sacked again.

He was given a new assignment as Queensland Police Commissioner. The task was formidable. His job was to shift the prevailing focus of police culture. Instead of supporting corruption Whitrod wanted to make fighting crime the primary mission. “I did not condone a black economy supported by the delivery of large sums of money in brown paper bags,” he wrote later. He paid a heavy price for his efforts. He was sacked and left Queensland as a martyred hero.

Gorton addresses the National Press Club

Back in Canberra after his sweep through Singapore, Vietnam and Jakarta, John Gorton addressed the National Press Club in an attempt to put a shine on his image. His Asian tour had suffered from embarrassing mishaps and contradictory statements at press conferences and his political enemies were capitalising on it. Simply put, the right-wing dregs of the Liberal Party put defending the failed policies of London and Washington in Indonesia and Vietnam ahead of the national interests of Australia. Is Australia’s standing in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam or other Far East countries better than in 1968?  Quite possibly worse thanks to the crass stupidity and short-term opportunism of Canberra’s pro-imperialist lobby.

While John Gorton believed he was enjoying popularity among voters, Canberra’s Press Gallery remained sceptical. Jonathan Gaul, the shrewd political correspondent of the Canberra Times, wrote: “Few Australian Prime Ministers have come to office so little known to the public but at the same time so popular as John Gorton six months ago. He was friendly, relaxed and confident. He was a little dangerous. He was a bit of a gamble for the Liberals, but at the time most Australians probably agreed with their decision. The fact is that John Gorton is today almost as much of a question mark as a Prime Minister as he was on January. Even Liberals are asking whether he was got what it takes. Did they make the right choice?”

Historian Paul Hamm

Paul Hamm, Canberra military historian and commentator, wrote: “During the Year of the Monkey (1968) the Australian press, which had generally supported the war or stuck to feel good stories of heroism and mateship, vigorously changed its tune. The media reacted to growing middle class disenchantment with the war. They did not initiate or promote anti-war feeling: they reflected and fed off it. In time, editors published reports and photos safe in the knowledge their readers were now receptive to anti-war coverage. Intimations of defeat leavened the journalists’ copy: not only was the war a crime, it was also a losing battle.”

Eric Walsh, the Daily Mirror’s Canberra correspondent, was the earliest and fiercest critic of John Gorton. However, he faced problems with his proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, who was romancing the PM for commercial reasons. Walsh avoided a clash with Murdoch by writing under a pseudonym for Nation magazine, jointly managed by Tom Fitzgerald and George Munster. It was a blistering critique which was widely copied and circulated in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne. Having observed the careers of 13 prime ministers over a period of 60 years, Walsh’s verdict on Gorton was damning: “There is no redeeming feature about Gorton. Gorton was as hopeless as Billy McMahon but a trifle less ridiculous. Only a trifle.”

While Gorton’s cheer squad could discount the jaundiced views of the Canberra commentariat, it was much harder to ignore the blunt words of Sir Robert Menzies, the founder of the Liberal Party. At a luncheon in a superior eaterie in Melbourne, Menzies reportedly said that John Gorton would “destroy the Liberal Party”. His enemies circulated the statement to build momentum for their own “Get Gorton” scheming. It sounded awfully like the “Get Abbott” and “Get Turnbull” campaigns of recent times. The Liberal Party had learned nothing.

Next week: Prime Minister Gorton and me: two ASIO targets

© Alex Mitchell

NB: These articles are covered by exclusive copyright with ownership belonging to the author. They can only be reproduced in full or in part by his written permission.

NB: The Weekly Notebook will return this Saturday, 9 March, with a review of the forthcoming NSW Election plus other news from home and abroad. AM

3 comments

  1. Invaluable changing of the narrative about Gorton, whose interesting qualities ( you give us those ) are ignored in the usual stereotype images of a politically unbelievable figure.
    Thanks.

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