The Coral Sea incident (1973): a case of symbolic sanction ?

To embody the ideals of the nation and project them onto the global stage have been aspirations of Australian prime ministers since the 1960s, as Australia has developed a middle power role and diverged from the British world view in foreign affairs. Michelle Grattan observes that ‘through the century of Federation, Australia’s place in the world has been a preoccupation of its prime ministers’1. We contend that, in the period in which Winter locates the ‘second memory boom’, the prime minister’s office has assumed responsibility for key areas of foreign affairs, including memorial diplomacy, because of its potential for articulating national identity inwardly and projecting national aspirations abroad. Just as the President of the Republic is the ‘first magistrate’ of France, Australian premiers have acted as the Commonwealth’s ‘first diplomat’, most visibly when Gough Whitlam combined the highest political office with the portfolio of Foreign Affairs in 1973.

Whitlam’s premiership (1972-75) rewrote the script of Australian foreign policy: ‘the themes of equality and interdependence, intolerance of racism and contempt for colonialism would form the core of Whitlam’s approach to international affairs’2.  The first Australian Prime Minister to visit the People’s Republic of China, his diplomacy of the ‘new nationalism’ aimed to emancipate Australia from its dependence on ‘great and powerful friends’. In so doing, he sought fresh symbols and idioms, both at home – in the Eureka Stockade (1973) and Gurindji (1975) speeches among others – and overseas, notably during the prime ministerial visit to Europe in the winter of 1974-75 which saw Whitlam tour the European capitals via Singapore less than two years after Britain joined the Common Market.

Arguably, it is because Whitlam’s world view rejected containment, forward defence and ideological confrontation that war memory remained on the margins of his diplomatic discourse. However, James Curran has shown that the Eureka speech made in Ballarat on 3 December 1973, in which the Prime Minister set the tone of the ‘new nationalism’, was circulated by the Department of Foreign Affairs to all overseas missions with a memorandum recommending it as the ‘mainspring of the Government’s political philosophy and hence a motivating force in its actions and reactions on foreign affairs’3. Eureka was therefore at once an exercise in memorial politics and diplomacy, aimed at both domestic and international audiences. Similarly, when Gough Whitlam ceremoniously poured the red earth of Vestey land into the cupped hands of Vincent Lingiari on 16 August 1975, it was more than a gesture of restitution to the Gurindji people of the rights to their traditional lands. It signalled that Australia was turning the page on the ideology of the White Australia policy and preparing to engage with its Asian neighbours, placing the politics of land rights on an international trajectory. In neither instance is there a clear dividing line between the national and international dimensions of the politics of the past: their wavelengths lie on the same policy spectrum, albeit more or less visibly according to the priorities of the day. Memorial politics moves into the diplomatic spectrum when it seeks to emphasise the transnational dimension of commemorative links and histories shared between visitor and host nations or between national communities.

Documents from the personal papers of E.G. Whitlam in the Australian National Archives reveal a diplomatic hiatus in the commemorative calendar which placed a strain on bilteral US-Australian relations in the early 1970s. In 1973, the American State Department sought to downgrade the Coral Sea Week commemoration, which had been celebrated jointly with visiting US dignitaries since 1946 as a gesture of gratitude for American support for Australia in World War II. The American ambassador to Canberra, Walter Rice, informed the Department of Foreign Affairs that the official US delegate, Peter Flanigan, had declined the Australian-American Association’s invitation to attend the Coral Sea week celebrations as their special guest, and that his successor, ambassador Marshall Green, was unavailable. Flanigan was Assistant to the President for International Economic Affairs and an influential aide in the Oval Office, advising Nixon personally on diplomatic and financial affairs4. His last minute defection is said to have elicited a “bitter reaction” from the AAA Federal President. Further correspondence reveals the State Department’s reluctance to commemorate the Battle of the Coral Sea more than once every five years, if at all, and speculation in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet as to its tacit motives5.

It seems a reasonable hypothesis to attribute the rise in US-Australian tensions to divergences over policy towards Vietnam. Three days after it took up office on 5 December 1972, Whitlam’s government ended the military commitment to South Vietnam and on 26 February 1973, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with North Vietnam while continuing to recognise the government of the South. The US government appears to have been prepared to suspend the Coral Sea commemoration in 1973, and even discontinue it thereafter, to mark the divergence of views with the Whitlam government over the future of the Asia-Pacific region post-Vietnam, in the context of Nixon’s Guam doctrine. American diplomats argued instead that with the decline of the Coral Sea generation and the fading of communicative memory, the commemoration was of decreasing relevance and public resonance, while pressure to discontinue the event was interpreted on the Australian side as a symbolic sanction. In extremis, a compromise solution was reached whereby the lesser known Apollo 17 astronaut, Dr. Harrison Schmitt, was delegated to stand in for the absent dignitary6. Coral Sea Week was subsequently subsumed within the Battle for Australia Day commemoration in 2008, confirming its long-term decline.

Gough Whitlam’s engagement with commemorative issues continued beyond office into the prime ministerial ‘after-life’ : he was to revisit the themes of the Eureka Stockade (nationalism in a minor key) at the Battle of Vinegar Hill Dedication Ceremony in 1988 ; and in his tireless campaigning for the return of the Parthenon Marbles he has supported the cause of world heritage that he helped define as the Hawke government’s ambassador to UNESCO (1983-85), distancing Australia from the cultural paternalism of the British Museum and, symbolically, from dependence on a monocultural British heritage.

At the ‘Politics of the Past’ symposium7, we debated whether memorial diplomacy was more than just ‘mood music’, a ceremonial counterpoint for the hard power cut and thrust of inter-state relations. The Coral Sea incident suggests that the mood can be dark and out of key when commemoration turns to diplomatic censure.



  1. Grattan, Michelle. Australian Prime Ministers. Sydney: New Holland, 2000, p.15 []
  2. Curran, James. The Power of Speech: Australian Prime Ministers Defining the National Image. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2006, p.80 []
  3. Curran p.118 []
  4. []
  5. Personal Papers of Prime Minister EG Whitlam. Correspondence between E G Whitlam and Walter L Rice (American Ambassador) regarding guest at Coral Sea anniversary ceremony: NAA M503, 20690 []
  6. NAA M503, 20690 []
  7. ANU, 26-27 April 2012 []

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