The decision to send troops into battle on alien terrain is usually said to be the most serious a government can make. Politicians do not deny it. The only exception I know is Sir Robert Menzies, who said of the Vietnam War in an oral history for the (President) Lyndon Baines Johnson library in 1969 that ‘it did not take five minutes to decide that when it came to the point of action we would be in it’[i]. The whole meeting would have taken about ten minutes.
The Vietnam War was our costliest defeat. The decision in principle to commit troops was made in the last week before Christmas 48 years ago (the ratification and announcement taking place four months later in April 1965). The full record of the meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee of Cabinet (FADC) on 17 December has recently been declassified and released.
In none of Australia’s other wars was there a Cabinet meeting duly recorded at the outset of the decision-making process. It was done on this occasion because, first, of the unusual circumstances of a formal request by an American President which required a Prime Minister’s response and, second, an Australian government’s wish in its perception of national interest to offer a different form of aid from that requested. Although President Johnson had specifically said he was not asking for it at this stage, the Australian government wanted to commit a ground force, which, though initially small, would ensure American boots on the ground on mainland Southeast Asia. American military doctrine after the unsatisfactory outcome of the Korean War had been to avoid this –‘no more Koreas’.
Michael Sexton[ii] and others have noted this Cabinet meeting, but passed over it because of lack of hard information. The team which wrote the official history[iii] would have had access to the notebook of the Cabinet Secretary (in this case the acting Secretary, Peter Lawler, secretary John Bunting being on Christmas leave) but underestimated its importance and preferred to concentrate on the Cabinet meetings in April which led up to the announcement. After it, Bunting recommended to Menzies that if asked when the decision to send a battalion to South Vietnam had been made he should blur the answer, referring to a period from November/December 1964 to April 1965.
I was put on to the track of this meeting by former External Affairs and Defence Secretary Sir Arthur Tange during wide-ranging discussions in the 1990s. Tange’s recollections were incomplete and his papers in the National Archives show that, in contrast to his normal practice, he went to some pains to avoid answering enquirers and to establish that at this time, with an overseas posting approaching, he had been ‘sidelined’. However, he remembered enough to express regret that the government’s strategic advisers, the Defence Committee (DC), had not been consulted. Ministers had sought advice only from the Chiefs of Staff, who had recommended sending a battalion in ‘a not very good paper’. This was a charitable understatement, not characteristic of Australia’s foremost and most awesome mandarin.
Tange also recalled (as one of many slights he suffered at the hands of his Minister Paul Hasluck) that there had been no opportunity to provide ‘the customary External Affairs estimate of the likelihood of effective government with popular support’. Hasluck, he went on, writing in his Defence memoir, ‘would not have felt the need to have the Department advise him on such a matter’[iv]. I found this to be not quite accurate: Tange had sought to offer advice to his Minister and when dismissed had followed up by sending him a long paper prepared by a first assistant secretary, Gordon Jockel. The paper advised caution because of the fragility of the domestic political base in South Vietnam and because American aims in implementing a two phase plan of one month’s bombing of the North followed by commitment of a ground force were by no means clear.
Although Vietnam had not been on the agenda for the DC meeting on 15 December there had been some informal discussion between the heads of departments and the Chiefs of Staff. Tange did not call that, but the only record is the brief notes scribbled by Tange at the time. Discovery of these Department of External Affairs (DEA) papers led me to delve more deeply. I found on a Prime Minister’s Department file a summary of the FADC meeting which showed its importance.
The full record of those five (perhaps ten) minutes confirms the eight-point summary which I published in 2004 in Asian Alternatives: Australia’s Vietnam decision and lessons on going to war[v].
The dominant figure in the brief discussion, as in all discussions on going to war, was the Prime Minister. Menzies is not at the top of his form. He is suffering from exhaustion at the end of a victorious half-Senate election, which had been celebrated the night before at a 70th birthday dinner tendered by his Party. The Deputy Prime Minister is John McEwen, whose nationalist approach on trade had raised his political stocks. The deputy leader of the Liberal Party, Harold Holt, is a keen supporter of the US, and is now justly identified with his proclamation on the White House lawn, ‘all the way with LBJ’. The other two ministers have been members of the FADC for less than a year and have subordinate status. The Minister for Defence, Shane Paltridge, a former publican, well-regarded by Menzies, speaks but once. The Foreign Minister, Paul Hasluck, a maximal realist, is the intellectual architect of intervention in Vietnam. He believes that the superpower, the United States, should accept its responsibilities to contain the rising superpower, China, and its ‘puppets’, the North Vietnamese.
We can now enter into the Cabinet room. The time is 11.30 on Wednesday 17 December. This is an unusually late start. For the purpose of ‘virtual Vietnam’, we assume that the meeting starts on time.
The first third of the proceedings is taken up with an introductory presentation by Hasluck. Hasluck begins his peroration with the rather insensitive suggestion that it is not necessary to decide on all matters, but only to settle the terms of a reply to President Johnson. Hasluck provides his view of American policy, which is based on visiting Washington while planning was going on in November, in anticipation of Johnson defeating Barry Goldwater in the presidential election. It is a picture of tentativeness, far short of a determined progressive squeeze, with the US initiating 30 days of bombing of the North. In the light of the assessed results for South Vietnamese morale and North Vietnamese resolution, the US may move on to a second phase involving ground forces, including from Australia and New Zealand. Initially the idea is for a static border force checking infiltration and having the same dual targets as the bombing, but before April deterioration has changed its role to active operations.
Hasluck suggests that the reply can make a point that it is fully appreciated that the second phase will mean more direct involvement in South Vietnam. The President’s specific requests pose difficulties, but ‘we will do what is in our power’, and would like military staff talks. Hasluck says we’ve arrived at a point where we can ask to be more closely consulted, though ‘the more we get involved the more we stick our necks out’.
Hasluck then lists seven points, mainly related to American war aims, which he says Australia is now in a position to raise at the political level. This shows that he has read the departmental paper pressed on him by Tange, although it is not his practice to refer to departmental thinking in Cabinet. He concludes by asking whether the military recommendation for a battalion should also be mentioned, and says ‘let us direct our minds to the immediate reply to the President’. The exhortation falls on deaf ears.
Holt asks Hasluck if the bombing has commenced. Hasluck replies that it is about to (which proves wrong), and reverts to what he was told in Washington: ‘I formed the impression when in the US that the Americans are terribly worried. The problem is political stability, we won’t get it without Phase I. But this involves a risk of Phase 2’. Hasluck will hold to the line that he Americans must commence bombing if they are to achieve political stability in South Vietnam. The feeling is that this is an American responsibility, which goes back to the Australian view that things started to go badly wrong when the US engineered the downfall of Ngo Dinh Diem.
Holt asks about other countries becoming involved, including Taiwan, but notes that it will not be regarded as an operation under the SEATO Treaty. Menzies asks why it should not be a SEATO operation. Hasluck replies that he does not know. Menzies grumbles, like Eugene Pallette at the breakfast table when Marjorie Main deprives him of the comic strip, the Katzenjammer Kids,[vi] that it should be a SEATO operation.
McEwen quashes them all by saying that SEATO is a paper outfit and it is better to leave it that way rather than bring about its disintegration. No one else could have put Menzies down in this way. His down-to-earth common sense approach will not prevent Hasluck later putting his name to an article in the Fairfax press written for him by public information officer Richard Woolcott claiming that Australian involvement in Vietnam came under SEATO.
McEwen then makes several points which come to be accepted. An American request for support will be the acid test. Either we go in or we crawl out. I would go in asking almost no questions of the US. It is up to the US to decide whether to make Vietnam a battleground and to hell with Vietnam, especially if the Buddhists join the Vietcong. Australia would have to have a request from the Government of South Vietnam.
Menzies then sums up what should go in the reply to President Johnson. We want to broaden our participation with the US. We begin by showing willing – every bit of assistance put beside the US is good in the common interest. Australia will examine what can be done to encourage others. The President’s requests will be examined. We will do whatever we can. McEwen asks about the battalion. Menzies says ‘if we can provide a battalion we’ve got to think hard before we refuse’ (though it is not a matter of refusing but offering). McEwen says ‘I’d go with it. But we’d be in’.
Addressing Hasluck, Menzies says he does not favor Hasluck’s idea of asking questions. McEwen says we must not appear to be playing for time by asking questions.
Menzies had taken a similar negative position in the Indochina crisis of 1954, no doubt drawing on the experience of World War II and Korea. In 1954 that had the added dimension that the Americans might decide to use nuclear weapons and thenceforth Australia had realised that if the Americans decided to do so it would not be consulted. Australia had been rebuffed first in 1955, after SEATO had been created, when, I was told by Tange, the Americans had said ‘they were never going to tie their hands again in hostilities against the goddamned Chinese’. Foreign Minister Garfield Barwick had raised the matter again in 1962. However, his successor, Hasluck, had said in July 1964 that a nuclear showdown with China might be the only way out, and, though his Cabinet colleagues might not have agreed, that was a popular view in the ranks of the Coalition.
Holt makes a seemingly gratuitous observation about the inevitability of an escalating force build-up. His political reputation would crash in 1967 as more forces were demanded from Australia. In May 1965 Bunting and new DEA secretary James Plimsoll would seek unsuccessfully in the DC to put a cap of one battalion on the Australian contribution.
The second last comment is made by McEwen, perhaps wishing to resile from his earlier ‘make it a desert and call it peace’ sentiment. He says the real problem will be if we end up by fighting against the will of the people of South Vietnam, and the Washington embassy should make soundings. There is already a volume of intelligence on Australian files abut all the issues, poor morale and war-weariness, and whether more foreign intervention will be matched by less South Vietnamese war-fighting, but they have been swept under the rug.
Menzies concludes by telling Paltridge, and Hasluck to draft a forthcoming reply, with no foot dragging, from himself to Johnson. Hasluck will do all the work, and be the only minister to remain in Canberra for another week, until Christmas Eve (although he will spend a lot of that time exchanging notes with Tange about the position of policy planning officer that I happen to occupy).
The decision will kept secret for four months, aided by a long parliamentary recess, by Menzies’ absence overseas on a recuperative sea voyage, extended by going to London to Winston Churchill’s funeral, and by the reluctance of the Opposition to give the appearance that it is not an equally faithful ally of the US.
The processes by which Australian governments have taken the decision to go to war, from Korea in 1950 to Vietnam to Iraq in 2003, do not stand up to scrutiny. Therefore concerned citizens are calling for an inquiry into how Australia decided to join the Iraq war[vii], in the hope that what we will learn from it will lead to changed procedures for decision-making under which the government will have to level with the Parliament and the people.
University of Melbourne
[i] AC74-219. The statement was first cited by Prof Joe Siracusa RMIT
[ii] Michael Sexton, War for the Asking, New Holland, 2002
[iii] P Edwards with G Pemberton, Crises and Commitments, Allen & Unwin, 1992
[iv] A Tange, Defence Policy-making ANU Press, 2008, p44
[vi] Heaven Can Wait 1943