BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The untold story of the Santamaria Movement's operations in Asia
, September 1, 2012
WRESTLING WITH ASIA:
by Frank Mount
(Ballan, Victoria: Connor Court)
Paperback: 383 pages
Reviewed by Patrick Morgan
Bob Santamaria began his career in the later 1930s as a Catholic Actionist working to make Australia a Christian country. He then realised that communism in the unions was a major threat to this program, and opposed it by forming the Movement.
In the early 1950s he founded as part of his wider aims an Asian arm of Catholic Action to assist social reform in poor Asian countries. In this sphere, too, he saw the growing communist indoctrination coming from the Soviet Union and China as a large strategic worry.
By the mid 1950s he and his comrades-in-arms had successfully punctured the communists’ long-term attempt to control Australia through union dominance. One fallout from the 1955 Labor Split meant that the Catholic Church in Australia withdrew its official backing.
Santamaria then turned his enormous personal energies into helping deflect the imminent threat of a communist takeover in South-East Asia. To do this he gathered together a number of organisations, largely Catholic, which were already in the field, and tried to unite and strengthen them by forming an overarching body, first called the Pacific Community and later the Pacific Institute.
At first this was a largely Catholic endeavour, with Jesuits of the old type prominent. Frank Mount writes: “Across the region Jesuits trained thousands of young people in what we might call the liberal democratic arts. Apart from their universities, they also ran trade union educational centres and political-civic educational groups.”
However Asian Catholic leaders, such as Cardinal Gracias of Bombay, became lukewarm after the debacle of the Australian Split. So Santamaria had to secularise his aims and emphasise the anti-communist rather than pro-Catholic aspects of his Asian endeavours. Australia was to be the base for introducing democratic institutions into Asia.
He asked one of his Melbourne NCC operatives, Frank Mount, who already had a strong interest in Asia, to be his full-time agent in this task.
In his engrossing memoir, Wrestling With Asia, Frank Mount has now produced the first account of this important initiative. At the time of Santamaria’s death, his Asia-wide activity was hardly known to the general public, partly because it involved quasi-intelligence and quasi-military activities in war zones.
In the aftermath of the Split, Santamaria’s opponents spent many years and much energy trying to dig up dirt on him wherever they could find it. But they were looking in Australia, and in his indefatigable way he had moved on, so they completely missed the biggest story of all about him.
They loathed the DLP, but did not know that, amazingly, he had set up a DLP-type Catholic party in South Vietnam (the Nhan Xa Cach Party) to provide a base for President Thieu, and to help him run South Vietnam if the South won the war. Frank Mount was closely involved in setting up this political party, a saga he recounts in this book.
In the first two thirds of the book the author tells, in the style of Richard Hughes and the late lamented Denis Warner, the story of his life as a foreign correspondent in exotic and grimy locations. He firstly travelled the circuit organising Pacific Institute conferences, then was located in Saigon as the Vietnam War moved to its climax, then in Manila after the Pacific Institute faded away, and lastly back in Melbourne as an independent SE Asian commentator.
In the last third of the book he picks out 18 important events for special consideration. Of these, two stand out as crucial for Australia’s survival.
In 1965 a coup planned by the Indonesian Communist Party saw a number of top generals murdered, with Generals Nasution and Suharto luckily surviving to successfully gain control of the country and put down the insurgency — it was a close-run thing.
There is continuing controversy about just who began the coup; Mount thinks the generals may have staged a counter-coup as they got word of the communist one. In the wash-up Suharto inaugurated Indonesia’s long economic and political recovery, which is greatly in Indonesia’s and our interest.
But Frank Mount also tells an important earlier story. A Dutch Jesuit priest, Fr Beek, had for years before been forming a network of trained anti-communist operatives, just as Santamaria had done in Australia. Beek, having got word of the coup, told Santamaria who in turn informed Australia’s security organisations before the coup happened.
The defeat of the communist insurgency was vital for Australia, as a communist Indonesia at the time of simultaneous communist bids for power in the Philippines and Indo-China could have caused many dominoes to fall.
Mount wrote of the Fr Beek operation in 1983: “When Islamist elements pushed their case for an Islamist State through parliamentary bills and other more forceful means, Beek’s counsel to the generals, relayed indirectly, and for years anonymously, often proved decisive.… Over the years, the more capable and energetic members of Beek’s network gradually moved into political, commercial, academic and government posts and many of them have now risen to positions of great national and international importance and influence. To say more would be to embarrass them.”
In Vietnam Santamaria’s organisation was run by Colonel Ted Serong, an Australian army counter-insurgency expert, whose abilities were so admired that he was seconded to the US forces to run their civil defence strategy. Serong, a controversial character whose strong personality traits are vividly described in this book, was the most important figure on the ground in Santamaria’s Vietnam organisation.
The US-South Vietnam coalition was militarily defeated in the Vietnam war; but Mount makes the important point that in the long run the Western intervention held the line for long enough to prevent a full communist takeover in Asia, and for long enough to witness the sudden demise of communism itself in 1990. A good number of the former left in the US have learnt this lesson, but practically none of the Australian left.
At home Santamaria continued to raise, in a prescient way, awareness of our foreign affairs and defence interests at a time when it was unfashionable to do so. Today we hear a lot of the importance of keeping clear our sea lanes to the north for trade and security reasons; but, as Mount points out, these were concerns of the Pacific Institute in the 1960s and 1970s.
Santamaria set up an Australian body, called Peace With Freedom, of academics, journalists, politicians and commentators to argue the case for our Asian involvements. Things were so precarious that one Peace With Freedom member, Professor Geoffrey Fairbairn, was coaching the new PM, Harold Holt, on foreign affairs of which he had no experience. Peace With Freedom members argued the pro-Vietnam case, which the conservative parties and organisations were quite incapable of mounting at the time.
As Anne Blair points out in her biography of Ted Serong, and Frank Mount argues here, the Pacific Institute idea of combining the political, economic and security interests of Asian countries was a precursor of the regional architecture, such as ASEAN and APEC, we enjoy today.
Frank Mount (left), Senator Tran Van Lam (later South Vietnam's Foreign Minister and Chief Negotiator at the Paris Peace Talks), and Bob Santamaria at the Cercle Sportif, Saigon, 1968. (Courtesy Frank Mount)
Having been a journalist for decades, Mount knows how to write a sharp narrative. The amount of material he records about diverse countries, cities, characters and events is staggering. He has been assisted in this feat of recall by the diaries, reports, documents and photographs he has retained from his travel days. His book conveys the mixed feelings of exhilaration, sadness and exhaustion such an occupation brings in its wake.
A highlight of his travels was meeting many of the chief public figures of the region. A lowlight was escaping death in the Bangkok Imperial Hotel fire of 1971. Clad only in short pyjamas he got out of his fifth-floor window as the fire raged inside the hotel, and worked his way down the outside wall by sliding down drainpipes from window-sill to window-sill till he reached the ground. Many hotel guests died trapped in their rooms or from jumping from the roof. A photographer from The Bangkok World newspaper captured Mount sliding down the outside wall, and next day he was on the front page under the heading “The Human Fly”.
The subject matter of this book is of great importance for Australia’s past and future. Frank Mount’s personal narrative is naturally not a full account, but it’s a great start to a story that has never been told. Bob Santamaria himself did not mention it in his autobiography. There are inevitably gaps in the narrative, partly because the Pacific Institute was allied with military, security and intelligence operations which have not yet been fully disclosed.
Frank Mount’s book has, for instance, material on East Timor from the 1975 invasion by Indonesia to its independence in 1999. His government contacts, such as Harry Tjan in Jakarta, were closely involved in background events, some described in this book for the first time. Much of Mount’s material here is confirmed by the Australian government documents on East Timor published by our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Australia’s present prosperity and security stem in part from how we successfully navigated the perilous waters of the 1960s and 1970s in South-East Asia, thanks to endeavours like the Pacific Institute and people like Frank Mount, who has now in addition provided us with the background to many of these momentous events.
With the honourable exception of The Australian and other Murdoch outlets, today’s media and public opinion-formers are led by baby-boomers who came to political consciousness by involving themselves in the anti-Vietnam cause. They saw Whitlam as an inspiring political leader, and his colleague Lionel Murphy as an inspiring social reformer.
They have never given a hearing to an alternative viewpoint, as espoused here by Frank Mount, which is one reason why, up till now, we have known so little about these events.
Patrick Morgan is a Victorian author who publishes frequently in Quadrant and other journals. He edited two volumes of the writings of B.A. Santamaria.