Arthur’s last hurrah: Calwell, Whitlam and the Ky visit to Australia*

By Phillip Deery

In the torrent of tributes for Gough Whitlam after his death in October 2014, it is easy to forget the rancour and bitterness surrounding his ascent to the leadership of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. He was elected leader at a caucus meeting in February 1967 after Arthur Calwell, having lost three federal elections and now aged 70, decided he would step down. The electoral disaster three months earlier, on 26 November 1966, was especially cruel for Calwell, who – against Whitlam’s wishes – had campaigned strongly on the issues of conscription and the Vietnam war. Both Calwell’s memoirs and Whitlam’s biographer highlight the policy differences and personal antagonisms between the two in the run-up to that election.[1] But neither mention a crucial event sandwiched between the November defeat and the Whitlam victory: the state visit to Australia of the Premier of South Vietnam, Air Vice-Marshall Ky, in January 1967. That visit, which has largely been overlooked by historians but which then received extensive national press and television coverage, threw a sharp spotlight on the divisions within the ALP and, especially, between the leader and his deputy. Focusing on the Ky visit also illuminates Calwell’s principled stand, opposed by the pragmatic Whitlam and ridiculed in the media.

On 23 December 1966, Prime Minister Harold Holt announced that he had invited Nguyen Cao Ky, South Vietnam’s tenth premier in twenty months and part of a military duumvirate (with General Nguyen Van Thieu) that took power following a cycle of coups after Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination in November 1963. Calwell immediately launched a series of vitriolic attacks on Ky. On 23 December he had stated that the visit of Ky, a “power-hungry opportunist”, would shock every Australian except those who “condoned and tolerated murder, brutality and injustice”. His invective went further: in a separate statement, Calwell called Ky a “little Quisling gangster”, a “miserable little butcher” and a “moral and social leper”.[2] On 26 December he announced his intention to march at the head of any demonstration against the visit since “[i]f we are to fete military dictators it will be done in the face of my strongest opposition”. He added that the day Ky stepped on Australian shores “should be declared a day of national mourning”.[3] Calwell’s strong reaction may have been influenced by a 1965 report that Ky admired Adolf Hitler. Ky was interviewed by a British journalist, Brian Moynahan, who he told, in a remarkable display of naïveté: “People ask me who my heroes are. I have only one – Hitler.”[4] The Jewish News commended Calwell for his “timely and penetrating opinion” about this “unwelcome guest”.[5] Calwell’s deputy was “not available for comment”.[6]

Ky visit Recorder 11.34 am

As government preparations for Ky’s visit firmed up in the first two weeks of 1967, invitations to State functions were issued. Customarily, the Opposition leader and his deputy would be invited and Whitlam was in an embarrassing position, since he had visited South Vietnam in 1966, met with Ky and was his official dinner guest in Saigon.[7] But Calwell’s stated intention to boycott any official meeting or dinner with Ky sank any chance of ALP leaders attending. “They couldn’t very well have the dinner if they didn’t have me present…And so it was all cancelled. And Whitlam disappeared from the scene.”[8] When Whitlam returned from a nine-day family holiday on Lord Howe Island on 9 January, he refused to be drawn into discussion about Calwell’s anti-Ky remarks or whether he would protest against the visit: “Speak to my secretary [John Menadue], he’ll answer any questions for me.”[9]

Just as the ALP was divided over Vietnam,[10] so it was divided over Calwell’s position on Ky. Despite the left-wing executive of the Victorian branch instructing all Victorian federal and state Labor parliamentarians to participate in anti-Ky marches and demonstrations, and Calwell threatening censure from the Party if they did not,[11] they were thin on the ground. At the first of three protests, in Canberra on 18 January, Calwell led a march (dubbed “Arthur’s Long March”) of 700 protestors to Parliament House where, inside, Ky was being welcomed. Only four members of the parliamentary Labor Party participated. One, the MHR for Reid, Tom Uren, prevented photographs of Calwell being taken with demonstrators holding Vietcong flags, while Calwell lashed out at a pro-Ky youth who carried a placard, “Calwell the Crumbling Cretin”.[12] Calwell, “looking fit and in vigorous speaking form”, claimed this was “a black day in Australian history” and reiterated his epithets: “Ky is a Fascist. I repeat it – he is a murderer, a miserable little butcher, a gangster Quisling.”[13] Later, Calwell criticised his colleagues who “went fishing or did something else.”[14]

Ky cartoon Recorder

After the demonstration, a Bulletin journalist, Peter Samuel, asked Calwell if he was frightened the ALP may not “stick to its principles” on Vietnam, to which Calwell replied: “Well, I’m frightened it might not if one man gets control.”[15] Alan Reid, in the same issue of the Bulletin, remarked that Whitlam had “disappeared wraithlike and mute as a Sydney rock oyster … though he had eaten Premier Ky’s food and drunk his liquor during a recent Vietnam visit.”[16] The Australian suggested that “some” of Calwell’s attacks on Ky were in fact directed at Whitlam,[17] while Dr Jim Cairns criticised Labor MPs for absenting themselves from the Canberra demonstration; it was, he said, their “active political duty” to do so.[18]

Participation in, or absence from, the Melbourne march on Sunday 22 January, became a litmus test of leadership credentials. Both Cairns and Frank Crean, who intended to contest the party leadership, announced their intention to join the march; Whitlam, the front-runner, remained silent. The Victorian executive, despised by Whitlam, hoped his absence would “prejudice” his bid for leadership.[19] “This is expected”, reported the Sun’s Jack Allsopp, “to have some influence on the Caucus ballot”.[20] The Melbourne march was a triumph for Calwell. He led a two-mile march of over 8000 people stretching for five city blocks from the Trades Hall to the Domain, close to the heavily guarded Government House, at which Ky was staying. A clergyman described how he was “deeply stirred” by Calwell’s speech:

“one of the finest bursts of oratory I have yet heard from a politician. … Press reports had convinced me that Arthur was more than a little mad, but his ‘Sunday sermon’ suggested to me that he is more than ever a noble leader.”[21]

On the other hand, mainstream press opinion on Calwell’s anti-Ky position was near-unanimous. Calwell was “stooping to factionalism”;[22] was “obstinately perpetuating the divisions in his party”;[23] was resorting to “hysteria”;[24] and with his “wild harangues” against Ky had “reached the end of the road … But now he has overstayed his welcome. He is a Hamlet who will not leave the stage.”[25]

At the caucus meeting of the federal parliamentary Labor Party on 8 February, Calwell did leave the stage. Whitlam won the party leadership by a clear margin: 39 votes to Cairns’ 15 and Crean’s 14. But the battle did not end. The new leader stated on television that the former leader had “debauched the Vietnam debate”, which “appalled and staggered” Calwell, who indicated he would report Whitlam to the party’s Federal Executive.[26] But Calwell would have taken heart, had he known of it, from this private letter to the Prime Minister. Part of it read: “It is Mr Calwell who is fighting the forces of evil in Australia – thank goodness we have someone fearless and good to help us – otherwise we would be in despair.”[27]


* The title is drawn from Bob Gould, “Arthur Calwell’s last hurrah, Vietnamese dictator Ky and Kirribilli House in the stinking hot Sydney summer of 1967”, Honi Soit, March 2004.

[1] A.A. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not (Melbourne: Lloyd O’Neill, 1972), 230-2; Jenny Hocking, Gough Whitlam: A Moment in History. Volume 1 (Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2008), 267-71. Strangio writes of their “damaging rift” just prior to the election when Whitlam deliberately distanced himself from Calwell’s policy on the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. Paul Strangio, Keeper of the Faith: a biography of Jim Cairns (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002), 164.

[2] Age, 24 December 1966.

[3] Sydney Morning Herald, 27 December 1966.

[4] Sunday Mirror (London), 4 July 1965.

[5] Jewish News (Sydney), 30 December 1966.

[6] Age, 27 December 1966.

[7] Daily Telegraph, 12 January 1967.

[8] Interview with Arthur Calwell by Mel Pratt, 25-28 May 1971, Mel Pratt Collection, National Library of Australia ORAL TRC 121/7 (1:42).

[9] Sun (Sydney), 10 January 1967.

[10] See Hocking, Gough Whitlam, 265-70, Strangio, Keeper of the Faith, 144-53.

[11] Daily Mirror, 16 January 1967.

[12] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 January 1967.

[13] Canberra Times, 19 January 1967; SMH, 19 January 1967.

[14] Australian, 21 January 1967. At this meeting, a reception for Calwell at the Sydney Trades Hall, only MHRs Rowley James and Tom Uren, and Senators Lionel Murphy and Jim Ormonde were present.

[15] Bulletin, 89:4534 (28 January 1967), 7.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Australian, 10 January 1967. News-Weekly (18 January 1967) agreed: “the real target was not Ky at all, but Whitlam.” While this may have been a factor, it underestimates the depth of Calwell’s hostility to the “dirty, unwinnable, immoral” war in Vietnam.

[18] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 January 1967.

[19] Daily Telegraph, 19 January 1967.

[20] Sun (Melbourne), 17 January 1967.

[21] Rev. A.J. Lloyd, letter to editor, Australian, 3 February 1967.

[22] Sun (Sydney), 10 January 1967.

[23] Australian, 11 January 1967.

[24] Bulletin, 21 January 1967.

[25] Sunday Truth, 22 January 1967.

[26] Sun (Melbourne), 19 February 1967.

[27] Nancy Neild, Brisbane, to Holt, 25 January 1967, in National Archives of Australia: A463, 1967/164.

The National Film and Television Archives has three short film clips from Ky’s visit, which can be viewed online.

4 thoughts on “Arthur’s last hurrah: Calwell, Whitlam and the Ky visit to Australia*

  1. Peter Love says:

    Thanks for this Philly.

    It’s a rattling good read. While I knew the broad outline, it was good to get the detail in the wider context.

    It’s also a salutary reminder that it’s all very well to be right, but the trick is to be right at the right time!




  2. lylealla says:

    Thanks Phillip for this fascinating story. Ky died in 2011, and spent much of his time as a refugee in America running a liquor store.

  3. Andrew (Andy) Alcock says:

    Congratulations, Phillip
    This as a well-researched article. I was just getting involved in the peace movement when Ky visited Australia. When I read the headlines about Hitler being his only hero, I thought this would greatly help the peace movement.

    I was very impressed with Arthur Calwell’s stand against the US war in Vietnam and was surprised when an ALP insider told me that Whitlam supported the war. Calwell’s political career was nearly over and he did not have the same lively personna as Gough Whitlam.

    The mercurial support for the peace movement over the next 6 years, so that in. The lead-up to the 1972 election, Whitlam must have realised that his only hope of being PM was the gathering strength of the peace movement and public opposition to the war in Vietnam. The rest, as they say, is history.

    Another aspect of this history that is overlooked is the nature of the regimes in the US created state of “South Vietnam”. and the impact these people have had on the US and Australian societies with their brand of extreme right wing politics.

    Many of the supporters of this puppet state certainly did behave as though Adolf Hitler was their hero. In the Saigon War Remnants (formerly the Museum of US War Crimes), visitors can see the tiger cages where prisoners were kept for long periods of time. They often had lime thrown over them and many were crippled by their long enforced imprisonment in them. Also, there is a guillotine and instruments of torture.

    Visitors to the Museum can also purchase the book, “A Bright Shining Lie – John Paul Vann & America in Vietnam”, by Neil Sheehan along with many other books about the US unnecessary war in Vietnam. This book concentrates on a US officer, who sincerely believed that the US and it’s ally, “South Vietnam” could win the war. It shows the very violent and corrupt nature of the various regimes that the US propped up there and describes how their leaders had little stomach for the struggle against the forces of independence.

    In the late 1970s in Adelaide, we saw the behaviour of some of the advocates of the cause of “South Vietnam”. During a visit of the then Vietnamese Ambassador to Australia, a huge number of right wing Vietnamese came out to show their opposition and there were fears for the safety of the ambassador. Members of the peace movement were asked to be at key events and the SA Police were there with dogs to keep these people in line. The irony, of course, was that the police were used against the peace protesters only a few years before.

    On another occasion, there were two special guests from Vietnam who came to speak at a dinner at the Uni of SA (then the Sa Institute of Technology). One was a doctor from Hanoi who was researching the adverse effects of Agent Orange on human health and the other was a schoolteacher who was a veteran of the National Liber action Front (NLF). As the guests spoke, right wing Vietnamese continued to run around the venue screaming threats and their hatred. The police and their dogs came to ensure that the guests and Vietnamese loyal to the SRV could leave the building safely. The whole experience was a very threatening.

    Some time after these events, I was approached by a Vietnamese woman who was opposed to the US war in Vietnam and who has resided in Adelaide for many years. She was seeking support for a Vietnamese man, who had left Vietnam as a boat person. He came because his family wanted to leave, but he was not supportive of the “South Vietnamese” cause. On the journey to Australia, he and family members became separated. After arriving in Australia, he was visited on several occasions by members of the right wing Vietnamese League in Defence of the Fatherland (VLDF). They prevailed on him to join their ranks and when he refused, he was bashed. This happened on a number of occasions.

    As a result, he acquired a firearm to defend himself. The next time the VLDF thugs arrived at his house, he produced the gun and discharged it. Fortunately, no-one was killed, but someone was wounded.In response, the police placed him in a psychiatric centre. The woman wanted assistance to get this man released. I approached the legal office of Elliott Johnston, a left wing lawyer who later became a judge and the Commissioner of Black Deaths in Custody, for help. The approaches made by Elliott were successful in getting this man released.

    In the 1980s, the Adelaide Quaker group organised a forum of the war in Vietnam which I attended.There were supporters of the “South Vietnamese” regime speaking and in attendance. They displayed a very threatening demeanour to those who disagreed with them.

    A few years later in the early 21st Century,I thought that these people had decided to settle down and be less hostile to those in the peace movement during the Vietnam years. I was wrong. About 4 years ago, an Adelaide May Day March finished at the Torrens Parade Ground where a rally was held. At the Parade Ground, there are a number of special memorials – including one erected by the right wing Vietnamese community. On the nearest Saturday to the 30 April, the anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the right wing Vietnamese community has a ceremony there. On a number of occasions, the Vietnamese ceremony has coincided with the May Day Rally, which is held on the nearest Saturday to 1 May. In Adelaide, Vietnamese students studying in Australia prepare food to be sold at the May Day Rally. On at least 2 occasions, the right wing Vietnamese have gone to the May Day Rally to express their vehement attitudes opposing May Day and they have particularly targeted the Vietnamese students.

    I have met a number of children of Vietnamese boat people who have adapted well to the Australian society. Some of them have been to Vietnam including Hanoi and other areas of the north – areas which many of their die-hard parents would not visit. So, it is obvious that time will help to settle these political differences and many of these children will not see the US war in Vietnam in the same way as their parents do.

    However, it would be interesting to see what contribution the Vietnamese boat people have made to right wing politics in Australia.

  4. portplaces says:

    Thank you for this most interesting insight into the tensions between Calwell and Whitlam over Ky’s visit just before the leadership change.


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