ANZUS at 70: Christmas cheer—Nixon, Whitlam and Vietnam
25 Aug 2021|

My late friend Andrew Peacock could spin a good yarn, but one story in particular still holds a peculiar resonance for Australian politics and history. Christmas 1972 saw Peacock in Washington DC. The Australian Coalition government of 23 years’ standing had just fallen to a resurgent Labor Party under a charismatic leader in Gough Whitlam.

The Vietnam War was still raging, even though peace talks in Paris had suggested that an end to the conflict wasn’t far away. In Dr Henry Kissinger’s immortal phrase, peace was at hand.

The war had been deeply divisive in Australia, as it was in the US. The traditional Australian scepticism and hostility on the vexed issue of conscription for the armed forces was an accompanying fire.

But the Paris talks had stalled, so, to bring North Vietnam to the table to finalise a peace deal, President Richard Nixon had authorised a massive bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong—Operation Linebacker II—which had resulted in widespread criticism both in the US and abroad.

Federal Labor had long opposed the war, and some of Whitlam’s new ministers were scathing about Nixon’s decisions. The administration responded angrily, and it was mooted that Australia–US relations, traditionally close, would spiral away. Peacock told an illuminating story. Visiting his friend Dick Cheney, then a senior Nixon aide, Peacock was at pains to make it clear that the new Australian Government wasn’t hostile to the US and that Whitlam was a sophisticated player with whom the Americans could deal. In short, Peacock was putting Australia’s interests to the fore.

Cheney listened carefully and then told his Australian visitor that the President should hear this. So they went around to the Oval Office. As Peacock recalled, Nixon’s famous secretary, Rose Mary Woods, explained that the President was out for a short while but would be returning. So Cheney suggested that they speak with the Vice President, the controversial Spiro T Agnew.

At that point, Peacock’s story became wonderfully funny as he described Agnew at his office desk, eating a salad sandwich, with beetroot juice dribbling down his shirt.

Agnew reacted badly to the Peacock story and was essentially dismissive of Australia as being akin to a banana republic.

However, a very different response came from Nixon when Peacock finally had the chance in the Oval Office to argue that relations between the US and Australia would essentially not change under the Whitlam government. Nixon nodded and said that he understood. Australia was an ally, and the US–Australia alliance would continue.

The tensions were real. There were industrial bans in both countries. But it’s likely that the administration’s anger was residing in the office of the National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger. The President was unhappy with the Australian language but unfazed by the furore.

The Australian–American relationship of the 1960s was dominated by the Cold War. The Vietnam War became a microcosm of the struggle between the US and its allies and the communist giants, the Soviet Union and China.

Australia had been an early entrant into the war in support of the government in Saigon. As early as 1962, Australian military trainers were attached to the South Vietnamese Army.

The Kennedy administration was cautious on its military commitment to Saigon; Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B Johnson, far less so. Unwilling to be the first President in the US history to lose a war, Johnson increased support for the South and, by the time of his retirement, there were half a million American troops deployed. In LBJ’s colloquial Texas slang, they were instructed to ‘bring the coon skin home to nail on the wall’.

An Australian taskforce of three battalions was in place, along with supporting air and naval units.

LBJ’s visit to Australia in November 1966 was in support of Prime Minister Harold Holt, who was personally close to the President. As a matter of fact, Holt’s slogan for Australian involvement in the war set a very low benchmark for cultural cringe, being ‘All the way with LBJ!’

A divided Australia reacted with anger during the visit, and demonstrations occurred in city streets alongside adoring crowds. Holt was returned convincingly in the federal election later that year, so Australia’s commitment to the war was endorsed electorally. Then came Tet.

The Tet Offensive, beginning January 1968, was a military debacle for the communist forces—the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army—but, in propaganda terms, it was an extraordinary victory in the living rooms of America (and of Australia). Television recorded the brutality of the fighting in Saigon, Hue and elsewhere, and the US military was obliged to recapture a part of the US embassy occupied by a Viet Cong suicide squad. The following March, LBJ made a television announcement of some importance to Americans and, indeed, the world: ‘I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.’

The political vacuum on the Democratic side of American politics for a new presidential nominee wasn’t filled by an anti-war candidate, such as Senator Robert F Kennedy (New York), who was assassinated, or Senator Eugene McCarthy (Minnesota). Vice President Hubert Humphrey stepped up and was defeated by Richard Nixon on a supposed ‘secret plan’ to end the war. Nixon began the painful process of American withdrawal and the ‘Vietnamisation’ of the conflict.

More importantly, early in his term in 1969, he introduced the notion of the Nixon (Guam) Doctrine, which required US allies to be far more self-reliant.

Australia under Whitlam was much more vigorous in its regional diplomacy and in its UN engagements. The well-crafted 1976 Defence White Paper finally presented by the Fraser government endeavoured to reflect the imperatives posed by the Guam Doctrine of shifting American strategic policy and the realities of British withdrawal from the region and a greater Soviet presence in the Pacific.

The Australian focus moved from expeditionary engagement to challenges closer to home. Unfortunately, the Fraser government never achieved the consistent budgetary objectives that it set for itself for defence policy.

Curiously, Australian foreign policy moved closely in alignment with that of the Nixon administration in one critical area.

Whitlam’s visit to Beijing in 1971 had virtually coincided with that of Kissinger. American moves to recognise China were more easily accommodated by an Australian Government that acknowledged China’s significance as it emerged in international affairs.

The Vietnam War had indeed strained relations between Australia and the US, but the alliance emerged intact, and Nixon’s Watergate disgrace and departure for San Clemente saw the significance of the tensions between the allies over the Christmas bombing campaign recede. The stress was there, but, as Peacock came to understand, the alliance was far more significant than a flurry of criticism between Canberra and Washington, however intemperate the language was on occasion and regardless of who the players happened to be.

This post is an excerpt from ANZUS at 70: the past, present and future of the alliance, published by ASPI with support from the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia and edited by Patrick Walters.