Was it wrong to send troops to Vietnam? No, says Kenneth Gee, despite public reconsiderations by some of those involved.
General Cosgrove, who fought in Vietnam, now doubts whether Australia should have been there. Malcolm Fraser also now believes that the Vietnam War had been misguided.
This is understandable, since the United States, in its bungled defence of the South against the communist attack, allowed itself to be defeated by Hanoi and its allies – “the great socialist rear” – and nobody likes to be associated with a lost war. Both men say that they speak with the wisdom of hindsight. But hindsight was a luxury not available to those who committed Australia to the defence of South Vietnam in 1962, and more fully in 1965.
Consider Australia’s military-strategic position at that time. The Cold War was at its height. It was clear that the Soviets, having devoured Eastern Europe, planned to take over Western Europe through the powerful Italian and French Communist Parties.
In South-East Asia the Comintern, with Ho Chi Minh as one of its leading operators, awaited targets of opportunity.
The Madiun rebellion in Indonesia, the Malaysian insurrection, the Singapore riots of 1955, were organised in Moscow.
In Indonesia, Sukarno, threatening his neighbours with his Confrontasi stridency, and in alliance with the huge Communist Party, planned to take over the vast country, so close to Australia that one could almost swim there. It was saved by a fluke – the survival of two generals during the attempted coup of 1965. In Malaysia the British fought to contain the Emergency.
Singapore seemed likely “to go down the memory hole” in Robert Conquest’s apt phrase. Lee Kwan Yew, a brilliant realist, said about Vietnam:
“If Vietnam goes by default, we will all go through the mincing machine.”
The millions of China were chanting, out of Mao’s Little Red Book, that all political power comes out of the barrel of a gun. Korea had only been half held after a desperate struggle.
President Kennedy, hardly a war-monger, believed that unless forces were committed to the defence of South Vietnam, the whole fabric of the US alliances would begin to unravel. This was the view from the Cabinet Room in Canberra, and it was not a pretty picture.
As early as 1962, it was clear that the myth of the Vietcong as a “peasant uprising” was finished, and South Vietnam was facing a massive assault by forces trained armed and led by Hanoi.
The North’s General Giap put it bluntly to the Frenchman Bernard Fall:
“If we win in Vietnam, we can win everywhere.”
Our political leaders, lacking an infallible crystal ball, could not have anticipated the problems of a democratic country waging war against a ruthless totalitarian regime; the unending self-examination, the constant breast-beating, of a free society; the capacity to deceive of the communist propaganda apparatus, the willingness of much of the media to peddle the crudest propaganda from Moscow and Hanoi, the lauding of “gentle Uncle Ho (in reality a Comintern operator since 1919); the transformation of the “Peace” movement into a pro-Hanoi war movement – our Fourth Front, as the communists called it- or the “elegant bug-out” organised by Kissinger.
And nobody could have predicted Watergate, paralysing Nixon (while the communists looked on with amazement) and forcing him to resile from his promise to send back the US Air Force if the communists launched a massive attack with the flood of arms pouring in through Haiphong.
Meantime, in Saigon, the revolving door of incompetent generals had given way to Thieu’s eight-year Presidency. Under staggering difficulties, the beginnings of a viable democratic regime were taking shape. Elections, with the Americans watching, were reasonably genuine. A parliament, turbulent and quarrelsome, was nevertheless functioning.
All religions could worship freely; the press was untrammelled ( American influence again); a legal system was in place; the universities were crowded, with many female students.
There were steps forward and backward, but there was hope that a democratic regime could replace the previous colonial or authoritarian rule.
But there was a also a problem that helps to explain General Cosgrove’s and Malcolm Fraser’s present misgivings.
The US troops in the field, especially those trained by Australians, were professionally skilled and courageous, but their command had little understanding of the combination of military force, subversion, propaganda and terrorism with which the communists planned to overwhelm the South and win total power.
“We did not lose a single battle,” Kissinger told Le Duc Tho in the negotiations of 1972. “True,” replied Le Duc Tho, “but quite irrelevant.”
The Americans put faith in the body count, ignoring the fact that for the iron men of Hanoi, appalling deaths in battle (such as the Australians inflicted at Long Tan) meant little to men whose ideological comrades Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, had brought death to millions of their compatriots.
The second US strategy was Graduated Response, a purely reactive policy that deprived the US Army of surprise, and excluded the sort of sudden thrust northward that had saved South Korea. In the liberal Roche’s words, the US was fighting “a half-hearted war against a full-hearted enemy”.
The 17th Parallel, the northern border of the South, was uncrossable to the US forces and the ARVN, the Southern army, but not to Hanoi’s army, infiltrating across the border at least ten divisions, armed with state-of-the-art weaponry from the Soviet Union – tanks, MIG planes, modern rifles, mortars and the huge mobile guns with which the communists finally demolished the concrete defences of Bien Me Thot and overwhelmed the Southern army.
The ARVN had been abandoned by the US Congress and was hopelessly outgunned. For the American public, the war had gone on too long and there were too many body bags.
A Soviet-made tank burst through the gates of the Presidential Palace, and the war was over.
To look back at this debacle, as General Cosgrove and Fraser are doing, is to wonder whether Vietnam was all a mistake. Yet in true hindsight, and by one of the paradoxes in which human history abounds, Vietnam is seen to have had consequences vital to this country, an enclave in the vast sea of Asia. Time gained by the Vietnam War, the sheer delay in the achievement of communist ambitions, can now been seen as a turning point.
Whole nations escaped the communist grasp – Lee Kwan Yew’s mincing machine. Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia survived, with time to begin their troubled passage towards viable democracies. Hanoi itself has modified its Stalinoid rule as it bids for foreign capital.
The alternative to resistance in Vietnam was to see South-East Asia go by default. This country would have faced what its leadership feared when we committed troops to Vietnam: Australia facing a multi-million man wall of hostility to our north, ideologically united and with inbuilt aggression and soaring ambitions.
In true retrospect, both General Cosgrove and Malcolm Fraser are mistaken. It was right for Australia to be in Vietnam.