The Australian-American Alliance is a constant feature of national politics since at least the Pacific War and certainly since the formalisation of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951. Even so, it remains central to the contemporary political debate.
On the ABC TV Four Corners program last night, Major-General John Cantwell reflected on the challenges he faced when commanding forces in Afghanistan. The retired general wondered how he could tell individual soldiers and their families that serving alongside NATO forces in Afghanistan was worth it in view of the potential sacrifice involved. However, he acknowledged that “at the highest level of strategy” the Australian-American alliance, and the mutual obligations that go with it, are of importance to Australia.
In yesterday”s Australian, Sydney University historian James Curran described the tension that developed between the then-new Whitlam Labor government and the Nixon administration in 1973 and early 1974. This led the Americans to query the value of the alliance and to consider the re-location of US intelligence-gathering installations located in Australia.
These were the darkest years of the alliance and reflected the fact that many, but by no means all, senior Labor Party figures either queried the value of, or were opposed to, the alliance. Nowadays no one in the Labor caucus would fit this description, and opposition to the alliance finds expression within sections of the Greens and among some leftist groups.
As a general rule, Australians do not have to check the calendar to learn that it”s getting close to Anzac Day. ABC TV and/or radio invariably obliges with a documentary overwhelmingly critical of Australia”s involvement in one or more military commitments. This fits with the familiar left-wing line that Australia has fought other people”s wars.
Certainly this was the case with the Vietnam War documentary All the Way, which aired on ABC1 last Thursday. Presenter and co-writer Paul Ham concluded the documentary in the language of the other-people”s-wars brigade. According to Ham: “In the end we lost what we hoped for. America retreated across the Pacific and Australia faced an uncertain future in Asia. The Vietnam War dragged us screaming and kicking to an obvious reality that we are part of Asia and that we can only rely on ourselves for our security. And yet we fight on in new wars with old allies – still in the dark, still trusting our friends.” The reference was to Afghanistan.
All the Way was based on Paul Ham”s Vietnam: The Australian War, published in 2007. Like the documentary, Ham”s book contains valuable information along with some valid criticisms about how the US military fought the war and how the Australian Coalition government at the time failed to adequately explain the conflict.
However there is a significant difference in content and tone between the book and the film, perhaps explained by the fact that former ABC staffer and documentary maker Anne Delaney directed and co-wrote All the Way.
All the Way runs familiar criticisms of Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies. According to the documentary, Menzies “claimed the double red/yellow peril was on our doorstep”. Yet Menzies never referred to the “yellow peril”.
In fact, Australia”s military commitments during the time of the Menzies government supported some Asian governments against some Asian communist or extreme nationalist regimes or movements – namely in the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, Indonesia”s Confrontation of Malaysia and Vietnam.
All the Way also claimed that the Americans forced “conscription on Canberra” because the US wanted more American troops in Vietnam. This is mythology. Conscription for overseas services was introduced in November 1964, well before Australia decided to send combat forces to South Vietnam. Also, as Peter Edwards makes clear in the 1992 official history Crises and Commitments, the prime reason for conscription was to help Britain defend Malaysia against an attack from Indonesia, and to help defend Papua New Guinea.
Moreover, as Craig Stockings points out in his edited collection Anzac”s Dirty Dozen (2012), the commitment was entered into “not out of any misguided loyalty or foreign coercion, but as a consequence of cold self-interest”.
In 1965, Australia was genuinely worried about the military designs of the nationalist Sukarno regime in Indonesia. Menzies and others believed that if Australia supported the US in Vietnam, then the US was more likely to support Australia against Indonesian militarism in the region.
Successive Australian leaders – with the exception of Whitlam in the early 1970s – have embraced the US alliance because they believed it in Australia”s national interest. This was the case in Vietnam. It remains the case concerning Afghanistan.
There were many Vietnamese who supported the US and Australia at the time. Just as there are many Afghans who support NATO”s involvement today.
But you would never know this from viewing the Ham/Delaney documentary All the Way, or many like it.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute
Note: Gerard Henderson changed the reference to Anne Delaney from “ABC staffer” to “former ABC staffer”