Chapter 21 – Returning to the Vietnam Debate 1968-9


Returning to the Vietnam War Debate- 1968-9

1.    Whitlam and Vietnam
2.    Chinese ‘Invaders.’
3.    Living with Jim Cairns
4.    Neil Batt: The Australian Politician who got it Right
5.    The Idiotic Whitlam Response

In 1965-66, returning from Moscow, I could feel I was at least joining a genuine debate over the rights and wrongs of a controversial war that was just beginning. 

In the anti-war ranks I had found new friends and new values, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. 

But when I returned from Japan in 1968, the debate had fossilised. 

The Liberal Country Party (LCP) coalition was firmly in power, thanks to its ruthless exploitation of the alleged China and Vietnam War threats. 

The US atrocity in Vietnam had escalated, and was spilling over into Cambodia and Laos. 

Not just the rightwing DLP but even the Liberal Party was into pasting red arrows from China pointing towards Australia. 

And the public showed every sign of wanting to continue to believe this nonsense for some time to come. 

The organs of the Right – the covertly CIA-financed Cultural Freedom people and its literary organ, Quadrant magazine, especially – were in full cry. 

Most of my anti-war friends from those earlier heady days of the mid-sixties had lost their jobs or had given up. 

1.  Whitlam and Vietnam 

Even the possibility of my moving into politics – the one remaining reason for wanting to remain in Australia – was withering. 

(I am not suited to politics. But I could see something of a career as an adviser to an anti-Vietnam War, pro-recognition of China political party, if such ever came to exist.) 

Whitlam had consolidated his position in the ALP and was determined to keep anti-Vietnam War people like Cairns and myself very much at a distance. 

He had become mealy-mouthed on Vietnam. 

Over China he was disturbingly rightwing. 

I would like to say he was being opportunistic; Labour had stumbled from one electoral defeat to another because the great Australian public had been led to believe the party was weak on Yellow Peril threats. 

But Whitlam himself, and many in the ALP, went along with the talk of Yellow Peril ‘threats’. 

I tried to find out the basis of Whitlam’s anti-China bias. 

From Cyril Wyndham, then ALP federal secretary, I learned that like many others (including Kissinger) he had been greatly influenced by the false version of the 1962 Sino-Indian frontier war pumped out by Western propaganda agencies. 

India in those days was being seen by Whitlam and other centrist progressives as a model of peaceful, socialistic development. 

So if even harmless India had become a target of alleged ‘unprovoked’ military attack, then China was clearly a menace to the rest of us. 

In 1964 Whitlam had spoken openly about China’s ‘invasion’ of India. 

Invasion? When it was India that had attacked China by pushing troops north even its own (Indian) frontier claim line in the NEFA era, and only then had the Chinese responded? 

And when the Chinese had withdrawn completely to the Indian claim line, ignoring its own claim line  further south, once the Indian move had been defeated and punished? 

A key player in spreading the ‘invasion’ myth was the rightwing, Canberra-based historian, Geoffrey Fairbairn. 

Personable, an expert on India, and a favourite of the Quadrant crowd, his views carried clout in the circles where Whitlam moved. 

I knew Fairbairn quite well, and once took some time to give him the facts of the Sino-Indian frontier dispute.

He did not try to deny them. But he made no effort to correct the distorted version he had been propagating, and continued to propagate. 


Fairbairn had also been very influential in creating the myth of guerrilla war as somehow immoral  – the dangerous and sinister tool for spreading global Communism. 

So the French Resistance to the Nazis was also an immoral form of warfare? I once asked. 

I did not even try to argue with him. 


In 1967 Whitlam had returned from a Vietnam visit, bringing one of the more unusual reasons for criticising Canberra’s involvement there. 

He said the US top brass there had personally briefed him, and it was clear that the war on the ground had already been won. 

From this it followed that Canberra had got it wrong in wanting to send more troops there. What was needed was material aid to help rebuild the countryside, he concluded triumphantly. 

As his aide Graham Freudenberg admitted to journalists at the time, an all-knowing Whitlam had been thoroughly “snowed” by the US military establishment. 

But others in the ALP establishment went along this particular piece of Whitlamesque nonsense – the highly forgettable deputy ALP leader, Lance Barnard, in particular. 

The main theme in the ALP right-wing was that Australia could not abandon the US in Indochina, even if the Americans had made a few mistakes. 

My own attempt to suggest an alternative back in 1966 – the enclave solution – had obviously gone nowhere. 

Among the working class Left, the argument that “we have to stop the yellow bastards up there before they get down here” remained firmly in place. 

Faced with this barrage, most on the ALP Left had been reduced to silence. 

In effect, the anti-war camp had been narrowed down to a few doctrinaire leftwing ideologues and the very few informed, conscience-striken progressives who had survived the dumbing down of Australian foreign affairs thinking and remained aware of Vietnam realities.

Only when the conscription issue began to hit the headlines did popular opposition to the war get underway. 

In effect Australians were saying: “We don’t mind if the Americans are up there killing the yellow bastards. But if good Australian lads have to get killed in the process, that is something different.” 

2. Chinese ‘Invaders’  

A trade commissioner friend  in Japan and volunteer to serve in Vietnam once described me the reality.  

“From the moment we got on the ships for Vietnam the military propagandists were pumping us full about the Chinese invaders we were going to meet from the moment of landing. We were all fired up.”

“But when we landed there was not a single Chinese in sight.”

And for good reason.  Hanoi had expelled the large Chinese community in the North, despite the China’s large contribution to the war against the French. 

Resettling those Chinese in crowded, impoverished southern China had caused much economic strain.

China had retaliated by blocking some Russian wartime supplies to North Vietnam. At least that is what Kosygin may have been hinting at in our November 1964 meeting with Hasluck.

And these were the Chinese who were supposed to be using Vietnamese puppets to attack Australia? 

3. Living with Jim Cairns 

Even Cairns was starting to get flaky. 

True, he had done much to enthuse the anti-conscription movement. His book, Living with Asia, was a remarkable piece of work even if largely ignored.

And as I mentioned earlier, I had seen a lot of him in the mid-sixties, and had even got him to take political risks to support my enclave solution for Vietnam. 

But Cairns had his weaknesses too, some of which were to become apparent even before the Morosi affair of 1975. 

I had once gone to Sydney, at his request, to spend a weekend working with him on a promised definitive, in-depth document setting out the anti-Vietnam War argument in full. 

We had agreed that this was badly needed to give more impetus to the anti-war movement. 

But when I arrived, Cairns made it clear that he was more interested in spending the weekend at the house of a young female student he had just met. 

Years later he was to be invited to visit Hanoi, and to take one Australian newsperson with him. As a Tokyo-based correspondent, I was keen to go. 

But despite all that I had done with him in the past over Vietnam he turned me down, in favour of a rightwing, Singapore-based Fairfax journalist whose connections with British and Australian intelligence were so blatant that even the international-politics naive Cairns must have known about them. 

Most have forgotten that Cairns was also a member of the February 1965 ALP Parliamentary Foreign Affairs committee that endorsed US bombing of Hanoi on the basis of the phoney Tonkin Bay attack. 

Cairns could turn hot and cold on issues as the occasion demanded, even if he was more solid than most others on the so-called Left.


True, there were a few others in the ALP who were also good on Vietnam in those days. Bill Hayden was one (that was before his subsequent gallop across the ideological spectrum to become a darling of the Right). 

Both he and Cairns had been ex-policemen.  Perhaps the moral was the need for a degree of higher education to realise the need for intellectual consistency.

4. Neil Batt: The One Australian Politician who got it Right

The only ALP activist I met who was able intelligently not just to share my feelings about that war, but also to realise that the ALP had to try to come up with a solution acceptable to the  Australian public, was the now quite forgotten Tasmanian peace activist turned politician, Neil Batt. 

In 1967 he was able to push through a Federal ALP Conference a resolution advocating something very similar to the enclave solution which I had had published in The Australian earlier that year. 

In other words, Australia would agree to join the US in a holding operation to rescue the anti-Communist Vietnamese from the results of their inefficiency and corruption, and help them recuperate in a Taiwan-style enclave. 

But it would not join with the US in its military activities outside the enclave. 

Batt had picked up my idea and run with it. 

5.The Idiotic Whitlam Response

Whitlam, who had ignored my idea when it was put to him via Menadue in 1966, was finally forced to think about it. His response? 

That Australia had no right to impose conditions on its US ally. 


The fact that the enclave proposal was the only way the ALP could put forward a coherent Vietnam policy acceptable to the Australian public had gone over his politically naive head, just as it had in 1966. 

The fact that it was the only way to stop the dreadful killing in Vietnam, and give the anti-communists in Saigon a very undeserved chance to survive and even make a comeback, had also gone completely over his head. 

Among Whitlam’s rightwing ALP friends the favourite wisdom was an alleged ‘obligation’ to support Australia’s big and powerful friend even if it made the occasional mistake. 

In the rightwing media the same mantra was repeated endlessly. 

The implication — that you have to support someone bent on murderous war, regardless of rights and wrongs, just because he looks strong and says you are his friend. 

At times I used to wonder whether Whitlam’s rightwing foreign policy bias was due to his having been bought by the CIA, via his Cultural Freedom friends. 

But more likely his problem was his weakness in foreign policy (economics was not his only blind spot). This combined with a desire to continue to be seen in conservative Sydney circles as respectable, as not wanting to associate with those horrid ‘leftwing extremists.’ 

Either way, it meant I did not have much future in ALP circles as a foreign policy adviser, even if the better-placed Stephen Fitzgerald whom I had rescued from academic obscurity was later to seize the opportunity. 

But I am getting ahead of my story, which is pulling together the Vietnam War reasons why increasingly I felt I had no choice but to leave Australia.