Australia and the Vietnam War, Peter Edwards.

NewSouth Books, 2014

Two great events dominated South-East Asia in the late 1940s, when the drama of this book begins. One was in 1945 when Sukarno proclaimed the independence of Indonesia and Ho Chi Minh the independence of Vietnam. The other was in 1948 when the Calcutta Conference of Asian communists called for armed uprisings across South and South-East Asia. Thus the two issues — decolonisation and the Cold War — were already intermingled when the conservative Menzies government came to power in Australia in 1949.

The great merit of Peter Edwards’s Australia and the Vietnam War is that it traces clearly and judiciously the unfolding of this complex narrative from the defeat of the Communists in Malaya to their triumph in Vietnam — and draws compelling lessons from the story. Edwards was the general editor of the nine volumes of the Official History of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948–1975. He also wrote or co-wrote two of these volumes, including A Nation at War 1965–1975 on Australian life, politics, and diplomacy during those years.

His new book amounts to a summary of the Official History. He acknowledges not only the historians who wrote the various volumes on which it draws but also the archivists, librarians, officials, and veterans who helped them. He thanks the Council of the Australian War Memorial, which commissioned him to write the current shorter history, and again notes “the unrestricted access to official records” that he and his colleagues have enjoyed and the assurance of publication without political or official censorship — “a tradition of which all Australian governments, and the Australian people, should be proud.”

In the 1940s, Australia’s Chifley Labor government had supported Indonesian independence against the Dutch and earned the enduring respect of the new Indonesian regime. But it had been reluctant to support the military efforts of the British and Malayan authorities to defeat the Communist uprising in Malaya (“the Emergency” of 1948–1960). It saw the Malayan insurgents as anti-colonialist nationalists rather than (as the journalist Denis Warner put it) “the advance guard of the Red revolution that plans to seize all Asia in its tyrannical grasp.”

After 1949 the incoming Menzies government saw the Emergency as part of the Cold War but remained reluctant to commit troops until the adoption in Malaya in the mid-1950s of the policy of “winning hearts and minds” rather than killing as many of the enemy as possible. Independence (merdeka), health and education programs, and infrastructure were essential elements of any winning program.

This counter-insurgency policy was “successful militarily, successful in its international relations, and successful in gaining domestic political support.” Its success was maintained during Sukarno’s Confrontation with Malaysia of 1963–1966. (Even when Australian and Indonesian troops were engaged in combat in Borneo, soldiers from each country attended staff colleges in the other.)

The Australian government wanted but was unable to apply the lessons of the Emergency and the Confrontation to Vietnam. The commitment to Malaya was successful, the commitment to Vietnam ended in defeat. The first was short, cost little in blood and treasure, relied on volunteers and had bipartisan parliamentary support. The second lasted ten years, deployed conscripts, and provoked deep, bitter, and continuing divisions in Australia. To this day, probably the best remembered images of the Vietnam War are the horrific photographs of massacres, street executions, Buddhist self-immolations, and of terrified Vietnamese clinging to the skids of the last helicopter out of Saigon.

Cooperation in the American alliance brought special difficulties. As Edwards sums it up: “The strategic concerns, diplomatic style, and operational methods of a global superpower located in the northern hemisphere were markedly different from those of a middle-sized regional power, adjacent to Southeast Asia.” Despite some important successes, such as the Battle of Long Tan in August 1966, Australian strategy was overwhelmed by American faith in massive firepower and search-and-destroy missions.

There were two strategic foundations to Australia’s Vietnam commitment. One was the domino theory that a communist victory in Vietnam would entail the subsequent fall of the other South-East Asian states and beyond. The other was the deep conviction that the mighty United States was unbeatable and that the American alliance — as the best insurance for Australian security — mandated Australia pay a premium. But the United States was beaten, and the dominoes did not fall. So was the strategy totally wrong?

Edwards is not so sure. If North Vietnam had triumphed in 1965 and not 1975, the dominoes may well have fallen. Certainly the South-East Asian leaders thought so — in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia after Sukarno. They used those ten years to strengthen their defences to ensure they did not become dominoes.

The lesson for Australia of the American defeat in Vietnam is not that Australia should renounce the American alliance but that it should be more cautious, critical, and self-reliant. The American alliance remains Australia’s best insurance policy. It should continue to pay the premiums.

Edwards ends his book with these sensible words:

“When future Australian governments contemplate any more-or-less comparable commitments, they would be wise to remember how politicians, diplomats, and military leaders in the 1950s and 1960s handled Australia’s involvement in the Malayan Emergency and Confrontation as well as the commitment to the Vietnam War. Any future overseas commitment need not be ‘another Vietnam,’ provided it is accompanied by careful and consultative decision-making, energetic and independent diplomacy, and skilful military leadership.”