Tony Simpson casts a sceptical eye over the recently released Sutch file.
Eighteen months ago I reviewed in these pages (NZB, Autumn 2007) a memoir by an ex-SIS officer purporting to show that Bill Sutch was indeed guilty of espionage, despite his 1975 acquittal under the Official Secrets Act (Spy, C H Kit Bennetts, 2007). The case Bennetts made is best described as silly, but the book was an insight into the sort of people who might think Sutch guilty of treason and why. I concluded they occupied an unreal universe driven by a construct called “the Cold War”, which probably had no corresponding reality, and that what was justified in its name and carried out in unjustifiable secrecy was the enemy of democratic and accountable government.
Now, after a long struggle involving the Ombudsman under the Official Information Act, Sutch’s family have been able to force the release of some of the relevant papers. In the light of that, how do my previous conclusions stand up?
The papers themselves are a curiosity. They are by no means a complete “Sutch file”; other significant papers have not been released. Rather, they are a miscellaneous collection of 43 items ranging over four decades, from 1940 to 1979, some of which have been edited under Ss 6(a) & (b) of the Official Information Act, which deals with the security interests of New Zealand in relation to other countries.
Many items contain accusations by unidentified informants that Sutch was a security risk because he was politically unreliable and untrustworthy ie left wing. Most have some intrinsic interest, such as one from 1943 that ridicules the notion of Sutch ever betraying New Zealand, and another assessing his personal character in terms accurate enough to raise a wry smile from those who knew him personally. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, and some of those on the receiving end clearly resented it and took the opportunity, when it arose, to bag him.
But the two most significant items are a 27-page digest prepared in May 1974 as a briefing prelude to the surveillance of Sutch which led to his eventual arrest and trial, and an annex to a report by the then Ombudsman Sir Guy Powles into certain allegations regarding SIS conduct in relation to the trial. Both have been kept secret until now, and both make fascinating reading.
The May 1974 digest retails every accusation ever made against him up to that point concerning the interpretation of his politics as “communistic”. These include the claim that much of his writing was “esteemed by communists”, and that he was a “radical materialist” (whatever that may mean). These writings included Poverty and Progress in New Zealand and The Quest for Security in New Zealand, both of which, as any respectable historian will tell you, are perfectly acceptable contributions to the debate about New Zealand’s development as a nation. They are esteemed by many people who are not communists, including some of their implacable foes.
To imply that these are “communist” writings, as if that is their sole defining characteristic, bears out my contention in the earlier review that those responsible for Sutch’s arrest and prosecution occupied a peculiar universe in which anything was justified if it contributed to the “war on communism”, something which has, of course, an interesting contemporary resonance. The whole digest report is saturated with this notion, which seems ludicrous in hindsight but at the time was no joke.
It is quite difficult for those who have no direct experience of the Cold War era, particularly during its virulent McCarthyite phase in the 1950s, to comprehend how it smothered everything in a fog of propaganda and political suspicion. I was only a boy at the time but I remember very vividly going to a film at a mainstream cinema (Yangtze Incident) that dealt with a British frigate, the Amethyst, which had got itself trapped upriver by the sudden advance of the Chinese communist forces in 1949 (no-one explained what it was doing there in the first place). When the local commissar appeared on screen, in character as a sinister member of the Chinese Communist chapter of the Yellow Peril, many in the audience hissed and booed.
Even as an adolescent I thought that was strange, but the cold war was by no means all conducted at this farcical level. Quite a lot of people in this country found their careers blighted as a result of whispering campaigns claiming they were “communists”. The atmosphere is captured very well by James McNeish in his biographical accounts of Paddy Costello and Ian Milner in Dance of the Peacocks (2003) and The Sixth Man (2007) – although, ironically, McNeish falls into the same trap in his sole reference to Sutch, describing him as “a Marxist”, an epithet used pejoratively in that era. Sutch, who several times publicly repudiated the label, was a social democrat in his political views, a liberal in his social views, and a strong New Zealand nationalist. These views are incompatible with Stalinism, which was what, in this context, was usually referred to as “Marxism”.
Sutch himself was a victim of this, as these papers confirm. When it was proposed to appoint him chief executive (permanent head or secretary, as it was then described) of the Department of Trade and Industry in 1958, the US expressed veiled concerns which dated from the 40s, when Sutch was a senior UN official in New York. There was a question mark over whether he could be trusted with sensitive defence information, in particular. The obvious implication was that the appointment should not proceed.
To his credit, the prime minister of the day, Walter Nash, ignored this message and the appointment went ahead. It was a different story, however, when the Holyoake administration returned to office in 1960. At this point, presumably, the same concerns were raised again, and Sutch was compulsorily retired on the extremely questionable grounds that he had completed 40 years’ service as a public servant. (The New Zealand Public Service Association had a comprehensive file on this case when I worked there in the early 1970s, but it appears to have been lost.) It is significant that the minister in charge of the department was the violently anti-communist John Marshall.
The file’s other significant item – the Ombudsman’s secret annex – is even more interesting. What it establishes without a shadow of a doubt is that the SIS burgled Sutch’s office and searched his papers, a clearly illegal act. The service then lied outright to Prime Minister Bill Rowling about it. That should have been a major scandal but instead, with the apparent connivance of the Ombudsman himself, it was suppressed until now. Powles is still widely admired for his fearless capacity to stand up to the bureaucracy in pressing for more open government, but even he, it seems, quailed in the face of the security establishment. It is an indication of how pervasive was the Cold War era mentality.
My 2007 conclusions are entirely vindicated by this new information. We do ourselves a grave injustice by creating a secret empire to “guard” us against an alleged external threat, and then appointing to run it those who consider their role important enough to flout the law, who believe they will not be held accountable for their acts. Truth, though, has a curious way of outing itself in due course. In thinking themselves justified in lying to the prime minister in the interests of “security”, the security services undermined the very democracy which they purportedly protected from those who would do likewise. Truly Juvenal wrote: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? So far, open government has been our only protection.
The true traitors are those who corrode by their acts the trust our democracy places in them to guard us, and those who aid and abet them by informing on their friends. These papers show them up for what they are.