Wilfred Burchett: A Lion Among Paper Tigers

In August 1981, I received a telephone call from Wilfred Burchett – the well-known Australian journalist and first Western war correspondent into Hiroshima in 1945. He was one of the most remarkable men I have ever met.

We had become friends after our first meeting at the Plaza Hotel in New York in the late 1970s. He was in America advising the Nixon administration in its clandestine talks with the Vietcong with a view to ending the Vietnam conflict. At that time the Americans were sustaining heavy losses and their toll of dead and injured was steadily rising to levels that were politically indefensible. Their problem was to find a way of extricating themselves from the conflict without loss of face. Wilfred was a bête noir for the administrations in both America and his native Australia for having covered the Vietnam war from the ‘other side’, sending out his dispatches from behind the lines in the jungle. His knowledge and contacts with the Vietcong, however, took on a value that Nixon and his advisors were unable to ignore in the changing political climate of the United States and the rising radical tide of its peace movement.

Wilfred was now retired and living behind the Iron Curtain in Sofia with his Bulgarian wife. His proposal was that I should visit him with my wife Maria and our son Ramsay, if he could manage to secure an invitation for us from the Bulgarian authorities. I was delighted to hear from him in the first place and second overwhelmed by this unexpected gesture. My response was immediate and positive: we would love to come. Wilfred was a giant among the journalists of his generation, and a warm-hearted, larger-than-life character. He may have held many controversial political views, but at heart he was a courageous humanitarian, a champion of the poor and the oppressed, and had my unconditional admiration.

Wilfred’s initial clash with American interests had come head-on in 1945 when, as a young war correspondent entering Japan with the US invasion forces, he defied the exclusion zone declared by General MacArthur to cover the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after their destruction by atomic bombs. He was the first Western journalist to enter Hiroshima after the attack and sat on a lump of surviving concrete with his Hermes typewriter in the radioactive wilderness, having seen the evidence of obliterated humanity and the plight of those who were dying from their injuries and a mysterious sickness previously unknown to medicine. The technical terms to describe their illness were not yet in place, but Wilfred was in no doubt about the enormity of the implications. He began his report, published as a world exclusive in Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express in London with the words: ‘I write this as a warning to the world.’

The scenes he went on to describe in graphic detail seemed almost beyond the scope of the human imagination. The official American line on atomic warfare, then and long afterwards, was that death and destruction were caused by the bomb blast, radiation being a harmless side-effect. From the American point of view, Burchett’s talk of ‘bomb sickness’ needed to be refuted and dismissed as Japanese propaganda. The official press report on Nagasaki, which denied the effects of radiation, was prepared by William Laurence, a science writer on the New York Times, who also happened to be in the pay of the US War Department. Laurence and the New York Times were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in recognition of their efforts (now seen as dishonourable), but Burchett’s forebodings never went away. At a press conference he openly challenged General MacArthur when he made attempts to pour scorn on Burchett’s Hiroshima account.

With the polarization of positions and loyalties that inevitably came with the Cold War, Wilfred’s sympathies were certainly not in America’s favour. His highly controversial dispatches from the Korean War after it began in 1951 were obtained under Chinese press accreditation. He enraged the Americans by revealing that a captured general, William F. Dean, was fit and alive in the north as a prisoner of war when they were trying to use his supposed slaughter to bring pressure on negotiations. The Americans branded Burchett pro-Communist and there were attempts in Australia to have him declared a traitor. Though no formal charges were ever laid against him, the Australian government declined to renew his passport at the start of the hostilities in Vietnam, forcing him to remain in exile from his homeland for many years.

At one point his reports from Vietnam from among the Vietcong forces provoked the Nixon administration to such an extent they put a bounty on his head; but in 1980, one of the most distinguished of American war correspondents, Harrison E. Salisbury, the 1995 Pulitzer prize-winner for international reporting, described him in these terms:

‘Wilfred Burchett is a man who defies classification. There is hardly a war or revolution in the past forty years at which he as a journalist has not been present. There is hardly a left-wing movement with which he as a radical (or ‘progressive’, as he likes to call himself) has not sympathized. In his ceaseless travel he has met most of the diplomats and national leaders of his time and most of his fellow correspondents. There is probably no other man living who was on intimate terms with both Ho Chi Minh and Henry Kissinger.’

He was reviled by the right in his native Australia, but became a hero for his country’s growing peace and anti-nuclear movements. Australian war journalist Pat Burgess wrote: ‘No correspondent was better loved by his colleagues or more bitterly detested.’ This in itself testified to the power of what he had to say. Burchett himself made clear his standpoint: ‘My duties as a citizen of the world go beyond my responsibilities only to my own country. In other words, I reject the “my country – right or wrong”.’ During a press conference he stated, ‘I’ve certainly not been a traitor to the Allies. I’ve opposed policies in Vietnam. I oppose Australians being killed on Vietnamese soil. If I were a Vietnamese invading Australian soil, I’d be supporting Australia.’

In Britain another distinguished war correspondent, James Cameron, gave his recollections of him in 1977:

‘I have had the good luck to know Wilfred Burchett off and on ever since we toiled together in in the Fleet Street vineyard of Château Beaverbrook. We abandoned this patronage at almost exactly the same time, though for marginally different reasons. To his [Beaverbrook’s] dying day, which took a long time to come, the lord believed that our defections has been politically coordinated; he was, as so often, quite wrong. In fact at the time I had never met Wilfred. Indeed I did not know his name was Wilfred. As an Australian he worked for the Express during the war in the Pacific; I was in Asia and Europe. He signed his file simply: Burchett. They had to find a byline for this but remote correspondent, so someone or other arbitrarily called him ‘Peter’. Fleet Street was always pretty cavalier about identities. Nevertheless, for some time after I established a kinship with this wayward old mate, I had a job unscrambling the Peter from the real man. And it is a real man.’

Where Burchett’s invitation to me and my family was concerned, he was as good as his word. Hardly a week had passed after his phone call before all our travel arrangements were concluded. The official invitation arrived, accompanied by three air tickets on Bulgaria Airlines. We flew to Sofia, where we stayed for one night before taking an onward flight next day to the Black Sea resort of Varna. There we found ourselves occupying a suite in which was then the resort’s most luxurious hotel. It had a stunning outlook on to the Black Sea and, as it happened, a grandstand view of Russian fleet on exercise. We watched the manoeuvres with guarded curiosity and restrained ourselves from taking any pictures in case we found ourselves in breach of some security regulations and landed ourselves in trouble.

Despite the obvious severity of the regime and the signs of Russian influence that were evident, Wilfred managed to make us feel totally at home with his display of friendly hospitality. The shortage of consumer goods was obvious,  and although food was readily available, it lacked variety – though not, of course, if you were a government official  of some standing. In that case, miraculously, the unobtainable would suddenly appear.

We experienced this phenomenon one lunchtime when we were telephoned by a high-ranking notable from the Ministry of Tourism, who announced that he was waiting for us in the hotel lobby and would like to entertain us to lunch. Normally at that hour we would be going to take our lunch in the very same restaurant, sampling its minimalistic menu and having any request for something extra acknowledged with a smile and a nod but never fulfilled. Suddenly, as the official snapped his fingers, there was a dramatic transformation of the scene. Trays of food showed up as if from nowhere, their contents equalling anything you would find in the West, with no hint of shortages in the size of the portions being offered.  There was also the unusual spectacle of the waiters, who seemed positively panic stricken, running back and forth to satisfy every little whim and gesture of our host. The normally languid service became fast and furious to a point of manic precision it was an abuse of authority that may have been morally deplorable, but at least it provided us with an excellent meal which was more than welcome in the circumstances.

In Varna leading party and trade-union officials taking their annual vacations by the Black Sea were allocated what were, by their standards, luxurious apartments for their stay. By and large they were the élite, enjoying the perks due to them as a reward for their loyalty to the regime. They were carefully selected individuals and there was no mistaking who they were in our hotel. In the afternoons they took tea and cakes and listened to ‘palm court’ classical music being performed live by a little ensemble of young musicians. We also spent part of the afternoon having tea and cake since it seemed the done thing to do. There was an oddness, however, about the way a generously large pot of tea would arrive but then turn out to contain precisely enough tea to fill three cups. The measurement was so accurate that there was no allowance for margin of error. The cake portions were cut to a similar exactitude, avoiding any risk of excess and ensuring the size was in compliance with a strict dietary regime. The average American tourist, accustomed to large intakes of food to keep up energy levels on their travels, would have been disappointed with the culinary rewards of Varna in the soviet era.

Even so, our stay there was made highly enjoyable by the fact we spent most evenings with Wilfred and his wife, who entertained us faultlessly. To have the opportunity to get to know the man at close quarters, and hear his own accounts of his exploits together with his insights and conclusions, was a very special privilege. He combined a rare modesty with a zest for living despite the many tragedies he had encountered. The optimism he retained clearly illustrated his belief that in the end the dignity of man would always triumph. His own body had been riddled with bullets and he had many brushes with death, surviving against the odds. The scars he carried were a testimony to his relentless efforts in the battlefields of South-East Asia to bring truth to the outside world. He may have been misguided on many issues. His political perspective meant he was slower than others on the left to recognize the real nature of Stalinist control and oppression within the Soviet bloc and the post-war purges and show trials. He wrote in support of the Pol Pot revolution in Kampuchea during its early years, but later altered his opinion after its savagery became all too apparent. His errors of judgement provided his enemies with ammunition to use against him, but while he was fallible in some respects, he was startlingly clear-sighted in others. In Hiroshima he felt that not only was he seeing ‘the end of World War II’ but also ‘the fate of cities all over the world in the first hours of a World War III’. All Wilfred’s actions and opinions were informed by humanitarian instincts: the Australian spirit of fair play writ large. This is why I loved the man most dearly. He had never been member of a communist or any other party, he would say if I asked, but thought of himself as an international socialist.

The night before our departure from Varna was one we would remember for a long time to come. It was as if all the pent-up forces of history burst in a violent storm around the Black Sea, with a ferocity that seemed to make the hotel rock. The rolling of the thunder, the lightening forking over the sea, the clouds lit up as if by fire – it was awe-inspiring; nature’s devastating forces on display in front of our very eyes. It was a dramatic farewell to Varna.

Once back in the capital, Sofia, we were provided with a black Mercedes and a chauffeur to go with it. There was so little traffic we were able to explore the city thoroughly, always in the company of Wilfred and his wife. We dined at the few functioning restaurants and drank dark Bulgarian wine, some of which was really rather nice. The evenings we spent sorting out the world.

The qualities in Wilfred that impressed me most were compassion for his fellow human beings and extreme loyalty to his friends. John Pilger, an illustrious war correspondent for the later television age, recalled in one of the pieces in his book Heroes (Vintage) how in the spring of 1980, shortly before he was due to leave for an assignment in Kampuchea, he received a phone call from Paris. It was Wilfred on the line.

A familiar, husky voice came quickly to the point. ‘Can you postpone,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard about a Khmer Rouge hit-list and you’re on it. I am worried about you.’ That Wilfred was worried about the welfare of another human being was not surprising; the quintessence of the man lay in what he did not say. He neglected to mention he was on the same ‘list’, but that a few weeks earlier, at the age of seventy and seriously ill, he had survived a bloody ambush laid for him by Khmer Rouge assassins, who wounded a travelling companion. (Wilfred’s intelligence was as reliable as ever; I narrowly escaped a similar ambush at the same place he was attacked.) I have known other reporters; I have not known another who, through half a century of risk-taking, demonstrated as much concern for others and such valour on their behalf. He took risks to smuggle Jews out of Germany, to drag American wounded to safety during the Pacific war, and to seek out prisoners of war in Japan, in 1945, to tell them help was coming; the list is long. He sustained a variety of bombardments, from Burma to Korea to Indo-China, yet he retained a compassion coupled with an innocence bordering at times on naïvety which, it would seem, led him into other troubles. Such qualities were shared by none of the vociferous few who were his enemies.’

As a publisher I had the privilege of publishing three of Wilfred Burchett’s books under the Quartet imprint. They were Catapult to Freedom in 1978; Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist in 1980; and Burchett Reporting the Other Side of the World, 1939-1983, edited by Ben Kiernan, with a preface by John Pilger, in 1986.

Two years after our visit to Bulgaria, Wilfred Burchett died in Sofia in September 1983 from a cancer that he himself was convinced could be attributed to his visit in Hiroshima in 1945. His epitaph should reflect his own words when, in Paris in 1974, he said: ‘Truth always turns out to be much richer than you thought.’

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One response to “Wilfred Burchett: A Lion Among Paper Tigers

  1. Dear Naim Attalah, this is George Burchett, son of Wilfred Burchett, writing to you from Hanoi, Vietnam. I was very moved to read your recollection of my late father thanks to a Google alert. I remember a dinner with your family and my family at the Sofia Hotel in Sofia. A very pleasant evening indeed! I would be very happy to hear from you.