History

Billy Hughes and James Burnham

In 1979 the Canberra historian Bill Mandle published a review of L.F. Fitzhardinge’s two-volume biography of William Morris Hughes, Australia’s Prime Minister during most of the Great War. Published by Angus & Robertson, the Hughes biography had been decades in the making.

An employee of the humble Canberra College of Advanced Education—Fitzhardinge worked at the then far more prestigious Australian National University—Mandle was free to be candid. His comments on Fitzhardinge’s magnum opus indicated that he was glad that the wait was over, but he did not bother to hide his frustration with the final product.

This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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The two sizeable volumes before him, Mandle noted, contained few “outstanding revelations”. The unrelieved familiarity of the recorded events that filled them was disappointing. Fitzhardinge’s biography furthermore, while being a “valuable book”, lacked pleasing proportion. It had a “thin tail”. Fitzhardinge’s interest in his subject fell away rapidly once Hughes ceased, in 1923, to be our prime minister, even though he still had almost thirty years ahead of him as a senior yet irascible member of federal parliament in Melbourne and then Canberra, until his death in 1952. Mandle cited Fitzhardinge’s perfunctory coverage of Hughes’s involvement in the power struggle that followed the death of Prime Minister Joe Lyons in 1939 as a striking instance of this palpable sense of authorial uninterest.

Research grinds on and with the passage of time yet more examples of Fitzhardinge’s uneven coverage as a biographer were bound to crop up. Tempting new information is always sought whenever a life story is not fully told. It is now time, in the case of Billy Hughes, to detail one such undeservedly overlooked occurrence.

A bare three pages or so before his great work ends, Fitzhardinge notes in passing that, after the Second World War, Hughes “tended to see communism, with its overtones of intolerance and authoritarianism, as the most urgent threat to the idea of the Australian democratic society”. Fitzhardinge does not elaborate on this late comment and yet Hughes’s late career involvement in anti-communism deserves to be, and can be, adequately documented. One particular train of events stands out in particular.

The lead-up to what happened can be traced back to 1944, when with the war in the Pacific still raging to our north, two men in Sydney—one involved in business and the other in politics—undertook some delicate literary negotiations. The businessman was Stanley Bartlett, the manager of the Australasian Publishing Company. The politician was Hughes. Still a member of federal parliament, Hughes was the recent former leader of the now rapidly vanishing United Australia Party.

Bartlett was keen to publish a biography or memoir—the exact format is unclear—by or about the aged statesman. It was bound to attract attention because of Hughes’s high public profile. Hughes was agreeable to the idea although there was a proviso. He was willing to provide biographical information but he needed to have an amanuensis to turn the raw material into a properly crafted biography or memoir.

Bartlett had no trouble in coming up with someone in the writing game suitable for this task. His staff at the Australasian Publishing Company were editing and publishing a novel by a new writer who was destined to become an internationally successful author. His start was far humbler though. Bartlett’s young author was going to make his wartime literary debut using a pseudonym (“Julian Morris”). His real name was Morris West. 

The budding author was impressed with his highly supportive publisher and the esteem was mutual. Bartlett suggested to Hughes, who agreed, that West was the best person to be his amanuensis.

The arrangement did not work out. As indicated by West’s biographer Maryanne Confoy—a source of valuable information for this episode—Morris West spent six months, beginning in April 1944, engulfed in a sea of confusion. What he was expected to do was always unclear. The exact format of the Hughes book—whether a biography or a ghost-written memoir—was indeterminate.   

Apart from working on the book, West also was expected to be a private secretary attending to Hughes’s draft speeches, current correspondence and still hectic itinerary. Hughes was a difficult and demanding employer at the best of times. The odds were against West’s assignment working out. In October 1944 the two men parted company.

Stanley Bartlett got to publish West’s debut novel, Moon in My Pocket, in 1945. Over the next few years biographies or memoirs by or about Hughes involving other poorly treated literary assistants appeared. But the proposed Hughes tome involving Morris West never saw the light of day.

And yet the late wartime connection between Stanley Bartlett and the former prime minister did not turn out to be completely barren. It eventually resurfaced in a wonderfully fruitful way.

In 1950, Australia was the setting for a national anti-communist crusade. The newly elected Menzies government, in fulfilment of an election commitment, had introduced legislation to ban the Communist Party of Australia. The enabling bill when presented to federal parliament was graced with a preamble full of fighting language. The Communist Party had to be suppressed, the preamble noted, because of its reliance, at varying times, on “force, violence, intimidation or fraudulent practices”. Billy Hughes, still busily commuting between Canberra and his Sydney home in suburban Lindfield, supported the proposed ban. Ever a fighter, this was his final great crusade.

Opponents of communism in Australia were eager to draw on literature that supported the case for a ban. The appearance in the United States in the previous year of an ambitious exposé of Cold War communism was certain to attract their attention. The book in question was The Coming Defeat of Communism by James Burnham. A graduate of Princeton, he was a former member of the US Communist Party. He had become a militant anti-communist following a brief transitional period as a Trotskyist.

Burnham preached a combative message. Western opponents of the Soviet Union, he insisted, could best counteract communist plotting and misinformation by organising a proactive campaign of scheming and propaganda of their own. They needed to exert constant pressure to test communism’s glaring contradictions and weaknesses. Anti-Soviet activists had to vigorously counteract Marxism’s influence in trade unions and cultural organisations. They should urge people of faith, Christian or Muslim in the first instance, to do battle with atheism.

Burnham’s Cold War message was heeded. Its impact was pervasive. Decades later Burnham’s anti-Soviet aura pervaded the White House during the presidency of Ronald Reagan when detente was a dirty word. There was an immediate effect at the time as well, with Australia being notably impacted.

The attempt to ban the Communist Party of Australia in 1950 was a practical application of Burnham’s gospel. In the wake of the big coal strike of 1949 the industrial front operated as the immediate anti-communist battleground. At the start of the 1950s elected officials who were CPA members controlled a number of militant and strategic trade unions. The proposed bill to ban the party was meant to break their influence. Its preamble encapsulated this intent. It accused the CPA of being responsible for “dislocation, disruption or retardation of production”.

A steady flow of references to the appearance of Burnham’s book appeared in Australian daily newspapers and specialist publications in the first half of 1950. On February 28 the regular alert service put out by the Department of External Affairs in Canberra noted the New York publication of The Coming Defeat of Communism. In all likelihood a copy ended up in the departmental library.

This flurry of public interest culminated in October 1950 when an Australian edition of Burnham’s book came out. Its publisher was the Australasian Publishing Company, still managed by Stanley Bartlett. It featured a foreword provided by Bartlett’s friend William Morris Hughes. The old team was back together.

What had happened since the unhappy incident in 1944 involving Morris West is properly documented. The renewed connection between Bartlett and Hughes in 1950 is covered in correspondence to be found in the unpublished papers of Billy Hughes held by the National Library of Australia.

These records indicate that there was an additional person from Sydney who was closely involved in this ideological initiative in 1950. This man was Bruce Graham (right), one of Hughes’s much younger parliamentary colleagues. Since the 1949 federal election Graham had been the Liberal Party member for the marginal Sydney seat of St George. In the winter of 1950 he and his lower house colleague (and Minister for External Affairs) Percy Spender were the proud possessors of the only two copies in Australia of the American edition of The Coming Defeat of Communism.

Graham knew that Bartlett was keen to publish a local edition of the Burnham book. Bartlett in this instance was not necessarily governed by, in his own words, “the commercial angle”. He had to be a realist but he also knew how to sell books or at least garner attention.

In 1945 Morris West’s debut novel had been a commercial success for Bartlett’s Australasian Publishing Company. Some 10,000 copies had been sold. The Burnham book was not intended to be in this league. It was aimed at a niche audience, comprising keen students of the ideological and geopolitical aspects of the Cold War between the US and the USSR.

Clever marketing though was not to be sneezed at. A message of support from Billy Hughes, who had combated the revolutionary Left since the two vexatious Australian conscription referenda of 1916-17, would be invaluable in generating publicity for the proposed Australian issue. Bartlett was ready to provide a proof copy of the text of the local edition to allow Hughes to write a message of support. Graham had a better idea. The task of getting comments on the text from Hughes would be easier if he lent Hughes his US edition.

Graham raised the matter with Hughes by phone on Thursday, July 20, 1950. He detailed the task at hand. The Australasian Publishing Company’s edition of the Burnham book would, at that stage, not be available until mid or late August but Graham wanted to know if Hughes would look at the US edition and then write a brief foreword for the Australian edition. Hughes agreed to this proposition and Graham delivered the book to the Hughes home in suburban Sydney by the following Monday, July 24. On August 1 Bartlett contacted Hughes to confirm the arrangement.

Some further slight delay ensued. On August 14 Graham phoned Hughes to see how the proposed foreword was getting along given that publication of the Australian edition was expected quite soon. This conversation led to a meeting the next morning between Graham and Hughes, after which Hughes drafted the foreword. Publication of The Coming Defeat of Communism, he noted in it, was a highly welcome event because the book turned a spotlight on how communism was “ceaselessly planning and plotting in every corner of the world”, including through industrial strife. Hughes dated his foreword August 22, but a few minor changes occurred before it was published in its final form.

After receiving the cleared draft, Bartlett phoned Hughes on August 30 to suggest some deletions. It was perhaps too fiery, he said. He wanted Hughes to delete a description of Lenin in which he labelled the Soviet founder a “liar, hypocrite and trickster”. Bartlett also wanted Hughes not to talk about a “war to the death” between democracy and communism. 

Hughes was amenable to the deletions and returned the foreword so softened. In acknowledging receipt of the final version of the foreword, Bartlett promised to send Hughes a complimentary copy of the book. The copy arrived in Lindfield on October 4. Public distribution began a fortnight later.

In physical appearance—font, binding, format and so on—Bartlett’s Burnham book with its foreword by Hughes bore a striking similarity to the Morris West novel that he had published in 1945. The same printer was used. The striking similarities are comprehensible once we understand the previous links between Hughes, Bartlett and West. 

Stanley Bartlett’s timing was impeccable. The Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950, passed by federal parliament, became law on October 20, 1950, just as the Australian version of Burnham’s book began appearing in local bookstores.

On March 9, 1951, the High Court of Australia ruled that the law banning the Communist Party of Australia was unconstitutional. Prime Minister Robert Menzies—whose impressive personal library includes a copy of Burnham’s work—was undaunted. His government sought to ban the party by means of a constitutional amendment. On September 22, 1951, the referendum to amend the Constitution in this way was lost despite the Yes case’s best efforts.

The campaign against communism in Australia continued to be waged on various fronts. The struggle in the trade unions remained to the fore with efforts to unseat communist officials in internal elections, perhaps taking their most spectacular form in the Federated Ironworkers’ Association. There the successful anti-communist forces enjoyed the official support of the Australian Labor Party. They were headed by Laurie Short, who had long been a keen student of James Burnham, as his biographer Susanna Short has documented.

So there was a discernible Australian market for James Burnham’s book on communism in 1950. Stanley Bartlett, with the assistance of Billy Hughes and Bruce Graham, was the entrepreneurial spirit in the local book trade who stepped up to meet this need. We are fortunate that this intriguing Cold War incident can be reconstructed. Inspired by the late Bill Mandle, a humble latter-day researcher can still hope to fill some of the gaps left behind by Laurie Fitzhardinge. The absence of Hughes’s late connection to James Burnham is definitely such a glaring omission.

Stephen Holt is a Canberra writer

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