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Lachlan Irvine

This paper argues that the experience of Australia's Vietnam veterans was largely written out of Australian history in the 1970s, the decade in which Australia ended its involvement in the Vietnam War. It examines the development of Australian history in this period in order to suggest reasons why this might be the case. Its author is a Vietnam veteran, who was National Secretary of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia during the peak years of the Agent Orange controversy in the 1980s, and was also one of the initiators of the Welcome Home Parade for Australian Vietnam veterans, held in Sydney in 1987. He has been a spokesman for Australian Vietnam veterans at similar events in the United States, and held positions in organisations such as Legacy, Australian Veterans and Defence Services Council, Australian Vietnam War Veterans Trust, and Vietnam Veterans Job Link Program.

The term "trahison des clercs" is taken from the title of a 1928 publication by Julien Benda, which analysed the role of French intellectuals in the "Dreyfus Affair". It is used to describe the consequences that can follow when intellectuals remain silent on important issues. This certainly cannot be said of Australian intellectuals, including historians, during the Vietnam War. The war was characterised by one of the most robust intellectual debates in Australian history. The issue of concern here, however, is not the war itself, but rather the years which followed, the years in which the Vietnam War moved from a current event to a subject of historical study.

The decade 1971-1980 saw the Vietnam War enter the pages of Australian history. It was the decade in which Australia made its historic decision to withdraw from the war, and the decade in which the war ended. Within the historical discourse, it was a decade in which the scope of history broadened to include categories, classes and groups of Australians which had previously been excluded, or whose contribution to the nation's history had previously been undervalued. It is a striking paradox therefore, that Vietnam veterans should find themselves excluded from Australian history at the same time as the history profession was becoming increasingly and self-consciously inclusive. The journal "Historical Studies" is generally regarded as the flagship of the Australian history profession (1). To this day, in 1999, 37 years after the beginning of Australian involvement in Vietnam, 34 years after that involvement was upgraded to include combat units, 26 years after the last Australians were withdrawn from Vietnam, and 24 years after the war ended, "Historical Studies" has not published a single article about Australia and the Vietnam war. Since the Vietnam War was arguably the most important historical event for a whole generation of Australians, this absence is worthy of investigation.

Prior to Vietnam, war had been an important part of Australian history-making and nation-building. A close reading of the historical journals and history books published in Australia in the seventies demonstrates that the status of war in the Australian historical discourse had changed in a way that effectively removed the experience of the third generation of Anzacs in Vietnam from the historical record.

Works of general Australian history published in the 1970s include F. K. Crowley's "A New History of Australia" (1974) and John Ritchie's "Australia: as once we were" (1975), while several older works were updated and reprinted, including Russel Ward's "Australia: A Short History" (1965, revised in 1975), R. M. Crawford's "Australia" (1952, revised in 1979), and Gordon Greenwood's "Australia: A Social and Political History" (1955, revised in 1975). In all of these works, coverage of the Vietnam War conforms to a formula which could not have been more striking had it been deliberate.

The first feature of the formula is the limit which all of these historians have placed on the amount of information they reveal about Australia's involvement in Vietnam. All report the decisions by Prime Minister Menzies to introduce conscription and to send combat troops to Vietnam in 1965. All report the decisions by Prime Minister Holt, in 1966 to increase Australia's commitment and include conscripts, and in 1967 to escalate the commitment to its maximum level of about 8,000 service personnel. Crowley and Ritchie very briefly refer to the fact that Australia had in fact entered the war by sending military advisers in 1962 (2). It is no small matter that the pre-1965 commitment is apparently considered by historians to be optional and only worthy of a single sentence by those who do choose to mention it. The advisers whose service began in 1962 were members of the Australian Army Training Team in Vietnam (A.A.T.T.V.), the most highly decorated unit in Australian military history. Crowley's index lists three references to the Victoria Cross, none of them related to Vietnam, despite the fact that the A.A.T.T.V. won more Victoria Crosses per capita than any unit in the two world wars.

Australia's involvement in Vietnam ended when the last troops returned in January 1973. This is not mentioned in any of the Australian histories from the seventies. Ward does refer to the decision by Prime Minister McMahon in 1971 to begin a gradual withdrawal, although he omits the information that McMahon's decision referred only to combat units, and that other Australians would remain in Vietnam for a further year and a half. The inability of historians to record the correct opening and closing dates of Australia's involvement in Vietnam is significant for the message it sends to Vietnam veterans, whose need for a symbolic closure of their Vietnam experience was one of the reasons they felt it necessary to stage their own Welcome Home Parade in 1987 . For the record, the duration of Australia's involvement in Vietnam was 1962-1973.

The portrayal of experience provides one of the more notable contrasts between the coverage of Vietnam and other wars in all of the histories in this study. The following passage from Crowley evokes for the reader something of what it felt like to be a digger in Egypt in 1915, preparing for the battles that lay ahead: "Their training was tough. They criss-crossed the desert, humping rifle and bayonet and pack and waterbottle, their horses dragging supply carts and cannon. They fought mock battles in the sand, bivouacked on sand, and dragged 'home' wearily through still more sand". (6)

There is no corresponding interest in the feelings of Australians in Vietnam, even during the decade in which historians were increasingly turning to personal experience in their quest to discover new, previously untold Australian stories. Other notable absences from the histories in this study include the battles, the personalities, and the achievements of Vietnam.

In a general history of Australia, such as Crowley's, it is as easy to find the names of soldiers (Monash, Birdwood and Blamey for example), as it is to find the names of campaigns and battles such as Gallipoli, Tobruk and Kokoda. (7) In contrast to his scant coverage of the Vietnam War, Crowley's index heading "War of 1914-1918" has numerous sub-headings, including: "general", "outbreak of", "support for", "opposition to", "campaigns and battles", "casualties", "recreation of soldiers", "distinctions earned", "part played by women", and many others. Similarly, in the listings under "War of 1939-1945", the sub-headings include "general", "outbreak of", "enlistments", "campaigns and battles of", "atrocities of", casualties", "part played by women", and numerous others. This is a clear illustration of the different values given to Australia's wartime experiences as history-making and nation-building events. The Vietnam experience is not valued in the same way as that of Australians serving in the world wars. It is undeniably true, however, that the approximately 50,000 Australians who served in Vietnam also had their "campaigns and battles", "casualties", "distinctions earned", and "part played by women". Even in the Spanish Civil War, a war in which Australia did not participate as a nation, Crowley informs his readers that some Australians "joined the International Brigade, a few being killed in the fighting". (8) He does not bother to mention that any Australians died or were even involved in the fighting in Vietnam.

The formula followed by historians recording the Vietnam War in Australian history appears to preclude the use of any photographs to illustrate Australians serving in Vietnam. As with other elements of the formula, this ban does not apply to the reporting of other wars. Strangely though, there is no such reluctance to use photographs illustrating the American experience in Vietnam, even in an Australian history. As recently as 1995, in Joy Damousi and Marilyn Lake's "Gender and War", despite its subtitle, "Australians at War in the Twentieth Century", the only illustration from the Vietnam War is a picture of an American soldier. (9)

John Ritchie's use of photographs is particularly interesting and, from the point of view of Australians who served in Vietnam, particularly insulting. Between the text on pages 243 and 246 of Australia: as once we were, two pages are entirely taken up by a photograph of a protest rally, in which the slogans on about sixty protest banners can easily be read. The contrast between this graphic representation of the protest message and Ritchie's tiny coverage of a few bare facts of the war on page 243 could not be more stark.

But it is the use of the photograph that appears on page 247 that is most offensive to Australian Vietnam veterans. The caption for this picture reads "Women and children fleeing across a river to escape the fighting near Qui Non (sic), South Vietnam, 1965." Note that Ritchie's book is an "Australian" history. In 1965 the Australian Army contingent was based at Bien Hoa, attached to the United States 173rd Airborne Brigade. From 1966 onwards the Australian Task Force was based at Nui Dat, in Phuoc Tuy Province. Qui Nhon is several hundred kilometres up the coast in an entirely separate command sector of South Vietnam. Qui Nhon was in the II Corps zone, while the Australian Army only ever operated in the III Corps zone. The one thing that can be said with certainty about Ritchie's photograph, therefore, is that whatever happened in 1965 to cause those women and children to attempt to swim across that river near Qui Nhon, it had nothing whatever to do with Australian soldiers.

This raises the question of why John Ritchie chose that particular photograph. Vietnam was one of the most photographed wars in history. A 1997 exhibition in Sydney entitled "Vietnam Voices" displayed some 4,000 photographs, showing various aspects of Australian service in the war. (10) Ritchie would have encountered no difficulty finding a similar number of illustrations from which to choose. His choice of that one photograph, therefore, could not have been anything but deliberate. A 1977 review of "Australia: as once we were" stresses Ritchie's deliberate use of illustrations: "The dust-jacket claims that 'the selection of illustrative material not only reinforces the text but provides a visual statement in its own right of Ritchie's themes'. Thus one should accept the illustrations as more than illustrations". (11)

If Ritchie really was deliberate in his use of illustrations, then he wanted his readers to see an image of women and children fleeing across a river, to associate that picture with the "Australia" in the title of his book, and to be left with the entirely false impression that Australian soldiers were somehow responsible for the plight of those women and children. Furthermore, Australian soldiers apparently did nothing else in Vietnam that was worthy of illustration in Ritchies history.

The final element of the formula is the greater value given to the experience of those who protested against the war than the experience of those who fought in it. This may well be a reflection of the background of those who wrote Australian history in the seventies. The School of History at the University of Melbourne, under the leadership of Professor R. M. Crawford, exerted a powerful influence on the ways in which history was taught and practiced in Australia in the 1970s. The importance of the Melbourne School to Australian history has been noted on many occasions by a variety of historians. Typical of them is John Hirst, who describes the years before the establishment of the Melbourne School as "a long dark age" for Australian history, "when there was little or no study and teaching of the subject. At schools and universities British history was what students had to know; if Australian history was taught it was not as a separate subject but as part of the history of the British Empire. The dark ages ended in 1946 when the University of Melbourne offered the first full course in Australian history". (12)

Geoffrey Blainey says of Crawford's Melbourne School, "He built up what was seen for a long time as the most influential history school in Australia, and it's impossible for any history school, in any state, to have the kind of influence that his history school had in its first ten or fifteen years". (13)

From the 1970s, the possible existence of a discernible set of characteristics that could be classified as belonging to the Melbourne School became itself the subject of historical research. Examples can be found in the special issue of "Historical Studies" in October 1971, which marked the retirement of Professor Crawford, and also in the 1985 publication, "Making History". Crawford himself insisted in "Making History" that the Melbourne School "did not teach an ideology". (14) However, military historian Michael McKernan suggests that as a result of the influence of the Melbourne School, "many Australian historians, and among them the most influential, would be placed on the left in intellectual discussion. This general political orientation may provide [an] explanation for war's absence from the Australian historical agenda, for it cannot be denied that the 'digger myth' sat uncomfortably with the radical tradition". (15)

Support for McKernan's point regarding the influence of the Melbourne School on the political orientation of Australian historians can be found in the survey of Melbourne School honours graduates, carried out by Geoffrey Serle. The results of the survey were published in "Historical Studies" in October 1971. (16) Serle's survey covered honours graduates from the Melbourne School up to 1966. There is no evidence available to suggest that the figures from the Melbourne School can necessarily be extrapolated to history schools at other Australian universities. The importance of the figures in Serle's survey, however, is in the widely held view in the Australian history profession that Melbourne graduates have exerted a powerful influence on the teaching of history to subsequent generations of historians. The survey showed that, in 1966, the likely voting intentions of Melbourne School graduates were:

65% Australian Labor Party (A.L.P.);
21% Liberal;
9% Australia Party or other alternative parties or independents;
4% Democratic Labor Party (D.L.P.);
1% Communist Party;
0% Country Party.

These figures suggest that two thirds of respondents intended to vote for parties of the Left, only one quarter for parties of the Right, while the remaining 9% would vote for alternative parties and independents.

For those respondents who had been members of a political party, the figures for their membership are as follows:

65% A.L.P.
20% Communist
10% Liberal
5% D.L.P.

Approximately 85% of those who had joined a political party had joined a party of the Left, while only 15% had joined a party of the Right. Even the radical party of the Left, the Communist Party, had attracted more Melbourne School graduates to its membership than the mainstream party of the Right, the Liberals. The figures certainly tend to support McKernan's contention that the influence of the Melbourne School would result in placing many historians on the left of intellectual discourse. This political background would certainly suggest a sympathy among Australian historians of the seventies for the anti-war protest movement. As a consequence, they could be expected to place greater value on the protest movement as history than the experience of Australians who participated in the war. As McKernan suggested, the historical discourse of the seventies would tend to exclude the Australian Vietnam war experience as belonging, along with the "digger myth", to a previous generation.

If Vietnam veterans had reason to feel excluded from the history books of the seventies, a study of the historical journals of the same decade reveals that they received no better treatment there. The example already given of "Historical Studies" typifies their exclusion, and raises the question why this should be so. One clue may be found in a collection of historical writings entitled "New History", compiled at the end of the seventies to celebrate new directions in Australian history. It includes chapters on Aboriginal history, women's history, oral history, medical history, sports history and other examples of "new" history. In their introduction to the book, the editors state that it was "hard to see the need for a distinctive Australian treatment of political or military history". (17) The first question which needs to be asked is whether that statement alone provides a reason for the exclusion of Vietnam veterans from the historical record: perhaps war history, with its emphasis on the exploits of the participants, had become "old" history.

In the decade in question, 111 war-related articles appeared in Australian journals, not all of them specialist historical journals. (18) The breakdown by war is,

Second World War: 49;
First World War: 48;
Vietnam War: 7;
Boer War: 6;
Abyssinian War: 1.

These figures indicate that interest in the two world wars remained high. Their perceived importance to Australia's development as a nation ensured that historians continued to regard them as worthy of constant re-examination. There was less interest in other wars. The full list of Vietnam-related articles is as follows:

B. Coster, "The A.L.P's Policies in regard to National Service and Conscription", Queensland Historical Review, Vol. 4, 1971, pp.3-12;

T. Stapleton, "A New Role for the Australian Army?", Australian Outlook, Vol. 25, No. 1, April 1971, pp.3-12;

Jane Ross, "The Conscript Experience in Vietnam", Australian Outlook, 29 (3), 1975, pp.315-322;

Graham Freudenberg, "The Australian Labor Party and Vietnam", Australian Outlook, 33 (2), 1979, pp.157-165;

Maurie McNarn, "From imperial appendage to American satellite: Australian foreign policy and Australian involvement in Vietnam", Australian National University Historical Journal, 14, 1979/80, pp.73-86;

C. F. Bowers, "The Catholic Church in Sydney and the Vietnam Conflict", Australian Left Review, 71, 1979, pp.30-37;

Peter Pierce, "The Australian literature of the Vietnam War", Meanjin, 39 (3), 1980, pp.290-303.

All but one of the articles refer either to Australian foreign policy, to literature, to the conscription debate or to other aspects of Australian domestic politics. The one exception is the article by Jane Ross, which appears, not in a history journal, but in one specialising in foreign affairs. Ross restricts her article to the experience of conscripts, thus excluding the majority of Vietnam veterans who served in the regular military forces. Conscripts in Vietnam were fully integrated into the army, so that there was no difference between their experience and that of regular soldiers of similar rank. Any difference would be in the attitude of the conscripts towards their service, although Ross's article contains no comparison with regular soldiers, and no responses that a regular soldier would see as anything but the usual attitudes of soldiers at war. By focusing her article on conscripts only, Ross makes it clear that the important issue was not the war, but conscription. The only article in the entire decade that actually considered the experience of Vietnam veterans appeared outside of the historical discourse and excluded the majority of veterans.

The breakdown of war-related articles by year is:

1971: 9;
1972: 3;
1973: 8;
1974: 16;
1975: 6;
1976: 11;
1977: 12;
1978: 15;
1979: 12;
1980: 19.

These figures show that, in raw figures, interest in war history in Australia was at least as strong at the end of the decade as it had been at the beginning. The increase towards the end of the decade can be explained by the increase in the overall number of journal articles on all subjects. Therefore the possibility that Vietnam veterans were excluded from Australia's Vietnam history simply because war had gone out of fashion is not a sufficient explanation by itself.

Because the influence of the Melbourne School was likely to cause Australian historians in the seventies to be politically inclined to the left, a further element of the explanation may be found by looking at the preoccupations of the left in the seventies. The election of the Whitlam government and Australia's withdrawal from Vietnam provided the left with an opportunity to pursue interests other than opposition to the war. As Malcolm Saunders and Ralph Summy explain in their history of the peace movement, "Vietnam and conscription had stimulated scores of thousands of people to participate for the first time in political activity beyond the act of voting. These two issues, moreover, had provided the springboard for political action over a host of other issues such as those relating to the environment and the position in Australian society of such diverse groups as women, aborigines, and homosexuals". (19)

That "host of other issues", some of which are reflected in the chapter topics in New History, are sometimes lumped together under the title "New Left". The New Left was not only defined by its place on the left/right political spectrum, but also by its opposition to certain "old left" values. Among those values would be the myth of the Aussie digger, standing alongside the stockman and the shearer as custodians of the Australian spirit. The agenda of the New Left included a re-evaluation of such constructions of Australian masculinity, which in turn necessitated a re-evaluation of the status of war in Australian history. For the significant number of Australian historians who began their professional careers with a New Left background, the historical discourse of the Vietnam War was restricted to the conscription debate, the protest movement, and the dubious decisions made by successive Australian governments, which were seen to be subservient to American interests. Australian men and women who willingly served in Vietnam, and those who accepted their national service call-up without protest, were outside the boundaries of that discourse.

In terms of the number of years in which Australia was involved, Vietnam was our longest war. Yet historians were slow to engage with it. In the historical journals and Australian history books of the 1970s, historians managed to cover Australia's involvement in the war without ever recognizing the experience of those approximately 50,000 Australian men and women who served in it. In the light of the need felt by Vietnam veterans to stage their own Welcome Home Parade in 1987, it is significant that historians in the seventies consistently failed to give a closing date for Australia's Vietnam commitment. They failed to bring the veterans home. By their actions, it is at least arguable that historians contributed to the difficulties Vietnam veterans faced in the seventies, in gaining acknowledgement and appreciation of their service. Veterans in the seventies were entitled to regard themselves as victims of a "trahison des clercs". Once the turmoil of the Vietnam War debate had subsided, no voice of dissent was raised while Vietnam veterans were written out of Australian history.


1. The journal "Historical Studies" has also been known at various times as "Historical Studies: Australia and New Zealand", and "Australian Historical Studies". "Historical Studies" was its title in the 1970s.

2. Frank Crowley (ed.), "A New History of Australia", Melbourne, William Heinemann, 1988, pp.528-529, John Ritchie, "Australia: as once we were", Melbourne, Heinemann, 1975, p.243.

3. Frank Crowley (ed.), "A New History of Australia", Melbourne, William Heinemann, 1988. The Victoria Cross references appear on pp. 263, 322, 325.

4. Russel Ward, "Australia: A Short History", Sydney, Ure Smith, 1975, p.188.

5. The author of this paper was one of the "Chicago Six", a group of Australian veterans who marched in the Chicago Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Parade in 1986, and on return to Sydney began organizing a similar event for Australian Vietnam veterans.

6. Frank Crowley (ed.), "A New History of Australia", Melbourne, William Heinemann, 1988, p.319.

7. For example, Frank Crowley (ed.), "A New History of Australia", Melbourne, William Heinemann, 1988. Crowley's index includes listings for generals and battles such as: Monash pp.319, 344, 346-9, 353, 382; Birdwood pp.319, 321-3, 330, 333, 338; Blamey pp.344, 463, 467-8; Gallipoli pp.320-26; Tobruk pp.462-3, 467; Kokoda p467.

8. Frank Crowley (ed.), "A New History of Australia", Melbourne, William Heinemann, 1988, p.454.

9. Joy Damousi and Marilyn Lake (eds.), "Gender and War: Australians at War in the Twentieth Century", Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 224.

10. John Kirkman, curator of "Vietnam Voices" exhibition at Casula Powerhouse, NSW, interviewed by Suzy Baldwin, "Sunday Afternoon", ABC Television, Sunday 27 April 1997.

11. Don Gibb, Review of John Ritchie, "Australia: as once we were", "Journal of Australian Studies", Number 1, June 1977, pp.103-4.

12. John Hirst, "The Whole Game Escaped Him", in Carl Bridge (ed.), "Manning Clark: Essays on his Place in History", Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1995, p.117.

13. Geoffrey Blainey, in R M Crawford, Manning Clark and Geoffrey Blainey, "Making History", Ringwood, Vic, Penguin, 1985, p.69.

14. R M Crawford, in R M Crawford, Manning Clark & Geoffrey Blainey, "Making History", Ringwood Vic, Penguin, 1985, p.47.

15. M McKernan & M Browne (eds), "Australia: Two Centuries of War and Peace", Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1988, p.16.

16. Geoffrey Serle, "A Survey of Honours Graduates of the University of Melbourne School of History, 1937-1966", "Historical Studies", Vol. 15, No. 57, October 1971, pp.43-58.

17. G. Osborne & W. F. Mandle (eds), "New History: Studying Australia Today", Sydney, George Allen & Unwin, 1982, p.9.

18. Information on journal articles has been taken from the following publications: Terry Hogan, A. T. Yarwood & Russel Ward, "Index to Journal Articles on Australian History", University of New England (no publishing date given), lists journal articles to 1973; Victor Crittenden & John Thawley, "Index to Journal Articles on Australian History, 1974-1978", Kensington NSW, published by "Australia 1788-1988 A Bicentennial History", 1981; Victor Crittenden & John Thawley, "Index to Journal Articles on Australian History, 1979", Kensington NSW, published by "Australia 1788-1988 A Bicentennial History", (no date); Victor Crittenden & John Thawley, "Index to Journal Articles on Australian History, 1980", Kensington NSW, published by "Australia 1788-1988 A Bicentennial History", (no date).

19. Malcolm Saunders & Ralph Summy, "The Australian Peace Movement: A Short History", A.N.U, Peace Research Centre, 1986, pp.43-45.

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