Lockhart, Greg: Australia and the Vietnam War: Part 1 – Neo-Colonial Race Strategy

Greg Lockhart*

‘Australia and the Vietnam War: Part 1 – Neo-Colonial Race Strategy’, Honest History, 14 December 2022 updated

Greg Lockhart is a leading historian of Australia’s Vietnam War (Nation in Arms: the Origins of the People’s Army of Vietnam; The Minefield: an Australian Tragedy in Vietnam). His article (in two parts; Part 2) is published to mark the 50th anniversary of the last Australian Army parade in Vietnam, 16 December 1972, in which the then Captain Lockhart participated, and also serves as a summation of his work on the Vietnam War. DVA material on the Vietnam War. HH


In a new essay called ‘The neglected north’, historian Lyndon Megarrity raises the vulnerability white Australians have historically felt because of the apparently ’empty’ state of their Northern Territory. Megarrity states that, after the Korean War (1950-53), ‘Asian militarism drew renewed attention to Australia’s vulnerable north’.[1] But would it not be more reasonable to say that, as most notably in Malaya, Borneo, and Vietnam and, later, in Afghanistan, the reverse was true: Australian militarism exported violence to Asia?

How might a leading historian overlook that history? The question suggests large issues both for the Australian history profession and for the culture more broadly. In relation to our recent strategic history, however, my sense is that Australian historians tend generally to block out awareness of Asia in ways that relate to the fundamental problem of threat construction in our geopolitical outlook. We are talking about the projection of white Australian fears of Asian peoples onto those peoples, while at the same time there is a denial of that projection.

Certainly, that denial was pronounced in the period to which Megarrity is referring, the one between 1945 and the fall of Saigon in 1975, as movements for national independence in Asian and world history defined those years as the period of decolonisation. And when, on the other hand, we often forget that the Australian state’s attempt to suppress those movements in the region to its north defined it as neo-colonial.

My argument thus offsets the view Megarrity may be seen to have internalised, that of the first volume of the Vietnam Official History called Crises and Commitments (1992).[2] According to that title, communist insurrections created grave security threats in Malaya, Laos, Borneo, Indonesia, and Vietnam, and, by extension, to Australia during the Cold War. The Commonwealth then committed dutifully to assisting our ‘big and powerful’ friends from outside the region – Britain and America – who were attempting to stabilise security inside the troubled region.

This is, however, a Cold War view of the situation in Asia. It ignores the world historical process of decolonisation, post-1945, wherein local national independence movements resisted the reimposition by Western powers of their pre-World War II colonial order in a new, somewhat liberal form. Overlooking that national resistance from around 1948, but particularly after the rise of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, neo-colonial Australian as well as Anglo-American formulations of the communist threat to the region made a rhetorical move. This was to emphasise the ‘red’ as distinct from the old ‘yellow peril’ to disguise their real opposition to decolonisation.

So it was that we will see the Commonwealth denied the factor which determined its decision for war in Vietnam: conservative race-based fear of and violent hostility to national independence movements in Asia – and by extension, of course, to Australia. Confirmation of that denial will follow, when we turn to see in Part 2 how the government projected the armed forces it sent to Vietnam into a no-win situation.

Race fear and the threat of decolonisation

In 1941-42, fear of the ‘Japanese thrust’ south sent shock waves through Australia. The thrust was real enough, as the old British, Dutch, and French colonial states fell in short order across Southeast Asia.

Yet our histories generally suppress a major outcome of that story: the fact that Asian national independence movements seized power in the short intervals between the US defeat of Japan in early August 1945 and the return of the European powers later in that month, seeking to regain their imperial control.

On 17 August 1945, President Sukarno declared to a mass audience the independence of the Republic of Indonesia and on 2 September, Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). True, the Chifley Government (1945-49) supported the new Indonesian Republic. But on 6 March 1946, conservative Opposition Leader Robert Menzies delivered a speech in Parliament, in which palpable racial prejudice characterised his support for the return of the Dutch.

Without a ‘political barrier reef’ of white Dutch imperial power, Menzies thought Indonesian independence would ‘justify the eviction of Australia from New Guinea and the British from India, Burma and the Malay Peninsula’ and produce ‘an ever-growing threat to Australia in the future’.[3]

Why that ever-growing future threat? Because Indonesians were not ‘fit for self-government’, Menzies said. Instability and chaos would spread. Menzies’ remarkable assumption cannot be over-emphasised. It was, indeed, that, freed from repressive autocracy of British and European colonial regimes, the incapacity of Asians to rule themselves would mean their countries would be potential bases of attack on Australia because they were inhabited by the people who lived there.

Ho Chi Minh declares Vietnam’s independence, Hanoi, 2 September 1945 (Twitter/Daily Radical)

Back in the 1940s and beyond, it would not be difficult to multiply examples of Menzies’ racist geopolitics in the thinking of other conservatives.[4] Neither was their racism going to be alleviated by India’s independence in 1947, Burma’s in 1948, and above all, by the rise to power of the communist PRC on 1 October 1949.

By then, of course, a vivid sense of the ‘red peril,’ which coincided with the emergence of the Cold War in Europe, had begun to overlay Australia’s old colonial construction of the ‘yellow’ one. On 1 October 1949, the rise of Mao’s PRC had undoubtedly intensified fear of the communist menace and helped bring Menzies to power at the head of the Liberal-Country Party Coalition in the 3 December 1949 election. During the campaign, Menzies’ deputy Arthur Fadden had announced that Chinese communist forces were ‘thrusting their red spear points towards Australia’.[5]

It is important to emphasise here that no major strategic intelligence assessment between 1950 and 1964 advised the government that communist China had the strength to threaten Australia. Indeed, all three, in 1950, 1957 and 1964, concluded it did not.[6]

Meanwhile, as the conservative construction of the communist threat blocked out the process of decolonisation in Asia, it blew Menzies up like a political balloon. He remained prime minister for a record 17 years at the height of the Cold War.

The way ‘red peril’ rhetoric helped Menzies to build that record is readily outlined. First, such rhetoric disguised the Australian government’s race-based sense of the threat from Asia at a time when it would have caused hostility in decolonising Asian nations. Second, in domestic affairs it gave strength to Menzies’ political attacks on the Australian Labor Party (ALP), because of its links with the trade unions, some of whom were influenced by the Communist Party of Australia. And, third, in foreign affairs, it gave him a language he could use to talk to Australia’s ‘big and powerful’, particularly, American friends, while seeking neo-imperial defence alliances in the Asia-Pacific region.[7]

So it was from around 1948 that anti-communism tended to block out the process of decolonisation in Asia as an issue in Australian politics. By focussing on the alleged communist menace, Australian conservatives could deflect questions about national sovereignty in white Australia as well as Asia. To deny they were projecting their own anxieties about political change in Asian countries onto these countries they came up with a construction of the communist threat that sprang from unwarranted fear of the PRC.

The Australian ‘domino’ fantasy and fiction

One month before the fall of the French colonial garrison at Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam on 7 May 1954, US President Dwight Eisenhower outlined the so-called ‘Domino Theory’ for the world.  On 7 April, he had explained: ‘You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over fairly quickly’ – after Indochina, Burma, Malaya, and Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand would be next.[8]

Historians tend to dismiss that ‘domino theory’ as political rhetoric, which of course it was. The Official History says it represented a ‘gravely misleading interpretation of the policy making that led to [Menzies’] … decision’.[9] My point, however, is that the theory was fundamental to the so-called strategic thinking that got Australians involved in the Vietnam War.

As historian Wen Qing Ngoei has shown, Eisenhower’s 1954 perspective had been as deeply influenced as Australia’s had already been by the experience of the British in Malaya.[10] I have also shown that, for over a year before Mao led the communists to power in China in 1949, British and Australian officials in Malaya had already convinced themselves that the Chinese communists were ‘coming down’.[11]

Australian ‘domino’ thinking was incipient from before June 1948, when the Malayan Emergency was not, as our official history indicates, initiated by the largely ethnic Chinese Malayan Communist Party,[12] but was as the most persuasive recent research shows ‘contingent on the actions of the British themselves’.[13] And the point to amplify here is one I made in The Minefield in 2007: Menzies’ December 1964 decision and April 1965 justification for war had been handed down, as it were, to him a decade before by the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

Field Marshal Sir John Harding, Chief of the Imperial General Staff (left), Tokyo, March 1955. Others: British Ambassador, Sir Esler Denning; Commonwealth Forces Korea Commander in Chief, LT GEN Bierwirth (AWM)

This was Field Marshal Sir John Harding, with whom Menzies spoke on 2 February 1955, during the defence discussions at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Meeting in London. Earlier, in 1951, Menzies had met Harding as the British Commander in Malaya, and Harding had sought a contribution of Australian forces for Britain’s Far Eastern Strategic Reserve. Menzies had been unresponsive. He thought a third world war was imminent and felt that the defence of the Empire was ‘indivisible’; planning to send a third Australian imperial force to the Middle East had priority. But in London in early 1955, when Harding reminded Menzies of Britain’s interest in Australian troops for Malaya, Menzies changed his mind.

Why? An unnamed but clear analogy to the ‘Japanese thrust’ south from Indochina in 1941-42 – an analogy that Harding presented to Menzies eight months after the fall of Dien Bien Phu – ties the answer together. After noting the impressive fighting capacities of the Chinese in the Korean War, Harding outlined the following strategic scenario for the Australian prime minister:

In an attack on south-east Asia the Chinese forces would be limited for logistic     reasons to five armies totalling about 250,000 men and a small force of about 200 aircraft mostly of the ground attack type. The main axis of their advance, in which they would have the support of the whole Viet Minh Army, would be through Hanoi to the Siamese border at Thaket and thence to Bangkok. A secondary line of advance would be through central Vietnam to Saigon. By these routes the enemy might reach Saigon about three months after passing the Chinese border … The enemy might direct some forces against Burma … But the real prize at stake would be the rubber and tin of Malaya and [the] focus of sea and air communications at Singapore … From the strategic point of view Malaysia and Singapore were of critical importance for the defence of South-East Asia.[14]

Menzies responded instantly, saying it was ‘certainly vital that the Treaty Powers build up a strategic reserve on the spot and have plans ready to dispatch supplementary forces if the need arose’.

Harding had presented in the conditional tense, with no citation of Chinese plans or force analysis, a remarkably overdetermined forecast of Chinese aggression in all Southeast Asia. His scenario had again contradicted concrete appraisals of strategic reality. A November 1954 Australian, New Zealand, and Malayan Area (ANZAM) military intelligence assessment of the period to 1956 had concluded that ‘it was most unlikely that communist China would initiate aggression in the period under review’.[15]

As indicated, Menzies had responded reflexively to Harding’s historical analogy of the Japanese attack south from Indochina in 1941–42. Anyone who knows anything about Menzies will know that, because of his inflexible Britishness, the ‘Japanese thrust’ south had been his ‘darkest hour’. For that reason, Harding’s fiction could only have re-aroused in him feelings of a time he would not want to relive.

A third point is indeed literary: both Harding’s fiction and Menzies’s affinity for it had deep resonance in both British and Australian imperial cultures. There are, for instance, studies that strategic scholars might not usually consult on how the widely read Fu Manchu novels of Arthur Sarsfield Ward (Sax Rohmer) – some 13 between 1913 and 1959 – projected the evils of British imperialism onto Asia, particularly China. Even if Harding and Menzies had not read those novels, their shared imperial culture was imbued with the mystery narrative of Fu Manchu, the evil Oriental genius hell-bent on world domination.[16]

Back in Australia by April 1955, Menzies threw his weight behind the Far Eastern Strategic Reserve. As he said, ‘Malaya was vital to our defence, more vital, properly understood, than some point on the Australian coast’.[17] This did not, of course, mean he was interested in the defence of the peoples of Malaya. Rather, he feared the destruction of the British position there. His expectation of the downward thrust of the Asiatic dominions of world communism through Vietnam had overlaid his historically conditioned fears of the threat from the north.

Hence, his impulse, which was that of many settler Australians, to erect barriers against that imaginary threat. In 1946, he had seen the Dutch colonial regime in the Indies as the country’s ‘political barrier reef’ in the north. Even farther back during his first prime ministership in February 1941, he had sent the first elements of the 8th Australian Division to reinforce the so-called ‘Malay barrier’ against a prospective Japanese attack. In August 1941, the lack of confidence in his war leadership forced him to resign as Prime Minister. In February 1942, the Japanese rubbed in his banishment to the back benches when, on taking Singapore, they captured the Australian Division. All of this was undoubtedly somewhere in his mind, as he listened to Harding in London soon after the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu – a victory which he would not have clearly distinguished from a Chinese one.

As if gripped by a repetition compulsion in 1955, Menzies had again made the British position in Malaya his ‘political barrier reef’, although this time against the phantom forces of the Chinese ‘coming down’ through Vietnam to retake Malaya and Singapore.

Race strategy

That barrier response to the threat fantasy may also be described as a race strategy. As indicated, this strategy involved the drawing of what Menzies called white Australia’s ‘big and powerful [white] friends’, particularly Americans, from outside the region, and encouraging them to position their forces inside it to protect white Australia. In other words, Menzies’ Commonwealth wanted to restore in Asia the old Western imperial order in a new form.

The Asia-Pacific security arrangements to which Australian government became attached in the 1950s were all white or overwhelmingly dominated by white powers. The main pacts were the ANZAM (Australia, New Zealand, and the Malayan Area) Treaty from 1949; ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, US) Treaty in 1951; and SEATO (Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation), signed by the US, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Thailand, and the Philippines in Manila in 1954 four months after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were protected by the treaty; India, Indonesia and Malaysia declined to participate.

There is no space here to reprise the ratcheting up of the regional tensions that followed the formation of those neo-imperial security arrangements. Let me just mention that as the British prepared to withdraw from ‘East of Suez’, their important role in the construction of ‘Malaysia’ was designed to preserve their neo-colonial economic interests in the region. Soon after that nation was established on 16 September 1963, Indonesia’s President Sukarno launched Indonesian confrontation against what he saw as that new British colonial state. With Australian combat troops in Malaya since 1955, the Commonwealth sent others to Borneo in the new Malaysia in 1963 and 1964-65.

Meanwhile, the Australian government remained in lockstep with the US government, as it became increasingly embroiled in the growing conflict in Vietnam. In 1962, when the US opened its Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, 32 Australian jungle warfare advisers were attached to it. The Commonwealth supported US interests during the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident,[18] which led to the first US bombing of Vietnam. On 17 December 1964, when Cabinet met to ratify Menzies’ response to a request by US President Lyndon Johnston for more Australian support in Vietnam, Menzies finally seized the opportunity he felt he had to hand to counter the threat of decolonisation to Australia. This was not only by boosting support for the escalation of US ground troops in Southeast Asia, but darkly to urge it.

Johnson had not specifically asked for Australia to send combat troops. During that Cabinet Meeting, however, Menzies formalised in no more than ‘five minutes’ his determination to send a combat battalion to Vietnam.[19]

Vietnam would be the first war Australia (and New Zealand) would be in without Britain. But still, Menzies wanted Australian troops sent to Vietnam under the auspices of SEATO, of which Britain was a signatory. In relation to this arrangement, his desire for a peerage may also have been influential.

In any case, the Cabinet’s deliberations merely moved the old ‘Malay barrier’ a little to the northeast and planted it in Vietnam.[20] The Minutes of the meeting reveal how, indeed, Deputy Prime Minister, Sir John McEwen, affirmed that US engagement in Vietnam would be ‘the only barrier between us and China’. To disguise the sense of a race threat McEwen also said: ‘Get some brown skins if you can – Thais, Phillippinos [sic]’. Not wanting the Americans to hesitate for a second in their escalation of the war, he further advised that ‘we must not appear to be playing for time by asking questions’. There was awareness in the meeting that the Saigon government would have to make a formal request for Australian troops. But still, the Vietnamese themselves were irrelevant in the Cabinet calculations. McEwen is noted as saying that the ‘US has to decide whether to make Vietnam a battlefield and to hell with Vietnam’. [21]

Indeed, for various reasons, including the need to extract a ‘request’ from the reluctant Saigon government,[22] Menzies deferred until 29 April 1965 his public announcement of that decision. The point to stress here, however, is that when he presented his dodgy justification for sending combat troops to parliament on that day, it came through as a British imperial echo; it turned out to be a cut back version of the ‘downward thrust’ of China line Harding had instilled in him a decade before in London. Inflamed with the prevailing ‘red peril’ rhetoric, Menzies said that the communists in southern Vietnam were the strategic spearhead of ‘a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans’.

Prime Minister Menzies with US Defense Secretary McNamara, Washington, 1964 (The Conversation/Wikimedia Commons)


Such was the strategic delusion that projected Australian militarism onto Vietnam after ‘five minutes’ deliberation in Cabinet on 17 December 1964. The Commonwealth feared decolonisation but could not say so. Menzies and his colleagues denied that implicitly racist fear and amplified the prevailing anti-communist rhetoric to cover their neo-colonial desire to repress independent Asian nationalism.

Menzies was culturally and politically determined to action the fiction and fantasy of the ‘domino theory’, as British Field Marshall Sir John Harding had foisted it on him in London in 1955. Australian intelligence assessments had refuted that theory; the most important assessments in the period found that communist China was too poor and powerless to ‘thrust’ down to Australia through Vietnam. Still, as a British imperial literary invention, the theory enabled the Menzies government’s race strategy against the threat it could not name: decolonisation in Asia.

Such is the story our historical narrative tends currently to deny. As we will see in Part 2, Menzies’ massive distortion of geo-political reality shaped the story of what happened in Vietnam after his government got Australian boots on the ground. Conversely, that military history should confirm the neo-colonial political projections his government made as it sought to turn the clock back on history at the time of decolonisation.

Part 2 of this article.

* Greg Lockhart is a Vietnam veteran and an historian. Formerly of the Australian National University, he is author of Nation in Arms: the Origins of the People’s Army of Vietnam (1989), The Minefield: an Australian Tragedy in Vietnam (2007) and, lately, essays on Australian history. He is co-translator with his wife Monique of The Light of the Capital: Three Modern Vietnamese Classics (1996). His memoir Weaving of Worlds: a Day on Île d’Yeu (2022) is forthcoming. Use the Honest History search engine to find other work by him.


[1] Carolyn Holbrook, Lyndon Megarrity & David Lowe, Lessons from History: Leading Historians Tackle Australia’s Greatest Challenges (Sydney: NewSouth, 2022), 318.

[2] Peter Edwards with Gregory Pemberton, Crises and Commitments: The Politics and Diplomacy of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948-1965 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial), 199. This is Vol. 1 of The Official History of Australia in Southeast Asian Conflicts, 1948–1975, 6 vols. (Sydney: Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, 1992–2012).

[3] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, vol. 186, 6 March 1946, 7–9; Greg Lockhart, ‘Made in Britain: the fantasy driving Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War’, in Brian Cuddy & Fredrik Logevall, eds., The Vietnam War in the Pacific World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022), 36.

[4] Frank Clune was a popular travel writer in the period. His book The Flying Dutchmen (1953), which is about a trip to the Netherlands, comments on the riots in Egypt during a stop-over in Cairo. There is indeed considerable commentary on how ungrateful the Egyptians had been for the boon of British occupation and how utterly unworthy and incapable of self-government they were. Chiming with a widespread Australian dream that had considerable traction among politicians in the post-war period, he even expresses the hope that, with Churchill recently triumphing over Attlee, the retreat of the British Empire will be reversed.

[5] Sydney Morning Herald, 6 December 1949.

[6] Denis Warner, ‘Our war plan ignores East Asia,’ The Herald (Melbourne), 11 April 1950; ‘Appreciation of the Australian Chiefs of Staff (September 1950),’ 6–9, in Minute by Chiefs of Staff Committee, 14 December 1950, Agendum No. 17/50: ‘Australian strategy in relation to Communist Expansion in the Pacific, South-East Asia and the Far East during the Cold War Period’, Series A816/52, Item 14/301/447, 14, AA; ‘ANZAM Intelligence Report on probable scale of attack against Malaya up to the end of 1956’, ANZAM Intelligence Meeting, Melbourne, November 1954, para 9, A1209/23, 1957/5980, AA; Chiefs of Staff Committee Minute No. 56/1964, April 6, 1964. Italics added. Cabinet Submission 493, ‘Strategic Bases of Australia’s defence policy’, Paltridge, 22 October 1964, CS file C3640, CRS A4949/1, AA.

[7] Lockhart, ‘Made in Britain …’, 32.

[8] Eisenhower’s Press Conference, April 7, 1954, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952–54, vol. 13, pt. 1, 1280–1281.

[9] Edwards with Pemberton, Crises and Commitments, 372–73.

[10] Wen-Qing Ngoei, Arc of Containment: Britain, the United States and Anticommunism in Southeast Asia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019).

[11] Lockhart, ‘Made in Britain …’

[12] Peter Dennis & Jeffrey Grey, Emergence and Confrontation: Australian Military Operations in Malaya and Borneo 1950-1966 (Allen & Unwin in Association with the Australian War Memorial,1996), 5, which already overlooked the sublety of Anthony Short, The Communist Insurrection in Malaya, 1948-1960 (New York: Crane Russak, 1975), 3.

[13] Christopher Bayly & Tim Harper, Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire (London: Penguin, 2008), 427.

[14] Quoted with full reference in Greg Lockhart, The Minefield: an Australian Tragedy in Vietnam (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2007), 11.

[15] See Note 6 above.

[16] Anthony Taylor, ‘“And I am the God of Destruction!”, Fu Manchu and the construction of Asiatic Evil in the novels of Arthur Sarsfield Ward, 1912-1939’ in Tom Crook, Rebecca Gill & Bertrand Taithe ed., Evil, Barbarism and Empire: Britain and Abroad, c. 1830-2000 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), Ch. 4. For Fu Manchu and related issues in Australia, see Alison Broinowski, The Yellow Lady: Australian Impressions of Asia (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992), Ch. 2; and David Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia, 1850-1939 (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1999), Ch.13; Stranded Nation: White Australia in an Asian Region (Perth: UWA Publishing, 2019), Index and Ch. 6 ‘Biggles explains the Orient’. Note also that Conan Doyle’s immensely popular Sherlock Holmes novels, in which Moriarty, the evil genius is not exactly Asian, but a nondescript figure with a ‘hereditary’ criminal mind, are often associated with Rohmer’s work.

[17] Current Notes on International Affairs 26 (April 1955): 278–79.

[18] For an excellent Sigint history of the incident see Robert L. Hanyok, ‘Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and the Flying Fish: the Gulf of Tonkin Mystery, 2-4 August 1964’, Naval History and Heritage Command, 2 Nov 2017: https://irp.fas.org/nsa/spartans/chapter5.pdf.

[19] Garry Woodard, ‘Two Australian wars, two prime ministers: Australia’s virtual Vietnam, and lessons for today,’ NAPSNet Policy Forum, 18 April 2013, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-policy-forum/two-australian-wars-two-prime-ministers/

[20] On 7 April 1954, on the eve of the fall of Dien Bien Phu, Australian Foreign Minister RG Casey said, ‘It is necessary to look for the next barrier that might be held, probably the great Mekong river …’, quoted in Lockhart, The Minefield, 16.

[21] Notetaker PJ Lawler, ‘Notes of Meetings 18 February-17 December 1964’, 189, National Archives of Australia, A11099.

[22] Michael Sexton, War for the Asking: How Australia Invited Itself To Vietnam (Sydney: New Holland, 2002).


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