Edwards, Clive T.
‘With respect to John Burton’, Honest History, 10 September 2014
Rob Foot’s article (‘The curious case of Dr John Burton’, Quadrant, November 2013) denigrates the character and contribution of John Burton by reference to incidents that were not central in either the historical context or in the context of Burton’s life.
Burton became head of External Affairs in 1947. He was 32. Japan’s occupation of Vietnam, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, all colonial territories, had just come to an end. The respective colonial powers, France, Britain and Holland, had deserted the region in the early days of the Pacific War. Britain had made it clear to Australia that the nation was on its own but that Britain expected Australia to continue to contribute to the allied war effort in Europe.
Up until the early 1940s Britain had essentially determined Australia’s foreign policy. Curtin and his successor Chifley saw conflict between Australia’s own distinct interests and that of Britain and both wanted a greater emphasis on Australia’s national interest in the formulation of Australian foreign policy. This switch needed a catalyst and the appointment of Burton as Secretary of External Affairs filled the bill.
The significance of Burton’s appointment quickly became apparent. The colonial powers assumed that they would return to their former colonies and resume business as usual: a foreign elite extracting wealth for the benefit of the colonial country, largely ignoring the plight and aspirations of the majority of the local people. Burton saw it differently. He was aware of the nascent development of indigenous political leadership in Indonesia and played a constructive role in the acrimonious but successful independence struggle there. This was a major preoccupation of Australian foreign policy in the late 1940s. It gets a brief, one sentence, incidental mention in Foot’s article (p. 51) and yet it had important implications for his central theme, the security relationship between Australia, Britain and America.
JA Beasley, Australian High Commissioner to London, Chifley and Burton, 10 Downing Street, 1948 or 1949 (supplied: Pamela Burton)
Burton had the ear of Evatt and quickly organised a successful appeal to the United Nations Security Council. This was designed to halt a Dutch invasion of Indonesia. Can you imagine how the intelligence community in Britain and Holland responded to this assertion of independence by what they continued to regard as essentially a British possession? Can you see them continuing to provide Australia with intelligence gathered by Britain and Holland which was designed to return the colonial powers to their pre-Pacific War status and which would have provided information on the growing support within those former colonies for indigenous leaders such as Sukarno in Indonesia? That information could have been used by Evatt and Burton to strengthen the case at the United Nations for granting independence to Indonesia. If the flow of intelligence to Australia dried up at this time, one can well understand why. Foot notes that the flow of intelligence to Australia did dry up but does not mention a word of this background.
Burton was aware that the days of colonial rule in Asia were finished and that Australia would have to learn to live with newly independent countries in Asia. To that end, he judged that there was a need for Australia to be acquainted with emerging political leaders in Asia, a stance well ahead of prevailing attitudes in Australia. In many of our neighbouring Asian countries, the main independence movements were socialist or communist, or a mixture of both. For example, in the late 1940s Lee Kuan Yew was a leading member of a party that was socialist and included several avowed communists.
One might easily infer from Burton’s interest in these movements that he was sympathetic to communism. That would be incorrect. Burton was interested in the full range of independence movements in Asia, their relevance to the mass of the population in the respective countries, their viability and, most importantly, the implications they carried for Australia’s security. After all, Sukarno was an Indonesian nationalist, not a communist, and Burton saw the long-term relevance to Australia of supporting Sukarno over the Dutch. If you accept Foot’s characterisation of Burton as sympathetic to communism and most likely a Soviet spy, you have to explain this dichotomy, for at that time there was a separate, growing communist movement in Indonesia.
Chifley, Evatt and Burton realised that the Pacific War had irrevocably changed Australia’s world view. They made the decision to sharpen the focus on Asia in Australia’s foreign policy. They were pioneers of what very gradually became a more central feature of Australian foreign policy. They judged that their stance was in Australia’s long-term national and security interest and Australia earned a substantial amount of political credit in South East Asia in these years, a point that has been widely acknowledged.
Burton was an Australian nationalist first and foremost, not a lackey of Britain or any other country. He would have been every bit as suspicious of Russian motives in Asia (in Indonesia, for example, and in China) as he was of British or Dutch motives. This picture of Burton is very different from that painted by Foot.
Burton left the External Affairs department in 1951 but he had really packed his bags when Menzies took over at the end of 1949. Burton left Australia in the early 1960s and spent the best part of his next 40 years building an international reputation in the field of international relations. He held chairs in London and America until he was well into his seventies. He played a leading role in the development of a new field of study, international conflict resolution, and his numerous books are now standard references for courses in this field at universities around the world.
Burton taught postgraduate students in both countries. It would seem remiss of both London and Washington to allow a Soviet agent such access and influence. Burton’s life should be seen in total. It ought not be distorted and denigrated by incidents which were peripheral and for which the best that can be said in most instances is that they amount to no more than innuendo and assertion.
Burton has not yet been accorded the attention he deserves as a very significant Australian who made path-breaking contributions in public life in Australia and in the academic field internationally. His day will surely come.
The last section of Foot’s article is highly speculative and very disparaging. Foot asserts that Burton was most likely a Soviet agent. Burton was close to both Chifley and Evatt. He would have had access to a level and range of intelligence much higher than that available to Milner or any other officer in the then External Affairs department. Had he been a Soviet agent, he would of necessity have sought asylum in Russia in 1950 if not earlier. He did not.
Burton’s character was at odds with this line of argument. He was always a ‘big picture’ man. This is exemplified by his awareness that colonialism in Asia was at an end, his role in the Indonesian initiative and his subsequent research. At the 1939 Bergen Conference referred to below, he met two Japanese researchers who told him that anti-economic depression action taken by the allied countries that denied Japan access to resources (minerals, rubber and other primary products) and markets in South East Asia would force Japan to expand militarily into Asia. Burton saw the implications of that prospect for Australia and on return to London a few days later apprised the Australian High Commissioner, Stanley Bruce. Bruce wrote to warn Menzies, who in turn replied that Japan was a close and loyal ally. Burton had grasped the big picture and put it in an Australian context. In his 1939 note to Bruce, Burton pointed out that if Japan did go to war, the crucial sea trade links between Australia and Britain would likely be disrupted and there was a need to start planning for that possibility.
Burton was a very proud man. He knew he had a lot to offer. He was quite aloof. He worked long hours and efficiently. He did not suffer fools or laziness and was a man of few but well-considered words. He was his own man, very independent and reluctant to rely on others. His farming experience in Canberra and Kent was in the same mould. He did not follow what his neighbours did in either location; he struck out on his own path and learnt from his own experience. He was the sort of person who stood back and summed you up. If he was interested in your line of argument he would enter the fray but often do so by turning your argument upside down and seeing what conclusions that led to, invariably a salutary exercise. It is difficult to envisage a person with that sort of creativity being a slavish, compliant Soviet agent. If officials in London, Holland and America struggled to understand an Australian nationalist in what they continued to believe was a dyed-in-the-wool British outpost, one can be confident that the same held for the Soviets.
Why did Burton go to the Soviet Union in 1939 while studying in London? Foot asserts that he was being recruited into either the MVD or GRU. He adds that, while at the London School of Economics, Burton
seems to have come under the influence of Harry Pollitt, Head of the British Communist Party. He was en route to a student conference in Norway [Bergen] when he diverted to Moscow, where he spent ten days. He later claimed to have had to sell his suit to pay for the fare, so the visit must have been of great importance. Quite possibly he went to offer his services, bearing a recommendation from Pollitt. At any event, Soviet intelligence would have been most intrigued with this bright young man from Australia who landed on their Moscow doorstep… (p. 52, my underlining highlights unsubstantiated assertions)
An alternative, less cloak-and-dagger explanation might be that Burton went to Russia to observe an alternative way of managing an economy. After all, he was pursuing a PhD in economics under the supervision of Lionel (later Lord) Robbins and capitalism was in considerable disarray in the 1930s.
The latter explanation may have had some truth but it also misses the spirit of the trip. John had recently married Cecily and this was their honeymoon. They went by boat to Leningrad. They visited Moscow, too, as tourists. Contrary to what they expected, they and other tourists were not hindered in where they chose to walk but were not allowed to take photographs. John did sell an old suit, not in Britain to get money to pay for an unexpected trip to Russia as Foot asserts, but in a government shop in Russia where clothes were bought and sold. He did not get much for his suit: 350 roubles or about 17 British pounds (1939 money).
Cecily did a lot better, selling a ‘swagger’ top coat for the rouble equivalent of 250 pounds. They used these non-convertible roubles to buy air tickets to Stockholm and, as Cecily wrote to family at the time, had three glorious days crossing Sweden to Gothenburg by the Gota Canal. From there they travelled by rail to Bergen in Norway for the Twelfth International Studies Conference. They were there on time but the conference was cancelled shortly after it began because war was declared.
John and Cecily compared Sweden and Russia and their impression was that the Swedish capitalist system, with its strong co-operative movement, delivered better outcomes: judged by housing, there seemed to be less inequality in Sweden and the quality of household products was higher and the range greater. In Russia, Cecily commented, walls were cracked, lights were broken, baths were scratchy, floors squeaked, meals were slow, plugs missing. They enjoyed Leningrad and Moscow but they were not blind, enthusiastic, uncritical supporters of the Soviet model.
Against this background it is quite salutary to re-read Foot’s account quoted above. It is fiction, not academic research. It is full of assertions (see underlines) and inaccuracies. It betrays a willingness to twist the scantiest scraps of information (the sale of a suit, for example) to fit and push a preconceived line of argument. The intent of the last two sentences of the quote is clear but sits oddly with the reality: John and Cecily were young lovers, preoccupied with each other, not an ideal time for clandestine meetings with the MVD or GRU and much less for indoctrination.
I had no difficulty getting information on Burton’s trip to Russia in 1939. Pamela Burton’s article mentions Burton’s own willingness to talk to researchers. It is the job of a responsible academic or researcher to look under every stone rather than to imaginatively fill missing gaps oneself. For every assertion Foot makes about Burton in his article, there is a valid alternative explanation that Foot either does not explore or dismisses in favour of his own prior predisposition. His focus is narrow. He ignores relevant material that would convey a very different picture of Burton from the one he seeks to promote.
Clive Edwards is an economist. He gained his PhD at ANU in 1965 and taught economics there until 1980. After a brief period in Federal government departments, he joined the School of Business at the University of Queensland in 1988. His main academic interests are in strategic management and international business with a focus on economic developments and business opportunities in East Asia. He was a member of John Burton’s extended family from the early 1960s.