In 1964, I was witness to another independent Canberra initiative over Vietnam. It was a bizarre attempt by then External Affairs minister, Paul Hasluck, to persuade Moscow to join with the West in Vietnam to stop alleged Chinese aggression.
Cavan Hogue recently on this site (‘Australia did say no to Vietnam in 1954‘) noted how Canberra refused to go along with a US seeking to create a coalition to support the French in Vietnam. He saw it as demonstrating there was a time when Australia had an independent foreign policy.
Just ten years later, in 1964, I was witness to another independent Canberra initiative over Vietnam. It was a bizarre attempt by then External Affairs minister, Paul Hasluck, to persuade Moscow to join with the West in Vietnam to stop alleged Chinese aggression. Some details.
Late October 1964, shortly after the demise of Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, our Moscow Embassy received an urgent cable from Canberra asking us to arrange a meeting for Hasluck with the top Soviet leadership. We were told that he had an important message to deliver.
The reaction from the Soviet side was not encouraging. But Hasluck came anyway. And after waiting several days we were ushered into a Kremlin hall with premier Alexei Kosygin and foreign minister Andrei Gromyko on one side of the standard green baize table; ourselves, Hasluck and I, on the other.
The Chinese were also occupying the former Russian territory of Sinkiang and pressing against Soviet territory in eastern Siberia. We in Australia were even more concerned, with China sponsoring the war in South Vietnam and threatening to move even further south in the direction of Australia.
Kosygin was not impressed. Moscow could handle the war of words with Beijing by itself, he said. As for Sinkiang, that had long been under Chinese control and Moscow was perfectly happy with that. Where did Hasluck get the idea that it was or had been Soviet territory? Gromyko then chimed in to say that he assumed Hasluck was talking about the Soviet Far East (Dalniyi Vostok) and not eastern Siberia. In either case the USSR did not face any Chinese problem.
As for Vietnam, Kosygin said that the USSR would continue to do everything possible to help the brave Vietnamese people in their struggle to resist US aggression. He added: ‘And we wish our Chinese comrades would do much more to help.’
Hasluck realised he was out of his depth. He told me that a report to Canberra about the meeting was not needed. On arrival back in Australia he boasted how he had been the first Western leader to congratulate the new Soviet leadership after Khrushchev’s fall.
Cavan Hogue mentioned how in 1954was influenced by its ties with the UK (which showed little interest in helping French colonialism in Vietnam), and that obedience to US demands came later. But the Hasluck Moscow initiative also was Australia’s own (though there were hints that Washington had endorsed the move). It was the product of the fantasy view of China that had developed in Canberra between 1954 and 1964.
It began with the eruption of the Sino-Soviet dispute in the late fifties, then seen mistakenly as a conflict between Moscow’s moderate form of Communism and Beijing’s more militant version. Then came the October 1962 Sino-Indian frontier clash, provoked by Nehru but seized upon by Western hardliners as proof of Chinese aggression (I have written elsewhere how as China desk officer in Canberra at the time I had the clear information that India had initiated the hostilities. But my report was summarily rejected by the people above me saying they saw it in the Western interest to have the blame poured on China). Soon after, Canberra began issuing warnings that events in Vietnam were the first stage in China’s ‘thrust southwards between the Indian and Pacific oceans, relying in the first instance on its puppets in Hanoi.’ This despite the already available evidence that Hanoi was much more pro-Soviet than pro-China.
Soon and much more sinister Canberra, this time in Washington – at the time our embassy there – Waller and Renouf – were warning that Washington had seemed to be losing interest in its Vietnam intervention. Australia needed to do something – commit troops was one suggested option – to keep the US involved and the Chinese menace at bay.
For me at the time the idea that Canberra’s mistaken view of China could help lead to a meaningless war in which millions of Vietnamese would die, was grotesque. Resigning from External Affairs I set out with great difficulty to write a book ‘In Fear of China’ explaining China’s policies in less than fearsome tones – the Sino Soviet and Sino-Indian disputes especially. I imagined naively that since Canberra’s anti-China complex had helped drag the US into Vietnam then writing something to change than complex might help to put an early end to that war. All I got for my pains was further black-listing in Australia conservative
Later Michael Sexton, working from cables unearthed during the Whitlam years, was able with this 1981 book ‘War for the Asking’ to give a much fuller account of Canberra’s ugly 1964 attempt to drag the US deeper into Vietnam. But even that book did little to shake the popular belief that Australia went into Vietnam solely to support its big and powerful friend in Washington. Few want to realize that Canberra was acting independently, that Australia was a more than willing partner in that war without honour.
Gregory Clark joined the External Affairs department in 1956, with postings to Hongkong (he was the first EA person postwar to be trained in Chinese) and Moscow. After resigning in 1965 he moved to Japan where has been closely involved as a commentator and educationalist (president of Tama University and joint-founder of a very successful liberal arts university in Akita).