’40 years on, reflections on the fall of Saigon: Honest History list’, Honest History, 18 May 2015
STOP PRESS: 8.00pm, 19 May: Sam Bateman of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute asks whether the US knows what it is doing sending military assets to assert freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Australia should not be drawn in, says Bateman.
STOP PRESS: 5.00pm, 18 May: the Vietnamese foreign ministry has protested about a Chinese fishing ban in the East China Sea; the World Socialist Web Site wonders whether we are on the verge of another ‘Gulf of Tonkin incident’, like the one in 1964 that triggered massive US involvement in the Vietnam War. (Note: HH does not necessarily believe everything the WSWS says – just as we do not believe everything the Main Stream Media says – but we find the WSWS’s alternative perspective useful and sometimes perspicacious. We follow these events not only because of their historical parallels but also because of their almost inevitable impact upon Australia.)
This anniversary occurred, of course, last month, when many Australians were engaged in looking further back. There are many aspects of this anniversary that could be highlighted and, indeed, there was plenty of material put out, lurking quietly behind the commemoration of another, older military failure. Below are references to some items that we picked out. (See also our recent Factsheet on China, US and Australia.)
Martin Woollacott in the Guardian recalled what it was like 40 years ago when the soldiers of the North arrived in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, but some of his most useful comments were about the lasting effect on United States attitudes to war. Some of these impacts surely flow through to attitudes to war in Australia, given the closeness of the Australian-American alliance.
At least three different Vietnam wars have competed for American attention [says Woollacott], and for space on the heavily loaded shelves of books about the conflict. In one, the US had all but won, only to throw away its victory because of a lack of resolution, the liberal media’s opposition and congressional foolishness. In a second, it did win, because its aims of containing China and Russia and preventing a domino-fall of other south-east Asian countries into the communist sphere were actually achieved. In the third, the mission was undertaken in ignorance, quite aggressively, in the expectation that setting up a South Vietnamese equivalent of South Korea would be relatively easy, and then lurched out of control. Which war really happened?
In Australia, the ANU’s Hugh White argued that Vietnam is ‘the other war we need to remember’. White’s article was actually written to mark the 50th anniversary of the decision of the Menzies Government to send an Australian battalion to fight in Vietnam. So it was just ten years from that fateful marker to the last hurrah, though Australian troops left Vietnam in 1972.
It is a mark of the limited nature of the commitment to Afghanistan, compared with the one in Vietnam, that it was able to last 14 years without intense public opposition. To the extent that these commitments are payments on the premium for the United States alliance, we have perhaps improved the return on investment.
No doubt the Anzac centenary deserves a lot of attention [White admits], but it is a little shocking that this other anniversary is being so completely ignored. The commitment to Vietnam remains, without question, Australia’s single most important strategic decision since 1945, and it largely defined our politics for an entire generation … The contrast between the ways we are approaching these two anniversaries is all the more striking because Vietnam has so much more to teach us about our future than Gallipoli.
The issues facing Menzies in 1965 are very similar to those facing Abbott in 2015, argues White: showing willing to the United States while reserving a place in the future of Asia. There were also fears of Indonesia and qualms about intervening in civil wars. ‘Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?’ asks White.
Australia’s future in Asia today is bound up with the rise of China even more than it was then and the irony is obvious that one of the players today, as a potential partial counterweight to China, is a booming Vietnam. Even if the centuries-old antagonism between China and Vietnam is no better recognised in Australia today than it was 50 years ago, Australia is building its ties with Vietnam.
Nick Davies in the Guardian looks at length at Vietnam today, as does Helen Clark in Australian Outlook, while refugee advocate Misha Coleman notes that 40 years of Vietnamese refugees to Australia (and multiple integration success stories) have not removed all issues in this area. Stephen Morris looks at why the war went the way it did and war photographer Tim Page recalls the photographs he took.
Nigel Wilson, a Vietnam veteran, is representative of the former soldiers who have gone back to the country, while Radio Australia‘s Vietnam page picks up some other stories and Phillip Adams on Late Night Live talks to two experts on forty years of change in Vietnam. Meanwhile, a ministerial statement from Senator Ronaldson on the centenary of Anzac and a century of service has two mentions of Vietnam: there were Anzac Day ceremonies there this year; the Minister will shortly
announce the details of the Government’s plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan , marking 50 years since Australian forces fought in the Vietnam War. I view these commemorations as being as important as the commemoration of events during the First and Second World Wars.
White above compares a war and a campaign, Vietnam and Gallipoli, in terms of the lessons they have for us. In the Ronaldson view of the world, though, a single battle marks the spot. Again, the exploits of blokes in khaki will be front and centre. No risk of us commemorating the beginning of this war, which might make us ask ‘why?’, or its end, which might make us ask ‘was it worth it?’ (There were some Long Tan Bursaries announced for the children of Vietnam veterans.)