Malcolm Fraser’s attack on the morality of the Vietnam War and on the Australian-American alliance in general has received considerable comment, but his latest return to the limelight has certain implications which can bear further examination. It appears to be an extraordinary display of historical ignorance and self-laceration combined with would-be Machiavellian realpolitik.
There is in Australia a type of ideologue, of whom Fraser appears to be one, who wishes to abandon the US alliance because the US is a cynical, cold-hearted monster which will abandon its ally if this enhances its perceived interests, and is also, somehow and simultaneously, a Don Quixote ready to drag along such allies on utopian crusades. The fact that the Australia-US Alliance has been the keystone of every Liberal (and Labor) government’s foreign policies may be a factor in his weltenschauung as well.
It was John Howard who invoked Article IV of Anzus when flying back to Australia after 9/11. As a formal military alliance the Australia-US part of Anzus at least is still very much alive, as is, very importantly, the “Five Eyes” defence intelligence-sharing arrangement, and the very valuable Five Power defence agreement.
On the whole the alliance has served Australia very well. Among other things it has allowed Australia (and New Zealand) to spend much more heavily on social security and infrastructure — money which would otherwise have had to go on defence. Beyond this, John Howard, and probably Tony Abbott, appear to see the alliance as an invaluable mechanism allowing a policy synthesis between Western history and Asian geography.
Fraser’s claim that the commitment to defend South Vietnam was an “unmitigated failure” must be hurtful to the families of those who fought and died there. More importantly, it is quite false. It was not an unmitigated failure and the sacrifices were not futile. In his autobiography, Lee Kwan Yew credibly insists Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries were saved from communism by the allied resistance in Vietnam:
“It bought time for the rest of Southeast Asia. In 1965, when the US militarily moved massively into Vietnam, Thailand Malaysia and the Philippines faced internal threats from armed communist insurgencies, and the communist underground was still active in Singapore … [America’s action] in Vietnam enabled non-communist Southeast Asia to put its own house in order. By 1975, they were in better shape to stand up to the communists. Had there been no US intervention, the will of these countries to resist them would have melted and Southeast Asia would most likely have gone communist. The prosperous emerging market ecomonies of ASEAN were nurtured during the Vietnam war years.”
Or, as The Economist put it, “the bottle stayed corked.”
Without the long, costly and often heroic resistance in Vietnam, by the South Vietnamese and their allies, the forces of so-called liberation might have enjoyed walk-overs in Thailand, Malaysia, Burma and, quite possibly, Indonesia, with accompanying bloodbaths and atrocities such as were seen on an enormous scale in Cambodia, and on an only relatively lesser scale in Laos and Vietnam. It is conservatively estimated that 130,000 died in Vietnamese jungle re-education camps. The Vietnamese government had engaged in well-documented violations of human rights on a massive, universal scale. Even into the 21st Century and after the fall of Soviet Communism, although it now has limited and qualified commercial freedoms, Vietnam has remained a police state without political or religious liberties. Even the singer Joan Baez, a stalwart of the anti-war movement, was moved to protest via a full-page advertisement, published in four major US newspapers on 30 May, 1979, in which she accused the communists of having created a nightmare.
While Fraser poo-poos the notion of a monolithic view of world communism controlled by Moscow and Peking in the Vietnam years, the fact is that both Moscow and Peking poured weapons and treasure into Hanoi, from AK-47s in vast numbers to SAM missiles and the anti-aircraft batteries once adorned by Jane Fonda. China had 300,000 personnel there. Asian communist leaders travelled and liaised between both capitals, as is set out in detail in the memoirs of Malayan Communist leader Chin Peng and elsewhere. Moscow’s support for the war may even have contributed to the bankruptcy and collapse of the Soviet Union — hardly an unmitigated failure.
Fraser claims: “We underestimated the nationalistic element in the North Vietnamese and the incompetence, the corruption and the stupidity of the South Vietnamese governments.” Remember those 1975 lapel badges proclaiming in a somewhat different context “Shame, Fraser, Shame!”?
It would have been difficult for South Vietnamese forces to stave off the final attack in the spring of 1975 by about 20 divisions spear-headed by Soviet tanks after the decision by the US Congress to cut off supplies to the South. In this instance Fraser is right: America did prove a treacherous ally. But this single and disgusting instance of military betrayal does not cancel the huge sacrifices America has made for freedom in many parts of the world.
It was, of course, inevitable that some people in the South Vietnamese government were corrupt, cutting and running when it became apparent all was lost. This desertion was, however, hardly a sufficient moral justification to abandon a nation to slavery.
Fraser’s words are also an insult to the many thousands of South Vietnamese, including many former members of the government, who, arriving in Australia and elsewhere, often with only the clothes they wore, who have proved to be outstanding citizens.
There were many occasions when the South Vietnamese forces (ARVN) performed prodigies of valour, such as the month-long stand, without re-supply, of the 18th Division of ARVN at Xuan Loc, when it ground up four or five North Vietnamese divisions and went on fighting until it was annihilated.
The Southerners, many of them Catholics or Buddhists who fled following the first partition of what had been French Indo-China after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, emphatically did not welcome the North’s forces as liberators. Three books by the American doctor Thomas Dooley give details of the tortures inflicted by the communists on religious believers at the time of partition, such as chopsticks rammed into the ears for listening to sermons, the feet of would-be escapers crushed with blows from rifle-butts, shattering the bones into “moist bags of marbles” so that amputation was the only treatment.
Hundreds of thousands of boat refugees risked and very often lost their lives to escape (while Fraser was PM, and though he laudably and courageously defied Labor and had Australia offer sanctuary to the boat-people, it should also be noted that he allowed HMAS Melbourne, which might have helped, to grow barnacles in Sydney Harbour). Among the refugees were many terminally disillusioned former South Vietnamese communists, even high-ranking army officers and party officials.
The South’s so-called Provisional Revolutionary Government was dissolved before the engines of Hanoi’s tanks had cooled. The Northerners despised the Southerners and treated them as inferiors, even those who had recently been comrades and allies. In 1999 Vietcong General Phan Xuan An said:
“All the talk about ‘liberation’ twenty, thirty years ago, all the plotting, all the bodies produced this, this impoverished broken-down country led by a gang of cruel and paternalistic half-educated theorists.”
Dr Michael Evans, of the Australian Defence College, has written:
“The Australian-American Alliance is a major strategic asset that has added not only to Australia’s security but also to its strategic weight and capability within the Asia-Pacific region. The Alliance gives Canberra access and influence in Washington and the Capitals of Asia out of all proportion to its size and power.”
As part of the Anglosphere, Australia stands largely alone in a region where India, China, and lately Indonesia, are rising. Realistically, we are dangerously weak and our small population severely limits the capacity for defence self-sufficiency. The Anglosphere – promoted by men of the intellectual calibre of Robert Conquest and Ken Minogue – is nothing to be ashamed of.
Indeed, the Anglosphere is self-evidently important and valuable, almost single-handedly lightening the past century’s bloody darkness. We should be doing all we can to support and strengthen it. Imperfect, like all human institutions, its role as the guardian of freedom, democracy and the rule of law has seldom been more needed than now. To attempt to undermine its unity, as Malcolm Fraser is so eager to do, is wilfully destructive and terminally perverse.
Frequent Quadrant contributor Hal Colebatch is the author of many books, including Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II, published by Quadrant Books