1911 - 1983 | VIC | War correspondent
Burchett was the most controversial journalist in Australian history. To his detractors, he was a traitor, a Communist sympathiser and an agent of influence with the Soviets during the Cold War. To his supporters, he was a brave reporter who dared to report the Korean and Vietnam wars from "the other side". The debate was continuing 30 years after his death. Burchett is in the Hall of Fame principally because he was the first correspondent to file from Hiroshima after the dropping of the atom bomb and described the effects of radiation sickness and death for the first time. His reports from Hiroshima were heavily censored in the United States, but they helped set the mood for a global era of nuclear deterrence.
Wilfred Graham Burchett was the youngest of four children, born at Clifton Hill in Melbourne to Mary, née Davey, and George Burchett. His father was a builder and a farmer, a Methodist lay preacher with radical convictions. The family moved first to south-west Gippsland and then to Ballarat, where Wilfred attended the Agricultural High School, which he left at 15 due to his parents’ straitened circumstances in the Depression. He sold vacuum cleaners and worked as a farm labourer, but built a taste for travel and discovered a flair for languages, chiefly French and Russian.
When he arrived in London in 1937, he leveraged his language skills into work in the travel industry. The following year he married a Jewish refugee from Germany, Ema Lewy, a divorcee. Later in 1938, travelling to Berlin for his agency, he helped 36 Jews leave for Australia.
The couple returned to Australia in 1939 and wrote to Melbourne newspapers warning of the war to come. He gained accreditation to the Australian Associated Press for a visit to New Caledonia, where he wrote of conflict against the Vichy government, and about which he also published a book. Then, eager for a more front-line role, he reached the then Chinese capital, Chongqing, becoming a correspondent for the London Daily Express while also writing for the Sydney Daily Telegraph.
He covered Britain’s campaign in Burma, where he was wounded, and began to resent the Chinese Nationalist government’s distracting skirmishes with Mao Zedong’s communists, blaming the former. He then shifted to the Pacific theatre, following the American advance and eventually becoming the first Western journalist to enter Hiroshima after the atom bomb, arriving on the day of the formal surrender of Japan.
This, journalistically, was his finest hour. He described the “atomic plague” from which many survivors suffered – radiation sickness – adding: “I write this as a warning to the world” not to let another population be devastated by a nuclear bomb. The scoop was marginally shaded by carrying the incorrect byline: Peter Burchett.
His wife and their son then joined him in London, and he was next posted to Berlin where his pro-Soviet and anti-American attitude came across clearly. He praised the Eastern European Soviet satellites, for instance denouncing as guilty Cardinal Josef Mindszenty at his show trial for treason in Budapest in 1949.
Burchett quit both the Express and his marriage, and wed Bulgarian communist Vesselina Ossikovska, with whom he was to have a daughter and two sons. After they came to Australia in 1950, Burchett campaigned against Robert Menzies’ bill to ban the Communist Party before heading in 1951 to China, whose new regime he much admired, and about which he wrote for French communist paper L’Humanité, and then to Korea where he wrote for French communist newspaper Ce Soir and an American radical publication, National Guardian.
He reported the Korea war from the Northern side, accusing the Americans of conducting germ warfare. He wrote a book, This Monstrous War, about the conflict. American pilots who confessed to having flown germ-warfare missions recanted after their release, stating that Burchett, and Alan Winnington, a journalist with the British Daily Worker, had wrung their confessions from them by threat. He interviewed the most senior UN officer to be taken prisoner by the North, US General William Dean, who was believed to be dead until then.
The British passport he had been using was withdrawn, and Canberra refused to issue him an Australian document. He then shifted to Moscow, writing still for the National Guardian, but also for The Daily Express, and from 1960 for The Financial Times.
In 1962 he began writing on the Vietnam conflict, from communist-held territory, and in 1965 shifted to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. After he agreed to try to persuade Hanoi to release captured American pilots, and then encouraged informal discussions during peace talks in Paris, he was allowed back into Britain, where he wrote a first volume of autobiography, Passport, published in 1969. Following a succession of attempts, he finally succeeded in returning to Australia, the government shrouding it in secrecy as he arrived in a private plane from Noumea in 1970. The Whitlam government issued him a passport at last.
Senator Vince Gair tabled in parliament the claim of a Soviet defector that Burchett was a KGB agent, and when Gair associate Jack Kane published this claim in Focus, a Democratic Labor Party publication, Burchett sued Kane for libel. The court agreed with Burchett but found that since the report was protected by parliamentary privilege, he should pay the costs.
This broke him financially, and he started travelling again. Writing on South Africa, Cambodia, Vietnam and China, he mostly expressed disillusionment at the fading of socialist ideals. He at first exalted Pol Pot’s new regime in Cambodia, writing for The Guardian in 1976 that the country had become “a worker-peasant-soldier state,” the highest praise from Burchett. But two years later, after he became disillusioned, he was placed on a Khmer Rouge death list.
He completed a second autobiographical book, At the Barricades, and then settled briefly in Sofia, in his wife’s homeland of Bulgaria, where he died in 1983, aged 72. His niece is the celebrated chef and writer Stephanie Alexander. His New York Times obituarist described him as “an Australian journalist who for decades functioned as a Western spokesman for Communist regimes in Asia and Europe.”
Burchett certainly courted controversy, but retained loyal friends, such as the American journalist Harrison Salisbury, even among those who disagreed with his political views – though of course especially among those with whom he was aligned. A 2007 edition of Pictorial Korea, published by North Korea, included an article by Wilfred’s son Peter, who said that the founder of the country’s dictator-dynasty, Kim Il-Sung, “met my father on many occasions and said he was a friend and old comrade-in-arms. And my father revered him so much.”
Vietnam celebrated Burchett’s centenary in 2011 with an exhibition in the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi.
Burchett was endlessly controversial in his lifetime and since. Australian journalist Pat Burgess said of Burchett: “No correspondent was better loved by his colleagues, or more bitterly detested.” Film maker David Bradbury, in a documentary made in 1981, asked questions posed by his career: “Can a democracy tolerate opinions it considers subversive to its national interest? How far can freedom of the press be extended in wartime?”
A further question is often still asked: Was Burchett a traitor? There is little doubt that whatever else he was – and sometimes it seemed dominantly, that “something else” – he was also a journalist, one who commanded, from time to time, for good or ill, global attention.
Rowan Callick is Asia-Pacific editor of The Australian and a former China correspondent of both The Australian and The Australian Financial Review.
'The Atomic Plague, The Daily Express, September 5 1945.
'Burchett, Wilfred Graham', Tom Heenan, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2007.
Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist: The Autobiography of Wilfred Burchett, George Burchett and Nick Shimmin (ed.), UNSW Press, 2005.
From Traveller to Traitor: the Life of Wilfred Burchett, Tom Heenan, Melbourne University Press, 2006.