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Burchett, Wilfred Graham (1911–1983)

by Tom Heenan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Wilfred Graham Burchett (1911-1983), journalist, was born on 16 September 1911 at Clifton Hill, Melbourne, youngest of four children of Victorian-born parents George Harold Burchett, builder and farmer, and his wife Mary Jane Eveline, née Davey. Wilfred spent his childhood in south-west Gippsland and Ballarat. He attended Ballarat Agricultural High School but his parents’ indebtedness—resulting from the cost of medical treatment for his sister Amy (d.1921) and the failure of his father’s building business—curtailed his formal education at age 15. While working in manual jobs during the Depression, he developed a hunger for knowledge, a flair for languages and a zest for travel.

In 1937 Burchett journeyed to London, where his proficiency in French and Russian secured him employment in the travel industry. He also frequented the London Linguists’ Club. On 5 February 1938 at the register office, Hampstead, he married Erna Lewy, née Hammer, a divorcee and a Jewish refugee from Germany. In November 1938 he travelled to Berlin on behalf of his employers, the Jewish travel agency Palestine & Orient Lloyd Ltd, and arranged passages to Australia for thirty-six German Jews.

The Burchetts moved to Australia, arriving in July 1939. Disturbed by the locals’ apathy towards Nazism, he sent letters and articles to Melbourne newspapers, warning of Hitler’s planned European conquest. He also published accounts of his travels, and developed a working relationship with Andrew Fabinyi of F. W. Cheshire Pty Ltd. Assisted by an advance from the publishers, and accredited with Australian Associated Press Pty Ltd, Burchett sailed to New Caledonia in early 1941. His book Pacific Treasure Island (1941), though essentially a travelogue, alerted Australians to Japanese designs in the Pacific.

Seeking a more active role as a journalist, Burchett headed for the Far East and in October 1941 reached the Chinese capital Chungking via the Burma Road. His reports on the Sino-Japanese War appeared in the Sydney Daily Telegraph and London Daily Express. After Japan entered World War II in December, he was appointed the Express’s Chungking correspondent. Early in 1942 he covered the rout of British forces in Burma then from June travelled extensively through Kuomintang-controlled China. Angered by the party’s corruption and tendency to regard the communists and not the Japanese as the enemy, he left for India in October. While monitoring the British offensive in Arakan, Burma, in December, he was wounded. He courted Major General Orde Wingate and wrote Wingate Adventure (1944), an account of the Chindit operations in Burma.

In February 1944 the Express sent Burchett to the Pacific theatre. He sailed with the United States Navy’s Third and Fifth fleets in their island-hopping advance on Japan. Although he wrote enthusiastically about the fire-bombing of Japanese cities, his attitude altered after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. He stole into Hiroshima in September, probably the first Western journalist to do so, and reported on the `atomic plague’ afflicting the inhabitants. Determined to suppress information about fallout, the American authorities dismissed his story as pro-Japanese propaganda. The affair marked a watershed in his career and he began to question the morality of untrammelled American military might.

Burchett joined his family in London in November 1945. Soon afterwards the Express posted him to Berlin, where his dispatches turned stridently anti-American and pro-Soviet. He reported on the treason trial of Cardinal József Mindszenty in Budapest in February 1949. Convinced of Mindszenty’s guilt, Burchett became an apologist for the Stalinist peoples’ democracies emerging in Eastern Europe. His politics had moved away from those of the Express and he ceased writing for the paper in July. Having divorced his wife in 1948, on 24 December 1949 in Sofiya he married Vesselina (Vessa) Ossikovska, a Bulgarian communist.

In September 1950 Burchett returned to Australia and campaigned against the Menzies government’s Communist Party dissolution bill. Arriving in China in February 1951, he found the `fullest flowering of humanity’ in bloom under the communists. By July he was in Korea, covering the peace negotiations, from the North Korean and Chinese side, for the French communist newspaper Ce Soir and later for the radical New York National Guardian (Guardian from 1968). With the British Daily Worker’s Alan Winnington, Burchett accused the American-led United Nations negotiators of unnecessarily prolonging the talks while attempting to secure advantages on the battlefield. The pair also reported alleged atrocities by American soldiers.

The British Foreign Office secretly agreed with many of the concerns Burchett and Winnington expressed but did not believe their accusations (which were supported by material from left-wing sources) that American aircraft had conducted germ-warfare raids over North Korea and China in early 1952. The journalists were branded as traitors by their respective governments. By November 1953 the Australian government had collected evidence with a view to prosecuting Burchett for treason, but the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, (Sir) Charles Spry, advised that the case against him was `incomplete’. Burchett published his views on Korea in This Monstrous War (1953) and other works.

After a visit to Vietnam early in 1954, Burchett attended the Geneva Conference, which sought to resolve the Korean and Indo-Chinese conflicts. On 21 July delegates agreed to partition Vietnam. Five days earlier the US Far Eastern Command had sought the Australian government’s concurrence in a plan to discredit Burchett and Winnington. Accompanying the request were statements by American pilots denying earlier admissions, made while prisoners of war in North Korea, that they had flown on germ-warfare missions. Repatriated, the airmen had recanted and claimed that Burchett and Winnington had extracted their confessions by force. The Australian government approved the request.

In 1955 Burchett lost the British passport on which he had always travelled. He applied for an Australian one and requested that his and Vessa’s two children be registered as Australian citizens. At (Sir) Robert Menzies’ direction, the government rejected both applications and asked the British Foreign Office not to grant him a new passport. In 1957 he was appointed the New York National Guardian’s correspondent in Moscow. He also resumed reporting (as `Andrew Wilson’) for the Daily Express; additionally, from 1960 he wrote for the London Financial Times. Although certain of communism’s superiority over capitalism, he was beginning to question the nature of the Soviet form, which had stifled humanistic objectives. Moscow’s self-assumed infallibility on communist affairs privately infuriated him. With the onset of the Sino-Soviet split, he sided with the Chinese; later he reversed his stance.

Burchett returned to Indo-China in 1962. Next year he travelled through territory controlled by the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, reaching the outskirts of Saigon. The journey convinced him that the front, occupying vast tracts of the South, would determine the outcome of the Vietnam War, despite the presence of thousands of US military advisers helping South Vietnamese government forces. My Visit to the Liberated Zones of South Vietnam (1964) was one of several books he wrote on the conflict. In the mid-1960s he undertook three more treks through country under NLF influence. He moved from Moscow to Phnom Penh in 1965.

In 1966 the US government, via the British Foreign Office, sought Burchett’s assistance in securing the release of captured American pilots held in Hanoi. He agreed on humanitarian grounds. Though little came of his representations, his efforts impressed the British and Americans. In 1968 he moved to Paris. He helped the Americans during the peace talks in the French capital that year, attempting to foster informal discussions between the delegations, and briefing British diplomats on the communists’ negotiating tactics. Exploiting his increasing influence, he requested a British passport. The Foreign Office refused but permitted him to visit Britain that year. His autobiography, Passport, appeared in 1969.

Burchett was still barred from Australia. He had applied twice more for a passport, in 1960 and 1965. Buoyed by his entry into Britain, he tried again in July 1968. Prime Minister (Sir) John Gorton rejected his application but, following the deaths of his father (1969) and brother Clive (1970), the government allowed him to enter the country from Noumea aboard a private aircraft in February 1970. Unable to find evidence to support a charge of treason, the Whitlam government finally granted him a passport.

In September 1971 Senator Vince Gair had accused Burchett in parliament of being an operative of the Soviet KGB, tabling the testimony of a Soviet defector, Yuri Krotkov (`George Karlin’), who alleged Burchett’s recruitment. An article reporting Gair’s speech was published in the Democratic Labor Party organ, Focus (November), by his colleague Jack Kane Burchett sued Kane for defamation. At proceedings in the Supreme Court of New South Wales in 1974, it was revealed that Karlin’s claim was based on supposition. Though the jury found Burchett had been defamed, it considered the Focus article a fair report of Senate proceedings and, therefore, protected by parliamentary privilege. Costs were awarded against Burchett, who appealed but lost. Unable to meet Kane’s expenses, he was financially exiled from Australia.

Seemingly unbowed, Burchett covered the national liberation struggles in southern Africa, the genocide in Cambodia and the crumbling of China’s socialist ideals. Only Vietnam had kept his revolutionary faith. With smears from the Kane case resounding in the press and right-wing journals, he wrote a second volume of autobiography, At the Barricades (1980), to tell his side of the story. By the time he settled in Bulgaria in 1982 he had published more than thirty books and countless articles. He died on 27 September 1983 in Sofiya. His wife, their daughter and two sons, and the son of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Report of the International Commission for the Investigation of the Facts Concerning Bacterial Warfare in Korea and China (1952)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Oct 1974, p 1, 8 Aug 1985, p 9
  • Australian, 29 Sept 1983, p 9
  • series A1838, items 131/6, and 3123/5/13, parts 1-3, and 852/20/4/14, part 1, series A6119, items 12-16, series A6980, items S200614-S200616 and S200619 (National Archives of Australia)
  • FCO 15/559, FCO 15/632, FCO 15/743-FCO 15/746, FO 371/186387 (Public Records Office, London)
  • Burchett papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Burchett Passport Committee papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Tom Heenan, 'Burchett, Wilfred Graham (1911–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burchett-wilfred-graham-12265/text22015, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 2 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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