Written around 1981, stimulated by Michael Thwaites’ Truth Will Out: ASIO and the Petrovs, Collins, Sydney, 1980.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves…
– Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II.
Kim Beazley [Snr.] in his Foreword to Michael Thwaites’ book Truth Will Out comments that the “Petrov affair is in the memory of the political professionals rather than the public”1 and argues that it was the performance of Dr. Evatt rather than the Petrovs’ revelations that was decisive in shattering the ALP’s electoral standing in the middle 1950s. There should be no surprise that professional and unprofessional political opinion is interested in the event christened the “Petrov affair”. In post-war Australian political history nothing compares with the Darwin airport scenes of Mrs. Petrov’s defection, the dramatic diplomatic consequences, the wild accusations, and political ramifications, which followed Prime Minister Menzies’ solemn statement to the House of Representatives on the evening of April 13, 1954 that: “It is my unpleasant duty to convey to the House some information which I this morning laid before the Cabinet for the first time and which we decided should be dealt with as soon as possible.”2 Menzies urged that there be no delay in investigating the information provided by Vladimir Mikhailovich Petrov, the Third Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, who requested political asylum.
The Petrov affair – that is, the Petrovs’ defections, the Royal Commission on Espionage Activities in Australia, the behaviour of Dr. Evatt before the Royal Commissioners and Dr. Evatt’s claims of a conspiracy by the secret service and the government to destroy the electoral prospects of the ALP – has been commented upon ad nauseam. Three matters have dominated discussion: first, the claim that the defections and consequent publicity decided the 1954 federal election result; second, Dr. Evatt’s allegation that fabricated evidence produced by Vladimir Petrov and the secret service was presented to the Royal Commission; third, Dr. Evatt’s speech on October 19, 1955 concerning the Royal Commissioners’ Report wherein Dr. Evatt cited correspondence with Mr. Molotov, at that time the USSR Foreign Minister, who denied the authenticity of the Russian language documents handed over to the Australian security service by V. Petrov upon his defection. But important as these aspects are, there is more than this to the Petrov affair. There is, for example, Menzies’ behaviour after he was informed of the possible defection of V. Petrov and the value of the Royal Commissioners’ Report.
Michael Thwaites’ book Truth Will Out provides fresh information as to the motives of the Petrovs’ separate decisions to defect and the workings of the Australian security service. Nevertheless, as this review will establish, Mr. Thwaites’ analysis contains some notable omissions.
What follows is an evaluation of Menzies’ behaviour prior to the announcement of Vladimir Petrov’s defection, the 1954 election result, the reasons influencing the Petrovs to seek political asylum, the Royal Commission proceedings, Dr. Evatt’s conspiracy theories, the Royal Commission Report and Thwaites’ book.
Menzies’ Behaviour Prior to the Announcement of the Defection of Vladimir Petrov
On April 3, 1954 Vladimir Petrov defected. Ten days later Menzies informed the Cabinet and the Parliament for the first time. The Prime Minister claimed that “the outlines of systematic espionage” and attempted subversion by the Soviet Embassy were apparent from the documents Petrov gave to the Australian security service: “In the comparatively few days since Mr. Petrov came to our security people, enough matter has been examined, though only a small fraction of the whole, to show there are matters affecting Australian security which call for judicial investigation.”3 Accordingly Menzies proposed the setting up of a Royal Commission on Espionage Activities in Australia.
There are three questions concerning Menzies’ activities prior to this announcement which require examination: (a) Why was Evatt not informed before Menzies’ Statement to the House on April 13, 1954 that the Prime Minister was to speak on a matter of national importance? (b) When did Menzies first learn of the possible defection of Petrov from the Soviet Embassy? (c) Was Menzies fully informed of the activities of the security service to procure V. Petrov’s defection?
Evatt claimed in a Statement to the House of Representatives on April 14, 1954 that:
Last night the Prime Minister [Mr. Menzies] made a very important statement and I greatly regret that I was not in the House when it was made. I had a very important engagement to fulfil in Sydney4, but I did not leave Canberra until 5 o’clock and I would have cancelled the engagement had I had any inkling that such an announcement was to be made.5
Since Menzies informed the Cabinet meeting on the morning of April 13 that Petrov had defected, presumably there should be no good reason why the Leader of the Opposition was not informed of the event. According to the account given by Mr. Calwell, at that time the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, “Mr. Menzies summoned me to his room and said that he wanted leave to make an important statement to the House about the defection of a Russian diplomat.”6 As Evatt could not be contacted in Sydney, and the House was due to meet in fifteen minutes, Calwell complied with Menzies’ request.
The performance of Menzies following his knowledge of V. Petrov’s defection, particularly with regard to Dr. Evatt, is very much under question. His decision to surprise the Opposition, without Evatt to contend with, added a partisan flavour to the announcement of Petrov’s defection. In defence of Menzies, it might be argued that his failure to reveal Petrov’s defection to the Opposition was a simple oversight without malice – however this does not excuse the error.
According to correspondence of Sir Charles Spry, then the Director-General of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Menzies instructed
…that I confine my discussion (of matters relative to Petrov) to himself, the Attorney-General and the Solicitor General, and that I should refer any enquiries from other ministers to him. I raised the question of Dr. Evatt. He said the same instructions should apply. Dr. Evatt did ring me on the morning of April 14 194 and asked me to come to his office to discuss the Petrov affair. I told him of the Prime Minister’s instruction.7
This instruction adds to the picture of excessive secretiveness concerning Menzies’ dealings with Evatt concerning the defection.
In support of Menzies’ position, it might be asserted that there was no legal requirement to inform the Leader of the Opposition of anything concerning security matters. However there had developed the convention of keeping the Leader of the Opposition abreast of security issues. Spry states:
There was nothing in the Governmental Directive given to me on appointment as the Director-General of Security which instructed me to see or acquaint the Leader of the Opposition with any matters of a security nature. I understand that the same situation applied to my predecessor, Judge Reed. It was purely upon my initiative, and with the approval of Mr. Menzies, that I commenced this practice when I called upon the Leader of the Opposition soon after my appointment. I continued this practice when Dr. Evatt succeeded Mr. Chifley. The discussions were of a general nature.8
Dr. Evatt protested against the lack of consultation concerning the unfolding of the Petrov defection; he said:
It always was the practice on important matters of the security service that not only the Prime Minister, but also the Leader of the Opposition should be kept generally informed of the activities of the service, and that has always been honoured in the history of the Security Service.9
It seems reasonable to suppose that Menzies shrewdly, albeit irresponsibly, surprised the Labor leader with the revelation of the defection expecting some political advantage.10
In Menzies’ book The Measure of the Years, he states that Spry consulted him on February 1954 warning that a defection from the Soviet Embassy by a member of the Soviet Ministry of State Security, the MVD, was highly probable: “It is his memory that he for the first time mentioned the name of Petrov to me. There was no particular reason for me to remember an individual name; and in fact I did not.”11 Menzies’ lapse concerning the name ‘Petrov’ is entirely excusable, but what he leaves unstated with this comment deserves examination. Menzies states that he was informed of an impending defection, but surely it would be expected of Menzies that he pursue some enquiries concerning this matter between early February and April 1954. After all, the Prime Minister claimed that the information Petrov supplied to the security service was extremely important, as might have been expected from a senior member of the MVD.
Menzies’ account of his actions during this period is extremely sketchy. On August 12, 1954 Menzies told the House of Representatives “…I say to the House and to the country that the name of Petrov became known to me for the first time on Sunday night, 11 April, I think, or the preceding Saturday night …when the head of the Australian Security Service came to see me…”12 In other words, one week after Petrov defected Menzies heard of his name! It is doubtful, on this account, whether any inquiries were pursued by the Prime Minister prior to Vladimir Petrov’s defection.
An explanation for Menzies’ actions during this period might be that he informed Spry that the secret service’s role was to entice the Russian diplomat’s defection, and that the Prime Minister would only be involved immediately after the defection. Even so, given the likely consequences of the defection of a Soviet Embassy official of Petrov’s standing, the delegation of complete authority to the security service to these events betray a weakness concerning Menzies’ laissez-faire approach towards ASIO.
It is as if the investigations and performance of this organisation, which are of national and even international importance, are of little immediate concern to the elected government. Menzies, apparently, did not know until after April 1954 of Spry’s authorisation in March 1954 to pay £5,000 to Petrov following his defection.13 It must be assumed that Menzies was careless in his handling of the development of the defection. In October 1955 Menzies admitted:
Early in February, 1954, I now learn that the Solicitor-General and the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, as individuals, were warned of the possibility of a defection …I myself was told that there was the possibility of a defection, but the identity of the subject was not disclosed, nor did I ask for it.14
No reasons are given to explain why Menzies did not bother to pursue inquiries on the identity of the possible defector.
The Impact on the 1954 Election Result
Arthur Calwell in his autobiography Be Just and Fear Not states that: “I have never believed that the sordid Vladimir Petrov affair in 1954 was anything other than a political gimmick designed to save the Menzies government from defeat in the impending elections.”15 Dr. Evatt during the Royal Commission proceedings and thereafter maintained that the Petrov defection was the rabbit out of the hat which robbed him of residence in the Lodge.16 How significant was the Petrov defection to the 1954 election result? Speaking on the Royal Commission Bill on April 14, 1954 Menzies revealed:
This kind of thing [the Petrov defection and the need for a judicial inquiry], indeed represents embarrassments to a government in this sense, that, happening as it does through circumstances beyond our control – because it happened when the man concerned had finished his term of duty with the Soviet Embassy and had left – not long before a general election, some people might be disposed to think that it has some electoral significance. I want to tell the House that I should have been very happy if this matter had not risen in this way for two or three months, and so far from feeling that it involves any party consideration, I want to make it abundantly clear that this concerns something far superior to party, it concerns the security of our country and the integrity of the administration of our country.17
This statement reflects Menzies’ realisation that the actual defection involved political advantages for the government, although those benefits were fortuitous rather than manipulated. Petrov’s defection proved politically beneficial for Menzies in the sense that the government was associated in the public’s mind in achieving a desired result.18
As is the case with many political developments, governments can claim success even though those developments might have little to do with the activities of particular politicians. An example of this might be the conclusion of a major wheat export agreement with a country whose level of agricultural production requires importation of such foodstuff. This type of outcome is often cited by governments as ‘proof’ of the worth of a certain agricultural or foreign policy. The Petrov affair reaped similar benefits for Menzies.
The advocates of the theory that the Petrov defection was decisive in the 1954 federal election result, however, usually go further than this.
The myth spread by Tennant, Brown, Calwell and, of course, Dr. Evatt himself is that Bert Evatt, with all of the opinion polls in early 1954 indicating a victory for Labor in the coming elections, was Ko’d by Ming and a Russian pisspot with the dramatic, contrived Petrov defection.
Leaving aside the aspersion concerning the motives leading to V. Petrov’s defection, which is discussed below, there is evidence to suggest that the Petrov revelations were significant in the 1954 election result. Admittedly, most debate on the hustings centred upon the feasibility of Labor’s economic and social welfare proposals.19 Nevertheless it is also true that some members of the government, Country Party members especially, attempted to gain political mileage from the defection. Fadden, the Deputy Prime Minister, Treasurer and Leader of the Country Party claimed during the election campaign that:
Only the present government… could be trusted to carry out with the rigour of the law the findings of the Royal Commission… Can you afford to make Dr. Evatt the nation’s trustee after his association with communists and communism over the years?20
Fadden’s warning was made despite Menzies request of government candidates to refrain from discussing the Petrov defection and the possible findings of the Royal Commissioners.21 Fadden’s public canvassing of sub judice matters was inexcusable but not unexceptional.22
It should be noted that the attempt to exploit the Petrov defection for political advantage was not limited to one side. Dr. Evatt in a press statement on April 16, 1954 stated that “Mr. Menzies’ general handling of the communist question deserved strong censure”. Evatt criticised Menzies’ press commentaries on the importance of Petrov’s information. (Menzies referred to people at home and abroad as having been implicated by the documents handed to the security service by V. Petrov – yet those were areas the Royal Commission was to assess). In addition, Evatt accused the government of being soft on communism in that: “The government had allowed almost a continuous succession of communists to and fro between Australia and China”.23
Nevertheless it would be naive to estimate that the Petrov affair did not have some electoral impact in 1954. The dramatic defection of Mrs. Petrov at Darwin Airport on April 20, 1954 dominated the news for days afterwards. The sitting of the Royal Commission prior to the election from May 17 to 19, 1954 generated publicity about the Petrovs and Soviet espionage. The government benefited from these events in the sense that the government appeared to have uncovered a Soviet “spy-ring” and was successfully fighting Soviet espionage.
Evatt accused the government of manipulating events by staging the Royal Commission hearings prior to the elections:
The Albert Hall was set up for the occasion. It cost a great deal of money, but the Commission never sat there again. The whole of the arrangements, including the broadcasting of proceedings all over the world, were simply, of course, to give special publicity at this very short time before the general elections – there were only twelve days to go.24
There are two points which need to be delineated here: (i) was the Royal Commission justified in sitting from May 17 to 19, 1954?; and (ii) what was the impact on the election result?
It is worthwhile noting that there was little of value produced during the first four days of the Commission’s hearings. Michael Thwaites comments,
With benefit of hindsight, it is likely that better results would have been obtained if there had been no sittings in Canberra or elsewhere until a good deal more enquiry, preparation, and interviewing of witnesses in private had been carried out.25
Moreover, Thwaites argues that private interviews with many individuals mentioned or implicated in the Petrov documents might have been carried out with advantage prior to the early sitting of the Royal Commission. “There is”, Thwaites asserts, “an element in the human spirit which rallies all its strength to resist a public onslaught, but which may suddenly open the gates to firm but courteous enquiries in private conversation.”26
Open to question here is not the decision to hold a Royal Commission – which was agreed to by both the government and the Opposition – but the sittings prior to the Federal elections. Thwaites comments,
The first three days, 17-19 May, at the Albert Hall, were something of an anticlimax as far as the expectant public was concerned. The Petrovs did not appear; little was disclosed about the defection that was not already known; the documents Petrov had brought were listed, but it was stated that they required some closer examination before the Commission could proceed.27
The public’s impatience for more information is hardly an adequate excuse for the early sittings – especially given Thwaites’ assessment of the handicap that this posed for ASIO in undertaking its research and investigations.
It might be supposed that the Petrovs’ defections aided the government’s popularity and that the sittings of the Royal Commission in the middle of May, which intensified media reporting and conjecture concerning the significance of Soviet espionage and communist activities in Australia, contributed to the government’s electoral position.
Why Did the Petrovs Defect?
On April 3 1954 V. Petrov signed a statement, which read in part: “I wish to ask the Australian government for permission to remain in Australia permanently – I wish to become an Australian citizen… I no longer believe in communism since I have seen the Australian way of life.”28 Suffice to say this was not the only motive behind V. Petrov’s defection!
Thwaites’ account of the reasons leading to the defections of Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov are detailed and convincing. Thwaites, however, bends over backwards to paint V. Petrov in rosy colours. The result is a distorted portrait.
Thwaites establishes that Petrov sought asylum in Australia primarily because: (a) the fall of Beria, the head of the Soviet NKVD who was executed three months after Stalin’s death, with whom Petrov was accused of being a supporter within the Embassy, and the elimination of Beria supporters in the USSR, placed V. Petrov’s future in a precarious position; (b) as V. Petrov’s services as Third Secretary in the Embassy were terminated in April 1954, Petrov feared for his life should he return to the USSR; and, (c) V. Petrov’s contacts with Bialoguski, an ASIO agent instrumental to securing V. Petrov’s defection, convinced him that he could expect personal and financial support should he defect.
Vladimir Petrov, it might be noted, has suggested that “Bialoguski’s part in my decision to defect [contrary to the account that Bialoguski provides] was simply that of an intermediary.”29 Petrov was keen to play down Bialoguski’s role. He states:
But in all our conversations at his flat, or over a drink or a meal, I never disclosed to Bialoguski my secret MVD role. Even at the end, when he and I met Mr. Richards of the Australian Security Service, I never gave Bialoguski any grounds to know me as anything more than Consul and Third Secretary. As to any other functions of mine, he was guessing up to the end.30
V. Petrov, as this passage reveals, was completely unaware of Bialoguski’s successful efforts in ‘tape-recording’ their conversations and the famous incident when Bialoguski copied official documents that Petrov carried and left unattended following his attacks on several bottles of vodka;31 Thwaites glosses over this incident: “It looked like a clear case of negligence on Petrov’s part. Yet could we be sure? We actually know little for certain about his real role or character. Outwardly Petrov gave the impression of being shrewd, careful, deliberate…”32 Yet Petrov’s indiscretions cannot be easily dismissed as possibly diabolically clever.
Thwaites closely worked with the Petrovs for 18 months immediately after their defections – during which time he ‘ghost wrote’ Empire of Fear, the Petrovs’ joint autobiography.33 He is extremely concerned to defend their reputations. Fair enough. But sometimes Thwaites exaggerates their virtues:
My first impression was one of relief and recognition. I found that I had to deal neither with ruthless automata nor with monsters of guile, but with two individuals who had maintained a remarkable human perspective through years in the service of an inhuman machine. Even more striking was the fact that, as they began to relax and speak freely, it became clear that for a period going back over years, they had inwardly rebelled against deception and heartlessness and had tried (sometimes taking risks in the process) to act with honesty and humanity, within the limits of the system they served.34
An alternative explanation would concentrate on fear as the chief motive leading to their defection from what they describe as the ‘empire of fear’.
Thwaites describes V. Petrov as having an “impeccable peasant and proletarian [sic.] background”.35 Thwaites reveals that: “For a short time he was chief of the cipher section of [the] Gulag, the vast labour and prison-camp organisation controlled by the NKVD.”36 Petrov’s reasons for joining the secret service? “My reasons were simple – I was married, I wanted a job, and I wanted enough to eat.”37 As a member of the Soviet secret police Petrov had enough to eat and enjoyed the privileges of his position. In March 1938 Petrov attended ‘the trial of the 21’ – who included Rykov, Bukharin and Yagoda.38 Like Vyshinsky, the Court prosecutor, Petrov was outraged by the treachery of the Bolshevik revolutionaries.
Thwaites comments: “Petrov counted himself lucky not to have seen, in the course of his long professional career, the inside of a Soviet labour camp, either as an inmate or as an official.”39 Certainly Petrov’s behaviour made it likely he would be on the right side of the labour camp’s barbed wire if he did strike it ‘unlucky’.
Petrov was not a Rubashov, an Ivanov or a Gletkin [to allude to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.]: “My duties were laid down. To refuse to carry them out would have been the end of me.”40 Saving his skin seems to have been a life-long preoccupation.
Although Thwaites tries hard to argue otherwise, the information contained in his book is enough to demonstrate V. Petrov’s flawed character.
Mrs. Petrov’s defection occurred in completely different circumstances to her husband. She did not know that her husband intended to seek asylum in Australia. Vladimir Petrov’s action came as a complete surprise. Under cross examination by Dr. Evatt during the Royal Commission, Mrs. Petrov stated,
If he had told me that we were to stay here, of course at that moment I would not have shown him my intentions, but I would have indicated, would have tried later – perhaps called him to the Embassy and then I would have informed the Ambassador; but such a direct proposal on his part was never made.41
Therefore, given Mrs. Petrov’s preparedness to turn over her husband to the Soviet authorities if he had of suggested they both defect and her feeling of betrayal following her husband’s decision on April 3, 1954, why did she defect? The answer to this riddle concerns the reaction of the USSR Embassy officials who behaved with a mixture of extreme cunning and extreme stupidity. Thwaites reveals,
I heard later from Mrs. Petrov’s own mouth a graphic account of her detention in the Embassy, including her desperate isolation, and her attempt to hang herself with the flex of an electric iron. Her treatment at the hands of [Ambassador] Generalov and his frightened staff… brought her to a pitch of despair, fear, bewilderment, and mistrust which played a material part in her ultimate decision.42
Her decision was based on fear.
The Royal Commission Proceedings
The terms of reference for the Royal Commission into Espionage Activities in Australia were to inquire into and report upon:
a) the information given to the Commonwealth by Vladimir Mikhailovich Petrov as to the conduct of espionage and related activities in Australia and matters related to or arising from that information;
b) whether espionage has been conducted or attempted in Australia by representatives or agents of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and, if so, by whom and by what methods;
c) whether any person or organisations in Australia have communicated information or documents to any such representative or agent unlawfully or to the prejudice or possible prejudice of the security or defence of Australia; and,
d) whether any persons or organisations in Australia have aided or abetted any such espionage or any such communications of information or documents.
and generally, the facts relating to and the circumstances attending any such espionage or any such communication of information or documents.43
There were three documents examined by the Commission which became the centre of controversy concerning Dr. Evatt:44
(i) Document H, which was composed by Fergan O’Sullivan in 1951 when he was a staff-writer for the Sydney Morning Herald. The document contained an agglomeration of rumours and personal information concerning Australian press journalists. O’Sullivan, at the time of this revelation, was employed on Dr. Evatt’s staff and was properly and promptly dismissed once his authorship of the document (which he gave to Pakhomov, the Tass correspondent) was discovered and admitted to;
(ii) Document J, which consisted of thirty eight pages and was succinctly described by Victor Windeyer, Counsel assisting the Royal Commission, as “a farrago of fact, falsity and filth”. The document contained ‘information’ listed under sub-headings including: ‘Japanese interest in Australia’; ‘American Espionage in Australia’; ‘War Contacts in Australia’; ‘Notes on the Australian Workers’ Union’; ‘Dr. Evatt’.
(iii) Document J35, which is actually page 35 of Document J and deals specifically with Dr. Evatt.
The Royal Commission reported that: “No person reading the documents as a whole in the light of the evidence adduced could doubt their authenticity, and any further attack upon them could be found solely in displeasure engendered by their existence.”45 Nevertheless the authenticity of Document J was vigorously challenged by Dr. Evatt and the findings of the Royal Commission concerning this document, in some respects, are open to challenge.
The Royal Commission ascertained that Document J (including page 35) was “the carbon copy of a document typed in the Soviet Embassy at Canberra by Rupert Lockwood”.46 Mrs. Petrov stated in evidence to the Commission that she saw Rupert Lockwood typing a document during three successive days in May 1953 in the Embassy, and that she gave Lockwood some money and several bottles of whisky once he had finished his work. Mr. Petrov, Mrs. Petrov claimed, was in hospital at this time, and evidence presented to the Royal Commission corroborated her testimony.47
The records of the Kingston Hotel (opposite the USSR Embassy) showed that Lockwood was in residence on May 23, 24 and 25, 1953. On those dates V. Petrov was convalescing in the Canberra Community Hospital.
Inspector Rogers, a handwriting expert from the New South Wales police, gave evidence that the marginal notes and comments written on the document were the work of the communist journalist Rupert Lockwood. Further, Inspector Rogers ascertained that Document J was typed with two typewriters, with pages 1 to 14, 18 to half of 26 and finally page 35 being typed on one typewriter.48
On this evidence, the Royal Commissioners decided that Document J, along with page 35, was the work of Rupert Lockwood. This finding can be attacked on several grounds:
(a) Even if Mrs. Petrov had witnessed Lockwood composing and typing up a manuscript in May 1953, this is hardly sufficient evidence to prove that the manuscript included page 35 or was composed of all thirty-eight pages of Document J. It is ridiculous to assert that Document J’s “length was consistent with a three day task”,49 as if to assert that one could calculate the length of a document into days required for composition and typing.
(b) The pin-holes, staple marks and general condition of some of the pages of Document J (including page 35) suggests that it may not have been compiled at the same time.50
In making these points, it does not follow (as Dr. Evatt might assert) that there is a prima facie case that sections of Document J were invented for the purpose of undermining the credibility of those mentioned therein. Rather, there is the possibility that Document J (including page 35) was a composite of Rupert Lockwood’s efforts on May 23, 24 and 25 1953 and of another person’s or persons’ writings.
In an extraordinary decision the Royal Commissioners refused a request by Dr. Evatt that Dr. Monticone, “an official interpreter who did work in the various courts and for the state government departments”51, to peruse and examine the document, specifically the handwriting upon it, so as to independently verify or cast doubt upon Inspector Roger’s findings.
It seems both politically and judiciously foolish of the Royal Commissioners to rule against this request.
Dr. Evatt’s reasons for appearing before the Royal Commission were twofold: firstly, his political fortunes suffered when it was revealed that a member of his staff had produced Document H which was of value to Soviet officials, and that another, Document J35, explicitly contained references to his person. In some minds the link between Dr. Evatt and communists would have been established. Dr. Evatt resolved that it was in his interests that he effectively clear his reputation. Secondly, some widely publicised comments by the Chairman of the Royal Commission, Mr. Justice Owen, stung Dr. Evatt to appear as counsel for several members of his staff. Mr. Justice Owen stated in an exchange:
The Chairman – You see it is very disturbing to find a document of this sort in which the writer claims to have got information…
The Witness [O’Sullivan] – It is very disturbing to me, I can assure you.
Later, concerning Document J, Mr. Justice Owen remarked: “The document quotes as sources for various matters, some of which are very confidential, three members of the secretariat of the Opposition.”53 Clearly, Mr. Justice Owen’s statements went beyond the limit of reasonable speculation and contravened the Commission’s decision that:
Although it was not possible to adopt a completely uniform procedure …in cases where the oral evidence of a witness was thought likely to contain any allegation or implication of improper conduct by another person the latter was, where reasonably possible, notified before the evidence was given and an opportunity was given to him to question the witness and give evidence in rebuttal or explanation if he wished.54
Dr. Evatt’s Conspiracy Theories
Dr. Evatt, appearing as counsel for two members of his Secretariat, Alan Dalziel and Albert Grundeman, seized the opportunity to expose what he imagined was a conspiracy by Menzies or the secret service or both to destroy his political career.55
Dr Evatt’s representation before the Royal Commission was entirely unnecessary: after all, Clive Evatt could easily have replaced him.56
Further, Dr. Evatt’s allegations and insinuations concerning alleged conspiracy were fantastic.57 He alleged that since V. Petrov was paid £5,000 immediately following his defection by Richards, who was in charge of the NSW office of ASIO, this cast doubt upon the authenticity of the documents. Petrov, in Evatt’s mind, had been “bought” and was paid to fabricate documents. This was an extremely grave charge, and it says little for Dr. Evatt that he produced no evidence for his assertions.
Not satisfied with reasonable criticism concerning the accuracy and value of the documents, Evatt visualized a political conspiracy and caught a ghost.
Dr Evatt’s famous correspondence with Molotov cut down Evatt’s political standing and added to his reputation as a political naiveté. Kylie Tennant in her hagiography dismisses the Molotov letter incident as being “in his legal manner” of argument: Evatt wanted “the other side” to be represented.58 But it is a highly dubious argument that a person who never had access to the Petrov documents could be said to have such intimacy as to dismiss the documents as forgeries.
This is not the place to discuss Evatt’s allegations in toto: they have been well answered elsewhere.59
The Royal Commission Report
The Royal Commission Report has been pilloried because there were no recommendations to launch any prosecutions.60 In defence of the Royal Commissioners, it must be said that charges or convictions are not everything. Michael Thwaites states:
The Commission documented Soviet espionage in Australia as a systematic continuing effort at a time when many Australians doubted its reality. It found that the Soviet Embassy, Canberra, had been used to provide diplomatic cover for an MVD espionage network. From the time of the Embassy’s establishment in 1943 to Petrov’s defection in 1954…61
The Royal Commissioners insinuated the inadequacy of existing law:
The substantive law is such that, when considered in conjunction with the technical legal rules governing the admissibility of evidence in courts of law, it would appear that prosecution of none of the persons whose acts we have considered in our report would be warranted.62
There are few critical comments concerning the Royal Commission Report in Thwaites’ account. Yet there are at least several matters (so far not mentioned) which require dissent.
The Royal Commissioners assert, on the basis of the Petrovs’ evidence, that Filip Kislytsin, the Second Secretary of the USSR Embassy from October 1952, “appears not to have been an efficient MVD worker”.63 Yet this ‘incompetent’ served in London from 1945 to 1952 during which time he was Burgess’ and Philby’s link with the Soviet Embassy and arranged the escape of Burgess and Maclean from England in 1951.64 Thwaites reveals that:
The first authentic news that Burgess and Maclean had fled to Moscow and were working there was, I believe, brought to the outside world by Petrov, when he sought refuge in Australia in 1954. He told me the story, as recounted by his KGB colleague Kislytsin…65
Since Kislytsin was trusted with an important role in one of the most successful Soviet espionage cases conducted in the West since World War II, it is likely that he was an above average spy. (This is not a criticism of the Royal Commissioners – who could not know everything that is now known about Kislytsin. It is a criticism, albiet minor, of an omission in Thwaites’ examination of the Petrov affair).
A more important criticism of the Royal Commissioners concerns their finding about the alleged payment of 25,000 American dollars by the USSR to Lance Sharkey, the General Secretary of the CPA.66 The Petrovs contradicted each other on this allegation. At first, V. Petrov alleged that Antonov, the Soviet TASS correspondent, paid Sharkey this money in July 1953; Mrs. Petrov thought the date was earlier. Subsequently V. Petrov stated that Antonov told him the money was paid at 8.00pm on October 16th 1953 to Sharkey. But in fact Sharkey was under surveillance by the Australian Security Service at this time and it was found Sharkey could not possibly have met Antonov since he was at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Australia. Despite the disparity between the Petrovs’ statements and the evidence uncovered by the Commission, the Commissioners explained: “the divergence between statements as to details negative any suggestion of an intent to concoct a story.”67 On this specious reasoning, perfect affinity between each of the Petrovs’ accounts might establish an intent to concoct something.
Apparently on the basis of hearsay evidence, in the absence of sound evidential support, the Royal Commissioners concluded that the money was paid to Sharkey.
For the record, this writer believes it very likely that the Communist Party of Australia received financial support from the USSR from the 1930s onwards. Further, that it is likely that Sharkey, as General Secretary of the Communist Party of Australia, would be a likely conduit for payment. The Royal Commission Report, however, proposed weak arguments in support of its conclusion that Sharkey received 25,000 American dollars.
Thwaites’ book is not limited to the Petrov affair: it is an excellent personal account of one spy’s experience in some of the most important events in Australia’s history. Thwaites is not oblivious to some of the Keystone Cops characteristics of ASIO’s excesses.68 He describes on episode thus:
Once, the shadow fell upon that loyal native of our great wide continent, the Australian gum tree. We learned that the Russians were making enquiries with a view to purchasing large quantities of eucalyptus seeds. Why? We received scientific advice that eucalyptus leaves could be used to produce rutile, a substance useful in the treatment of burns from atomic radiation. Putting two and two together, it was easy to make five. The race for nuclear superiority was intense. Alarm mounted. Was the USSR preparing for atomic war?69
On this basis ASIO’s interpretation of a bush fire might make for interesting reading.
Although Truth Will Out contains many strengths as an assessment of the Petrov affair, it fails to tackle many important issues in depth.
It is not enough to castigate Dr. Evatt for his unfalsifiable and unsupported allegations of conspiracy concerning the unfolding of the Petrov affair. Thwaites does not discuss in detail the significance of the impact of the Petrovs’ defections on the 1954 election result. Dr. Evatt’s interpretation of this impact may be false, but this does not mean that the Petrov affair was not a factor in the government’s victory on May 29, 1954.
The Petrov affair certainly destroyed the political fortunes of Dr. Evatt and enhanced the career of Robert Gordon Menzies. Evatt’s destruction was self-induced. His wild charges concerning a monolithic conspiracy were completely unsubstantiated. In the aftermath, apologists of Dr. Evatt have paraded the defection and the Royal Commission as a “stunt” designed to harm the ALP.
The simian characteristic of not seeing, hearing or speaking against the myth sanctified by Dr. Evatt has affected many interpretations.
Menzies’ account of the affair, as outlined in The Measure of the Years, has portrayed his handling of the development of events and the Royal Commission as a model of impartiality and sound judgment.
There is much to quarrel with these accounts, which choose to ignore factors that would compromise their conclusions concerning the Petrov affair. It would be too much to describe this essay as a lighthouse in seas of confusion. But it is sufficient to note the following: (i) Menzies’ careless handling of the Petrov affair in its early stages; (ii) some members of Menzies’ government misrepresented the Labor Party during the 1954 campaign as untrustworthy to conduct an objective investigation of communist espionage; (iii) the Petrovs’ defections were probably important in influencing the 1954 election result; (iv) some of the Royal Commissioners’ actions and findings are insupportable.
The greatest tragedy of the affair was Dr. Evatt’s search for ‘nests of conspirators’. Evatt was not destroyed by the Petrovs’ defections, he ruined himself. Honi soit qui mal y pense.
1. Beazley, Kim, Foreword to Thwaites, Michael, Truth Will Out, Collins, Sydney, 1980, p. 7.
2. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, April 13, 1954, p. 325.
3. Ibid., p. 326. The Director-General of ASIO, C.C.F. Spry, recommended to the Prime Minister the establishment of a Royal Commission. Thwaites, Op. cit., p. 102.
4. Evatt was attending a reunion of the Old Fortians – the ‘old boys’ of Fort Street High School – in Sydney.
5. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, April 14, 1954, p. 372. Cp. the Sydney Morning Herald, April 15, 1954, p. 6. Whitlam, Nicholas and Stubbs, John, Nest of Traitors, Jacaranda, Brisbane,1974,p. 79.
7. Calwell, Arthur, Be Just and Fear Not, O’Neill, Melbourne, 1972, pp. 177-178.
8. Spry, C.C.F., correspondence as published in the National Times, September 3-8, 1973, p. 34.
10. Quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, April 15, 1954, p. 6. See also Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, December 2, 1953, pp. 811-814, where the Prime Minister and Dr. Evatt agree on the responsibility of the head of the Australian Security Service to consult with the Leader of the Opposition on security matters.
11. On the nature of the political advantage see below.
12. Menzies, Sir Robert The Measure of the Years, Cassell, Melbourne, 1970, p. 156.
13. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, August 12, 1954. In The Measure of the Years, Menzies writes: “On 4 April, there was a conference at the Prime Minister’s Lodge at Canberra, at which Spry, Richards, an interpreter, and I were present” which discussed the Petrov documents. It would be surprising if V. Petrov’s name was not mentioned at this gathering.
14. Cf. Menzies’ account of the Petrov affair in Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, October 25, 1955, pp. 1858-1875.
15. Ibid., pp. 1870-1871.
16. Calwell, Arthur, op. cit., p. 177.
17. I shall not discuss the allegation that Menzies called a snap election to capitalise on the V. Petrov defection. This claim has been demolished elsewhere. See Paul, J.B., ‘Let’s Bury the Legend’, The Bulletin, June 17, 1980, pp. 41-44.
18. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, April 14, 1954, p. 380.
19. Sir Howard Beale (a member of Menzies’ Cabinet at this time) wrote in a review of the Whitlam’s and Stubbs’ book Nest of Traitors that: “We believed that Evatt’s financial irresponsibility plus the communist issue, which was still a burning one, would carry us through, and it did”. The Sydney Morning Herald, December 27th 1974, p. 6. The government’s anti-communism was considerably boosted by the appearance of uncovering Soviet espionage. See Bialoguski, Michael, The Petrov Story, Heinemann, London, 1955, p. 228.
20. cf. McHenry, Dean E., ‘The Australian General Election of 1954’, The Australian Quarterly, Vol. xxvii, No. 1, March 1955, pp. 14-23.
21. Cited in Murray, Robert, The Split, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1972, p. 151.
22. cf. Beale, Sir Howard op. cit., Menzies, Robert, The Measure of the Years, op. cit., p. 166.
23. Whitlam and Stubbs, op. cit., pp. 100-102.
24. The Argus, April 17, 1954, p. 5.; cf. The Sydney Morning Herald, April 17, 1954 p. 1.
25. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, October 19, 1955, p. 1701.
26. Thwaites, Michael, op. cit., p. 115. The first four days of the hearings were held on May 7-19 and June 11, 1954.
27. Thwaites, Michael, Loc. cit., p. 115.
28. Ibid., p. 102.
29. Quoted by Menzies, Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, April 13, 1954, p. 326. For two interesting versions of the circumstances surrounding Vladimir Petrov’s defection see Bialoguski, Michael, The Petrov Story, op. cit., especially pp. 203-226; and Petrov, Evdokia and Vladimir, Empire of Fear, Deutsch, London, 1956, supra.
30. Petrov, Evdokia and Vladimir, Loc. cit., p. 344.
31. Ibid., p. 280.
32. Bialoguski, Michael, op. cit., pp. 105-107.
33. Thwaites, Michael, op. cit., p. 80.
34. Ibid., p. 10.
35. Ibid., p. 202.
36. Ibid., p. 150.
36. Ibid., pp. 153-154.
37. Ibid., p. 154.
38. Ibid., p. 156.
39. Ibid., p. 164.
40. Ibid., p. 182. cf. Bialoguski, op. cit., p. 168.
41. Official Transcript of Proceedings, Royal Commission on Espionage in Australia, September 2, 1954, p. 695. Cp. Thwaites, Loc, cit., p. 94; Bialoguski, op. cit., p. 18
42. Thwaites, Loc. cit., p. 94. cf. Bialoguski, Loc. cit., pp. 152-153, 181-182; 221-226; 228-229.
43. Report of the Royal Commission on Espionage, Sydney, 1955, p.
44. The documents which V. Petrov gave the Australian Security Service are discussed in the Report of the Royal Commission on Espionage, Loc. cit., pp. 34-67.
45. Report of the Royal Commission on Espionage, Loc. cit., p. 60.
46. Ibid., p. 295.
47. Ibid., pp. 420-421.
49. Ibid., p. 420.
50. cf. Whitlam and Stubbs, op. cit., pp. 152 f.
51. Dalziel, Allen, Evatt the Enigma, Lansdowne, Melbourne, 1967, p. 98. Cf. Evatt’s views expressed in Official Transcript of Proceedings, op. cit., September 3, 1954, pp. 721-724; Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, October 19, 1955, pp. 1695-1696.
52. Official Transcript of Proceedings, Loc. cit., July 15, 1954, p. 297.
53. Ibid., p. 298. Evatt sent a telegram to the Royal Commissioners protesting about the Chairman’s remarks. Official Transcript of Proceedings, Loc. cit., July 16, 1954, p. 309.
54. Report of the Royal Commission on Espionage, op. cit., p. 9. Cp. Thwaites, op. cit., p. 114.
55. cf. Official Transcript of Proceedings, op. cit., September 1, 1954, pp. 682-684; Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, October 19, 1955, pp. 1694-1718.
56.Dalziel, op. cit., p. 93.
57. John Douglas Pringle relates that he lunched with Dr. Evatt the day after his unexpected election defeat in 1954: “He blamed his defeat on a conspiracy, but it was impossible to tell from his ravings exactly what he meant. At one moment he accused Menzies and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation who, he firmly believed, had timed the defection of Petrov, Second Secretary (sic.) of the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, so that Menzies could use it against him”. Pringle, J.D., Have Pen Will Travel, Chatto and Windus, London, 1973 p. 120. Psychological interpretations concerning a person’s behaviour are often exaggerated caricatures, and although I do not accuse Pringle of this, a person’s actions and argument stand or fall on logical rather than psychological grounds. In Evatt’s case, his arguments were very weak indeed.
58. Tennant, Kylie, Evatt: Politics and Justice, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1970 p. 311.
59. cf. Report of the Royal Commission on Espionage, op. cit., pp. 424-426.
60. Whitlam and Stubbs, op. cit., pp. 154-160.
61. Thwaites, op. cit., pp. 118-119.
62. Report of the Royal Commission on Espionage, op. cit., p. 301.
63. Ibid., p. 91.
64. Cookridge, E.H., The Third Man, Barker, London 1968, p. 183; Boyle, Andrew, The Climate of Treason, Hutchinson, London 1979, p. 216. Thwaites, op. cit., pp. 187-188.
65. Thwaites, Loc. cit., p. 61.
66. Report of the Royal Commission on Espionage, op. cit., pp. 102-114.
67. Ibid., p. 103.
68. Thwaites, op. cit., p. 52.
69. Ibid., p. 68.
In 1997, soon after he became editor of Quadrant, Paddy McGuinness said that he had unearthed this manuscript from the files of the magazine. He wanted to know why it was never published. I said I had no idea. At the time, Richard Krygier told me that he thought it too long. I had no contact with the editor at the time, Peter Coleman.