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Sir John Keith Waller (1914–1992)

by Alan Fewster

This article was published:

Sir John Keith Waller (1914–1992), diplomat and departmental head, was born on 19 February 1914, at South Yarra, Melbourne, only child of Victorian-born parents Arthur James Waller, schoolteacher, and his wife, Elizabeth Maria, née Hart. Following Elizabeth’s early death from cancer, her sister stood in loco matris to the baby boy. Known as Keith, he was educated (1920–30) at Scotch College where he won a government senior scholarship and a non-resident exhibition to Ormond College, University of Melbourne. Studying history and political science, he graduated (BA Hons, 1935) with the Dwight prize for history and political science.

After attending a lecture at the University of Melbourne by Arthur Yencken of the British Foreign Office, Waller joined the Commonwealth Public Service. He moved to Canberra in 1936 where he became personal assistant to Frank Strahan, secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department. Within months, however, he transferred to the Department of External Affairs (DEA). When William Morris Hughes was appointed departmental minister (1937), Waller became his private secretary. The two became quite fond of each other, although this did not prevent ‘the Little Digger’ from throwing things at Waller when liverish. Waller described the position as ‘hell, absolute hell’ (Waller 1990, 16). In 1940, to improve the department’s poor relationship with the press, Roy Hodgson, the department’s secretary, sent Waller to Melbourne as diplomatic adviser to the Department of Information.

In 1941 Waller was posted to Chungking (Chongqing) as acting second secretary, before the arrival of Sir Frederic Eggleston, Australia’s first minister to China. Over the next three years Waller established himself as an able young diplomat. In 1942 William Westwood, a legation colleague, came into possession of some of Waller’s private papers, including his letters highly critical of Hodgson’s management, and a defamatory profile of the prime minister, John Curtin. Waller believed they had been stolen from his desk. Jealous of the close working relationship between Eggleston and Waller, Westwood sent them to Curtin. Confronted by a ‘please explain’ telegram from a furious Hodgson, which conveyed Curtin’s justifiable anger, Sir Frederic defended Waller, claiming (truthfully) that he had been ill and under great emotional stress. When Curtin decided to take no action Hodgson could hardly move to sack Waller.  On 20 February 1943 Waller married Alison Dent at St Thomas’s Cathedral, Bombay (Mumbai), India. Waller had known Alison, the daughter of wealthy Canberra pastoralists, since 1937; while overseas she had joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) as a cipher officer in 1939. They met again when she was posted to Washington in December 1941. They returned to Canberra in 1944.

He was appointed secretary of the Australian delegation to the United Nations Conference on International Organization, held in San Francisco in April 1945. Waller so dexterously managed both Frank Forde (the delegation leader and deputy prime minister) and H. V. Evatt (the minister for external affairs) that Evatt rewarded him with a posting to Rio de Janeiro as first secretary. He spent two years in Brazil mainly seeking to identify trade opportunities. In 1947 he went to Washington as first secretary. At the time Australia-United States of America relations were strained because of growing US concern at Australia’s perceived drift to the left under the influence of Prime Minister Chifley and Evatt. During Waller’s tenure, the Americans embargoed the provision of sensitive information to Australia, following the leakage of several secret documents from the DEA.

Waller’s first appointment as a head of mission came in April 1948 when he went at short notice to Manila, Philippines, as consul-general. His posting was dominated by the case of Lorenzo Gamboa, a Filipino-born US citizen married to an Australian woman. He had been refused an Australian visa under the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. Waller, who opposed the White Australia policy, predicted correctly that its use against Gamboa would have long-term negative repercussions for Australia in South-East Asia.

In 1951, after only six months back in Canberra, Waller was posted to London as external affairs liaison officer, with the rank of counsellor. He was involved in some tense exchanges between Canberra and London, as the British government sought to influence negotiations on the ANZUS treaty, from which it was excluded. Returning to Canberra in 1953, he became one of three assistant secretaries in the DEA. Charged with management and administration, he improved liaison with overseas posts, and reorganised staffing and recruitment. Controversially he did not reappoint the historian Manning Clark to the diplomatic cadet selection panel because of suspicions held by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization about his allegiance to Australia. Clark retaliated in a series of satirical short stories about the DEA that included thinly veiled references to Waller.

Waller was appointed OBE in 1957 and then ambassador to Thailand, where the headquarters of the South East Asia Treaty Organization was located. Frustrated by SEATO’s heavy emphasis on military intelligence and what he considered to be the incompetence of many of its staff, he thought the organisation was toothless. He saw some value in SEATO’s military planning office, but deprecated its information and cultural programs, which he regarded as peripheral.

Following the restoration of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1959, Waller became ambassador in Moscow the next year. In June 1961 he was appointed CBE. Returning to Canberra after two years in Moscow, he headed the division of the DEA that was responsible for monitoring and seeking to ameliorate Indonesia’s confrontation with the emerging republic of Malaysia. His primary concern was that Australia should do nothing to leave an irreparable scar on the relationship with Indonesia. To this end, he worked closely with Australian posts in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur to ensure that his country’s policy was fully understood.

In 1964 Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, unable to find a minister to replace Sir Howard Beale as ambassador in Washington, appointed Waller, the first career diplomat to hold the position. Under increasing pressure from Canberra, which at the time was contemplating sending its own forces to Vietnam in support of the United States Waller unsuccessfully sought clarification of US policy regarding Vietnam. Although Waller liked President Lyndon Johnson personally, he found him hard to talk to, and his consensus style of politics frustrating. Waller sought unsuccessfully a clear statement of US policy in Vietnam. He thought that future Australian governments might need to do more than they had under Menzies to maintain US regional engagement. Australia would have to expect major reassessments and retrenchments in US foreign policy. The change came in mid-1969 in the form of the Nixon Doctrine, under which regional countries, including allies such as Australia, would bear more responsibility for their security in return for the protection of the American nuclear shield.

Having been knighted in 1968, Waller returned to Australia in April 1970, succeeding Sir James Plimsoll as secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs (formerly DEA). He mitigated the uncertainties in Australia-US relations he had predicted in Washington, but failed to convince Prime Minister (Sir) William McMahon to revise his opposition to recognising the People’s Republic of China. Waller appointed new division heads, promoted junior staff and introduced a measure of industrial democracy. The reforms did much to raise morale and, more generally, the department’s reputation within the Canberra bureaucracy. He oversaw the transition to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s government and managed important policies, including the recognition of the People’s Republic of China and the Basic Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Australia and Japan (the NARA Treaty).

Sir Keith retired in February 1974. A dispute in 1973 with Whitlam, who opposed the appointment of (Sir) Keith Shann as Waller’s successor, did not prevent Whitlam appointing him to several official posts. They included membership of the Australian Council for the Arts (1973), a consultancy to the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security (1974–77), appointment to the interim board of the Australian Film Commission (1974), and chairman of an inquiry into Radio Australia (1975).

One of a highly talented cohort of diplomats in the early days of the DEA, Waller combined a strong policy sense with a capacity for innovative and sympathetic management of staff. He was a dapper dresser, known in his younger days as ‘Spats Waller.’ With a self-deprecating sense of humour, he was wont to use hyperbole when vexed. A fine writer, he drafted despatches that were colourful, incisive and prescient. In 1990 he published A Diplomatic Life, Some Memories. Survived by his wife and their daughter (another daughter had predeceased him), he died on 14 November 1992 in Canberra and was cremated.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Beaumont, Joan, Christopher Waters, David Lowe, and Garry Woodard. Ministers, Mandarins and Diplomats: Australian Foreign Policy Making 1941-1969. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2003
  • Doran, Stuart, and David Lee, eds. Australia and Recognition of the People’s Republic of China 1949-1972. Canberra: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2002
  • Edwards, Peter. ‘The Ambassador during the Vietnam War: Keith Waller, 1964–70.’ In Australia Goes to Washington: 75 Years of Australian Representation in the United States, 1940–2015, edited by David Lowe, David Lee, and Carl Bridge, 256–80. Canberra: ANU Press, 2016
  • Edwards, Peter. ‘Firm Grasp of Foreign Affairs.’ Review of Three Duties and Talleyrand’s Dictum: Keith Waller, Portrait of a Working Diplomat by Alan Fewster. Weekend Australian, 12 May 2018, 23
  • Fewster, Alan. Three Duties and Talleyrand’s Dictum: Keith Waller, Portrait of a Working Diplomat. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2018
  • National Archives of Australia. A4231, 1949/MANILLA 6/49 Departmental Despatch
  • National Archives of Australia. M4323, 1-10 Correspondence of Sir John Keith Waller
  • National Library of Australia. MS 423, Papers of Frederic William Eggleston
  • Neal, Robert Gregory, Peter Geoffrey Edwards, and H. Kenway, eds. Documents on Australian Foreign Policy, 1937–49 1, no. 22. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1975
  • Waller, Keith. A Diplomatic Life, Some Memories. Nathan, Qld: Griffith University, 1990
  • Waller, Keith. Interview by Ian Hamilton, 19 May 1983. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Waller, Keith. Interview by J. D. B. Miller, 1974–77. Transcript. National Library of Australia

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Citation details

Alan Fewster, 'Waller, Sir John Keith (1914–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 23 July 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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