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Left-wing critique of US alliance is a little hit and myth

A scene from the documentary <em>All the Way</em>,  which aired on ABC1 last Thursday.

A scene from the documentary All the Way, which aired on ABC1 last Thursday.

The Australian-American Alliance is a constant feature of national politics since at least the Pacific War and certainly since the formalisation of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951. Even so, it remains central to the contemporary political debate.

On the ABC TV Four Corners program last night, Major-General John Cantwell reflected on the challenges he faced when commanding forces in Afghanistan. The retired general wondered how he could tell individual soldiers and their families that serving alongside NATO forces in Afghanistan was worth it in view of the potential sacrifice involved. However, he acknowledged that "at the highest level of strategy" the Australian-American alliance, and the mutual obligations that go with it, are of importance to Australia.

In yesterday's Australian, Sydney University historian James Curran described the tension that developed between the then-new Whitlam Labor government and the Nixon administration in 1973 and early 1974. This led the Americans to query the value of the alliance and to consider the re-location of US intelligence-gathering installations located in Australia.

These were the darkest years of the alliance and reflected the fact that many, but by no means all, senior Labor Party figures either queried the value of, or were opposed to, the alliance. Nowadays no one in the Labor caucus would fit this description, and opposition to the alliance finds expression within sections of the Greens and among some leftist groups.

As a general rule, Australians do not have to check the calendar to learn that it's getting close to Anzac Day. ABC TV and/or radio invariably obliges with a documentary overwhelmingly critical of Australia's involvement in one or more military commitments. This fits with the familiar left-wing line that Australia has fought other people's wars.

Certainly this was the case with the Vietnam War documentary All the Way, which aired on ABC1 last Thursday. Presenter and co-writer Paul Ham concluded the documentary in the language of the other-people's-wars brigade. According to Ham: "In the end we lost what we hoped for. America retreated across the Pacific and Australia faced an uncertain future in Asia. The Vietnam War dragged us screaming and kicking to an obvious reality that we are part of Asia and that we can only rely on ourselves for our security. And yet we fight on in new wars with old allies - still in the dark, still trusting our friends." The reference was to Afghanistan.

All the Way was based on Paul Ham's Vietnam: The Australian War, published in 2007. Like the documentary, Ham's book contains valuable information along with some valid criticisms about how the US military fought the war and how the Australian Coalition government at the time failed to adequately explain the conflict.

However there is a significant difference in content and tone between the book and the film, perhaps explained by the fact that former ABC staffer and documentary maker Anne Delaney directed and co-wrote All the Way.

All the Way runs familiar criticisms of Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies. According to the documentary, Menzies "claimed the double red/yellow peril was on our doorstep". Yet Menzies never referred to the "yellow peril".

In fact, Australia's military commitments during the time of the Menzies government supported some Asian governments against some Asian communist or extreme nationalist regimes or movements - namely in the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, Indonesia's Confrontation of Malaysia and Vietnam.

All the Way also claimed that the Americans forced "conscription on Canberra" because the US wanted more American troops in Vietnam. This is mythology. Conscription for overseas services was introduced in November 1964, well before Australia decided to send combat forces to South Vietnam. Also, as Peter Edwards makes clear in the 1992 official history Crises and Commitments, the prime reason for conscription was to help Britain defend Malaysia against an attack from Indonesia, and to help defend Papua New Guinea.

Moreover, as Craig Stockings points out in his edited collection Anzac's Dirty Dozen (2012), the commitment was entered into "not out of any misguided loyalty or foreign coercion, but as a consequence of cold self-interest".

In 1965, Australia was genuinely worried about the military designs of the nationalist Sukarno regime in Indonesia. Menzies and others believed that if Australia supported the US in Vietnam, then the US was more likely to support Australia against Indonesian militarism in the region.

Successive Australian leaders - with the exception of Whitlam in the early 1970s - have embraced the US alliance because they believed it in Australia's national interest. This was the case in Vietnam. It remains the case concerning Afghanistan.

There were many Vietnamese who supported the US and Australia at the time. Just as there are many Afghans who support NATO's involvement today.

But you would never know this from viewing the Ham/Delaney documentary All the Way, or many like it.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute

twitter Follow the National Times on Twitter: @NationalTimesAU

Correction: The original version of this story said that Anne Delaney is an ABC staffer rather than a former staffer.


  • The alliance with America has positive and as well as negative aspects. The one thing history over the last hundred years has convincingly demonstrated is that the democratic nations either stick together or go under one at a time.

    Date and time
    April 17, 2012, 7:44AM
    • Name one democratic nation that has "gone under" in the last hundred years.

      Date and time
      April 17, 2012, 9:38AM
    • Seriously can't think of any democratic nations that have "gone under", either been conquered from without or been overtaken from within by non-democratic forces?

      Did you ever hear about the 2nd world war? Or study any 20th century history? There are more examples than you poke a stick at.

      Date and time
      April 17, 2012, 10:37AM
    • Domer you really should invest in a public library card, they are free by the way.

      Date and time
      April 17, 2012, 11:18AM
    • East Germany seems like an obvious answer.

      Date and time
      April 17, 2012, 12:00PM
    • Can you please save me the hassle and name one for me? Looks like Christian has voted for Poland, a democratic country that still exists. Or is East Germany, an undemocratic country that doesnt?

      I take the point, and agree, that alliances like ANZUS serve many purposes and I would agree that their benefits outweigh the cons. It is a giant stretch to say that democracies are doomed without them.

      Date and time
      April 17, 2012, 12:09PM
    • At the risk of being pedantic, Poland in 1939 was hardly democratic but Czechoslovakia was one of the more liberal, democratic countries at the time. It was cynically sacrificed to the dictators at Munich and there is almost universal agreement that had Great Britain & France stood up to Hitler at the time world history would have taken a different course.

      Date and time
      April 17, 2012, 1:15PM
    • I would suggest that the following democratic states have 'gone down' to aggression from either imperialistic or totalitarian states.
      Neutral Belgium 1914 largely occupied by Imperial Germany.
      Won't bother with the Baltic States, democratic regimes collapsed before annexation by the USSR
      Austria 1938 occupied by Nazi Germany
      Czechoslovakia 1938 occupied by Nazi Germany, won't bother with the Prague Spring or Hungarian uprising, too messy.
      Spain 1936 democratic government destroyed by facist intervention from Italy and Germany
      Finland 1940 invaded and forced to ceed territory by USSR.
      Poland 1940 invaded by USSR and Nazi Germany
      Neutral Norway'
      Neutral Denmark
      Neutral Holland
      France all 1940 invaded by Nazi Germany
      Greece 1941 invaded by Nazi Germany

      With the possible exception of Finland it is unlikely any of these nations would have regained their status as a independent democratic states without the remaining democratic states forming an alliance system.

      Date and time
      April 17, 2012, 1:41PM
    • Thanks Steven, saved me the effort.

      It's sufficient to say that no nation can survive alone without allies.

      Countries with similar political systems are good candidates for alliances, because they tend to share similar political values, as well as legitimising each other's existence and their people tend to ethically identifying with one another (do unto others...) more easily.

      All that is being said really, is that democracies are no different from other countries in these respects.

      Date and time
      April 17, 2012, 2:07PM
    • Chrisitan it is hard to believe that one even has to go to the trouble of making such list. This determination of the left to airbrush out inconvenient history always reminds me of Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia' (hardly a rightwing text) which gives a good insight into how the process works. Take for instances BillR's claim below that
      Australian 'con politicians' were in cohoots with CIA drug runners. He can't produce any real evidence, so when challenged, he starts talking about something else entirely and making comparisons to a Christmas carol of all things.

      Date and time
      April 17, 2012, 2:34PM

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