The Petrov Affair
Robert Manne
Text, $23.

Robert Manne in his 1987 The Petrov Affair Politics and Espionage provided the first scholarly account of the defection of Soviet diplomat Vladimir Petrov on 3 April 1954. Manne merited his accolades for demolishing an article of Labor faith that ASIO had conspired to help Menzies win another election.

Although a Cold Warrior, Manne was more sceptical than the Petrov Royal Commissioners, was frank about Petrov’s venality and fair towards Evatt.

That Manne could teach while mastering so much archival material within three years appeared miraculous. His account was more coherent and polished than any of the subsequent academic volumes on “the nest of traitors”. The original is also superior to the version he has repackaged for the fiftieth anniversary. The reference notes are gone and the index halved, with half its page numbers wrong.

In 1987, Manne described his 1985 conversations with the retired head of ASIO, Sir Charles Spry, as “among the most enjoyable of my life”. At the time, Manne could not be certain that Spry had sheltered Nazi-era war criminals. The airbrushing of his indebtedness from the reprint is an instance of what Manne’s 1996 book on the Helen Darville (aka Demidenko) affair deplored as The culture of forgetting.

Manne has also excised more than half of his material on the reason for ASIO’s existence, namely, to repair relations with the U.S. Exchange of data had been embargoed in 1948 after the discovery that strategic documents were being leaked to the Soviet Embassy in Canberra.

Since 1995, fragments from the decrypted Soviet traffic, known as Venona, have been released. Manne has not used that resource to rethink his analysis of “the Affair” through the prism of ASIO’s need to investigate the Canberra spy-ring while maintaining secrecy over the proof of its existence. Instead, he remains fixated on the original conspiracy hypothesis, boasting that “The historical interpretation is, however, unchanged”. That rigidity is sound for the main issue of whether Menzies and ASIO had concocted the Affair for mere electoral advantage. It will not do for specific points of that story.

For instance, by relying on newspapers, Manne could acquit Menzies of exploiting the defection for electoral advantage in the 1954 campaign. At the time, the Liberal Party Federal Directorate was advising State Divisions to use “word of mouth” against Evatt. A full account of the electorate’s mood would also draw in the international situation, notably the fall of Dien Bien Phu on May 7.

A thorough revision of The Petrov Affair would appreciate how the socializing between Soviet agents and public figures swilled around Canberra as a village of drunks with few diversions and scant accommodation.

Paradoxically, the big loser was Catholic Action. The 1955-57 Labor Splits reduced its leader, B. A. Santamaria, to a spoiler, far from his ambition of settling us on six acres with a goat. The Communist Party came out in front, able to hang on through deals with pro-Evatt unionists. The saddest individual has to be Mrs Petrov, condemned to a life sentence with her sex-crazed dipsomaniac of a husband. On 21 July 2002, ASIO invited Manne to her funeral.