Just when it seemed that the major myth concerning Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war had been demolished, a replacement appears to have emerged. Last Thursday, as part of the ABC’s extensive coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan, defence reporter Andrew Greene provided a brief history of Australia’s Vietnam commitment. He pointed out, correctly, that it was the Coalition, during the prime ministerships of John Gorton and William McMahon, that scaled down and withdrew Australian combat forces from Vietnam.
Until recently the prevailing myth was that Gough Whitlam pulled Australian forces out of Vietnam, following the election of his Labor government in December 1972. In fact, Whitlam withdrew the few remaining military advisers from South Vietnam.
However, on Sky News’s Paul Murray Live on Wednesday, a new myth emerged.
Janine Perrett was in the presenter’s chair. She expressed sympathy for the concern of the communist government in Hanoi about the scale of the proposed Long Tan commemoration this week. After all, according to Perrett, Australia “invaded” Vietnam.
Sure, it was a half-century ago. But the facts should be known. In 1962, Robert Menzies’ Coalition government sent military advisers to South Vietnam to support the defence of that country against communist North Vietnam led by dictator Ho Chi Minh. In 1965 the Menzies government committed combat forces in support of the US and its allies in the field. They were finally withdrawn by the McMahon government in 1972.
All Australian men and women who served in Vietnam arrived in that nation at ports or on airfields controlled by the anti-communist government in Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City). There was no invasion. Moreover, Australians fought alongside the South Vietnamese Army. That’s why some Vietnamese Australians march with their one-time comrades in cities and towns each Anzac Day.
The conflict between communist North Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam was concluded in April 1975 when the North Vietnamese Army, with assistance of the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, who supported the Hanoi regime, conquered Saigon.
In a sense, the outcome of the war was decided in other nations. At the fall of Saigon, the North Vietnamese Army was supplied by the Soviet Union with long-range artillery and T-54 tanks along with surface-to-air missiles. Communist China also provided weapons to Hanoi. However, in the wake of the 1972 Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s resignation as president in August 1974, the US ceased supplying weapons to Saigon. This is well covered in George J. Veith’s Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-75.
The Vietnamese refugees who arrived in Australia after the end of the war had fled from their so-called communist “liberators”. They did not regard the US, Australian and New Zealand forces that supported South Vietnam as invaders. Unfortunately, Greene’s good work in providing ABC News Breakfast viewers with an accurate account of the war has not been matched by some of his colleagues.
On Monday, ABC producer Jenia Ratcliffe tweeted that she wanted to hear from anyone who had “a story about the Vietnam war”. On ABC’s News Breakfast on Thursday, Ratcliffe produced a piece on media coverage of the war. She interviewed three journalists — London-based leftist John Pilger, Tim Bowden and cameraman David Brill — who reported on Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 70s.
All three agreed with each other in opposing the war and focusing on the civilian deaths and injuries. And all overlooked the fact there are dreadful civilian casualties in all conflicts, particularly during World War II, which most commentators, apart from pacifists, regard as a just war.
The star performer in the Ratcliffe package was Bowden. He complained that he could not get all his reports from Vietnam run on the public broadcaster at the time and provided the following explanation: “At that stage the (ABC) news executives were mostly old newspaper men, a lot of Catholics, and they saw the war as a holy crusade.”
This is yet another manifestation of anti-Catholic sectarianism, per courtesy of the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster.
As Peter Edwards documents in his official history Crises and Commitments (Allen & Unwin, 1992), the decision to send Australian combat forces to South Vietnam was made by Menzies and deputy prime minister Jack McEwen. Neither was a Catholic.
In 1965, the key opponent of Australia’s Vietnam commitment was Labor Party leader Arthur Calwell. Calwell was a practising Catholic. In Australia and the Vietnam War (NewSouth, 2014), Edwards names commentators Denis Warner, Peter Samuel, Geoffrey Fairbairn and Owen Harries as making the best case for Australia’s support of South Vietnam. None of them was a Catholic. Contrary to Bowden’s assertion, few, if any, supporters of Australia’s Vietnam commitment regarded it as a “holy crusade” — whatever that might mean.
The ABC leftist mindset was evident again earlier this month when ABC News tweeted: “We want to hear your Vietnam War protest stories.” But not, apparently, the stories of those who supported Australia’s commitment.
On News Breakfast on Thursday, Rebecca Armitage interviewed Rowan Cahill, a one-time member of the protest movement. No alternative civilian view was heard. This focus on the Vietnam protest movement overlooks the fact most Australians supported the commitment. The Coalition won elections in 1963, 1966 and 1969. The anti-communist Democratic Labor Party did very well in the 1970 half-Senate election, winning three Senate seats.
Certainly the Vietnam war was lost by the Saigon government. However, the 521 Australians who fell in the conflict did not die in vain. As Edwards acknowledges, the US-led Vietnam commitment delayed a communist victory by 10 years — much to the benefit of nations such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. This was also to Australia’s advantage.
Long-time Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) once pointed out that Southeast Asia was better able to withstand a communist victory in Vietnam in 1975 than it would have been a decade earlier when the non-communist nations of Southeast Asia were not so well established. That’s not a myth.