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Harold Holt (L) talks to Lyndon B. Johnson (R) in the White House Oval Office

Harold Holt: The Prime Minister who disappeared  

The death of a standing Prime Minister will always make waves in the media – but especially when he happens to disappear at sea.

Image: Harold Holt (L) with Lyndon B. Johnson (R) in the White House Oval Office | Alpha Stock / Alamy Stock Photo

On a hot, humid Sunday morning in December 1967, the Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt waded into the waters at Cheviot Beach in Victoria. He was never seen again.

What drew Holt into the ocean on that fateful Sunday? Was it a simple case of accidental drowning, or were there darker forces at play? Find out all about this fascinating episode of Australian history.

‘Like a leaf’

The ocean has claimed countless victims and sparked myriad mysteries, including a clutch of disappearances associated with the Bermuda Triangle and the infamous Flannan Isle enigma. However, it is rare indeed for a world leader to succumb to its awesome power.

When Harold Holt and his four companions made a routine stop at Cheviot Beach to relax, enjoy a swim in the sea and work up an appetite before lunch, they could hardly have expected what would happen next.

After all, it was an activity they had undertaken many times before. In the words of Holt himself, he knew the waters ‘like the back of my hand’. These words were among the last spoken by Australia’s 17th Prime Minister.

Alan Stewart, the only other member of the party to accompany him into the water, quickly realised the undercurrent was too strong for him and made for the shore. ‘I was out of my depth and I could feel this terrific undertow,’ he later said.

As the waves dragged Holt further and further from safety, his friends could only watch on in horror. ‘It was like a leaf being taken out,’ recounted Marjorie Gillespie, a neighbour of Holt’s with whom it was later revealed that he had been having an affair. ‘So quick and final,’ she lamented.

Vanished without a trace

Within an hour of Holt’s disappearance, the country’s largest search operation was well underway. Helicopters hovered over the area, divers explored the ocean’s depths and almost 200 personnel did their best to comb the coastline.

Even so, their efforts were in vain, and Holt was never seen or heard from again.

Of course, the fact that such a high-profile figure could go missing without a trace has sparked a plethora of conspiracy theories. Some say that Holt was depressed and committed suicide, either as a result of a fractious marriage or an overly intense political life.

Others allege that he was assassinated by the CIA, ostensibly for his imminent withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam. In one particularly colourful theory, Holt was allegedly a Chinese spy who was simply scooped up by a CCP submarine. This latter idea has been widely debunked, including by Holt’s wife, who famously scoffed that her husband ‘didn’t even like Chinese food’.

Despite these fanciful theories, the most likely explanation is the simplest. Holt overestimated his swimming abilities and underestimated the ferocity of the waves, as many have done before and since.

Holt the politician

Whatever the truth, it is clear that the circumstances surrounding Holt’s disappearance have meant his death has overshadowed his life. For a man who spent over three decades in politics before rising to its highest position, that’s surely a shame.

Even though Holt’s tenure lasted less than two years, he still undoubtedly made his mark on Australian politics. Here are some of the more noteworthy of his policies and achievements.

  • Vietnam

Just a few months into his term as Prime Minister, Holt delivered one of his most memorable soundbites when he said Australia was ‘all the way with LBJ’ [Lyndon B Johnson].

Holt was responsible for sending more troops to the Vietnam War and intensifying bombing efforts. This hardline approach was not always popular with an Australian public who, like their American counterparts, were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the war.

  • 1967 referendum

Undoubtedly the biggest legacy of Holt’s political career was the 1967 referendum, which saw Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples counted among the Australian census and paved the way for their enfranchisement.

This was something that his predecessor, Sir Robert Menzies, had resisted and although it had been in gestation for many years prior to the vote, the fact that it took place on Holt’s watch – and that it achieved a whopping 91% of public support – is to his credit.

  • Currency

Holt was in power during one of the most remarkable incidents in the history of money in Australia – the switch from the cumbersome pounds and pence system to the more fluid and flexible dollars and cents replacement.

Although the policy was in the pipeline under the premiership of Menzies, it did not take effect until Holt had replaced him and is one of his major achievements.

Taken too soon

Quite aside from these headline accomplishments, it should also be remembered that Holt did an impressive job of following in the footsteps of his mentor Menzies, who had been in office for 17 years.

The sheer personality of the man had papered over ever-widening cracks in the Liberal Party and it was Holt’s easy-going charm that helped to unify things in the aftermath of Menzies’ reign. He also did so as a breath of fresh air for the party, introducing several progressive policies in a short space of time.

Who knows what would have happened if he had not taken a dip on the day in question? As it is, his extraordinary disappearance will forever be associated with his name – especially since the Aussies chose to display their trademark wry humour by naming a swimming pool in his honour.