The Decade of Silence


In the 1970s, Vietnam veterans were not merely silent: they were silenced. The general public had grown weary of the war by the beginning of the decade, their feelings demonstrated in a series of opinion polls and election results. For Australians, war was supposed to mean the Anzac legend, the heroics of World War One and the national unity of World War Two. The Vietnam years replaced that legend with an unpleasant new reality: division and disharmony at home, and indeterminate goals with indistinct prospects of victory in the war itself, all brought into the family home via television. There was little reason to want to go on remembering Vietnam after the public had had its say in the 1972 federal election. Vietnam veterans found any expression of their own experiences and views of the war decidedly unwelcome.

The two sides of politics had their own reasons to contribute to the decade of silence. For the Right, the commitment of Australian combat troops, and especially conscripts, to Vietnam was a major reason for their loss of the political ascendancy after 23 years. Discredited by the events of the Seventies for their stance on the war, their own political ends could best be served if Vietnam remained off the public and political agenda and Vietnam veterans remained silent.

For the Left, the ideology of the anti-war movement held no place for Vietnam veterans except as dupes or pawns in the game of global politics. The movement had been a training ground for a decade of activism on a variety of issues, to which the Left was able to move on after its anti-war aims had been achieved with the election of the Whitlam government in 1972. The New Left ideology included a questioning of the militarism which had contributed to Australian notions of nationhood. Vietnam veterans represented a reminder of those old values and a reminder of Australias involvement in a discredited war. The nature of the regime established in Vietnam after the war may have created its own doubts regarding the activities of the anti-war movement.

On the evidence of available texts, the prevailing trend in the history profession in Australia in the 1970s was to share the ideology of the New Left. The move was towards social history, with an emphasis on historical stories which had not previously been told. Paradoxically though, this trend appeared to preclude the possibility of a backward glance to ensure that nobody was being left behind. In the ideological and political context of the Australian history profession in the 1970s, Vietnam veterans managed to slip through the net.

There was no conscious conspiracy against Vietnam veterans in the 1970s. The forces which shaped the decade of silence acted separately, connected to each other by their unintended effect on Vietnam veterans. An accumulation of factors made Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War something the nation preferred not to talk about. It seemed that Australia wanted to forget Vietnam, and the very existence of Vietnam veterans was a potential hindrance to the nation's collective amnesia. They had to be swept under the carpet and kept out of sight so that the nation could forget, and perhaps find the time to allow its wounds to heal. To return again to the words of Ann Curthoys, Vietnam veterans "could not be remembered as Australian soldiers from previous wars could be remembered". (1)

The lack of conspiracy, however does not preclude the operation of powerful interests in the silencing of the Vietnam veterans. Their exclusion by the very institutions which had been created to serve war veterans is a prime example of the operation of dominant discourses elaborated by Michel Foucault. The response of the veterans, the establishment of the VVAA, constituted a counter-discourse, with its own delimitations, definitions, norms and prescriptions and demands for the inclusion of these within the established discourse.

When Curthoys noted the absence of a contemporaneous Vietnam veteran voice in the Seventies, she was referring to a number of oral histories based on interviews conducted with veterans in the Eighties and Nineties. There is no doubt, however, that the feelings expressed in those interviews were strongly held in the Seventies, even if they could not be spoken. If the anger and frustration of the veterans tended to be badly targeted, then the reason is surely that the true cause of their feelings of betrayal and rejection seemed impossible to lay a hand on. Veterans may well lash out verbally at the protesters, or at certain trade unionists and students, when the real culprit seems invisible: the atmosphere of the times, a feeling, an intangible impression that caused Vietnam veterans to feel that they had been squeezed out of the public, political and historical discourse of the decade. These feelings were fully justified in a context created by real historical forces and real ideological and political interests. Perhaps, for Vietnam veterans, they may lose some of their sting now that their underlying causes have been examined and brought into the open.


1. Ann Curthoys, "'Vietnam': Public Memory of an Anti-War Movement", Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton (eds.), "Memory and History in Twentieth-Century Australia", Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1994, p.131.