Monday, December 15, 2014

The Prime Minister Disappears

Sunday, 17 December, 1967: The lead in to Christmas was dramatically interrupted by some of the most sensational news in the history of the country; The Prime Minister, Harold Holt, had disappeared! 

The Sun reports the incredible news.

Initial details were sketchy.

Holt had gone missing while swimming in the ocean near Portsea and was presumed dead, although a search was ongoing. Exactly why Holt had chosen to swim off such rough coast, notorious for rips and unpredictable swell, was uncertain.

But Holt's chances of surviving long in the Southern Ocean were obvious to everyone.

Young man in a hurry: Harold Holt circa 1930.

Born in Sydney in 1908 to a family of modest means, Harold Holt distinguished himself from a young age as a scholar and sportsman. He attended Wesley College in Melbourne and his results won him a scholarship to the University of Melbourne, where he studied law and captained the school cricket and football teams, as well as starring on the debate team.

He was a popular student, but was also viewed as a ruthless, ambitious young man. His driven nature has often been attributed to his parents; his mother died when Harold was 8 and his father was an aloof and remote figure, devoted to his business interests.

After graduating, Holt passed the Victorian bar in 1932 and went to work as a barrister in Melbourne. He also joined the United Australia Party (UAP), the leading conservative party in Australia at the time. His education and skill as a debater made him an obvious choice as a candidate for elected office, and he ran unsuccessfully in the Federal election of 1934 and state election of 1935.

Despite these setbacks, the UAP viewed Holt as one of their rising stars and offered the young go-getter the safe seat of Fawkner. Elected to Federal Parliament at the age of 27, Harold Holt remains one of Australia's youngest MP's. His intellectual accomplishments were backed by a debonair appearance and manner; handsome, genial and immaculately dressed, Holt cut quite a public figure in the staid 1930s.

Holt poses for a magazine article.

Joining the UAP in the same year as Holt, but 14 years his senior, was another man destined for the top of Australian politics; Robert Menzies. Menzies and Holt were dissimilar in many respects, but had similar policy ideas, and shared a strong work ethic and love of the theatre. They became firm friends, in and out of politics.

With the shock death of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons in 1939, Menzies (made deputy leader only the year before) assumed the Prime Minstership in dramatic circumstances. A bellicose man, not always easy to work with, Menzies reshuffled cabinet to reward his close colleagues within the party, continuing Holt's rapid rise by promoting him to the Ministry.

Robert Menzies, late 1930s.

But Menzies' blustering style made enemies within the UAP as well, and he was forced to resign in 1941 after a vote of no confidence. Surprisingly, Holt was one of the members who voted against Menzies, although he never revealed his reason and the two would remain friends.

Ongoing tensions within the UAP  would lead the party to splinter and then, finally, to dissolve, in 1944. In the space this created on the Conservative side of politics, Menzies formed a new party, The Liberal Party, as a vehicle to bring him back to power. Holt was one of the first members of the new enterprise, joining the Prahran branch.

When Menzies was re-elected in  1949, Holt was one of the highest profile members of his cabinet, and was already being touted as a future leader. Over the next decade, Holt would serve in a variety of positions, including  Minister for Labour, Immigration and National Service. In 1958 he succeeded Arthur Fadden as Treasurer, the traditional role for the heir apparent.

But he had a long wait. Menzies did not retire until 1966, with Holt sworn in as the 26th Prime Minster on Australia Day of that year. Menzies declared the country 'in good hands.'

Official portrait of Harold Holt, PM.

As Prime Minster, Holt largely continued with the policies of the Menzies era, although he modulated the details of some. Menzies signature 'White Australia Policy' was kept, but the restrictions on non European immigration were relaxed. 

But Holt is best remembered for his personal friendship with American President Lyndon Johnson, and his resulting decision to escalate Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war.

Holt and Johsnon.

The two men were known to each other before Holt became Prime Minister, but they became close when Holt visited Washington in July 1966. They shared a similar background and temperament and became so close that Holt's wife would describe their relationship as 'spectacular.' This visit to the US was when Holt made his famous remark 'all the way with LBJ,' in regards to US-Australian relations.

Johnson's return visit to Australia in October 1966 was less cordial, with violent demonstrations dogging the President's itinerary. Although the prestige attached to the visit - Johnson was the first US President to visit Australia - also had a positive effect. For despite the unpopularity of the war in Vietnam, Holt secure a crushing victory at the 1966 election. The Liberal Party result at the poll - 56.9% of the two party vote - is the highest recorded in Australian history.

Holt ended 1966 with control of both houses of Parliament, and firm control of his party, seemingly at the height of his powers.

On December 17, 1967, Holt rose early and drove down to Mornington Penninsula to watch solo around the world yachtsman Alec Rose enter Port Phillip Bay. With the Prime Minister were some friends, and two bodyguards, and after Rose had sailed by, the small party made their way to Cheviot Beach for lunch.

It was a broiling day and, always a keen swimmer,  Holt decided to take a dip after lunch.

His friends tried to dissuade him. The surf was rough and Holt's health - he had collapsed in Parliament earlier in the year - had been in doubt.

But the Prime Minster was determined. He had a holiday house nearby and knew the area, and the ocean conditions, well. He dismissed concerns about the rough sea and changed into his bathing suit, before striding into the ocean.

He quickly swam out past the breakers.

Other witnesses said they had seen Holt turn around and make for shore, before disappearing below the waves.

The alarm was immediately raised.

Within an  hour helicopters were scouring the waves, and by sunset more than 200 search personnel were on site. The largest search - at that time - in Australia's history would last for three weeks and involve members of the Army, Navy and Coast Guard. But after two fruitless days, those involved knew that the best they could hope for was to find the PMs body.

Holt was pronounced dead on December 19 and National Party leader John McEwan was sworn in as Prime Minister the same day. On December 22 a memorial service was held for Holt, attended by 19 heads of state from around the world, Holt's good friend Lyndon Johnson among them.

No trace of Holt's body has ever been found.

And there the matter might have rested.

But the absence of a body, and the unusual circumstances surrounding the disappearance, caused some alternative theories to come forth.

In 1970, paranormal investigator John Keel wrote Operation Trojan Horse, a widely read book that claimed that aliens were behind a number of unsolved mysteries from history. Keel claimed that Holt had, in fact, been abducted by aliens; just the latest example of their regular intervention in human affairs. 

And in 1983, British journalist Anthony Grey wrote a best selling book that claimed Holt was actually a spy, working for the People's Republic of China. In this telling, Holt hadn't drowned but had actually learned that his cover was about to be blown, and arranged to be collected by a Chinese submarine.

Still other theories posited that Holt had been assassinated by the CIA - who had learnt of his intention to withdraw Australian troops from Vietnam - or that he had simply become depressed and committed suicide. 

Cheviot Beach, present day.

In 2005 the Victorian Coroner, who had not previously investigated due to the absence of a body, conducted a formal inquiry. Their conclusion was that Holt had accidentally drowned; a tragic case of an experienced swimmer overwhelmed by freak conditions. The report speculated that Holt's body may have been swept from the area by strong currents before it could be found, or eaten by sharks, both common enough in the Southern Ocean.

Holt remains the only Australian PM to die of unnatural causes while in office.


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