THE VIETNAM WAR lingers in the collective memory like some unspeakable crime, locked away in the nation’s attic. Contrary to popular belief, America did not compel Australia to join the war in Vietnam. Australia leapt at the chance – an opportunity to find ‘a way in and not a way out’, as Prime Minister Robert Menzies told his Cabinet on 17 December 1964.
Australia entered the war hoping its alliance with the United States would deliver real military and economic benefits. Australians dared to dream that the US would replace Britain as their regional protector and financial benefactor. However, when Australia withdrew from Vietnam it was left with less military and financial security, and more isolated in the Asia–Pacific region than ever. In hindsight this was easy to predict, but even at the time there were many warnings of such an outcome.
What follows records the unravelling of an alliance between two nations at war. It examines how and why Australia stayed in Vietnam with an ally who was such in name alone. There were four ingredients essential to making that alliance work: trust, shared intelligence, political co-operation and economic support. None existed between Australia and the US during the Vietnam War.
AUSTRALIA FORGED A defensive pact with America in desperation. Despite cries of betrayal from Menzies and Churchill, Prime Minister John Curtin had no choice other than to declare on 26 December 1941 that Australia ‘looks to America’ to help fight Japan, ‘free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom’. Curtin took the long view: he saw America as Australia’s natural ally in post-colonial Asia.
Twenty years later, the United States had not filled Britain’s shoes and had no intention of doing so. Australians and New Zealanders thus contemplated a lonely future as the last Anglo-Saxon outposts in the Pacific. Frank Hopkins, then the US consul general in Melbourne, accurately assessed the mood in a cable to Washington in 1962:
After nearly two centuries of economic and psychological dependence on Great Britain, Australians are shocked by the thought that they may now have to stand on their own feet and rely primarily on themselves… They feel that Britain is letting them down and that the United States is failing to appreciate their plight… It remains to be seen whether Australians can find the courage, the confidence and the willpower to work out their own destiny under much less favorable conditions.
Australia faced economic hardship as well as military isolation. Traditional buyers in Europe, chiefly Britain, were freezing Australia out. Between 1955 and 1971, the proportion of Australia’s total exports that went to the founding six members of the European Economic Community halved in value, to about 6 per cent. Losing markets in Europe, Australia hoped to find new ones in America and Asia. The coming of the Vietnam War seemed to offer a pivotal opportunity.
Politicians rarely acknowledge the economic benefits of war; the motive suggests a tawdry opportunism. And yet, the link is as old as the ancient world. Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz saw warfare, in part, as a commercial relationship. So did the Australian government at the time of the Vietnam War: Alan Renouf, Australia’s chargé d’affaires in Washington in the early 1960s, advised Prime Minister Menzies that Vietnam might offer Australia economic leverage with the US, ‘without disproportionate expenditure’ on military assistance. Menzies agreed; the economic and security benefits of a relationship with America, smoothed by the ANZUS Treaty and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), to which Australia was a joint signatory, exerted a strong hold on his mind.
Signed in 1951, ANZUS had been grossly oversold to the Australian public. It merely obliged the signatories to consult each other about regional threats: ‘…to act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes,’ states the vaguely worded Article IV. That did not oblige Uncle Sam to defend us.
The treaty would have no bearing on Vietnam because Australia was not deemed to be under threat, despite claims that falling dominoes and red tides were about to swamp the country. Yet the treaty served Washington in one sense: diplomatic sugar-coating to President Kennedy’s appeal for more flags in Vietnam, in the face of the war being denied a UN mandate.
With this in mind, Dean Rusk, the then US secretary of state, attended the ANZUS Council in Canberra in May 1962, hoping to extract an Australian commitment to send military advisers to South Vietnam. In return, Australia’s external affairs minister Garfield Barwick crudely demanded –‘come hell or high water’ – a US pledge to defend South Vietnam (and implicitly Australian interests). At the time, Rusk could promise nothing of the sort, but he did receive a few Australian military advisers.
Menzies was under no illusions about the military weakness of ANZUS, yet even he didn’t fathom the cavalier disregard in which Washington held the treaty. On 24 June 1964, the day the Australian leader sat in the White House waiting to meet President Johnson, presidential adviser McGeorge Bundy warned Johnson (known as LBJ) not to offer Menzies any commitments: ‘Once or twice,’ he wrote, ‘Australians have tried to interpret our ANZUS commitment as a blank check, but…the exact shape of our action under the treaty will depend on your judgment as President, at every stage.’ In other words, America would decide when and how the treaty applied: not then, as it turned out, and not much.
BARWICK’S SUCCESSOR PAUL Hasluck sang America’s tune, and engineered a drastic change in Australia’s perception of the communist threat. Before his appointment, the Defence Department and military chiefs had set the Malay barrier as the forward defence line for Australia against the ‘red tide’ of communism. Hasluck, with Cabinet support and in accordance with Washington’s view of the threat, shifted this line two thousand kilometres north, to the seventeenth parallel that divided the Chinese-sponsored Democratic Republic of Vietnam (‘North Vietnam’) from the American-sponsored Republic of Vietnam (‘South Vietnam’). It was a military demarcation rather than a border between two states, and the new front line in Australia’s war with Chinese-sponsored communism.
To justify the dispatch of the first Australian combat troops (1RAR) to South Vietnam, Menzies issued a statement on 29 April 1965: ‘The takeover of South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia and all the countries of South-East Asia. It must be seen as part of a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.’ There was no debate. In any case, Air Marshal Sir Frederick Scherger, chairman of the Australian Chiefs of Staff Committee, had already secretly committed a battalion to Vietnam at a meeting of US and allied military strategists in Honolulu on April 1. In doing so, Scherger not only grossly exceeded his brief but also fast-tracked the decision without any recourse to the Australian people.
The political left attacked Menzies, who was particularly incensed by the unions’ claim that the troop commitment amounted to a ‘blood for dollars’ or ‘diggers for dollars’ deal. According to the prime minister, this callous charge reflected ‘only the murky recesses of the minds of the people who made it’.
If this was the case, then many Australian minds were murky. The people could be forgiven for thinking that Treasurer Harold Holt’s trip to Washington at the same time as the troop decision was hardly a coincidence. Holt had been sent to Washington to press the case of Australian exporters. His easygoing charm won over President Johnson, but failed to secure any new export markets.
SOON AFTER AUSTRALIA’S first combat troops arrived in Vietnam, it became apparent that the military relationship wouldn’t work. The two armies found they were fighting completely different wars, painfully demonstrated by the failure of their first big joint operation, ‘Iron Triangle’.
Where US troops tended to crash through the jungle on ‘search and destroy’ missions that wiped out whole villages, the Australians – many trained in Malaya in counter-insurgency tactics – operated by stealth and infiltration. They cordoned and searched villages, and often went among the people in attempts to ferret out the enemy. It was time-consuming and nerve-shattering work, which US commanders thought slow or even cowardly, and led to the decision in early 1966 to confine the ‘Australian war’ to Phuoc Tuy province, south-east of Saigon.
Over the next seven years, the government would dispatch a further fifty thousand military personnel to Vietnam; about a third of the infantry would be national servicemen conscripted at random. Washington applauded Menzies’ decision to conscript nineteen year olds (who couldn’t vote), as it promised a ready supply of soldiers. Dean Rusk was advised to tell Hasluck, when he visited Washington in November 1964, that the United States greatly appreciated ‘this politically courageous decision as an important step forward for Australia and for us’.
IN 1966, RED tides and falling dominoes were quietly removed from the political rhetoric. When asked why Australia was at war, Harold Holt, the new prime minister, replied, ‘…to help the Government of the Republic of Vietnam…resist the armed aggression of Communist North Vietnam’. The diggers were thus cast as ‘freedom fighters’ in a war in which the national interest now lay in defending small countries that the public knew little about. In fact, the case for staying in Vietnam, after the regional threat of China had dissipated, was to fulfil our treaty obligation to the United States – in return for which Australia anticipated improved regional security and an economic boost.
With this uppermost in mind, Holt flew to Washington in June 1966 on a tour that would define his leadership. Holt had always firmly backed the Americans in Vietnam, particularly the bombing of the north, as he assured LBJ in a letter on 1 February that year. The president rewarded the Australian prime minister with a spectacular reception on the south lawn of the White House where, on 29 June 1966, Holt uttered his immortal pledge that bound Australia irrevocably to the war in Vietnam: ‘I am here, sir, not asking for anything. You have in us not merely an understanding friend, but one staunch in the belief of the need for our presence with you in Vietnam…an admiring friend, a staunch friend that will be all the way with LBJ.’
They became true friends, but Holt’s visit achieved little else. Johnson rejected all of Australia’s trade requests: he refused to liberalise wool tariffs unless Australia relaxed its barriers to US tobacco; Australian sugar growers would not receive access to the US market under a mooted international sugar agreement; and Australia would not be exempt from the much-hated interest-equalisation tax (despite the fact that Japan already had been). America had no need of Australian zinc and lead. The president agreed only to ‘try’ to prevent new protectionist legislation against our meat and dairy products. In fact, quota legislation put before US Congress that year threatened 60 per cent of Australia’s export earnings. Holt had come ‘asking for nothing from America’, which was just as well, because he got less than nothing.
On the other hand, LBJ genuinely liked this tanned, Aussie spear-fisherman, and accepted Holt’s invitation to visit Australia and New Zealand that October, just before the federal election. Johnson’s political interest in the elections lay in the fact that the Australian Labor Party, should it win, would try to furl America’s most loyal flag in Vietnam. The LBJ factor removed that risk: the press hailed the presidential visit as the ‘dawn of a new era in the Pacific’. A month later the Liberal–Country Party Coalition won the election in the biggest landslide since Federation, in a popular vindication of conscription and the war in Vietnam.
A RISING MINORITY of anti-war protestors dissented: Holt’s ‘all the way’ commitment meant Australia was in for a long, ugly war with no exit strategy. Conservatives privately questioned the war for a different reason: Vietnam placed a huge financial burden on the Australian budget, with no apparent advantages. Defence expenditure had grown by an average of 22 per cent a year in the four years to 1967, and Treasurer Billy McMahon warned it would soon seriously damage the economy.
Under pressure to deliver a war dividend, the Australian prime minister returned to Washington. On 4 June 1967, in advance of his visit, Holt wrote to Johnson to complain about high US tariffs on Australian wool, sales of which were needed to help pay for the ‘imports essential for our development and defence’. He complained that New Zealand exported 67.4 per cent of its wool to the US duty free, while Australia’s duty-free total was 0.1 per cent. Johnson promised to look at the problem but did nothing. As much as he liked his Aussie deputy, LBJ did not wish to upset American farmers.
Holt’s visit also proved fruitless. Once again, the president ever so nicely rebuffed him. This time, however, Holt went public: Australia had got a ‘raw deal’ on wool in the Kennedy Round of Trade Talks, he told the American Australian Association on 13 June 1967. America had made no concessions on sugar, dairy products, meat, lead or zinc: ‘Australians import $68 per head from the United States, and the United States imports less than $2 per head from Australia.’ Holt reasonably sought a balance in trade opportunities. None was forthcoming.
Later that year, an influential American went in to bat for Australia. Stressing the severe economic pressure on Australia following harsher European trade restrictions, Ed Clark, the US ambassador in Canberra, wrote to the White House on 13 December 1967:
…our continued unwillingness to grant [Australia] even a fraction of the relief which has been granted to Japan…is a constant source of irritation and embitterment to our Australian friends who have consistently supported us right down the line. They are our strongest supporters in Viet Nam and they are paying their own way there at considerable cost to their own balance of payments. The cost of the new weapons which they are purchasing from us is almost staggering for a country with fewer than twelve million people… It has been extremely disappointing to me personally not to have been able to secure some assistance for a good friend in need of it…
Clark’s letter had no effect. In 1967, Australia won a single war-related contract: to supply sugar to US troops in Vietnam, worth a mere US$6.5 million a year. It also became a preferred R&R destination for US servicemen: in October that year, 2,085 visited Sydney and the Gold Coast. They spent US$628,500, mostly on booze and prostitutes.
BY 1967, THE Chinese and Soviet regional threat had withdrawn, for political and domestic reasons largely unrelated to the Vietnam War. With the American market closed to Australian exports, and no future security deal in sight, Australia’s national interest in Vietnam seemed non-existent. Yet Holt defended the commitment because ‘communist inspired aggression’ was ‘a threat to free people and small nations – small nations in particular – everywhere.’ He even pledged again, in a speech to the Far East American Council, to ‘go all the way with LBJ’.
‘All the way’ would not, in fact, prove very far. The Americans were in the market for more troops, and on 30 July Johnson’s chief procurers – presidential advisers Clark Clifford and General Maxwell Taylor – swooped on Canberra. A bigger effort from America’s allies, they said, would help the president sell the war, now costing US$25 billion a year, to US taxpayers. ‘One additional New Zealand soldier might produce fifty Americans,’ Clifford had told his NZ hosts.
Taylor and Clifford aimed to extract at least one more Australian battalion, but ideally three. The threat to South Vietnam, Taylor stressed, was far greater than the danger to Malaysia or Indonesia (with or without the British). Holt dithered and then capitulated. On 6 September, the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee agreed in principle to offer a third infantry battalion of 1,200 troops, at the low end of US demands. Holt secretly confirmed the offer on 6 October and informed Parliament and the people nearly two weeks later, on 17 October. There was no debate.
Pravda, the Soviet news daily, scorned Australia’s troop increase as ‘cannon meat for Vietnam in exchange for mutton for the USA’. Except that the USA would buy no more Aussie mutton in exchange for these diggers. McMahon and Hasluck, then in Washington to negotiate the fine print, failed to extract any economic or defence concessions. Washington refused to help plug the security gap left by the departing British in Malaysia; or to reduce tariffs on Australian beef, mutton and other commodities. McMahon succeeded only in delaying payments on the F-111 fighter aircraft.
AUSTRALIA CONTINUED TO be frozen out of the US intelligence loop at a diplomatic and operational level. The sacking of US Defense Secretary Bob McNamara took Canberra utterly by surprise and suggested fresh troops were being sent to a doomed enterprise. McNamara, once the biggest cheerleader for the war, now declared, ‘It must be stopped.’ In a secret memo to the president on 19 May 1967, he wrote: ‘The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring a thousand non-combatants each week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.’ His apostasy had little impact on the Australian government: the reinforcements would proceed to South Vietnam, as planned, in early 1968.
At an operational level, too, the Australians were fighting blind. In May 1968, for example, US military intelligence detected eight North Vietnamese regiments and as many ‘infiltration groups’ of battalion size in an area north of Saigon, into which the Australians were about to be airlifted. Had Australian commanders seen this intelligence, they might have avoided the loss of 124 men – dead and wounded – at fire support bases ‘Coral’ and ‘Balmoral’, in the bloodiest confrontation of the Australians in Vietnam.
Afterward, no Australian government minister demanded, as a condition of ongoing commitment to the war, that the US share vital intelligence during joint operations. Its denial had a real impact on whether soldiers lived or died, yet most politicians showed little interest in the operational war – sparked only when they sought to limit body bags at election times.
JOHN GORTON, AUSTRALIA’S next prime minister, may have been viewed as outlandish in Washington, but he had the prescience to see that there was no further national interest in the war. His first act on entering office, in February 1968, was to freeze the numbers of troops in Vietnam. Yet the battalions already deployed would fight on, as a gesture of support for America, under a prime minister who no longer believed in why they were fighting (a lament Gorton drunkenly shared with the nineteen-year-old journalist Geraldine Willesee at a party that year).
Gorton’s troubled relationship with Johnson got off to a bad start in March 1968 and promptly seized up. President Johnson gave Australia no warning of his decision not to seek re-election after the debacle of the Tet Offensive. During wartime such courtesies might be expected between allies, yet Gorton first heard about it through the press: ‘This is no way to treat an ally!’ he thundered, and severely reprimanded Australia’s Washington Ambassador, Sir Keith Waller, for failing to alert Canberra.
In May, Gorton joined the carousel to the White House as guest of honour. Days before he arrived, secretary of state Dean Rusk warned Johnson not to make any military commitment to Australian security in light of the recent British announcement to withdraw its troops from Malaysia and Singapore by 1971. Nor would the USA give Australia ‘a blanket guarantee of protection under ANZUS’, Rusk reminded Johnson, in an echo of McGeorge Bundy’s neutering of ANZUS before Menzies’ visit in 1964: ‘…suggest you tell Gorton, as we have said before, there is no question of our “filling the gap”.’
Gorton would enjoy a warmer relationship with the Nixon administration. And he meant to show it off: on 1 May 1969, with an election looming, he set forth on another pilgrimage to the White House in what he hoped would be a statesmanlike visit. It was a shambles. Gorton demanded assurances of continued US involvement in Asian security post-Vietnam, particularly in relation to the Soviet naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Nixon offered none. Gorton thanked his hosts anyway: ‘Sir,’ he told Nixon, at the end of a long, windy speech, ‘we will go Waltzing Matilda with you.’ Echoes of ‘all the way with LBJ’ resonated with newspaper editors, who piled on the mockery.
The wheels fell off the relationship in the last year of the war. Neither the next prime minister, Billy McMahon, nor Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam were forewarned of Nixon’s announcement, on 15 July 1971, to seek ‘peace in our time’ with Beijing – just three days after McMahon had publicly referred to China as ‘our enemy’. Nixon’s announcement inflicted the added, if unintended, wound of making the coincidence of Whitlam’s trip to China on 12 July seem politically prescient – when in reality Washington had treated Australia with complete indifference, as if it were just any other non-aligned country rather than an ally of ten years’ fighting.
Why Australia stayed in Vietnam, even when it became apparent there was nothing to gain, is a story of disillusionment, humiliation and misplaced faith, culminating in the abject image of Whitlam urging President Richard Nixon to end the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, to which the prime minister received no reply. After a decade of war, Washington chose simply to ignore its largest ally.
IN THE END, Australia found itself harnessed not to an American policy or strategy in Vietnam, but to American pride. The US stayed in Vietnam chiefly to avoid the humiliation of defeat and to deter other ‘rogue’ states. As early as January 1966, the US Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton could write: ‘The present US objective in Vietnam is to avoid humiliation. The reasons why we went into Vietnam…are largely academic.’
America needed Australia’s flag, but that was as far as the relationship went: all one-way. From 1966 on, Australian soldiers were risking their lives to fulfil a political gesture to America. That gesture won nothing tangible for the nation, in terms of enhanced security or economic support.
Nor did the alliance entail any sharing of useful intelligence, at a diplomatic or operational level. Time after time our government was caught outside the US loop. In something of an own goal, Malcolm Fraser, who was a defence minister during the Vietnam War, admitted decades later that ‘the Americans kept us in the dark’.
Australia should, of course, have withdrawn from Vietnam. If the rationale for involvement seemed credible in the late 1950s, it had lost traction by 1966. In 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive and My Lai Massacre, the media got behind the gathering anti-war movement for the first time and transformed the public’s perception of Vietnam: the narrative of a war where democracy’s heroes had hitherto been defending the West from the evil of communism was recast as a general crime against humanity, with America as the chief perpetrator. Australian troops were deemed complicit in the massacre of children, the burning of villages and the poisoning of a nation, their presence in Vietnam bundled up with US atrocities in which they had no hand.
But instead of finding an exit strategy, a conga-line of Australian leaders went cap in hand to Washington, imagining they could extract security or commercial advantages from a doomed enterprise. Repeatedly rebuffed, they failed even to insist on fair treatment as America’s most important ally. By 1972, our relationship with the world’s greatest superpower had broken down, at diplomatic, commercial and military levels.
An ironic footnote – of little consolation – is that the Australian troops achieved what they were sent to do in Vietnam. As ordered, they bravely secured a Vietnamese province, despite being virtually abandoned by their own country and frozen out of US intelligence, which contributed to the unnecessary loss of many young lives.