Keith Waller was one of the top ambassadors in a period when Australia urgently needed them. During the Cold War, he served in Moscow and then Washington, where a skilled resident diplomat could be more important than a visiting prime minister.
As a young arts graduate, he had moved in 1936 from Melbourne to Canberra, where one of his first jobs was working for Billy Hughes, who had been prime minister in World War I. Occasionally, Waller must have felt that he was tending a beehive without mask or gloves.
When Waller made his first trip outside Australia at the age of twenty-seven, he was little prepared. It was less than three months before Pearl Harbor, and he had to open the first Australian embassy in Chonqing, the new wartime capital of China. Much of that nation had already been conquered by the Japanese, and Waller had to fly in from Burma – in effect the back door. Neatly dressed as always – his nickname was ‘Spats’ – Waller was persuaded by foreign diplomats to wear shorts and to appear a bit casual. It did not come easily. A Chinese photo shows him wearing a tie and reading a book while being carried in a chair along a narrow street by four strong men.