Denis Warner, 1917-2012

Denis Warner, the distinguished journalist and historian, was probably the English-speaking world’s most reliable guide to Asia’s political transformation for the thirty years following the Second World War. He moved on to his next reporting challenge on July 12 at the age of ninety-four at his home, a splendid rambling homestead called “Ramslade”, in the Victorian bayside village of Mount Eliza.

When it came to chronicling the wider Asian drama it could be said he wrote the first draft of history better than anyone and then, with his books, came the more considered second draft. For many of his peers he was “the war correspondents’ war correspondent”.

His was a remarkable life. He went from a rural boyhood in Tasmania to three years as an ordinary soldier fighting the Vichy French (in Syria) and then the Afrika Korps at Alamein, to his metamorphosis in 1943 from soldier to foreign correspondent capturing some of the most dramatic episodes of the endgame in the war against Japan. This was followed by a career covering every subsequent Asian conflict from Korea, the Malayan Emergency, Konfrontasi (Indonesia’s undeclared war against Malaysia) to the first Indo-China war (the French versus the Vietminh) and then the second, with America and Australia and their allies up against the Vietcong and North Vietnam. That of course was the truly awful one, the one that engulfed the whole region, some would argue the whole world, and whose ripples can still, almost forty years since its bloody end, be felt in so many areas of contemporary life. And then there was everything that happened in between those gruesome collisions of ideology. For the more permanent record, Warner left us a shelf of books that vividly captured the misery, the chaos and, to his happy surprise, the somewhat miraculous resurrection of most of Asia from the ashes of all those wars.

Born on December 12, 1917, in New Norfolk, he gained a first-class education at the Hutchins School in Hobart, where he was school captain. In the late 1930s he was taken on as a copy boy by the Mercury and moved on to the Herald in Melbourne, where he came to the notice of that paper’s guiding figure, Sir Keith Murdoch.

Murdoch launched Warner on his career as a war correspondent on his return from war service in the Middle East. Sir Keith took particular pride in the quality of his foreign correspondents and those he thought of as his protégés, a distinction it was claimed that gave the paper its “special cachet”. Besides Warner, the Herald was the nursery and launching pad for such legendary correspondents as Alan Moorehead, Richard (Dick) Hughes, Douglas Wilkie and Osmar White. Murdoch’s marching order to Warner in 1943 was, “Go to Asia and tell us how it is.”

For most of his career Warner enjoyed and indeed thrived on the freedom of being a freelancer even though it meant he had to endure the accompanying insecurity. He reflected that “in many ways this [freelance status] made me more of a loner. Apart from a year in Melbourne after the war and my years with Reuters-AAP, I did not work in an office after the end of World War II.”

With war’s end he was taken on by Reuters and the Australian Associated Press to run their bureau in Tokyo, where he covered the messy aftermath of war with such stories as Chinese reprisals against the Japanese in Hong Kong, the POW releases and the war crimes trials of the leading Japanese soldiers and political leaders (with the notable exception of the Emperor). After two years he and his wife Peggy, whom he had married in Melbourne in 1945, settled in Singapore. Before he left Japan he interviewed General MacArthur, who imparted this gem of wisdom: “there are four events that have changed the world for the better”—the birth of Christ, Magna Carta, the American Civil War and, in the generalissimo’s exact words, “my occupation of Japan”.

Besides his newspaper commissions, from the early 1950s Warner started to write longer pieces for American magazines, regularly for the Reporter (alas, no longer), and later for Look (also deceased) and the Atlantic. These outlets enabled him to write in depth, providing the wider context not always possible in his newspaper reporting. From 1981 to 1995 he edited the Asia Pacific Defence Reporter in which, with a team of long-standing journalistic colleagues, he monitored the significant shifts in the region’s geopolitical landscape.

Reflecting on his war years, he wrote:

I used to wonder sometimes when my luck would run out. The marine company I landed with on the island of Saipan … was decimated after two days of fighting. I walked out of a field hospital on Guam where I was suffering from dengue fever because I couldn’t bear lying there among the wounded: it was overrun by the Japanese the night after I left.

He also survived his flight as an observer on the first Superfortress raid on Tokyo and, as he told the story, “a second’s warning saved [me] from probable death from a kamikaze attack near Okinawa”. He was on the “Admiral’s bridge” of the British carrier HMS Formidable when that suicide attack occurred, blowing him off his feet and leaving him temporarily deaf while those around him were killed.

The next big war was Korea. It was also the beginning of his lifelong association with the London Daily Telegraph, the paper he felt closest to and which gave him the most latitude in the field and the most respect as a writer. Then as now the paper’s international coverage was considered second to none. In its obituary on July 15 the paper described Warner as “the outstanding Daily Telegraph correspondent in South-East Asia during the Korean War, the Malayan emergency, Indo-China and Vietnam”.

As Warner saw it, while all wars are hard to cover and painful to endure, Korea was exceptionally so. There was massive confusion on the allied side, getting around was near impossible and the winter weather seemed to assume that humans were polar bears. No sooner had he arrived than the Telegraph’s chief correspondent, Christopher Buckley, was killed. Warner had to put up with Buckley’s replacement, Randolph Churchill, who Warner quickly assessed as pretty useless and described, in a letter to Peggy, as “a lazy old coot”.

Warner considered the Korean conflict “one of the tragic accidents of the Cold War”, the consequence of successive American miscalculations. He believed that “if the Americans had taken up Stalin’s willingness at the Potsdam Conference in 1945 to fight alongside the Russians in Manchuria, it is quite possible the Russians would not have moved into Korea”. He also bemoaned “the American folly” of drawing the line along the thirty-eighth parallel that became “with monstrous injustice, a permanent barrier, the Asian equivalent of the Berlin Wall—a line drawn with no social, economic or cultural meaning”. The then US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, Warner maintained, sent all the wrong signals to Stalin, Kim Il Sung and Mao Zedong, indicating that the USA would not intervene after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the North in December 1948 and American forces from the South in June 1949. For Warner this reading was underlined given that Stalin reputedly feared a war with the USA more than anything.

Warner’s involvement with Indo-China was the subject of his most intensive absorption in any one theatre of war—professionally and emotionally. Unlike Malaya, where the “strategic hamlet” program, linked with an intelligently prosecuted “hearts and minds” policy, actually worked (no doubt assisted by an ethnic division between communist insurgents, Chinese, and the victims of their aggression, mostly Malays), Indo-China was much more complicated and, by virtue of its civil war character pitting people of mostly the same ethnic make-up against each other, the bloodletting was ironically all the more ferocious.

And, of some interest, and emblematic of the war itself, one of the reasons the American-installed “strategic hamlet” program didn’t work in South Vietnam, even though the Americans were advised on the ground by Sir Robert Thompson, who devised the Malayan program, was because, Warner informs us, the senior South Vietnamese official overseeing the whole program was a communist who had coolly played a double game for years. Warner notes, “the Viet Cong had twenty thousand agents working among the Americans and South Vietnamese … every Vietnamese organisation of significance was penetrated”. Further, he estimates that “when the war began in that fateful year of wishful thinking in 1959, there were no more than five thousand armed Vietcong in all South Vietnam”.

Warner witnessed up close the fifty-six-day siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which sealed the fate of French colonial pretensions in Asia. What struck him about the second Indo-China war, “the American war”, as it was dubbed by many Vietnamese, was how little the Americans had learned, and how the mistakes of the first war were being repeated on a much grander scale than anything the French generals, in their myopic arrogance, could conceivably have inflicted. The historical record strongly suggests that the Australian military contribution to the war was to try to implement the lessons of Malaya and the French defeat, their effort only to be rendered ineffective due to the policies of the American leadership and high command. And there are more than a few similarities in this apparent incapacity to learn the most obvious lessons from the past in the disastrous occupation of Iraq.

In his 1964 book The Last Confucian: Vietnam, South-East Asia and the West, Warner provides a summary of his then still evolving “take” on the war, deeply imbued as it is with a sense of history, albeit recent history:

The campaign in Laos … was part of the battle for Vietnam, in the same way that the Second Indo-China War (1959?) is merely a continuation of the First (194654). Since the initiative in both cases has been with the Communist forces, it would be misleading to discuss the second without considering the first. The lessons of one are applicable to the other. Circumstances and the Cold War made the late President Kennedy a sort of latter-day Gustavus Adolphus in this war which, now in its seventeenth year, is likely to drag on for a long time yet and to become much more difficult in the process.

It would drag on for another eleven years. (Adolphus was the reputedly brilliant seventeenth-century Swedish king and military commander whose young life was ended on the battlefield at the very moment of his greatest renown, and his gains were lost after his death.)

The two really absorbing set pieces in his memoirs—Wake Me If There’s Trouble: An Australian Correspondent at the Frontline: Asia at War and Peace 19441964 (Penguin, 1994) and Not Always on Horseback: An Australian Correspondent at War and Peace in Asia 19611993 (Allen & Unwin, 1997)—are the fall of Diem in 1963 and the final collapse of South Vietnam in April 1975. On the Diem front one is struck by the intimacy of Warner’s knowledge of and relations with the “first family” and all the key players surrounding it. His portrait of Madame Nhu, generally considered the real power behind President Diem, is worth quoting:

I confess that I found Madame Nhu enchanting. She tap, tapped into the room on her high heels, her white ao dai split to the waist, a diamond-encrusted crucifix around her slender neck. She was tiny, vivacious, not quite beautiful but very close to it, and tough. The Americans the Buddhists, her brother-in-law and even Diem himself came in for a battering in the two hours that she talked, punctuating her remarks with flashing eyes and pointing fingers. I left shaken but understanding why Joe Alsop, the American columnist, had called her a tigress.

She was adamant about one other thing, as she conveyed to Warner: “There can be no coup if the Americans don’t support it.” She was right; the coup went ahead and “succeeded”, in a way. But as Warner elaborates, although Diem—ascetic, otherworldly, and fatally indecisive—and his not so ascetic entourage were bad news, what came after them, gangster generals who kept turning on each other with one coup after another, was many times worse. Warner had little doubt that the 1963 coup, connived at by the Americans, sealed South Vietnam’s fate. 

Some of the passages in those autobiographical volumes are so richly evocative they linger in the mind for days and, for this reader at least who had little exposure to the Vietnam reality, they prompt a rush of scenes from favourite films of the Indo-China wars. Descriptions of street scenes and references to meetings at the Continental, for example, recalled images from Phillip Noyce’s version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Warner might have been worlds apart from Greene on the subject of communism, but their criticisms of how the Indo-China wars were fought, and their pessimism about the region’s future, had much in common.

Warner’s description of his time in Phnom Penh on the eve of its fall in 1975 to the Khmer Rouge is haunting because we know what happened in the days and weeks that followed, and another fine (if historically flawed) film, The Killing Fields, invades the cinema of one’s mind with its disciplined portrayal of limitless cruelty. But for the full force of these highly selective cinematic replays, the chapter on the fall of Saigon in Warner’s Not Always on Horseback is compelling in the way it captures that sense of desperation and paralysing fear as the city awaits the entry of a merciless enemy determined to do its worst. One film in particular comes to mind, possibly the finest film to come out of the memory bank of that ghastly war, The Deer Hunter, with scenes that powerfully conveyed the menace and desperation of Saigon immediately before the fall. Its scenes of Saigon’s dissolute nightlife, conducted in dimly lit alleyways, its denizens seemingly oblivious to what was happening just outside the city, with accompanying glimpses of panic-ridden mothers dragging their little children along highways to nowhere, all captured that sense of chaos and emotional exhaustion that Warner and other perceptive eyewitnesses have faithfully recorded.

How bizarre, in retrospect, that the film should have been so fiercely attacked for using Russian roulette as its central metaphor, the critics’ claim being that because there was no evidence of such techniques being used it was therefore scandalous to defame the Vietcong and their allies with imputations of such cruelty. Of course, by 1978, the year of the film’s release, the communist victors of Indo-China had already demonstrated that their “games”—involving millions—were incomparably more vicious and deadly than any one-on-one Russian roulette contest, real or fabricated.

By contrast, throughout the war Warner’s great hope was expressed in simple words: “I prayed that the South might find some way of surviving without going through the trauma of totalitarian domination.” 

The saddest and, for Australians, probably the most shameful part of Warner’s Vietnam War experience was compressed in the last two or three days before Saigon fell. He could have stuck around but his survival instinct and common sense told him that wasn’t the best idea. He decided to leave with the Australian embassy people the next day, Anzac Day. On his last day Bill Deedes, the legendary Daily Telegraph editor, cabled: “Would like especially to congratulate you on this morning’s piece, outstanding even from you.”

As Warner records:

I left with tears in my eyes late in the afternoon of Anzac Day in the RAAF Hercules that had been waiting to evacuate Geoffrey Price [the Australian ambassador and Warner’s good friend] and his [Australian] staff … A couple of UN representatives were aboard, together with a basket of their cats. The Australian embassy had a list of a hundred and twenty-four Vietnamese who had been approved for entry into Australia, and whose safety was believed to have been at risk. At Canberra’s insistence, none was aboard, although there was space for many of them.

He wrote to Peggy from Bangkok on April 30, the day Saigon fell:

Darling, I’ve been frantically busy since I got here, trying desperately to arrange a charter flight into Saigon to pick up all those unhappy people left by our delightful government … I was busy getting the plane and alerting people in Saigon to get ready to go. A very difficult operation, really, because there was in theory no means of communicating with people … It all happened so fast that it seems like a nightmare. The Americans behaved disgracefully, but so did the Australians.

While it has long been known that Whitlam’s response towards Vietnamese trying to flee the communists was despicable (the damning historical record, unwittingly provided in this regard by his admirer Clyde Cameron, when he told us that the great humanitarian described the “boat people” as those “f***ing Vietnamese Balts”), we have recently had further detailed confirmation of Whitlam’s betrayal, from one John Ryan who worked for Rex Connor, Acting Prime Minister at the time of the fall of Saigon. He remembers, in correspondence with Gerard Henderson (posted on his Media Watch Dog, July 2012):

Connor, to give him his due, was quite sympathetic to the despairing calls for asylum reaching him from desperate Vietnamese who had worked for the Embassy. Both Foreign Affairs and Immigration were totally resistant to doing anything to help them, even in the face of requests from the Acting PM, stating that they had received strict instructions from both Whitlam and Cameron, then Immigration Minister, NOT to do so.

What was Warner’s conclusion about the war in Vietnam? Was it all a huge waste, or was there some redeeming good to come out of it? According to his great friend and colleague from the war years, Michael Richardson, in 2000 he commissioned a piece for the International Herald Tribune (of which Richardson was then Asia Editor) to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the end of the war. Summarising Warner’s perspective, Richardson wrote recently:

[Warner] argued that the fight in Vietnam had bought time for the non-communist countries of South-East Asia to strengthen themselves, and concentrate on reform and economic development, so that by the time the Vietnamese communists emerged victorious the South-East Asian dominoes stood firm instead of falling, as Hanoi’s propagandists predicted would happen. Instead, it was the communist-led states of Indo-China … that were economically shattered. They had to accept peaceful co-existence and later join non-communist ASEAN.

It was a view with which Warner’s greatest admirer among Asian leaders, Lee Kuan Yew, concurred. In a letter to Warner, after his IHT piece appeared, he wrote:

You put it well. I was, and still am, convinced that if LBJ had not got US forces to stay in Vietnam in 1965, but had bowed out, the will to resist in South-East Asia would have melted. The Thais would have yielded to the seemingly inevitable, and Malaysia and Singapore would have been chewed up. Indonesia would also be overtaken …

What a joy and a relief to have a living witness speak out the truth, although it is unpopular with the liberal media.

Given the passions unleashed by the Vietnam War back in Australia it’s not surprising that Warner was the target of criticism. The sad part of it is that it frequently took a nasty, sometimes quite vicious but always decidedly self-righteous turn. The vehemence raises a curious contrast. On the one hand you have Denis Warner, a dedicated critic of the White Australia policy and the man who put his life on the line to save hundreds of Vietnamese from certain incarceration and even execution in the last days of a non-communist South Vietnam, and on the other hand you have his most vehement critics, most visibly the “engaged” local journalists notable only for their lack of intellectual independence, in tacit complicity with comfortably ensconced academics—the “Asian experts” of their day—spending their time in seminars discussing the finer points of subjects such as the Khmer Rouge’s exciting new contribution to urban redevelopment.

Indeed, given the contemporary national standoff as to who’s holiest in the compassion stakes when it comes to refugees, it’s of some interest to recall my first meeting with Denis. It was with a small group in the home of Lady Kent Hughes in Melbourne in the late 1970s. We had got together to form a pressure group to aid the cause of the many tens of thousands of refugees then risking all in the South China Sea, desperate to escape the hell of their new Whitlamite utopia. The group was called “Action for Indo-Chinese Refugees” and it achieved disproportionate results by pressuring the Australian government to take more refugees. The political and ideological soul mates of the current breast beaters on the refugee issue were thin on the ground; if anything they mostly argued against letting refugees into Australia, especially if they were from Indo-China. How times change and how easily the past is wiped.

No considered appreciation of Denis Warner’s life would be complete without addressing two aspects of his life—his decades-long campaign to unveil the treachery of Wilfred Burchett, dedicated apologist for totalitarian governments everywhere, and, on the happier side, Warner’s lifelong love affair with Peggy.

The Burchett story has been told—from both sides of the ideological divide—a hundred times and more. For anyone not blinkered by tribal tunnel vision it is surely impossible, even leaving aside his undoubted complicity with the communists in Korea (the focus of later trials), to deny that one aspect of Burchett’s life is beyond serious contention—in the late 1940s and early 1950s he was an active and paid propagandist for the Stalinist regimes of East-Central Europe in their humiliation, torture and execution of innumerable dissidents. Some journalistic hero, our Wilfred, not exactly in the Orwell camp!

When Burchett sued Warner and the Herald for defamation Warner had to endure all the uncertainties of the legal process and it took its toll. As he put it:

I realised I would have to bear the brunt of all personal damages if I lost the case. For the next seven years I spent countless sleepless nights, and what must have been thousands of man-hours…

Fortunately, Burchett lost.

Warner argued that there was one commonsense test for the veracity of the claim that the USA used germ warfare in Korea (a key element of the case): leaving aside all the other evidence:

In a land [such as America] where the press has probing eyes that penetrate the most secret government defences, there is simply no way in the world in which a germ warfare campaign could have been conducted by the United States and still remain secret half a century later.

Warner speculated that Burchett cooked up the germ warfare claim inspired by a futuristic short story by one of Burchett’s favourite authors, Jack London, titled “The Unparalleled Invasion. Warner’s final take on Burchett was to accept that he “was not a Soviet spy in the accepted sense of the word. He did not traffic in state secrets like Philby, Burgess and MacLean”, and Warner tended to agree with the estimate of a friend of Burchett that he was “too obvious to be anyone’s secret agent”. Warner’s conclusion: “he will be remembered by many as one of the more remarkable agents of influence of the times but by his Australian and other admirers as a folk hero. Pay your money and take your choice.”

As for Peggy, she was, in my experience (we were neighbours in Mount Eliza in the 1990s), a wonderfully cheerful and vivacious person who delicately made up for Denis’s sometimes dour moods. For Denis, he considered his proposal to Peggy “the best decision I ever made”. When they met she was a reporter on the Herald, and marriage to Denis gave her bountiful opportunities to travel and write. Her first book was titled Don’t Type in Bed, an account of their life roving around Asia. She also co-authored books with Denis, including Tide at Sunrise: A History of the Russo-Japanese War (1974) and The Sacred Warriors (1984) about Japan’s suicide squadrons during the Second World War that became a best-seller in Japan. Peggy described their marriage as “a union of true love”. When Saigon was about to fall she sent a telegram to Denis from their home in Singapore: “please keep on loving me, darling. I’m lucky to have such a wonderful husband.” She also described him as “a warm and affectionate father”. Peggy died two years before Denis, at ninety-five, just after they had celebrated their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary. They shared a wonderful life.

 Anthony McAdam was a correspondent for the BBC World Service in Africa in the early 1970s, and in the 1980s he was a columnist for the Herald in Melbourne and Quadrant’s Watchman columnist.

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