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Whitewashing Down Under: The Vietnam War Fifty Years On

The Vietnam War tormented and tore the societies who saw fit to participate in it. It defined a generation culturally and politically in terms creative and fractious. And it showed up the rulers to be ignorant rather than bright; blundering fools rather than sages secure in their preaching. Five decades on, the political classes in the United States and Australia are still seeking to find reasons for intervening in a country they scant understood, with a fanatic’s persuasion, and ideologue’s conviction, a moralist’s certainty. Old errors die hard.

Leaders are left the legacy of having to re-scent the candle, hoping that no one notices the malodorous stench left by history. Errors can be ignored in the aromatic haze. Broadcasters and producers of celluloid scutter about to provide softening programs explaining why soldiers who had no valid reason fighting a conflict, could find themselves in it. The ABC in Australia, for instance, released their series called Our Vietnam War, narrated by Kate Mulvany, whose bridge to the war was via her father. The very title is personal, exclusive, and seemingly excludes the Vietnamese who found themselves pawns, rebels, collaborators and insurgents.

The production also received the approval of the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs. “The series provides a unique opportunity for viewers to gain insights into the personal stories of veterans and the broader impact of conflict on Australia’s history and identity.”

The Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, has made 2023 a calendar year for reminding Australians about the Vietnam experience, albeit in a most slanted way. On March 29, he acknowledged veterans visiting Canberra in an address to parliament. The words “courage”, “sacrifice” and “bonds of camaraderie forged under fire, and cruel realities of loss”, were noted. Adversaries are not mentioned, nor was, curiously enough, opposition to the war that was expressed at the time from a number of brave Labor Party stalwarts, Arthur Calwell being foremost among them.

The speech continued in a more plangent tone. “Let us stand in this place, in this Parliament, and speak – loudly and clearly – about those who were sent to war in our name, who did their duty in our name, but whose names we did not hold up as proudly as we should have.”

On Vietnam Veterans’ Day (August 18), Albanese gave another speech, this time in Ipswich, Queensland, where he again apologised to the veterans. “We should have acknowledged you better as a nation then. But the truth is, as a nation we didn’t.” The platitudes are piled up, and merely serve to blunt the nature of Australia’s involvement in a brutal, rapacious conflict. “You upheld Australia’s name. You showed the Australian character at its finest.”

This distraction serves to cover the tracks of those who erred and bungled, not merely in committing the troops, but in ignoring the consequences of that deployment. The mistreatment dished out to the returnees was as much a product of civilian protest as it was a conscious effort on the part of veterans from previous conflicts to ignore it. It was a war never formally declared, conducted in conditions of gross deception.

A half-century on, it is striking to see the apologetics gather at the podium. The New South Wales branch of the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL), for instance, went out of its way to issue one for the way thousands of defence personnel were treated in the aftermath of the conflict. “RSL NSW acknowledges a generation of veterans who are still healing and we publicly recognise our charity’s past mistakes this Vietnam Veterans Day,” came the statement the organisation’s president Ray James.

In the making of war, those behind the policies for waging it tend to escape culpability. The Australians in this affair were, to put it politely, compliant, featherbrained creatures upset by the Yellow Peril north of Papua New Guinea and easily won over through invocations of the “Red Under the Bed”.

Canberra went out of its way to send material and aid to South Vietnam not merely to fight Asiatic atheists of a red hue, but to impress their increasingly bogged-down US allies. To aid the enterprise, the Menzies government introduced national service conscription in November 1964, a policy that became the source of much parliamentary acrimony, notably from the Labor Party.

In July 1966, on an official visit to Washington, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt emetically appropriated the Democratic Party’s own campaign slogan by declaring that Australia was “All the way with LBJ”. At the National Press Gallery that same month, Holt declared that, “When it comes to American participation and resolution to see the war in south Vietnam through, Australia is undoubtedly all the way.” Spinelessness and crawling in a military alliance became political virtues, or what Albanese might like to call “values”.

Australia’s commitment was marred by problems of strategic worth, something which officials were well aware of as early as April 1967. As a government paper titled “Australia’s military commitment to Vietnam” documents, requests for a larger Australian commitment by US military sources in Saigon and Washington were made despite the open-ended nature of the conflict. The planners lacked certitude on basic objectives, not least on the issue of victory itself. The views of US Defence Secretary Robert S. McNamara, as expressed in meetings with his Australian counterparts, are expressly mentioned in all their obliqueness. The secretary “had no doubt that America could no longer lose the war, but they still had the problem of winning and that could be long and hard and there was no easy way which could point directly to victory.”

Add to this the fantastic delusion that the Vietnamese communist movement was a Peking-directed affair rather than an indigenous movement keen to remove foreign influence, and we have a conflict not merely futile on the part of Canberra and Washington, but wasteful and criminal. Fifty years later, and officials from both countries have the chance to make another round of potentially graver, more calamitous decisions.


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  1. New England Cocky

    Lest.we.forget. When a country has the USA (United States of Apartheid) as an ally then it needs no other enemies.
    The world media would have us believe that the US-Vietnam war was lost by America because the Vietnamese armed forces were not up to the task. Australian military personnel who served alongside Vietnamese state emphatically that the Vietnamese were exemplary soldiers.
    Remember that Australian troops were committed to Vietnam by the COALition PM Bob Menzies who resigned his Australian Army commission on the first day of WWI. Indeed since 1945, COALition PMs without front line experience have been responsible for deploying Australian troops to a number of conflicts, at enormous cost to Australia regardless of the fact that none of them were any business of Australia.

  2. ajogrady

    My father always said if the politicians had to lead the bayonet charge there would be no wars.
    He was a Rat of Tobruk when Germany was the enemy and Russia was our ally. He
    also fought on the Kakoda track when Japan was the enemy and China was our ally. How things have changed since US exceptionalism has captured the Western world.
    Henry Kissinger was correct when he said.
    “it may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.”

  3. Canguro

    Wasn’t it Harold “Shark-Bait” Holt who infamously said “All the way with LBJ?” Words trip off the tongues of politicians so easily, comfortable in the knowledge that by and large there are never any personal consequences for what they say or do.

    Holt, Gorton, McMahon… all Liberal prime ministers, all quite comfortable to commit young Australian men to the shit show up the road in south-east Asia, forcing unwilling men to participate via the deeply disliked practice of conscription. It took a change in government to end that abysmal period in modern Australian history. A return of a Liberal government years later saw more troops packed off overseas, this time to the Middle East. What is it about these insignificant men in suits, that they are comfortable swallowing lies manufactured, essentially, to support the American arms industries, and thus commit young Australian men unnecessarily to overseas conflicts that are none of our business? God help us, that we are governed by fools, charlatans and liars who end their times becoming war criminals.

    You’d think the suffering drawn over the Australian landscape following the two great wars of the early & middle twentieth century would have forced home the lesson that armed conflicts need to be taken extremely seriously and only entered into when one’s own homeland is imperilled. The American way – starting firefights all over the damn planet – should never be the Australian way, and it’s to our eternal shame that we continue to offer support & encouragement to American militarism.

    I know a bloke in SA, a remotely distant relative – we share a common heritage to the Shakespearean actor John Heminges – a New Zealander who signed up with the NZDF for two series of deployments in Vietnam. Here we are, 48 years after the end of that war, and he still has nightmares, still wakes up bathed in sweat, still drives the 300 km round trip down to Adelaide each month to sit with his psychiatrist. There’d be hundreds of men in similar circumstances here in Oz, all of them unwitting victims of Shark-Bait Holt’s lazy guarantee that the Australian Government will do whatever the American Armament Industry requires of them. Holt got lucky.. he was dead in a few seconds… unlike these poor bastards who’ve now suffered for the majority of their lives.

  4. Douglas Pritchard

    Fulfilling my National service obligation(conscripted),we were sitting in a circle one fine day, stripping and re-assembling guns when the instructor asked why we thought we were doing this.
    We gave the answers some thought, and contributed, but we all got it wrong.
    Our regular army instructor then told us that at the end of our training we would kill whoever was nominated without a second thought.
    They were churning out trained killers.
    Now a reasonable person could be expected to ask “Why”.
    But in this mature, educated, civilized year of 2023, we still fail to ask the essential question,”Why, the bloody hell should we?.

  5. Baby Jewels

    Douglas. Is it time we asked our prospective leaders in the run up to elections, would they authorise conscription? And if there was even a hint of “Yes,” then we know who not to vote for. We must never again allow the powers that be, to force our young people into a war not of their making, without their consent.

  6. Andrew Smith

    Good overview, but my issue with Australian ‘leaders’ and society are the fawning submissive attitudes towards anything authoritative in the US, UK or the Anglosphere, while ignoring our own interests with nearby neighbours, EU etc.

    I’d like to think Australia’s good relations with Vietnam etc. are a metaphor of where we are in the 21stC, especially with emerging younger more diverse generations vs. our Anglo-Irish political and media elites representing the 20thC.

  7. paul walter

    Remember it well.
    From a ten yo reading about princes fighting in a strange place called the Plain of Jars to a jail cell briefly during one of the Moratorium demos.
    How quickly things changed, or was it me? Johnson drawn in to entering seriously SE Asia with the coup that toppled Sukarno in the year of living dangerously.
    When Saigon military juntas fell like ninepins, then the rise of the Viet Cong from the Viet Minh of the ‘fifties. The intense explosions of violence from 1965 onward the whole thing turning sour after Tet, a pivotal battle in 1968
    The epiphanies concerning law and justice for conscripts and also anti war demonstrators and activists and eventually anti system bods who saw the dodgy shopfront as opposed to the shabby reality, confirmed by Pinochet in ’72.
    Cambodia, and many other counties with coveted mineral wealth seem to topple but there was always the shadow of The Bomb An
    I was stunned at the collapse of the South so soon, after the US packed up and went home minus a few helicopters.
    Cambodian horrors were just beginning and the Midde -East writhed in torment as it does today.

  8. Barry

    I remember how the media treated ‘conscientious objectors’. Anyone opposed to conscription was a pariah, a coward. There was only one place for them – jail. Many went into hiding to avoid being punished for not wanting to kill brown people in another country. For the media & those it represented, being conscripted against your will was a noble cause, a case of ‘take one for the team’ (Team Parasite).
    Fortunately, enough Americans protested and the rest is history. And what has changed in 70 years?
    Today the propaganda dept of Team Parasite (TP) is still devoted to forcing its will on the public. It’s MO is stifling debates.
    TP wants the end of all of the freedoms that the West takes for granted. That is why we still have no Bill of Rights.
    The parallels between the media treatment of the Vietnam War and the way the Voice referendum is being promoted are obvious. About 95 percent of msm coverage is pro-YES. It feels a lot like the ‘debate’ of the response to covid all over again. The media is the parrot on the government’s shoulder – it squawks, and the public is expected to listen and fall into line.

  9. Max Gross

    As PM, Gillard went to Washington to kiss Obama’s ring and it was “All the way with Barack”. More recently, PM Elmo declared “All the way with Biden”. Nothing changes.

  10. Canguro

    Apart from one or two commentators on this site, the great majority seem to have one thing in common – a highly developed distaste for just about everything the (dis)United States of America either represents, or does, or manifests, across the fields of politics, religion, domestic & international policy, relationships with other countries that are either within the camp of so-called ‘allies, or otherwise on the outer and in the camp of ‘adversaries’.

    Not hard to see why though, when one can take in the breathtaking volume of information that pours forth from that maleficent front that attests to the utter dysfunctionality of its social structures; gun violence & mass shootings an almost daily occurence, hatred and racial discrimination and cruelty towards refugees seeking sanctuary from similar shit shows in their countries to the south, drug abuse ripping apart communities and families wherever one casts their attention, aided & abetted by Big Pharma pushing deadly opiates into all quarters of the mainland states, the political landscape dominated by lunatics and geriatrics, criminals and hucksters and mostly all of them deeply unattractive individuals who themselves are deeply wedded to supporting corporations of whatever ilk – be they energy corps including the fossil fuel giants, or the armaments industries, or the food corporations committed to serving up an American diet of high sugar, salt, a bucketful of synthetic additives and not much else, or if not these, Big Pharma or the agribusinesses… all of these massive corporations committed to a ‘business as usual axiom’ of funnelling tens of millions of dollars into the pockets of the politicians and the employment of lobbyists who in many cases write the actual legislation and present it to the politicians for rubber-stamping.

    In many ways, the most dangerous nation on the planet, outreaching any other in terms of its potential to do damage to the citizens and lands of other regions on the face of this earth.

    Hubris, greed, a devilish affection for the business of churning piles of dollars into even bigger piles and bad luck if you get in the way of that Luciferian machine, coupled with an overwheening national epidemic of narcissistic self-regard, a psychopathic disregard for the welfare of any but itself, a paranoiac obsession with its maintenance as the alpha community and a consequent willingness to destroy anything and anyone viewed as a threat to that position; what an utter shit show and I thank the gods on a daily basis that I wasn’t born in America, forced to suffer the fate of existence in that toxic wasteland.

  11. paul walter

    Beautiful segue, Canguro.

  12. Richard Ure

    Labor was sceptical of American blandishments when in opposition…but when in government?

  13. Paul Smith

    I was five rows from Harold Holt and LBJ at Townsville Airport on 23 October 1966, when Holt intoned “All the way with LBJ”. I was about to turn 19 and couldn’t wait to be called up to save the world for Democracy. My parents were members of the DLP and I was sure that volunteering for National Service was the right thing to do. I was already in recruit training the day my birth date wasn’t drawn. The Officer Commanding the 1st Recruit Training Battalion told us that one in every eight Nashos had volunteered. I was glad to know that I wasn’t the only one there with what I thought was a sense of duty.

    Nashos were indistinguishable from Regs in training and deployment. The only way in which we differed was that Nashos died in Vietnam at twice the rate of Regs, because the Battalions were stacked with Nashos. There was never any sense of distinction between Regs and Nashos. We all got on with the job and most of us remain proud of our service. Like the blokes who answered the question, would you do it again, at the end of episode three of the ABC TV series, ‘Our Vietnam War’, I’d say yes and I wouldn’t expect the commentariat to understand. I wish that people who weren’t there would STFU about it, even though I know it’s your job to wax analytic in righteous indignation.

    There were things about the war that I learned for the first time from the TV series. I’ll mention just one: that our government cajoled the American and South Vietnamese governments into letting us in on the action. I vaguely knew why, once we got there, we wanted our own patch and set up in Nui Dat to “look after” Phouc Tuy Province. The Americans turned out to be… well… y’no… Americans (in the light of which I go, AUKUS!? Fuck me!!) ‘Our Vietnam War’ framed my experience in a way that left me mildly disturbed. Reading this article a day later detonated an angry irrational outburst which (strangely?) triggered my recall of the Indigenous man who stood on the footpath in Mullumbimby and berated my two colleagues and I for running a street stall in support of the Voice. Our advocacy, he said, was an insult to his lived experience. I couldn’t disagree, yet I can’t disengage from my sense of what is, these days, the right thing to do. Maybe I am still only nineteen.

  14. Caz

    Working class children born in late 1930s saw the military as a career . My husband and his three brothers believed this and as a consequence my husband was a military policeman in Japan aged seventeen. By the end of the Korean War at age twenty three he had seen action at Kapyong and Mary Ann San. For the next sixty-three years he relived those two battles. I cannot see the youth of today, many having no ties to the old country or the US lining up to do battle or even contemplating a military career. Having seen family and friends damaged by Iraq and Afghanistan, why would they? They are more likely to be fighting via IT and AI instead of manning obsolete nuclear subs. what a waste that’s turning out to be.

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