Wilfred Burchett is no ordinary journalist. An Australian, he has been actively involved in reporting the major confrontations between East and West for over forty years. He has also been a highly controversial figure. In 1955 the British and Australian governments refused to issue him a passport. For many years he was banned from entering the United States. The controversy which has surrounded him has centered on his own role in the various conflicts he has reported. The recent publication of Burchett’s memoirs,1 with an introduction by another famous journalist, Harrison Salisbury, offers an occasion for evaluating his career.

Wilfred Burchett was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1911. His father was a Methodist lay preacher with strong radical left-wing views. Family poverty forced the young Wilfred to drop out of school at an early age, and he worked for several years on various jobs, including as farm-laborer and vacuum-cleaner salesman. During his spare time he studied languages, acquiring a skill which was later to become very useful.

In 1936 Burchett left Australia for England. His first job after arriving in England was working for the Thomas Cook travel agency. Later the same year he switched to the London office of the Soviet government travel agency, Intourist. In his memoirs, Burchett devotes only two sentences to this event: he suggests that he got “the job” (never specified) because of his rudimentary knowledge of Russian and because the assistant manager was an Australian. But according to the knowledgeable and impeccably honest Australian journalist Denis Warner, Burchett was invited to open the London office of Intourist by the then Soviet ambassador to England, Ivan Maisky.2 In any case a diplomatic quarrel between England and the Soviet Union soon led to a closing of the office. After searching unsuccessfully for a job in Paris, Burchett returned to London, where he found a job with the travel agency Palestine Orient Lloyd, which specialized in handling emigrant traffic out of Germany to Palestine and the United States. Burchett remained at that job until 1939. Meanwhile, in September 1938, he married Erna Hamer, a German Jewish refugee.

Burchett finally found his niche as a journalist during World War II. In 1940 he reported the revolt against the Vichy regime on the French South Pacific colony of New Caledonia, and this helped him gain accreditation with the popular London newspaper, the Daily Express, for which he reported the Asian battlefield throughout World War II. The war in China and Burma, and the island-hopping campaign of General MacArthur’s forces, were the main subjects of his dispatches.

It was during those years that Burchett met a man who was later to become an important friend—Chou En Lai.

Burchett’s first major journalistic coup was achieved at the end of World War II. He was the first Western correspondent to tour the remains of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped. Burchett claims that his reports of the devastation infuriated General MacArthur. But these reports did not harm his career. After three years of work for the Daily Express in Trieste, Greece, and Berlin, Burchett turned up in Eastern Europe in 1949. with access to the courtroom for the Stalinist show trials of East European Communist leaders and of Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary. Burchett was now reporting for the most prestigious newspaper in Britain, the Times.

Though the charges against the Hungarian and Bulgarian Communists were utterly fantastic, similar to the kinds of accusations Stalin had leveled against the Old Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union in the 1930’s, Burchett in his reports endorsed the prosecutor’s line. In the case of the Hungarian Foreign Minister, Laszlo Rajk, and his co-defendants, Burchett wrote later (in People’s Democracies, 1951) that the accused were “Titoist spies” ultimately linked to British and American intelligence:

In the Western press, even in so-called liberal sections, an attempt was made to present Rajk, Pallfy, and Co. as a small group of nationalist-minded Communists, people who wanted Communism but independent of the Soviet Union. This is nonsense. There was not one convinced Socialist among the whole band. They were mostly cheap police spies . . . they are a miserable collection of plotters without a human ideal between the lot of them. . . . Before the court and before the Hungarian public, as all proceedings were broadcast from the court, Rajk and his gangs were disclosed as miserable, bloodthirsty adventurers. . . .

When Stalin ordered the purge of independent-minded Communists in Bulgaria, Burchett was once again on the spot. As he wrote in People’s Democracies:

If Laszlo Rajk could be regarded as the right arm of Tito’s plans for Eastern Europe, Traicho Kostov, member of the Bulgarian politburo, 2nd Deputy Premier, was certainly his left arm. I sat in a crowded court in Sofia in December 1949, heard and watched Traicho Kostov and ten other accused and dozens of witnesses testify to a Yugoslav plan for Bulgaria every whit as diabolical and bloodthirsty as that for Hungary.

Burchett further asserted that Kostov was a British spy.

Not long after the show trials were concluded, Burchett, who had divorced his first wife in 1948 after a long separation, married Vesselina Ossikovska, a member of an old Bulgarian Communist family who at the time of their marriage was a journalist in the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When Burchett left Bulgaria for Budapest in 1950, the Bulgarian authorities refused to allow his wife to accompany him. But the decision did not make Burchett bitter toward the Bulgarian regime. On the contrary, in People’s Democracies he expressed great admiration for the human-rights record of all the Eastern European regimes:

If the same advance is made in the next twenty years as has been made in the past five years in bringing real liberties to the workers and peasants of the People’s Democracies, and if the Western powers give up their morbid plans to destroy the People’s Democracies by force of arms and the hydrogen bomb, the whole population will be enjoying liberties of a quality not yet dreamed of in the Western world.



In early 1951 Burchett returned briefly to his native Australia, where he gave lectures for the Australian Peace Council, a front organization run by the Australian Communist party. That same year he took up residence in the People’s Republic of China, as a correspondent for the French Communist newspapers L’Humanité and Ce Soir. (Neither the Times nor the Daily Express was interested in Burchett’s reporting at this stage.) After six months in China, Burchett managed to rush off a gushing book-length panegyric to the regime, China’s Feet Unbound. The introduction to this book made its outlook and purpose clear:

It is written as a weapon for those who fight for peace and as confirmation for those who refuse to accept the idea that their living standards must be lowered, their civil rights abolished, their late enemies rearmed because China menaces world peace. It was written against the background of American bombs landing on Chinese soil, American tanks rumbling toward China’s frontier, American germ warfare launched against China’s neighbor.

The last clause was significant, as it previewed Burchett’s next major public act—dissemination of the story that the United States was using germ warfare against North Korea. Burchett made his way to North Korea in July 1951, along with the British Communist journalist Alan Winnington. One of his purposes was to cover the Panmunjom peace talks from the Chinese Communist side. (This is the only purpose Burchett mentions today.) Burchett also produced scathing attacks on the UN forces; complete with atrocity stories which included the myth that America had conducted germ warfare. Finally, Burchett visited Chinese-run camps where Allied POW’s were being held. He wrote of one:

This camp looks like a holiday resort in Switzerland. The atmosphere is also nearer that of a luxury resort than a POW camp.3

At the end of the Korean war, returning Allied ex-POW’s gave a different account of the camps, and alleged that Burchett had been more than a journalist reporting “from the other side.” Former prisoners interviewed by the British and Australian governments maintained that Burchett had collaborated with the Chinese Communists in interrogation procedures. Because of these charges of collaboration, the British government refused to renew and the Australian government refused to issue a passport to Wilfred Burchett in 1955.

It was through China that Burchett made his first contact with the Vietnamese Communists. In fact Burchett spent most of the period between 1953 and 1956 shuttling back and forth between China and North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In these countries, as previously in Korea, he reported on the supposed strength and popularity of the Communist forces and provided captioned photographs which were meant to show that French prisoners were being well treated by their Vietminh captors. Apart from those reports for the world press, Burchett produced two books as a result of his visits—North of the 17th Parallel and Mekong Upstream. Burchett also established a personal connection with Ho Chi Minh and Pham Van Dong. In 1955, when he was without a British or Australian passport, the government of North Vietnam took the unprecedented step of offering him a special travel document of its own.

In the middle of 1956 Burchett visited Hungary and Poland, where social unrest was beginning to develop in the wake of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program. Burchett was most disturbed by the growth of liberal and nationalist ideals among some of the anti-Stalinist party leaders and intellectuals who took him into their confidence.

In 1956 Burchett arrived in Moscow with accreditation from the National Guardian (later renamed Guardian), a tiny pro-Communist American weekly. During the next six years he devoted himself to reporting the achievements of Soviet science and technology, beginning with Sputnik and continuing on through the launching of Yuri Gagarin into space. These subjects were of a kind to reestablish Burchett’s connections with the mainstream British press, including the Daily Express and even the prestigious Financial Times. A book written by Burchett during this period was Come East Young Man (1962), which detailed the astonishing successes of the Soviet economy, especially in the areas of agricultural output, housing, and consumer goods. Burchett also reported on the innovative and humane approach to criminal justice which he saw in the USSR. All of this, combined with the party’s determined campaign to eliminate bureaucracy, encouraged Burchett to write:

A new humanism is at work in the Soviet Union which makes that peddled in the West look shoddy, for it starts right down in the grass roots of Soviet society; its all-embracing sweep leaves behind no underprivileged.

In 1962, with the conflict in Indochina heating up again, Burchett began a series of trips back to the war zones. In 1965 he set up a new residence in Phnom Penh and developed a relationship with Cambodian Prince Sihanouk which was to last for over a decade. Burchett ghosted some of the Prince’s English-language publications and also served as a liaison between Sihanouk and the North Vietnamese. It was from Cambodia that Burchett made his way to the “liberated zones” of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, as well as to Hanoi.



At first Burchett’s articles on the Vietnam war appeared only in Soviet magazines, such as New Times. But the thirst for news “from the other side” was so great in the West, and Hanoi’s restrictions on foreign newsmen so severe, that by 1967 Burchett’s articles were beginning to appear in the mainstream Western press—particularly Le Monde and the New York Times. The articles tended to deal with the alleged effects of the American bombing on North Vietnam. Stories of civilian suffering were combined with tales of the indomitable Vietnamese will to resist “imperialist aggression.” Burchett also provided advance notice of changes in Hanoi’s position on the issue of negotiations.

The “special relationship” Burchett enjoyed with the Hanoi regime manifested itself in many ways. According to Denis Warner, Burchett’s intervention, or veto, could determine whether or not a Western journalist would be given a visa to North Vietnam. Many of the applicants were people whom he had known from World War II and the Korean peace talks in Panmunjom. Burchett was a wise judge of friends and enemies. The first American correspondent allowed to visit North Vietnam was an old friend, Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times, whom Burchett accompanied on part of his visit. Salisbury did nothing to embarrass Burchett. Rather, he reported to readers of the New York Times, and ultimately to the entire Western world, that the United States was deliberately bombing not military but civilian targets in North Vietnam. What Salisbury did not tell his readers was his source for this charge: not direct observation but North Vietnamese officials and one of their published propaganda booklets.4

Burchett also helped secure visas for other well-disposed foreigners. Among the most notable was the writer Mary McCarthy, who conducted a well-publicized visit to Hanoi in 1968. Miss McCarthy too wrote nothing that might embarrass Burchett.

When, in 1968, peace talks began among the United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and the Vietcong, Burchett was in Paris to cover them. This time his personal ties with Western newsmen paid off handsomely. He had befriended Charles Collingwood many years earlier. Now Collingwood was chief foreign correspondent of CBS News, and Burchett was employed under what he himself calls “a discreet arrangement” as a consultant to the CBS News team in Paris.

Nineteen-sixty-eight was also the year in which Burchett’s book on Korea appeared (Again Korea). In it he wrote:

Kim Il Sung . . . has the warm human touch, the simplicity of the great, and a down-to-earth manner, rare among men in his position. This comes through in his speeches. Even dealing with such unromantic problems as heavy industry, there is always some little aside, to remind his listeners, especially if there are bureaucrats among them, that the end result of everything is to make life better and gayer for everyone.

In the same year Fidel Castro took the unprecedented step of granting Burchett a Cuban passport, to replace the now cumbersome document the North Vietnamese had provided many years earlier.



Sensing the changing climate of intellectual opinion in the West, Burchett now began a public campaign for the restoration of his Australian passport. A Burchett Passport Committee was formed in Australia, and its activities resulted in a petition to Parliament. Among the signatories were various journalistic associations around the world, the PEN Club, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Norman Mailer, and Arthur Miller. The petition was presented in April 1969, but rejected by the Australian government. The Australian Journalists Association then appealed to the UN Human Rights Commission.

Buoyed by the tide of international support, Burchett decided to challenge the government’s ban on his reentry into Australia. With the help of Gordon Barton, a wealthy Australian businessman and publisher, Burchett was privately flown into the country in 1970 and was accorded a spectacular reception with great attendant publicity. His public challenge to the Australian government to bring charges against him was not taken up, and this helped discredit the case of the Australian conservatives and strengthened the hand of his many admirers within the Australian Labor party. Thus when the party came to power in 1972, one of its first acts was to restore the passport of Wilfred Burchett.5

In the early 1970’s, with American public opinion now favoring withdrawal from Vietnam, Burchett turned to other international settings. The end of the Cultural Revolution in China saw his friend Chou En Lai back in power in Peking. Burchett now began to disseminate Chou’s version of the power struggle in China. In particular he publicized the story that Lin Piao had attempted to assassinate Chairman Mao and seize power, but was foiled and died while attempting to flee.

After the 1974 military coup in Portugal, Burchett reappeared on the European scene, defending the cause of the Portuguese radical Left against the Socialists and centrists. But with the victory of the democrats in Portugal, Burchett was forced to turn elsewhere. In 1975 he flew to Angola, where he provided extensive reporting favorable to the Cuban forces helping to install the MPLA government.

The Angolan civil war catalyzed Burchett’s growing estrangement from the Chinese Communists. In 1976, after the death of Chou En Lai (for whom he wrote a powerful eulogy), Burchett began openly to criticize Chinese foreign policy. What forced him to take sides was not the Sino-Soviet split but rather the Sino-Vietnamese split and the broader international realignments of which it had been a part. China’s abandonment of the “anti-imperialist struggle,” in Angola and elsewhere, in order to develop a united front against the Soviet Union, was for Burchett totally unacceptable.

Like the North Vietnamese politburo, Burchett had not anticipated the rapid collapse of the South Vietnamese government in 1975 after the final American withdrawal. He was thus not in place for the beginning of the end. But he made up for that after the victory by producing two books on the military campaign of North Vietnam and numerous articles celebrating life after “liberation.” On October 25, 1975 he wrote in the Guardian:

The South Vietnamese people are tasting the heady wine of running their own affairs for the first time in living memory. This is the dominating factor in all spheres of public life.

In 1975 and 1976 Burchett was also ecstatic about the new regime Pol Pot had created in Cambodia. On January 14, 1976 he wrote in the Guardian:

Cambodia became a worker-peasant-soldier state last week, with the January 5 adoption of a 21-article constitution. . . . The new constitution . . . confirms the new democratic revolutionary order built up in the countryside during the struggle. . . . It 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.

In 1975 and 1976 Burchett was also denouncing as “fabricated” a number of reports that Sihanouk had become disillusioned with the Khmer Rouge. But after the Vietnamese Communists turned against their former allies, Burchett discovered the truth of what had previously been “fabricated.” Pol Pot suddenly became a Hitlerite monster whose crimes exceeded the claims of the most virulent anti-Communist propaganda. So incensed now was Burchett by the horrors of the Pol Pot regime that when his friends on the editorial board of the Guardian refused to take a position on the Vietnam-Cambodia conflict he announced he would no longer write for the newspaper. This inflexible stand was uncharacteristic of Burchett, but it corresponded to the totally uncompromising position of the Vietnamese.

Burchett is today somewhat distant from the Soviet Union, with regard to which he might be considered a “critical sympathizer.” He reserves his uncritical admiration for the Soviet Union’s most militant clients—Vietnam and Cuba. One of his recent concerns has been to denigrate the moral credentials of the late Marshal Tito as leader of the nonaligned world, and to promote Fidel Castro in his place. Burchett also maintains his support for Kim Il Sung’s regime in North Korea, which is independent of both Moscow and Peking.

This slightly unusual pattern of allegiances within the fragmented Communist world has led some observers to conclude that Burchett’s political position is an “independent” one, reflecting his own brand of idiosyncratic radicalism. What these observers do not realize is that the twists and turns in Burchett’s Communist sympathies, and his current firm attachments to the regimes in Hanoi, Havana, and Pyongyang, have correlated exactly with the foreign-policy line of the Communist party of Australia.




What do Burchett’s memoirs tell us about the man and his political record?

First they contain interesting information on Burchett’s friends and patrons in the Communist world. He is anything but modest in describing his close ties with Chou En Lai, Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong, and Fidel Castro. Burchett’s link with Kim Il Sung seems to have been much less personal in nature, though still significant. As far as the Soviet Union is concerned, Burchett gives no indication of having made any close personal contact at the highest level.

The memoirs also list some of the people in the Western media who have befriended and promoted him. Harrison Salisbury is at the top of the list. So too is Russell Spurr, an English journalist formerly with the London Daily Express and later with the English-language Hong Kong weekly, the Far Eastern Economic Review. Charles Collingwood is mentioned as an important friend. Not only was he instrumental in having Burchett named as a consultant to the CBS News team at the Paris peace talks, but he also introduced Burchett to Averell Harriman, President Johnson’s roving ambassador for peace. (Harriman sought Burchett’s advice on how the U.S. might proceed in its dealings with Hanoi.)

But the memoirs are also interesting for the way Burchett attempts to explain his own past. As an illustration, let us consider Burchett’s account of his reporting of the show trials in Eastern Europe during the 1940’s.

The Eastern European Communist victims of Stalin, whose guilt Burchett affirmed, were rehabilitated (many posthumously) in the Khrushchev era. Today in his memoirs, Burchett explains his own role in the pseudo-judicial farce by drawing what he considers to be an important distinction between the Rajk and Kostov trials. Burchett claims that he believed at the time in the guilt of Laszlo Rajk because of the calm and unemotional nature of the confessions he made. He adds: “I had no doubt of their guilt or of the inevitability of a death sentence for Laszlo Rajk, given the gravity of the activities to which he had confessed.”

But Kostov’s trial, he says, was different. Kostov (like Bukharin in the Moscow show trial of 1938) stood up in court and denied his handwritten confession. This is how Burchett today describes his reaction then to Kostov’s public retraction:

In his own way Kostov had done what his old comrade Georgi Dimitrov had done sixteen years earlier at the Reichstag Fire Trial. He had knocked the stuffing out of the prosecution. . . . Kostov’s honesty and courage could make no difference to the conduct of the trial or its outcome, but it posed questions in everyone’s minds about the methods by which such confessions were produced and the validity of the charges against Tito. . . . I was considerably shaken by the Kostov trial.

If the Kostov trial “posed questions” in Burchett’s mind about the methods of producing confessions and the “validity of the charges against Tito,” and if he was “considerably shaken” by the Kostov trial, he did a remarkable job of concealing the fact. Burchett’s earlier writings provide not a shred of evidence to support his current claim. Instead, they contain sustained arguments to the contrary. Thus, he wrote in People’s Democracies:

. . . If Kostov’s written statement was a fraud and his oral denial correct, if he was the man of courage he depicted himself to be in 1942, no police pressure nor any threats of punishment afterward should have prevented him from crying “My statement is false. It was made under pressure. These other accused have been falsely arrested. Everything I wrote was a lie. I retract it all.”

And further:

If Kostov was the man who withstood beatings and was prepared to face the firing squad rather than betray his comrades and his party in 1942, this is what he would have done in 1949. Firstly, he would never have written a statement, secondly, if a statement had been forced out of him, he would have retracted it. But he played the double-faced role he had played in the 1930’s, the role he had played in the courtroom in 1942, when he admitted everything to Geshev, the role he played in early 1949 after he was just denounced in the Politburo.

Burchett obviously counts on his readers’ not checking his record, and for the most part they have not disappointed him.

Burchett adds a further revelation to explain his past “errors.” He has now discovered the possibility that the false evidence which came forth during the trials was planted by the CIA! Burchett bases himself on a book by Stewart Stevens, former assistant editor of the Daily Mail. According to the Stevens thesis, CIA chief Allen Dulles was worried that the emergence of “National-Communist” regimes in Eastern Europe would make Communism more attractive to the voters of Western Europe. To insure that Eastern European Communism remained Russified, Dulles, operating through the American agent Noel Field and a Polish secret-police official, planted phony evidence of “Titoist conspiracies in conjunction with Western imperialism” in the hands of Stalin’s secret police chief Beria. Thus, the story concludes, in prosecuting the alleged conspirators Stalin was all along the unknowing dupe of Allen Dulles and the CIA.

Another interesting feature of Burchett’s memoirs is their failure to mention at all the two most serious charges that have been leveled against him.

In November 1969, the KGB defector Yuri Krotkov swore before a United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee that he had been approached by and later helped to recruit Wilfred Burchett to the payroll of the KGB. Krotkov claimed that at their first meeting in East Germany in 1947, “Burchett gave me all necessary hints that he is very close to the Communists, and that he wants to have a special relation with me.”

But at that time, Krotkov asserted, his KGB superiors were wary of Burchett, and instructed Krotkov not to get too close. At a second meeting in Moscow in 1956, the KGB was more trustful. Krotkov met Burchett in a restaurant:

. . . he openly told me that he is a member of the Australian Communist party, but for the benefit of the party, he is on the illegal underground position. Then he told me that he was in Korea, and then he was in China. He worked there as a freelance correspondent but he was supplied, he was paid by the Chinese Communist party all that period. Then when he came to Vietnam . . . all his expenses were paid by the Vietnamese Communist party, by Ho Chi Minh, and he mentioned that he was in very close relation with Chou En Lai . . . that he was in very close relation with Ho Chi Minh himself. He told me that he visited him many times, that he gave him a house in Hanoi, and a car, a secretary, that he was “equipped” very beautifully by the Vietnamese Communist party.

And then he said that he had now a new idea . . . that he wanted to come to Moscow because now after the Khrushchev speech, Moscow became the most important place in the world. And he gave me a hint that he wants to be in Moscow in the same position as he was in China and in Vietnam. In other words to be a freelance correspondent, representing the American newspaper, National Guardian . . . but money was a problem, because no one would pay him money and he asked for money from the Soviet Communist party. He told me all this directly and he said that it would be nice if I would be able to find [the] right man to discuss all this.

Krotkov testified that he reported all this back to his superiors, and that after some consideration the KGB agreed to Burchett’s proposal. But Burchett had left Moscow, and when he returned a new person had been put in charge of these matters in the KGB who put difficulties in his path. Now Burchett approached visiting members of an Australian Communist party delegation in Moscow, and after intervention on his behalf the relationship was established. Thus Krotkov:

After his meeting with them . . . everything was quite alright. The KGB gave him the good flat and well, I guess necessary money. . . . I know that Burchett had a close relation with the boss of the KGB special department which is responsible for the whole foreign correspondents in Moscow. That’s Colonel Barsegov.



Burchett’s failure to mention the Krotkov testimony is consistent with his past behavior. In fact his characteristic response to anyone who dares repeat the charges has been to issue a libel suit. One of these suits, taken out in Australia in 1973, led to the publicizing of a second series of major allegations about Burchett—allegations about his behavior during the Korean war. Although there is not a sentence in his memoirs dealing with the trial testimony, it was these allegations which led the Australian and British governments to refuse to issue Burchett a passport, an act which aroused so much indignation on the part of Burchett’s friends.

The famous defamation trial, held in Sydney, in October and November 1974, involved a claim of $1,000,000 damages by Burchett against Jack Kane, an Australian politician. Kane had published an article in his political newsletter which reported the Australian parliamentary debate over the Krotkov testimony. At the trial, Kane’s legal counsel presented testimony by Krotkov reiterating the charges he had made in Washington in 1969. Kane’s lawyers also gathered an enormous number of witnesses from around the world, all of whom had been prisoners of war in Korea.

At the trial three Australian ex-prisoners testified that they had met Burchett in a Chinese camp for Allied POW’s, and that Burchett was wearing the uniform of a Chinese army officer. One of these prisoners, Thomas Hollis, said that Burchett told him he could get them better treatment “if we agreed with his ideas and went over to the Chinese more or less and collaborated with them.” This was confirmed by another Australian prisoner, Robert Parker.

Even more damaging allegations about Burchett’s role during the Korean war were made by American POW’s. Walker Mahurin, a former colonel in the United States Air Force, met Burchett twice during his sixteen months of captivity in North Korea. On both occasions, he claimed, Burchett wore a Chinese officer’s uniform. Mahurin also testified that in addressing the guards Burchett used the Chinese word for “comrade.” Mahurin, who had been forced by his captors into confessing falsely that he had carried out germ warfare, said that Burchett called him an “international war criminal.”

Paul Russell Kniss, an American pilot shot down over North Korea in May 1952, testified that he met Burchett five or six times in two camps in North Korea. At their second meeting, Burchett told him that it was he, Burchett, who had edited the false confession Kniss had been forced to sign. According to Kniss, Burchett made a tape-recorded interview with him for a French newspaper, and the interview was based upon specially prepared questions and answers Burchett handed to him, with the answers identical to the text of the false confession.

Kniss also described to the court how on one occasion a Chinese interrogator dropped a piece of paper in his cell, and after the interrogator left he had picked it up. The paper, which bore the signature of W. G. Burchett on the bottom, contained questions of a military nature, which were the exact same questions asked of Kniss by the Chinese interrogator.



But the most devastating testimony against Burchett came from Derek Kinne, an Englishman who served with British units in Korea and was awarded the George Cross. Kinne identified Burchett in court as the man he had seen twice while a prisoner of the Chinese in Korea. The second time Kinne saw Burchett he and the other prisoners were told that Burchett was coming to talk to them on the football pitch (field) in the camp:

It was all the Americans and all the British about 1400 men. . . . They put a table on the football pitch and he came on the football pitch and he stood in front of the table and he faced us. . . . He went on to say that through the tireless efforts of the Chinese peoples’ volunteers the peace talks were going on and that the Americans had sabotaged the peace talks, and he was getting booed down and the Americans started to take off their belts and put a noose in them and they would swing them and it became pretty well bedlam, so he got rather pissed off and he said: “All right you people—you think when the peace talks break down and the Americans come this way you will be liberated. But I have got news for you. You’re going that-a-way.” And he pointed to China.

Kinne continued:

I was in the front row and he turned his back and started to tidy up his papers. There was a theme there—he was always saying “our side” and “your side.” I went to the front and I faced him, and I said to him “Are you biased, you son-of-a-bitch, are you biased?” He said “No.” I said, “Why do you refer to the Chinese and the North Koreans as ‘our side’ and the Americans as ‘your side.’” I can’t remember whether he said, “That was the side I correspond for” or “the side I work for.” And then I said, “Well you can tell your side to get some dental treatment in here because men are having their teeth extracted with regular pliers; also 39 men went up to Boot Hill and I saw the dogs dragging the bodies out, and we ate those dogs.” And I said, “We are starving to death.”

His Honor: Did he say anything?

Kinne: No sir, he kept his mouth shut.

In answer to a further question from the defense counsel Kinne said:

I told him that I complained to the Chinese and they took me away and they put me in a room for 72 hours, and tied me up and told me I was in there to reflect, and I reflected. He [Burchett] got mad and he said to me, “I could have you shot.” So I ran around that table and he started to move around the other way. I went around that table and I said, “You son-of-a-bitch, if you are going to have me shot I will tell you something.” I pointed to Boot Hill and I told him that 600 men had died from malnutrition and atrocities and he said to me, “What can I do about it?” I said, “You can tell them at Panmunjom,” and he said, “It would be a good thing if I had you shot.”

In an interview with the New York Post in 1977, Kinné also said that an hour after the meeting described above, two Chinese guards came and took him away to a small room and tortured him. According to Kinne the guards “told me I wasn’t a very good student in the way I’d talked to Comrade Burchett, and that I was sick in the mind and they were going to cure me.” Kinne asserted that he was kept in solitary confinement for 13 months and beaten daily while the guards tried to force him to sign a confession. “One of the parts of that confession was that I had a hostile attitude to Comrade Burchett.”

At the trial Burchett denied all of these allegations, just as he denied the testimony of the KGB defector Krotkov. He lost the case on the technical grounds that the article which he had found offensive was regarded by the court as a fair rendering of the substance of a parliamentary debate, and hence protected by parliamentary privilege from liability. Thus the jury was never asked to pass judgment on the truth or falsity of Krotkov’s testimony. (The testimony of the former POW’s had been presented by the defense counsel as supporting evidence.)




One need not have been familiar with all the charges against Burchett to have concluded that he was something other than an independent left-wing journalist. Burchett’s published writings of the past thirty years demonstrate by themselves his devotion to various totalitarian causes. And the publicly acknowledged fact that Burchett was granted travel documents and a passport by the North Vietnamese and Fidel Castro—privileges not normally given to the citizens of North Vietnam and Cuba—speaks for itself concerning Burchett’s “independence.” What is most remarkable about Burchett is not his record, but how he has managed to retain credibility and respectability in the eyes of so many Western intellectuals.

The effusive introduction to Burchett’s memoirs by Harrison Salisbury provides an almost incredible example of this. A man who since 1945 has undertaken significant public-relations tasks for the brutal regimes of Joseph Stalin, Matyas Rakosi; Mao Tse-tung, Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot is described by the former Moscow correspondent and associate editor of the New York Times as a “humanist” and an “iconoclast.” Salisbury writes:

In many ways Burchett reminds one more of the old-fashioned, pre-1917 radicals than those of today’s highly ideological confrontations, a Lincoln Steffens or a John Reed with an Australian accent. . . . Burchett is an individualist as far as radicalism is concerned. If his sympathies have a polarization, it is toward the cause of struggling, backward emerging nationalist regimes, typified by Cambodia and Vietnam. . . . Burchett . . . can be seen as sui generis, a radical who moves through a changing milieu, lending his sympathy to one cause after another not because of some Marxist doctrine, but because he believes in the underdog, whatever the continent, whatever the color, whatever the creed.

Salisbury has not been the only collaborator in Burchett’s political success. In the New York Times Book Review of March 22, 1981, to take a recent case, Thomas Powers describes as a man of “uncommon honesty” the same Wilfred Burchett who portrayed Communist victims of Stalinist repression as “Titoist spies on behalf of Western imperialism”; who disseminated and possibly helped fabricate the lie that the United States was conducting germ warfare in Korea; who portrayed the Chinese-run POW camps in North Korea, where Allied prisoners were being tortured, as comparable to Swiss holiday resorts; who defended the Russian invasion of Hungary; and who dismissed critics of Hanoi and Pol Pot as “CIA elements.”

Burchett has been similarly praised and defended by the cream of the Western press. On March 5, 1970, during his campaign against the Australian government’s refusal to issue him a passport, the Times of London wrote:

Few Western journalists who have witnessed Mr. Burchett’s conduct in the East would think him anything but misguided in his enthusiasms. He sympathized with China, reported the Korean war from the Pyongyang side, and in due course went to Hanoi—but his writings show him to be an advocate of détente rather than a tough committed enemy of the West.

Not only was Burchett praised (and published) in the Times, he appeared in Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express, as well as in the elite Financial Times, even after he had shown his true colors on Eastern Europe.

And not just the British were at fault. For years, as we have seen, Burchett found friends in the editorial offices of Le Monde, at CBS News, and the New York Times. Today Burchett is being promoted not by the Communist regimes whose causes he has served, but by the Western democratic liberals whose cause he despises. And in all this he is presented to readers not as what he is, a Communist propagandist, but as what he is not, an independent, radical humanist, or, simply, an “Australian journalist.”

Burchett has not always been so misidentified in the American press. During the Korean war, when he was getting enormous space on the front page of the New York Times for his report on the condition of a captured American officer, the Times referred to Burchett as a “Red” and as a “Communist correspondent.” As late as 1967 and 1968, when the Times was publishing articles by and interviews with Burchett from North Vietnam, it usually prefaced them with a caption such as the following:

Wilfred Burchett, an Australian writer, has frequently been a spokesman for the Communists in East Berlin, Korea, and Vietnam. . . . This article gives a Communist view.

But by 1970 a correspondent of the New York Times referred to Burchett only as an “Australian journalist . . . who reported on the Korean and Vietnam wars from the Communist side,” and by 1971 Burchett had become “the left-wing Australian journalist.” This identification continued throughout the decade until 1979, when the Op-Ed page began describing him as “an Australian journalist.”

The New York Times Book Review followed the same pattern. As late as 1969, Frances Fitz-Gerald, reviewing Burchett’s book on Vietnam, described him as a “Communist propagandist.” But in 1973 James C. Thomson (a former official in the Johnson administration, and since the 1970’s the curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation) called Burchett a “left-wing Australian journalist.” (In 1977, Burchett was given the honor of addressing the Nieman Foundation at Harvard.) By 1981 he had become a man of “uncommon honesty.”

Similar trends can be seen in the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review. Its editor gave an almost accurate caption to Burchett in 1968, but by 1973, when the Review published an article by Burchett (on the Lin Piao affair) as its cover story, Chou En Lai’s Australian spokesman was not even being identified at all.

Finally there is the treatment given by the Western press to Burchett’s defamation trial. The allegations made in the Australian courtroom in 1974 were reported every day in Australia. The Times of London summarized the first day’s testimony (by Krotkov) and then forgot the whole frightful business until the end, when it offered a tiny paragraph announcing that Burchett had lost his case. The Washington Post gave a summary of the evidence in one column, at the conclusion of the trial. The New York Times and Le Monde, the two Western newspapers which had afforded Burchett the greatest amount of space during the 1960’s, when they were publishing many of his articles, failed to mention the trial at all. One might have thought that the same editors who had regarded Burchett’s reporting on Vietnam as worthy of their columns would have found some interest in allegations that the writer was a Gulag bully-boy. But one would have been wrong.



Over the past thirty years Wilfred Burchett has been enormously successful in winning friends in the Western media. In part his success must be laid to his own exceptional talents as a kind of journalistic confidence man. He has been tireless in cultivating cordial relations with people of prospective influence in high places, and his polished personal manner, which reveals not a trace of fanaticism, has been extraordinarily helpful in this pursuit.

But in part Burchess’s success, like that of a confidence man, has rested upon a favorable psychological predisposition in the minds of his victims. There seems to be a strand in our culture that is receptive to the message Burchett presents, the message of the benign and non-threatening nature of revolutionary Communist regimes. Though Soviet military moves in recent years have heightened popular concern about Western security, the case of Wilfred Burchett makes it clear that many of our leading intellectuals do not fully know, or do not wish to know, what the struggle is about.

1 At the Barricades: Forty Years on the Cutting Edge of History, New York Times Books, 340 pp., $15.00.

2 See Warner's “Who is Wilfred Burchett?,” the Reporter, June 1, 1967. This article provides a valuable account, much of it first-hand, of Burchett's activities in Asia from World War II to 1967.

3 Quoted by Denis Warner in “Who is Wilfred Burchett?”

4 Salisbury's misleading reports about the bombing of North Vietnam are meticulously analyzed by Guenter Lewy in America in Vietnam, pp. 400-403; see also the important account of the former British consul general in Hanoi, John Colvin, “Hanoi in My Time,” Washington Quarterly, Spring 1981.

5 The reason for the unwillingness of the previous Australian government to press charges against Burchett in 1970 or earlier was that the offenses for which he had been denied a passport occurred during the Korean war. Since the war had been undeclared, actions relating to it could not be considered treasonous under the provisions of the Australian Crimes Act as originally formulated.

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