Chapter 22 – The Vietnam Debate Turns Ugly, 1968-9


1  Vietnam – A Barometer of Australian Crassness
2. Guerrilla Warfare
3. Dogs and Vietnam
4. How to Protest
5. The Australian Rightwing
6. An ALP Experience

The weakness of the Vietnam debate was not just a constant agony for me.  

It also forced me to think a lot more about Australia itself, and whether I had any future in that country. 

Why were Australians so crassly unconcerned about the atrocities going on just to the north of their big, fat continent? 

Was I really alien to the society which I had known from childhood, which had raised me and which I liked in many ways? 

1.   Vietnam: A Barometer of Crassness

Australians are not an inherently cruel people. Put some atrocity in front of their eyes, like the degradation of the aborigine community, and they will fret over it, even if they find it hard to decide what to do about the problem.  

But when it is all far away in Vietnam?  Forget it mate.  

In foreign policy they can happily ignore the fact that millions of people in a foreign country will have brutally to be killed simply to protect their own narrow view of where their interests lie. 

Even so, why was I, as a typically Queensland-raised, gut-conservative who in 1956 had stood on the deck of a boat close to Suez and had cheered Anthony Eden as he tried to justify the  British attack on Egypt, so completely out of touch with my countrymen? 

Largely because of my China experience, I guess. It had forced me to realise there was another and equally important world out there. 

I had come to sympathise with the Chinese in their struggles first against Japanese brutality and then against a corrupt government supported by the US.  

As I saw it, the Vietnamese were in the same situation, except they also had had to struggle against French colonisers. 

As in China, millions of them would have to die simply so that they could regain control of their own country. 

 I could empathise with them as individuals. For me every Vietnamese being napalmed was a human being napalmed.

And as a member of a nation that had supported and to some extent encouraged that napalming,  I too was responsible.  I could not escape that responsibility. 

Australians seem quite unable to extrapolate like this. 

The sufferings of the Vietnamese, even when imposed by Australian soldiers and policies, remained quite beyond the range of their feelings and consciousness. 

The Vietnamese people belonged to a different world – one we were free to invade and savage.

They were not humans like us.

The pathetic post-Vietnam War efforts by the Australian rightwing establishment – Quadrant etc.- to justify that war, even when almost the entire civilised world had turned against it, were typical of this crass obtuseness. 

( I suspect heavy reliance on US funds also kept a few of these refusniks alive.)

Even after China had gone to war with its alleged Vietnamese ‘puppets’ in 1979 our rightwing still seemed unable to understand the atrocity they had committed. They seemed quite unable even to grasp the concept of war guilt 

If they need a definition, I will give it to them, a la Nuremberg. 

It is a war crime to go into a foreign country and kill people for spurious reasons. 

How to define spurious? It is if after the conflict is over and you have lost you are not prepared to justify the reasons for your having got involved in the first place. 

That certainly was the basis for the 1946 Tokyo war crimes tribunals. 

Canberra’s reasons for the Vietnam intervention were that it was needed to prevent China from using “its puppets in Hanoi for a thrust between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.” 

Would any of our rightwing, Vietnam-war rationalisers care to repeat that claim? No? 

Well, in that case, and by the standards set in those Tokyo war crimes tribunals, in which Australians played such a leading role, they too should heading for the scaffold.

That, of course, is not going to happen. 

Indeed,  we do not even get an apology out of them, even as Australians today rush in to do business with the Vietnam with which Canberra now claims such a good relationship. 

Even the Americans have enough moral consistency to realise that if they do not want to apologise, then they should at least not pretend to want good relations. 

And the US has at least thrown up a Robert McNamara, something we have yet to find among Australia’s Vietnam War enthusiasts and planners. 

On the contrary, we have even seen an official attempt by the Canberra War Memorial historian to justify the war and criticise the anti-war activists.

Even in the USA we have not seen such official crassness. 

We have seen no effort among Australian intellectuals to explain or defend their support for the war, or the lies that sustained it. 

It is a measure of the moral vacuum on which Australia is built.

For me, the lack of conscience among the many Australians – bureaucrats, politicians, journalists, academics, soldiers – involved in supporting or organising the Vietnam atrocity was appalling.

Could I really belong to the same country as they? 

2. Guerrilla Warfare 

One proof of this inability to extrapolate – to understand the point of view of the other side –  was the strange inability to understand the basis of guerrilla warfare, namely that brave people with a cause confronting a vastly superior power of a government or an invading army have no choice but to fight incognito, and to rely on the tactics of surprise. 

(This happens to have been the case in the Spanish war of resistance to Napoleon’s invasion, where the word ‘guerrilla’ was coined.) 

Even if one does not agree with the cause, surely the fact that people are willing to fight and die under appalling guerrilla war conditions for that cause at least deserves some explanation. 

‘Zombies chained to machine guns’ is not quite adequate.

What’s more, the fact the guerrillas are doing this without any promise of material reward, unlike the semi-mercenaries on the side of the government or invading army, makes it very likely they see their cause as just. 

The fact that their women are willing to join them in that fighting (which is usually the case in most guerrilla wars), makes it even more likely they genuinely believe their cause is just. 

Yet somehow in the minds of most Australians, including many who should have known better, the incredible bravery and endurance of the guerrilla forces is turned round into proof of incredible deviousness and evil. 

Throughout history, mercenary armies have always had an especial dislike for guerrilla fighters. They reserve for them their most vicious punishments, as if it is grossly unfair for people to try to defend their cause by ‘sneaky’ guerrilla tactics.

Nazi Germans fighting partisans in Eastern Europe or the French Resistance (in which my aunt Emmy was a member) suffered horribly as a result.

Once again the Japanese analogy pops up – the way guerrilla fighters in China were seen as sub-human, and the dreadful cruelties reserved for those who were captured, including live vivisection and bacterial experiments in Japan’s Unit 731.

Alan Watt, a former EA head, in one of his books about Australian and Vietnam, spoke darkly about the sneaky Vietcong enemy refusing to come out in the open and confront its enemies. 

And leave itself open of yet another brutal B52 bombing? 

This inability to think of the terrible unfairness of the war in Vietnam, or even to think of the other side as human beings with legitimate desires and goals, was probably ugliest aspect of the Australian approach to Vietnam. 

3. Dogs and Vietnam 

I remember an evening, probably back in 1968, talking with two progressive or even mildly-leftwing Canberra academics. 

The Australian military had just released a gushing press notice about Rover, a guard dog sent to Vietnam. 

It seems that Rover had been sniffing in some bushes and discovered a local Vietnamese woman who probably had been sent to scout for the anti-government forces. She had been shot and killed immediately. 

Well done Rover. One up for the dog, was the jubilant press notice message. 

I tried to tell my two friends just how disgusting all this was – praise for a dog responsible for the killing an unarmed and unnamed woman, whose only crime was having the courage to assist her men-folk trying to resist foreign attack in her native country. 

My two colleagues were quite taken aback by my anger. One politely tried to suggest that I was getting a bit over-heated on the Vietnam issue. 

I used to get the same message from so many other so-called progressives in Canberra. The word they liked for protest was ‘gradualist.’

Be more gradualistic, I was told. 

But how you can be “gradual” when at that very moment your own government and tax monies are assisting the slaughter of thousands for a completly worthless cause? 

Protest is meaningless unless it happens at a time when the atrocities are in progress. 

There is no point protesting afterwards. 

And to be effective it has to be accompanied by action – marches, writings, refusing to pay taxes. 

When I look back on those futile years in Canberra, my worst memories are the bruising arguments over Vietnam in the ANU tearooms and corridors, trying to persuade some of those “gradualist progressives” about the need to do something now and then rather than wait till it was all over.  

4. How to Protest 

But the gradualists are right in one sense, even if they do not realise it. 

Watching the policy makers in action over the years, I am convinced that a major reason they persist in their immoral wars is simply because they are determined to prove the protestors wrong. 

Often they would often be quite happy to declare victory and slink away from those messy and expensive conflicts. 

But if they did that they would be admitting that the protesters were right, and that they themselves were wrong. 

They might even start to lose elections on that basis.

Marches and other emotional protests simply harden their resolve to prove the protestors wrong. 

Even us writers with our more vitriolic writings do some damage perhaps.  

In retrospect, I often think the most effective thing the anti-Vietnam War camp could have done was to set up booths outside Parliament House, government offices and the embassies of pro-Vietnam War nations. 

There the protestors could sit quietly, day after day, year after year, handing out anti-war materials to those who were interested, arguing with those who thought the war was justified, and getting to know other anti-war protestors. 

With something like that in place even I might have been persuaded to get off my futile pedestal at the time. 

But I still do not think the ‘gradualism’ of our progressives was the answer.

For many of them it was simply an excuse allowing them to keep their heads down and their noses clean.

They would weigh in much later, when it was safe and respectable to do so. 

In the process they would leave it to others to take the brunt of establishment hostility, while they consolidated their own comfortable positions in academia and elsewhere. 

5. The Australian Rightwing 

Dealing with Australian ‘gradualist’ progressives was difficult enough. Worse was the hectoring I was getting from rightwing fanatics. 

One was the hard-line journalist, Peter Samuel, who wrote for the Canberra Times and The Bulletin. 

In a breathless article Samuel once told us that the US had already won out in Vietnam, but was keeping its Vietnam victory so secret that even its allies there, including Australia, did not know about it. 

The glad news would only be revealed when the US had thoroughly subdued the countryside. 

Another was Malcolm Mackerras who today would probably be embarrassed if reminded of his pedantically rightwing views in those days. 

Mackerras shared the rightwing penchant for fussing over details, such as Hanoi’s ‘illegal’ support for the Vietcong, while ignoring the far more illegal US, and Australian, refusal to abide by the 1954 Geneva Agreements that had in effect promised a reunification of Vietnam.

As in the US, the Australian rightwing took great comfort and support from the alleged failure of the 1968 Tet offensive. That was supposed to prove lack of popular South Vietnamese support for the pro- communist cause. 

It never seemed to cross their minds that the fact the offensive could be launched in the first place, and that it could only be suppressed by massive US intervention, these facts alone discredited their earlier anti-communist fictions about the Vietcong being simply a bandit rabble hiding out in the jungle and lacking any basis of support in the society generally. 

Fortunately among our public generally Tet did make an impression. It made people realize that the Vietcong ‘bandits’ were much more powerful than they had imagined – that their governments had been lying.

Over China, a favourite gambit among people like Samuel, the Santamaria/DLP crowd, The Bulletin and other right-wingers was constant reference to a CIA circulated map of Chinese-controlled territories in Ching dynasty times, with much of Southeast Asia included. 

Beijing was allegedly holding up this map as the goal for its future territorial expansion, with Australia as the target after that. (see page 153 of my In Fear of China book for details) 

Yes, the map did exist. It was included, once and once only, in a 1954 Chinese school history textbook which was withdrawn a year later. 

By the 1960’s Beijing was negotiating very generous border agreements with many of its neighbours. Not only were those agreed borders quite different from anything shown in the Ching dynasty map; Taiwan was even attacking them as sacrificing territories that it (the Nationalist government) had long insisted were Chinese territories. 

In short, the claims about Beijing promoting the map were a blatant lie and one of the bright shining variety. But ignorance of facts, and acceptance of doctored spy information, was par for the course in Australia at the time. 

At the time an ASIO-spoon fed Melbourne Herald writer, Denis Warner, was warning the world about Chinese roads being built deep into the heart of Laos. 

Beijing was already expanding southwards, he intoned. But no one has since been able to find the roads for some reason. 

If the Left was to come up with the same kind of lies and distortions over issues as important as this, imagine the outcry from the Right. 

Lies and exaggerations in alleged defence of the nation are different from other lies and exaggerations, it seems, even if the former result in your having direct responsibility for killing of the citizens of another nation in large numbers. 

Even the worst mistakes by the Left – arguably by those who tried to justify Stalin’s atrocities – never required Australian participation in those atrocities. What’s more, most on the intellectual Left who had supported Stalin’s Moscow had the moral courage later to admit their mistakes.

Another lecture I use to get from the rightwing ideologues in those days was the need to realise the evils of the KGB and Soviet communism. For someone like myself, who had just returned from first-hand experience of both, it was a lecture I did not need. 

It was also irrelevant to the situation in Vietnam. 

Here, the role played by anti-communist east European refugee intellectuals such as Frank Knopfelmacher was especially ugly. 

In effect they were saying that because they and their friends had suffered, some deservedly, under Soviet-imposed communism back in the forties and fifties, it was quite right for Australians and Americans to go out and kill Vietnamese in sixties and seventies. 

Neither Knopfelmacher nor any of the other east European anti- communist, emigre crowd so active in Australia at the time knew much about Asia, Vietnam especially. But that did not stop them talking, and being accepted by the conservative and rightwing media, Quadrant especially, as experts on the subject. 

Quadrant once ran a poem by the virulently anti-communist poet, James McCauley. It spoke of the bravery and restraint of the US and its friends as they sought to battle the dark communist menace hiding away in the Asian jungles. 

At around the same time US pilots were wiping out entire towns and napalming villages from the safety of their high-flying B 52’s or fast flying jets. Not much bravery or restraint there. 

But for all their faults, the Quadrant/Cultural Freedom crowd did at least show pretensions of intellectual integrity. They at least had the honesty to admit there might be other views, and to listen to them, even if they were not going to be persuaded. 

They even managed to include me in some to their debates at the time. My experience with the ALP had been far less encouraging. 

6. An ALP Experience 

I had joined the Labour Party in the mid-sixties, in the naive belief that this was what a citizen had to do if he or she wanted to see policy changes. 

At the time the Canberra ALP branch was split fairly evenly between left-wingers and right-wingers. But thanks to the growing numbers of concerned anti-Vietnam War activists, the left-wing was starting to get a majority. 

Returning to Canberra after my year in Japan, and having joined the ALP out of a sense of moral responsibility, I found myself deep into branch factional politics.

A national election was due. The well-organised left-wing in the branch (headed largely by my old mate, Bruce MacFarlane) was determined to oppose pre-selection for the sitting ALP member for Canberra, “Big” Jim Fraser, a typical ALP right-wing conservative and covert supporter of the Vietnam War. 

A key branch voting requirement had long been the need to have attended at least three branch meetings in the year before the pre-selection vote. 

Unlike the progressives and the left-wingers, most of the right-wingers had been too lazy or apathetic to make the required three attendances. So they would automatically be disqualified from voting. 

A victory for the left-wing candidate, Geoff Walsh, seemed imminent. 

But as the struggle over numbers heated up, the rightwing New South Wales ALP executive decided to exercise its control to make sure Fraser got re-nominated. 

How? The branch also had a rule that said those members living more than three miles from where branch meetings were held could be exempted from the three-meeting attendance quota. 

Normally three miles means just that, three miles. But according to the NSW executive, Canberra was an exception. 

Why? Because in Canberra, the bus routes are notoriously circuitous. The NSW executive decreed that three miles did not mean three miles as the crow flies but three miles as the bus runs. 

Thanks to this piece of skullduggery, many of the negligent right-wingers found themselves entitled to vote. 

Even so, the numbers were still very evenly divided. 

This raised the problem of myself and Bob Gollan, an eminent leftwing ANU political historian who was also a branch member. 

Both of us had been out of Australia for much of the year, so we too had failed to make the required three attendances. 

In our cases, the bus ride would have been a lot more than three miles. Surely we too should be allowed to vote? 

Of course not. 

In the logic of the NSW executive, being 10,000 miles away as the airplane flies was nowhere as significant as being more than three miles away as the bus runs. 

So those apathetic right-wingers could vote, but we could not. 

At around this point I decided that I did not need to waste any more time on ALP politics. (to be continued)