Ignoring diplomatic advice with disastrous consequences

Nov 19, 2020

Remembering Harold David Anderson OBE AO

David Anderson was a meritorious Australian who brought great distinction and much honour to his country. Anderson displayed strong ethical and moral courage in his realistic pessimism over Vietnam at a time when his views were not always welcomed in Canberra.

Anderson was born in Semaphore, South Australia on 6 September 1923. A brilliant student, he gained a scholarship to the prestigious St Peter’s College where he topped his state in Latin. He also spoke French fluently. In early 1942, aged 18, he enlisted in the militia from Mount Gambier then transferred to the Australian Imperial Force later the same year. After training, he joined a commando unit disembarking at Port Moresby on 6 December 1943. It was a brief yet eventful war for him. On contracting (benign) malaria, he was evacuated to Australia on 14 March 1944 and was discharged on 1 June to join the External Affairs Department.

Diplomatic staff cadet Anderson was in the second intake of the nascent scheme and was the only South Australian entrant for the class of 1944. He resumed his university studies to graduate from the University of Melbourne. A distinguished career was pursued until he retired in 1987. Throughout his career, he was posted to Paris (1947-49), Karachi (1949-50), Noumea (1950-53), Phnom Penh (1955-57), Tokyo (1957-58), Saigon (1964-66), Paris (1973-78), the UN in New York (1978-82), and Brussels (1983-87).

Between postings, he often returned to his department in Canberra where he discharged senior responsible roles. In 1963, marked as a high flier, he attended the Imperial Defence College in London. Two decades on from WWII, he studied high command policy, global strategy, and regional threats.

Ambassador Anderson arrived in Saigon on 1 March 1964 to replace his fellow entrant Brian Hill (1961-64). Both were early sceptics of the war and its progress, such as it was. Their prescient doubts troubled Canberra, and they would soon be disabused. Minister Paul Hasluck was alarmed by the tone of Anderson’s political reporting. Hasluck thought that Anderson was unduly aloof and academic. Secretary Sir Arthur Tange was equally perturbed. Bill Forsyth, Hills’s predecessor (1959-1961), was also critical of the Vietnam War, for which his career suffered.  Australian ambassadors were despatched to Vietnam to support the South Vietnamese government and the escalating American presence. They were expected to toe the company line, despite their personal misgivings. Tange once briefed Hill on his appointment: “Support Diem, support the Americans.”

In 1958, former Minister for External Affairs Richard Casey told all his heads of mission to publicly support US foreign policy worldwide. It was not to be criticised, despite any private views about its direction and whether it compromised Australia’s own independence to act. Casey’s message was clear and direct: “We should do what we can to bolster up American prestige.”

Yet Washington was candid with Canberra on some aspects of their thinking. Prime Minister Menzies met with US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at the Pentagon in June 1962 on the eve of Australia’s initial and fateful contribution to support Saigon, and by implication, America’s mounting concern over the Communist insurgency. McNamara confided to Menzies that there would be no resort to nuclear weapons in any Southeast Asia combat.

Hill presaged the dilemma of Vietnam in the Australian-American relationship. Reporting from Saigon in late 1963, Hill surmised that Australia should not be over-impressed by the early indications that Washington sought Canberra’s help. In its subsequent irony, Hill relayed that some concern has been expressed about what the Pentagon regarded as a lack of official effort in Australia to prepare the Australian people psychologically for the much greater efforts – and sacrifices – they were likely to be called upon to make for the defence of Southeast Asia, and by extension, Australia itself.

In August 1964, Anderson cabled a report to Canberra on the recurring crises in South Vietnamese politics, recommending caution in Australian aid policy because of the possibility of a swing in Vietnam towards neutralism, accommodation with the Viet Cong, and an eventual Viet Cong take over. Hasluck wanted happy talk and he asked Tange to send a message to Anderson suggesting he was under no correction or reproof, to help him to keep in mind that what the Australian government wanted to know was how the dominant Australian interests could be served.

Tange sent the required message without Hasluck’s invitation to Anderson to report accurately and clearly, according to his own observation. As a consequence, Anderson believed he had received a ministerial rebuke, and a follow-up message in January 1965 affirmed that his reservations were not welcome in Canberra. Manifestly, this was an environment in which dissent, exploration of options, and lateral thinking were not encouraged. Men who for years had been encouraged to apply intelligence found themselves shut off, discouraged from expressing themselves, and frequently rebuked.

Anderson was sent to Vietnam to defend and assert Australian foreign policy. In late 1965, he attended a key meeting in Saigon whose US participants included McNamara, General William Westmoreland, the military commander, Admiral Ulysses Sharpe, the Pacific commander, General  Earle Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Chastened for his honest reporting earlier and its resultant criticism, Anderson admitted to all attendees that the views he expounded were merely personal. McNamara sought comments from Anderson into the current military and political situation to which Anderson responded that Communist forces still seemed to hold the strategic initiative in the greater part of the country, outside the immediate areas occupied by United States forces. Wheeler, Sharpe, and Westmoreland did not contest his position.

In reply, McNamara also agreed generally with Anderson’s insights on the future development and final outcome of the war. McNamara stated the choice for the United States, as he saw it, was between putting in still more troops – Vietnamese, Americans, and others or accepting eventual defeat. The United States would not accept defeat. In a decade, McNamara would be disabused for his optimism, and he would end up on the wrong side of history.  Anderson had read the winds beforehand.

Due to his health, Anderson’s posting was not extended, and he left Saigon in mid-1966. Arriving in Sydney, via Hong Kong on the passenger freighter Taiyuan, he was met by the press and a departmental representative. The media were instructed not to ask the ambassador any questions about the war. Canberra had every confidence in their ambassador to Saigon, and for this, he was awarded an OBE (Officer in the Order of the British Empire) in June 1966.

From 1968-1970, Anderson was posted to Paris as the Australian Observer to the Vietnam Peace Talks. The North Vietnamese made long arguments over table-seating socio-metrics. Anderson did not enjoy his role at the margins of the talks. He visited the embassy to send his reports but was cautious with the staff and the press.

Anderson’s posting to Paris as ambassador from 1973-1978 was not without controversy, and it was needlessly delayed. Appointed by the Labor government, under Gough Whitlam, Anderson served during a period when France was conducting nuclear tests in their parish in the South Pacific.  France was obliged to remind itself that many Australians had died in two world wars in defence of their liberty.

Anderson led an active life following retirement in 1987 as a deputy secretary. He showed sound leadership with the AIIA and undertook several consultancies. The award of an AO (Officer in the Order of Australia) in 1980 was a fitting tribute to a remarkable career.

While he ceased to make any detailed comments on public policy in his nineties, he still took an interest in political events and in the current history of foreign relations. Anderson died in Sydney, aged 96, on 17 June 2020.

Michael Fogarty is a former naval officer and diplomat. He served in the Australian Embassy Hanoi from 1980-81.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.

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