The recent unpleasant telephone call between the USA president and Australian premier over refugees contrasts with the bromance between LBJ and Harold Holt, likely the only major government head possibly gobbled by a shark.
LBJ always liked Australia, which he briefly visited during WWII, fondly calling the outback where his plane emergency landed “El Paso desert country.” When he returned as president in 1966 he told welcoming Australians that “your plains, your hills, and your bush country, your cattlemen, your cattle, and your sheep remind me of my native land of Texas.”
In Australia LBJ was greeted by cheering hundreds of thousands, his motorcade sometimes clogged by the crowds, his limousine engine literally clogged by reams of descending celebratory confetti, forcing LBJ to transfer to another car. He eagerly delved into the rapturous crowds, horrifying his Secret Service detail. Holt was amiably at LBJ’s side, relishing the spectacle.
The Secret Service concerns were justified. Anti-war protestors hospitalized several agents by throwing red paint intended to resemble blood. Others tried to block the motorcade. There was a bomb threat, forcing the motorcade to reroute. LBJ was amused by it all, and his wife Lady Bird enjoyed finding a kangaroo in the prime minister’s living room.
Australia, as a member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, had troops in Vietnam fighting alongside Americans, earning LBJ’s gratitude. It was the fourth war that Australia would share with America, after WWI, WWII, and Korea, to be followed by the Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Prime Minister had become more than an ally and was a personal friend to the President, having first met him in 1942 during LBJ’s WWII visit. Upon becoming premier in 1966, Holt flatteringly wrote him: “The cause of freedom is in good hands of leadership.” When Holt thereafter enjoyed a stunning election victory, LBJ responded with equal admiration: “We know we stand with a man of conviction, integrity and wisdom. We know we stand with a friend.”
Before long that 1966 Holt visited the White House, where he gushingly announced in front of cameras: “You have an admiring friend, a staunch friend that will be all the way with LBJ,” repeating the campaign slogan that had eased LBJ into his 1964 landslide reelection. Critics in Australia thought Holt obsequious, but he was undeterred and cherished his unfolding rapport with LBJ. Holt was back in Washington a month later, arriving early, prompting LBJ, who was floating on the Potomac in the presidential yacht, to summon his friend for an unplanned cruise and spontaneous dinner for which ship rations were spread thin.
The following year, 1967, Holt was back, this time relaxing and laboring with LBJ at Camp David, grilling hamburgers, watching movies, chatting late into the night, playing tennis, and reposing by the pool. Mrs Holt, who would after her husband’s death visit the White House again and dedicate a U.S. Navy destroyer named for him, later recalled: “Now and then you would see one of these men or both of them get up, dive into the pool and swim up and down a few times, then go and sit on the chairs together at the far end, work, work, work away, planning and writing and handing papers to each other and discussing things.” Johnson affectionately wrote his buddy: “It was a comfort and delight as always to share your company, your ideas, and your thoughtful advice these last few days at Camp David.”
Tragically, Holt late in 1967 disappeared while swimming on the Australian coast. His body was never found despite an intense search, and it’s believed after drowning in a fierce surf he may have been dragged out to sea by a shark. LBJ likened the loss to JFK’s assassination and flew to Australia to share his genuine grief, attending the state funeral at an Anglican cathedral, visiting the Holt home to extend personal condolences, and meeting with the Australian cabinet, whom he told:
“I simply could not be anywhere else. I was drawn to Harold Holt because he was an Australian — a man of character and tenacity, generosity and toughness, a man of brotherly love.” LBJ said his friendship with Holt paralleled the “special quality to the U.S.-Australian relationship,” in which “we do feel instinctively the same way about problems.” His “last memory” of his “fallen friend” was of Holt “stretched out in the sun at Camp David, after taking a swim.” In his toast at the White House state dinner months before, LBJ had hailed Holt among Australians as “one of their bravest and one of their best.”
The Australian premier and American president had much in common. They were the same age, self-made men, ambitious, gregarious, both lawyers who devoted their lives to politics and power. They both had large appetites, were womanizers, and both lived fast and hard, enduring health problems, and likely not expecting great longevity. LBJ would die six years after Holt.
But they ultimately were bound, like their predecessors and successors, by the warm and historic ties between Australia and America. Holt noted in his 1967 White House toast:
I feel that the friendship which has long existed, cemented in the comradeship of struggle in order to help others to achieve the liberties and the freedom to which we all aspire–that has developed between our two countries–has been warmed by the growth of this friendship which has developed between Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and Mr. and Mrs. Holt. Long may it continue–long after both of us have left the offices which we at present enjoy.
Holt also commended LBJ for having “seen the Asia of tomorrow, the burgeoning, blossoming Asia of a new era,” that will have escaped the “shackles of the past” and poverty, having been uplifted by “modern technology, by principles of freedom, by the friendliness and encouragement and help that enlightened people in a modern age could bring to three-fifths of mankind.”
Despite failure in Vietnam, LBJ and Holt correctly envisioned a resurgent Asia. They both labored for an Asia and world more attuned to the prosperity and liberty their own nations enjoyed. May future Australian and American leaders approximate the LBJ-Holt partnership for our own security and for stability in the Pacific.