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Milner, Ian Frank (1911–1991)

by Tom Heenan

This article was published online in 2014

Ian Frank George Milner (1911-1991), public servant, academic, and alleged spy, was born on 6 June 1911 at Oamaru, New Zealand, second of four children of New Zealand-born Frank Milner, rector of Waitaki Boys’ High School, and his Victorian-born wife Florence Violet, née George. Educated at his father’s school, where he edited the school magazine and was dux in 1929, Ian won a scholarship to attend Canterbury College, University of New Zealand (BA, 1933; MA, 1934). Although he shared with his father a ‘strong will and a determination to be a success’ (Ball and Horner 1998, 254) they diverged politically: Frank was an ardent monarchist and imperialist, while Ian became a committed socialist. A cricketer and member of the dialectic society, he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship in December 1933, studying politics, philosophy, and economics at New College, Oxford (BA, 1937). He subsequently obtained Commonwealth Fund fellowships to study international relations at the University of California, Berkeley (1937-38), and Columbia University (1938-39), writing New Zealand’s Interests and Policies in the Far East (1940).

Milner returned to New Zealand in August 1939 and joined the New Zealand Institute for Educational Research in Wellington as a research officer. He campaigned against New Zealand’s involvement in World War II. In 1940 he was appointed as a lecturer in politics at the University of Melbourne, having been encouraged to apply by William McMahon Ball. On 12 September at the registry office, Adelaide, he married New Zealand-born Margaret (Margot) Leigh Trafford, a schoolteacher. While in Melbourne, Milner was prominent in the Australia-Soviet Friendship League, the Council for Civil Liberties, and the Australia-India Association. The investigation branch of the Attorney-General’s Department tracked him for Communist Party associations. In 1942 he enlisted in the Australian Military Forces but, with a reserved occupation, he did not see any active service.

In February 1945 Milner was appointed a special investigation officer in the post-hostilities division (subsequently the United Nations division) of the Department of External Affairs. The division’s director, (Sir) Paul Hasluck, who had encouraged Milner to apply, soon departed overseas, leaving Milner as acting-director for most of the next year. He later moved to New York, where he worked as a political affairs officer (1947-51) at the United Nations Secretariat, serving on the Greek Boundary Commission, the Conciliation Commission for Palestine, and the Temporary Commission on Korea.

By April 1947 Anglo-American code-breakers, working for the top-secret operation Venona, had started decrypting cables between Moscow and the Soviet Union’s embassy in Canberra, revealing Soviet infiltration of the Department of External Affairs. The decrypts suggested Milner was part of a spy ring orchestrated by a Communist Party member and fellow New Zealander, Walter Clayton. Milner had supposedly given Clayton secret British War Cabinet reports containing regional post-war security plans. He had accessed these documents in early March 1946, shortly before they were cabled to Moscow.

In February 1948 Britain’s MI5 informed Prime Minister Ben Chifley of the leakages, prompting him to establish the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). When Milner visited Australia in September 1949, ASIO closely monitored his movements. Milner took leave from the United Nations in 1950 to holiday in Europe, where Margot sought treatment for osteoarthritis in Czechoslovakia. While in Prague, Milner secured a lectureship in English at Charles University, which he took up the next year. He also renewed acquaintances with a former member of Czechoslovakia’s United Nations delegation, Jarmila Maran Fruhaufova, whom he had met in New York. Milner divorced Margot in 1956 and married Fruhaufova in 1958.

Milner’s abrupt move to Prague increased ASIO’s suspicions of his part in the Clayton spy ring. Admitting there was insufficient evidence to charge him, ASIO considered offering him immunity from prosecution in return for information. ASIO’s interest heightened with the defection of the Soviet diplomat Vladimir Petrov in 1954. At the subsequent royal commission on espionage (1954-55), Petrov alleged Milner was a Soviet agent and spy ring member, codenamed ‘BUR.’ The commission reported that ‘other material we have seen’ (Hall 1991, vii) supported the allegations—a veiled reference to the decrypted cables. In March 1956 Milner issued a personal statement, denying the commission’s findings. He requested that it be included in the commission’s official records and distributed to the press. The secretary of the Department of External Affairs, (Sir) Arthur Tange, cautioned against this, suggesting it would ‘throw doubts on the accuracy of the Commission’s findings’ (NAA M1505).

Milner subsequently had a successful academic career and was promoted to associate professor in 1964. He translated Czech poetry into English, championed Australasian literature in Eastern Europe, and wrote The Structure of Values in George Eliot (1968). In 1971 he was awarded a doctorate in literature by Charles University and travelled to the University of Otago, New Zealand, as a visiting professor. He retired in 1976.

Survived by his wife, Milner died in Prague on 31 May 1991. Honourable and serious, but idealistic, he was defended by supporters as a Cold War victim. With the opening in 1996 of relevant files in the Czech archives, however, evidence emerged that he had worked for Czechoslovakian security while at the United Nations and at Charles University. The same year his reputation as a scholar and public servant was further tarnished with the public release of the Venona decrypts.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Ball, Desmond and David Horner. Breaking the Codes: Australia’s KGB Network, 1944-1950. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1998
  • Cain, Frank. The Australian Security Intelligence Organization: An Unofficial History. Richmond, Vic.: Spectrum Publications, 1994
  • Deery, Phillip. ‘Cold War Victim or Rhodes Scholar Spy? Revisiting the Case of Ian Milner.’ Overland, no. 47 (Winter 1997): 9-12
  • Hall, Richard. The Rhodes Scholar Spy. Milsons Point, NSW: Random House, 1991, Milner, Ian. Intersecting Lines: The Memoirs of Ian Milner. Edited by Vincent O’Sullivan. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1993
  • National Archives of Australia (NAA). A6119, 17, 18, 342, 343
  • National Archives of Australia (NAA). M1505, 825
  • National Archives of Australia (NAA). B884, V350815

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Tom Heenan, 'Milner, Ian Frank (1911–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/milner-ian-frank-16424/text28383, published online 2014, accessed online 4 December 2016.

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