Academic journal article Arena Journal

A Spoiling Operation: Cold War at the University of Melbourne

Academic journal article Arena Journal

A Spoiling Operation: Cold War at the University of Melbourne

Article excerpt

For a decade during the Cold War the lives of Geoff and Nonie Sharp were entangled with Australia's security services. It is difficult to take a reader back to those times and give a meaningful affective sense of the impact of what it meant to be targeted. Nonie Sharp here recounts a security-service operation directed at Geoff Sharp that would change their lives, and the lives of their children. It is informed by research undertaken by Nonie at the time of the release of files that make clear the nature of the spoiling operation at the heart of the 'Social Studies affair'. While this essay refers us to a distant 1960s Australia, its insights into ASIO's spoiling operations should resound in an era of when many people are being wrongly targeted again, and point to questions about the proper functions of a nation's security services.

- The editors


The beginnings of this story are grounded in a period of both moral crisis and intellectual-social transformation. We and our fellows had lived through a searching time - one of disenchantment for many of us - following public admission in 1956 of shameful actions in the USSR.1

As it turned out, the anti-communist strategists of the Cold War were themselves enmeshed in an ethical crisis. Those who instigated and carried through what came to be known as 'the Social Studies affair' at the University of Melbourne, with Geoff Sharp as its main target, were both major and minor actors within this Cold War setting.

For more than a decade from 1950, when a referendum to ban the Australian Communist Party had been narrowly defeated, and through the Petrov years in the following half-decade, what came to be known as the Cold War had taken its toll in Australia as elsewhere. With the Cuban Missile Crisis that followed in 1962, the Cold War was heating up. This was the very dangerous setting of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation's (ASIO) 'spoiling operation' at the University of Melbourne, which, in Donald Horne's words, was building into the 'biggest scandal an Australian university has known'.2

Importantly, charges made against Geoff of instigating a communist plot to take over the Department of Social Studies were not only untrue but defamatory. He was the victim of an ASIOdirected witch-hunt aided by an ensemble of devoted anticommunists and CIA-funded Australian Association for Cultural Freedom (AACF) officers, with links to the virulent anti-communist Sidney Hook.

It so happened that the very issue that marked Geoff's 'fall from grace' in the Department of Social Studies, headed by Ruth Hoban in 1958, was a moral one: his stated objection to what he believed was her unprincipled treatment of a colleague in that department. Importantly, too, in this time of social transformation that had begun to take shape in the immediate postwar years, Geoff sought to respond to the changes taking place, changes that received social theory was ill-equipped to interpret. This was in part the context of the beginnings of Arena, which commenced publication in September 1963. As Geoff reflected forty years later, in Arena's first years there was a prefiguring of the changing character and role in social life of its intellectuals.3

In an important way, it was his awareness of marked changes in contemporary society that brought Geoff into conflict with the narrow 'good works' approach of Hoban and her social-work asso- ciates of the 1950s. In this transitional period, Geoff and others felt a strong need to document and probe the changes taking place. In the period in which Geoff was placed in charge of the Department of Social Studies he and several colleagues found inspiration and hope in the possibility of coming to understand important aspects of this time of change. There were others in the professional and intellectual community who were similarly alive to these trends. The correspondence between Justice J. V. Barry and Geoff during 1959 is a small expression of that understanding. …

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