- At the Barricades: The Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist by Wilfred Burchett
Quartet, 341 pp, £10.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 7043 2214 5
When Henry Kissinger was eating break-fast with Wilfred Burchett in the West Wing of the White House, he little knew that his guest had travelled ‘illegally’ to Washington. As an Australian whose government refused to issue him a passport, he was using North Vietnamese identity documents and was only authorised to circulate within 20 miles of the United Nations Headquarters in New York. During discussions on Vietnam and China, however, a friendly relationship was established between the two men, and the ever practical ‘rebel’ journalist left the White House, he says, ‘with three scoops in his pocket’ as well as private messages to deliver to the North Vietnamese Communist leaders. The incident is typical of many in the life of a man who has a flair for news and enormous personal courage, combined with a tough constitution and a willingness to endure acute personal discomfort. Unhappily, the rebel author has never learnt the art of diplomacy and at times has been as bitterly criticised by his erstwhile Communist friends as by members of the government which denied him a passport.
His physical toughness was developed in his youth, when he worked on a sheep farm in the bush for £1 a week. At the same time, he became interested in politics, and at the end of a hard day’s labour read of Hitler on the rampage in Europe while the Japanese took over North-East China. As his fortunes improved, he managed to leave Australia with the secret ambition of getting to Spain to fight against Franco in the Civil War. But after working in Cook’s Travel Agency and living in a room in Soho which cost only ten shillings a week, he went to Germany, where, to his great ‘astonishment’, he became a journalist.
Burchett’s pro-Communist political views did not prevent him from becoming a highly successful foreign correspondent for the Daily Express. His reports on life in Chungking when it was the capital of Nationalist China are interesting today, especially his breakfast talk with Wendell Wilkie. But even more absorbing to China-watchers is his meeting with a Nationalist colonel, who quickly took off his uniform and revealed himself as a Communist agent. The man was Chiao Kuan-hua, who became the right-hand man of the late Premier Chou En-lai before representing China at the United Nations. Later, alas, this brilliant if somewhat abrasive man threw in his lot with Mao’s wife, Chiang Ching, and as Foreign Minister led his department in a demonstration against the pragmatic and powerful Vice-Premier Teng Hsiao-ping.
When the Express sent Burchett to India, he immediately established excellent relations with that ‘highly unorthodox soldier’, Orde Charles Wingate, perhaps because the ‘old India hands’ thought the then major was a ‘crackpot’ out to destroy the Empire. Again the Express got their scoop, and, indeed, a combination of left-wing ideas and journalistic flair often earned Burchett space on the front page when newspapers in London were reduced to four pages through shortage of newsprint. While ‘island-hopping’ in the Pacific, and ‘shuffling along in the chow line for lunch’ on board a ship, he heard about ‘the big new bomb we just dropped on the Japs’. By straining his ears, he gathered from the ship’s radio that the world’s first A-bomb had been dropped on a ‘place called Hiroshima’ and made a mental note that the town would be his ‘priority objective’ should he ever get to Japan. He was landed in Japan a few days later, after learning a few words from a Japanese phrase-book, which helped him to make his way to Hiroshima well ahead of his colleagues. Even more amazing, he managed to get his description of the destroyed city relayed to London untouched by the censors.
Burchett, who covered the Korean War from the North, became extremely unpopular in official circles in the West after he had talked with American prisoners of war. During the cease-fire negotiations on the border, he gave his journalist colleagues from the South a great deal of helpful, albeit pro-Communist information when they met in what became a demilitarised zone. From 1951 to July 1953, when the agreement between the North Koreans, their Chinese allies, the United States and the South Koreans was finally signed, Burchett and a British correspondent, Alan Winnington, were generally dubbed on films and photographs the ‘two Caucasian communists’. Again in the Vietnamese War Burchett worked on the Northern, Communist side out of Hanoi. He impressed his friends and enemies alike by taking the Ho Chi Minh trail from the North to Saigon and was human enough to say afterwards how much he longed to go and have a whisky and soda with ‘chums’ in the bar of the Caravelle Hotel. But he was, naturally, not allowed to leave the Vietcong hide-out in the Southern capital.
Many readers, while enjoying Burchett’s racy style, may be critical of his opinions; there are also errors of fact. During the negotiations between the North Vietnamese and the Americans in Paris, Burchett writes of a misunderstanding between the chief American negotiator, David Bruce, and Henry Kissinger, who had just returned from his ‘secret’ visit to Peking. I hear from the best authorities available that there was no problem between the two men. This is confirmed by the fact that, shortly afterwards, Kissinger appointed Bruce as the first United States Liaison Officer to Peking, where, as always, he accomplished wonders in the sphere of diplomacy.
Burchett makes no effort to disguise his deep sympathy for the two great Communist powers and does not dwell on their uneasy relationship after the early Sixties, when the Russians refused to pass on the nuclear secrets they had promised to make available to the Chinese. A few inside stories on Sino-Soviet relations at the time Russian technicians were withdrawn in 1961, which I am sure Burchett has in his notebook, would have added a dimension to the book. When living in the Soviet Union, he was influenced by Moscow’s brand of Marxism. But I recall meeting him in Peking and Paris when he was sympathetic to the Chinese. Today it is the Russians who again appear to be in favour with him, but this could be due to his long association with the Vietnamese and with the men who now form the pro-Soviet Government in Hanoi. He has, incidentally, been both helpful and loyal to Sihanouk, with whom he once collaborated in writing a book.
Today, with nearly 30 books to his credit and a lifetime of hard work as a correspondent behind him, Burchett has little to show for his labours other than a small, pleasant house near Paris. His Australian passport was restored by the Labour Government.