Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 32
"We cannot afford to be left too far behind Australia": New Zealand's entry into the Vietnam War in May 1965
Author: Dr Robert Rabel
1. In his article “Countdown to commitment” (Journal of the Australian War Memorial 21 (October 1992)) Peter Edwards, Official Historian of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, reconstructed the immediate political context of the Australian Government’s decision, in April 1965, to send combat forces to Vietnam. This article examines the final months of decision-making which culminated in the public announcement of 27 May 1965 that a New Zealand artillery battery would be sent to serve alongside Australian and United States (US) forces in the Vietnam War. In particular, it focuses on two questions relating to New Zealand’s “countdown to commitment”. First, why were policy-makers in Wellington more reluctant than those in Canberra to send combat forces? Secondly, what role did Australian actions play in the New Zealand Government’s eventual decision to set aside its misgivings about the US enterprise in Vietnam and to follow the Australian example?
2. As in Australia, the series of events which led to New Zealand combat involvement in the Vietnam War began in December 1964. By then, the US President, Lyndon Johnson, had reluctantly accepted that US air power would have to be used to avoid the total collapse of South Vietnam . On 1 December he approved an initial phase of bombing operations in Laos, though postponing possible “reprisals” against North Vietnam itself . When making this decision Johnson stressed to his advisers the importance of securing allied support, but he referred dismissively to Australia as a “shirt tail frill”, and he made no mention of New Zealand at all .
3. Nevertheless, a few days later, on 4 December, the Assistant Secretary of State, William Bundy, jointly briefed the New Zealand and Australian ambassadors about US plans. Bundy stated that Johnson would shortly contact their respective prime ministers to urge “a considerable augmentation” of both nations’ efforts in South Vietnam. Ominously, he added that further US actions could involve air strikes against North Vietnam and even the deployment of ground forces. Bundy implied that, in the latter eventuality, Australia and New Zealand might contribute to such a force . George Laking, the New Zealand ambassador, left the meeting convinced that US policy-making had reached a crucial stage and that his Government should offer support .
4. Edwards has noted that the response in Canberra to this briefing represented an important step towards combat involvement in the Vietnam War, because “Australian military planners treated Bundy’s tentative reference to ground forces as a firm proposal and gave it their support” . Despite Laking’s supportive comments, the US proposals received a much cooler reception in Wellington. Although concerned about the perilous state of the Saigon regime, New Zealand officials had long been wary of deeper involvement in the Vietnam conflict, and they knew that the Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake, was even more wary . The Department of External Affairs was therefore quick to ask how the proposed US measures would remedy the old problem of political instability in South Vietnam. The Department conceded that New Zealand had no better alternative policy to offer and recommended backing the proposed campaign of selective aerial bombing . The New Zealand Government advised Laking categorically, however, that it saw no justification at the time for introducing ground forces and would not feel obliged to participate if the US deployed combat units .
5. In part, this view was due to the perceived difficulty of mobilising public support for action in Vietnam. More importantly, New Zealand’s “distressingly meagre” military resources were heavily committed in Malaysia . Accordingly, when Holyoake and his Cabinet discussed the possibility of expanding New Zealand’s efforts in Vietnam on 14 December, the outcome was virtually predetermined. The Cabinet formally confirmed the defence of Malaysia as the country’s top priority in south-east Asia, thereby precluding the deployment of combat forces in South Vietnam, though New Zealand’s modest contingent of military engineers and medical personnel already there might be increased . Made as it was in anticipation of a Presidential request for further aid to Vietnam, the decision underscored New Zealand reluctance to commit its slight resources to an important but controversial hot spot.
6. It therefore seems that if it had acted solely on its own official evaluations, New Zealand would have been unlikely to send combat forces to Vietnam. This was not because policy-makers considered South Vietnam unimportant but because they were uncertain that it was sufficiently important to justify large-scale external intervention, which might in any case bring little benefit. Like all their predecessors, however, they were acutely conscious that New Zealand’s national security policies were set in the framework of a broader alliance. That meant the New Zealand Government might adjust its non-interventionist preferences if the country’s more powerful allies, which did have the means to escalate the Vietnam War, chose to do so.
7. The arrival of President Johnson’s letter on the very day of the Cabinet decision was a pointed reminder of that reality, but Holyoake was not yet prepared to change tack. He instructed his officials to draft a reply pointing out New Zealand’s limited resources and its primary commitment to Malaysia. While the US highlighted shared national interests in the defence of south-east Asia, New Zealand would emphasise its proportionate role in regional defence through its military efforts in Malaysia .
8. Australia’s responses, however, tended to undercut this argument. The reply of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, to Johnson was discernibly warmer than Holyoake’s, and the Australian Chiefs of Staff even supported the idea of sending an infantry battalion to serve in Vietnam. Despite the more cautious position of its Department of External Affairs, the Australian Government appeared to take the view that the risks of escalation were outweighed by the need to encourage the US to maintain a “robust” stance in Vietnam . Canberra’s endorsement of its plans would make it increasingly difficult for New Zealand to reject combat involvement in Vietnam.
9. Yet the position of the Holyoake Government remained unchanged in the first three months of 1965, even when the US initiated, in early February, a campaign of systematic bombing of North Vietnam. During this period the Secretary of External Affairs, Alister McIntosh, and most other officials--with the notable exception of the Secretary of Defence, Jack Hunn--became concerned that reluctance to contemplate deeper involvement in Vietnam might damage the US alliance . McIntosh was especially aggrieved when the Prime Minister ignored his advice and insisted on writing to Johnson on 24 February to advise that New Zealand had once again postponed a decision about further military aid. In this letter, Holyoake explained that his government had considered sending more engineers, but that it was “just not possible politically to step up our military aid where coup succeeds coup, and the whole situation in Vietnam remains so chaotic” .
10. Washington, however, was moving steadily closer to a major escalation of the war. At almost the same time as Holyoake’s letter was sent, the US invited Australia and New Zealand to military staff talks on the implications of committing ground combat forces to Vietnam. In advising Wellington of the invitation, Laking reported that the Australians welcomed the talks as an important opportunity to learn about US contingency planning .
11. The response in Wellington was decidedly negative. The Department of External Affairs sent Laking a veritable barrage of arguments against the introduction of international ground forces into South Vietnam . While opposing joint planning talks, the Department nevertheless wished to be kept informed of US thinking, in part because of concerns about the Australians’ “over robust” approach and their “tendency to get off in a corner with the Americans” .
12. Laking seized on these apprehensions in an attempt to dissuade Wellington from needlessly offending the US and thereby missing a rare opportunity to obtain insights into their contingency planning. Perhaps most tellingly, he suggested that the Australians were pressing for more “robust” action than the US government itself was contemplating and if New Zealand stood aside, “they will make the decisions for us”. The Ambassador argued that it was vital for New Zealand to attend the talks as a restraining influence .
13. But Laking’s colleagues in Wellington were unconvinced, conscious as they were of the Government’s opposition to sending troops to South Vietnam . Accordingly, McIntosh recommended on 1 March that Holyoake send an essentially negative reply to the US suggestion for tripartite staff talks . On the same day the Cabinet confirmed that the defence of Malaysia remained New Zealand’s first priority and that consideration of additional military aid to South Vietnam would continue to be deferred . New Zealand’s determination not to have its hands tied in any way could not have been clearer.
14. Only days later, however, New Zealand agreed to participate in the talks after receiving assurances that the discussions would not simply be about introducing ground forces but would cover the “whole range of military possibilities” . This decision did not alter New Zealand opposition to the introduction of ground troops. Indeed, misgivings about that prospect dominated the policy brief prepared for Rear Admiral Sir Peter Phipps, Chief of the Defence Staff, who was to represent New Zealand at the talks in Hawaii from 30 March to 1 April. Phipps was given a firm directive to emphasise that Malaysia constituted New Zealand’s priority in regional defence and that Cabinet had expressly laid down that ground combat forces should not be sent to South Vietnam. The policy brief also reiterated in detail why New Zealand policy-makers feared that introducing such forces held out little likelihood of success, but might instead turn South Vietnam into a murky quagmire, sapping the military and political energies of the Western powers. Their fears would be amply vindicated over the next decade, but they received little prominence at Honolulu in 1965 .
15. At the talks, Admiral Ulysses S.G. Sharp, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command, outlined current operations in Vietnam and possible courses of action open to the US. He and his staff explained that four approaches were under consideration to complement the air operations. No definitive decisions had been reached concerning these options, but the briefing left Phipps with a “strong impression” that the security situation in South Vietnam had deteriorated so badly that substantial US ground forces would be sent soon. The only questions to be determined were how, when and where those forces should be introduced .
16. The general thrust of the US briefing held few surprises for the New Zealand delegation. The talks did, however, confirm New Zealand’s worst fears about Australian policy on Vietnam. Phipps was taken aback by the comments of his Australian counterpart, Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Scherger, Chairman of the Australian Chiefs of Staff Committee. Not only did Scherger endorse US plans to introduce ground forces into Vietnam but he appeared “much more anxious than Sharp to seek Australia’s participation” . Scherger’s stance was extremely “robust” even by Australian standards and, as Phipps reported to Holyoake, he gave the distinct impression that Australia would respond favourably to any US request for forces, even though the talks made clear that the US government had not yet determined what requests might be made to Canberra and Wellington. In fact, at the time, the Australian Government was, if anything, drawing back from its earlier stance and, as a worried Australian official confided to the New Zealand delegation at Honolulu, Scherger had gone well beyond the terms of the cautious brief which he had been given for the talks .
17. For his part, Phipps stressed New Zealand’s commitment to Malaysia and noted that, short of direct invasion by North Vietnam, it would be difficult to gain public support for a shift in regional military priorities. Although he did not explicitly articulate Wellington’s misgivings about introducing ground forces into South Vietnam, Phipps assured Holyoake a few days later that he had given Sharp no reason to assume that New Zealand would accede to any request for combat troops. Phipps also warned, however, that precisely such a request was imminent and that Australia would respond positively to it. Although he doubted the military wisdom of deploying troops in Vietnam while New Zealand was still committed in Malaysia, Phipps acknowledged that the political costs of failing to do so had to be considered. He concluded, moreover, that the point had passed where New Zealand’s stand-offish posture could have a moderating influence on the US .
18. It was an prescient conclusion. Even as US options were being outlined at the talks in Honolulu, the next step in escalating the ground war was being taken in Washington. Meeting with a group of key advisers on 1 April and then with the full National Security Council, Johnson approved the deployment of two additional Marine battalions, a Marine air squadron, and an increase of 18-20 thousand support troops .
19. The Australians learned almost immediately of these developments and of the likelihood that they would be asked to provide a battalion. So dependable had they made themselves in US eyes that, even before learning of Canberra’s response, the Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, McGeorge Bundy, specifically asked President Johnson to send Menzies a letter of appreciation, arguing that he had “been the best man of all on Vietnam in recent weeks”. No such letter was suggested for Holyoake .
20. Indeed, it was not until 8 April that William Bundy’s deputy, Leonard Unger, briefed Laking. Revealingly, he acted as if Sherger’s offer at Hawaii of a battalion reflected official Australian policy. Acknowledging that Phipps “had been less positive”, Unger nevertheless expressed the hope that Wellington would feel able to offer some contribution .
21. The next day news reached Wellington that the Australian Government had fulfilled US expectations and had decided in principle to send a battalion if requested. Although the Minister for External Affairs, Paul Hasluck, wished to delay a decision, the majority of the Cabinet’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee favoured Scherger’s position of demonstrating strong support for the US. As Edwards has noted, this view prevailed “because Menzies and his senior ministers believed that it was in Australia’s own security interests, as well as in the interests of good Australian-US defence relations, to help the US to keep South Vietnam out of communist hands” .
22. New Zealand’s leaders were not yet so certain. Neither Unger’s approach nor Australia’s action induced the Holyoake government to change its stance. When, on 14 April, the Australian Government sought New Zealand’s views on its decision, Holyoake responded categorically that, while Canberra’s action was not unexpected, New Zealand continued to regard Malaysia as its priority and, because of its limited available forces, “was not in favour of spreading them into Vietnam at this stage”. A negative reply to the US request was also drafted. But the prime minister postponed a final decision after learning that the President’s Special Envoy, Henry Cabot Lodge, wished to visit Wellington on 20 April. In the interim, the Department of External Affairs asked the ambassadors in Washington and Bangkok to comment on the wider national security implications of a negative reply to the US request .
23. Laking responded on 15 April with a strong argument for military intervention. He noted that the US had hitherto accepted New Zealand’s arguments about the priority accorded the Malaysian commitment. The situation had changed now that the US was escalating its involvement in Vietnam, while the problem of Indonesian confrontation of Malaysia had eased to manageable proportions. As a result, New Zealand had to weigh carefully the broader alliance implications of the Vietnam situation, especially in light of Canberra’s actions. As Laking wrote:
Obviously it is Australia which provides the yardstick by which the Administration judges our capacity to act in Vietnam. ... Against this background, the visit of Cabot Lodge assumes considerable significance, the point at issue being not the immediate one of whether or not we can provide more forces in Vietnam (whatever we do will have no great military impact) but what effect our decision will have on the United States attitude, in the long-term towards problems of more immediate concern to our own security.
From Bangkok, New Zealand’s Ambassador to South Vietnam, Sir Stephen Weir, reinforced these views. The case for meeting alliance demands was thus forcefully articulated by New Zealand’s representatives in two critical posts and, in at least one case, the actions of Australia had been cited as an important factor to take into consideration .
24. It remained uncertain if that argument would prove equally persuasive in Wellington. In the days before Lodge’s visit officials wrestled with the pros and cons of committing New Zealand ground forces. As had been the case since the mid-1950s, there was clear recognition that the struggle in Vietnam had wider consequences and, in that sense, New Zealand policy-makers were at one with their allies. They agreed that the significance of the war in Vietnam was not that its territory was strategically vital, but rather that it was important for the credibility of the US “containment” policy in Asia. A defeat there would not only imperil the states of south-east Asia, but would carry “grave implications for New Zealand’s security” .
25. If the issue at stake was clear, the question of how to respond was much less so in New Zealand eyes. The advice which officials prepared for the government before Lodge’s visit set out the points in favour of and against the US request. They acknowledged such concerns as having to confront both domestic and international political criticism while risking New Zealand’s limited resources in a potentially unwinnable war. In the end, though, one factor was deemed to outweigh all the others: the crucial importance of maintaining harmonious relations with the US, on which New Zealand was “utterly dependent” for its security. As the official brief for Lodge’s visit concluded: “The ultimate disaster for New Zealand would be for the Americans to wash their hands of us--to decide that we weren’t worth the effort of cultivating or protecting-and if necessary we must be prepared to pay a high price to avoid this happening” . This final point would be the telling one. It was the centrality of the US alliance in New Zealand national security doctrine which would induce the Holyoake government to reach its reluctant decision to send a military contribution to South Vietnam.
26. In effect, New Zealand policy-makers were snared by their own assumptions about regional security in a Cold War world. Their whole security culture pointed them to one conclusion: involvement alongside the US. Their long-time allies, the British, were virtually irrelevant this time. As for the Australians, they were bound on the same course as the US and were eagerly seeking a turn at the helm. In this situation, New Zealand would be isolated if it declined to contribute and might have to rethink its whole stance in the region. Lodge’s visit provided a final reminder of the larger logic of that alliance strategy and of Vietnam’s place in it.
27. When meeting with the Cabinet on 20 April, Lodge explicitly avoided a direct request for assistance, which he suggested was a matter for New Zealanders to decide for themselves. He made quite clear, however, that the US considered “more flags” vital for domestic and international political reasons and that any New Zealand contribution “would be out of all proportion to the numbers involved so far as the US were concerned” . His visit confirmed the thrust of official advice to the Government that the crucial consideration for New Zealand was the political signal a contribution would send, not its practical military impact.
28. Holyoake told Lodge that it would not “look good” for New Zealand to be seen to act as a direct result of his visit. Perhaps for that reason, at its formal meeting that day, Cabinet only agreed in principle to consider sending a combat force . Much discussion followed at various levels, culminating in a recommendation from the Chief of the Defence Staff a week later that the most appropriate unit to send to South Vietnam would be an artillery battery . In the judgement of New Zealand’s generals, there was no practical impediment to meeting the US request. Furthermore, short of sending no contribution, their recommended option appeared to offer the optimum means for satisfying alliance commitments without incurring high domestic political or financial costs.
29. Ironically, the sharpest dissent to the advice provided by the military professionals came from their own civilian chief. On 29 April, the same day as the Chief of Defence Staff made his recommendation, the Secretary of Defence, Jack Hunn, presented J.R. Hanan, the Acting Minister of Defence (and a “hawk” on Vietnam), with a memorandum outlining no fewer than eighteen reasons why he opposed sending New Zealand forces. Although one of these reasons--that the US did not expect a New Zealand combat contribution--was patently incorrect, most of his points carried some validity, and many had been raised within the Department of External Affairs over the preceding months. Hunn was more outspoken than other officials, however, in dismissing outright the applicability of both the domino theory and the Munich appeasement analogy to South Vietnam. He also directly contradicted Government policy in asserting that, while New Zealand “should fight for the independence of the democratic sovereign state of Malaysia”, there was “no democratic sovereign state of South Vietnam to fight for” . The problem for Hunn was that his was a lone voice of dissent amongst high-level officials.
30. This was made quite clear only two days later. In briefing Holyoake on 1 May, the Secretary of External Affairs endorsed the assessment of the Chief of the Defence Staff that, if New Zealand were to offer a combat force, the most appropriate contribution would be an artillery battery. But he suggested that military considerations were largely technical, for what confronted New Zealand was “essentially a political decision”. After rehearsing the now well-worn arguments for and against a New Zealand combat presence, McIntosh concluded:
If the contribution of an artillery battery by this country would help the United States administration to carry through its present policy of staying in and defending South Vietnam, and would at the same time reinforce the American guarantee which is the mainstay of our national security, then the contribution of such a unit would be in the best interests of this country and would be an acceptable price to pay .
Despite the counter-arguments put forward in the internal debates of the preceding weeks, these comments encapsulated the now dominant conviction among military and diplomatic officials that New Zealand could no longer postpone intervention if it were to preserve its standing with the US.
31. McIntosh certainly did not relish such intervention He later admitted that he had been “the one in the Department who was most reluctant to get heavily involved” in Vietnam. Notwithstanding his personal reservations, he (unlike Hunn) accepted the internal consensus in 1965, recalling how he had played his part “in pushing the Prime Minister of the day in to taking this pro-American stand on the basis of the domino theory” . If anything, the fact that a reluctant and cautious official was pressing a reluctant and cautious prime minister to intervene in Vietnam only serves to highlight the prevailing sense in May 1965 that all realistic alternatives had been exhausted.
32. Yet the New Zealand Government still did not take the final plunge, even though a formal South Vietnamese request for combat troops arrived on 7 May . The issue was discussed at two Cabinet meetings without a final decision. Concern mounted in the Department of External Affairs about the possible costs of delay. Not until Holyoake met informally with a group of key advisers was the decision to intervene formalised, and on 24 May Cabinet approved the dispatch of an artillery battery of approximately 120 men. The decision was announced publicly at the opening of Parliament on 27 May .
33. What does this account suggest about how and why New Zealand’s “countdown to commitment” in Vietnam differed from Australia’s? On one level, many similarities are evident. There was, for instance, much agreement between Wellington and Canberra about what was at stake in Vietnam. There was also a shared ideological commitment to the US-led policy of “containment” of communism in south-east Asia; in that respect all three ANZUS allies thought as one. Nor were New Zealand policy-makers alone in their pessimism about the prospects for Western success in Vietnam. Many of the concerns which so absorbed New Zealand officials in the early months of 1965 were shared by their Australian counterparts. Even the US government, including Johnson himself, did not make the Vietnam commitment with great enthusiasm. Moreover, the New Zealand Government eventually resolved in May 1965 that the costs of jeopardising relations with the US did outweigh the risks of intervention. Thereafter the course of New Zealand involvement in the Vietnam War closely paralleled that of Australia, with the notable exception of the use of conscripts. In a strategic sense, therefore, New Zealand was never markedly out of step with its ANZUS allies.
34. On the other hand, the fact remains that New Zealand was initially more reluctant than Australia to commit combat forces to Vietnam. While this reluctance should not be overstated, it did take Wellington over a month longer than Canberra to respond to the very clear US desire for a combat contribution. This dilatory stance was in sharp contrast to the responses to both the Second World War and the Korean War, when New Zealand had been at the forefront of those promising combat support to its key allies and, if anything, had sought to outdo Australia in displaying its readiness to counter aggression. The lack of a reassuring British presence may account, in part, for this reluctance in the case of Vietnam and has certainly been cited by some as an important factor . Another consideration was that New Zealand official perspectives on the south-east Asian region diverged slightly from those of Australia. In Wellington, the threats likely to emanate from that region seemed less immediate than in Canberra, partly because of geography. New Zealand, moreover, was less eager than Australia to seek equal partnership with the US in security matters and was more content to have separate US and “British” spheres of responsibility in south-east Asia.
35. There were, however, even more important reasons for New Zealand’s reluctance to undertake a combat commitment in Vietnam in 1965. One factor of considerable significance was the role of the Prime Minister, whose influence on Vietnam decision-making was amplified by his position as Minister for External Affairs. Unlike Menzies, Holyoake was almost viscerally cautious about embroilment in the Vietnam War. Given that he revealed so little about the reasons for any of his political decisions, it is difficult to say whether this caution stemmed from his legendary frugality and aversion to domestic political controversy, or from genuine--and insightful--pessimism about the likely “unwinnability” of the Vietnam War. Whatever the reasons, Holyoake’s stance meant that resistance to combat involvement was to be found at the very top of the decision-making hierarchy in Wellington. There were certainly some “hawkish” Cabinet ministers--most notably, John Marshall, Dean Eyre and Ralph Hanan--but they do not seem to have been especially active in pushing for New Zealand combat involvement before May 1965. Nor is there any record of heated ministerial debate on the issue. Military leaders were also keener than Holyoake to send combat forces, but none was as outspoken in pressing for action as was Scherger in Australia. The only comparably outspoken figure in New Zealand was Hunn, who was as forceful in opposing involvement as Scherger in advocating it. The political decision was ultimately Holyoake’s alone to make, and he made it only when officials from his own Department persuaded him that there was no other choice if close alliance relations with the US were to be maintained. Even then, he opted for the minimum level of military contribution likely to satisfy allied expectations .
36. Perhaps of even greater importance than a reluctant prime minister were New Zealand’s small size and limited resources. As was noted earlier, the qualms which New Zealand policy-makers harboured about restoring political and military stability in South Vietnam were shared by their allies. These qualms loomed much larger, however, in New Zealand perspectives on Vietnam because of the country’s more limited resources and the competing priority of Malaysia, where its forces were serving with considerable effectiveness. When those realities were set against the gloomy prospects for Western military success in South Vietnam, the endemic political instability in Saigon and the likely domestic controversy which any combat involvement would engender, it was hardly surprising that Holyoake and his advisers did not consider Vietnam of sufficient strategic importance for New Zealand to risk its meagre military resources. They also knew--as Laking had pointed out--that whatever New Zealand did militarily in Vietnam would have a negligible impact on the outcome of the conflict. As long as New Zealand’s consideration of possible combat involvement in Vietnam was set in this context, it seemed likely that Holyoake would continue to resist a New Zealand combat commitment. In those circumstances, it seemed to make sense for New Zealand also to counsel caution to its more powerful allies.
37. In the event, these cautious counsels were not pressed vigorously and went unheeded. New Zealand’s decision in May 1965, therefore, had little to do with the intrinsic merits of intervening in the Vietnam War. The decision was, rather, about relations with the US and, to a smaller degree, with Australia. It is noteworthy that Holyoake’s eventual decision to send combat forces came only after Lodge’s intimation that what the US wanted from New Zealand was a token military, but politically symbolic, involvement. By then it was clear that the US and Australia were pressing ahead regardless. When New Zealand policy-makers agreed to send combat forces, it was not because of a firm conviction that their small contingent could help hold Vietnam, which was not strategically vital to New Zealand, but because they were unwilling to risk an alliance which was. As would be the case thereafter, New Zealand policy toward the Vietnam War in May 1965 was more a response to US policy toward that conflict than a response to the conflict itself.
38. What role then, if any, did Australia’s actions play in leading New Zealand to its reluctant decision to enter the Vietnam War? Clearly New Zealand’s stance did not affect Australian decision-making in the least. In a direct sense, the converse was also true. Though New Zealand’s decision to intervene was made for alliance reasons, it was to maintain close relations with Washington, not Canberra. Staying in line with Australia was merely a welcome bonus.
39. Yet there is an important sense in which Australian actions helped tip the balance in leading the Holyoake Government to override its qualms about combat involvement in Vietnam. In effect, Canberra’s “robust” stance set limits on New Zealand’s freedom of manoeuvre in dealing with the US on Vietnam and undermined its arguments for not supporting the introduction of ground forces . Even if only implicitly, Australia did become a “yardstick” by which the US could judge New Zealand’s responses. Exasperated policy-makers in Wellington were thereby left with few palatable options. As McIntosh bemoaned privately only days after recommending to the Prime Minister that New Zealand send combat troops to Vietnam, “We can’t afford to be left too far behind Australia and we can’t afford not to support the Americans--though I have the gravest doubts about their coming out of this with any degree of success” .
40. In retrospect, those doubts were well justified. Although scholars continue to debate many aspects of the Vietnam War, there is widespread agreement that it proved a disaster for Washington--“the single greatest error the US made in fighting the Cold War”, as John Lewis Gaddis has described it . That error would probably not have been avoided, even if Australia had emulated New Zealand in questioning the course on which the US was bound in 1965. But if Australia and New Zealand had both questioned from the outset the wisdom of an open-ended combat commitment in Vietnam, they might have helped the US to attempt a more measured and less costly approach to the problem of Vietnam. Instead, the “robust” Australians only encouraged US combat intervention, while the “reluctant” New Zealanders were rendered powerless to refuse involvement. It was but one of many missed opportunities of the Vietnam War.
© Dr Robert Rabel
Dr Robert Rabel is in the Department of History, University of Otago, Dunedin.
1. The deliberations leading to this decision are summarised in Foreign relations of the US, 1964-1968, 1, Washington DC, US Government Printing Office, 1992, pp. 886-984. Cited hereafter as FRUS, followed by the appropriate volume number.
2. Ibid., p. 968.
3. Ibid., pp. 967-68 and p. 974, editorial note.
4. New Zealand Ambassador, Washington, to Minister of External Affairs, 4 December 1964, 478/4/6, Records of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Wellington (cited hereafter as MFAT). For Bundy’s record of the meeting, see FRUS, 1964-1968, 1, pp. 979-81.
5. New Zealand Ambassador, Washington, to Minister of External Affairs, 7 December 1964, 478/4/6, MFAT.
6. Peter Edwards, “Countdown to Commitment: Australia’s decision to enter the Vietnam War in April 1965”, Journal of the Australian War Memorial 21 (October 1992) 5.
7. For Holyoake’s reluctance to become involved in the Vietnam War before 1965, see Roberto Rabel, “‘The dovish hawk’: Keith Holyoake and the Vietnam War”, in Margaret Clark, ed., Sir Keith Holyoake: towards a political biography, Palmerston North, Dunmore Press, 1997, pp. 173-93.
8. Minister of External Affairs to New Zealand Ambassador, Washington, 11 December 1964, 478/4/6, MFAT; Guidance Survey 11/64, “US Policy in Vietnam”, 14 December 1964, 478/4/1, MFAT.
9. Minister of External Affairs to New Zealand Ambassador, Washington, 11 December 1964, 478/4/6, MFAT.
10. Ibid.; Guidance Survey 11/64, “US policy in Vietnam”, 14 December 1964, 478/4/1, MFAT.
11. Cabinet Minute, CM (64) 49, 17 December 1964, 478/4/6, MFAT.
12. Lyndon Johnson to Keith Holyoake, 12 December 1964, 478/4/6, MFAT; Holyoake to McIntosh n. d. (probably 15 December 1964], 478/4/6, MFAT; Minister of External Affairs to New Zealand Ambassador, Washington, 22 December 1964, 478/4/6, MFAT. See also Laking to Prime Minister, 23 December 1964 and Prime Minister to Laking, 24 December 1964, 478/4/6, MFAT.
13. New Zealand High Commissioner, Canberra, to Minister for External Affairs, 21 December 1964 and 29 January 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT; New Zealand Ambassador, Washington to Minister of External Affairs, 29 January 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT; Minister of External Affairs to New Zealand High Commissioner, London, 29 January 1965, 478/4/1, MFAT. Peter Edwards, Crises and commitments: the politics and diplomacy of Australia’s involvement in South-east Asian Conflicts 1948-1965, Sydney, Allen and Unwin and the Australian War Memorial, 1992, pp. 338-40, 344-47.
14. Secretary of External Affairs to Prime Minister, 9 February 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT. See also New Zealand Ambassador, Bangkok, to Minister for External Affairs, 17 February 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
15. Minister for External Affairs to New Zealand Ambassador, Washington, 24 February 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT. See also New Zealand Ambassador, Washington, to Minister for External Affairs, 24 February 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT; Alister McIntosh to George Laking, 25 February 1965, Alister McIntosh Papers, MFAT.
16.New Zealand Ambassador, Washington, to Minister for External Affairs, 24 February 1965 and 25 February 1965, 478/4/1, MFAT.
17. Minister for External Affairs to New Zealand Ambassador, Washington, 26 February 1965, 478/4/1, MFAT.
19. New Zealand Ambassador, Washington, to Minister for External Affairs, 28 February 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
20. Minister for External Affairs to New Zealand Ambassador, Washington, 1 March 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
21. Secretary of External Affairs to Prime Minister, 1 March 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
22. Cabinet Minute, CM 65/6/3, 1 March 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
23. “Discussions with Australian Minister of External Affairs”, 17 March 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
24. Policy Brief for Chief of Defence Staff, “Contingency planning for Vietnam”, 26 March 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT; Secretary of External Affairs to Prime Minister, 27 March 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
25. Chief of Defence Staff to Prime Minister, “Contingency planning for Vietnam”, 5 April 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
26. Minister for External Affairs to New Zealand Ambassador, Washington, 5 April 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
27. Ibid. For the growing caution in Canberra and for a detailed discussion of how Scherger exceeded his brief, see Edwards, Crises and commitments, pp. 358-360. See also Edwards, “Countdown to commitment”, pp. 5-6.
28. Notes for file by R. Mullins, “Military planning for Vietnam”, 1 April 1965 and 2 April 1965, 478/4/1, MFAT.
29. FRUS, 1964-1968, 2, pp. 511-12, 514-16, and 537-39. For a rather dramatised account of these deliberations, see Brian VanDeMark, Into the quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the escalation of the Vietnam War, New York, Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 107-13. See also Lloyd C. Gardner, Pay any price: Lyndon Johnson and the wars for Vietnam, Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 1995, pp. 202-203.
30. Edwards, Crises and commitments, pp. 360-61; McGeorge Bundy to President Johnson, 8 April 1965, Box 3, National Security File, Memos to the President, Papers of Lyndon Baines Johnson, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, Texas.
31. New Zealand Ambassador, Washington, to Minister of External Affairs, 9 April 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
32. New Zealand High Commissioner, Canberra, to Minister for External Affairs, 9 April 1965, 478/4/6; Edwards, Crises and commitments, pp. 361-62.
33. Aide Memoire, Australian Government to New Zealand Government, 14 April 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT; “Note for file: Vietnam” by Lloyd White, 14 April 1965, 478/4/6; draft cable, Minister for External Affairs to New Zealand Ambassador, Washington, 9 April 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT; Minister for External Affairs to New Zealand Ambassador, Washington, 13 April 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
34. New Zealand Ambassador, Washington to Minister for External Affairs, 15 April 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT; New Zealand Ambassador, Bangkok, to External Affairs, 15 April 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
35. Brief, “Visit of Mr Cabot Lodge”, April 1965, 478/4/1, MFAT.
37. Note for file, “Discussions with Mr Henry Cabot Lodge held at Wellington on Tuesday, 20 April 1965”, 478/4/6, MFAT.
38. Cabinet Minute, CM 65/13/32, 20 April 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
39. Chief of Defence Staff to Minister for Defence, 28 April 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
40. Secretary of Defence to Acting Minister for Defence, 29 April 1965, Defence 23/4/1, Ministry of Defence Records, Wellington (cited hereafter as MOD); Report of interview with J.K. Hunn by Ian McGibbon, 4 May 1972, p. 11, Defence 55/4/4, MOD; Report of interview with Major-General Walter McKinnon by Ian McGibbon, 1 June 1972, p. 4, Defence 55/4/4, MOD.
41. Secretary of External Affairs to Prime Minister, 1 May 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
42. Interview with Sir Alister McIntosh by F.L. Wood and Mary Boyd, 27 November 1975, Acc. 80-413, Oral History Archive, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
43. New Zealand Ambassador, Bangkok, to External Affairs, 7 May 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT.
44. Memorandum by I. Stewart to A. McIntosh, 14 May 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT; Cabinet Minute, CM 65/18/53, 31 May 1965, 478/4/6, MFAT; New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 342, pp. 1-2.
45. Author’s interview with Frank Corner, 19 March 1997.
46. For a fuller discussion of the difficulties of explaining Holyoake’s stance on the Vietnam War, see Rabel, “The dovish hawk” [n.7], pp. 173-93.
47. This point has also been made forcefully by Peter Edwards; see A nation at war: Australian politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 1965-1975, Sydney, Allen and Unwin and the Australian War Memorial, 1997, p. 347.
48. Alister McIntosh to Frank Corner, 5 May 1965, McIntosh Papers, MFAT.
49. John Lewis Gaddis, We now know: rethinking Cold War history, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1997, p. 189.