Why australia wanted war in Vietnam

Australia has been an enthusiastic partner of US imperialism in an effort to advance its own interests in the region, argues Vivian Honan

It is an oft-quoted myth that Australia is the lapdog of America, only going to war at the request of the super power. Australia has fought alongside the US in every major conflict since the Second World War, from the Korean War to Iraq and Afghanistan. But far from being a reluctant ally dragged into war, the Australian ruling class has pushed to be involved in American wars in order to secure their own interests.

The extension of Australian bombing raids into Syria is the latest example.

Senior Government sources have leaked that the driving force behind the US request for Australian air forces actually came from the Australian Prime Minister’s office, not from Washington. This is strikingly similar to the story of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Australia’s interests in supporting US wars were clearly demonstrated in the case of Vietnam. Australia, led by Menzies at the time, wanted to ensure America’s on-going presence in Southeast Asia in order to protect its own growing political, economic and strategic interests in the region.

Imperialist sponsors

Before developing its relationship with America, Australia was economically and militarily dependant on Britain.

But a distinct Australian capitalist class emerged in the latter part of the 1800s, growing rich through the export of wool and raw materials including gold, sugar and zinc to Britain. This class had its own distinct interests that it saw as necessary to amass and maintain its wealth.

Australia developed into a small imperialist power throwing its weight around in the region. During the First World War Australia’s rulers took the opportunity to seize German colonies including New Guinea, Samoa and Nauru.

While Australia was a giant in the local region, it was only a minor power on the world stage. It saw its interests as best served through an alliance with one of the major imperialist powers. The shift towards the US began during the Second World War, after British forces in South-East Asia were defeated by the Japanese at Singapore.

By the end of the war, Australia was looking to expand its commercial interests into Asia. As Foreign Minister at the time, Evatt, told Parliament in 1947, “Present indications are that there should be a spectacular growth in the exchange of Australian processed products for the raw materials of the intensely rich areas of South East Asia.”

In the political context of the Cold War, and in order to ensure stability for its growing local trade, the Australian government was also eager to prevent the rise of communist governments in the region. For this reason the Liberal Party Government in Australia saw the anti-colonial movement in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in Malaya, as a threat.

After the war, labour unrest in British-controlled Malaya grew, in protest at unemployment and low wages. The British administration responded with repression, to which the Malayan Communist Party responding by beginning a guerrilla struggle.

Australian troops were sent to fight on the side of Britain to crush the movement and the Communist Party.

Australia was also concerned about a newly independent Indonesia that was looking to take over the area now known as West Papua from the Dutch. Australia had its own eyes on West Papua. It asked Washington to encourage Dutch resistance to Indonesia’s claims on the area. But the US adopted a position of neutrality and then eventually supported Indonesia. America was more concerned about its own political influence with Indonesia than Australia’s desire for the land.

In the “confrontation” between Malaya and Indonesia over territory in the 1960s, Australia again joined with British forces, this time against Indonesia. The US was far more accommodating of the Left-leaning Indonesian President, Sukarno, and refused to intervene with ground troops.

These conflicts showed that Australia had its own imperialist interests in the region, quite separate, and at times even conflicting, with American interests.

However, Australia did look to and hope for American support. With Britain’s declining economic and military strength, Australia began to seek closer relations with America to bolster its own military strength.

This history shows why the calls sometimes heard on the left for Australia to adopt an “independent foreign policy” are misplaced. Australia’s backing for first Britain and then the US has been a policy serving the “independent” aims of Australia’s ruling class.

Two treaties in particular showed Australia’s changing orientation towards the US. The Australia, New Zealand and United States (ANZUS) Treaty was signed in 1951. The treaty was a vaguely worded agreement to provide mutual assistance in the event of an attack. In 1954, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization was formed between several countries with interests in the region, including Australia and America. It had similarly vague notions of mutual assistance.

For America, these two agreements were part of building an anti-communist defence. But the agreements specifically did not guarantee American support for Australia in conflicts over territory and security. Australia would need to find other ways of ensuring American commitment to the region.

The Vietnam War was seen as such an opportunity.

Australia’s interest in Vietnam

Vietnam became part of the Government’s scare campaign against the spread of Communism. External Affairs Minister in the Menzies Government, Percy Spender, told parliament in 1950, “Should the forces of communism prevail and Vietnam come under the heel of Communist China, Malaya is in danger of being outflanked and it, together with Thailand, Burma and Indonesia, will become the next direct object of further communist activities.”

Menzies continued to talk up the threat of Communism claiming in 1965, “the takeover of South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia”.

But the Australian government’s main interest was in using Vietnam to lock America into the region. As Harold Holt put it, “we will win there and get protection in the South Pacific for a very small insurance premium.”

Australia’s involvement

US military advisers were present in Vietnam throughout the 1950s. But the major escalation, which eventually saw the sending of ground troops, only began in 1964 and 1965.

Far from following them into the war, the Australian government was more hawkish than the US administration, and attempted to push the US to escalate the conflict. Diplomat Malcolm Booker wrote that, “It was the Australian government which in the early part of 1965 pressed on the American government the need for strong military action in Vietnam”.

American Foreign Affairs Adviser William Bundy wrote of Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Paul Hasluck’s visit to Washington in November 1964 that: “Mr Hasluck continues to expound the primacy of victory in Vietnam over other Southeast Asian problems… He will probably reiterate his desire to increase Australian efforts in South Vietnam and to hope that the increased Australian military budget will permit this.”

Another Australian Minister, Peter Howson, also used his visit to America that November to push for a harder American line, “I broached the subject of greater defensive action in South Vietnam with possible further operations against the North Vietnamese.”

Australia began to expand its army combat units in early 1964. However, the Americans were not requesting Australian combat troops even by the end of 1964.

President Johnson sent communication to Menzies in December 1964 acknowledging “Hasluck’s statements on the strategic importance of Southeast Asia”, but requesting only more advisers and technical experts. He added, as if in response to the Australian pressure, “down the road in the future, if the situation in Saigon should require and justify it, there may be a need for combat units, but that is not the immediate problem.”

Menzies replied that, “…military aid of the present type will not remedy the situation in South Vietnam. Something different must be done.” While not willing to commit greater numbers of advisers, Menzies outlined that Australia was willing to take part in military discussions that would see the use of Australian ground forces.

In late February 1965, when America did begin bombing and increased troops, there was an international backlash. By April, the Canadian Prime Minister was calling publicly for a pause in the bombing.

The Australia government however, was so eager to become involved in the war they could hardly wait any longer for an American request, let alone a request from the South Vietnamese government, to send troops.

On 13 April 1965, the Australian ambassador in Washington, Waller, reported to Hasluck, “Rusk said that he presumed that Australia would want to have a formal request from the South Vietnamese Government. I replied that as a first step we would want a firm request from the United States.”

During these discussions with Waller, it was confirmed, after several months of pressure from Australia, that America would request an Australian battalion.

A request from the South Vietnamese government had still not been made.

On 28 April 1965 Menzies went ahead with an announcement that an Australian battalion of 800 soldiers would be dispatched to Vietnam. In a hurried push, they were eventually able to secure a formal letter of request from Vietnam, dated 29 April 1965.

Over 500 Australian soldiers and over one million Vietnamese died in the war. Australia’s participation was not a result of pressure from America. Australia had its own interests for encouraging and participating in the war. It was an attempt to secure American support for its own imperialist aims in the Asia Pacific.

Australia is an imperialist power, willing to throw its military weight around to bully and boost corporate profits. As our government takes us into more wars in Syria and Iraq, and stokes conflict with China in the region, opposing the adventures of the Australian government abroad is as important as ever.

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