Why Australia Needs to Reconcile With Its Role in the Vietnam War

In November 2017, the Australian Federal Government published its first Foreign Policy White Paper in 14 years with the tagline “Opportunity, Security, Strength.” What prompted this after such a long time? Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull answered that question in the opening sentence of the introduction – the great changes in the world stage and especially the regional scene. According the White Paper, Australia would like to play a greater role in the region, based on principles of freedom, rule-based engagement, international law, and democratic norms.

By its adopted values and systems, and because it was founded by the British, populated mainly with English and Irish immigrants, and followed a “White Australia” policy for a very long time, Australia is a “Western” country by any definition of the term. However, its geographic location has made it an integral part of the Asia-Pacific region, more so by its increased trading with, and therefore dependence for prosperity on, this region.

Clearly, in order to achieve the stated foreign policy objectives, Australia must convince others in the region that it adheres to the same principles and accepted international norms and is willing to take responsibility for its own acts accordingly.

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But there is a small problem: Australia’s role in the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War is perhaps the most questionable of all of Australia’s involvements in the region, and its impacts are both deep and long on the national consciousness of Vietnam. Whether and how Australia decides to reconcile with Vietnam will be keenly watched by everyone. Without this, Australia won’t be in a position to claim to adhere to the principles on which it says its stated foreign policy is based.

Australia and Vietnam both paid their prices for the war, although for the latter it was much higher (e.g. more than 2 million Vietnamese dead, compared to 521 Australians). People of both countries are aware that there was no fundamental reason for them to be at war (but they still were), and each was merely playing its respective role during the Cold War (especially for Australia). Both countries have since moved on and there are interactions between the two nations on different fronts such as trade, commerce, tourism, education, and culture.

However, the war was fought on Vietnamese soil and it was the Vietnamese who were at the receiving end of the atrocities and mass killings. The Vietnamese are the ones who are still suffering from the impacts of the indiscriminate use of deadly chemicals. The horrors of the war are deeply etched in their collective memory. Australia, while maybe not directly responsible, needs to clear its position because it is still perceived as a close ally of the United States, as it was during the Vietnam War.

This is why the burden of proof is on Australia.

Peter Cosgrove, chief of the Australian Defense Force until 2005, said in the Boyer Lecture series that Australia might have missed an opportunity to win the Vietnam War. Cosgrove’s argument was that a military approach alone can win any war provided the right price is paid. However, a better and more sustainable approach would be through socioeconomic engagement. This could have worked in South Vietnam were the civilian population to be adequately motivated.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the same approach is mentioned in the White Paper, highlighting how socioeconomic, cultural, educational, research, scientific, technological, and commercial engagements can help achieve Australia’s foreign policy objectives (Chapter 8, “Partnerships and Soft Power”).

The stated aim of Australia’s foreign policy as indicated in the prime minister’s introduction to be is a “sovereign Australia, not reliant.” It also states that Australia should prepare for the long term where China may become the dominant power in the region, significantly changing the rules of engagement. The White Paper is clear in saying that China is ruled by an “authoritarian regime,” and has different interests, values, and political and legal systems. With time Beijing will only be more inclined to play by its own rules and the value gap between China and Australia will increase, as Alan Dupont has pointed out.

This should worry Australia.

This is why reconciliation with Vietnam is so important, if Canberra wants to achieve its foreign policy objectives and remain the “frontline state” of modern liberal values against the onslaught of an “authoritarian system.” A genuine reconciliation will go a long way in establishing Australia’s moral position in the region as a nation that is guided by the same principles it is trying to preach.

In a piece titled “Behind the Front Line,” Bruce Davies summarizes the Australian role, after its withdrawal from Vietnam, as one that “could do no more than slink away in the shadows.” Slink it did; Australia never systematically closed the Vietnam chapter of its history, so much so that it took a long time even to decide what to do with its veterans.

Despite the numerous arguments against an apology and the associated potential complexities, then-Prime Minister John Howard apologized to the Vietnam Veterans in 2006 and the New Zealand government did so in 2009. In 2014, an Australian solder said he wanted to apologize to the families of five Vietnamese civilians who were “mistakenly killed” by Australian troops in 1967.

According to Reconciliation Australia, the impact of an apology is evidence of the importance of historical acceptance, which is one of the five dimensions we use to describe and measure reconciliation. It also mentions that the former Australian government apologized to Vietnam veterans for the policies of previous governments. No individual Australian was asked to take personal responsibility for actions of past governments. Saying sorry was about acknowledging the pain and suffering of the individuals, their families, and communities.

With reconciliation with Vietnam, Australia will be in a much stronger position to achieve the stated objectives of the White Paper.

Dr. Sayeed Ahmed is a professional consulting engineer and has worked in different regions in South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Australia. He studied in Bangladesh, Thailand and United Kingdom, specializing in infrastructure development, project management and sustainable development.