|Australia's Involvement in the Vietnam War,
the Political Dimension
© Brian Ross, 1995
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 society.
There were, during the 1950's and 1960's three main political parties in Australia. They
The Australian Labor Party (ALP). A mildly left-of-centre, socialist party, the ALP was
conceived, 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 disastrous 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 in my opinion), 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 coalition 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.
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 parties.
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
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
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. 11 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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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 Indonesia.
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 year.
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
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.
Australia's Involvement in the Vietnam War,
the Political Dimension
© Brian Ross, 1995
The Labor party, once more consigned to the opposition benches in Parliament, pointed
out that Australia was not bound in any way to help Malaysia, Australia being only committed to
the defence of Malaya under the ANZAM agreement. They would have preferred a formal treaty
between the two states as to what sort of commitment that Australia was to make to Malaysian
defence. This was however defeated in parliament along party lines when it went to the vote.
Although the confrontation consisted of counterinsurgency operations in North Borneo,
the Government was worried about a direct attack by Indonesia against Australian territory, in
particular New Guinea. When in may 1964 Sukarno called upon "21 million volunteers" to crush
Malaysia, and his Government told Australia not to interfere in what was basically an Asian
problem, warning that if Australia did become involved then the responsibility would be Australia's
After this was announced there followed a discussion on 21 April 1964 in Parliament, as
to whether an attack by Indonesians on Australian troops in Borneo would activate the terms of
the ANZUS agreement, leading to the involvement of America. After criticism from the opposition
leader Arthur Calwell, who' said that, "America does not believe that its commitment does include
the protection of Australia troops already in Malaya".23
The Prime Minister, Robert Menzies replied that while the letter of ANZUS does not cover
Australia troops stationed abroad, the intent did. He suggested that,
"The United States of America did not even withdraw its support for Malaysia. It
has recognised Malaysia, and it wants Malaysia to be maintained... [but] That
when it came to the immediate defence of Malaysia this was perhaps primarily a
Despite the brave words the government was worried. It feared the possibility of the
confrontation escalating and that as its troops were already in contact with the Indonesians in
North Borneo, that the United States would not come to its aid "25
With defence becoming more of important in the thinking of the Government, selective
compulsory conscription was introduced before Parliament on 10 November 1964.26 This was to
increase the Army to an effective strength of 37,000. The reason being given was a lack of
sufficient volunteers, due to a period of full employment and economic expansion in the civil
sector. This build up of the Army was required for, Menzies said, our deteriorating strategic
situation. We expect a continuing requirement to make our forces available for cold war and
counterinsurgency tasks. We must have forces ready as an immediate contribution should
The small Australia Army was over-extended by its commitments both in Malaya and
Borneo and the result was that only two Battalions to defend Australia. The Army was also
committed to providing "advisers" as part of an aid package to the Government of South Vietnam
in its war against Communist insurgents and this was stretching its limited resources to the
maximum. Obviously more manpower was required if a credible defence was to be mounted
against the threat of Indonesian aggression and the only way that could be achieved was through
Then it was announced that Australian combat troops in the form of one infantry
Battalion, with supporting elements, would be committed to the war in South Vietnam, on 29 April
1965. The Govt. was criticised by the Opposition as well as by a strong vocal middle-class
minority which could not be dismissed as Communist or pro- Communist in their views.
This vocal minority was made up of numerous dignitaries, including Bishops of various
denominations, who were extremely critical of the policies of the rapidly changing South
Vietnamese Governments. They believed that the Australian Government should seek a
negotiated settlement of the conflict, rather than sending more military aid.28
As a result of this decision Australian conscripts would, for the first time serve outside
Australia or its territories and north of the Equator. This had not even occurred in World War II,
and it particularly incensed the Opposition leader who held to the ALP's longstanding opposition
to conscription for service not in the direct defence of Australia.29
This initial commitment of an Infantry Battalion quickly grew to become a Task Force (or
Brigade ) of three or four Battalions with supporting units of Armour, Engineers, Artillery and
Logistic support, as well as RAAF units flying Canberra's and helicopters and also naval units.
The tasks of these units quickly changed, from guarding and defensive ones to offensive
operations against the Vietnamese Communists. At its height the Australian commitment to
Vietnam reached 8,000 men in 1968-69.
Australia's involvement in Vietnam was prompted by three main factors. Perhaps most
important of these was a very poor perception by the Government of world affairs at that time.
Throughout the late fifties and sixties Australian diplomatic circles were firmly convinced of a
subversive "Communist Threat" outside Australia. This threat, initially directed by Moscow, and
later by Beijing, dominated Australian diplomatic thought for approximately fifteen years.
It had though, roots which went much further back than that. As Frank Cain mentions,30
the members of the coalition government gained anti-Communist convictions well before the
second world war. He suggests that the "the road to Vietnam was not only paved with anti-radical
and anti-communist rhetoric and actions but that the non-Labor forces came to be prisoners of
As a consequences of their repeated successes in federal elections, they were convinced
of the appropriateness of these policies. In fact when they failed to "kick the Communist can" as
they did in 1961, the coalition nearly lost office. As a consequence the anti- Communist policy of
the government under Menzies became electorally self-rewarding and they sought to use it where
ever possible. This does not deny that they were not totally convinced for the best of reasons but
that they also managed to convince the electorate that Communism must be opposed where ever
As Cain suggests, when Menzies made his statement suggesting that "the takeover of
South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia,"32 the anti-Communist convictions
developed over the previous five years were now convincing them to intervene and this action led
Australia into the "quagmire of the Vietnamese civil war."33
Even after the departure of Menzies in 1965, the ideological crusade to which the
Coalition was committed carried it to greater electoral victories. In the 1966 election Harold Holt's
government was returned by an even greater majority by an electorate who believed in the
necessity to remain in Vietnam.
However as the middle-class became more convinced about the dangers of their sons
being conscripted to fight overseas in Vietnam, they switched their vote to the Labour Party in
response. It was ironic that the coalition by using anti-Communist rhetoric to maintain electoral
support now lost office by not taking note of it in the election which led to their defeat in 1972.
The coalition government's doubts about Indonesia's political alignment had been
reinforced over the years by the acceptance of large quantities of military and civil aid by Jarkata
from initially Moscow, and then later Beijing. While in retrospect it is obvious that Sukarno was
playing the East off against the West in an effort to gain what he wanted, it raised fears in
Canberra that Sukarno was increasingly coming under the control of the local Communist
members of his government. This was further reinforced when Sukarno threatened to nationalise
the three major oil companies operating in Indonesia (Shell, Caltex and Stanvac) which
represented over $US500 million in investment.34 This fear of a Indonesia becoming a
Communist country on Australia's doorstep further reinforced the already rigid anti-communist
stance of the coalition's leaders.35
This perception of an aggressive Communist threat in Asia prompted Australian foreign
Policy planners to support American policies in Asia almost completely blind to the realities of the
situation facing them. The war in Vietnam was not perceived as a local rebellion or civil war,
caused by discontent, or even as a war of "national liberation" from the last vestiges of colonial
rule as it perhaps should have been. Instead, it was perceived by the then Minister for External
Affairs, Paul Hasluck', as he related in his policy speech on 23 March 1965, as a conflict where,
"the application of the methods of and doctrines of Communist Guerrilla warfare first evolved in
China and then successfully in North Vietnam."36 In his judgement the South Vietnamese were
not dealing simply with a situation of local unrest, but with a "large scale campaign of
assassination and terrorism", the direction of which was coming from "outside".37
This "outside" direction was perceived most definitely as from Beijing. Gregory Clark
suggests that this perception of Chinese aggression was carried to the point of "Sinophobia".38
He relates the story of how Hasluck visited Moscow in October 1964. He was seeking to enlist
Soviet aid in preventing the success of this perceived Chinese aggression in Vietnam. Needless
to say the Soviets turned the discussion to things of more interest and use to them.39
This fear of Communist aggression was not, only confined to the Ministry of External
Affairs. The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, said in his policy speech on 29April 1965 that,
the takeover of South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia and
all the countries of South and South-East Asia. It must be seen as a part of a
thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.40
The fear of this Communist aggression was founded upon what was referred to as the
"Domino Theory" by its exponents. Unless this aggressive action by China was stopped in
Vietnam, ran the theory, then after Vietnam had fallen, the surrounding countries would follow,
just like a row of Dominoes. These countries, which tended to be neutral in their outlook,
favouring neither east or west, might become embroiled in another war like Vietnam, or they
might defect to the Communist line. It was feared that this "domino" action would eventually lead
to Australia's shores and then the policy of forward defence would mean Darwin instead of
While it was in confrontation with Indonesia the government had the added fear that, as
Renouf suggests, "Indonesian success with confrontation could lead to a reverse Domino Theory
- from south to north - with Singapore, a strategically placed island, being an early victim,"41 and
with Australia being perhaps the next target.
Perhaps more significant than this as to why Australia became involved in the Vietnam
War, was the Government's policy of relying on "great and powerful friends" for Australia's
defence. The Government was afraid that if the problems with Indonesia came to armed conflict
then Australia would be abandoned by America and Britain. The response of its two major allies,
Great Britain and the United States, to the problems of West New Guinea and to a lesser extent
Borneo, had convinced the government that they did not share Australia's deep concern about
Indonesia. The United States was unwilling to support Australia's stand with anything more
substantial than words.
Both Britain and the United States had seen it against their interests to provoke
Indonesia, who commanded considerable power amongst other third world countries and
because of the large amounts of investment both countries had tied up there. They feared the
danger of Sukarno nationalising their interests without compensation.42
In addition when Australia had asked the United States for , an unequivocal commitment
under the ANZUS treaty, that it was willing to guarantee Australia's defence in case things with
Indonesia blew up first over Dutch West New Guinea and then later in Borneo. While Pemberton
suggests that in Washington's mind it was fully committed to Australia, in Canberra the lack of a
public sign or declaration to that effect weighed heavily on Menzies's mind.43
So it was that Australia was seeking a method by which America could be "locked into"
the defence of both Asia and in particular Australia, against this feared Communist Aggression.
The opportunity presented itself when America proposed that Australia provide more advisers
and some air and naval aid to Vietnam.44 Australia however seized upon the chance to offer
troops, particularly with the expansion of the Army to meet "a continuing requirement for cold war
and counter- insurgency tasks".45 While William Bundy, the Assistant Secretary of State for SE
Asia, noted the offer of troops, he was more hopeful of receiving advisers instead. As America at
this time was not willing to commit her own troops to Vietnam.
As Sexton suggests, this would seem to indicate that the Australians believed the
Americans were not taking a tough enough line. They had allowed political events, both at home
and abroad to influence their actions. The Australians believed that the Americans needed their
So it was that Australia offered the use of ground troops on 18 December 1964. Although
the announcement that this offer had been received and accepted by both the Americans and the
Parliament until 29 April 1965. Although, as Sexton points out, the request that Menzies referred
to in Parliament was not received by the Australian Government's representatives in Saigon until
that very day had to be almost forced out of the South Vietnamese government.47
Talks on the matter had taken place well before this date, on 22 April, between the
Australian and the Americans. This announcement came before an American decision to commit
ground troops had occurred. So it was that at Australian insistence, Australian troops were
committed to take part in the Vietnam War not, as was always stated, on the basis of an
So it can be seen from these short accounts that Indonesia's policy of Confrontation over
West New Guinea and Malaysia was a major contributing factor in the Australian Government
wishing to become involved in a war far from Australian shores. Other factors that contributed to
this wish to become involved in an Asian war were the fear of the Domino theory, the seeming
lack of American commitment to the defence of Asian and Australia in particular, and the fear of a
perceived threat of Communist
As both Sexton, and Cooksey, point out, Australia was not happy with the United States'
performance over the West New Guinea and Borneo affairs, so in an effort to build up a "credit of
goodwill" with America that could be drawn upon in time of need it would seem that Australia
decided to enter the Vietnam war.49 There is an old American political adage that says "not what
you have done for me, but what have you done for me lately"? So Australia became involved to
show the Americans that if we were willing to help them, they would then perhaps be willing to
help us if it ever came to the point of war with Indonesia.
1. p.70, Pemberton, G., All the Way, Australia's Road to Vietnam, Allen E; Unwin, Sydney,
2. p.71, Pemberton, G., All the War, Australia's road to Vietnam.
3. p.24, Wiesbrod, H., 'Sir Garfield Barwick and Dutch New Guinea, Australian Quarterly,
4. p.628, 'Policy Speech on External Affairs', Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates,
House of Representatives, 9 March 1950.
5. p.881-2, Current Notes, Vo1.28, November 1957.
6. quoted p.26, Wiesbrod, H., 'Sir Garfield Barwick and Dutch New Guinea'.
7. pp.76-9, Pemberton, G., All the Way.
8. pp.80-1, Ibid.
9. p.29, ibid.
10. p.80, ibid.
11. P.99, Pemberton, G., All the Way.
12. p.428, Renouf, A., The Frightened Country, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1979.
14. p.889, 'Ministerial Statement on West New Guinea, ' ,Commonwealth Parliamentary
Debates, House of Representatives, 15 March 1962.
15. pp.1151-1161, 'Debate on International Affairs' , Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates,
House of Representatives, 21 April 1962.
16. Wiesbrod, H., 'Sir Garfield Barwick and Dutch New Guinea, Australian Quarterly, June
17. p.30, Ibid.
18. p.21, Current Notes, Vo1.33, No. 3, 1962.
19. p.431, Renouf A., The Frightened Country.
20. pp.431-2, Renouf, A., The Frightened Country.
21. p.436, ibid.
22. p.157, Andrews, E. M., A History of Australia's Foreign Policy: from dependence to i n
dependence , Longman Cheshire , Melbourne, 1979.
23. p.1279, 'Debate on International Affairs', Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House
of Representatives, 21 April 1964.
24. p.2718 `Defence Review Debate' , Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of
Representatives, 10 November 1964.
25. pp.174-5, Pemberton, G., All the Way.
26. p.2718 `Defence Review Debate' , Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of
Representatives, 10 November 1964.
27. p.2718, 'Defence Review Debate' , Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of
Representatives, 10 November 1964.
28. p.113, Watt, A., Vietnam, An Australian Analysis, F. W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1983.
29. p.114, Watt, A., Vietnam, An Australian Analysis.
30. Cain, F.,`Australia's road to Vietnam - Non-Labour and Anti-Communism 1920-1966',
original manuscript supplied by the author
31. p.1, ibid.
32. pp.1060, `Vietnam - Ministerial Statement', Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates,
House of Representatives, 29 April 1965.
33. p.161 Cain F., `Australia's road to Vietnam - Non-Labour and Anti-Communism 1920-
34. p.178, Pemberton, G., All the Way.
35. pp.436-7, Renouf, A., The Frightened Country.
36. p.2381 'Debate on International Affairs', Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House
of Representatives, 23 March 1965.
38. pp.19-20, Clarke, G., 'Vietnam, China and the Foreign Affairs Debate in Australia, a
personal account', in King, P., (Ed. ), Australia's Vietnam, Allen g Unwin, Sydney, 1983.
40. pp.1060-1, "Vietnam - Ministerial Statement', Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates,
House of Representatives, 29 April 1965.
41. p.436, Renouf, A., The Frightened Country.
42. p.99, Pemberton, G., All the Way.
43. p.188, Pemberton, G., All the Way.
44. p.61, Sexton, M., War for the Asking, Australia's Vietnam Secrets, Penguin Books,
45. p.2718, `Defence Review Debate' , Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of
Representatives, 10 November 1964.
46. p.69, Sexton, M., War for the Asking.
47. pp.140-145r Sexton M., War for the asking.
48. pp.165-171, Sexton, M., War for the Asking
49. p.47, Cooksey, R., 'Assumptions of Australia's Vietnam Policy', World Review, October
Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives.
Current Notes, Vo1.28, November 1957
Andrews, E.M., A History of Australia's Foreign Policy: from dependence to i n dependence ,
Longman Cheshire , Melbourne, 1979.
Cain, F.,`Australia's road to Vietnam - Non-Labour and Anti-Communism 1920-1966', original
manuscript supplied by the author
Clarke, G., 'Vietnam, China and the Foreign Affairs Debate in Australia, a personal account', in
King, P., (Ed.),
Australia's Vietnam, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1983.
Cooksey, R., 'Assumptions of Australia's Vietnam Policy', World Review, October 1966.
Renouf, A., The Frightened Country, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1979.
Pemberton, G., All the Way, Australia's Road to Vietnam, Allen &; Unwin, Sydney, 1987.
Sexton, M., War for the Asking, Australia's Vietnam Secrets, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1981.
Watt, A., Vietnam, An Australian Analysis, F. W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1983.
Wiesbrod, H., 'Sir Garfield Barwick and Dutch New Guinea, Australian Quarterly, June 1967.
"For I will work the work in your days which ye will not believe, though it be told to you"
Habakkuk, 7th Century BC
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