Feared, admired and often lampooned, Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria was a powerful figure in Australian political and intellectual circles from the 1930s until his death in 1998.
As a conservative Catholic activist, he led the fight against communist influence in the trade unions and fomented the 1955 ALP split which led to the formation of the Democratic Labour Party. Much has been written about these momentous events and of Santamaria’s leadership of the National Civic Council, his victories on state aid to Catholic schools and long tenure as a newspaper and TV commentator.
Yet, little is known of his ambitious efforts to build anti-communist networks in Southeast Asia. This side story is told in entertaining fashion by Frank Mount, a Victorian journalist and activist enlisted by Santamaria in 1967 to run the Pacific Community, later the Pacific Institute, bodies which aimed to unite Jesuits and other Catholic activists and politicians across the region.
Mount’s book serves as a memoir and a serious attempt to make sense of major events, including the Vietnam War, the rise of Suharto and the invasion of East Timor, through the eyes of a staunch anti-communist.
As a writer, he is punchy and blunt and not one to mince words or be politically correct. On several occasions, he dismisses bar girls as ‘rather ordinary’ and ‘not very attractive’. John Howard is described as ‘smug’ and ‘venerable’; Australian diplomat Richard Woolcott as ‘hapless’ and ‘played like a trout’ by the Indonesian regime over East Timor in 1975.
There are memorable portraits of legendary war correspondent Kate Webb (for whom the author had romantic yearnings) and Colonel Ted Serong, the pugnacious and often arrogant Australian counter-insurgency expert and Santamaria-ally seconded to the CIA to help run the war in South Vietnam.
Serong, described by Mount as an ‘Alan Ladd-like soldier’ with whom he had a ‘gritty love-hate relationship’, was a brutal realist who despaired over America’s inept strategies and drug-addled soldiers and who believed that the US gave up on South Vietnam thanks to Watergate-era paralysis.
Best of all, Mount writes vividly of the surreal beauty of Saigon at war, describing a dinner with wife Eileen on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel ‘where we’d watch allied aircraft dropping flares… and the crump crump of artillery on the horizon’.
Another highlight is the author’s tragi-comic account of his 1971 escape from the burning Imperial Hotel in Bangkok by climbing down water pipes – his escape was photographed and he was celebrated in The Bangkok World as ‘The Human Fly’.
As an analyst, Mount is on less sure ground. He overstates the importance of the Pacific Institute by saying that it was a precursor for pan-Asian organisations such as ASEAN and APEC. The organisation did help build a DLP-style party, the NhanXa, in South Vietnam and it was a close supporter of Nguyen van Thieu, the last president of that doomed country. In addition, the institute held annual conferences in Asian cities and had an alliance with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, an influential Indonesian think-tank founded by Jusuf and Sofjan Wanandi and supported by key Suharto-era players including generals Ali Moertopo and Benny Moerdani.
But Santamaria’s Asian network amounted to little more than a footnote in modern Asian history. He did not mention it in his autobiography and lost interest in the initiative after the fall of South Vietnam.
Unsurprisingly, Mount sees history through the prism of anti-communism. He says the Vietnam War bought time to prevent the rest of Southeast Asia from falling to communism. He dwells only briefly on the 1965 anti-communist pogrom in Indonesia and underlines the huge benefits that Suharto’s ascendancy represented to Australia’s interests.
The Santamaria legacy resurfaces occasionally in national debates. He was hated by many on the Left even though some Labour figures admired his antipathy to unrestricted capitalism. Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Carlton recently excoriated him as a ‘red baiter, religious bigot and economic crank’.
Mount agrees with some of this by conceding that his patron was an economic illiterate who thought ‘a bank’s assets were its liabilities and vice-versa’.
The author says Santamaria’s ‘intolerable economic nonsenses’ were one reason for the end of their relationship. The other was the Catholic leader’s tendency to be ‘not always a man of his word’. Although his criticisms are severe, Mount concludes that, for all his flaws, Santamaria was a ‘truly great politician and churchman’.
He was a key player in an era memorably evoked in this illuminating memoir.
Frank Mount, Wrestling With Asia: A Memoir, Connor Court Publishing, 2012
Reviewed by David Costello, AIIA Qld