How a secret trip to China paralyzed an Australian prime minister
If he had known what the Americans were doing, he could have been more moderate. It turns out that information was available, but it never made it to McMahon, so he couldn’t back down from his Cold War warrior stance.
At the time, Sandy Hollway, then a junior Australian diplomat and later a senior civil servant and head of Bob Hawke’s prime minister’s office, was the third secretary of the Australian high commission in Pakistan.
Kissinger had used an official visit to Islamabad as cover for his secret mission to China.
At an official dinner with Pakistani President Yahya Khan, whom the Americans had trusted, Kissinger faked a severe stomach ache. As Kissinger recounts in his memoirs of his years with Nixon, Khan insisted that the Islamabad heat would impede his recovery and urged him to recuperate on a private estate next to a presidential guesthouse in the hills outside Islamabad.
That ruse allowed Kissinger to disappear from the radar for the two days it took to get to China.
In the early hours of July 9, Kissinger boarded a Pakistani airliner, with Khan’s personal pilot at the controls, and was flown to Beijing. “Polo” was the name of the mission in honor of another western emissary from another century.
In the days that followed, Hollway was doing what diplomats do: trying to exchange information with other diplomats and local contacts.
“Hanging around the place sometimes with gin and tonics,” as he puts it, he learned of rumors that there was more to Kissinger’s visit to Pakistan than meets the eye.
An informant told Hollway that Kissinger had been seen getting on a plane at the same time that he should have recovered in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Not only that, Petty Officer Ross Mangan, assistant to the high commission’s military attaché, had heard similar suggestions.
What sealed it for the duo was information from a senior Pakistani police contact that they were guarding the property where Kissinger was supposed to be, “but he was not there.”
Hollway and Mangan put two and two together, concluding that Kissinger may have actually gone to Beijing.
There were other straws in the wind. Nixon had told him Hour magazine you would like to visit China and Washington had been easing its trade embargo against the communist regime.
Hollway and Mangan suggested to their superiors in the high commission that they should cable Canberra with the news; that if his information was correct, McMahon should know.
Hollway says his superiors were understandably reluctant, not only because they viewed the intelligence as nonsense that needed further corroboration, but because it would mean the United States had left Australia in the dark about a profound change in policy, leaving McMahon out in a limb if it turned out to be wrong.
The discussion between the senior and junior diplomats continued for a day and a half, ending only when the high commission learned of the official confirmation of the Kissinger mission from Washington.
No cables were ever shipped.
McMahon was furious with the Americans and warned the American president in writing that “our relations are not as close as they should be.”
It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that an Australian leader learned the brutal lesson of what it can mean to be the junior partner of the American alliance.
However, there were rarely more inflammatory consequences.
Whitlam MP Lance Barnard declared that far from his boss being a “trout,” it was McMahon who was “a stunned mullet.”
Whitlam, in Tokyo, on his way back from Beijing when he heard the news, he was much more poignant and told David Barnett, one of the reporters who covered his trip: “They are screwed.”
He was correct.
In 18 months, McMahon had lost the 1972 election and Whitlam was prime minister.
Australia recognized Communist China almost immediately after Labor took office; The United States completed the process in 1979.
Kissinger became secretary of state, Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974.
Barnett became Malcolm Fraser’s formidable press secretary.
Hollway became Bob Hawke’s chief of staff, headed two Commonwealth departments, and headed SOCOG, the authority that organizes the Sydney Olympics.
Dylan, well, it’s still electric.
Jim Middleton reported extensively from Canberra, Washington and Beijing