55 Years since the Menzies Government Deployed Troops to Vietnam and Australians still don’t know how to Respond

“It is our judgement that the decision to commit a battalion in South Vietnam… The takeover of South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia…  It must be seen as part of a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.” – Prime Minister Robert Menzies

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Front cover of The Sun newspaper, April 29 1965, announcing the Menzies decision to send Australian soldiers to Vietnam.

It’s been 55 years since Menzies announced to a near empty parliament his decision to deploy an Australian Battalion to Vietnam on the 29th of April, 1964. In his announcement, Menzies claimed, “The Australian Government is now ill receipt of a request from the Government of South Vietnam for further military assistance. We have decided-and this has been after close consultation with the Government of the United States-to provide an infantry battalion for service in South Vietnam.” 

The Australian public was misled into believing the South Vietnamese Government requested Australian aid when in fact, negotiations had the Vietnamese Government and American representative, Maxwell Taylor, reluctant to accept Australian offer of troops. The Vietnamese government was eventually persuaded to accept Menzies offer. It is commonly theorised that PM Menzies was driven by a political motivation: to strengthen military relations with the USA in case of a threat of communism. 

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In response to the question of the necessity of Australian aid in the Vietnam War, anti-war movements, such as the Save our Sons movement, protested against conscription. Jean McLean founded the Save our Sons movement,  composed mainly of middle-aged women with sons at risk. The country wide questioning of the motivation behind sending in Australian troops only exacerbated the protest against risking young Australian men’s lives. 

This image shows Jean McLean in a brawl with police at a demonstration in 1971. McLean was arrested on multiple occasions and once jailed for her anti-war agenda. In April, 1971, McLean, as well as four other women referred to as the Fairlea Five, served 10 days in the Fairlea Women’s Prison for trespassing in Flinders St Conscription Office. The Australian public was so enraged with their imprisonment that the Five were released before completing their sentence.

Jean Mclean in brawl with police, 1917

People went so far as to publicly deny their call to civil duty in protest of Australia’s involvement in the war. Bill White, a Sydney school teacher before he was conscripted, was the first Australian conscientious objector of the Vietnam war. This image includes Bill White and other conscientious objectors who followed in his footsteps, protesting against the conscription. 

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Bill White and other conscientious objectors protesting against conscription

In video footage of a protest he says, “I do not intend to comply with the call-up notice and I do not intend to present myself to the military or to obey any orders of a military nature.” He went on to say, “People saw that maybe the government isn’t always right. Maybe we can do something against what the government’s telling us to do, and still be loyal Australians, and yet refusing certain parts of what they were asking us to do.” Such a message questioned the Menzies government in their decision to send Australian troops to aid the south Vietnamese. White spoke of his unwillingness to be part of the Australian ‘war-machine’ but that this did not take away from the fact that he was a loyal Australian.  He did not believe sending troops to Vietnam was necessary for Australian safety of benefit and strongly agreed with the government’s decision, taking on the risk of imprisonment. 

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White challenged the decision to deploy Australian troops alongside the Save our Sons movement. Whilst the Australian government was seemingly desperate for military involvement, it was the Australian public, those conscripted and their families, who protested and disobeyed military orders. The politically based decision of the Menzies Government to send troops to Vietnam was strongly contrasted with the public’s protest. The government’s perspective decided it was worth the risk to send troops whilst the public disagreed. These perspectives are telling of the political ramifications of war, particularly how war is so often manipulated by the powerful and used advantageously. 

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Published by Zoe

A sub-par writer, musician and student who manages to have both crippling self esteem and the biggest ego of all time.

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