The passing of Gough Whitlam was always going to be a seismic moment in Australian national life. As Paul Kelly writes in today's Australian, the former Labor leader lived 'long enough to see his life mythologised in the national story'. Debate has and will continue to rage about his legacy, both domestically and in Australia's relations with the world.

But in an age of remarkable and unprecedented bipartisan consensus on the US-Australia alliance, it is timely to reflect a little further on Whitlam's handling of the nation's relationship with America. 

In the period from December 1972 until November 1975, the US-Australia alliance faced its greatest ever crisis. In the hands of President Richard Nixon and Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, a relationship that had endured the heights of the Cold War veered dangerously off course and seemed headed for destruction.

For Whitlam, the world emerging from the ashes of Vietnam offered an exciting opportunity to recast Australia's image in the eyes of the world and redefine the alliance. For Nixon, the ongoing difficulties in securing an end to the war and the mounting pressures of the Watergate scandal produced a visceral reaction to any criticism – but especially that from a once close and trusted ally. In his rage he threatened to rip apart the very fabric of the alliance, asking that options be explored for pulling out top secret US intelligence installations in Australia and ending all intelligence sharing. In Australia, although some saw Whitlam as the great moderniser of Australian foreign relations, others feared he was recklessly endangering the protective umbrella provided by the US.

In my forthcoming book, Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon's Alliance Crisis (MUP, May 2015) I show for the first time just how close Australia came to losing the US alliance.

Drawing on new evidence from archives in both the US and Australia, the book will show that across a broad range of issues, all of which were central to how both nations saw their future role in the region, it became apparent that the harmony of aims and interests that characterised the alliance during the Cold War had come to an abrupt and acrimonious end.

Perhaps the most pungent manifestation of this crisis came when several senior ministers in Whitlam's government harshly and openly criticised Nixon's decision to carry out the so called 'Christmas bombings' of December 1972 on the major population centres of North Vietnam, Hanoi and Haiphong.

The Australians did not mince words. The President's move had come only days after the Labor Party, out of office for twenty-three years, had come to power. Having opposed the Vietnam War since the first Australian troops were committed to the conflict in 1965, some Labor spokesmen shed any pretence to diplomatic moderation, and went for the jugular. The White House was full of 'maniacs', said Clyde Cameron, Minister for Labour and Immigration, while the spokesman for Urban Affairs, Tom Uren, accused Nixon of committing 'mass murder' and 'acting with the mentality of thuggery'. Dr Jim Cairns, in the more senior portfolio of Trade, called it 'the most brutal, indiscriminate slaughter of women and children in living memory'.

Prime Minister Whitlam himself wrote to Nixon to express his grave concern at the resumption of the bombing, questioning whether it would achieve the objective of bringing the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table and advising that he would seek the cooperation of other political leaders in Asia, especially those of Indonesia and Japan, to join him in 'addressing a public appeal to both the United States and North Vietnam to return to serious negotiations'. 

Australian maritime unions placed a ban on all American shipping in Australian ports, a move reciprocated by the US International Longshoremen's Association. Australian beef rotted off the coast of Florida and American passengers arriving on cruise ships in Sydney Harbour had to be privately ferried ashore. The Australian censure was one of the most strident of any of America's friends. 

Nixon refused to reply to Whitlam's letter, and when Kissinger telephoned Australia's embassy in Washington to complain, his blunt words of warning sent shockwaves all the way back to Canberra. It was not, the national security adviser stressed to the Australian Charge D'Affaires, 'the way to start a relationship with us'. Speaking for the Administration, he said that 'we are not particularly amused (at) being put by an ally on the same level as our enemy'.

In a discussion with the President at Camp David a few days later, Kissinger unloaded, dismissing Whitlam's letter as an 'absolute outrage' and a 'cheap little manoeuvre'. From 'the minute the Vietnam war ends' he quipped, the Australians 'will need us one hell of a lot more than we need them'. Nixon could only concur: for Whitlam to 'imperil' his country's relations with the US, he replied, was 'one hell of a thing' to do.

The White House Tapes show that Nixon and Kissinger agreed to 'freeze' Whitlam 'for a few months' so that he would 'get the message'. Speaking to Nixon, Kissinger labelled Whitlam's proposed joint appeal to the US and North Vietnam a 'grandstand play', dismissing it as 'very stupid too'. It prompted a policy that amounted to unofficial – but pointed – diplomatic isolation. Whitlam, Nixon thundered, was 'one of the peaceniks...he is certainly putting the Australians on a very, very dangerous path'. The President only reluctantly agreed to give Whitlam a one-hour meeting in the Oval Office in late July 1973. No toasts, no speeches, no state dinner and no welcome on the White House lawn. But Whitlam was not seeking a coronation.

Over the life of the Whitlam Government, the two countries continued to disagree over regional architecture, the idea of a zone of peace in South East Asia, and Indian Ocean neutrality. Australia had become a thorn in America's Asian side. But the Americans had to adjust to these Australian winds of change.

For the first time in nearly a decade the US realised that it could not take the interests of its junior ally for granted. The great irony, as Whitlam freely conceded, is that the changes in American foreign policy — the Nixon Doctrine, Soviet détente, the '72 China visit — had made it possible for Australia to pursue a more independent line in world affairs. As Whitlam himself told an audience in Washington, his country was 'moving on the wave of great events, not swimming against the tide'.

But it was the speed and direction of the Australian moves which put Whitlam on a collision course with the Nixon Administration. At a time when Washington was trying to rebalance its regional policy following the subordination of other concerns to the fighting in Vietnam, Labor's policy prescription in Asia was bound to throw relations into a tailspin. Against Whitlam's impatience for Australia to be accepted in Asia in a new way and his eagerness to embrace a world less constrained by rigid bipolarity, American officials maintained the need for incremental change, with one eye on the fragility of détente and the other on the persistence of great-power politics.

But as American Ambassador Marshall Green observed around this time, the era of the Cold War in East Asia had passed, and with it the need for Australia and the US to 'march together, against the forces of darkness'.

Whitlam, then, essentially redefined the relationship with Washington to give the nation greater self-reliance both within and without the Alliance. It stands as one of the most significant aspects of his legacy in Australian foreign affairs. 

Photo courtesy of the Nixon Library.