RICHARD BROINOWSKI. Series. We can say ‘no’ to the Americans

How Bill Hayden stood up to the Americans on Vietnam. 

Some contributors have given examples of us saying  ‘no’ to the Americans. Here is another, relating to Vietnam. Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia on Christmas Day 1978 was greeted with condemnation by the United States, China, the countries of ASEAN (except Indonesia) and Australia. The theory still alive in conservative western think tanks was that Hanoi, on behalf of Beijing and Moscow, had territorial designs on the rest of South East Asia.  Deeply immersed in his Cold War phase, Malcolm Fraser promptly took in anti-communist Vietnamese refugees, but wound back our limited efforts to restore Australia’s post-war relations with Vietnam and put post-war reparations in deep freeze.

Bob Hawke came to power after the 1983 elections, and his new Foreign Minister, Bill Hayden, reversed Fraser’s policies. Hayden wanted Australia to start an aid program, kick start bilateral trade stalled by the war, and finish all the unfinished business left by the war – hand back our properties in Saigon to Hanoi, conduct a missing in action mission, examine the lingering effects of Agent Orange (on Aussie troops, not yet, regrettably, on the Vietnamese civilian population). Hayden’s initiatives were received coldly by most of Australia’s neighbours, and by the United States Administration, particularly Reagan’s newly-appointed Secretary of State George P. Shultz. Shultz thought Hayden was naive if not mad. But Hayden persisted, the only concession he made to American sensitivities being to slide our aid package under a United Nations label.

Hayden’s plan of action was also greeted with scorn and scepticism by many senior officials in Canberra who shared a reductionist interpretation of Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia. So did staff in the Australian Embassy in Bangkok. About the only intelligence agency in Canberra who agreed with the view that Vietnam had invaded temporarily in order to remove Pol Pot was the then Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO). Of course, Shultz was proved to be wrong about Vietnamese intentions, but the fact that Hayden had stood up to Washington on this very substantial  issue left no lasting animosity on the relationship. 

Richard Broinowski was Australian Ambassador to Vietnam from 1983 to 1985 

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