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How the Cold War Caught up with June Barnett

How the Cold War Caught up with June Barnett

Stephen Holt tells the story of a Canberra diplomat’s unwilling role in the Petrov Affair and of the famous historian who stood by her 

In April 1954, Soviet agent Vladimir Petrov and his partner Evdokia defected, bringing with them evidence of an extensive KGB spy ring operating in Australia. Over the following months, a Royal Commission on Espionage (known as the Petrov Royal Commission) probed the activities of many Australians in a bid to detect evidence of Cold War disloyalty. 

Among the people subjected to its scrutiny was a junior Canberra diplomat named June Barnett. Her brush with the Petrov Royal Commission eventually inspired a fascinating exchange of letters with the great Australian historian Manning Clark, which are now housed among Clark's papers in the National Library. The letters reveal a fascinating Cold War sub-plot.

In the 1940s, unmarried women with university degrees began to join the then Department of External Affairs as diplomatic cadets. June Barnett was one such recruit. A middle-class Melburnian from a left-wing Christian family, Barnett served in the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force in the Second World War. In 1944, while stationed in Western Australia, she became a member of the Communist Party of Australia, but this formal affiliation was short-lived; Barnett resigned from the party before moving to Canberra where she took up a position at the Department of External Affairs. 

'Mentioned at Inquiry', The Newcastle Sun, 23 July 1954, p. 1, nla.news-article163294012

Barnett was soon leading an active social life in Canberra, zipping around the capital in an MG sports car and involved in the local theatre scene. The people she socialised with included Professor Manning Clark of the Canberra University College. On one occasion, she went on to a party at Clark's house after attending a satirical student revue at the Albert Hall.

Another of Barnett's interesting Canberra friends was fellow public servant and Communist Fred Rose. Their connection proved to be the source of much angst.

One night in the autumn of 1950, Barnett visited Rose's house in the suburb of Turner. A male Communist Party official then showed up and asked Barnett to walk around the block with him. In the course of their stroll, he asked her if she could provide him with any ‘interesting information’. Taking this to be a suggestion to leak classified diplomatic information, Barnett refused on the spot. She saw herself as very much an ex-Communist.

The Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation became aware of the failed attempt to suborn Barnett when she revealed the incident herself in an interview with ASIO in March 1953. ASIO had considered her a possible security risk because of her left-wing background but she was cleared as a result of her interrogation. The organisation was still determined though to mine her for any interesting intelligence she might have on the people she mixed with.

In particular, ASIO suspected that the man who had approached her in Turner was the Communist Party official Walter Clayton. For a while, Clayton's clandestine role in the party had been to gather leaked information from the Department of External Affairs and pass it on to the Soviet embassy. ASIO wanted Barnett to positively identify him.

Her friend Fred Rose was in trouble because of Barnett’s confession but she refused to dob Clayton in. ASIO repeatedly pressed her, but she was never willing to name or positively identify the visitor to Canberra who had tried to turn her.

In mid-1953, Barnett took up a post in the Australian High Commission in New Zealand. Her encounter with Clayton (for it must have been him) was still not a matter of national notoriety.

The situation changed in the winter of 1954, when the Petrov Royal Commission decided to reveal the incident at Fred Rose's house. This spectacular outing of Barnett as the intended target of hostile espionage activities attracted considerable coverage in the nation's newspapers.

'Questions on Red's Contact with Girl at Canberra', The Canberra Times, 22 July 1954, p. 4, nla.news-article2905016; 'Named in Spy Probe', The Argus, 24 July 1954, p. 5, nla.news-article23419982

One attentive reader was Barnett's friend Manning Clark, who decided to draft and sign an expression of support on 22 July, after reading an article in The Canberra Times. He wanted to let her know that he was prepared to do anything possible to help her cope with the ‘tormentors’ and ‘oppressors’ in the Petrov Royal Commission. The Communist Party, he wrote, was ‘terribly wrong’ in its methods but he was sure that Barnett had enlisted ‘for noble and high minded reasons’. There was no guilt or shame in seeking ‘more material well being’ and ‘more genuine equality’. This latter point may have referred to Barnett's commitment to gender equality, which seems to have been the specific reason why she joined the Communist Party.

Clark treated his letter to Barnett as a highly significant document. He kept the original handwritten draft and held on to a typed copy as well. Barnett's reply of 11 August also went straight into Clark's archive. Deeply appreciative, she told Clark that his expression of support had helped her to cope with the shock generated by the ‘sudden, unexpected and most horrid blaze of publicity’. His gesture was ‘enormously encouraging’ and showed ‘how extraordinarily nice’ some people could be. Barnett had a clear conscience about her encounter in Turner. She confided to Clark that everyone needed to know that ‘I rejected that one proposal and that no subsequent approach was ever made’.

Manning Clark at Riverina College, Albury, 1986, nla.cat-vn3573323; Manning Clark, Letter to June Barnett, 22 July 1954, Papers of Manning Clark, 1907–1992, nla.cat-vn383394, courtesy Sebastian Clark

Buoyed by Clark’s support, and that of others including civil liberties campaigner Brian Fitzpatrick, Barnett stuck to her guns in the months ahead. Although forced to testify twice in public before the Royal Commission, she never identified Walter Clayton as the tempter of 1950 and ASIO’s interest in her dried up.

Barnett went on to serve in various overseas postings until she retired in 1980. Manning Clark’s letter to Barnett offers a highly personal insight into the fears that gripped Cold War Australians at the height of the Petrov era.

Stephen Holt is a freelance Canberra author.