WILFRED BURCHETT HAS BEEN unique among Western journalists of his generation in that he has chosen, and been able, to report the wars, crises and revolutions of the last 30 years from the "other" side. Whether tracing behind the scenes intrigues at the Korean peace talks or physically shoving his big Australian body through the Viet Cong tunnel systems of Cu Chi as American troops lumbered overhead, Burchett has been there -- a professional Anglo-Saxon reporter amazingly, enviably and, to some eyes, traitorously, covering the communist half of the drama. It has never been possible to dismiss Burchett as a renagade or a hack, he has always been something of a mystery. Never a member of any communist party, he has sometimes hewed the party line, sometimes not. He has been an advocate of communist policies, yet has on occasion made his distaste for particular policies embarrassingly clear. He has made his living as a journalist out of his special access in communist countries, yet has put up with sometimes meager earnings in order to champion the causes he found worthy. And, although he has written much mediocre and potboiling journalism, he has also, from his first months as a reporter, displayed that combination of judgment, luck and boldness that marks the superior operator in the field.
It was those qualities, for instance, that sent him to Hiroshima in 1945, while his colleagues sat about in Tokoyo waiting for the surrender ceremony, and brought him a scoop that is still remembered.
Burchett himself now provides some of the answers to the questions raised by his career in his autobiography At the Barricades. One of them seems to be that Wilfred Burchett, in spite of his intelligence and energy, is, in the end, a rather simple man. Growing up in the Depression years in Australia, Burchett early organized his experience into two contrasting dimensions. There was the world of human solidarity and love represented by his family, the small farmers of eastern Australia, or the cane cutters of Queensland and then there was the other world, that of the banks and insurance companies who squeezed the farmers, of the plantation owners who exploited the cane cutters and of an unfeeling -- and incompetent -- Australian government, a government in turn part of a British empire which, alternately appeasing fascism and bridling at its demands, was, at that very moment, fumbling its way toward war. Traveling to Europe with vague plans to fight in the Spanish Civil War, Burchett thus emerged into the wider world with his views already three quarters defined.
Returning home after European adventures which included Pimpernel-like forays to smuggle Jews out of Germany, Burchett was asked to write an article about Goering as a Nazi liberal -- a request which struck him as absolutely typical of the self-deception and chicanery of the democracies. Launched into full-time reporting by the war, he found in China what he had been looking for -- decency, honesty and idealism combined with state power in the shape of the Chinese communists. The instinctive allegiance he felt was later expanded to include the Russian, Korean and Vietnamese communists. As a reporter in occupied Germany he watched as the chances of an amicable European settlement disappeared. Burchett had a quick eye for the hostility which underlay the west's wartime alliances with communists, and an even quicker one for post-war western maneuvering and deception. But the other eye -- the one which, given his unique access, should have conned with equal shrewdness the twists and turns of communist policy -- was, at least at that time, curiously blind.
Since then Burchett's life has been one of progressive disillusion as the brave new communist world in which he believed splintered and, worse, began to show the same readiness to exploit, to deceive and betray in the interests of power that he had early rejected in the west.
Now he is left with his commitment to the Vietnamese Communist Party as a last refuge of unspotted idealism. It is a key to Burchett's personality that this process of disillusion is no more than hinted at, let alone explored, in his book. What has gone wrong with the communist revolution is not his theme, although it has been, to a very large extent, in life. Preferring not to examine this basic issue, he naturally does not question those aspects of his own journalistic performance upon which his enemies have fastened. Burchett has never written to order. But, to take one instance, it is clear from this book that he was probably the only western journalist who could have settled what was at the time the very important argument over the autonomy of the Viet Cong and the provisional revolutionary government in South Vietnam. Burchett knew then that autonomous status was no more than a useful fiction, but that would have been ammunition for the imperialists, and he chose to leave that subject alone.
Burchett's story is that of a vigorous, combative man, with considerable talents as a journalist, who early in life identified what he saw as the forces of decency and justice and determined to march along with them.
He has paid a price for his choice -- professional isolation, relative poverty, and exclusion, for many years, from his homeland. If, also, he has on occasion been forced into self-censorship or compromises, they have been compromises of a nature known, whatever they may say, to journalists of all political colors.
In any case it is clear that the nuances of loyalty and self-indulgencies of doubt have never attracted Burchett. He remains at heart the same boy who watched the "insurance fires" raging across southeast Australia as indebted farmers cashed in on the insurance companies and knew that a blow was being struck against the bosses, and that anybody with sense or decency must be on the farmers side.