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Personal histories of a (not so) Cold War

6 September 2014 225 views No Comment


‘What Did You Do in the Cold War, Daddy?’

Edited by Ann Curthoys and Joy Damousi

New South, 297pp, $34.99

THE Cold War dominated geopolitics in the years after World War II and, in the light of current events in Ukraine, some commentators think a new version of it is emerging. But as Vladimir Putin was shaped by earlier conflicts when he worked for the KGB that should come as no surprise.

As Ann Curthoys and Joy Damousi point out in their helpful introduction to this collection of fascinating personal stories from another deeply troubled time, the Cold War began about 1946 and ended in 1991. Or so we thought until recently.

From the immediate aftermath of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cold War dominated world politics and had a profound impact on families and individuals, including in Australia. This especially applied to members of the Communist Party of Australia and to those activists more or less sympathetic to the communist cause.

As Sheila Fitzpatrick, daughter of radical Australian historian Brian Fitzpatrick, puts it in her thought-provoking essay in this finely produced book: “If you’re old enough, and grew up in a left-wing family, the Cold War is part of your personal life, not just a public event.

But like many members of the Old Left in Australia, Fitzpatrick — whose personal life was bedevilled by his alcoholism — was certainly not a communist.

In this carefully edited collection I was particularly taken by the memoir of Martin Krygier, the son of anti-communist activist and founder of ‘Quadrant’ magazine Richard Krygier.

When the third secretary in the Russian embassy in Canberra, Vladimir Petrov, defected in 1954, he took with him material that seemed to document the stark fact of Soviet espionage in Australia. Although at the time many citizens and intellectuals disputed this, his father, as Krygier puts it, had no doubt about the veracity of “the revelations of a Soviet spy ring at the highest level of Australian government. Indeed the claim that Soviet spies in Australia passed significant British and American secret documents to Moscow has been proved true.

It is also indisputable that the Petrov revelations were a significant factor in causing the great split in the ALP in the mid 1950s.

Many of these matters are dealt with in Mary Calwell’s essay, ‘How We Survived the Movement.’ The Melbourne-born daughter of devout Catholic federal Labor leader Arthur Calwell argues with considerable force that the Cold War would have been relatively insignificant in Australia without the activities of the secretive and strongly anti-communist Catholic Social Studies Movement, and of the trade union-based Industrial Groups. Members of the movement, which morphed into the National Civic Council, were led by BA Santamaria, with whom I filmed a lengthy interview shortly before his death in February 1998.

This wily political operator sought to use the communists’ own methods of penetrating unions to undermine, and if possible annihilate, the CPA, which by the end of the war had won considerable support in trade unions and the wider labour movement.

Certainly as a result of the split in 1955, which kept Labor in Australia out of power federally for decades, many families, friends and communities, were, as Calwell puts it, “estranged for life.

Writing to the Vatican in 1956 about conflicts within the Catholic Church, Arthur Calwell urged a complete reappraisal of the role of the movement in Australia. As he so presciently put it at the time: “Lifelong friendships had been severed, calumny is widespread and detraction is regarded as a virtue.

One possible benefit of Calwell’s piece about her father’s difficult political life is that it may direct readers to Arthur Calwell’s ‘Be Just and Fear Not’, released a year before he died in 1973. It remains one of the best autobiographies about the life and legacy of any politician prominent in 20th-century Australia.

One of the most important recent books about political life in Australia is Mark Aarons’s story of four generations of his prominent communist family and their activities in the CPA.

As well as drawing on numerous oral histories, ‘The Family File’ used the largest collection of security files in Australian history. Hence it may come as no surprise that one of the highlights of ‘What Did You Do in the Cold War, Daddy?’ is Aarons’s masterly contribution, ‘Scenes From My Cold War.’

Aarons was born three months after Robert Menzies’ failed 1951 referendum to ban the CPA, and the Cold War dominated his childhood, teenage years and the first two decades of his adult life. His parents, Laurie and Carol, were leading members of the CPA, and as a result, ASIO kept voluminous files on them all.

However, well before Laurie and Carol died — in 2005 and 2003 respectively — indeed, from the late 1960s onwards, they were, to put it mildly, far less certain of the truth of scientific socialism and the validity of Marxism-Leninism leading to a communist future via the overthrow of capitalism by an organised, militant proletariat.

As Aarons documents, in Australia, as elsewhere in the West, this applied to all but a dwindling bunch of dyed-in-the-wool ideologues and ageing revolutionary true believers.

One of his many fascinating insights into the history of communist activism in this country is how, largely as a result of the acrimony between Moscow and Peking (now Beijing), the CPA split into three separate and warring communist parties.

It all seems rather bizarre in the conservative Australia of today, but it’s a history worth remembering, particularly when Russia seems keen to reclaim some of the clout it had when it was still the Soviet Union.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

‘The Weekend Australian’, September 6-7, 2014, Review, Books,
p 21

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