There now seems to be considerable evidence that, at the behest of its Soviet masters, the Czech security services picked out Australia for special attention during the Cold War. For various reasons it occupied an important place in the communist long-term "strategic plan" for an international takeover.
Prominent Australian communists were frequent visitors to Prague. The Czechs had at least one major success in recruiting the New Zealand-born Australian diplomat Ian Milner - the so-called Rhodes Scholar Spy - a traitor probably of comparable importance to the Cambridge spies, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, with access for a time to major Western diplomatic and military secrets.
A number of Australians seemed to have occupied positions between idealistic "political pilgrims" and outright Soviet agents, though the two categories are by no means mutually exclusive.
It is a significant comment on the state of Australian academia that this whole business has received relatively little attention until now. We must be grateful for the work Professor Peter Hruby has done in filling this gap.
I call Clark a quasi-agent because it seems possible he was not formally recruited. He was in any case a heavy drinker, which usually puts a stop to such a career. Further, as his writing shows, he became increasingly eccentric and unbalanced with the passage of time. (His claim that Britain would be on the losing side in World War II suggests considerable mental deterioration).
This does not mean he could not function as an agent of influence, and indeed as a spy of the conventional kind. In the small, incestuous world of the Canberra cocktail circuit he was well placed to pick up gossip that his masters in Prague and, ultimately, Moscow would have found useful. He was for a time also on the board for selecting cadets for the Australian diplomatic service.
The fact that he received a Lenin Jubilee Medal at a secret ceremony in Moscow* shows that his services were at least highly regarded by Soviet officialdom, even if he was considered too unreliable for a regular position
As the late Professor Patrick O'Brien pointed out, the speech he made at the time of his investiture showed all the marks of having been fed to him and rehearsed beforehand. When in Prague, Clark made a point of visiting Milner, who had been working for both the Russian and Czech secret police. Milner's tasks in Prague included reporting on Czech university personnel who had contact with Westerners. According to Prague police records, he fulfilled this task "very well".
Professor Hruby has done a splendid job of disentangling these relationships (in which Australian academics, apart from O'Brien, have shown little or no interest). Chapter 7 is entitled "Political use of Australian writers", and complements O'Brien's writings on that subject, particularly in his book The Saviours: An Intellectual History of the Left in Australia. (1977).
Hruby writes that on arriving in Australia: "To my surprise, I realised rather soon that I had come to a country that was being systematically conditioned for a future takeover by communist conspirators and their fellow-travellers. Once when replacing a colleague who happened to be unavailable, I took part in a committee session selecting books for courses on China. I objected to the biased selection. All proposed sources were communist or pro-communist and pro-Mao. The other members looked at me askance. How did he get here? Nothing was changed. Indoctrination was to go on systematically."
Books by Australian communists or by Marx and Lenin, he says, were rarely borrowed from the library and looked untouched. On the other hand, books by the likes of Manning Clark and Wilfred Burchett circulated often and were underlined on many pages, suggesting that they had far more influence.
Despite the conclusive evidence from the Prague files of Milner's treason, a number of Australian academics and writers have of course continued to defend him, as in the truly nauseating claim by Vincent O'Sullivan that Milner's "decency and charm equalled that commitment [to communism]", although, as is the case with Manning Clark (often defended by the same people), interest in him appears to be dying away now.
It is odd that such people seem unable to stop revealing so much, not about their subjects but about themselves. Hruby remarks dryly that "since so many authors keep stressing honesty, sincerity and honour in connection with the question of Milner's spying, clearly they consider it possible to combine honour with spying and lying" - and spying for one of the vilest tyrannies in the Soviet bloc at that.
(The achievements of the communist government of Czechoslovakia included hanging pregnant women for subscribing to "wrong" politics. The 2001 Czeck film Dark Blue World gives some notion of post-war Czech prison conditions. Thousands were executed or died in prison there).
Another Australian involved was the grotesque, tragic-comic Comrade E.F. (Ted) Hill, later to lead the Australian Maoist Party on its march, to use Marxist terminology, into the cess-pit of history. Secret police documents quoted here give the details of Milner's reports on academic colleagues.
Hruby says that until 1996, when he was able to start research in the Prague achieves, he did not have any idea of the scope of Czech communist activities in targeting Australia. He argues that after the 1948 communist coup in Prague, the party there (one of the most enduringly hard-line and Stalinist in Europe) was tasked with preparing for communist takeovers in several other countries including Australia.
He gives a considerable list of Australian communists who worked in Czechoslovakia at that time, mainly through the Prague-based front organisation, the International Union of Students. (Australia's Commonwealth and state governments, incidentally, used to compel our students to finance its local subsidiary, the Australian Union of Students, through compulsory student guild fees).
The writer Stephen Murray-Smith, long-time editor of Overland, later told Professor O'Brien that he had been part of "an Australian colony in Prague, largely built around the International Union of Students".
Other important front organisations operating from Prague included the World Federation of Trade Unions, the Christian Peace Conference, the World Peace Council and the International Organisation of Journalists. Many Australian communists and fellow-travellers also came to Prague on the way to Moscow or Beijing. Czechs were used because they seemed less suspicious than Russians. Czechoslovakia had also had a prior history of democratic government. Further, of all communist parties then in power, the Czech party was probably the most experienced in obtaining power through united front tactics.
Then there was Australia's anti-Vietnam War activist, and later Labor Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Jim Cairns., who died before he could be arrested for a crime identical to that for which Jeffrey Archer went to prison in England (though at least Archer did not act as an apologist for mass-murder and can hold his head up in comparison to many).
Characters like Manning Clark are almost too easy to write about, although one has to wonder that such a grotesquerie should ever have been taken seriously by professional historians ("Russia was filling with culture the vacuum where God had once been," he wrote a few months after Soviet tanks had crushed the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Or: "Why did Lenin - a man who seems to have been Christ-like, at least in his compassion - have to die?" No, I am not making this up.)
Hruby rightly says: "The twentieth century, the most murderous in human history, is shameful not only for the massacres of many millions of innocent victims by totalitarian dictators but also because so many intellectuals helped to support such villains and even admired them as saviours instead of unmasking them and combating them. Such wilful blindness helped diminish resistance to evil and political criminality of the highest order."
Thanks to the efforts of some good people, a security intelligence service more effective than many gave it credit for, and a lot of luck, the Old Left during the Cold War never got far politically in Australia. Whether the Gramscian post-Cold War New Left will do better in seizing the commanding heights of the culture is another matter.
This book should be essential reading for students of the Cold War and of the Australian Left.
[* When I was editing Debrett's Handbook of Australia, Clark sent me copious biographical notes about himself, evidently hoping for inclusion in this volume despite its alleged snobbery and Anglophilia. He omitted, however, to mention this particular decoration.]
Hal G.P. Colebatch, PhD, is a Perth author and lawyer, who has written extensively on the Cold War.