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Kissinger’s Legacy in Australia

The Kissinger era intersected with the Whitlam years at a time when Australian foreign policy began to march to its own drum. Mike Fogarty examines Kissinger’s legacy from an Australian perspective.

Dr Henry Kissinger has written several books, including Diplomacy, On China, and most recently, The Age of AI, and readers should not expect to find detailed references to Australia in them. His books are heavy duty, as he deployed the vertical pronoun (in case you missed his self-ascribed influence) in the conduct of global diplomatic achievements. Australia might have to accept being foot-noted as an ancillary in his accomplished career, pursued almost entirely in the northern hemisphere. If tiring, lean against his perpendicular “I.” Kissinger would not be uncomfortable in being described as the “American Metternich” of the 20th century. Being equally prestigious as controversial, he died on 29 November 2023, mourned and castigated alike by many. 

Gough Whitlam led Labor to office in December 1972, removing a Coalition government of 23 years. Whitlam, and the Labor more broadly, opposed the Vietnam War and the conscription that accompanied it. A residual presence of Australian army training advisers were summarily told to pack their kit bags and any duty-free shopping, and be home for Christmas, to the delight of their families. Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck was instructed to officially promulgate the end of Australia’s combat role in early January 1973. The Paris Peace Treaty, that same month, led to the cessation of combat between the US and North Vietnam, with its proxies. Nonetheless, the war continued for two years. Hanoi was free to fight Saigon without America. 

Australia was then normally cautious with foreign policy initiatives, never trying to preempt its major allies, the US and UK. Ambassador Alan Renouf liaised with his counterparts in Paris and achieved a workable dialogue with his peers from Hanoi and Beijing. So much so that Labor was able to over-turn policy and establish resident embassies in both Beijing and Hanoi in 1973. Washington might have expected a decent interval at the end of the war, before recognition of either government, expressing concern that the new relations were negotiated in indecent haste. Subsequently, Whitlam and his cabinet ministers had publicly condemned the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi. 

Nixon and Kissinger who, as conservatives in contrast to Whitlam’s “socialism lite,” were apoplectic. How could a loyal ally, a junior ANZUS partner, traduce the US in practice and policy by pursuing ties to Communist states? The international media, as if to register this diplomatic rebuke, ensured wide coverage, further humiliating Washington. Yet Whitlam showed his humanitarian credentials by condemning the Hanoi bombing. This caused more problems than solutions for Australia’s senior alliance partner. As expected, Whitlam had to visit the US and ameliorate a sensitive dispute for both states. It came, with some effort, by all. Kissinger had little influence on Whitlam’s peremptory policy decisions. He could only adjust to their speed and implementation. Australia then showed early independence in foreign policy. 

In September 1975, later reflecting on the loss of South Vietnam, Kissinger, in a conversation with Senator Don Willesee, responded emotionally, referring to the North Vietnamese as: “the most bloody-minded sons of bitches with whom he had ever had to deal.” Earlier, he had referred to Hanoi with similarly trenchant criticism. In August 1973, during a prime ministerial visit to Washington, Kissinger told Whitlam: “The same monomania which had led the Vietnamese to fight the war for so many years also made them treacherous in negotiations.” 

In 1973, Whitlam made consecutive prime ministerial visits to Washington. He attempted to privately assuage William Rogers, the Secretary of State, in expiation: “Those Australian ministers who were seemingly sometimes most anti-American in their expressions, were not really expressing hostility, but disappointment, when they felt the US did not live up to its great ideals.” 

In fairness, Kissinger, as National Security Adviser, also deployed the same epithets towards the Indians and the Japanese, if they did not agree with his reasoning. Yet Whitlam would later meet President Richard Nixon on an official visit, as both were obliged by protocol, on election. Nixon was initially reluctant to fete him at the White House. The rancour continued, despite smiles, emoted through gritted teeth. Australia had made its point and the US had to accept our new world order, for it was slow to flag that Australia’s political ideology now marched to its own drum. 

The Australian Embassy in Washington sent a brief to Canberra on Kissinger’s impending visit to Australia, forty years ago, in late 1983. The diplomatic cable advised the then-Department of Foreign Affairs to draw on points: “Kissinger was then on the periphery of government. In 1976, Reagan criticised him as the architect of detente with the Soviet Union. The president, though, respected his experience and knowledge. Kissinger still had some diehard opponents on both the left and right of politics. The left has not forgiven him; from the Vietnam war and for the ousting of Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973. He remained a figure of high prestige. Kissinger was his own man, and would not rubber-stamp administration policy. Reagan, too, wanted his own man, somebody with whom he felt comfortable, a team player, rather than a dominant figure.” 

The Yom-Kippur war of 1973, in its curious symmetry broke out on 6 October that year, bringing the Kissinger age (1923-2023) to equally span two halves of the Israel-Palestinian issue. Having spent forty years in semi-retirement, he was courted by the media and the academy. His counsel also extended into respective US political administrations. 

Kissinger was farewelled at a grand memorial service in New York, attended by protagonists and antagonists, in equal representation. Compliments were also eulogised with studied hypocrisy. How will he be remembered? His epitaph should be in-laid in gilt on stone. He was responsible for many quotes, which might now inform his own legacy. “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work. The world is not full of six billion kittens.” 

Mike Fogarty, MA (Military History), is a former naval officer and diplomat. 

The views stated are his own unless ascribed to other actors. Then as now, they can be safely disavowed from any official endorsement. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.