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Wilfred Graham Burchett (16 September 1911 – 27 September 1983) was an Australian journalist known for his reporting of conflicts in Asia and his Communist sympathies. He was the first foreign correspondent to enter Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped, and he attracted controversy for his activities during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Burchett was born in Melbourne in 1911 to George and Mary Burchett. He spent his youth in the south Gippsland town of Poowong. Poverty forced him to drop out of school at an early age and work at various odd jobs, including as a vacuum cleaner salesman and an agricultural labourer. In his free time he studied foreign languages.
In 1936 Burchett left Australia for London. There he found work in a travel agency which resettled Jews from Nazi Germany in British Palestine and the United States. It was in this job that he met his first wife, Erna Hammer, a German Jewish refugee, in 1938.
Second World War
In 1940 Burchett began his career in journalism. His freelance reports of the revolt against the Vichy French in the south-Pacific colony of New Caledonia helped him gain accreditation with the Daily Express newspaper. He spent the remainder of the war in China and Burma and also covered General Douglas MacArthur's island-hopping campaign.
He was the first western journalist to visit Hiroshima after the atom bomb was dropped, arriving alone by train from Tokyo on 2 September, the day of the formal surrender aboard the USS Missouri. His Morse code dispatch was printed on the front page of the Daily Express newspaper in London on 5 September 1945, entitled "The Atomic Plague", the first public report in the western media to mention the effects of radiation and nuclear fallout. On this "scoop of the century" his byline was incorrectly given as "by Peter Burchett". His report is more fully recorded in his book, Shadows of Hiroshima.
Burchett's reporting was unpopular with the U.S. military. U.S. censors killed a supporting story submitted by George Weller of the Chicago Daily News, and accused Burchett of being under the sway of Japanese propaganda. William L. Laurence of The New York Times dismissed the reports on radiation sickness as Japanese efforts to undermine American morale, ignoring his own account of Hiroshima's radiation sickness published one week earlier. During the U.S. occupation of Japan, and under General MacArthur's orders, Burchett was for a time barred entrance to Japan. In addition, his camera mysteriously disappeared while he was documenting the persisting illness at a Tokyo hospital.
After three years in Greece and Berlin while working for the Daily Express, Burchett began reporting for The Times in Eastern Europe. He covered the Stalinist show trials, including that of Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary. During the trial of László Rajk, Burchett wrote that the accused was a "Titoist spy" and a "tool of American and British intelligence". Burchett also praised the postwar Stalinist purges in Bulgaria, writing that the "Bulgarian conspirators were the left arm of the Hungarian reactionary right arm". In his autobiography he later admitted he began to have doubts about the trials when one of the Bulgarian accused repudiated his signed confession. Hungarian Tibor Méray has accused Burchett of dishonesty regarding the trials and the subsequent Hungarian Revolution of 1956 which he opposed.
In 1951, Burchett travelled to the People's Republic of China as a foreign correspondent for the French Communist newspaper L'Humanité. After six months in China he wrote China's Feet Unbound, which supported the new Chinese government of Mao Zedong. In July 1951, he and British journalist Alan Winnington made their way to North Korea to cover the Panmunjon Peace Talks.
Subsequently Burchett was accused of concocting the allegation that the USA was engaging in "germ warfare", perhaps inspired by a science fiction story by Jack London. However, this has been decisively refuted by his former colleague and veteran anti-Communist, Tibor Méray, in his critical memoir On Burchett.
Burchett visited several POW camps in North Korea, comparing one to a "luxury resort", a "holiday resort in Switzerland", which angered POWs who had been held under conditions that violated the Geneva Convention. Historian Gavan McCormack writes that Burchett regretted this analogy, but argues that the factual basis of the description was confirmed by POW Walker Mahurin. Similarly, Tibor Méray reports a "Peace Fighter Camp" which had no fences.
Burchett achieved a major scoop by interviewing the most senior United Nations POW, U.S. General William F. Dean, previously believed dead. In his autobiography Dean entitled a chapter "My Friend Wilfred Burchett" and wrote "I like Burchett and am grateful to him". He expressed thanks for Burchett's "special kindness" in improving his conditions, communicating with his family, and giving him an "accurate" briefing on the state of the war.
In his study of war correspondents, The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley wrote that "in Korea, the truth was that Burchett and Winnington were a better source of news than the UN information officers, and if the allied reporters did not see them they risked being beaten on stories".
In 1956 Burchett arrived in Moscow as a correspondent for the National Guardian newspaper, an American radical leftist weekly. During the next six years, he reported on Soviet advances in science and the rebuilding of the Soviet economy in the aftermath of World War II. Burchett wrote in a dispatch that "a new humanism is at work in the Soviet Union which makes that peddled in the West look shabby; its all-embracing sweep leaves behind no underprivileged". His work in the Soviet Union also gained him notoriety in Britain, with many of his stories being reprinted in the Daily Express and Financial Times.
China and Indochina
With Rewi Alley, Burchett wrote China: The Quality of Life (1973) which Robert Manne asserts is "a book of unconditional praise for Maoist China following the Great Leap Forward and the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution". In 1963, several years after the Sino-Soviet split had begun to emerge, in a letter to his father he wrote that the Chinese were "one hundred per cent right", and asked him to keep this confidential.
Although 60 years old during the Vietnam War, Burchett travelled hundreds of miles, huddling in tunnels with NVA and Viet Cong soldiers while being attacked by US forces.
In 1975 and 1976, Burchett made a number of dispatches from Cambodia praising the government of Pol Pot. In a 14 October 1976 article for The Guardian, he wrote that that "Cambodia had become a worker-peasant-soldier state" and that because its new constitution "guarantees that everyone has the right to work and a fair standard of living, it is one of the most democratic and revolutionary constitutions in existence anywhere". At the time he believed his friend, former prince Norodom Sihanouk, was part of the leadership group. As relations between Cambodia and Vietnam deteriorated, and after visiting refugee camps in 1978, he realised the true situation and condemned the Khmer Rouge. He was subsequently placed on a Khmer Rouge death list.
One of the controversies that dogged Burchett for much of his career concerned his Australian passport. In 1955 it went missing, believed stolen, and the Australian Government refused to issue a replacement. Matters came to a head in 1969 when Burchett was refused entry into Australia to attend his father's funeral. The following year his brother Clive died, and Burchett flew to Brisbane by a private plane, triggering a media sensation. An Australian passport was finally issued to Burchett by the incoming Whitlam Government in 1972.
Allegations against Burchett
Testimony by Krotkov
In November 1969, Soviet defector Yuri Krotkov testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security that Burchett had been his agent when he worked as a KGB controller. Other agents he named included Jean-Paul Sartre and John Kenneth Galbraith. He claimed that Burchett had proposed a "special relationship" with the Soviets at their first meeting in Berlin in 1947. Krotkov also reported that Burchett had worked as an agent for both Vietnam and China and was a secret member of the Communist Party of Australia. For his part, Burchett critic Tibor Méray alleged that he was an undercover party member but not a KGB agent.
The returning dissident Vladimir Bukovsky was able to gain access to formerly secret documents in Moscow in 1992, and was able to copy them, including those concerning Burchett. According to communist propaganda expert Herbert Romerstein, these documents reveal that in July 1957 the KGB advised the Central Committee of the Communist Party that their agent Burchett had become Moscow correspondent of pro-communist newspaper National Guardian. As the newspaper could not afford to pay him a salary, KGB requested an immediate payment of 20,000 rubles and a monthly subsidy of 3000 rubles. Burchett resigned from National Guardian in 1979 when the newspaper took the side of Chinese and Cambodian communists against the Soviet and Vietnamese communists. Robert Manne gave a similar account in 2013. Manne writes: "Every detail in the KGB memorandum is consistent with the Washington testimony of Yuri Krotkov. It now turns out that he was not a liar and a perjurer, but a truth-teller."
Jack Kane libel trial
Burchett had always been defensive about charges that he was a "communist propagandist" or "communist agent," and in November 1974 he filed a libel suit against Australian Democratic Labor Party politician Jack Kane. The one-million-dollar suit was filed, in part, over an article Kane had written in his political newsletter detailing Yuri Krotkov's testimony.
During the trial, Kane's defence team not only presented the testimony Krotkov gave in the United States in 1969, but also gathered thirty former Korean War POWs to testify during the trial. The former prisoners testified that Burchett had used threatening and insulting language against them and in some cases had been involved in their interrogations. Historian Gavan McCormack has argued in Burchett's defence that his only dealings with Australian POWs were "trivial incidents" in which he "helped" them. With regard to other POWs, McCormack has argued that their allegations were at variance with earlier statements which either explicitly cleared Burchett or blamed someone else.
North Vietnamese defectors, Bui Cong Tuong and To Ming Trung, also testified at the trial, claiming that Burchett was so highly regarded in Hanoi he was known as "Comrade Soldier", a title he shared with Lenin and Ho Chi Minh.
Burchett denied all the allegations. Though the jury found Burchett had been defamed, it considered the article a fair report of a 1971 Senate speech by DLP leader Vince Gair and therefore protected by parliamentary privilege. Costs were awarded against Burchett. Burchett appealed and lost. In their judgement of 1976, the judges found that Kane's article was not actually a fair report of the Senate, but that the jury's verdict was due to the failure of Burchett's lawyer to argue his case, not an error of the court, and that it was impractical to recall the international witnesses for a retrial.
Death and legacy
Burchett moved to Bulgaria in 1982 and died of cancer in Sofia the following year, aged 72.
His legacy has continued to excite controversy to the present day. Journalist Denis Warner remarked: "he will be remembered by many as one of the more remarkable agents of influence of the times but by his Australian and other admirers as a folk hero".
In 1981 David Bradbury made a documentary entitled Public Enemy Number One. It showed how Burchett was vilified in Australia for his coverage of "the other side" in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and asked the questions: "Can a democracy tolerate opinions it considers subversive to its national interest? How far can freedom of the press be extended in wartime?"
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- Burchett, George and Shimmin, Nick (eds.)(2005), Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist. The Autobiography of Wilfred Burchett, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, New South Wales. ISBN 0-86840-842-5
- Burchett, George and Shimmin, Nick (eds.)(2007), Rebel Journalism. The Writings of Wilfred Burchett, Cambridge Books Online. ISBN 978-0-521-71826-4
- Heenan, Tom (2006), From Traveller to Traitor. The Life of Wilfred Burchett, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Victoria. ISBN 0-522-85229-7
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- The contrasting stories of the first journalists to visit Hiroshima (Burchett) and Nagasaki (Chicago Daily News reporter George Weller).
- Radio National's Media Report discussing Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist.
- Stuart Macintyre and Ben Kiernan, "Wilfred Burchett's Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist: Lessons from Hiroshima to Vietnam and Iraq"
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