BURCHETT, WILFRED GRAHAM (1911–83)
Widely regarded as a communist propagandist and traitor, Wilfred Burchett was Australia’s most controversial journalist of the Cold War era. Born in Melbourne, he entered journalism in the late 1930s. Having travelled to Europe in 1937, where he witnessed Nazism’s anti-Jewish pogroms, he returned to Melbourne in 1939, publishing press accounts of his travels and warnings about Nazism.
In 1941, Burchett travelled to New Caledonia, noting Japan’s growing influence in the Pacific, and by October he was covering the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45). His reports filtered into the London Daily Express and he was appointed its Chungking correspondent. He covered the British retreat from Burma and wrote glowingly of General Orde Wingate’s Chindits. Wounded on Burma’s Arakan front in late 1942, Burchett was transferred to the Pacific theatre and reported on the fire-bombing of Japanese cities. His attitude changed in September 1945. Stealing into Hiroshima, decimated by the atomic bomb, he noted the ‘atomic plague’ afflicting the city. The experience prompted him to question the wisdom of a world dominated by unbridled American power.
After the war, Burchett became the Express’s Berlin correspondent, but he grew critical of US foreign policy, while uncritically supporting Eastern Europe’s sovietisation. Resigning from the Express in 1949, he returned to Australia and campaigned against the Menzies Coalition government’s Communist Party Dissolution Bill. By early 1951, he was in China, praising the communist revolution, and in July crossed into North Korea to cover the peace talks for the French communist newspaper Ce Soir and the radical New York National Guardian. Burchett accused the US military of committing prison camp atrocities and waging bacteriological warfare. Branded a communist propagandist and traitor, he was refused an Australian passport. In late 1953, the Menzies government attempted to prosecute Burchett for treason, but the evidence was insufficient. In mid-1954, however, Robert Menzies permitted the US Far Eastern Command to wage a smear campaign against him.
In 1957, Burchett was appointed the New York National Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, but by the 1960s his interests had shifted to Vietnam. He travelled extensively through South Vietnam’s communist-controlled areas, concluding that the Americans were embarking on an unwinnable war. Burchett’s access to Hanoi’s leaders increased his influence in the West. L.B. Johnson’s administration sought his assistance to secure the release of captured US pilots held in Hanoi, while during the 1968 Paris Peace Talks Burchett briefed American and British diplomats on the North Vietnamese position.
Though allowed into Britain and the United States, Burchett was denied an Australian passport and barred from returning by successive Coalition governments. Refused passage on commercial airlines, he finally returned to Australia by private aircraft in February 1970. Finding no evidence of treason, the Whitlam Labor government restored his passport in 1972. His final years were spent covering decolonisation struggles in southern Africa, the Cambodian genocide (1975–79) and the fragmentation of Sino-Vietnamese relations, and contesting hearsay allegations of KGB connections.
Burchett wrote a two-volume autobiography, Passport (1969) and At the Barricades (1980). He died in Sofia, Bulgaria on 27 September 1983.
REF: T. Heenan, From Traveller to Traitor (2006).