The quiet Americans

This article, on US intelligence and the labour movement, appeared in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on 20 February 2003.

The recent reprimand delivered to the Labor leadership over the outspoken comments of some MPs about President George Bush and US policy toward Iraq has brought to light an intriguing aspect of US diplomacy in Australia.

Since the Second World War US embassies have include a special kind of diplomat, the Labor Attache. The Labor Attache , like the defence attache and cultural attache, promotes US interests in countries where the trade union movement and Labor parties are strong.

These have been the Quiet Americans, holding private pow wows with MPS and union leaders, handing out trips to the US and reporting all their observations to the State Department. During the Cold War, they worked covertly with anti-communist forces in actions that constitute interference in Australia's internal political life. As well, there are good reasons to believe that Labor attaches may have in the past been closely linked with US intelligence.

Much of the work of Labor Attaches is now visible in recently released American archives obtained by this writer. They offer a fascinating insight into internal Labor politics as well as the machinations of US diplomats. These documents cover the late 1960s when Australia's trade union movement was confident and strong and when white collar unions were moving to merge with the blue-collar ACTU and major industrial disputes occurred in protest at decisions of the Arbitration Commission.

A key figure in these documents is Bob Hawke, originally an ACTU advocate, then ACTU president and later Prime Minister.

Hawke was of interest to Labor Attaches such as Bob Walkinshaw and Emil Lindahl because they closely watched the political struggle within the ACTU. By the mid-late 1960s they were aware that the existing President, Albert Monk, was ill and a political struggle over his succession had broken out. . They noted that Monk 'takes frequent drinks of whisky and beer during the day - [although he] is never referred to as an alcoholic'.

Bob Hawke was one of a number of contenders for Monk's job and a bitter battle ensured over it. Hawke, said a US official in 1966 'is regarded as brilliant and by some people even as a possible future Prime Minister of Australia'. One US official, Doyle Martin, added that Hawke personally cultivates trade union leaders and 'is a competent performer at the saloon, as well as the forensic, bar'.

Two of their most sympathetic sources for interpreting the ACTU were the anti-communist forces, such as BA Santamaria's 'National Civic Council' (NCC) and Tom Doherty of the right wing Australian Workers Union. At one stage Bob Walkinshaw, the Labor Attache, sent the State Department copies of the NCC's analysis of the Australian communist movement, and commented: 'Santamaria is generally known as an authority on communism and has been a reliable source of information to the reporting officer on this question'. He added: 'Although it can be presumed that Santamaria would obviously be somewhat prejudiced, the contents of this pamphlet can be taken as reflecting a fairly accurate and objective analysis'. Such comments indicate just how wildly distorted was the vision through American eyes.

Several of the US Labor Attaches cultivated Hawke and had many long private conversations all of which were written up and relayed to the State Department and are now available for public scrutiny. An intriguing picture emerges of the young Hawke in his late 30s dealing with US diplomats. The Labor Attaches were unnerved by his militant aspirations and his association with communists. But on the other hand they began to see that he was a charismatic and ambitious man with aspirations beyond the union movement.

During 1969, the dynamic Hawke moved to take the leadership of the ACTU from its plodding officers. The Labor Attache, Emil Lindahl, watched these developments carefully and noted that while he was 'brilliant and effective', his enemies 'feel he is subject to flights of irresponsibility, including drunkenness, playing around with women, and brawling'. After intimately discussing the contest between Hawke and his rival, the ACTU President Harold Souter, the report concluded: 'Both Souter and Hawke can be considered friends of the US'.

The reason for this can be seen in Hawke's own astute judgement of the Labor Attaches. In December 1969, Lindahl attended a church meeting where Hawke spoke passionately about the 'holocaust in Vietnam'. Afterwards, Lindahl reported, Hawke came and sat with him, and asked 'Did I hit you too hard on Vietnam?' Lindahl replied, 'I know you can hit harder'. After a beer and more discussion together, Lindahl reported: '-[Hawke] puffed on his newly acquired cigar with a great deal of self-satisfaction. This very confident young man appears to be the master of his own destiny'. Lindahl was puzzled by Hawke's public vehemence on Vietnam and his private warmth. He had found this also when speaking with Jim Cairns and Clyde Holding. His report speculated about whether it was 'an effort at trying to make us believe that they are really responsible middle-of-the-roaders plagued by extremists' ? Or was it a 'Machiavellian scheme to disarm us' while planning an attack on the Australian Government?

Immediately after his election to the presidency of the ACTU in September 1969, the US ambassador, cabled that the Australian Government 'can expect nothing but trouble from Bob Hawke' who was 'all too prone to look upon strike action as best [sic] means of obtaining trade union goals'. Nevertheless, Rice added, the ACTU needed 'the breath of fresh air Hawke will put into it'.

The US Labor attaches were also intimate observers of the Labor Party, as well as the union movement. An American assessment of Whitlam, soon after he announced his bid for Labor leader argued that he 'has offended almost everybody by his bland assumption that his election will be automatic.' On the positive side it noted that '[Whitlam] would make considerable effort to remove the anti-American image the Party now casts' but 'as the Embassy has previously reported, his views on the long term future of China and Southeast Asia conflict strongly with those of the United States'

Victoria was of special interest to the Labor Attaches. It was also home to B.A. Santamaria and his political organisation and both were friendly sources of much information to the Labor Attaches. . In December 1969, the Labor Attache, Emil Lindahl, met the key anti-communist B.A. Santamaria at lunch at the Victorian Employers Federation where Santamaria was speaking. Santamaria was, according to Lindahl; 'his usual erudite self'.

In New South Wales, the Labor Attache cultivated the bright young things of the trade union movement. These included later NSW Premier, Barrie Unsworth and union king-maker John Ducker.

Of them, one American official wrote in 1967: 'Ducker and Unsworth are both energetic, democratic and sternly anti-communist young men-. The promotion of Ducker and Unsworth in the New South Wales Labor hierarchy has more than ordinary significance. The two are active in an informal group of younger trade union leaders who are consciously grooming themselves to be the next generation of New South Wales trade union leaders who are sternly anti-communist'.

The close relationship between the US embassy and Barrie Unsworth was revealed after the US embassy planned to bring anti-communist Vietnamese trade union leaders to Australia in 1966. The original plan involved a group called 'Committeee for the Defence of Australia'. But when the embassy asked Unsworth about this he said the group was 'ultra-rightist' and 'a political kiss of death' to the Vietnamese unionists. Instead, the cables say, Unsworth proposed that his union, the Electrical Trades Union, would sponsor the trip, which pleased the Americans.

Labor's fears about the real agenda of Labor Attaches go back some time. In 1966 the federal executive passed a resolution ordering an inquiry 'into the activities of the US Central Intelligence Agency'. Doyle Martin, a counsellor for political affairs noted in a cable: 'According to rumour this statement was aimed at the Embassy's political and labor officers whose interest in following ALP affairs has caused them to be suspected by left wing supporters of having some covert responsibilities.'

The truly murky part of the story on the ALP and the role of US Labor Attaches concerns the covert operations by US intelligence organisations such as the CIA. On the archival documents available to this writer, the CIA certainly received reports of the Labor Attaches on Australia. Next to each report is a distribution list for Government agencies. A typical cable from March 1969 shows that the State department received 29 copies, the CIA received 20 copies with the US Information Agency receiving 10 while the Agency for Internal Development receiving 12.. The US Labor Department received only 6 copies.

While the CIA's funding of intellectuals through the Congress of Cultural Freedom is not only old news but is the subject of a recent scholarly book, Who Paid the Piper?' by Frances Stonor Saunders, there is no book on other CIA covert operations in the trade union field. Saunders herself refers, in passing to one of the key figures in the operation, Irving Brown who was the International affairs officer of the US trade unions, the AFL-CIO (referred by some as the AFL-CIA). Another writer, Jonathan Kwitny, in his The Crimes of the Patriots, on the Nugan Hand bank refers to the 'CIA's long standing secret co-operation with the AFL-CIO, in bringing potential union leaders to the US'. Dozens of Australian union leaders took advantage of these 'freebies'. The CIA's interest in the Australian participants was presumably in talent spotting for future contacts though it has never been clear what other co-operation may have occurred. The selection of the beneficiaries of these trips were the Labor Attaches. (Suggestions of security links of Labor Attaches are emphasised by the censoring of the archival documents on 'security' grounds.)

Figures like NSW Labor king maker John Ducker now admit to extensive contacts with ASIO as part of the Right's anti-communist struggle. On the international front, similar connections are becoming clearer with Labor attaches and the American union movement playing key roles.

It should not be assumed, of course, that US was the only country with an intelligence interest in the labor movements of the West. The Soviet Government also ran a program of free trips to Russia and no doubt the KGB did talent spotting for potential recruits.