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William Douglass (Bill) Forsyth (1909–1993)

by Chad Mitcham

This article was published:

William Douglass Forsyth (1909–1993), schoolteacher, scholar of international relations, historian, and diplomat, was born on 5 January 1909 at Casterton, Victoria, eldest son of Victorian-born parents James Douglass Forsyth, commission agent, and his wife Martha Alice, née Lamborne. The family’s social isolation, stemming from James’s drinking, gambling, and financial difficulties, was a significant source of tension, especially for William whose chronic asthma was aggravated by stress. A bright student, he attended local schools and Ballarat High School before leaving in 1924 to become a student teacher. He received a Melbourne Teachers’ College studentship in 1927, enabling studies in history and politics at the University of Melbourne (DipEd, 1930; BA Hons, 1932; MA, 1947). He was inspired by P. D. Phillip’s lectures and Institute of Pacific Relations Council member F. W. Eggleston to focus on international affairs. Professor Ernest Scott provided considerable encouragement during his postgraduate years, declaring that ‘Forsyth is, I have no hesitation in saying, one of the half-dozen best students of history who I have known in twenty years’ (NLA MS 5700). His honours thesis earned him the annual Harbison-Higginbotham research scholarship (1935); revised and enlarged, it was published in 1935 as Governor Arthur’s Convict System, Van Diemen’s Land, 1824–36: A Study in Colonization.

Forsyth tutored in a University of Melbourne extension course while teaching at Sale High School (1933–34). He transferred to Shepparton High School in 1935. On 19 December 1935 at the Shepparton Presbyterian Church he married eighteen-year-old Thelma Joyce Sherry, a talented local musician and singer who worked as a typist. With the support of (Sir) Douglas Copland, he secured a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation (1936) to facilitate British-based postgraduate research on how migration to the Dominions contributed to national development. Initially based at the University of London, he later moved to Balliol College, Oxford, where his younger brother Russell had just completed his Rhodes scholarship. Following a period of intense international research-related travel, including visits to the International Labour Organization at Geneva, he took extended leave from Oxford at the end of 1937 for health and financial reasons. Returning to Australia, he secured a one-year University of Melbourne research fellowship. The Rockefeller Foundation agreed to fund his return to Oxford the following year, enabling him to complete a BLitt in 1939 (conferred 1946). The University of Melbourne had also provided a travel grant and extended his research fellowship.

On returning to Melbourne in late 1939, Forsyth was appointed a research officer with the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), a position funded by a Rockefeller grant. During World War II he worked for the Commonwealth Department of Information (DoI), collecting and compiling secret intelligence from the Department of External Affairs (DEA) and the intelligence services and coordinating information about the war supplied to Australian press and radio. A second Harbison-Higginbotham scholarship (1940) resulted in The Myth of Open Spaces: Australian, British and World Trends of Population and Migration (1942), which questioned Australia’s ability to ‘absorb vast numbers of immigrants’ (Canberra Times 1993, 12). Forsyth advocated greater self-sufficiency by linking future selective immigration and settlement with habitable areas associated with industrial development, involving reduced trade barriers and the stimulation of productivity. He also advised that Australia would increasingly need to draw its labour from non-British sources.

At the end of 1942 the DEA—on the recommendation of Australia’s ambassador to China, Eggleston—secured Forsyth’s transfer from the DoI. In the DEA’s postwar section in 1943, Forsyth produced a series of Pacific area research reports that included a proposal for a system of regional international collaboration involving a South Seas Commission. During 1945 his work included advising the Australian delegation to the United Nations (UN) Conference on International Organization in San Francisco and the Australian force commander for the Japanese surrender in Portuguese Timor (Timor-Leste). He also worked with Australian Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs H. V. Evatt, and Australian Minister to the United States of America Eggleston, at the inaugural meeting of the Far Eastern Advisory Commission in Washington, DC. In early 1946 he led the FEAC’s Australian delegation to occupied Japan, holding consultations with the supreme commander, General Douglas MacArthur. Following his return to Canberra that year, he was promoted to first secretary in the department’s newly established Pacific Affairs Division, assisting Evatt on Pacific Island bases negotiations.

Forsyth played an important role in the six-power South Seas Conference held in Canberra in January 1947, which resulted in the establishment of the South Pacific Commission (SPC), a Noumea-based consultative and advisory body on the economic and social advancement of Pacific peoples. He was appointed secretary-general of the SPC in Noumea in 1948, overseeing the inauguration of its operations. From 1951 to 1955 he served as Australia’s permanent representative to the UN in New York. Appointed OBE in 1955, he later described the award as ‘an inglorious gong, best forgotten as a consolation prize for someone who did not fit in’ (NLA MS 5700).

In 1956 Forsyth became assistant secretary of the DEA. During the Suez Crisis that year he opposed Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies’s support for British–French–Israeli efforts to keep the Suez Canal under Franco-British control, arguing that it would damage Australia’s foreign relations, particularly with African and Asian countries at the UN. With Cold War tensions increasing in Indo-China, in 1959 he was posted to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) as Australia’s first ambassador to South Vietnam; he was concurrently Australian minister to Laos. He resumed the role of assistant secretary, DEA, in 1961, before his second appointment as secretary-general of the SPC (1963–66).

Appointed in February 1967 as Australia’s first ambassador to Lebanon, Forsyth arrived just before the Six-Day War between Israel and neighbouring Arab states. Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he attracted international attention by refusing to shake hands with the Soviet ambassador at an Iraq national day reception. Despite ongoing medical treatment, he became increasingly unwell with anxiety, asthma, and bronchitis related to stress and overwork, resulting in a breakdown that saw him seek relief in Cyprus. A subsequent Australian Security Intelligence Organization investigation into his twenty-four-hour absence without leave was the culmination of events that irrevocably damaged his career. His chronic asthma ruled out his return to full-time work in the department and he was forced to retire on medical grounds in October 1969.

In 1970 Forsyth published Captain Cook’s Australian Landfalls. The election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972 inspired him to begin writing his autobiography, a three-part manuscript entitled ‘Recollections of a Maverick Diplomat.’ He terminated his connection with the AIIA in 1977 on the grounds that it had become too heavily influenced by the United States. His contribution to public dialogue was subsequently confined to letters to the editor of the Canberra Times on diverse and often controversial topics.

Of compact build and short stature, Forsyth was shy and reserved with a scholarly manner and keen sense of humour. He was highly perceptive and deeply reflective, viewing himself as an awkward, unconventional outsider. He had a considerable capacity for work, although associated nervous tension tended to exacerbate his asthma, leading him to drink alcohol excessively at times. He confessed that he had been ‘too fond of joyful living, of fair ladies and the wine of life, to affect a straight-laced demeanour consistently’ (NLA MS 5700). Survived by two daughters and one son, Forsyth died on 3 March 1993 in Canberra. He has been remembered as ‘one of Australia’s most distinguished diplomats’ (Cotton 2016, 480) and as a ‘man of pragmatic vision’ (SPC 2007, 20).

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘William Douglass Forsyth, OBE: A Distinguished Diplomat.’ 8 March 1993, 12
  • Cotton, James. ‘The Institute’s Seventieth Volume: The Journal, Its Origins and Its Engagement with Foreign Policy Debate.’ Australian Journal of International Affairs 70, no. 5 (2016): 471–83
  • Forsyth, William Douglass. Interview by Mel Pratt, January–February 1972. Transcript. Mel Pratt collection. National Library of Australia
  • National Library of Australia. MS 5700, Papers of William Douglass Forsyth, 1875–1993
  • South Pacific Commission. Meeting House of the Pacific: The Story of the SPC, 1947–2007. Nouméa, New Caledonia: SPC Secretariat, 2007

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Chad Mitcham, 'Forsyth, William Douglass (Bill) (1909–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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