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Issue #1914      May 11, 2020


It was a history of betrayal, broken promises, and bullying. France started the war by refusing to hand back its eighty-year-old colonial possession. At the same time, Vietnamese nationalists were equally determined to win their independence by throwing out the French, who continued to cream off the profits from Vietnam’s rubber and rice plantations. In their 1945 Declaration of Independence, the Vietnamese stated: “They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots. They have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood to weaken our race. They have forced us to use opium and alcohol. They have fleeced us to the backbone, impoverished our people and devastated our land.”

The War of Independence was fought by a United Front of various nationalist political groupings with the full support of the people led by patriot Ho Chi Minh which became known as the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh fought the French for eight long years from 1946 to 1954 when one million Vietnamese died. In May 1954, after 55 days and nights of fighting, the Viet Minh routed a 15,000 strong French Army at Dien Bien Phu, ending nearly 100 years of French colonialism in Indochina. It was a victory that shook the world, especially the Americans, who according to official records, had been actively supporting the French War since 1950. In addition to advising on strategy, providing “military assistance,” and preventing peace talks, the Americans funded eighty per cent of the war – costing US taxpayers about one billion dollars a year.

The man in charge of North Vietnam’s military strategy for the entire war was Vo Nguyen Giap, considered by many to be one of the most capable military commanders of the 20th century. In the first few years, he fought a low-level insurgency campaign against the French, mostly in the North. The French had greater numbers and firepower, but Ho and Giap believed they could win by mobilising the peasants into a guerrilla force.

US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles did everything possible to save the French, pressuring the British to support air strikes at Dien Bien Phu because he wanted to “internationalise” the war. He even offered the French two atom bombs, which they turned down on the grounds that they might come out of it worse than the Vietnamese. A day after the massive French defeat, a conference was held in Geneva attended by the world’s major powers – the United States, Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and China – to use their combined influence to bring peace to the region with the Geneva Agreements, which stated:

Vietnam would be temporarily divided into two zones at the 17th parallel, not into two nations.

There would be an internationally supervised election by secret ballot to reunify the country under whichever zone was freely chosen by the Vietnamese people. The election would take place within two years, by the summer of 1956.

Until the country was reunited, neither zone would receive any outside military assistance or make any alliances.

The military forces of the two sides were to be separated and regrouped. French forces north of the 17th parallel would move south, and the Viet Minh would move north, with civilians free to move to either zone.

21st July 1954 at the Geneva Peace Conference, Vietnam reluctantly accepted the temporary division of their country at the 17th Parallel for two years, an agreement they came to regret bitterly. Before the ink was even dry, the US established the Saigon Military Mission (SMM) to conduct sabotage and paramilitary operations in the North with Colonel Edward Lansdale in charge.

US leaders had no intention of allowing a free election because they knew – President Eisenhower actually made the admission – that more than eighty per cent of the population would have voted for Ho Chi Minh against their former emperor and pro-Western puppet Bao Dai. Washington swiftly wheeled in a new stooge, Ngo Dinh Diem, a Vietnamese aristocrat living in New York with absolutely no following in Vietnam. Diem, described by President Johnson as the “Churchill of Vietnam,” immediately cancelled the free election promised for July 1956. However, he needed US military support and dollars to maintain control in the South, which it got in spades, with two-thirds of the entire cost being paid for by Washington.

The Diem regime was one of the most corrupt and brutal in modern times, instigating a reign of terror that included wholesale gaolings, routine torture, and extortion, forcing the South Vietnamese to fight back. Washington, fearful that a successful revolt would reunite the country, cranked up its propaganda machine promoting the lie that the North was invading and conquering the South, even though the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service admitted that Radio Hanoi was actually promoting a peaceful protest.

In December 1960, Buddhists, socialists, communists, liberals, nationalists, and village leaders banded together to form the National Liberation Front, the NLF. Diem promptly labelled them “Viet Cong,” meaning Vietnamese Communists, despite the fact that the majority of them were not. The Americans, as usual, instead of trying to end the injustices that caused the rebellion, tried to suppress it by force. In February 1962, President Kennedy stated that American “advisers” would return fire if fired upon. A few months later, 5,000 Marines and 50 jet fighters were dispatched to Vietnam “in response to Communist expansion in Laos,” and by 1963, the number had grown to 16,300.

President Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu – who ran the brutal secret police – broke up a Buddhist celebration by killing eight children and one woman. In protest, Buddhists set fire to themselves. In the August, South Vietnamese government forces, led by Diem, attacked several Buddhist temples. Henry Cabot Lodge, the new US Ambassador to Vietnam, was told by the US State Department that they would “no longer tolerate Ngo Dinh Nhu’s influence” on Diem’s regime. Within two months, there was a military coup and Diem and his brother were assassinated.

Speaking in Fort Worth, Texas, on the morning of 22nd November on the day he too was assassinated, President Kennedy stated that: “without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight […] we are still the keystone in the arch of freedom.” Once elected, President Lyndon Johnson steadily increased troop levels to more than half a million and quadrupled the number of bombing raids, a course of action Eisenhower had strongly opposed. “I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went,” Johnson said.

Midway through 1964, American TV showed North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Tonkin Gulf. Within two days it was claimed they had attacked two US destroyers, a claim later shown to be another deliberate lie. President Johnson asked Congress for the power to “take all necessary measures to repel an armed attack against the forces of the United States to prevent further aggression.” The Tonkin Gulf resolution was approved by Congress by a vote of 416 to 0 and the Senate by 88 to 2. The Menzies Government introduced conscription, which they called the National Service Act, giving it the power to send conscripts overseas.

Six months later, Menzies announced that Australia would join the United States in its war against the “Communists of Vietnam,” because they were a “direct military threat to Australia.” No official declaration, just a bald statement to shore up our alliance with the US, although our involvement technically began in 1962 when we sent over a small contingent of 30 “military advisers,” dispatched as the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), also known as “the Team.” In August 1964, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) also sent a flight of Caribou transports to the port of Vung Tau. “Bossman” President Johnson and his ugly entourage paid us a visit and returned home with a mixed message. The official dictum of “all the way with LBJ” was balanced by a substantial splatter of bright red paint thrown by an anti-war protester.

By sheer coincidence (like hell) a few days before Menzies’ announcement, then Treasurer Harold Holt paid a visit to Washington, and was successful in unlocking the flow of US investments to Australia, winning some handy trade concessions. We called it “Blood for Dollars” because we knew that President Johnson was desperately seeking “respectable-looking” allies for a war that even then had incurred the odium of growing numbers of people. By early 1965 when it became clear that the North was fighting back hard, the US escalated the war by sending in 200,000 troops to the conflict, requesting further assistance from “friendly countries in the region” like Australia.

And naturally, we responded, dispatching the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (IRAR) to serve alongside the US. The following year, the Australian government felt that Australia’s involvement in the conflict should be both strong and identifiable and in March 1966 it sent off a task force consisting of two battalions and a RAAF squadron of Iroquois helicopters with its own area of operations, a task force that also included conscripts.

Years later, in a bumbling effort to “explain” how we became involved in the whole sorry mess, PM McMahon tabled copies of two letters dated 29th April 1965. One was from a Mr Quat, a former PM of South Vietnam, “accepting” Australia’s offer of troops. Much had been made of the absence of a formal request for our soldiers to fight in a war to “preserve freedom.” The pro-war lobby seemed to believe we were not culpable for joining in the butchery but for not getting ourselves a formal invitation.

But as we watched the nightly horror show of Buddhists setting fire to themselves and napalm raining down on powerless human beings and defoliants drenching and destroying the earth, opposition within Australia grew, and our country split down the middle. Even the 20-year old son of a former Liberal Minister in the Holt, Gorton and McMahon Governments – Billy Snedden – was forced to register for National Service, but shot off overseas. “For God’s sake, leave my son alone,” whined Snedden, showing a total disregard for other people’s sons. Our first conscripts reached Vietnam in the middle of 1966. By the time the last Australian personnel left in 1972, it remains Australia’s largest contribution to a foreign conflict since WW2 and also the most controversial.


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