Desmond Ball, 1947-2016

One of Australia’s leading public intellectuals has died

October 27, 2016
Obituary: Desmond Ball, 1947-2016

Desmond Ball was born in the small town of Nyah West in the Australian state of Victoria on 20 May 1947, grew up in the country and had never spoken to an academic before he began his studies at the Australian National University in 1965.

He soon began to make his mark academically but also fell foul of the law when he climbed on to a statue of King George V with a placard reading “I will not fight in Vietnam”.

Although the judge ruled that his actions did not count as “offensive behaviour”, Professor Ball was identified as a “person of security interest” by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. He himself switched to the field of security studies and gained a PhD from ANU with a thesis on The strategic missile programme of the Kennedy administration, 1961-1963 (1972), where he argued that the notion of “limited” nuclear war was incoherent.

After a short period at the University of Sydney, Professor Ball returned to ANU in 1975 as a research fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. He would remain there, eventually as a special professor, until his recent retirement, serving as its head from 1984 to 1991.

Fame first came to Professor Ball with the publication of A Suitable Piece of Real Estate: American Installations in Australia (1980). He attracted headlines with his claim that the Soviet embassy in Canberra was listening in on sensitive Australian communications, although the end of the Cold War meant that his vast book titled Diplomatic Ears: A Guidebook to Russian Diplomatic Establishments and their Antenna Systems never saw the light of day.

Later publications explored security issues and paramilitaries in Thailand and Myanmar, during the research for which Professor Ball acquired a definitive collection of ballads about Thailand’s celebrated Border Patrol Police. He also played a major role in setting up the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific.

In an edited collection called Insurgent Intellectual: Essays in Honour of Professor Desmond Ball, former US president Jimmy Carter paid tribute to his “counsel and cautionary advice based on deep research [which] made a great difference to our collective goal of avoiding nuclear war”.

Co-editor Nicholas Farrelly, director of the ANU-IU [Indiana University] Pan Asia Institute, described Professor Ball as a scholar both “pragmatic and idealistic” whose “career demonstrated a remarkable mix of intellectual stamina, logistical determination and boundless creativity”.

Professor Ball died of cancer on 12 October and is survived by his wife, Annabel, and their three children.

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