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soc.history.war.vietnam FAQ: Australian Involvement (2/3)

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Archive-Name: vietnam/australia/part2
Last-modified: 1996/05/10 Reformatted 11/2001
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Frequently Asked Questions: soc.history.war.vietnam  

The FAQs on the Australian involvement in Vietnam were 
written by Brian Ross.  Australia's involvement in the 
Vietnam War, the political dimension  

     This is the second post promised analysing why 
Australia entered the Vietnam War.  American readers should 
be warned that because it looks primarily at the domestic 
political scene in Australia at the time, it does as a 
consequence refer to characters and events which most of 
you will not be aware of.  However, I have included a short 
preface, attempting to identify most of the major players 
and the themes which ran behind the scenes in Australian 


     There were, during the 1950's and 1960's three main 
political parties in Australia.  They were: 

     The Australian Labor Party (ALP).  A mildly left-of-
centre, socialist party, the ALP was concieved, like its 
British and New Zealand counterparts to represent the 
rights of the workers against those of the employers.  It 
held power during the years 1941-1949, being defeated after 
a series of disasterous Communist led coal strikes which 
had crippled the economy and because of fears within the 
electorate that its plan to nationalise the banks in 1949 
meant that it was moving too far to the left. 

     The Liberal Party.  A mildly, right-of-centre, 
conservative party, the Liberals (a misnaming if ever there 
was one IMO), were created out of the remains of the United 
Australia Party, which had dissolved as a consequence of 
losing government in 1941 as the result of a no-confidence 
motion in the then Prime Minister, R.G.Menzies.  Menzies 
had then been re-elected in 1949 after skillfully making 
use of the electorate's fears of Communism.  This "kicking 
the Communist can" as it became known was an electoral 
tactic which the Liberals used time and time again 
successfully as a means of keeping the ALP in Opposition. 

     The Country Party.  A party which was and still is 
basically a mix of elements of both left and right and 
designed to represent the interests of the country dwellers 
and farmers of Australia.  It held government in coallition 
with the Liberals during the period under examination and 
for a short period (second shortest on record) its leader, 
John McEwin was the PM after the accidental death by 
drowning of the Liberal PM in 1967.  

Background History: 

     Australia has long suffered from a sense of unease 
about its position as the only European settled country in 
Asia.  Australian society has long (and still does, 
unfortunately amongst some sections) harboured a fear of 
the "yellow hordes" waiting to "descend upon Australia" and 
steal it away from the privileged few white colonialists 
living here.  While this fear could perhaps be best 
described as being a form of cultural paranoia (well, 
considering that until the end of WWII and the start of 
Government sponsored migration the population had 
stabilised at around the 7 million mark you can understand 
why most Australians feared the possible invasion by 
potential "hordes"). 

     This fear had resulted in the formulation of one of 
the most restrictive immigration policies the world has 
seen entitled "The White Australia Policy" which was 
designed to prevent Asian migration and only allow in 
whites which were deemed by the government of the day as 
being suitable (thankfully that has been consigned to the 
dustbin of history).  This fear seemed to have been proven 
well founded when the Japanese advanced to within 
comparative spitting distance of the continent in 1942. 

     Because of its large size and small population 
Australia had long relied upon what have become known as, 
and in some circles derided as, "great and powerful 
friends" to provide for its defence.  First Great Britian 
and then America, successive Australian governments have 
seen the ability of the country to integrate itself into an 
alliance system where defence is collectively shared and 
Australian defence spending kept under tight control 
allowing the civilian population to share unrivalled 
prosperity (Australia before WWI had the highest standard 
of living per capita in the world).  With the collapse of 
the British Empire, and perhaps most importantly the loss 
of the fortress of Singapore, Australia turned to the new 
power in the Pacific, America.  A treaty formalising the 
new relationship between it, Australia and New Zealand 
called the ANZUS Pact was concluded in 1951. 

     However, the ANZUS Pact was designed from an American 
viewpoint to first reassure Australian and New Zealand 
concerns about a possibly rearmed and resurgent Japan and 
secondarily to tie America in the defence of the two former 
Dominions.  From the Australian viewpoint, on the 
otherhand, it was designed to tie America first and 
foremost into the defence of Australia, despite the 
pertinant clause only requiring the three parties to 
"consult" in case of an attack on the others rather than 
necessarily having a clause like in the NATO treaty where 
an attack on one party is considered an attack on all 

     So we have, by 1965, two radically different 
interpretations of the treaty which formed the major plank 
of Australian defence during the preceeding decade.  This 
was to prove important as will be explained.  

Why Australia became involved in the Vietnam War: 

     The reasons as to why Australia became involved in the 
Vietnam War have been traditionally painted in the colours 
of "collective security" and as part of the anti-Communist 
"crusade" to contain a world wide communist threat. 
However, the decision to become involved was not one take 
in isolation by the government of the day in Canberra.  
Rather it was the culmination of a long period of tension 
and unease, not as one might believe, over the idea of 
communist expansionism in Asia, but rather because of what 
was considered the unsatisfactory relationship which had 
developed between Canberra and Washington.  The key to that 
relationship had been Indonesia and its relations with 
Australia over first Dutch West New Guinea (now Irian Jaya) 
and then Malaysia.  Indeed as Greg Pemberton points out, 
"Australia's defence and foreign policy during the post war 
period cannot be fully understood without reference to 
Indonesia." (1) 

     In particular there was the problem of Dutch West New 
Guinea and Australia's relations with Indonesia.  The Labor 
government under Chifley in the immediate post-war years 
had looked favourably upon Indonesia's claim to self-
determination, reflecting a deep commitment to the Atlantic 
Charter of 1941 and also a desire to perhaps displace the 
Dutch as the main influence in the archipelago.  Indeed 
when the Dutch attempted to use force to reassert their 
domination of the islands after the war, the Australian 
government sided with the new Republic.  This annoyed both 
Washington and London which desired to see that the 
territories to Australia's north should remain in 
"friendly"  (ie.colonial) hands.  This was, according to 
Pemberton, "the highpoint of Australian-Indonesian 
relations in the post-war world and led Foreign Minister 
Dr. Subandria" later to describe Evatt and the Labor 
government as the 'mid-wife' of the Indonesian Republic." (2) 

     This attitude quickly changed when a new Liberal-
Country Party coalition government took office in 1949. 
While it shared the same desire as its predecessor to 
maintain good relations with the new Republic, its past 
history of a vigorous opposition to the perceived threat of 
Communism, both at home and now abroad meant that it was 
quickly charting a collision course with Indonesia. 

     The Liberal and Country parties which constituted the 
government during this period had created their policy on 
this matter while in opposition at the end of the forties. 
Many of the conservative politicians who made up these two 
parties had been suspicious of the ambitions of the last 
Labor Government's Minister for External Affairs, 
Dr.H.V.Evatt, while the ideological affinity that was shown 
between the ALP and new Indonesian republic had aroused 
alarm.  The refusal of the Communist dominated Waterside 
Worker's Union to load Dutch ships, bound for Indonesia, 
during the new republic's struggle for independence had 
been important in creating pro-Dutch sentiments amongst the 
coalition's leaders.  This apparent collusion between the 
Indonesians and the Australian Communists was enough cause 
for grave suspicion amongst the soon to be elected 
opposition leaders, about the new republic's political 
alignment. (3) 

     Menzies could have perhaps overcome earlier 
prejudices, had it not been for Australia's perception of 
the strategic importance of the island of New Guinea.  With 
the near run result of 1942 still fresh in their minds, 
when the Japanese onslaught had only just been stayed north 
of Port Moresby, it was not unusual that the new Liberal 
Minister for External Affairs, P.C.Spender would declare 
that New Guinea was, "an absolutely essential link in the 
chain of Australian defence" and added Australia has, "the 
duty of ensuring by every means open to us that in the 
island areas immediately adjacent to Australia, in whatever 
direction they lie, nothing takes place that can in any way 
offer a threat to Australia".(4) 

     Despite this declaration, it would have been perhaps 
logical that the Government would have re-evaluated its 
perception of the importance of New Guinea to Australia, 
particularly in the light of having just signed the ANZUS 
agreement in 1951.  Article V of which guarantee the 
integrity of both Australia's and New Zealand's Pacific 
territories.  This would have meant that New Guinea was no 
longer essential to Australia as a buffer against a 
possibly expansionist Indonesia as Australia's integrity 
was now apparently guaranteed. 

     So for strategic reasons, even if perhaps mistaken, 
the Australian government desired a continuing Dutch 
presence in West New Guinea.  It tried to achieve this by 
both cooperation with the Dutch and by lobbying at the 
United Nations, in an effort to frustrate Indonesian claims 
to the island. 

     However, neither of these policies was pursued with 
any consistency.  In November 1957, the Governments of 
Australia and the Netherlands declared a policy of close 
cooperation in New Guinea since, 

     "The territories of Netherlands New Guinea, and the
     Australian Trust Territory of New Guinea and Papua are
     geographically and enthologically related...  future
     development of their respective populations must 
     benefit from cooperation in policy and 
     administration." (5) 

     This policy of cooperation was actually only minimal 
for Australian policy makers knew that this principle of 
joint development might prove embarrassing unless it was 
certain that Indonesia would not be able to realise her 
claims to any part of New Guinea, either by force or by a 
Dutch withdrawal. 

     Throughout the fifties Australia's support for the 
Dutch in West New Guinea had rested upon one main 
assumption; that both the United States and Britain were 
tacitly in favour of a continuing Dutch presence there. 
However events were to prove this assumption wrong.  The 
British Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, in a joint press 
conference with the Australian Prime Minister, Robert 
Menzies, in 1958, said that Britain was only willing to 
support Australia's views only on, "the plain of the UN." 
(6)  Similarly American support was appearing to wane when 
both the they, and the British, resumed arms shipments to 
Indonesia, despite protests from both the Netherlands and 
Australia. (7) 

     When it was obvious that there was going to be no 
guarantee of American support for Australia's stance, the 
Government attempted to adopt a less rigid attitude.  They 
invited the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Dr Subandrio, to 
Canberra for talks with the Australian Minister for 
External Affairs, R.G.Casey.  At the end of these talks a 
communique was issued that indicated the Australian 
Government's willingness to adopt a more passive role if 
any agreement was reached between the Netherlands and 
Indonesia. (8) 

     With the issue of this communique the Government came 
under attack from many sections of the community, 
particularly the press. (9)  In the face of this strong 
domestic opposition to the idea of Indonesian possession of 
West New Guinea, Prime Minister Menzies concluded that it 
would be politically disadvantageous, or even suicidal for 
him not to continue with the established policy.  It should 
be remembered that at this time the Government's majority 
in the lower house consisted of one seat, and Menzies 
always remembered the collapse of his 1941 Government when 
a no confidence motion was passed against him. 

     Pemberton also raises the point that perhaps Menzies's 
government never had any real intention of modifying its 
real stance over the matter of West New Guinea.  He 
suggests that these, "events were possibly part of a 
deliberate attempt to set up a legal smokescreen which 
would obscure Australia's true position." (10)  While 
stating that Australia would accept any peaceful 
settlement, the government could not or would not, 
disassociate itself from the Dutch hard line and appear 
sympathetic to the Indonesia claim while also appearing 
unable to do anything to help them. 

     However as can be pointed out, this had one unintended 
consequence: by adopting a softer line the Australian 
government might well have encouraged the Indonesians to 
press their claims even harder on the Dutch.  In June 1958, 
the Indonesian Government gave notice that it was no longer 
interested in legal means to settle the dispute, but would 
rather now concentrate, "on a contest of power" to resolve 
the problem.  Australia's seeming intractability, despite 
the "new face" which Canberra had assumed over the problem 
after the visit of Dr.Subandrio to Canberra, was also 
proving to be a great irritant to Jakarta, By late 1961 the 
question of a continuing Dutch presence in West New Guinea 
had become a burning national issue. 

     The proceedings at the United Nations General Assembly 
session of 1961 left the problem even more confused.  The 
Dutch Government, sickening of the matter, tried to hand 
the problem over to the UN, which refused it.  The United 
States, and most other nations were obviously unwilling to 
support any move that would keep the territory from the 
possession of Indonesia, for Dr. Sukarno commanded 
considerable influence amongst third world 

     At the same time India had just ended Portugal's 
colonial presence in Goa through the use of force.  When 
the impotence of the UN to take action was shown, the 
attitudes of Indonesia, the Netherlands and the United 
States abruptly changed.  The day after India's invasion of 
Goa, President Sukarno ordered a general mobilisation. (11)  
He also sent a letter to President Kennedy warning that 
Indonesia would use force if necessary to resolve the 
matter.  The US Government attempted to head off armed 
conflict by trying to get both countries to the conference 
table.  Kennedy pressed the Dutch to drop their 
preconditions to negotiations and made his Government 
available as a mediator. (12) 

     Though the Dutch Government steadfastly refused to 
drop its precondition of the principle of self-
determination for the natives of West New Guinea, by the 
end of 1961 it seemed that the Dutch had reconciled 
themselves to the idea that they would have to bow to 
Indonesian military and American diplomatic pressures. (13) 

      Australia however continued with its hardline policy 
towards the problem.  With the issue of a stern note to the 
Indonesian Ambassador, Menzies made a final effort to press 
Indonesia to a settlement without resort to force, and 
Australia moved even further from the reality of the 
situation.  Sukarno's reply showed that his Government was 
not impressed by Australia's declarations. 

     Sir Garfield Barwick, the new Minister for External 
Affairs, quickly realised that a continuation of this 
policy without backing from America, would leave Australia 
open to nothing but ridicule and enmity from its nearest 
neighbour. He issued a statement to attempt to defuse the 
situation. In it he reversed the earlier strategic 
assessment of the importance of West Guinea to Australian 
interests.  He "saw no evidence whatever of any present 
threat to Australia or to any Australian interest." (14) 

     While helping in calming the situation with Indonesia 
to some extent the statement aroused a considerable storm 
of protest in some sections of the community.  The 
Opposition leader, Arthur Calwell, called it, "...abject 
appeasement...A betrayal as great as Munich had been." (15) 

     But what had cause this sudden volte face of 
Government policy? Hanno Wiesbrod, (16) suggests that the 
Government had received from the Chiefs of Staff a 
strategic reassessment of the importance of West New 
Guinea, in the light of article V of the ANZUS agreement.  
The Military reported that the possession of West New 
Guinea by the Indonesians would not be a threat to 
Australia because,  

     1) Indonesia's offensive potential was rated as very 
     low.  It was considered to be difficult, if not 
     impossible for Indonesia to mount and sustain a large 
     scale invasion force. 

     2) The rugged remoteness of the terrain would also be 
     an inhibiting factor for direct invasion as well as 
     subversive activities.  (Subversive activities were 
     rated to have only nuisance value.) 

     3) In the event of a large scale conflict with a 
     Communist and/or Communist supported Indonesia the 
     American guarantee under ANZUS would operate.  A 
     repetition of a World War II experience would be 
     unlikely since the United States had a
     preponderance of naval power in the Pacific. (17)  

     With the Indonesian threat destroyed by their "expert" 
advisers the only remaining question facing the Government 
was whether or not it was still in Australia's interest to 
continue with its opposition to Indonesia's claim. 

     As American support was lacking, Australia would have 
stood alone.  Sir Garfield Barwick's argument against the 
standing hard line policy, still favoured by his fellow 
cabinet members, was that such a move would have been 
against the best interests of Australia, and would only 
have prolonged the dispute.  Since the Australian half of 
New Guinea was guaranteed under ANZUS, it appeared 
dangerous and short sighted to incur the further enmity of 

     With India having set the example in Goa it was only a 
matter of time before Indonesia would be in conflict with 
the Dutch forces present in Dutch West New Guinea.  The 
idea of Australia becoming involved in such a conflict 
would have been ludicrous, Australia lacked both the 
manpower under arms and the weapons to prosecute a conflict 
with Indonesia.  Australia would also have become isolated 
in what would have appeared to be an anti-colonialist 
struggle. It would have embarrassed and alienated the US 
and would have weakened any claim Australia might have had 
on American assistance if eastern New Guinea had been 
attacked.  While finally for the cabinet members who felt 
that Australia would have been letting down the Dutch, 
Barwick pointed out that the Dutch had already declared 
their willingness to give up their administration of the 
territory, at the session of the UN assembly the previous 

     So it was that Australia quickly bowed out as a major 
participant in the dispute.  It did however still remain 
involved with attempts to get the Indonesians and the Dutch 
to negotiate over the matter.  After several armed clashes, 
usually with the Indonesians coming off second best, an 
agreement was reached on 15 August 1962 with the result 
that the UN took over administration for a short period.  
This quickly ended and Indonesia assumed control of the 
western half of the island. 

     Australia finally gave into the Indonesians on the 
matter by justifying it to itself that it was better that 
the Indonesians gained the island, than the possibility of 
an armed conflict which would, "threaten world peace and 
could well bring disaster to South-East Asia by its 
encouragement of Communist activity and intervention." (18)  
There was also the fear that if the Indonesian government 
came under the pressure of promoting a war that the 
influence of the PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia) might 
become more powerful. 

     The result of this mishandling of the West New Guinea 
affair was most certainly a failure of Australian foreign 
policy for the Liberal-Country Party Government of the 
period.  The Government had not attempted to point out the 
realities of the situation to the people, with the result 
that the Casey-Subandrio communique issued in 1959, which 
would have modified Australian policy in line with the 
realities of the situation, was not well received by either 
the public or the Opposition.  This forced the Government 
to continue with its unrealistic policies until forced to 
either back them with some form of force or change them.  
It was only with the appointment of a new Minister for 
External Affairs, that Menzies was wakened to the dangerous 
position that his policies had placed the Government in.  
Being unable to back this hardline policy with either 
Australian or perhaps more importantly, American muscle, 
meant that Australia became open to ridicule, particularly 
when Indonesia resorted to force.
     Indeed Renouf suggests that the failure of Australia's 
policy towards West New Guinea had fateful consequences for 
her Indonesian relations. "When on 17 August 1963 Sukarno 
acclaimed his 'Year of Triumph', he knew that his victims 
included Australia." (19)  He had achieved his goal by 
doing whatever he liked in the teeth of Australia's 
opposition. Australia, Indonesia concluded, was no match 
for them and, in case of trouble between the two countries, 
Indonesia did not have to be unduly preoccupied with the 
reactions of Australia's protector, the United States. 

     This then forced the Government to back down and most 
certainly damaged our standing in Indonesian eyes and 
contributed to the formulation of a policy of 
"confrontation" by Dr. Sukarno as a method by which 
Indonesian interests could be furthered. 

     As we have seen Australia was unable to back its 
rhetoric against Indonesian expansion in New Guinea with 
force.  One of the reasons why she was unable to do so was 
because the small Australian Army, which surely numbered 
only four Battalions of infantry plus some supporting units 
was already committed to other overseas countries, as well 
as the defence of the Australian mainland.  In April 1955 
Menzies had committed one of these Battalions to the 
defence of Malaya, where it was stationed as part of the 
Strategic Commonwealth Reserve. 

     After the success of Indonesia's policies in the 
matter of West New Guinea, Dr. Sukarno decided to apply 
them against the newly formed state of Malaysia, which 
consisted of Malaya, Sarawak, North Borneo, Singapore and 
initially Brunei.  Indonesia had at first wished Malaysia 
all success but by the end of 1962 Jakarta had changed its 
tune.  While it admitted it had no territorial claim upon 
Malaysia, Subandrio said, Indonesia could not remain 
indifferent to its formation because the Federation would 
have a common boundary with Indonesia.  Just afterwards 
Indonesia supported a revolt in Brunei, which while not 
connected with the proposal for the Sultanate to join the 
new federation, was used as a causus belli for the need for 
confrontation on the behalf of the people of North Borneo 
by Jakarta. 

     On 20 January 1963 Subandrio announced "confrontation" 
with Malaysia, because Malay was not fully independent but 
rather "neo-colonialist".  Other Indonesian leaders 
explained that Malaysia did not really represent the wishes 
of the people of North Borneo, or Sabah as it is now known, 
and also Sarawak. (20) 

     At first only with words, then anti-British and anti-
Malaysian demonstrations and riots, it quickly became a 
small scale war with the beginning of the infiltration by 
Indonesian troops across the borders of North Borneo.  
Britain reacted by ordering its troops into North Borneo to 
defend it against Indonesian infiltrators.  Australia was 
quick to follow, desiring to ensure that Britain remained 
tied into guaranteeing the stability of the region. (21)  
This left only two Battalions for the defence of mainland 
Australia and its widespread territories. 

     In November 1963, Menzies held a snap election with 
defence as the major issue.  The items under discussion 
were the joint Communications base at North West Cape, the 
Fiji procurement decision and the Labor party's proposal of 
a Nuclear free Southern Hemisphere.  Menzies successfully 
argued that Labor's policy on all three represented a 
danger to Australia's security.  After winning an extra 
seven seats in Parliament the Government believed that the 
public supported a policy on Forward Defence and by 1965 
Australian troops were fighting the Indonesian insurgents 
in Sabah and Sarawak.

  --- This article is continued in soc.history.war.vietnam FAQ: Australian
Involvement (3/3) ---
Copyright (c) 1995 Brian Ross.  Non-commercial distribution for educational
purposes permitted if document is unaltered.  Any commercial use, or storage in
any commercial BBS is strictly prohibited without written consent. 

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