A Figure of Speech

Freudenberg with Whitlam on his 70th birthday in Paris, 1986.

Freudenberg with Whitlam on his 70th birthday in Paris, 1986.

Like the invasion of Iraq 40 years later, Australia’s war in Vietnam began with lies. As with Iraq, the Australian electorate accepted the lies, almost as willing accomplices, and for the same overriding reason: support for the American alliance at all costs.

Between 1964 and 1975, I wrote perhaps 30 major speeches on Vietnam for Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam. All these speeches wrestled with an insoluble dilemma: how to oppose American intervention in Vietnam without opposing America; how to denounce the war without denouncing the United States.

The fundamental text of Australia’s war in Vietnam is contained in a cable from the Australian Embassy in Washington to Canberra in May 1964. It was first revealed when the Whitlam Government issued the White Paper on Australia’s Military Commitment to Vietnam exactly 11 years later:

South Vietnam is an area in which Australia can, without disproportionate expenditure, pick up a lot of credit with the United States. Our objective should be to achieve such habitual closeness with the United States and a sense of mutual reliance that in our time of need – such as a crisis in our relations with Indonesia – the United States would have little option but to respond as we would want.


In a very real sense, 50,000 Australian troops were sent to Vietnam and 500 died there as a result of 15 years of political rhetoric. At the heart of this rhetoric was fear of China. The interlocking notions that China was the expansionary communist power in Asia and must be stopped by entangling the United States on the Asian mainland had pervaded the nation’s attitudes at every level.

On the morning of 29 April, 1965 Alan Reid, tipped off by his Cabinet leak, William McMahon, broke the story in The Daily Telegraph that Australia would send a battalion of combat troops to Vietnam. The decision had been preceded by an orchestrated effort to switch public attention from Indonesia towards Vietnam. Thus The Age on 20 January stated, ‘Confrontation may be closer to home, but the situation in South Vietnam poses a more immediate threat to Australia’s strategic situation against the downward sweep of China into South-East Asia’.

The decision to send combat troops had in fact been made in principle in December 1964; it had been kept the closest of national secrets. Reid’s scoop caused immense embarrassment in Canberra because Australia’s contribution to the American effort had not been cleared with its nominal beneficiaries, the Government of South Vietnam. It was important for Sir Robert Menzies to be able to say that the decision was in response to an invitation from Saigon, not pressure from Washington.

After a flurry of cables between Canberra and Saigon, Menzies was able to announce to Parliament at 8:00pm, ‘The Australian Government is now in receipt of a request from the Government of South Vietnam for further military assistance.’ He then quoted a letter from US President Lyndon Johnson that began, ‘I am delighted at the decision of your Government to provide an infantry battalion for service in South Vietnam at the request of the Government of South Vietnam.’

When the full extent of the deception was revealed in the Pentagon Papers in June 1971, Menzies brushed it aside with the comment, ‘I do not respond to stolen documents.’

The drumming up of the ‘request’ and the delay in its arrival at about 6:00pm had caused chaos. Menzies, through the Leader of the House, Harold Holt, had advised Calwell and Whitlam that they could safely depart for Sydney, where they attended the final rally for the NSW State election. Thus, for the most important statement made in Parliament during Menzies’ peace-time prime ministership, the Leader of the Opposition and his deputy were absent. Frank Crean was left in charge and merely moved that the statement be noted.

I had stayed in Canberra and issued a statement on behalf of Calwell that the Leader of the Opposition would make Labor’s response in Parliament on the following Tuesday, 4 May. Incredible as it seems today, the press let it go at that, and for the next five days the Gallery made no demands for a statement of Labor’s policy.

Having performed my duty as press secretary, I turned to the speech. There was in fact never any doubt about our response. Labor had supported Australia’s participation in Korea in 1950 because it was conducted under a resolution of the United Nations Security Council. Without UN authority, Labor support for Vietnam was impossible. That much was simple. The difficulty lay in the terms in which our inevitable opposition would be couched.

For Calwell, the fact that conscripts might become involved further simplified the issue – he had always been passionately opposed to conscription. Apart from Calwell, I consulted two people as I prepared his speech – Jim Cairns, who had already made several perceptive speeches about Indo-China, and Whitlam’s private secretary, John Menadue. Whitlam himself had opposed American intervention without the United Nations ever since the French defeat in 1954.

My task was to bring these clear and consistent attitudes together in a single, comprehensive speech. This is an edited version:

Therefore, I say, we oppose this decision firmly and completely.


We do not think it is a wise decision. We do not think it is a timely decision. We do not think it is a right decision. We do not think it will help the fight against Communism. On the contrary, we believe it will harm that fight in the long term. We do not believe it will promote the welfare of the people of Vietnam. On the contrary, we believe it will prolong and deepen the suffering of that unhappy people so that Australia’s very name may become a term of reproach among them

We of the Labor Party do not believe that this decision serves, or is consistent with, the immediate strategic interests of Australia. On the contrary, we believe that, by sending one quarter of our pitifully small effective military strength to distant Vietnam, this Government dangerously denudes Australia and its immediate strategic environs of effective defence power. Thus, for all these and other reasons, we believe we have no choice but to oppose this decision in the name of Australia and of Australia’s security

It is a gross and misleading oversimplification to depict this war in simple terms of military aggression from the North. That there has long been, and still is, aggression from the North and subversion inspired from the North, I do not for one moment deny. But the war in South Vietnam, the war to which we are sending this one battalion as a beginning in our commitment, is also a civil war and it is a guerrilla war.

Humiliation for America could come in one of two ways – either by outright defeat, which is unlikely, or by her becoming interminably bogged down in the awful morass of this war, as France was for ten years. That situation would in turn lead to one of two things – withdrawal through despair, or all out war through despair. Both these would be equally disastrous.

What would be the objective of an all out war? It could only be the destruction of the North Vietnamese regime. And what would that create? It would create a vacuum. America can destroy the regime, but it cannot conquer and hold North Vietnam, and into that vacuum China would undoubtedly move. Thus, if that happened, we would have replaced a nationalistic communist regime – in a country with a thousand years’ history of hostility towards China – with actual Chinese occupation, and either we would have to accept this disaster or face the even greater disaster of all out war with China…

I cannot close without addressing a word directly to our fighting men who are now by this decision committed to the chances of war: our hearts and prayers are with you. Our minds and reason cannot support those who have made the decision to send you to this war, and we shall do our best to have that decision reversed.

To the members of the Government, I say only this: If, by the process of misrepresentation of our motives, in which you are so expert, you try to further divide this nation for political purposes, yours will be a dreadful responsibility, and you will have taken a course which you will live to regret.

And may I, through you, Mr Speaker, address this message to the members of my own party – my colleagues here in this Parliament, and that vast band of Labor men and women outside: the course we have agreed to take today is fraught with difficulty. I cannot promise you that easy popularity can be bought in times like these; nor are we looking for it. We are doing our duty as we see it. When the drums beat and the trumpets sound, the voice of reason and right can be heard in the land only with difficulty. But if we are to have the courage of our convictions, then we must do our best to make that voice heard.

I offer you the probability that you will be traduced, that your motives will be misrepresented, that your patriotism will be impugned, that your courage will be called into question. But I also offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated; that generations to come will record with gratitude that when a reckless Government willfully endangered the security of this nation, the voice of the Australian Labor Party was heard, strong and clear, on the side of sanity and in the cause of humanity, and in the interest of Australia’s security.

The later reputation of this speech rests mainly on the accuracy of its predictions. To state in 1965 that there was the remotest chance of an American defeat was to invite ridicule. Menzies himself summed up the general reaction when he finished his reply to Calwell by saying, ‘If I may end on a horribly political note, it is a good thing occasionally to be in a big majority.’

The speech did, however, achieve its immediate political purpose: the Labor Party was able to unite around it. The Federal Conference, held at Sydney’s Hellenic Club in June 1965, adopted the speech in toto as the party’s policy on Vietnam.

This is an edited extract of A Figure of Speech by Graham Freudenberg (John Wiley & Sons Ltd).

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