Australia and the Vietnam War
Fifty years ago the first Australian invaders landed in Vietnam. It’s a war our rulers lost, so an anniversary will spark debate as they try to justify their crimes writes Tom O’Lincoln in Socialist Alternative.
It’s obvious that the US ruling class wanted to reinforce their power in Asia. But why did their Australian equivalents go to war? The conventional left explanation is that they were dragged in by the Americans, who needed more forces in order to escalate the conflict. This is also what people thought at the time.
A Brisbane leaflet charged that “We are fighting for the sake of American imperialism. Our diggers die for dollars”. Labor Senate leader Lionel Murphy said Australians were involved because the US government decided they should be, while the Sydney Trade Union Moratorium Committee argued that “the powerful and enormously rich families who own American monopolies see to it by lobbying, bribery and corruption that the war in Vietnam continues and escalates.”
A compelling story, but it doesn’t fit the facts. There is a murky tale behind the sending of troops, but a very different one. Far from being eager to escalate, US president Lyndon Johnson vacillated about fighting a major ground war in Asia without enough allies. The Korean War had shown that American public opinion was hostile, if there weren’t “enough flags”.
For Australian prime minister Menzies, Korea taught another lesson. His first foreign minister Percy Spender had shown that sending troops, together with some hard lobbying, could help extract diplomatic concessions from Washington. Spender’s cynical approach is clear from his cable to Menzies when war broke out:
My appreciation of the military position in Korea is that the US, though not prepared to admit it, is in a very difficult if not desperate position…From Australia’s long-term point of view any additional aid we give to the US now, small though it be, will repay us in the future one hundred fold.
Cynical but effective. In a complicated trade-off, Australia got the Anzus treaty partly by backing the Americans in Korea, and partly through hard bargaining over Japan’s post-World War II role in the region. And a lot of people died.
Menzies remembered the deal. In late 1964, as Johnson vacillated over escalating the war, the Australian government decided to put a rocket under him. Senior Australian ministers like Peter Howson and Shane Paltridge began arriving in Washington, pushing for action.
Johnson was still biting his nails, but Howson was pleased to get “a ready ear” from Air Force chief Curtis LeMay. LeMay was the architect of unspeakable US fire-bombings over Japanese cities, and had commanded another terror exercise over Korea. Then he had distinguished himself as a delusional war-hawk in the Cuban missile crisis. He was no different in Vietnam – LeMay wanted to “bomb North Vietnam into the stone age”. Menzies was trying to strengthen attack-dog elements like him in Washington.
Menzies wasn’t dragged into the war. “In point of fact,” wrote diplomat Malcolm Booker, “it was the Australian government which in the early part of 1965 pressed on the American government the need for strong military action.”
Pursuing this agenda, Menzies was economical with the truth. Announcing the plan to dispatch troops Menzies chose his words carefully – giving the impression there was a request from Saigon. And there sort of was a request, because American and Australian representatives had been twisting South Vietnamese arms the previous day. The South Vietnamese weren’t keen. Hosting a battalion of Australians wouldn’t do much to win the war, but welcoming a new batch of foreign meddlers would hand propaganda opportunities to an enemy who appealed to patriotic sentiments.
But Washington needed more “flags” and the Menzies government knew this was the way to gain leverage in the American capital. The Australians were disappointed with the ANZUS treaty. In particular the Americans refused to back them in confrontations with Indonesia. The most important confrontation had been over West Papua, a Dutch colony which ended up in Indonesian hands rather than Australia’s. This was the kind of “threat” Menzies worried about. What the Papuans wanted didn’t concern him.
In 1965 a bloody coup sidelined Indonesia’s defiant president, Sukarno, so there were no more “threats” from Jakarta. But the Americans’ lack of enthusiasm for backing Australia remained a sore point. Canberra needed a way to engage them more deeply in the Asia Pacific. Escalating the Vietnam conflict might do it. As Menzies later recalled, in a comment reminiscent of Spender’s tricks, “We would be prepared to put in a battalion and were looking for a way in and not a way out. With this approach, the psychological effect on the United States would be phenomenally valuable, including in Australia’s interests.”
Menzies’ strategy was consistent with the way Australian governments have always managed big-power alliances. And it continues. Journalist Paul Kelly wrote a decade ago:
For half a century the Australian way of war has been obvious: it is a clever, cynical, calculated, modest series of contributions as part of US-led coalitions in which Americans bore the main burden. This technique reveals a junior partner skilled in utilising the great and powerful in its own interest…
It failed in the late sixties because the Vietnamese won the war. As Australian and American invaders fled onto helicopters bound for international airspace, Menzies’ successors were re-thinking: Maybe giving the Americans space-age communication bases would lock them into the region. It proved an effective tactic. Today there are new strategies like inviting the US marines to camp in the Northern Territory. But the government still pays “insurance premiums” at each turning point.
One way Australia’s peculiar boutique imperialism is presented as superior is to suggest our troops are free of war crimes. Is it true? The Australian troops in Vietnam committed no major massacres, but there’s much more to be said. The main culprits of atrocities are not the soldiers at the front line, but the leaders in Canberra and their mates who backed – even-egged on – the genocidal American war effort.
Even where the Australians behaved better, it didn’t change the nasty logic of the war. This is clear from Paul Ham’s history, which is generally sympathetic to the Australian forces. Brigadier Stuart Graham drafted a new mission statement that amounted to protecting the people from the enemy. The trouble was that the people were the enemy. When Private Paul Murphy later recalled forcibly re-locating villagers, he could say: “They hated us… Old ladies were crying and wailing; they’d just been thrown out of their ancestral homes.” But then he added that “militarily there was a justification for it”. The abuses of war were not an optional extra.
Or take the case of an argument about transporting a wounded Viet Cong. Those who didn’t want to transport him said no helicopters were available. Then in the distance came three shots, after which the Australian troops agreed that transport was no longer required because the enemy had died of his wounds.
In yet another incident, Australians dragged Vietnamese corpses behind armoured cars. Most notorious was the water-boarding and torture of a young woman – a fact attested to by former SAS sergeant Peter Barham. Attempts to cover up the case were made at the highest levels, but ultimately failed. Finally, Stuart Rintoul’s interview documented the general climate of terror the troops created: “[Y]ou could see the fear in the faces of the old people. You’d kick a door down and there would be an old man and an old lady huddled up in the corner…”
Our rulers will never shake off the stench of their Vietnam War.