Wilfred Burchett

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.

Early life

Burchett was born in Clifton Hill, 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 Erna Hammer, a German Jewish refugee, and they married in 1938 in Hampstead.

Career as a journalist, 1940-1978

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".[1] His report is more fully recorded in his book, Shadows of Hiroshima.

Burchett's reporting was unpopular with the US military. US 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.[2] During the US 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 persistent illness at a Tokyo hospital.[3]

Eastern Europe

After three years in Greece and Berlin working for the Daily Express, Burchett began reporting on Eastern Europe for The Times (London). He covered certain of the post-war show trials in Hungary, including that of Cardinal Mindszenty in 1949, and of the Communist László Rajk who was convicted and executed the same year: Burchett described Rajk as a "Titoist spy" and a "tool of American and British intelligence".[4] Burchett also praised the post-war Stalinist purges in Bulgaria: the "Bulgarian conspirators were the left arm of the Hungarian reactionary right arm".

In his autobiography, Burchett later admitted that he began to have doubts about the trials when one of the Bulgarian accused repudiated his signed confession.[5] Hungarian Tibor Méray has accused Burchett of dishonesty regarding the trials and the subsequent Hungarian Revolution of 1956 which he opposed.[6]

Korean War, 1950-1953

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[7] made their way to North Korea to cover the Panmunjom 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.[8] However, this has been decisively refuted by his former colleague and veteran anti-Communist, Tibor Méray, in his critical memoir On Burchett.[9]

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.[10][11] Historian Gavan McCormack writes that Burchett regretted this analogy, but argues that the factual basis of the description was confirmed by POW Walker Mahurin.[12] Similarly, Tibor Méray reports a "Peace Fighter Camp" which had no fences.[13]

Burchett achieved a major scoop by interviewing the most senior United Nations POW, US 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.[11][14]

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".[15]


In 1956 Burchett arrived in Moscow as a correspondent for the National Guardian newspaper, an American radical leftist weekly. He received a monthly allowance from the Soviet authorities[16] and for the next six years reported on Soviet advances in science and the rebuilding of the post-war Soviet economy. "... a new humanism is at work in the Soviet Union which makes that peddled in the West look shabby," wrote Burchett in one dispatch; "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

In 1963, two years after the Sino-Soviet split, Burchett wrote in a letter to his father that the Chinese were "one hundred per cent right", but asked him to keep his son's views confidential.[17]

During the latter years of the Vietnam War (1955-1975), although Burchett was now over 60, he would travel hundreds of miles, huddling in tunnels with NVA and Viet Cong soldiers, while under attack by US forces. Burchett published numerous books about Vietnam and the war during these years, and later.

In 1973 Burchett published China: The Quality of Life, with co-author Rewi Alley. In Robert Manne's view this was "a book of unconditional praise for Maoist China following the Great Leap Forward and the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution".[17]

In 1975 and 1976, Burchett sent a number of dispatches from Cambodia praising the new government of Pol Pot. In a 14 October 1976 article for The Guardian (UK), he wrote that "Cambodia has become a worker-peasant-soldier state", and because its new constitution "guarantees that everyone has the right to work and a fair standard of living" it was, Burchett believed, "one of the most democratic and revolutionary constitutions in existence anywhere".[18] At the time he believed his friend, former prince Norodom Sihanouk, was part of the leadership group.[19]

As relations between Cambodia and Vietnam deteriorated, however, and after Burchett visited refugee camps in 1978, he realised the true situation. He condemned the Khmer Rouge and they subsequently placed him on a death list.[20]

Passport controversy, 1955-1972

One of the controversies involving Burchett that dogged the Australian Government for much of his career concerned his Australian passport. In 1955 his British passport went missing, believed stolen, and the Australian Government refused to issue a replacement and asked the British to do the same.[21] For many years Burchett held a Vietnamese laissez-passer, and later a Cuban passport issued by Fidel Castro. 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,[22] and Burchett flew to Brisbane by a private plane and was allowed entry, triggering a media sensation.[23] An Australian passport was finally issued to Burchett by the incoming Whitlam Government in 1972.[24]

Allegations against Burchett

Testimony by Yuri Krotkov, 1969

In November 1969, Soviet defector Yuri Krotkov testified before the US Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security that Burchett had been his agent when he worked as a KGB controller. Others he named as agents and contacts included, implausibly, Jean-Paul Sartre and John Kenneth Galbraith.[25] 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, Tibor Méray alleged that Burchett was an undercover party member but not a KGB agent.[26]

Jack Kane libel trial, 1974

Burchett always vehemently rejected charges that he was a "communist propagandist" or "communist agent". In November 1974 he filed a one-million-dollar libel suit against Australian Democratic Labor Party politician Jack Kane, in part, over an article by Kane in his political newsletter detailing Yuri Krotkov's testimony.

During the trial, Kane's defence team not only presented Krotkov's 1969 testimony in the United States, but also put thirty former Korean War POWs on the stand. The former prisoners testified that Burchett had used threatening and insulting language against them and in some cases had been involved in their interrogations.[27] 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 only with Lenin and Ho Chi Minh.[28]

Burchett denied all the allegations. The jury found Burchett had been defamed, but 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.[29] Burchett appealed and lost. In their judgement of 1976, the appeal court judges found that Kane's article was not a fair report of the Senate speech. The jury's verdict, however, they concluded, arose out of the failure of Burchett's lawyer to argue his client's case and was not an error of the court. It was also impractical to recall the international witnesses for a retrial.[30]

Historian Gavan McCormack has argued in Burchett's defence that his only dealings with Australian POWs were "trivial incidents" in which he "helped" them.[31] 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.[32]

Posthumous revelations

During his return visits to Moscow in the early 1990s, veteran dissident Vladimir Bukovsky was given access by the Russian government to classified documents from the archives of the CPSU Central Committee. Among them was an October 1957 decision concerning Wilfred Burchett. Bukovsky secretly photocopied this and several hundred other documents and in 1999 they were put online.[16]

The KGB application on Burchett's behalf in July 1957 in that same file referred (1) to Burchett's previous work for "bourgeois newspapers" The Daily Express and The Times (London); (2) his current appointment as Moscow correspondent of the radical US National Guardian; and (3) his open membership of the Communist Party before leaving Australia in the 1930s. The Central Committee approved the KGB request, but lowered the monthly allowance to be given to Burchett from 4,000 to 3,000 roubles. In 1979 Burchett resigned from The National Guardian when the newspaper, the voice of the US Progressive Party, took the side of Chinese and Cambodian communists against the Soviet and Vietnamese communists.[33]

In 2013 Robert Manne used these documents to update "Agent of Influence: Reassessing Wilfred Burchett", his 2008 analysis of the reporter's special status with a succession of Communist regimes in Europe and Asia.[34] "Every detail in the KGB memorandum is consistent with the Washington testimony of Yuri Krotkov," Manne concluded in 2013. The defector, in his judgement, "was not a liar and a perjurer, but a truth-teller."[17]

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".[35]

A documentary film entitled Public Enemy Number One by David Bradbury was released in 1981. The film showed how Burchett was vilified in Australia for his coverage of "the other side" in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and posed 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?"[36]

In 2011 Vietnam celebrated Burchett's 100th birthday with an exhibition in the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi.[37]

Personal life

Burchett met and married his first wife Erna Hammer, a German Jewish refugee, in London and they married in 1938. Divorced in 1948, he married Vesselina (Vessa) Ossikovska, a Bulgarian communist in December 1949 in Sofiya. They had two sons. Both were denied Australian or British citizenship, along with their father, at the request of Sir Robert Menzies in 1955.[38] George Burchett had just been born in Hanoi, and grew up in Moscow and in France. He currently lives in Hanoi and has edited some of his fathers writings and produced a documentary[39]

Burchett was the uncle of chef and cookbook writer Stephanie Alexander.[40]





Works on Vietnam


  1. Burrell, Ian (13 October 2008). "Pilger's law: 'If it's been officially denied, then it's probably true'". The Independent. Retrieved 14 September 2013. The sub got his name wrong. Wilfred forgave him.
  2. Goodman, Amy and David, The Baltimore Sun, "The Hiroshima Cover-Up", 5 August 2005.
  3. Goodman, Amy. The Exception to the Rulers, Verso - London, 2003 Chapter 16: Hiroshima Cover-up: How the War Department's Timesman Won a Pulitzer
  4. Burchett even wrote a play "based on the Hungarian spy trials", entitled The Changing Tide, see Bibliography.
  5. Wilfred Burchett, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist : The Autobiography of Wilfred Burchett (2005), edited by Nick Shimmin and George Burchett, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, New South Wales. ISBN 0-86840-842-5, pp 323-24.
  6. Tibor Méray, On Burchett, Callistemon Publications, Kallista, Victoria, Australia, 2008, pp. 113–127, pp. 146–147.
  7. See "Alan Winnington, 1910–1983", A Compendium of Communist Biographies, Graham Stevenson's website.
  8. Denis Warner, Not Always on Horseback: An Australian Correspondent at War and Peace in Asia, 1961–1993, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1997, pp. 196–197.
  9. Tibor Méray, On Burchett, Callistemon Publications, Kallista, Victoria, Australia, 2008, pp. 73–76.
  10. http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/korea/faces/burchett/
  11. 1 2 Gavan McCormack, "Korea: Burchett's Thirty Years' War," in Ben Kiernan (ed.), 1986, p. 169.
  12. Gavan McCormack, "Korea", in Ben Kiernan (ed.), 1986, p. 170.
  13. Tibor Méray, On Burchett, Callistemon Publications, Kallista, Victoria, Australia, 2008, pp. 64–65.
  14. William F Dean and William L Worden, General Dean's Story, The Viking Press, New York, 1954, pp. 239, 244.
  15. Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, (revised edition), Prion, London, 2000, p. 388.
  16. 1 2 Bukovsky Archives online, 25 October 1957, Request for financial assistance from National Guardian journalist Wilfred Burchett (3 pp). See also Russian Presidential Archives, File b2/128gs.
  17. 1 2 3 Robert Manne "Wilfred Burchett and the KGB", The Monthly (Australia) No. 92, August 2013
  18. Joseph Poprzeczny (13 September 2008). "Books: On Burchett, by Tibor Méray". News Weekly.
  19. Norodom Sihanouk (with Wilfred Burchett), My War with the CIA, Penguin, 1974 reprint.
  20. Ben Kiernan (ed.), Burchett: Reporting the Other Side of the World, 1939–1983, Quartet Books, London, 1986, pp. 265–267.
  21. Ben Kiernan (ed.), Burchett, 1986, pp. 64–65.
  22. Gorton, John (12 February 1970), Mr Wilfred Burchett: Correspondence, archived from the original on 24 August 2014
  23. Ben Kiernan (ed.), Burchett, 1986, p. 72.
  24. Ben Kiernan (ed.), Burchett, 1986, p. 74.
  25. Ben Kiernan (ed.), Burchett, 1986, p. 296.
  26. Tibor Méray, On Burchett, Callistemon Publications, Kallista, Victoria, Australia, 2008, pp. 92–93, 198, 202–203.
  27. Denis Warner, Not Always on Horseback: An Australian Correspondent at War and Peace in Asia, 1961–1993, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1997, pp. 189–193.
  28. Denis Warner, Not Always on Horseback, 1997, pp. 142, 194.
  29. Heenan, Tom, "Burchett, Wilfred Graham (1911–1983)" in Australian Dictionary of Biography Online (206).
  30. Gavan McCormack, "Korea", in Kiernan (ed.), 1986, p. 198.
  31. Gavan McCormack, "Korea", in Kiernan (ed.), 1986, pp. 186–187.
  32. Gavan McCormack, "Korea", in Kiernan (ed.), 1986, pp. 190–194.
  33. Herbert Romerstein (Summer 2001). "Disinformation as a KGB Weapon in the Cold War". The Journal of Intelligence History. International Intelligence History Association. 1 (1): 57–58.
  34. Robert Manne, "Agent of Influence: Reassessing Wilfred Burchett", The Monthly (Australia), June 2008 (No. 35).
  35. Denis Warner, Not Always on Horseback: An Australian Correspondent at War and Peace in Asia, 1961–1993, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1997, p. 198.
  36. Public Enemy Number One (1981) at Frontline Films
  37. Lindsay Murdoch, "Hero, traitor, critic – Vietnam celebrates Burchett's centenary in pictures", The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 September 2011, p. 9.
  38. http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burchett-wilfred-graham-12265
  39. George Burchett and Nick Shimmin (eds.) 2007. Rebel Journalism: the Writings of Wilfred Burchett. Cambridge University Press.
  40. Ridge, Veronica (26 May 2012). "Stirring passions". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Archived from the original on 24 August 2014.

Further reading

External links

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