- The Guardian
- Issue #2021
This week marks sixty years since Australia entered the Vietnam war. Considered by many to be a Cold War-era proxy war, the conflict lasted almost twenty years, with Australia being involved for virtually half of that period.
Summarising the war in his 1969 election policy speech, Gough Whitlam stated:
“The sole purpose of Australia’s participation in the civil war in Vietnam was to keep United States military forces involved on the mainland of Asia. The sole achievement of that war – the sole consequence of the devastation of an entire country, the destruction of a proud and civilised nation, the loss of over 300 Australian lives, the political destruction of one of the strongest presidents in America’s history, the near disruption of the American political system – has been to hasten, to make certain, that American withdrawal from our region which our participation was supposed to delay or prevent. Australian arms remain undimmed; but Australian policy has never suffered so total and unrelieved a defeat.”
In other words, much like the attempts of the UK, US, and Australia today with AUKUS, the Vietnam war was an attempt to maintain US influence in the region – in reality, it set the US back, costing generations of lives. The war, for the West, was an utter failure. On Whitlam’s seventh day in power, he announced the withdrawal of Australia’s remaining troops, ending Australia’s involvement on 11th January 1973. In total, over 500 men were killed and over 3,000 wounded.
Opposition to the Vietnam War saw Australians from different parts of the community come together to voice their disapproval. The most effective form of organisation against the war was from the trade unions. For example, the Sydney branch of the Waterside Workers’ Federation held up thirty-seven ships in Sydney Harbour by staging a 24-hour strike against US military involvement in Vietnam. One of the most famous moments happened when the Seamen’s Union declined to provide crews for the Boonaroo, which would set sail to Vietnam. The union was led by communist trade union stalwart Eliot V Elliott. Eventually, due to immense political pressure, the Seamen’s union manned the ship, but not without disrupting the war effort. These actions, however, highlight how powerful the working class can be in the face of imperialist wars against the ruling bourgeois class when it commits to solidarity.
We can look back on how the trade unions seriously challenged the federal government for its involvement in the Vietnam War and see how many communists were there leading that fight. We can look back and examine how they worked together, and brought their industries forward in this fight. It is important that we do so as Australia and its allies are preparing for war again. We must prepare the working class to fight back against any attempt to involve the working class in another imperialist conflict.