Tag Archives: Vietnam

Time for a real debate about our most important relationship

The Conversation

Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

While still considered unlikely, there is now a real and growing possibility that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. And yet, despite the fact that Bill Shorten apparently considers him to be “barking mad”, there has been almost no serious discussion about what this might mean for Australia.

Indeed, there has been precious little foreign policy debate so far in the election campaign. No surprise about this, perhaps: foreign policy is usually something of an afterthought during election campaigns.

Australians are not unique in being rather uninterested in foreign affairs, but one might have thought this time things would be different. We are subjected to a fairly relentless bombardment about the supposed threats to national security and the deteriorating regional strategic environment, after all.

One of the reasons there is so little discussion of foreign and strategic policy is that there are few significant differences between the major parties, or about the received wisdom among most of the commentariat. Whatever your views of the Greens’ policies in this area may be, they are at least willing to question the basis of a conventional wisdom that has seen Australia take part in every major conflict since the second world war.

Such a debate looks timely, given that prominent figures from both Labor and the Coalition have expressed deep concern about the implications of a Trump presidency. Even John Howard, who is now held in remarkably high esteem throughout the country, has suggested that Trump is “too unstable to hold that high office”.

One might have thought that under such circumstances, where there is a bipartisan consensus on the dangers of a Trump presidency, there would be an informed discussion of what this might actually mean for the security policy that has formed the foundation of Australia’s defence since the second world war.

On the contrary, though, Malcolm Turnbull has attempted to shut down debate by suggesting that there should be no commentary on the politics of other countries during an election.

Opening up this debate might raise uncomfortable questions that neither of the major parties want to discuss. Most importantly, does it make sense for this country – or any other for that matter – to rely so heavily on a foreign power, no matter how intimate the relationship may have grown over the years?

Australian policy is essentially hostage to the preferences of the US and the expectations that they will always coincide with ours.

The dangers of such a strategy were revealed in the disastrous but entirely predictable decision to take part in the invasion of Iraq. Not only was this a folly of the grandest proportions, but it was also one that had no bearing on or relevance to Australia’s own security.

Important lessons could and should have been learned from this experience, which might be used to guide policy now when the potential threat is even more direct and unambiguous.

Australian policymakers and commentators have always assumed that what’s good for America in foreign policy terms will necessarily be good for Australia. This always looked like an exercise in wishful thinking and a dereliction of responsibility on the part of generations of Australian policymakers.

With the ascent of a potentially dangerous figure like Trump, who even prominent conservative commentators in the US have described as a fascist, the dangers of this policy are becoming painfully apparent.

Some debates are plainly too discomfiting to contemplate. It is noteworthy that, 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, Barack Obama has been attempting to develop a close strategic relationship with the still notionally communist government in Hanoi. Quite why two million Vietnamese had to die in the conflict, not to mention 60,000 Americans and some 500 Australians, is not entirely clear in retrospect.

One of the problems of failing to confront uncomfortable realities in the past or the present is that it becomes impossible to learn potential lessons and adjust policy in the future. Vietnam and Iraq look like entirely avoidable and pointless conflicts from this distance, especially for Australia, which was not threatened by either country and had little to gain – other than the good opinion of our notional security guarantor.

But it’s an odd sort of security that involves the continuing expenditure of so much blood and treasure to ingratiate ourselves with another country. The potential folly of this policy could be demonstrated by president Trump, who has nothing but contempt for loyal allies that are judged to freeload on American power.

Outsourcing responsibility for foreign and security policy is not wise at the best of times. There is undoubtedly much to admire about the US. As hegemonic powers go, things might have been a lot worse. But the time has come to have a mature debate about our relationship with the US and the world more generally.

There is potentially much that Australia could do as a creative middle power in conjunction with regional partners like Japan, South Korea or Indonesia. However, until we have an independent policy position on critical foreign and strategic policies that affect this country, the chances of such initiatives coming about look remote.

The ConversationMark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Fifty years ago today, Menzies’ call on Vietnam changed Australia’s course

The Conversation

Nicholas Ferns, Monash University

In recent weeks, Australians have been exposed to an overwhelming amount of content in anticipation of the centenary of the Gallipoli landing. This has ranged from the thoughtful to the near-offensive. Lost in the dust of the ANZAC bandwagon has been another key anniversary of an event far less well known to Australians.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Robert Menzies’ offer of an Australian battalion to the South Vietnamese government. Prior to the prime minister’s offer, Australia’s commitment to the Vietnamese conflict had been limited to fewer than 100 advisers. Menzies’ pledge significantly increased Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.


Robert Menzies meets the US defence secretary, Robert McNamara, at the Pentagon in 1964, the year before committing Australia to the escalating war. Wikimedia Commons/PHC/Ralph Seghers

What reasons were given for joining the war?

The circumstances of this offer are shrouded in controversy.

In 1965, Australia was involved in two crises in Southeast Asia, one in Vietnam and the other in Indonesia. The connection between the two was vital to Menzies’ decision to increase our involvement in Vietnam.

Having already committed a battalion to Malaysia to support resistance to the Konfrontasi policy of Indonesia’s Sukarno government, the logical next step for Menzies was to look to Vietnam. He did this with the support of his Cold War warrior and minister for external affairs, Paul Hasluck. They decided to send an Australian battalion to South Vietnam, partly to ensure continued American interest in the region.

A series of negotiations took place between Australian, American and Vietnamese representatives to secure acceptance of the Australian troops. The South Vietnamese government and the American ambassador in Saigon, Maxwell Taylor, were initially reluctant to receive more foreign troops. It seemed that the necessary South Vietnamese invitation wasn’t going to be forthcoming.

Fortunately for Menzies, the South Vietnamese government was persuaded to accept the Australian offer. A formal request was given just before Menzies made his speech in Parliament.

By this time it was late evening on Thursday, April 29. The Labor opposition leader, Arthur Calwell, and his deputy, Gough Whitlam, had already left Canberra for their home electorates. As many members of both sides had departed Canberra, Menzies made his announcement to a near-empty House of Representatives.

The reasons given to the Australian public were equally controversial.

In an oft-quoted part of his speech, Menzies claimed:

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.

Seeking US protection from threats in Asia

The spectre of the mythical yellow hordes had been a constant theme in Australian history and has been used to instil xenophobia and need for a great and powerful protector. In Menzies’ case, it masked the true reasons for the offer: Australia’s fear of Sukarno’s Indonesia and the need for American security.

Around 100 Australian troops were already in Vietnam at the time of Menzies’ announcement. They were generally support and training troops, comprising the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV). Within months Australian troop numbers had jumped to over 1000 and would peak at almost 7000 by 1969.

The Menzies government’s announcement threw Australian troops into a military “quagmire” of Washington’s making.

The dangers of forgetting

Though the troops’ commitment to the war is rightfully commemorated each Anzac Day, the circumstances surrounding Australia’s commitment of troops to Vietnam has been forgotten.

This collective forgetfulness is particularly relevant this year. In the current “much ado” about Gallipoli 100 years on, arguably a more significant anniversary has been forgotten. After Vietnam, Australian governments of both persuasions realised it was in the nation’s interest to engage with our “near north”.

After Vietnam, there would be no more racially based legislation and governments began to engage with the region, whether the ruling regime was communist or not. Governments still managed to send troops into more recent Washington quagmires, but the numbers are much smaller than the Vietnam commitment.

Menzies’ decision is the forgotten skeleton in the nation’s closet. This forgetfulness suggests a great deal not only about the current national “besottedness” with Gallipoli, but also concerning our collective unwillingness to confront less honourable aspects of our diplomatic and military history. With some notable exceptions, the nation’s populist commentators and the war pathos industry have used Gallipoli as a vehicle for national self-aggrandisement, despite the efforts of some academic historians to push for a more considered approach.

This country has a short attention span when it comes to its history. Well may we say lest we forget on Anzac Day. Those who served deserve that honour.

But perhaps today we should take time out from the Anzac media romp and begin to remember another, more ignominious moment in our recent history and the part played by Sir Robert Menzies. Lest we forget the lessons of the Vietnam War.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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