What Was Australia Doing in Vietnam?

In July 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson sent two of his principal advisers, Clark Clifford and Gen. Maxwell Taylor, to Australia and New Zealand with an urgent mission. Protests were raging in American streets and on university campuses. Hawks and doves were battling in Washington. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was heading toward resignation, an admission that his Vietnam policy had failed.

Amid this turmoil, Gen. William C. Westmoreland was demanding a substantial escalation in American troop numbers, around 400,000 at the start of the year. To get any increase out of an increasingly critical Congress, Johnson had to show that American allies, especially democracies like Australia and New Zealand that were paying their own way, were prepared to increase their commitments. As Clifford told the New Zealand government, “one additional New Zealand soldier might produce 50 Americans.”

The prospects for the Clifford-Taylor mission looked good in Australia, where the conservative government had been outspokenly hawkish. When American officials first indicated, in December 1964, that the administration was considering sending combat forces to Vietnam and that an Australian contribution would be welcome, they seemed to have in mind a modest increase to the advisory team of 83 soldiers already in South Vietnam. Instead Robert Menzies, Australia’s long-serving prime minister, sent a battalion of 800 troops, even though their role, like American strategy in general, was far from clear.

As Menzies saw it, the risk in American policy was not strategic overreach but isolationism, and what an American withdrawal from Asia in the face of defeat would mean for Australia and its neighbors. As a young man of military age during World War I, and as a youthful prime minister at the outbreak of World War II, he knew how painful it was for Britain and its dominions to be at war without America. The crucial step, it seemed, was to ensure American commitment: Once that was achieved, victory would be certain. Australia’s “forward defense” strategy after 1945 was to make small, but effective, military commitments in order to keep both Britain and the United States, which Menzies called “our great and powerful friends,” committed to Southeast Asia.

Australians had good reason to believe in the domino theory. Since 1945 Southeast Asia had been a caldron of conflicts created by the complex combination of decolonization, the Cold War and longstanding local rivalries. By 1964 the region seemed to be at a tipping point. Malaysia was facing a confrontation with Indonesia, where the world’s third-largest Communist party was exerting increasing influence. Although not a Communist, Indonesia’s President Sukarno had received arms from the Soviet Union and boasted of his close ideological ties with China, North Korea and North Vietnam.

In this volatile environment, many Australians considered a fairly small military commitment, combined with strong political and diplomatic support for the United States, a small premium to pay for Australia’s strategic insurance policy, the Australia-New Zealand-United States treaty.

In 1966 Menzies’s successor, Harold Holt, had added a second battalion to the Australian commitment, declared on the White House lawn that Australia was “all the way with L.B.J.,” hosted a triumphal tour by the first incumbent president to visit Australia, and won a huge electoral victory on his Vietnam policy. In early 1967, he added further units, making Australia the only “third country” to provide army, navy and air force assets.

By the time Clifford and Taylor met Holt’s cabinet in July, however, the mood had changed. The Australian antiwar movement was gathering momentum, inspired partly by casualties among young conscripts. A controversial form of selective conscription was sending 20-year-old men, too young to vote, to fight in Vietnam. This system had been introduced with Indonesia in mind more than Indochina, but by 1967 the regional situation had entirely changed.

A coup in Indonesia in late 1965 had replaced the erratic Sukarno with a pro-Western military regime, which brutally eliminated real and alleged Communists. The confrontation of Malaysia was formally ended in August 1966. Malaysia and Singapore were like a successfully divorced couple, functioning better apart than together. Thailand and the Philippines were more secure. All five countries had formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a welcome sign of regional cooperation.

In this changed environment, the Australian ministers were finding it hard to justify the Vietnam commitment’s rising financial and political costs. When Clifford and Taylor, on their July 1967 visit, urged them to add a third battalion to the Australian task force — a measure supported by Australian army chiefs — Holt and his colleagues resisted, claiming that Australia had reached the limit of its capacity. Only after Johnson exercised his legendary powers of persuasion on a visiting Australian minister did the government commit the third battalion, insisting that this really was the absolute limit to the Australian contribution.

Clifford later said that the reluctance of the Australians, who had sent 300,000 servicemen overseas in World War II, to commit more than 7,000 to Vietnam led him to reassess America’s own commitment. Both before and after he succeeded McNamara as defense secretary in early 1968, he started turning American policy toward de-escalation and withdrawal.

From 1968 onward the Australian leadership was torn between the political pressure for a graduated withdrawal, linked to those implemented under President Richard M. Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy, and the military desire to maintain a balanced force. Most Australian troops were withdrawn by the end of 1971, and the final elements came home in December 1972. By this time some 60,000 Australian service personnel had served in Vietnam. The official death toll was 521, the third-largest of any conflict Australia had joined, but far smaller than those of the two world wars. Vietnam remained Australia’s longest war until Afghanistan.

Relations between American and Australian military leaders were not always smooth. The first Australian battalion was inserted into an American brigade, the 173rd Airborne. The Australians, with their experience in Malaya and Borneo, thought that they knew how to conduct counterinsurgency operations in Southeast Asian jungles, deploying small units in silent patrols and ambushes, and using cordon-and-search operations in rural villages to separate the guerrillas from the civilian population.

They were shocked to see American units engaged in large-scale, combined-arms operations, making no attempt to conceal their presence. American Army doctrine, developed for large-maneuver conflicts against a major enemy like the Soviet Union, was to bring the enemy to battle and then deploy its enormous advantage in technology and firepower. Substantial casualties were acceptable, provided that greater casualties were inflicted on the enemy. Australian political and military leaders could not accept high casualty rates and disliked Westmoreland’s emphasis on the “body count” of enemy casualties.

To escape these and other tensions, the Australian army’s commitment was recast as a task force, which could operate with a greater degree of independence from the American military command. The task force took over most military responsibilities in Phuoc Tuy province, on the southern coast, protecting an important supply route between the port of Vung Tau and Saigon.

After some time the Australians recognized that the situation in South Vietnam had passed beyond the stage where Malayan-style operations could succeed. In some major encounters, such as the celebrated battle of Long Tan in August 1966, American as well as Australian and New Zealand artillery played a vital role. Australians were generally more comfortable under Westmoreland’s successor, Gen. Creighton Abrams, who recognized that both large-unit operations and counterinsurgency techniques were required at different times and in different parts of South Vietnam.

Large and sometimes violent protests were a new phenomenon in Australia in the late 1960s. The protest movement was divided between moderates who wanted to end a commitment to an unwinnable war and radicals who wanted to tear down the institutions of democratic capitalism. Protests often adopted American techniques, but with an Australian twist. The 1965 “teach-ins” on American campuses, for example, were uniformly hostile to the administration, but Australian teach-ins were moderate and balanced, with students listening attentively to speakers both for and against the war.

Australian protesters borrowed the name “Moratorium” from the American antiwar movement for the major demonstrations of the early 1970s. The first Moratorium demonstration in May 1970, when between 70,000 and 100,000 people peacefully occupied the streets of Melbourne, had a considerable impact, but as troops were withdrawn later Moratorium demonstrations dissolved into infighting between the moderate and radical wings.

The postwar experience of Australia’s Vietnam veterans similarly was a milder version of their American counterparts experienced. Many Australian veterans suffered long-term damage to both physical and mental health, but addressing their problems was complicated by the charge, also borrowed from the United States, that most ailments were caused by the toxic chemicals known collectively as Agent Orange. Successive inquiries suggested that, while Agent Orange probably did considerable damage to Vietnamese civilians and to American servicemen, Australians were less exposed. Most of the Australian veterans’ mental and physical injuries were probably caused by post-traumatic stress, smoking and alcohol consumption.

Australian servicemen in Vietnam did not have a major drug problem, although many attribute a subsequent heroin epidemic, especially in Sydney, to American servicemen on rest and recreation leave. The Australians’ alcohol intake, by contrast, was legendary. As both tobacco and alcohol were supplied to the troops in Vietnam, they have a legitimate claim for compensation for their aftereffect, just as much as those that can be attributed to Agent Orange.

Today, as Australians debate the future of the American alliance under the Trump administration, Vietnam rarely gets discussed. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a debate over the war. Defenders support the view, famously expressed by Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, that by delaying the fall of Saigon from 1965 to 1975 the Western commitment gave potential dominoes, like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, 10 years to strengthen their political and economic resilience. Critics insist that the cost, in blood, treasure and political credibility, was too high.

Still, Vietnam remains a central part of the Australian-American narrative, for good or ill. Supporters of the Australian-American alliance like to proclaim that Australia has fought alongside the United States in every major war of the last 100 years. Critics cite Vietnam and Iraq as examples of Australia’s uncritical allegiance to Washington.

Both assertions understate the differences between those two commitments. Vietnam was in a strategically important region to Australia: An American withdrawal appeared to jeopardize Australia’s national security. Australians did not invade Vietnam in order to effect regime change; they intervened, with approval, to defend a regime in Saigon, not to overturn one in Hanoi. Whether it was politically wise or militarily possible to defend the Saigon government, and whether the costs of the commitment outweighed the benefits, are questions that historians continue to debate.

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