Vietnam, China, and the foreign affairs debate in Australia – A personal account
Chapter 2 Australia’s Vietnam – Australia In The Second Indo-China War – Edited by Peter King
There is no doubt that …. part of this (the insurgency in South Vietnam) is the determination of Communist China to establish hegemony throughout Southeast Asia, working in the first place through the agency of her North Vietnamese puppets (Australian Minister for External Affairs, Paul Hasluck, in Foreign Policy statement to House of Representatives, June 1964).
I have argued elsewhere that a major factor behind Canberra’s Vietnam policies was an obsessive fear of China.’ The following incident might give some idea of just how obsessive that fear was.
In October 1964 messages began to arrive at the Australian Embassy in Mo¤cow (where I happened to be posted at the time) asking us to arrange the itinerary for an urgent visit by the then Minister for External Affairs, Paul Hasluck. The visit was to include, if possible, talks with Foreign Minister Gromyko, and Premier Kosygin. We were told Hasluck had a most important message to convey to the Soviets about Vietnam.
Soviet officials were rather surprised by this sudden approach. Canberra had already staged quite a few confrontations with Moscow in the UN over New Guinea and Southeast Asian policy. And Hasluck was well-known in Moscow for his rigid, almost theological anti-communism. But we were told politely that, while no official invitation would be forthcoming, he was quite free to come privately and talk to whomsoever might be available.
And so Hasluck arrived. He was obviously nervous, and during the two or three days he was kept waiting for appointments he began to give out hints of the important message he carried and how it could change the course of world affairs. Then in typical Soviet fashion we were told abruptly that we would probably soon be able to see an important Soviet leader. The next day we were suddenly summoned to the Kremlin complex and ushered into a large conference room with the usual long green baize table. On the other side were Kosygin, Gromyko and a row of MID (Foreign Ministry) officials.
Kosygin made a few remarks designed to make Hasluck and Australia seem more important in Soviet eyes than they really were, and then asked what it was that had brought the minister so far and so suddenly. Hasluck immediately launched into a complex discourse on the nature of world affairs. There were, he said, in any society or community of nations certain bad elements that abused the norms of civilised behaviour. And in saying this he was not passing ideological judgement. There were norms that applied regardless of ideology. And if one nation set out deliberately to break them, then all others regardless of ideology, should be concerned. This, he said, was his first point.
Point two was what to do about such international renegades. In an ideal world it would be possible to get together and solve such problems with moral persuasion via international bodies such as the United Nations. But in the real world this was not possible. Power was the only way these bandits could be restrained. And the number of nations with real power was limited-the US, the Soviet Union …. It was beholden on those with power to use it, with responsibility of course, to maintain some stability in world affairs.
At this point Kosygin interrupted quite strongly to say that power in the sense of force (the Russian word for power, sila has both meanings) should never be used as a means of settling international disputes. We hastened to explain that Hasluck was of course using power in the milder sense of the Russian word. Kosygin then suggested that it would be simpler for all if the discussion could move from philosophy to practical details. Hasluck obliged. There was, he said, not a single nation in the world that could remain unconcerned by the dangerous behaviour of the Peking government. Even the Soviet Union had felt the need to denounce the extremism of its former ally. And if the Soviets were so concerned, how much more concerned were we in Australia lying directly to the south of China and protected only by a ring of weak, unstable Southeast Asian nations? Already that ring was being breached by China’s expansionism in IndoChina.
Of course, Hasluck continued, Australia realised that the Soviet Union shared the same basic communist ideology as Peking. And to some extent it might feel bound for ideological reasons to offer support to the Hanoi regime. But what was happening in Vietnam went far beyond communist versus anti-communist. It was yet another step in the pattern of Peking’s deliberate territorial expansionism, something that had to concern the whole world regardless of ideology. And this territorial greed was not just directed southwards. Even the Soviet Union had been threatened. Australia had noted how Peking was laying claim to the Soviet territory of Sinkiang [sic]. And the Chinese were long on record as seeking to take over territory in the Far East of the Soviet Union. These efforts to grab Soviet territory were of great concern to others. Would it be too much to ask the Soviet Union to share our concern about China’s expansionist designs
southwards? More specifically, could Moscow use whatever influence it had in Hanoi to prevent the North Vietnamese from being used as an instrument of Chinese expansionism?
Kosygin was clearly taken aback by all this, but said nothing. Eventually Gromyko intervened. Sinkiang, he noted dryly, had belonged to the Chinese for a long time. Why would the Chinese want to claim something that was already their own? As for the Far East (Dalyniyi Vostok), he was not sure just what the Chinese were supposed to be claiming. China itself was after all a large part of the Far East (the interpreter had Hasluck as saying Far East rather than Soviet Far East). There were some small areas of disputed border territory between China and the Soviet Union, but that was a purely bilateral matter to be settled by the two countries. It did not involve Australia. The same applied to the ideological dispute. As for Vietnam, the Soviet government and people would of course continue to honour their commitments to a fraternal socialist people subject to imperialist aggression. Even the Chinese, he noted even more dryly, had felt obliged to offer some support to Hanoi.
By now Hasluck was beginning to realise that his démarche was coming unstuck. But he persisted bravely for another few minutes, until Kosygin suggested that it would be more fruitful to talk about questions of bilateral Soviet/Australian interest. There was, as I recall, a desultory discussion about expanding scientific exchanges and some problems of exit visas for Soviet citizens wanting to join relatives in Australia. Kosygin made it clear that time was up, and we disbanded.
Despite this failure, Hasluck still felt he could and should try to swing the Soviets to his side. In a March 1965 foreign policy statement he went out of his way to relate events in South Vietnam to China’s allegedly extreme position in the Sino-Soviet dispute. In an April 1966 statement to the House of Representatives he repeated his 1964 signal to the Soviets: ‘The security of the whole world would be damaged grievously …. by hostilities against any of China’s neighbours, including the Soviet Union’.
Nor was it just Hasluck. James Plimsoll, the then External Affairs Secretary, went to quite unusual lengths as a bureaucrat to lend his name to the anti-Peking/pro-Moscow cause. In a September 1965 address to Sydney University students he came up with one of the more original arguments for keeping China out of the United Nations: ‘Peking would set out to introduce resolutions which followed the orthodox lines of pure Marxism and would put the Soviet Union on the spot’. Two months later in New York he told the US General Assembly First Committee how China had made armed attacks on India and the Soviet Union.
This was not merely some temporary and rhetorical exaggeration brought on by the excitement of the Vietnam intervention. It had begun with a much earlier and carefully prepared 1963 New Zealand address in which the then External Affairs Minister, Garfield Barwick, said: ‘There is not a country in the whole Asian region which …. is not preoccupied with
the problem of Communist China. This applies even to the Soviet Union. The Chinese have reminded Moscow of two almost forgotten treaties [italics added ….] by which Russia obtained from China extensive areas of Siberia. This is typical of the anxiety which all of us who are in any sense a neighbour of China must face’.
Our best diplomatic brains had clearly decided well before formal intervention in Vietnam that the Sino/Soviet dispute should be used to Australian diplomatic advantage. They had accepted the conventional wisdom that the Soviets were the moderates in the dispute, trying anxiously to counter the extremist Chinese. By supporting Moscow both ideologically and territorially, Canberra hoped to open a ‘western front’ to restrain China’s alleged expansionism in Asia.
Today, of course, Canberra sees things very differently. In 1964 Paul Hasluck travelled all the way to Moscow to warn the Soviets about alleged Chinese designs against Sinkiang. In 1976 Malcolm Fraser went all the way to Sinkiang to help the Chinese resist alleged Soviet designs against Sinkiang!
How and why did Canberra develop such erratic and inconsistent policies? One factor was simple ignorance of what was supposed to be happening in Asia at the time. The location and ownership of Sinkiang was one example. There were many others. Throughout the entire period of Australia’s intervention in Vietnam the Department of External Affairs (EA) did not have a separate North Vietnam desk; desk-level study of Hanoi’s policies was handled by a junior officer, 80 per cent of whose time was devoted to other matters. Unlike the British and the Canadians, no attempt was made to talk to Hanoi, even on routine trade or consular matters. Nor were EA’s efforts to assess what was going on in South Vietnam much better: for most of the war it did not have a single Vietnamese speaker, let alone specialist. The usual approach seemed to be to take the most optimistic of the various US assessments available, and put this forward as the official view. On this basis Canberra ended up as an enthusiastic believer in the wretched strategic hamlets solution, the alleged popularity of the Diem regime and the claimed strength of the pro-Saigon forces. On this basis too it could state with open-eyed conviction until as late as 1966 that Hanoi was a Peking puppet.
I was more involved with Sino/Soviet affairs in those days, but my one direct involvement with Indochina was revealing enough. In late 1964 Wilfred Burchett arrived back in Moscow from a long visit to NLFcontrolled areas in South Vietnam. He was quite happy to talk about this experience to Australian diplomats in Moscow and I obtained permission to meet him. His account suggested the NLF had much stronger control over South Vietnam that most realised at the time. And we did not have to rely simply on his word for this. He had a mass of photographs of NLF units and jungle factories. These convincingly disproved the popular theory that the NLF was just a terrorist rabble totally dependent on Hanoi,
and ultimately on Peking. I sent much of this material back to Canberra, thinking that it would at least be welcomed as an addition to the raw intelligence available on the area. The only reaction I got was a sharp rebuke for seeming to endorse a pro-communist like Burchett.
(I heard later that the material had been passed to Washington for comment. The American reply had ignored the photos and concentrated on Burchett’s claim to have travelled all the way to an NLF-controlled village on the outskirts of Saigon. There, he had said, he had been able to watch the planes landing at Ton San Nhut airport. The Americans said this was clearly false. They said it was impossible for any villages near the airport to be under NLF control. Some time later rockets fired from surrounding villages under NLF control started landing on the airport!)
With China the EA personnel situation was somewhat better; in theory, at least, Canberra was not so completely dependent on the US for assessments. A full-time desk officer in the East Asian section covered mainland China and Taiwan. The section, branch and division heads above him were also expected to spend much of their time on China. A small office in Hong Kong-a middle-ranking EA officer, assisted after 1960 by one Chinese-language trainee (myself from l960-62)-was supposed to concentrate on reporting mainland developments. And both London and Washington were assigned Australian officers whose duties included seeking out and analysing whatever information they could get from Foreign Office and State Department specialists on China.
But none of this seemed to help Canberra to reach an accurate view of what was happening in China. The London and Washington material often seemed designed to encourage us to go along with UK or US policies. (The UK, despite, its official recognition of China, was actively and covertly involved in various anti-Peking exercises, many at the dirty tricks level. Some of the longer background reports prepared by the better US or UK experts were interesting, but few in Canberra ever got round to studying them objectively. In particular the so-called Tibetan documents-a vast amount of Chinese intelligence briefing material captured or stolen from the Chinese along the Sino-Indian border in l962-provided a fascinating insight to the defensive nature of Chinese defense and foreign policies. They alone were enough to end the myth of an expansionist China. But I could never get anyone in EA to read them, let alone appraise them in this light.
The Hong Kong operation was a particular disappointment. Most EA men sent there spent their time trying to win tidbits from their US and UK colleagues; their occasional forays into independent research were usually quite ludicrous. I recall how one of them suddenly discovered that Peking often referred to ‘more than ninety per cent of the population’ as being pro-Mao. He sent a formal memo to remind Canberra that even Peking admitted it had 60 million potential enemies in its midst. (He was later promoted to EA Secretary.) Only a few had any serious background
or interest in China. Fewer made any real effort to go out and talk to th large number of educated Chinese in Hong Kong with mainland China e’ perience, many of them refugees. These were the people who could ma1 you realise that for all the dissatisfaction in China, the idea of a pro-KM uprising there-then still the lingering hope in US and Canberra policies was laughable.
The Chang Shih-chao incident typified Canberra’s anti-Peking isolationism at the time. Chang was an elderly intellectual who had been Mao’s library teacher in Peking back in the twenties, later joined the progressive wing of the KMT, but stayed in China after 1949. The Peking regime trusted him, and he was allowed to spend the winters in Hong Kong where, among other things, he acted as a channel for communications. He was reportedly very close to Chou En-lai.
I heard about Chang from some UK government contacts and suggested that I be allowed to try to meet him. At the time EA had a strict policy banning all contact with Peking people. I was given a reluctant approval, however, since I was only a Chinese language trainee and the diplomatic import of my dealing with the ‘enemy’ was negligible. Chang turned out to be frank and friendly. He gave a good account of the Chou’s foreign policy at the time and even had a few prepared words to say about Australia. I passed all this on, together with a suggestion that we try to maintain contact with Chang. The response was quite negative although the British used him a lot.
Back in Canberra shortly after, and working on the China desk in the East Asia section, I was to learn a lot more about the depth of Canberra’s anti-Peking suspicions. The overall attitude seemed to be that one should never in any situation attribute any reasonable or even neutral quality to what emerged from Peking. At the same time Chou En-lai was making very genuine efforts to open a dialogue with the west via his intermediate zone theory embracing Japan, Australia and Western Europe. Peking was also offering to patch up differences with Taiwan and to settle border disputes with its neighbours. But for the China experts in Canberra, none of this could be taken at face value. At best it proved Peking was getting desperate. At worst it concealed a Chinese plot. In the meantime we should maintain our defences and cooperate with US anti-China initiatives in the UN and elsewhere.
The major achievement of the East Asia section in those days was to get the term ‘hegemony’ into general circulation as the official tag for China’s alleged aims in Asia (as in the Hasluck quotation that heads this chapter). Here, they felt, was a word which aptly described the subtle blend of power and intimidation with which Peking planned to dominate the Asian nations and draw them into its fold. I tried to suggest some debate on all this, and was quickly put down. If Peking was not hegemonistic, I was told, why did it show such hostility to the pro-west governments in Asia? No one seemed to realise the basic principle of cause and effect in foreign
affairs: that if A is hostile to B then it is highly likely that B will respond by being hostile to A. Our foreign policy experts had put it all into reverse: the fact that B had reacted with hostility proved that it was right for A to be hostile in the first place.
This was the situation in the East Asia section. Elsewhere it was much worse: hegemony was seen as much too mild a word for Peking’s plots. In the Southeast Asian branch it was taken for granted that all left-wing movements in Asia were financed by Peking, that one could at all times and places talk indiscriminately about Chinese ‘subversion’ and ‘infiltration’. Sarawak, and to some extent Singapore, were major areas of concern at the time, even though Peking had done almost nothing to assist materially the far from illegitimate grievances of left-wing Chinese in both places. (No one was very interested in my suggestion at the time that China’s reluctance to get more involved in both places deserved some analysis. Among the Australian military and intelligence bureaucracies the anti-Peking hysteria was beyond control. Even my conservative superiors in the East Asia section were sometimes upset by the primitive anti-communist and anti-China crudities that appeared regularly in the assessments and briefs produced by these people. But no one tried to oppose or correct them.
The Sino-Indian dispute provided a good example of how easily hardliners could dominate foreign policy. As desk officer in EA, I had been following the evolution of the dispute through 1962. It was obvious that Peking wanted to compromise, and that it was the Indians who were taking the extreme position. Of course, if the Indian boundary claim line had the strong legal backing claimed for it, then the Indians would have been entitled to some extremism. In fact their backing was quite weak and included some falsified material which did not take much effort to discover. But as usual my superiors were not very interested in this sort of detailed research, particularly if it seemed to cast a less than totally hostile light on the nature of Chinese policies.
When the fighting broke out in October 1962, however, they had to show more interest. And to anyone who simply bothered to look at a map it was clear that the fighting had started on the Chinese side of even the most ambitious Indian claim line. In other words, India must have launched the first attack. I sent cables to London and Washington asking for a check to see whether this was in fact the case. When the reluctant confirmations came in a day or so later I felt the time had come to move, particularly since Canberra had already made sweeping denunciations of ‘unbridled Peking aggression’ and was actively considering military aid to the Indians.
In those days EA had a quite democratic ‘submission’ system, not unlike the much-studied ringi system (or bottom-up discussion and decision making process) in Japan. Desk officers could at any time draw up a submission to any superior, even the minister, on any subject within their brief which they considered important, setting out facts and making recommendations. The submission would then pass up through immediate superiors who might add their comments or rewrite it, but in general tried to avoid killing it unless there was good reason to do so. This was a valuable means of encouraging initiative among junior officers and keeping open the information arteries.
So I prepared my submission, explaining in some detail why the Indian case might not be quite as strong as some might have assumed. I suggested that prolonged hostilities would favour China rather than India, and recommended that any offer of military aid to India should be tied to an attempt to get the Indians to negotiate seriously with Peking. I never expected the submission to reach the minister. It was nevertheless important, I felt, to get the facts of the dispute to the upper EA levels since they were already carrying on as if Peking’s guilt was beyond all doubt.
It is to the credit of my rather conservative East Asia section and branch heads at the time that they accepted the submission without too much argument. It got no further however. The South Asian branch head at the time, a hawk who later became our Ambassador in Saigon, also had to give his stamp of approval. He wrote into the margin: ‘I fail to see that it is not in the Australian interest to have the Chinese and the Indians at each other throats.’ No one of equal or greater seniority felt inclined to argue with this particular piece of wisdom. So the submission was killed, and with it one chance to get the facts of the dispute into circulation. It was not until 1970 that the gospel of Chinese aggression against India came under any serious intellectual challenge in Canberra. By then the damage done to any hope of serious debate on China was enormous. In briefings, ministerial statements, university seminar rooms and the media, it was taken for granted that China had a proven track record of open and unprovoked aggression. It was, as I have suggested, a classic example of how easily ideological bias can be reinforced by the suppression or denial of information.
This was the situation in 1962. When I returned to Canberra in May 1965 after two years in Moscow, it was far worse. My suggestions-that Hanoi might be closer to Moscow than Peking, that to realise this one need only look at the numbers of Vietnamese trainees in Moscow, not to mention the position Hanoi was taking in the Sino-Soviet dispute-were ignored. The idea that we should take a closer look at just what the Chinese were saying in their ideological and frontier disputes with Moscow, to see whether they really were as extreme as Canberra assumed, was dismissed as much too academic.
In 1962 one could, at least within the safety of EA walls, seek to put forward submissions which contradicted the beliefs of conservative politicians or the military/intelligence community. By 1965 this freedom was no longer available. Australian foreign policy had frozen into a rigid orthodoxy that ruled out any study or suggestion which questioned the official line. Peking was the enemy; Hanoi was its puppet; the NLF was the creature of Hanoi; and that was that.
Some have since argued that it was irrelevant to debate the bases of Australia’s policies at the time because Canberra had no choice but to go along with the US anyway, and the US was determined to go into Vietnam. But as I wrote at the time,2 and has since been confirmed, there were large areas of independence in the Canberra/Washington relationship. On China/Vietnam, Australia actually stood to the right of the US. We skillfully lobbied the US right-wing to encourage the greatest and firmest commitment possible in Vietnam. Australia was terrified that the US might one day go soft on China and Asian left-wing movements, particularly in Indonesia. Its position was rather similar to that of the harderline east European regimes vis-a-vis Moscow: because they were smaller and more exposed to the corrosive domino effect of a strong hostile ideology, they were often more anxious than Moscow to see intervention against the bearers of that ideology.
Others have argued that some at least of Canberra’s anti-Peking progpaganda during the 1960s needs to be taken with large quantities of salt, that it was part of an attempt by the LCP to divide and discredit the left-wing in Australia. But that was not my impression: if anything, the policymakers were more alarmist about Peking in private than they were in public. They really believed that in China they faced an enemy whose evil and malevolence matched that of Hitler in the thirties (and this was the moderate pre-Cultural Revolution China of Liu Shao-chi, Chou En-lai and Deng Xiaoping!). They assumed, and some such as Gorton and Hasluck even said as much, that history would see them as brave men who refused to nake Munich-style compromises with an aggressive enemy. (Someone should rewrite Santayana to read: ‘Those who obsess themselves with the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them.’)
One of the more embarrassing of Canberra’s initiatives at the time (April 1965, as I recall) was a classified round-robin directive to all our west European posts, emphasising Australia’s concern at the failure of the Europeans to realise the sinister nature of events in Vietnam and China’s ‘aggressive’ intentions in the area. Our diplomats were instructed to convey this concern to the foreign ministries of the respective countries to which they were posted. They were told to tell the Europeans that we Australians, by virtue of our closer association with Asia, were better able to make an objective analysis of what was happening in Indo-China. I doubt if any government would impose such embarrassment on its diplomats unless it was firmly convinced of what it was saying.
A 1971 incident was fairly convincing proof, for me at least, that Canberra’s anti-China fears were both genuinely felt and far to the right of anything found in the US. I was then working as a correspondent in Tokyo and involved myself in a one-man attempt to persuade a group of Australian table-tennis players that they should accept an invitation to visit China. At first they denied having received an invitation from the Chinese at the Nagoya World Table Tennis Championships in April that year.
Later they said they had got an invitation, but had rejected it on the advice of the Department of External Affairs, which, together with the Nationalist Chinese Embassy in Canberra, had arranged an alternative visit to Taiwan. The Nagoya invitation was of course part of Pekings now historic opening to the West-the pingpong diplomacy. Even the Americans had realised its importance and had gone out of their way to encourage their own team, and others, to accept. But Canberra in its anti-Chinese wisdom had decided otherwise. Ironically, it was a photo of the US team being received in Peking by Chou En-lai that finally allowed me to persuade the Australian team to ignore Canberra’s pressure and head for China.
How could so many quite intelligent and well-educated people (EA had over 200 diplomatic officers) have been so blind and conservative over issues of such importance to Australia? For all its hawkishness, the US State Department produced quite a respectable handful of public dissidents on both China and Vietnam policy. By 1971 it was working actively to open contacts with Peking. And for at least a period of the mid-seventies there was open revulsion against the mistakes made in Vietnam. In Canberra, however, even after relations with Peking had been opened and the folly of Vietnam because obvious, there was little sign of remorse. I myself know of only one or two EA people in any position of seniority who have since admitted to any dismay over previous policies. At the time those policies were being implemented there were none.
There are, of course, those who believe that EA was and remains infected with a deep right-wing bias, the result of deliberate recruitment policies, but I doubt it. In nine years with the department I never met anyone who openly admitted to DLP sympathies, for example. Few would even admit to being strongly pro-LCP. If anything, a mild progressive bias existed, certainly in domestic affairs, and to some extent in foreign affairs. The department I entered in 1957 was still somewhat influenced by the left-wing nationalism of the Evatt years. Many middle-level officers were products of the strongly progressive atmosphere of the universities immediately after the war. True, these influences were partly over-ridden by a conservative streak at the top-the older generation who had been in at the creation, so to speak. The Evatt period recruits were later undercut by the more anti-communist generation of the fifties (of which I myself was a typical example, until subjected to the obvious folly of Australian policy on China). True, the Petrov affair had caused some corrosion of will; many were reluctant to seem soft on any issue involving communism. And the Stalin revelations of the mid-fifties also did much damage; the Australian left seemed to have staked a lot on the Soviet model, and when that model collapsed it had little else to turn to, unlike in most other western countries where the left usually had a stronger intellectual base for its position.
But even allowing for all this, the progressive bias within EA still remained quite strong. Throughout the late fifties and even into the early sixties there was an identifiable group of mid-level moderates, the ‘Young
Turks’ as they were called, who regularly and willingly proposed alternative views on questions such as Suez, West Irian, or decolonisation. Sometimes they directed influenced policy, but when it came to China and Vietnam in the 1960’s, they were quite silent.3 Many of them actually supported the government line.
When I told EA in 1965 that I wished to leave over Vietnam and China policy, Plimsoll suggested I should just take a few years’ leave of absence to think about things and possibly return when ‘the Vietnam thing’ was over. It was a generous offer, and I decided to accept it, provided I could feel that if and when I returned, there would at least be a basis for rational policy-making on China and Vietnam. I soon realised, however, that this was a futile hope.
Nor was the situation much better outside official circles. When I left EA in September 1965 I had not intended to become involved in the antiVietnam War debates. I still felt loyal to the department and wished to return to it if the government ever changed hands. But some personally insensitive behaviour by EA soon after quickly convinced me I should abandon this emotional link. In November of that year I wrote an article for the Australian pointing out the military and ideological weakness of the western position in Vietnam. The editors titled it ‘Australia and the Lost War’. By running it prominently, they launched me, willy-nilly, into the ranks of the ‘anti-war’ camp.
True, there were some people who tried seriously and intelligently to counter the government’s position, especially the University Study Group4 and the Quakers, the magazine Dissent, and other academics. But in Canberra, in particular, apathy prevailed amongst academics.
In time I became involved with the ALP. I joined the Canberra branch in 1966, and found it split between a majority of pro-war right-wingers and a minority of anti-war leftists. Accepting this situation, which was common at the time, I sought to influence the right-wingers. But in 1968, after seeing some of the tactics used by the NSW Executive (of which Whitlam was a member) in a pre-selection struggle involving an anti-war member, I allowed my ALP membership to lapse.
Whitlam’s position at the time was very curious. I first met him in 1966, when some aides brought together Whitlam, Stephen Fitzgerald and myself. We spent the whole lunch listening to him talk about his friend Lee Kwan Yew. We never discussed China or Vietnam policy, despite the fact that both Fitzgerald and I had resigned from EA on these matters. Whitlam did not give us the opportunity to pass on our knowledge of government foreign policy blundering.
Later in 1966 I became involved in an attempt to devise a compromise policy on Vietnam. It was then obvious that the Caiwell policy of simply denouncing the ‘filthy and tmwinnable’ war in Vietnam was inadequate. Shortly before the election and the visit to Australia of American President Lyndon B Johnson, I proposed to the ALP the ‘enclave solution’: that the
war should be seen as a civil war; that outside help to Saigon should be kept at the same level as outside help to Hanoi; and that if Saigon could not prevail, then Australia would assist the US to secure a coastal enclave-a little Taiwan-for South Vietnamese anti-communists. If the US should reject this solution, then Australia would withdraw its forces.
To his credit, Dr J F Cairns accepted this rather right-wing alternative, despite criticism from the Victorian ALP Executive. All that we then needed was Whitlam’s agreement, and the new policy could then be presented to Calwell in time for his meeting with LBJ in Canberra. But Whitlam refused even to consider the proposal, and Calwell went on repeating his unfruitful line of attack. The ALP, as is well-known, went to a crashing defeat in the 1966 election.
In 1967 Whitlam visited Vietnam, returning with one of the more original arguments against the government’s policies. He said on television and in the press that the war had already been won by the Americans and by Saigon, and that what was required was not military aid but civil aid to reconstruct the countryside. (This detail has been conveniently forgotten by uncritical Whitlam admirers.) I later discovered that before leaving Saigon, Whitlam said even more effusive things to American officials about their so-called victory. One of his aides had been forced to take action to prevent these remarks being published in the Australian press. The only record we now have, therefore, is the reports in the Saigon press at the time. Clearly, Whitlam had been snowed.
I spent some time attempting to discover the basis of Whitlam’s position. Obviously a man of intellect and some principle, he became an active reformer when he finally realised the atrocity in Vietnam and the stupidity of Canberra’s China policy. But why was this realisation so belated? I have some evidence that, like many others, he was influenced by the then popular version of the Sino-Indian dispute: if even socialist India was the victim of Peking’s aggression, then clearly the Asian version of communism was more virulent than the Moscow version. And as his flirtations with the Quadrant-Cultural Freedom push in Sydney showed, he was not particularly pro-Moscow either.
On several occasions I found that Whitlam did not read the material essential for his foreign affairs brief. He particularly feared any course of action which might strengthen the positions of his ALP rivals. Had Cairns not dominated intellectual left-wing opposition to the Vietnam War, Whitlam might have moved to a more progressive position more quickly.
Really, Whitlam’s position was similar to that of many progressive intellectuals and academics in Sydney and Melbourne. He wished to take a ‘progressive’ position, but was intensely embarrassed by the prospect of being labelled as pro-Hanoi, pro-Peking or ‘extremist’. Like many others, therefore, he concentrated on trimmings such as revamping the relationship with America, criticising SEATO, and drawing up new alliances with Asia, In turn, this approach later provided the intellectual context for his
wretched deal with the Indonesian generals over Timor.
Whitlam’s 1964-68 position on Vietnam also enabled Canberra to evade the real problems in policy-making. The progressive tradition of the fifties may have been weakened in EA, but there was still a feeling that the department should seek out a centrist position on major foreign policy issues. Jim Cairns and John Wheeldon could easily be rejected as ‘extremists’, but if Whitlam had evolved a well-reasoned anti-war position, he would have created a mild crisis of conscience in the department.
Could the anti-war movement have handled its case better? I sometimes felt it wasted too much time trying to argue the situation on the ground in South Vietnam. Details about obscure sects and Vietnamese opposition leaders for the most part simply added to the sinister ‘Oriental’ nature of it all. Attempts to point out NLF legitimacy and independence were equally hopeless, although in retrospect this was the strongest argument. Most now realise that if the NLF had not been so thoroughly destroyed by US gunships, it would now be working to moderate the extent of Hanoi’s current control over the south. But at the time the NLF, as jungle guerillas, had an even more sinister image than Hanoi.
My own efforts in this and other directions were largely futile. The argument that Canberra was dangerously to the right of Washington made little impact on the anti-war leftists who were determined to paint Canberra as an American lackey. I also tried to point out the parallel between Soviet efforts to stop ‘dominoes’ from falling in Eastern Europe, and the American use of the domino argument in Asia.6 The very idea that the forces of good could be faced with the same pragmatic problems as the forces of evil was too shocking for most to contemplate. Even today, after Afghanistan, most remain blind to the parallels between Soviet and US behaviour towards their ‘unreliable’ client governments.
Attempts to carry the argument back into the EA camp were even more hopeless. As late as 18 August 1966, Paul Hasluck was still talking in Parliament about ‘Chinese aggression’ against Vietnam. When most reasonable observers had realised that Hanoi was not Peking’s puppet, EA simply switched its line to heavy denunciation of Hanoi’s ‘aggression’ against the South. I once suggested to Bill Hayden MHR that he place a question on notice to discover whether the government would protest as ‘aggression’ the clandestine raids Taiwan was then making against mainland China. EA blandly replied, on the official record, that it possessed no evidence of such raids. I also arranged for Hayden to ask why, if our Asian allies were so keen on the Vietnam War, was a conservative Japanese politician, Masayoshi Ohira, comparing the war to the Japanese mistakes in China thirty years’ before? EA replied, again on the record, that Mr Ohira was not a very important politician.
The problem with EA-and the Vietnam War period highlighted this-was its blend of immaturity and arrogance, its belief that it was the repository of all foreign affairs truth. But this characteristic later survived three years of Labor government in the seventies.
Its origins are complex: the department’s elitist selection procedures; its isolation from the community (partly inevitable, given the location of Canberra and then the frequency of overseas postings); and the excessive size and bureaucratisation of the department since the latter half of the sixties.
If I had to choose one single factor, however, I would emphasise the lack of professionalism, especially the failure to learn Asian languages and undertake specialist studies of Asian societies. EA had done almost nothing to train Asian language speakers during the fifties. China was then being ignored; Japan was defeated; and the rest of Asia was supposed to be beholden to the white man. Matters improved slightly in the sixties, when a handful of recruits were sent to learn Chinese and Indonesian. But today the overall situation remains totally inadequate.
In Tokyo, for example, the Australian Embassy has never had more than one or two fluent Japanese speakers, and most of them are far from fluent. Worse, the few sent to learn languages quickly learn that they face a 70-80 per cent risk of being shunted aside as ‘specialists’. In Hong Kong in 1961 I sought EA approval for an extra year of training in Chinese (necessary to gain fluency). The then EA representative took me aside, saying in a fatherly manner: ‘What the department wants is generalists … Tag yourself as a narrow specialist and you are finished’. He was quite right. He had once been sent off to learn Arabic, but learned to spread his talents widely and thinly, avoided contact with Arab affairs, and ended up as departmental head.
It can be imagined that languages like Vietnamese, Cambodian or Lao were not regarded seriously in the department. In 1967 I decided to raise the language question in the context of the anti-war debate. I obtained and publicised the official figures on the number of EA personnel qualified in the various languages of Asia. ‘Our Diplomats Ignorant’, said one headline. Whitlam then went into action, sensing that he had an issue on which he could safely attack the government. He asked a question on notice in Parliament, but EA quickly evaded the issue. The department produced other figures based on an old list, whereby anyone who knew a few words of any Asian language was allowed to rate himself a linguist.
How can this negligence, structured ignorance, and anti-Asian prejudice be explained?
I would begin with the strange particularism in EA attitudes to Asia. I use particularism in its sociological sense-the propensity to judge the world exclusively on the basis of one’s personal or particular situation, experience and relationships, as opposed to the more universalistic approach which tries to see issues in more abstract terms and judge them on their intellectual and moral merits. Most EA men seemed to me to have a quite childish and emotional view of Asia. On the one side were the pro-west Asians whom they met with often and knew well. They were our ‘friends’.
Why? Because we knew them well and met with them often. On the other side were our enemies-the Asians who for some reason had taken an antiwest position and were outside the range of daily contact. If they were prowest it did not matter if our ‘friends’ were corrupt and inefficient, because that was their only means of holding or seeking power. The fact that they were on our side was enough. It did not matter if the anti-western Asians had quite legitimate reasons for their position. They were opposed to our ‘friends’. So that made them the ‘enemy’.
In this sense EA’s anti-communism was quite different from the more intellectually rounded, ideological anti-communism of, say, the US State Department or even perhaps a Menzies. As already suggested, in domestic affairs the average EA man was fairly tolerant and non-ideological; the right of Australian communists to seek support and propagate their cause was quite acceptable. Many EA men could vaguely appreciate the right of suppressed left-wing movements in Europe, Latin America or even Africa to resort to arms when denied political freedom. And most appreciated the genuinely civil war nature of the 1936 conflict in Spain but for some reason none of this liberalism applied to Asia, Sinitic Asia in particular. EA saw it as quite natural if anti-communist Asians-our friends-set out to imprison and kill their pro-communist opponents-our enemies. When the pro-communists retaliated this was seen as quite sinister. Terms like guerilla and insurgency took on a new and quite frightening meaning in the Asian context. Civil war never entered Canberra’s vocabulary.
Vietnam provided innumerable examples of this highly exaggerated particularism in action. No one that I came across in EA at the time showed any sign of wanting to realise that the 1954 Geneva denial of the 17th parallel as an international boundary, Canberra’s recognition of Saigon as the government of ‘Vietnam’, or Saigon’s repeated threats to attack North Vietnam, undermined the ‘aggression from the North ‘thesis. Angry references to Hanoi’s ‘unprovoked attacks’ and Vietcong ‘atrocities’ were prominent in serious EA analysis and briefing material, unlike the US or UK diplomatic material which focussed much more on national or ideological interest considerations. Clearly the aggression and atrocity issues were factors that weighed heavily and genuinely in the minds of the Canberra policy makers. And, to the extent that they were underlain by a humanitarian concern for the pro-Saigon Vietnamese, their position was not unattractive.
But at no stage did I ever find any mention of Saigon’s much earlier and much larger atrocities against pro-communists in South Vietnam. No one seemed to realise that they were looking at the typical civil situation not unlike that of Spain a generation earlier. No one ever seemed able to grasp how a man who has had to spend all his mature life fighting in the jungle for a cause which even the US at one stage admitted was valid, who has seen hundreds of colleagues killed barbarously in the process, might feel when he finally comes face to face with his opponents. As far as Canberra was concerned, this man was a vicious enemy, to be destroyed at all cost.
If Vietnam was the climax, then perhaps Korea was the formative stage of this particularism. A generation of EA men served in the Korea area during the early fifties. Most of them seemed to come away from the experience with a strong anti-communist antipathy. The best example was (Sir) James Plimsoll, a man of quite humane and progressive inclinations, who emerged in the mid-sixties as one of the most rigid and influential of the anti-China hawks. Several elements may have contributed to Plimsoll’s views, but I have reason to believe that Korea was an important one. Like most others he seemed to have been deeply upset by the sufferings of the anti-communist Koreans, and saw China with its sinister Asian communist ideology as largely responsible. Few gave any sign of seeing the war for what it was-a civil war in which both sides were equally guilty of provocation and atrocity, and where the Soviet Union bore much more of the initial responsibility than China.
Singapore remains, however, the most clear-cut example of this particularist folly in action. I have written about it elsewhere’ and return to it only because nobody else seems willing to take up the question. Its facts are a total indictment of Western post-war diplomacy in Asia, a perfect example of how foreign policy experts, especially the intelligence community, have worked to guarantee pro-communist support throughout the area.
In 1959 our foreign affairs experts managed to convince themselves that Lee Kwan Yew was a potential communist agent whose election had to he opposed at all costs. Of course, it all seems quite ludicrous now; Lee is one of the west’s most reliably anti-communist friends in Asia. But at the time the experts had decided otherwise. Large funds were covertly chanelled by our intelligence agencies to help the election of Lee’s weak and unsuccessful opponent, Lim Yew Hock. (Lee later got his revenge by sending Lim as High Commissioner to Canberra, a job that proved to be well beyond his competence.
Why did our experts oppose Lee? Well, he was an unknown to the colonial establishment to begin with. Worse, he angrily criticised British rule and spoke about organising a party of the masses dedicated to social reform-all things that communists liked to do. No one ever bothered to try to make contact with him, to find out whether he really was the sinister Chinese revoluntionary they assumed. Indeed, he was officially boycotted by the large Australian intelligence and diplomatic community in Singapore. But we talked to Lim Yew Hock. He was pro-western (as he had to be, since he had no other basis of support), which fact automatically made him our friend. Even after Lee was elected, the no-talk policy continued. Eventually it reached such a ridiculous stage that Lee had to seek the removal of our official representative there in order to get some basis of a working relationship with Australia. (The new representative was later put in charge of China policy.) To this day, Lee makes no secret that his at
the Australia is still coloured by the 1959 events, a fact that our diplomatic historians seem conveniently to have overlooked.
The other side of the particularistic coin was the strong pro-US bias. A whole generation of EA men had grown up in the days when the US was all-mighty and apparently all-wise. Almost all had been seduced to a greater or lesser extent by the sense of power and ideological confidence that exuded from their American colleagues in those days.” From there it was but a short step to conclude that what was good for the US was good for Australia. A man like Dean Rusk, with his authority and deep hatred for the Peking regime, had an enormous (and still largely unrecognised) personal influence on Australian foreign policy makers, particularly on Plimsoll who remained as EA Secretary through the vital years of 1965-70. The idea of American omnipotence and omniscience was of course a totally naive assumption for which, sadly, the Vietnamese would pay heavily.
But the ultimate proof of the particularism was the flip-flop in China policy. At first Peking was the enemy. We did not know or have contact with the mainland Chinese. Therefore they must be the enemy, and their enemies in Moscow or Taipei must be our friends. Then, thanks to the Whitlam initiatives of the early seventies, having discovered that the Chinese were human beings just like the rest of us and quite intelligent human beings, that they gave us nice dinner parties and made a fuss of us, the whole direction of Australian foreign policy was thrown into reverse. From Hasluck in Moscow seeking a holy alliance against Peking we have Fraser in Sinkiang seeking a holy alliance against Moscow. From a ban on contacts with Peking we moved to a ban on contacts with Taiwan.
To repeat, how does a nation like Australia come to be afflicted with such a childish and inconsistent foreign policy? Obviously the foreign policy bureaucrats and conservative politicians bear some responsibility, but equally clearly they do not bear all the blame. The problem is much deeper, and concerns the very nature of Australian society. In most of the media, the universities and the intelligentsia generally one found the same immature attitudes to China and Vietnam, the same particularistic reasoning, the same toleration of intelligence agency abuse8, and the same refusal to stand and debate on principle that one found in Canberra. The ALP was no exception, with a large sector tacitly accepting government policies to Vietnam and China during the sixties.
Then in the seventies we saw the same flip-flop, accompanied this time by the same lack of moral responsibility for previous attitudes or policies. Those who in the sixties had quite happily used (and abused) their establishment power to discredit critics of China/Vietnam policies, retained that power and in many cases used it equally happily to promote exactly opposite policies in the seventies. In the same ANU seminar rooms where, in the sixties, academic careers were destroyed for daring to suggest that Chinese policies might not be without their logic, one could in the seventies listen to pro-Cultural Revolution fanatics denounce Deng Xiao
ping as a ‘capitalist roader’. In the US those in the media and universities who had cooperated with the intelligence agencies in the sixties faced embarrassing exposure or worse in the seventies. In Australia there was nothing like this, despite three years of left-wing government. Indeed the intelligence agencies not only survived the Whitlam years intact, they were even able to influence ALP policy execution. (Whitlam’s stalling over the NARA Treaty with Japan was one result.) Something in the Australian ethos seems to work to prevent sensible and responsible handling of affairs which involve foreigners, even if the same ethos operates quite effectively in domestic affairs.
Some blame it all on isolation and the small size of our population. But New Zealand is even smaller and more isolated, and does not display the same symptoms; its Vietnam debate was conducted with some sense of intellectual responsibility. Its intelligence agencies were kept under some control. When the Vietnam intervention failed there was some sense of guilt, some attempt at postmortem. We saw little or none of this in Australia, though here guilt (in terms of actively encouraging and working to prolong the US intervention) was far greater.
The only parallel I can find is Japan. It too operates on a highly particularistic ethic. The result in domestic affairs is an attractive pragmatism, a sensitivity to human relations, strong group loyalties, a healthy disrespect for legalism and a freedom from disruptive ideological debate all not dissimilar to what one finds in Australia. But in foreign affairs the same ethic has disastrous results. Quite apart from the emotionalist slapdashery, there is the ugly refusal to accept moral guilt or responsibility for past mistakes. The people responsible for those mistakes are still respected as having somehow tried to seek the best interests of the nation. The people who opposed them are still distrusted as ‘trouble-makers’ (yes, they use the same term as Australians do), while the society as a whole flip-flops quite easily from one foreign policy to its opposite as the mood or the need of the moment dictates, without any sense of the intellectual inconsistency involved.