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Historian the real red ragger

9 May 2009 1,744 views No Comment

IN the 1940s, a controversial and idealistic scholar was employed to teach history at the Canberra University College (the forerunner of the Australian National University). No narrow pedant, his interests ranged from J.S. Bach to the latest political developments. Because he questioned conventional ideas, he was accused of being a subversive and attracted the attention of the security service.

Sound familiar? This mini-biography does indeed fit Manning Clark to a T. It covers events that are familiar to the reading public at large, thanks to the sensational 1996 allegations concerning Clark and questions as to whether he was disloyal and a communist agent of influence who received the Order of Lenin. In fact, while in Moscow in June 1970 Clark received a Lenin Jubilee Medal to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth.

What is far from widely known is that the same description of being a disloyal, pro-communist subversive can be applied equally to the man who was Clark’s immediate academic predecessor in Canberra.

Before Clark came on the scene Canberra University College’s chief history teacher was New Zealander Norman Richmond, who taught there in 1945-48. Though no longer having anything like Clark’s historical profile, Richmond was, for a while, a figure of considerable controversy in Cold War Australia.

Like Clark, Richmond was a scion of the British Empire. Born into an established family in Wellington in 1897, he served in Europe in World War I and later studied modern history and political science at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. While there he found time to play rugby for University College and to sing in the Oxford Bach Choir. On returning to NZ, Richmond worked for the adult education movement. World War I and the Depression radicalised him and he wanted teaching to nurture the “seedbeds of social change”.

In a letter he wrote in 1933 he said that he was slipping more and more definitely and steadily into the arms of Karl Marx.

Richmond’s anti-capitalist disposition worried upholders of the status quo in NZ. It had a similar effect in Queensland where, in 1938, Richmond was put in charge of adult education. The Commonwealth Investigation Branch (ASIO’s forerunner) began logging his activities.

The security dossier on Richmond documented his enthusiastic association with a range of communist groups and party members in wartime Brisbane. Richmond’s dossier for 1944 includes stating that he was on the committee that arranged a reception at the Brisbane Women’s Club for the new state parliamentarian Fred Paterson. The MLA for Bowen from 1944 to 1950, Paterson was Australia’s first and only communist MP.

Richmond was an energetic if at times unfocused teacher and his academic career continued to advance. In 1945 he was made lecturer in modern history at the Canberra University College. As such, his main responsibility was teaching the diplomatic cadets then being recruited, for the first time, by the department of external affairs. These cadets were fast-tracked into key diplomatic positions where they had access to sensitive information.

The decision to appoint a militant left-winger to teach diplomatic cadets was bound to alarm the security service. It immediately sought to find out for certain if Richmond was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Australia or “merely a person of radical leftist views of no interest to (the) security service”.

In the event, no definite information could be obtained to prove that Richmond had joined the Communist Party although, as it did with Clark, the security service continued to harbour suspicions that he might be a crypto-communist.

During the next few years, reports of Richmond’s enthusiastic contribution to Canberra’s intellectual life featured in the local press. A public talk on Bach was a safe topic, but not so two of his later talks: one on communism, and the other on British Marxist economist Maurice Dobb.

The security service continued to monitor Richmond. His security dossier indicates that in 1946 he provided a reference for public servant Jim Hill (1918-73), whose elder brother Ted Hill (1915-88), a lawyer, was a well-known communist. Richmond’s positive reference was supplied after Jim Hill sought appointment as a permanent officer in the external affairs department. Hill later was suspected (correctly) of providing information to the Soviet Union.

But the surveillance was not all-seeing. The Soviet Union also was provided with material by Hill’s external affairs colleague Ian Milner. Richmond knew Milner, a fellow New Zealander, as well as Hill. On one occasion Richmond and Milner went on a lengthy hiking trip through the hilly country near Canberra. This interesting connection did not feature in Richmond’s security dossier.

It is indisputable that Hill and Milner (who subsequently settled in communist Czechoslovakia teaching at Charles University in Prague) provided highly classified material to the Soviet Union. This has been verified in the decrypted US National Security Agency’s so-called Venona transcripts of coded ’40s communications between the Soviet embassy in Canberra and Moscow, declassified in 1995-96.

It now is clear that, along with Frances Bernie, a staff member working for the erratic ALP federal Opposition leader H.V. (Doc) Evatt, Hill and Milner spied for the Soviet Union. Hill was an officer of John Burton’s department of external affairs, and Milner was attached to it as well.

The radical Burton had been personally appointed by Evatt to head external affairs, which was often at odds with the Defence Department, at least until 1950 when Burton was made ambassador to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) by the Liberal government of Robert Menzies. Burton later resigned to contest a parliamentary seat for the ALP.

Throughout the ’40s, Hill and Milner’s highly secret go-between was the spymaster known as Klod. In the mid-’90s, the identity of Klod was revealed to be a key CPA central committee member, Walter Clayton, who was intimately linked to Soviet intelligence.

Clayton, who died aged 91 in Newcastle on October 22, 1997, was named as a Soviet agent during the 1954-55 Petrov royal commission into espionage. His wife, Peace Joy Clayton, a committed communist, was one of nine siblings who were members of the CPA. Although Richmond was not part of the Klod group, he intimately knew people closely associated with Soviet spymaster Clayton, especially Jim Hill and Milner.

In the end, it was a politician, not the spooks, who applied the blowtorch.

In 1947 an Opposition member of the House of Representatives, George Rankin (Country Party, Bendigo), submitted a question on notice in which he sought details of any association between Richmond and the Communist Party. In response, prime minister Ben Chifley insisted that external affairs was fully satisfied with the content of Richmond’s lectures to its cadets.

In 1948 Richmond was appointed to a seniorlectureship in political science at the University of Melbourne. At the time other staff included influential Communist Party member Lloyd Churchward.

Before he went to external affairs, Milner had been the first (acting) head of the politics department and in 1943 he was replaced by Clark, who Milner had appointed to a lectureship in politics in late 1944. After transferring to the history department in late 1945, Clark eventually took up a professorship in history in Canberra in 1949.

Before Richmond left Canberra for Melbourne University, another leading Opposition member, Percy Spender (Liberal, Warringah), cited Richmond’s connection with the teaching of diplomatic cadets as proof that communists were infiltrating the Australian public service.

Richmond’s life took a sad turn after he left Canberra. In 1950, his Dictionary of New Zealand Biography entry informs us, he was forced into early retirement by mental illness. Intermittent institutionalisation followed, in Australia and NZ, to which he returned in 1959. This same entry, written by Christopher Horton, who drew on private correspondence, unambiguously concludes that Richmond was in fact a member of the Communist Party.

In 1954 Richmond made a quixotic attempt to resume his academic career when a professorship in political science was advertised in NZ. He contacted referees including Clark, whose barely decipherable reference averred that Richmond was likely to be exciting and fruitful but not safe. Clark did not spell out what he meant by this but probably he implied that Richmond was increasingly eccentric rather than that he was disloyal and subversive.

Richmond’s application for the position was futile, as were other later attempts to return to academe. He ended up instead in the casual workforce; on one occasion he worked as a nightwatchman at a Melbourne factory. In 1955, Richmond unsuccessfully applied for an ANU fellowship. The security service conducted a renewed investigation after it was told of theapplication.

Richmond’s ASIO dossier contained new items – such as the claim that some of his former students disparaged him as “poor old Norm” – but it was averred that there was still not enough evidence on file to put his exact political status beyond doubt.

Australia’s Cold War security service could be scary but, like the Inquisition before it, it was sometimes conscientious as well. Because it lacked conclusive evidence, ASIO again refused to advise definitively as to whether Richmond, once the instructor of Australia’s diplomatic cadets, had been a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.

A determined effort was made to usher in a fresh academic era after Richmond left in 1948. It was decided to establish the new position of professor of history. The job was advertised and, because the new professor would continue to teach diplomatic cadets, ASIO was expected to vet the applicants. Calm and stability, it was hoped, would return under the new professor following the problematic Richmond years.

The new situation failed to fulfil this lofty intention because Canberra’s inaugural professor of history turned out to be the brilliant, but sometimes wayward, Clark, whose controversial tenure had similarities with that of Richmond’s. Canberra’s spooks, having just welcomed Richmond’s departure, suddenly had a second puzzling case on their hands. There was no end to their frustration.

What happened during the next few years was definitely a case of history – or rather the history department of the Canberra University College – repeating itself. Just as it did with Richmond, ASIO tried repeatedly to find out if Clark was a communist. It failed to come up with positive proof, but nonetheless Clark was regarded as too controversial to teach the nation’s diplomatic cadets and in 1953 was stripped of this responsibility. The parallels with Richmond were uncanny.

By Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt.

Ross Fitzgerald was a friend of Manning Clark. Stephen Holt was Clark’s biographer. They are writing a biography of Alan (The Red Fox) Reid: Pressman Par Excellence.

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