The Prime Ministers in America
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Prime Ministers
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On the eve of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s state visit to Washington, the Lowy Institute presents a series of snapshots examining some of the more memorable meetings between Australian prime ministers and US presidents.

by James Curran | 17 Sep 2019

state visit to Washington, the Lowy Institute presents a series of snapshots examining some of the more memorable meetings between Australian prime ministers and US presidents over the years.

That Scott Morrison has been granted the honour of a state visit to Washington – the first since John Howard in 2006 and only the second granted by the Trump administration – is a mark of his early success in connecting with the American President, a leader not normally known for his acoustic sensibility to close US allies. The prime minister’s visit will undoubtedly give a symbolic flourish to the recent description by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of the US–Australia alliance as “unbreakable”.[1]

Image: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Archives
William McMahon
Richard Nixon
November 1971

The atmosphere surrounding William McMahon’s call on President Richard Nixon towards the end of 1971 was one of barely concealed frustration. Earlier that year, McMahon had been publicly embarrassed by Nixon’s historic shift on China policy. The US president had announced that he would visit Beijing. Opposition leader Gough Whitlam had also been in Beijing only days before the arrival of Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger. McMahon had attempted to make Whitlam look like a puppet of the Chinese, but the joke was very quickly on the prime minister. In a flash, what had been an article of faith for conservative Cold War politics — the fear of China or the ‘red peril’ — became a symbol of outdated politics.

McMahon’s disappointment with Nixon’s failure to warn him of the change in US China policy culminated in a bitter letter of complaint to the president, in which he bemoaned the lack of “foreknowledge” of at least the broad trends of American policies. McMahon added that Australia had been “placed in a quandary” by this dramatic step, “the more so because we have attempted under all circumstances to co-ordinate our policies and support you in what you are doing”.[18] Of course, the Australians were by no means the only ones excluded from the administration’s thinking on this question. Nixon’s Secretary of State, William Rogers, senior Republicans on Capitol Hill, and even the US president’s closest Asian ally, Japanese leader Eisaku Sato, had not been given prior warning. US officials reported that McMahon was in a “nervous state” and the editor of the Canberra Times, John Allan, told the US embassy that the prime minister was “almost psychotic” about being humiliated not only by the American president but also by Whitlam.[19]

At a speech in Sydney to the American National Club in late July 1971, McMahon could no longer contain his outrage. In remarks laced with “unmistakable sarcasm” concerning the Nixon announcement, McMahon not only referred to the “sweet letter” he had received from the president explaining the need for secrecy about the move, but speculated that he “wouldn’t be surprised if [Chinese premier] Chou En-Lai didn’t get the best of President Nixon which in turn will adversely affect Nixon’s election chances in 1972”.[20] Such a public assessment of US domestic politics was all the more remarkable given that McMahon had excoriated Whitlam for daring to suggest to the Chinese premier during his visit to Beijing earlier in the year that Nixon’s Vietnam policies, like those of Lyndon Baines Johnson, might well be his electoral undoing.

McMahon’s Washington visit. Image: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Archives

Much repair work, then, was needed when McMahon arrived in Washington in November 1971. The Australian prime minister, however, was singing from the oldest of ANZUS song sheets: pleading for yet another security guarantee from his hosts. During his meeting with Secretary of State William Rogers, McMahon said that the best thing the president could do to help was to “declare that [the] ANZUS treaty is as important now as [the] day it was signed”.[21]

Nixon didn’t quite go that far — although in his toast to the visiting Australian he stressed that the treaty was “one of the fundamental pillars of our policy of peace in the Pacific” and that it went “far beyond simply that piece of paper”. He was happy “to reiterate that support and that commitment”. The language was strong but essentially theoretical and lacked what McMahon most wanted — a touch of the definitive. And so if the president would not say the magic words, McMahon would do it for him. In his reply to Nixon, he hinted at a more independent role for Australia in Southeast Asia, but went on to add that it rested on a

…basis of security … the guarantee and the assurance from you and from your administration that the ANZUS treaty is as sacred today and as valid today as when it was first signed a few years ago by Mr Dulles and our own foreign minister, Sir Percy Spender.[22]

But the “red carpet treatment”, according to US official reports, had worked. On his return to Australia, McMahon duly thanked the president not only for talks which “took place at a formative stage of decision making”, but also the “robust reaffirmation of the ANZUS treaty” and for making “Blair House available to us”. As a further concession to Australian protests over the lack of consultation on China, the Nixon administration had agreed to the establishment of a secret ‘hotline’ between the White House in Washington and the Lodge in Canberra, but it was apparently used only five times in its thirteen-month life — and mainly to convey birthday wishes.[23]

McMahon’s visit was subsequently remembered for just one thing: the dress split to the thighs and armpits and held together by rhinestones that his wife Sonia wore at the official state dinner. Nearly four years later, as Washington was receiving news about an ailing Labor government in November 1975, Kissinger asked senior officers in the State Department who might become the new leader. He confessed that he had great difficulty remembering the identity of the “last conservative prime minister” in Australia. Nor could his advisers, until one of them suddenly recalled: it was “the guy with the wife — McMahon”.[24]

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