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June 01st 2014 print

Hal G.P. Colebatch

The Whitlam Government and the Betrayal of the South Vietnamese

Australia and the Fall of Saigon

With the formal and much-publicised end of racial discrimination as Australian policy, the question of contingency planning for large numbers of Asian, and in particular Vietnamese, refugees was still given no consideration by the Whitlam government, which came to power in 1972. This was despite the long-standing probability, and then certainty, that the Saigon regime would be defeated by the communist North. Further, the fate of anti-communist South Vietnamese in the event of a communist victory had been raised many times in the long-running debate on Australia’s commitment to Vietnam.

One prophetic warning of massive refugee problems following a communist victory was made in The Saving of South Vietnam, published in 1972 by Kenneth Grenville, a pseudonym for Kenneth Grenville Gee QC, then a New South Wales District Court judge:

Occasionally an ingenious gloss is put upon the theory of stopping the war by starving the South of aid. Schemes are enunciated for receiving the great flood of threatened people who would wish to flee from the conquerors … “We must permit massive immigration of refugees!” and suchlike tripe. As if there is the slightest chance the world would receive the three million (at least!) South Vietnamese who already—according to Colonel Le Xuan Chyen, Chief of Staff of the 5th North Vietnamese Division, who defected in 1969—figure on Communist lists for death or imprisonment.[1]          

The Australian Department of Immigration’s Notes on Australia’s Immigration Policy in April 1973 did not mention refugees or refugee policy. In that year Australia acceded to the UN 1967 protocol which updated the UN convention on refugees, defining refugees as persons with “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.

Gough Whitlam served notice that his government would approve of a communist victory:

We believe that political, economic and social changes in Asia will occur and are indeed desirable. We believe Australia should not intervene militarily even when the contest for power and control over the change leads to violence.[2]

Even when the fall of Saigon became imminent, no real contingency plan for refugees existed. Speaking on August 13, 1974, ALP Senator Mulvihill revealed the vagueness and inadequacy of the government’s thinking:

I had a conversation with the Minister for Labour and Immigration last week. We were looking at a possible migrant intake figure and the Minister’s words to me were: “Well, we must always budget for 2000 political refugees.”[3]

The question was raised of where such refugees would be coming from but no definite answer was forthcoming. This was despite the fact that the preparations being made for an all-out attack from the North, such as the building of a network of hard-topped roads for tanks and tank assembly areas, were obvious and could not be disguised.[4] Australia had access to US intelligence reports. ALP Immigration Minister Clyde Cameron recorded in his memoirs that the CIA were reporting in March 1975 that Saigon might fall within a month. The Australian war correspondent Denis Warner had published an accurate account of the North’s military preparations, as they were then, in December 1973:

Fourteen North Vietnamese divisions, 600 tanks, and the longest-ranged, hardest-hitting artillery ever brought to bear on a target in Asia are either inside South Vietnam or crouched on the Lao and Cambodian borders ready to spring when Hanoi gives the word. [It will be an] all-out offensive designed to end the 13-year war in one massive conventional stroke.[5]

Mr Alan Renouf, appointed by Whitlam as Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, wrote of the short-lived peace settlement made between Hanoi and Saigon on January 23, 1973, in terms showing he did not take seriously any idea of a settlement other than a military victory by the North:

Clearly, North Vietnam had accepted [the “peace” settlement] because it reckoned that once the US was gone, it could take over the South in a short time (this was also the USSR’s view and no doubt China’s as well). Public opinion in the US was such that Washington would prove powerless to prevent such a development. It was only a matter of time before North Vietnam would gain its ends one way or another. Congress cut off all funds for military activity in or near Indo-China. This sealed South Vietnam’s fate.[6]

However, there is no evidence that anything was done by the Whitlam government to prepare for the rescue of even those Vietnamese especially at risk—for example because of their association with Australian forces.

Seven years later, during a debate on refugee policy, ALP spokesman Mick Young told parliament that at the time of the fall of Saigon South Vietnam had had 1,200,000 soldiers, 200,000 police, up to 800,000 public servants and several hundred thousand people who had worked with allied forces. Including wives and families, this meant up to 10,000,000 people would have reason to flee from communist reprisals.[7] These numbers did not include private businessmen, capitalists and landlords. Denis Warner estimated there were also 200,000 Chieu Hoi, former communists who had defected to the Saigon side, whose position was obviously particularly perilous.[8] Further, land had been distributed by the Saigon government to 837,000 peasant families, placing them in a landlord, petit-bourgeoisie or kulak class. Their position was also perilous.[9]

In liberated Cambodia, of course, the population was exterminated wholesale and on more far-reaching grounds, generally by torture, for crimes including looking happy and displaying indentations on the nose suggesting they were intellectuals who had worn spectacles. It was possibly, on a population basis, the biggest genocide in history.

In the House of Representatives at the time of the North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge attack, the Deputy Prime Minister, Jim Cairns—long associated with communist “peace” fronts—stated:

The Saigon and Phnom Penh governments should fall. That is the best solution, a quick end with victory on one side or the other—it would have been in everybody’s interest if it had happened a long time ago.[10]

The February 1975 ALP Federal Conference directed the Whitlam government to allow the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam (Hanoi’s short-lived puppet) to open an office in Australia. Australian government spokesmen gave the impression they believed Northern victory to be a foregone conclusion. The government cable to the Australian ambassador to Hanoi at the beginning of April 1975 referred to Hanoi’s “inevitable” victory. Still no preparations were put in hand for evacuating at-risk South Vietnamese. Whitlam gloatingly told parliament on April 8, suggesting that South Vietnam was the aggressor now getting its just deserts rather than the victim: “These strongmen, these realists, the men on horseback, insisted on a military solution. So a military solution it is now to be. ‘Look at your works, ye mighty, and despair’!”[11]

An advertisement was published in the Canberra Times on April 18, 1973, warning of the imminent refugee and general human crisis. Signatories included D.W. Strangman, an associate of the DLP-NCC and private secretary to DLP Senator and parliamentary party leader Vince Gair:

Many people are concerned about the desperate situation in South Vietnam and the millions there who now find themselves subject to Communist oppression.

What awaits them? More Hue and Tet-Offensive massacres? More Katyn Forest murders? The terrors of People’s Courts and summary executions? No wonder the Vietnamese fled from the North in 1954 and tried again this month.

In the deafening silence of the post-moratorium, someone has to say something.

We REJECT Dr Cairns’ belief in the historic and beneficial inevitability of Communist victories.

We SUPPORT a continuing and vigorous resistance to the spread of Communism.

We APPLAUD all humanitarian efforts to alleviate the plight of the refugees and orphans.

We CHALLENGE the Government to give a lead in organising the safety of the many people who are on Communist DEATH LISTS, particularly those who worked for the allied forces.

We DEPLORE the withdrawal of effective assistance to the South in the face of known massive re-armament in the North …

On April 4, Opposition Foreign Affairs spokesman Andrew Peacock and Deputy Country Party Leader Ian Sinclair, speaking from Saigon, were quoted to the effect that the government’s silence “is part of a general pattern established by this Government. It simply shows Mr Whitlam and his Ministers are washing their hands of a situation they find embarrassing.”[12] Peacock, Sinclair and Country Party Member for Riverina, Mr Sullivan, also called attention to the plight of the Cambodian people.[13]

Whitlam was quoted in the Age of April 14, 1975, as saying Australia’s security and long-term interests were not affected by the political colour of the rulers of Saigon and never had been. He did not mention the humanitarian crisis or the danger which pro-Western, including Australian-associated, Vietnamese faced.

Malcolm Fraser was quoted on April 22, 1975, as saying the government’s response to South Vietnam’s situation was “petty and miserable”, and that he believed Australia could and should be doing very much more.[14] Mr Peacock, also speaking on 22 April, took up the specific issue of the Whitlam government refusing to issue visas to South Vietnamese seeking to escape. He said this was marked by inhumanity and “would be a scar in our history in Asian relations”. He continued:

Rather than make special arrangements to assist relatives and dependants of Vietnamese citizens in Australia—mainly as students … the Government has re-introduced … criteria which will allow less than 200 Vietnamese citizens into Australia … It was known that five weeks ago recommendations were drawn up by the Australian Government in relation to wider categories of Vietnamese for permission to enter Australia … It is obvious that the Prime Minister has personally cut back the suggested categories of five weeks ago to the barest minimum, and delayed his announcement until it is virtually too late to allow any Vietnamese to enter Australia … the closure of the Australian Embassy will make impossible the lodging of nominations for Vietnamese to enter Australia and the consideration of nominations.[15]

In an interview published in the Age on May 2, following the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh, Dr Cairns said he greeted the end of the war with relief. He commented on the likely fate of anti-communist Vietnamese along the lines that they would be dealt with as “collaborators” and that many people believed that reprisals against them would be justified. Cairns continued:

A great deal of bitterness is generated in a war of this kind. I know what happened in Europe after the war there … I know there were reprisals there and I know that collaborators were receiving a fate that many believed justified. There will be many people in Vietnam who will feel the same way about collaborators there too.[16]

Cairns was plainly not unduly upset by the prospect.

During the Northern attack, Australian Labor and Left spokesmen uttered virtually not one word of condemnation for Hanoi’s blatant aggression or of sympathy for the plight of the South. There was almost no talk of the suffering of the people of South Vietnam, which had been a leitmotif of the Left’s “anti-war” rhetoric in the recent past. The Left tended to refer to Saigon in terms of hatred and contempt. And yet South Vietnam was, while suffering from some corruption, by any measure a far freer and more pluralistic society than the totalitarian North. Its people did not want conquest by the North, as the hundreds of thousands of refugees a few years later were to prove, and had fought bravely against it for years.

Many of its public servants and soldiers were upright and dedicated. It was a recent military ally of Australia and more than 500 Australians had died to defend it. A large part of the population was Christian or Buddhist. It had never been the aggressor in the war. One can only assume that the hatred shown to it by the Left and much of Labor was partly a matter of Australian politics and partly reflexive anti-anti-communism.

The positions put by spokesmen for the main Australian parties closely paralleled the debates in parliament. When Senator Sir Magnus Cormack stated in the Senate, “There is a vast body of terrified people moving in the south of the Republic of Vietnam”,[17] Labor Senator Keefe, a member like Cairns of the Soviet front, the World Peace Council, took this an as occasion for mirth, interjecting jovially: “A bit like the Liberal Party.”[18]

Labor Senator Gietzelt claimed it made no more sense to talk of North Vietnam invading South Vietnam than it would to talk of Queensland invading New South Wales. Labor Senator John Wheeldon, then Minister for Repatriation, also ridiculed the Saigon government as compared to the heroic forces of the communist North:

What did we see in the dying hours of the so-called Saigon Government? What did we see of these heroic defenders of democracy? We saw them doing the scoot as fast as their legs could carry them, unlike Ho Chi Minh, unlike Pham Van Dong, unlike General Giap, who never ran away but who stayed and fought …

Senator Wheeldon omitted to mention that it is difficult to fight when one’s supplies and ammunition have been treacherously cut off. Nor did he mention the 18th Division of the Army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam, which at Xuan Loc held its ground for nearly a month, up to April 17, blocking the route to Saigon against at least six vastly better-supplied North Vietnamese divisions, spearheaded by Russian tanks, which outnumbered it by about seven to one.

The Labor Minister for Science, Mr Morrison, also ridiculed the South Vietnamese Army, which, he said, had “scuttled” out of Nha Trang. Use of a term like “scuttled” points to a psychological-ideological compulsion to “animalise the enemy”—and, of course, to reinforce the notion that the South Vietnamese were the enemy, although Australia under a Coalition government had recently spent hundreds of lives fighting on their side against aggression from the communist North.

Morrison said during the debate of April 8 that to talk of refugees “voting with their feet” aligned one with reactionary forces throughout the world, rather as those who during witch-hunts defended accused witches attracted accusations of being witches themselves. He said he was:

Absolutely staggered that anyone who pretends to comprehend Indo-China would come back with the old Democratic Labor Party statement, the League of Rights statement, the point of view that has been held by reactionary forces in Australia and throughout the world, that old tired cliche about people voting with their feet …[19]

In any case, he added, the men of the South Vietnamese Army were “hard-faced profiteers and looters”, presumably in contrast to the soft-faced philanthropists driving Hanoi’s tanks.[20]

These parliamentary comments establish the Whitlam government’s general indifference to the long-predicted refugee disaster at the time of Hanoi’s massive main-force attack. (Later, at the time of the “boat people” arrivals in Australia, ALP member Dr Richard Klugman was one who broke ranks and take a pro-refugee position.)

In 1975 the recent demonstrations and other political actions by refugees from the Baltic states over the Whitlam government’s pioneering recognition of the incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union had served notice that, despite their often low political profiles, refugees from communist countries could have long memories, and in certain circumstances could have a high degree of political solidarity, motivation, organising ability and public support. It seems likely that the Baltic demonstrations against Whitlam coloured his thinking on the question of admitting Vietnamese refugees.

The 1976 report of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Australia and the Refugee Problem, with members from both Labor and the Coalition,[21] was of great significance in the Australian refugee debate. Its members concluded unanimously that during the final invasion of Saigon in 1975 the Whitlam government had knowingly abandoned South Vietnamese whose lives were known to be in danger because of their previous association with Australian forces or for other reasons. The thrust of its findings was to be reinforced by the account of Denis Warner, Not with Guns Alone, and also by the memoirs of Clyde Cameron, the Whitlam government’s Minister for Immigration of the day, in the oddly-titled 1980 book China, Communism and Coca-Cola.

The Standing Committee found that, during the final communist offensive, the Whitlam government had told the Australian embassy in Saigon to help only a token number of those South Vietnamese whose lives might be especially endangered, and had put such obstacles in the way of the embassy that such evacuation was in any event almost always impossible.

The committee’s findings had been anticipated in a parliamentary question by Andrew Peacock on April 8, 1975, and also in the National Civic Council’s News Weekly on April 16. The substance of Peacock’s question was that the Australian government was not making help available for the evacuation of refugees and, unlike the case with the New Zealand ambassador, the Australian ambassador was not allowed to make any moves at his own discretion. Mr Peacock said:

last Thurday, a Hercules aircraft was loaded with foodstuffs, water, supplies and the like. The RAAF cabled for directions that it could take off. By Friday afternoon it still had not received a cable indicating that it could do so. The aircraft stood at Tan Son Nhut airport for approximately two days fully loaded, with the mire of human misery throughout Indo-China.[22]


News Weekly claimed seven C-130 Hercules aircraft had been assigned to the massive refugee airlift from Da Nang at the request of Dr Kissinger. Protests had been made by the North Vietnamese, and Whitlam had at once changed the instructions. He intervened again to remove the RAAF’s discretion to airlift as many civilians as possible to safety. Whitlam issued instructions that the carriage of “unauthorised persons” was henceforth prohibited. That order had been varied only after the beleaguered South Vietnamese government had been forced to turn its attention from its own disasters to give “firm guarantees” to Canberra. News Weekly continued:

The Australian Prime Minister used a characteristically shoddy pretext.

The mercy flight of C-130s was mobbed at Phan Rang airport by departing soldiers, as well as civilians.

It was this that led to the specific order that military refugees should not be carried.

The falsity of Mr Whitlam’s pretext was revealed by the fact that the rest of the C-130 flights into Phan Rang were met by perfectly orderly crowds and there was no repetition of the first incident, which had been caused by terror induced by the North Vietnamese rocketing Phan Rang airport.

These allegations were to be broadly corroborated by Denis Warner. The committee found that on March 19, 1975, seven RAAF Hercules had been made available and others had been placed on standby. A total of about 2000 Vietnamese had been carried on internal flights in April and May. On April 22, two days before the Australian Embassy was closed, Whitlam announced categories of Vietnamese who would be eligible for temporary entry into Australia. These included:

1. Spouses and children of Vietnamese students at present living in Australia;

2. Spouses and under-21-year-old children of Australian citizens subject to completion of Australian citizenship formalities;

3. Vietnamese with a long and close association with the Australian presence in Vietnam whose lives were considered to be in danger (and whose applications would be considered on a case-by-case basis).[23]

Whitlam said these decisions had been taken with regard to maintaining unity of families, therefore by corollary not principally with regard to rescuing those whose lives were in danger. Speaking of these latter, he told parliament, “The number of such persons is expected to be small.”[24]

The committee reported that the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs had received 3667 nominations when the Embassy in Saigon closed. The embassy staff and seventy-eight Vietnamese were evacuated by the RAAF on April 25. Thousands more applications were received over the next few days:

A list of 366 persons—consisting of 124 Vietnamese family groups and individuals who had been approved for entry into Australia—was cabled to Australian diplomatic posts in [Asian capitals]. It included the 342 persons mentioned previously and 24 others who had been approved for entry to Australia on the basis that their long and close association with the Australian presence in Vietnam had endangered their lives.[25]

In the event, even these twenty-four were not rescued.

The committee considered what the Whitlam government had permitted the RAAF to do. It claimed to be “puzzled” by the restricted use to which RAAF aircraft were put. It was obvious that Australia had initially intended meeting the calls of the Saigon government and the USA for air transport assistance for a massive evacuation of people to the ships at Cam Ranh Bay or to Saigon. From April 3, however, Canberra limited the role of the RAAF to transporting supplies only:

The Committee considers that Australia may thereby have responded in a manner which possibly caused unnecessary loss of life and hardship through refusal to evacuate civilian refugees from battle zones.[26]

The committee concluded that Australia could clearly have rendered greater humanitarian assistance. A witness told the committee that Australia had responded to a request of the North Vietnamese concerning use of the RAAF. The committee said that though it had been unable to substantiate these claims, Canberra had instructed on April 2 that the carriage of South Vietnamese government officials was prohibited. Troops and refugees were prohibited the next day and press representatives the following day.

In the absence of any other explanation, the Committee is inclined to accept the view that the Australian Government was open to being influenced by attitudes of the DRV [North Vietnam] concerning the use of Australian Aircraft.[27]

Considering that a short time before Australian troops had been dying in an attempt to defend the South from Northern aggression, this is a shocking allegation.

The committee said the government had had forewarnings of the likely course of events:

at the very least, three weeks’ warning had been given to the Australian Government that it was very likely the armed forces of [South Vietnam] would be overwhelmed and that consequently the defeat of the Government of the Republic of Vietnam was imminent.

As early as April 1 the Australian government had warned Australian nationals to leave Vietnam while transport was still available. Two days later, the Prime Minister had approved the evacuation of all non-essential embassy staff, proving the government believed a collapse was imminent. Both the Australian ambassador on April 1 and Washington a few days later had warned of a serious refugee problem. In fact South Vietnam had been plainly doomed following the US Congress’s withdrawal of military aid and supplies after the phony “peace” agreement of 1973, and contingency plans should have been made since that time. However on April 8, 1975, Whitlam told parliament, “The suddenness of the collapse in South Vietnam limited the scope and effectiveness of any aid given by the Australian Government or any other Government.”[28] He continued:

Members of the Opposition have chosen to belittle our efforts. For example the Leader of the Opposition called them “too little, too late”. The truth is that the Australian Government met, as soon as it was received from the American Embassy, a request from the Government of South Vietnam for assistance. The decision was taken to make seven Hercules transport aircraft available together with other aircraft currently based at Butterworth in Malaysia.[29]          

In other words, Whitlam was admitting that Australia had done nothing on its own initiative. The committee found that:

In spite of these firm indications … little or nothing of a practical nature was able to be done either by Embassy officials in Saigon or by Departmental officials in Canberra to assist those who sought to obtain refuge in Australia. These decisions were taken on 21 April and 22 April.[30]

On April 25 the last Australian embassy personnel had been evacuated and the embassy closed. At that time 3667 Vietnamese had been nominated for entry into Australia, of whom 366 had been approved, including twenty-four whose lives were considered in danger. The committee pointed out:

the announcement of the Government’s admission criteria came so late that it was possible for only a few families to be contacted and processed before the closing of the Australian Embassy …[31]

The committee went on to describe the procedures which were finally adopted by the Australian government to save such individuals as had met with its approval:

from the commencement of business on the morning of 22 April, 1975, until noon on 24 April, the Embassy was advised by cable of 325 names of persons to whom the granting of an entry visa had been approved by the Department of Labour and Immigration. Although the Committee was unable to ascertain how many of these persons were able to be contacted prior to the embassy’s closure, some 200 typewritten letters were prepared in lieu of formal Australian entry visas and either delivered personally or posted to the individual’s last-known address.

By the time Canberra’s approval was given, and irrespective of whether individuals were able to be informed of the success of their application, it was then too late for many to flee by commercial flights or by any other means.

The committee was informed, however, that individual members of the Embassy did their best by preparing affidavits for some of the Vietnamese with the most urgent and deserving cases and passed them on to the American Embassy with a special plea for assistance.[32] [emphasis added]

 The committee found that while it would have been possible to get these people out in time—indeed this would have been a matter of “little difficulty”—the work of the embassy had been impeded at a critical time because the evacuation appeared to have been totally controlled by Canberra.

In regard to the typewritten letters given to some Vietnamese, the committee found:

Although such documents were better than nothing at all, the letter signed by the Australian consul was insufficient to allow five Vietnamese wives to collect tickets from Singapore Airlines which had been pre-paid by their husbands in Australia for flights departing on 26 April.

They were also insufficient authority to permit those who held them to board nearly empty RAAF aircraft which departed from Saigon during the final four days. Indeed the committee is unable to explain why almost-empty Hercules aircraft departed from Ton Son Nhut airport taking some 34 Vietnamese nationals without formal exit visas but leaving behind a considerable number who had been approved for entry to Australia and who had been issued with a letter from the Consul.

A witness who left Saigon on the last aircraft on 25 April and made last-minute inquiries through the Embassy to discover whether some Vietnamese whose lives might be in danger could be included was informed that this was not possible.

As an alternative, both the witness and members of the Australian passed lists of names, addresses and occupations to the American Ambassador who promised to do the best he could … the real value of these type-written letters was that they enabled some of the refugees who had been accepted for entry into Australia to be air-lifted out of Vietnam by American aircraft.[33] [emphases added]

Actually, the Vietnamese who never qualified for eligibility probably had a better chance of escaping with the Americans than those who waited for Australian help until it was too late.

The committee pointed out that those who trusted the Australian government were placed in a vicious circle: the longer they waited for advice and assistance from the embassy, the more remote their chances of fleeing to safety became. The committee was informed, for example, of one instance, where a wife had refused American assistance, believing the Australians would effect her evacuation directly to join her husband in Australia. After the closure of the Australian embassy she found she could no longer take up the previous offer. Other wives had organised passages on Vietnamese ships but after April 25 found it impossible to reach the coast.[34] The committee continued that:

It is apparent … that the Australian Government generally refused until the last moment to agree to use its transport resources to evacuate Vietnamese nationals from South Vietnam and Saigon … indeed, it was late on 27 April that authority was given to the Ambassador to allow him to offer seats out of Saigon on a space-available basis, providing that such offers could be made only to those Vietnamese nationals possessing a valid exit-visa issued by the Government of Vietnam.[35] [emphasis added]

One is tempted to wonder if the motive behind this policy was vindictive sadism, so far does it seem removed from both humanity and common sense. On April 8, Whitlam had referred to “unparalleled chaos” in South Vietnam. On April 22, when it was obvious that South Vietnam was ceasing to exist, and its remaining officials were engulfed in disaster and probably trying to escape with their lives, the Whitlam government apparently expected them to be issuing exit visas!

Apart from orphans (whose lives were much less at risk than, say, army officers, civil servants, police or Australian-associated Vietnamese) a total of seventy-eight Vietnamese were rescued out of the thousands who applied.[36] These included thirty-four nuns—again, not in the highest-risk category—and just five of the “special cases” whose lives were deemed to be in particular danger because of their association with Australians. The USA took about 130,000.[37]

According to Denis Warner, later broadly corroborated by Clyde Cameron, Whitlam took personal control of Vietnamese refugee policy on April 2 when the fall of Saigon was still nearly a month away, while resistance by die-hards continued after that. After issuing peremptory orders to close the embassy on April 23, Whitlam left for a conference in Jamaica and could not be contacted. Foreign Minister Don Willesee was also out of the country in Washington.

Warner, who was still in Vietnam on April 25, wrote of the Australians’ long-standing area of responsibility, Phuc Tuy Province:

It was Anzac Day. This year, for the first time, there would be no memorial service at Phuc Tuy province for Australians who fell in the Vietnam war … Scores of officials, ranging from the province chiefs down to village and hamlet administrators, [had] worked closely with the Australians. Now that the moment had come to say goodbye, the Australian Government made no effort to ascertain whether anyone in Phuc Tuy wanted to leave, and no attempt was made to help anyone escape.

The last Hercules flights left Saigon of 25 April. They carried, among other things, a basket of cats for UN officials. Among others left behind were the Vietnamese employees of the Embassy. When the Embassy shut its doors its books were up-to-date as of 6 p.m. on 24 April. They had been prepared by a woman whose own life was thought to be endangered and whose application for evacuation was rejected by Canberra.[38]

 The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised on April 28, 1975:

Very many Australians must be deeply angry and ashamed about the callousness of our government’s scuttle from Saigon and its abandonment—betrayal is not too strong—of hundreds of Vietnamese entitled to expect our assistance to flee the fate awaiting the marked-down enemies of Hanoi.

The committee concluded that the government’s failure to rescue more Vietnamese had not been caused by incompetence but had been deliberate:

we believe that by being in Vietnam Australia incurred a residual responsibility, not to mention a moral responsibility, to assist in the evacuation from Vietnam of those who had assisted our forces there and whose lives were believed to be in danger because of that assistance … in view of the Committee’s belief that the Australian Government had been informed of the gravity and magnitude of the situation in South Vietnam some three weeks before the evacuation of the Australian Embassy, we are unable to come to any conclusion other than one of deliberate delay in order to minimise the number of refugees.[39][emphasis added]

On April 8, Ian Sinclair had asked Whitlam if he knew of a television program on the evidence of the murder of hundreds of South Vietnamese officials when the communist forces had previously occupied the city of Hue for a time during the Tet Offensive, and then asked:

In view of these circumstances will he take up the matter with the Government of North Vietnam and with the provisional government representing the Khmer Rouge to ensure neither in Cambodia nor in South Vietnam will similar mass executions occur?[40]

Whitlam responded to the question contemptuously: “I did not see the programme referred to …” This of course was not the point. Whitlam as Prime Minister had better sources of information than anyone else in the country. The point was in the last part of Sinclair’s question: What was Whitlam doing to try to prevent reprisals? Whitlam did not even attempt to answer this but instead spoke of how people had been shot by South Vietnamese police.[41] The impression could be that he considered executions carried out by the North Vietnamese were possibly deserved reprisals, or at any rate understandable.

Senator Willesee on April 21 also made an appeal to Whitlam to evacuate Vietnamese who had worked with Australian forces. Whitlam rejected this appeal out of hand and Willesee did not use his powers as Foreign Minister—powers he had been commissioned by the Governor-General under the Constitution to exercise—to defy this brutal and dishonourable diktat.[42]

On April 21, when it was obvious Saigon would fall, Sinclair asked:

Has the Prime Minister approved categories of persons from South Vietnam to be admitted to Australia as refugees? Do these categories include those persons who face the prospect of execution at the hands of the North Vietnamese victors? Finally, will the Prime Minister ensure before his departure on Wednesday for overseas that he gives the same expedition to visa applications from approved categories of persons as was granted to refugees from [the right-wing anti-communist regime in] Chile?[43]

Whitlam replied, in part: “The Government of South Vietnam has for years discouraged people from leaving the country.”[44] In a statement on April 28 the Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Morrison, implied that the failure to save more refugees had been the Saigon government’s fault:

We did not bring out as many refugees as I and my colleagues would have liked. The only Vietnamese who could board our aircraft were those with exit permits from the Saigon Government, and regrettably, the Saigon Government has made it difficult for people to obtain travel documents.[45]

Of course, people in a life-or-death situation could have been rescued without travel documents.

In 1980 Clyde Cameron published his memoirs, China, Communism and Coca-Cola, which threw a revealing if lurid light on the Whitlam government’s attitudes:

As Minister for Labour and Immigration my position on Vietnamese migrants [sic] was this: I rejected the “blood-bath” propaganda … peddled by the Liberal and Country parties …

Whitlam put out an injunction of the processing of all applications from Vietnam. He had no constitutional right to assume the powers which had been commissioned to me by the Governor-General … on April 21, Don Willesee came to see me with a request that I accompany him to Whitlam’s office before Whitlam left … for Jamaica … He wanted Whitlam to recognise the realities of war and ease the restrictions applicable to other migrants [for South Vietnamese]. Whitlam refused and I supported him, saying I saw no reason why we should risk opening our doors to war criminals. But Willesee argued that this was not the proposition he was putting and stubbornly refused to budge in his fight for what he regarded as a humane approach. Finally, Whitlam stuck out his jaw and thundered: “I’m not having hundreds of fucking Vietnamese Balts coming into this country with their religious and political hatreds against us!” Poor Don looked pleadingly towards me for help but I replied: “No Don, I’m sorry mate, but I agree with Gough on this matter.” Indeed, not only did I agree with him, but I could have hugged him for putting my own view so well. [emphases added]

Cameron continued:

Willesee urged that Vietnamese facing “summary execution, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment from a variety of persecutors” should be given diplomatic asylum. Reminding Whitlam that similar help had been offered during the right-wing military coup in Santiago, he further stated that “the Hungarian leader Imre Nagy, was summarily executed by the Russians in 1958 after leaving the Yugoslav Embassy in Budapest on a Soviet guarantee of safe conduct out of Hungary”. He warned that the same kind of thing could happen in Saigon. He made a special plea for Vietnamese who had been employed by the Australian Embassy, claiming that we had a moral obligation to take them into our arms. Whitlam rejected this plea out of hand. [46] [emphasis added]

This is not a story of mere bureaucratic incompetence, but of something infinitely worse. Labor has yet to apologise for the Whitlam government’s vindictive and morally blood-stained attitude to the fall of Saigon, for the lives sacrificed to leftist ideology, and for one of the darkest stains on our national honour.

This essay is dedicated to the memories of Professors Patrick O’Brien and Kenneth Minogue. Hal G.P. Colebatch’s two notable recent books are Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II (Quadrant Books) and Fragile Flame: The Uniqueness and Vulnerability of Scientific and Technological Civilization (Acashic).


[1] Kenneth Grenville, The Saving of South Vietnam (Alpha Books, Sydney, 1972) p. 106

[2] Roy Milne Memorial Lecture, quoted in W. Mcmahon Ball, “The foreign policy of the Whitlam Government”, Australia’s Neighbours, Aptil-June, 1974.

[3] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, Senate, 13 August, 1974, p. 857.

[4] See, for example, General Van Tien Dung (chief of staff of the North Vietnamese Army), Our Great Spring Victory (Monthly Review Press, New York and London, 1977): “Massive amounts of tanks, armoured cars, rockets, long-range artillery and anti-aircraft guns … were now sent to the front one after the other” (p. 12) “The project to build a strategic road east of the Truong Son mountain range, begun in 1973, was completed by the first part of 1975, a labour project of more than 30,000 troops … night and day they enthustically carried hundreds of thousands of tons of every kind down to the stockpiles for the various battlefields, to ensure the success of our battlefield attacks. More than 20,000 kilometres of strategic roads running north to south, with campaign roads running west to east, – strong ropes inching gradually, day by day, round the neck, arms and legs od a demon, awaiting the order to jerk tight and bring the creature’s life to an end.” (pp 14-15). See also Conflict Studies, No. 89, November, 1977, special report, pp1-24.

[5] Australian Consolidated Press, December, 1973.

[6] Alan Renout, The Frightened Country (Macmillan, 1979) pp. 239-240.

[7] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 16 March, 1982, p. 997.

[8] Denis Warner, Not with guns alone: How Hanoi won the war ( (Hutchinson, 1977) p. 31. Following Liberation, these were returned to their old units for punishment. It is not known how many, if any, survived.

[9] Ibid, p. 155.

[10] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 8 April, 1975, p. 1248. He expressed similar opinions in an interview published in The Age of 1 April.

[11] Ibid, p. 1256.

[12] The Age, 4 April 1975.

[13] The Canberra Times, 4 April, 1975.

[14] The Age, 22 April, 1975.

[15] The Age, 25 April, 1975.

[16] The Age, 2 May, 19075.

[17] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, Senate 9 April, 1975, p. 859.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 8 Aprtil, 1975, p. 1256.

[20] Ibid. p. 1256.

[21] Senators J. P. Sim (Chairman) Liberal, WA; J. W. Knight, Liberal, ACT; G. D. Mackintosh, ALP, WA; C. G. Primmer (former Chairman), ALP, Vic; D. B. Scott, Country Party, N. S. W.: K. W. Sibraa, ALP, NSW; The Hon/. Sir Magnus Cormack KBE, Liberal, Vic,; A. J. Drury, ALP, Vic, and C .R. Maunsell, Country Party, Victoria.

[22] Op. Cit, p. 1269

[23] Ibid, 22 April, 1975, p. 1948.

[24] Ibid,.

[25] Report of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, “Australia and the Refugee Problem”, (Government Printer, Canberra, 1976) p. 7.

[26] Ibid, p. 18.

[27] Ibid, p. 16.

[28] Op. Cit., p 1256.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Op. Cit, p. 7.

[31] Ibid, p. 12

[32] Ibid, pp 18-19.

[33] Ibid, p. 23

[34] Ibid, p. 20.

[35] Ibid, pp 20-21

[36] Ibid. p. 21.

[37] Guy Goodwin-Gill, Legal Advisor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Office for Australia and Nre Zealand, paper presented to conference on Indo-Chinese Refugees, ANU, 30-31 July, 1979, p. 8.

[38] Op.Cit, p 233.

[39] Op. Cit, p. 74.

[40] Op Cit, 8 April, 1975, p. 1254.

[41] Ibid,

[42] Clyde Cameron, China, Communism and COCA-Cola (Hill of Copntent, Melbourne, 1980), p. . 312

[43] Ibid, 21 ASpril,1975, p. 1858

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ministerial Document Service, 28 April, 1975.

[46] Op. Cit, pp. 229-231.