Chapter 13 – The Vietnam War Debate
BETWEEN FOUR WORLDS: CHINA, RUSSIA, JAPAN AND AUSTRALIA;
BETWEEN FOUR CAREERS and FOUR LANGUAGES
Fighting Windmills, Getting Nowhere
1. Connecting with the The Australian
2. Joining the Vietnam War Debate
3. A Run-in with The Bulletin
4. The Australian Institute of Political Science
5. The Asian Languages Fiasco
After almost a decade in the bureaucracy I am out. At age 29 I have to try to make a new career.
But I was also now free to talk – about the growing horror of Vietnam, Canberra’s anti-China fantasies, about the amateurish Japan relationship, Canberra’s mistaken economic policies…..
Realising that freedom came much sooner than expected.
1. Connecting with the The Australian
I had an introduction to Adrian Deamer, then the editor of The Australian – the national newspaper based in Canberra which a then mildly progressive Rupert Murdoch was trying bravely to create for a readership of only 7 million people in a nation the size of the USA.
In those days The Australian was the one media voice of progressive good sense on Vietnam, and many other issues.
Murdoch’s shift to the Right only came later, triggered largely by the problems he had with the leftwing print unions in Sydney and later in London.
(And with the problem of profitability too, maybe.)
Many have praised Deamer’s liberalism and intelligence, and I can only add to the praise.
He and the managing editor, Walter Kommer, were more than happy to run the minor scoop I had given them, on how a ‘senior’ (their word) External Affairs official had resigned in protest against Australia’s intervention in Vietnam.
That report was picked by the agencies and run in a few newspapers abroad. But for most part the reaction was fairly muted.
I may have been the first Western diplomat to resign in protest against the Vietnam intervention.
But in those early days most assumed the war would soon be over – that it would be impossible for the pro-communist forces in South Vietnam to resist the full weight of US power.
However Pravda took the news seriously.
It ran a long, two column piece about how a ‘senior’ Australian diplomat had even in his Moscow posting days realised the immorality of Western intervention in Vietnam and had bravely decided to resign when confronted by the anti-communist beast in Canberra.
Needless to say, the Pravda intervention sent the ASIO people into fits.
I heard later that these trusty guardians of Australian security had concluded that the Soviets may have prompted me to resign so they could use me as a tool to boost their global anti-US campaign over Vietnam!
Kommer and Deamer had encouraged me to write something explaining my Vietnam views.
Entitled ‘Australia and the Lost War,’ and published half-page in October, 1965, my article criticised the US-Australian military intervention in Vietnam but stopped short of predicting its defeat.
I could see the similarities with pre-1949 China – the ease with which pro-communists forces could seize the nationalist cause when confronted with weak, corrupt, Western-backed and unpopular regimes
But like most others I felt the sheer weight of US intervention could win out in the long run.
Even so, that did not excuse its crudity – millions would be brutally killed in a bid to prop up the weak, unpopular regime in Saigon.
The article launched me firmly into the ranks of Australia’s nascent anti-Vietnam War protest movement – people whom in my conservative External Affairs days I would have avoided as a bunch of long-haired radicals.
I even had an approach from the Sydney-based branch of the dreaded Australian Communist Party.
And at Deamer’s request, I followed up with a series of articles on China and Russia.
None of this activism passed unnoticed in the government.
I am told it led John Gorton, then minister of education, to query why the government-funded ANU was providing refuge to this anti-Vietnam War subversive.
I am also told that the ANU people decided to resist Gorton’s pressure.
But that did not mean they approved what I was doing.
Crawford, then the head of the Research School of Pacific Studies where I had my scholarship, pulled me in for a formal reprimand over my giving a course on Chinese history at the affiliated Canberra University College.
PhD scholarship students had to concentrate entirely on their studies he said.
The implication – lay off the anti-Vietnam War activities – did not escape.
2. Joining the Vietnam War Debate
Government and ANU pressure over Vietnam was not my only problem.
Within weeks of arriving at the ANU I was thrown into a life of total confusion.
On the one hand I had to try to educate myself rapidly in the economics needed for PhD studies.
I also had to start learning Japanese (I had already discovered that knowing Chinese was no guarantee I could easily learn Japanese).
Meanwhile I was being pulled around Australia to talk to anti-Vietnam War seminars.
On my talk trips to Sydney I also began to get to know some people from the Sydney ‘Push’– a group of libertarians who believed in free love and quite a few other human vices.
They did much to broaden my still very narrow conservative outlook.
I had also joined the Canberra branch of the Australian Labor Party, thinking that there at least I would be among like-minded people.
And among the left-wingers in the branch I did find support, especially from Bruce Macfarlane, the political scientist.
Bruce later was to go overboard in praise of Mao and Cultural Revolution China. But his generosity and vigorous personality helped carry me through a difficult period.
At the time the ALP was badly divided over Vietnam.
On the Left were ideologues such as Bruce who would instinctively support pro-communist revolutionaries around the world.
There were also the concerned activists – people like myself and the Quakers with no political bias but badly upset by the cruelty and immorality of the US intervention.
Opposed to us, however, was a powerful ALP rightwing, particularly strong in the Canberra and NSW branches.
Basically they supported the US and the Vietnam intervention while sometimes mouthing criticisms of Canberra’s way of intervening in the war.
Then there were the pro-war, lumpen, ALP proletariat – workers and trade-union officials whose basic attitude was: ‘Kill the little yellow buggers up there before they get down here.”
It was not a happy mix.
I came to respect highly the Quakers.
With much effort they had prepared a booklet giving facts and opinions on the Vietnam war, including my own original article in The Australian.
The booklet was, of course, totally ignored by Australia’s mainstream conservative media.
Another group was centered around a Melbourne magazine called Dissent edited by a very concerned activist, Leon Glazer.
I was greatly moved by one of Dissent’s cover pictures – a dozen of so unarmed young Vietnamese men in peasant clothing lying dead by a stream, with a group of smirking, heavily-armed US soldiers, their killers, behind them.
3. A Run-in With ‘The Bulletin.’
Glazer had asked me if I could write something for them, and by chance I could.
The Sydney-based magazine, The Bulletin, had under its very rightwing editor, Peter Coleman, just run a long piece by the equally rightwing commentator, Brian Buckley.
It flagellated the Left, and Dissent in particular, for their alleged failure to realise the dangers of global communism and China, especially over Vietnam.
It was an unusual article. Unlike the lazy, ‘bash –the- lefties’ style of Australia rightwing polemics at the time, the author seemed to have gone to some trouble to muster facts and dates to support his case.
It included even details of alleged Chinese plots to gain Afghanistan as an outlet to the Indian Ocean!
It was especially contemptuous of the Australian Left for failing to realise this threat from Beijing.
But as I read the Buckley article more closely, I realised that much of it had been lifted, in part word-for-word, from a The Economist article only a few months earlier.
The Economist in those days was also up to its neck in anti-leftwing vitriol over Vietnam and China.
In short, our ‘bash-the-lefties’ types were now into plain, old-fashioned plagiarism to cover the weaknesses in their own thinking and research.
And being fresh from Russia, I also realised that the anti-communist vitriol of the original The Economist article was very similar to the wording of the anti-capitalist vitriol the Soviet ideologues were then using to lambast their own dissenters.
They aimed in particular at the author Victor Nekrasov who had urged a more sensible approach to the West and some understanding of the merits of the capitalistic system.
So I began my Dissent article first by noting the remarkable similarities between the style of Buckley article and the earlier The Economist article.
Some might suggest that plagiarism was involved, I said tongue in cheek, but in fact it was simply great minds thinking alike.
I then was able to take each of the anti-China, anti-Leftwing tirades in the Buckley/Economist articles and set them alongside their mirror images in the anti-capitalist, anti-West, anti-Nekrasov tirades then underway in the Moscow ideological rags.
More great minds thinking alike, I was able to note.
If I say so myself, I think it was one of the more powerful articles I have ever written – pillorying equally the ideological biases of both sides and showing their mirror image similarities.
But did anyone in Australia realise those points?
Not just the rightwing, but most of my leftwing and mid-road colleagues, could not even begin to grasp the idea that Rightwing ideologues in Australia could in any way resemble the Leftwing ideologues in the Kremlin.
And why was I using all that to pillory the unfortunate Buckley?
Needless to say, The Bulletin were outraged; Coleman even threatened legal action.
Why had I not bothered to contact him before I wrote my piece?.
He could have assured me that an attribution to The Economist had been cut by mistake from the original Buckley article.
As for the main point of the article, namely the mirror-image similarities of anti-communist Right and pro-communist Left ideologues, no mention.
As I found so often with the Right, both in Australia and elsewhere, their over-weening confidence that they alone are the repositories of intelligence, goodwill and the truth remains unshaken, even after Vietnam.
They wheel out occasional Leftwing disasters – fanatical left-wingers trying for a while to justify Pol Pot, Stalin etc.. But who for the most part have repented their sins.
They ignore the far more numerous Rightwing extremists – the people who tried to justify fascists like Hitler, Franco etc..
As for numbers in their ranks who barracked for the Vietnam War, the less said the better,
Confronted later with the fact that the Vietnam they had said was a puppet of China was in fact highly independent and basically anti-China, they try to change the subject.
That China and Vietnam had actually gone to war with each other a few years after the Vietnam War, they pretend not to hear.
Told that as a result of the Vietnam War they ended up killing a large number of the very same Vietnamese they later were to say they depended upon to help promote their anti-China strategies in Asia, they turn indignant.
Or else they say Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore also approved to the Vietnam intervention. Therefore?
Tell them that they are as guilty of dogma and fantasy ideas as any of the pro-Soviet ideologues they used to despise, and they sulk.
Or else they will talk about protection of Western values, confrontation with the ’terrorists’ (which they themselves have created), and so on.
The Economist has been a particularly good example of this unsullied righteous confidence in action.
But The Bulletin, both under Coleman and his equally virulent anti-communist successor, Donald Horne (he of the subsequent smarmy conversion later to pro-Whitlam and other trendy leftwing causes) were not far behind.
More Vietnam Debate
Thanks to the Dissent people and occasional anti-Vietnam talkfests, I got to know some of those active on the Melbourne stage.
Max Teichman of Monash University helped me greatly and introduced me to some of the denizens of the dreaded Victorian Left.
Their zeal, and their hatreds, were impressive.
The Push people in Sydney seemed much less motivated; many seemed keener on enjoying life rather than hunting down enemies and arguing foreign policies.
They were also anarchistic and anti-government, which made them fairly intolerant of all regimes, communist ones included.
There was little sympathy for the plight of Vietnam revolutionaries.
John Barton’s newly-formed Australia Party tried hard to bring me in to support their anti-war position.
But they were badly disorganised.
One of my darker moments was sharing the stage at an Australia Party rally in a Sydney suburb with Alex Carey, a genuine humanist who agonised even more than I over the Vietnam atrocity.
He had dragged in a mountain of historical and legal documents –1954 Geneva agreements and others – to prove the illegality of the intervention.
But before us was seated an audience of just ten – three old men, six housewives, and a dog.
I doubt if any of them understood what he was talking about.
4. The Australian Institute of Political Science
The climax to all this activity was a request from John Mant, then a conservative but concerned Sydney lawyer, to give a paper at the Australian Institute of Political Science annual conference in January 1967.
The theme was ‘Communism in Asia – A Threat to Australia?’
On the threat side they had a strong array of well-known names – J.D.B, Miller, Owen Harries, Zelman Cohen and some flown in from the abroad, including that longtime US State Department subsidised, determindly anti-communist academic, Robert Scalapino.
On the anti-threat side there was just one combatant – me.
Once again I was on my own. Fitzgerald had declined my requests to help with a joint presentation.
Much of the anti-China hysteria in Australia at the time was fed by the polemics of the Sino-Soviet dispute.
Time and again the pro-Vietnam war faction would drag out one or other of Beijing’s fiercer statements in which Moscow was accused of ideological cowardice towards the West.
They would then intone wisely how at the very least we had to take the Chinese at their aggressive word.
It was taken for granted that Beijing had created the Vietnam War despite obvious evidence to the contrary.
That, together with the grossly distorted view of the 1962 Sino-Indian dispute, had created the firm image of an extremist Beijing far to the Left of the more moderate Western communists in Moscow
A selective choice of the language of the Sino-Soviet dispute was the cement for their views.
Normally when right-wingers (or left-wingers for that matter) get upset over yet another of their distorted world views one is happy to leave them to stew in their fantasies.
Reality finally catches up with them.
But over Vietnam this approach was impossible. The reality of the war could take decades to arrive, if ever.
How many people would have to die in the meantime?
The rightwing arguments had to be countered in the here and now.
Or so I reasoned.
As a counter-argument I would try to get people to focus on what exactly both sides were in fact saying in the Sino-Soviet polemical dispute.
Since the dispute was being used to create the image of a mad, aggressive Beijing arguing with a sane, moderate Moscow, I tried to drag out quotations that said the opposite – that Beijing was the moderate and Moscow the radical.
Both were using different versions of Communist dogma to attack the other.
A particular Canberra obsession at the time was Beijing’s vocal support for something called wars of national liberation, with the war in Vietnam seen as the forerunner.
But Moscow was saying exactly the same about liberation wars.
More importantly, and unlike Beijing, it was doing something to support those wars with weapons.
In Vietnam it was criticising China for not doing enough to provide weapons. It said Beijing was actually blocking Soviet weapons from reading their destination.
That could well be true.
I had begun this research into Sino-Soviet polemics while in Moscow, and had even sent off a paper on the topic to External Affairs, which had been kind enough to include it in the Department’s Digest of Dispatches circulated to embassies and others each month.
But I doubt if it influenced anyone.
Ditto for the AIPS prestige audience assembled in Canberra.
The image of Beijing as a communist monster plotting Asian takeover was too deeply ingrained to be shaken by a few quotes from obscure polemical documents.
I had wasted the chance to present the anti-Vietnam War case before an important audience.
I should have concentrated on my sub-theme – a prediction that a communist Vietnam would be no more of a threat than a communist Yugoslavia.
It reminded me of Alex Carey’s dilemma in that Sydney lecture hall.
Australia simply did not have the foreign affairs sophistication to handle detailed debate about Communism or revolution.
Peter Hastings of the Sydney Morning Herald, (yet another of the ASIO tainted journalists able to mould Australia foreign policy opinion) managed to report in detail on every one of the pro-Vietnam War papers at the AIPS conference.
He omitted only one – mine.
No one else was giving the anti-war side of the debate.
The other big issue for AIPS was Beijing’s anti-Americanism.
This too was dragged out constantly to prove Beijing’s inherent aggressiveness.
In those days to be anti-American was to be anti-God. The world was yet to discover the depth of un-Godly US support for a host of ugly rightwing regimes and revolutions around the globe.
Few wanted to think about the many good reasons why a Beijing regime would want to be anti-American.
5. The Asian Languages Fiasco
The almost total non-reaction to my AIPS efforts, even among the Left, left me deeply depressed.
In desperation I had in my AIPs paper thrown in something about the scandalous lack of Asian language speakers in External Affairs.
In those innocent, pre-Vietnam debacle, pre-Watergate days, the public assumed naively that the people at the top had the information and expertise to know what was going on.
If the top people said Beijing was dangerous, then it was dangerous – very.
The only way to counter this naivety, I thought, was to prove that the people at the top did not really know very much about what was going on in the world.
They could not even speak the languages of the Asian countries they were warning us about.
External Affairs, still under Plimsoll, came back with a document in which anyone in EA who had ever claimed even a smattering of a local Asian language was listed as a fluent Asian language speaker.
Hastings gave it publicity, finally mentioning that someone called Clark had spoken at the AIPs conference, and adding that in view of the EA document, Clark had obviously got it all wrong.
Deamer at The Australian was good enough to give me space for a rebuttal, and this time I was finally able to persuade Fitzgerald to lend his name.
But the damage had been done.