On August 3, 1974, with no forewarning, it was announced that the Whitlam Government had recognized, de jure, the annexation of the Baltic States by the Soviet Union. It was soon revealed that it was Whitlam’s own decision, taken without cabinet or caucus debate, to give legitimacy to the forced annexations by the Soviet Union of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, carried out in 1940 by a mixture of military force, terror and political fraud under the secret terms of the Nazi Soviet Pact of August, 1939.
The orthodox narrative of the great Gough has largely flushed this infamous decision down the memory hole. Gough Whitlam’s detailed self-justification in his book The Whitlam Government 1972-1975 (1985) makes no mention of this decision.
Thus many would miss the fact that on September 18, 1974, the Senate carried a motion of censure against Senator Don Willesee, the Foreign Affairs Minister, for this recognition. This nearly forgotten debate highlighted two fundamental assumptions of the Whitlam approach to foreign policy which were reflected in Senator Willesee’s reply, recorded in the Senate Hansard for September 1974, pages 1177 to 1178:
If there is a basic difference between the Opposition and the Labor Government on this issue it is the fact that we recognize the realities of change. We no longer have a cold war as we knew it over a long period of time. Members of the Opposition still want to live in that era.
In other words, the Cold War was essentially over and the Soviet Empire was permanent. The real message of the Great Gough was a form of surrender. Thank goodness that the United States was to elect Ronald Reagan, who believed that the Cold War could be won.
I challenge all those acolytes of Gough to compare him with Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher on the great existential struggle between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies. Who was proved right? If they want to eulogize Whitlam as the herald of a new age, they should at least be honest on this issue.
Of course, Whitlam never even hinted that he might have been wrong. His overweening vanity would surely have precluded him from admitting error in any case. Well may it be said that he was clever but not wise.
In the recent ABC documentary, The Power and the Passion, much was made of Whitlam’s visit to China as the prelude to a more independent Australian foreign policy. The highly orchestrated welcome at Beijing Airport was presented as a popular welcome to the great Gough, rather than the calculated gesture common to totalitarian states. This is not to suggest that the recognition of Beijing was wrong, although it reflected intellectual fashion rather than the strategic calculations of Nixon and Kissinger.
Like fellow leftists around the world, Whitlam liked to take pride in being on the right side of history. We need to remind our leftist friends in the ABC and sundry Whitlam hagiographers that when the Soviet Empire collapsed in 1991 and Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia regained their independence, Gough Whitlam was left stranded on the wrong side of history.
Christopher Carr is a frequent contributor to Quadrant Online