Spies and Revolutionaries: A History of New Zealand Subversion
Reed Publishing in association with Waddington Press, $29.99,
Rutherford split the atom, Hillary climbed Everest and Kate Sheppard and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union ensured New Zealand was the first sovereign state in which women won the vote. There aren’t many things New Zealanders haven’t done. Spying, however, is one area where I thought we might be thin on the ground. Revolutionary activity is another. Graeme Hunt’s Spies and Revolutionaries has not changed my view.
The publisher describes the book as “the first national history of espionage and revolutionary activity in New Zealand”. Early chapters take in the Land Wars of the 1860s, and perceived 19th century threats posed by the French and the Russians, and Irish Republicanism. With WWI comes pacifism and conscientious objectors. More recent events covered include the 1981 Springboks tour, the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior and the case of Ahmed Zaoui. In between sit what one suspects Hunt was most keen to write about: the case against three New Zealanders – one a diplomat, one a Rhodes Scholar, the other a public servant – all, in Hunt’s view, Soviet spies.
The book’s subtitle, “A History of New Zealand Subversion”, summarises its two major failings. Too often it mistakes dissent for subversion, and in many chapters it confuses history with polemic. Spies and Revolutionaries takes the reader back to the 1950s – the era of communist witch-hunts and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Like McCarthy, Hunt would seem to believe that dissent is a dangerous social disease. Yet the real danger to society comes from those who attempt to suppress dissent.
Ideas, beliefs and aspirations are always in a state of flux. Since antiquity, the inevitability of change has been recognised. Two and a half thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed “nothing endures but change”. Change can only freely occur in an atmosphere of discussion and debate. Sometimes debate grows into disagreement, controversy and conflict. Thomas Jefferson, regarded by many today as the best US president thus far, believed “dissent is the essence of patriotism.” Hunt, on the other hand, rather than seeing dissent as an integral and legitimate part of society in flux, seems to view it as a spontaneously combusting malevolence.
An historical assessment of the role and impact of dissent in New Zealand would have been intriguing. How much change is brought about by those who are perceived to be outside society’s mainstream? It might even have helped point a path to the future. What we have is something quite different. The book has extensive footnotes, appendices, notes, a bibliography and two indexes. These help give a first impression of a rigorously researched and argued book. Alas, this is an illusion.
The author’s mind-set gets in the way of understanding. Hostility is not a good position from which to write history, and there is hostility here in bucketfuls. As well as “revolutionaries”, “radicals”, “spies” and “traitors”, the book is populated with “leftist historians”, “shadowy groups”, “fellow travellers”, “Red wreckers”, “malevolent trade unionists”, “Communist Party zealots” and “professional protesters” – whatever they are.
There is no attempt to look at any of those labelled spies in the context of their times, to investigate their motivation. Rather, they are cardboard figures to be shot down. Hunt appears to have no curiosity. One gets the impression that before he started the research for this book, he had already reached his conclusions. It is possible that one or two of those he writes about were engaged in some form of espionage, but this is not an author whose conclusions inspire confidence.
The early chapters are somewhat laboured. With the arrival of Paddy Costello (the diplomat), Ian Milner (the Rhodes scholar) and Bill Sutch (the public servant), the pace of the book picks up.
This is the section where the ghost of Senator Joseph McCarthy is most pervasive. McCarthy made allegations without proof. He was graceless and mean-spirited, careless of the impact his attacks were having on the lives and families of those he confronted. Nowhere is this ghost more evident than in the section on Bill Sutch. Sutch was charged in September 1974 with passing official secrets to Dimitri Razgovorov, a Wellington-based soviet diplomat. The following February, at the conclusion of a five-day trial, a not-guilty verdict was returned.
Was Sutch a spy? Was his loyalty to New Zealand compromised? Did he pass official secrets to the Soviet Union? I don’t know – but in the absence of hard evidence (as opposed to strange behaviour and conjecture), it is not possible to make the claim that he was. Despite the court verdict, Hunt believes Sutch was guilty, that he did betray New Zealand, that he was a spy. I read this section of the book several times, looking for anything I might have missed previously. There was nothing to miss. The evidence he puts forward could be torn up and dismissed by a first-year law student on his or her first moot.
Hunt asks the question “So, what information did Sutch pass on to Razgovorov?” His answer: “Probably information about people – politicians, businesspeople, public servants, journalists – information that could help Soviet agents identify and influence prospective friends and embarrass foes.”
Probably? On the basis that Sutch “probably” passed on information about people, Hunt believes that “as to his guilt in 1974 there seems little doubt.” (And, without wishing to appear picky, if it could be proven that Sutch had passed information of this sort to the Soviet Union, can information about people really be regarded as “an official secret”?)
While those the author perceives to be spies are not given the benefit of any doubt, the Security Intelligence Service is cut a lot of slack. In 1996, SIS agents were caught breaking into the home of Christchurch globalisation opponent Aziz Choudry. Hunt dismisses this as “an unusual case of SIS agents acting improperly”. Other incidents which reflect badly on the SIS do not even make it into the book.
In 1972/3, HART’s national headquarters at 101 Rugby St, Christchurch were bugged by an SIS agent who had set up shop at 99 Rugby Street. Margaret Hayward, Prime Minister Kirk’s private secretary, recorded in her diary:
Brigadier Gilbert [NZSIS director] is overseas, and Mr Maling, deputy director of the Security Intelligence Service has called to see the boss. The SIS is in trouble. Mr Kirk told me Maling said they had been bugging Trevor Richards at HART headquarters in Rugby St, Christchurch and had been discovered …. Mr K was furious. The SIS had assured him that they were doing no bugging at all. When HART had written to him [about the bugging] …. Mr K had referred the letter to the SIS which stated the allegations were unfounded. What the hell were they doing making a liar out of the Prime Minister?
When two Israeli Mossad agents (who had, says Hunt somewhat quaintly, “misused New Zealand hospitality”) were jailed in 2004 for fraudulently attempting to obtain New Zealand passports, Hunt writes “as in the Rainbow Warrior inquiry, the SIS played its part in bringing the miscreants to justice.” Meaning precisely what? The Israeli spies were caught principally because of the diligence of an internal affairs passport officer. In the case of the Rainbow Warrior, only some of those involved in the DGSE operation were apprehended. The arrests which did occur were principally the consequence of a police operation aided by massive media coverage and an observant New Zealand public.
But this all misses the point. Surely a security service is there to stop acts of state-sponsored terrorism before they occur.
Hunt has a penchant for lists, and not surprisingly he includes, and expects us to take at face value, the 1981 SIS list of “extremists” (made up of “subversives” and “radicals”) who had “infiltrated” the anti-apartheid movement. A handful of years later, the cause for which these “extremists”, “subversives” and “radicals” had campaigned had become accepted by mainstream society. From the late 1980s to the new millennium, fellow citizens would approach me in the street and tell me that they had not agreed with me in 1981, but now they wanted to say that they had been wrong, and that HART had been right. What does this tell us about the activities of the SIS and the service’s understanding of subversion?
Don’t look for answers to any of these questions in Spies and Revolutionaries because they do not appear to have occurred to Hunt. Instead, he reflects on the morality of South Africa being excluded from the first Rugby World Cup, while France, a sponsor of state terrorism, was allowed to participate. Spies and Revolutionaries is not a good yarn and it is not a good history. More than anything, it is a lost opportunity.
Trevor Richards is a Paris reviewer.