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The Enemies Within

25 April 2018

‘Australian Watersiders Aiding North Korea’ blazed a page 1 headline in the Newcastle Sun.

That’s what Seoul City Sue said in her nightly radio program aimed at American troops fighting in Korea.

‘Perth’s Daily News ran the same story: ‘Sue Names Lumpers.’ While the News (Adelaide) opted for the more restrained ‘Aust. Aid Claim.’

According to Seoul City Sue Australian wharf labourers were refusing to load munitions for their forces in Korea. That report, from AAP Reuter in Tokyo, was picked up by Australian newspapers and published at the end of August 1950. By then it was old news.

Who was Seoul City Sue? The English-speaking woman who aired this claim was an American, a former missionary. During the early months of the Korean War she broadcast from the communist-held capital of of South Korea and US servicemen gave her the nickname Seoul City Sue. Was she forced at gunpoint to spout propaganda or was she a willing recruit to the leftist cause? Opinions differ wildly and questions still circulate, not only about her political beliefs, but also about her identity.

The Korean War gets dubbed ‘the forgotten war’ and much of what we know about it today comes from repeats of M*A*S*H—or if you’re into it, military history.

Looked at in wide shot, the era was one of fiery politics with trade unions a key battleground.

On the local front, several unions denounced the war in Korea and Australia’s role in it. Among them the Waterside Workers’ Federation, the Building Workers’ Industrial Union, branches of the Federated Ironworkers’ Association, and the wonderfully-named Hotel, Club, Restaurant, Caterers, Tea Rooms and Boarding House Employees’ Union of New South Wales—led by Flo Davis, one of the first women to be elected a union secretary.

Although much of the opposition to the war came from unions, especially communist influenced ones, there were other voices raised in protest. Peace activists, individuals in the arts and academic communities and a number of prominent Christians, for example.

‘Not a man, not a ship, not a plane, not a gun, for … Korea’. Tribune, 1 July 1950.

‘The time to stop war is right now before it gets out of hand, and one of the surest ways of stopping war, is to withhold supplies, in other words, impose sanctions.’ Maritime Worker, 15 July 1950.

The Waterside Workers’ Federation had been a leading player in the boycott of Dutch vessels following Indonesia’s declaration of independence from the Netherlands in 1945. But of all the unions who attempted to ban the handling and transport of war supplies to Korea, the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA) was the most militant.

30 June 1950, the same day Prime Minister Menzies committed an RAAF fighter unit to assist the American effort in Korea, the Seamen’s Union executive passed a resolution condemning ‘armed interference in the domestic affairs of the Korean people.’ Australian merchant seamen would therefore block the shipment of military materials and mobilise resistance to ‘Mr Menzies’s aims to make Australia an American colony.’ About a week later the Union’s decision became public knowledge—

‘There is only one name for this attitude—it is treason.’ The Sydney Morning Herald went on the offensive. Its 10 July editorial declared the pro-Russian leaders of the Seamen’s Union have ‘gone far beyond the legitimate limits of dissent.’ And this sorry state of affairs was because the Labor Party had rejected the Communist Party Dissolution Bill. Thus depriving government of ‘the powers it sought to deal with disloyalists and saboteurs.’

Shooting may have been limited to the Korean peninsula but fear of communism was not.

Less than two months earlier the Communist Party Dissolution Bill had been introduced into Federal Parliament. Its purpose? To proclaim the Party an illegal organisation and thereby bar known communists from holding positions in major industrial unions.

The idea of enemies within—spies, fifth columnists, quislings and their ilk—and a conflict that could spiral into nuclear, generated not only heated rhetoric but a bipolar logic of danger and division.

‘An ill-timed and unforgivable gesture in support of a foreign ideology.’ Argus, 10 July 1950.

‘The real Australians won’t let their pals down in Korea.’ Mail (Adelaide), 15 July 1950.

The Minister for External Affairs referred the matter to the Attorney-General. ‘All the powers of government will be used to meet this impudent and disloyal challenge,’ he said.

Meanwhile Bill Bird, Victorian Secretary of the Seamen’s Union, upped the ante when he said that the ban would cover medical supplies and food as well as weaponry.

On Thursday 13 July Federal Cabinet discussed the Seamen’s Union dispute. It agreed that actions should be brought against William Burns, publisher of the communist newspaper Tribune—but deferred while the Attorney-General sought additional evidence against Bird and E V Elliott, the Federal Secretary of the Seamen’s Union.

At the same meeting the Minister for the Navy spoke about the need to despatch shells and cartridges. If the threatened ban eventuated, should members of the Royal Australian Navy be used to load them?

Following advice from the Attorney-General and his legal officers, and pending confirmation that sufficient evidence exists, prosecutions would be launched under Section 24D of the Crimes Act relating to the use of seditious words.

Penalty: Imprisonment for three years.

A fortnight after its decision to block the export of equipment for soldiers abroad the Seamen’s Union was under attack on multiple fronts. Hostility from politicians and the mainstream press was not surprising, but now fellow unionists were distancing themselves. The Victorian executive of the Waterside Workers’ Federation decided that it would handle cargo bound for Korea. The ACTU ‘deplored and condemned’ the action of the Seamen’s Union and warned that no support would be given to SUA office bearers charged with treason.

Then there was the ire of their own rank and file. Members demanded consultation and petitioned for portside meetings to review the ruling of their executive.

This revolt, the risk of legal action and perhaps too the whole jittery Cold War climate, swayed the Seamen’s leaders. The ban was lifted—quietly, to save face—and a recommendation issued which criticised the Korean War in broader terms.

E V Elliott and Bill Bird were investigated but plans to prosecute them abandoned. A Cabinet minute from 1-2 August 1950 records the Attorney-General’s comment that ‘it was not possible to get corroborative evidence to permit prosecution against Elliott or Bird.’ William Burns however, was charged and convicted.

By early August the shouting was over.

In a last ditch attempt to keep the matter on the public radar, the Sydney Morning Herald of 16 August dredged up an account of an Australian destroyer off the coast of Korea that ran short of shells ‘because wharf labourers in Australia had refused to load ammunition.’ Although the story was bogus, given the timing it may have triggered Seoul City Sue’s end-of-August announcement.

While the United States was her primary target Australia’s participation in the war didn’t go unnoticed by Seoul City Sue. And the union ban wasn’t the country’s first mention. A week before she broadcast the waterfront story she referred to the RAAF 77 Squadron as ‘those beer-sodden Australian airmen’ and late September she reported that ‘uncouth, barbaric, uncivilised Australians were arriving in Korea.’

Seoul City Sue went off the air soon after the Incheon Landing. She most likely escaped to Pyongyang, but her fate remains the subject of speculation.

The fighting continued until July 1953. By which time bombs had reduced cities to rubble and farmland to dust. In the words of French film-maker and writer Chris Marker ‘extermination passed over this land.’

Wars can have messy, uncertain endings and the Korean War certainly did. It ended not with an atomic bang but with a stalemate that lasts to this day.

© Noëlle Janaczewska.

Listen to the ABC Radio National program Seoul City Sue here

Further reading
Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: A History, Modern Library, 2010.
Ann Curthoys and John Merritt, eds. Australia’s First Cold War, 1945–1959, Allen and Unwin, 1986.
Brian Fitzpatrick and Rowan J Cahill, The Seamen’s Union of Australia 1872-1972, Seamen’s Union of Australia, 1981.
Ha Jin, War Trash, Pantheon Books, 2004.
Douglas Jordan, Conflict In The Unions: The Communist Party of Australia, Politics & the Trade Union Movement, 1945-60, Resistance Books, 2013.
Chris Marker, Coréenes, 1959.
Robert O’Neill, Australia in the Korean War 1950–1953, Australian War Memorial and the Australian Government Publishing Service, 1981.
Tom Sheridan, Australia’s Own Cold War: The Waterfront Under Menzies, Melbourne University Press, 2006.

From → Audio, Essays

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