New Zealand and the Vietnam War: Politics and Diplomacy
Auckland University Press, $49.95,
Surrounded by placard-waving students at Waikato University during August 2005, election campaign, Prime Minister Helen Clark launched a scathing attack on her opponent’s foreign policy. If National had been in government in 2003, she warned, New Zealand troops would be “coming home in body bags”. The war in Iraq, she said, “is to this generation of New Zealanders on our campuses what the Vietnam War was to my generation.”
Such is the enduring power of the Vietnam War that, three decades after its end, it remains a potent political symbol. For many, the word Vietnam calls to mind a conflict not a country. It symbolises the perils of interventions in third-world “quagmires” and, for some New Zealanders at least, is a reminder of the dangers of getting entangled with the interests of a superpower.
The decisions that shaped New Zealand’s participation in the Vietnam War and its legacy for this country’s foreign relations are explored in Roberto Rabel’s rich and detailed official history. In fact, this ambitious book is really two histories, one a comprehensive account of the political and diplomatic decisions that led New Zealand to war and the second a narrative about the rise and influence of the anti-war movement. Fourteen chapters alternate between these two intersecting themes, resulting in a largely chronogically-driven narrative.
Rabel begins in the 1940s with a discussion of New Zealand’s interests in the First Indo-Chinese War. Officials in Wellington knew little about Asia, but by the early 1950s had already taken to seeing the region through a Manichean Cold War lens. Their goal was stopping “creeping communist penetration” and, despite their much-professed enthusiasm for decolonisation, they were happy to subordinate anti-colonialism to anti-communism. Frederick Doidge, Sid Holland’s thick-witted foreign minister, dismissed Southeast Asians as “politically immature and unfitted to govern themselves”, but smarter officials also underestimated the nationalist dimension to the Vietnamese struggle, instead seeing it as the frontline in the global struggle with communism. They adopted their own version of the domino theory, seeing a “chain of reactions … which holds the most solid – perhaps the only – danger to New Zealand security.” Wellington responded with shipments of tens of thousands of arms and ammunition to French colonial forces, for once “acting even more quickly than more Asian-minded Australia”.
By 1954 the burden of “saving” Indo-China from communism had become an American one. This raised new questions for New Zealand, which had signed the ANZUS treaty only three years earlier, after concluding British promises of protection were hollow. Having embraced Washington through ANZUS and then SEATO, officials at the Department of External Affairs worried about how to sustain the US’s presence in Asia. Initially, this required little more than statements of support for the government in Saigon, but as American interests in Vietnam expanded, Washington began to look to its allies for more tangible support. Australia responded by dispatching a team of military advisers and, by May 1964, pressure was sufficient to elicit a promise of non-combatant engineers from New Zealand. Twelve months later, Keith Holyoake would rise in Parliament’s debating chamber and announce that combat forces would follow.
Rabel’s central argument is that the Vietnam commitment was only reluctantly accepted by New Zealand’s political leaders. Rather, it was diplomats and military officials who urged the dispatch of troops as a gesture of alliance solidarity. They felt it was “an acceptable price to pay”, a small premium for a much larger insurance policy. Few believed that a massive military campaign could succeed in preserving a free and democratic South Vietnam. A February 1965 External Affairs report warned prophetically that introducing ground forces could expose the United States to “a steady drain of small losses, [which would see them] gradually drawn into wider commitments, always faced with the risk of heavier casualties and never with a good prospect of victory.” Advisers told the department’s head, George Laking, that they could not imagine “any circumstances in which the introduction of an international ground force in South Vietnam would make political or military sense.” But “harmonious alliance relations” demanded a concrete contribution. To go to war on these terms required clinically dispassionate analysis. As Rabel concludes in the book’s most memorable phrase, for New Zealand’s “diplomats and military officials, as for Holyoake, this was a war fought in cold blood.”
Keith Holyoake is a central but somewhat mysterious character in this drama. He left few written records and his decision-making process was extraordinarily opaque. He would sometimes go for months without speaking to his senior diplomatic advisers. Rabel paints him as unenthusiastic for war, instead seeking to make the smallest possible contribution necessary to placate Washington. The popular impression of “Kiwi Keith” as a consensus- driven conservative is largely confirmed. Holyoake appears overwhelmingly concerned with domestic politics, constantly attempting to gauge public opinion and apparently indifferent to many of the details about the conflict. He was also frugal to the point of miserliness. While his tight-fisted approach to foreign policy drove his diplomats to despair, it served to keep New Zealand’s military presence in Vietnam to a minimum.
This book is plainly the result of exhaustive archival research. Few documents, whether in Wellington, Washington, Canberra or London can have escaped Rabel’s eagle eye. Only Hanoi’s impressions of New Zealand’s role are missing. The result is a focus on the small group of men who drafted policy, in particular Alister McIntosh, the long-serving Secretary of External Affairs, and George Laking and Frank Corner, both of whom would go on to succeed him. All supported the dispatch of troops in the name of better alliance relations. Indeed, with the notable exception of Jack Hunn, ironically the Secretary of Defence, few senior officials dissented from this policy. But, unlike David Halberstam’s scathing indictment of the “best and brightest” who led the US to Vietnam, Rabel is largely uncritical of New Zealand military and diplomatic officials. He concludes they “pursued a relatively effective and coherent diplomatic strategy which both met its objectives and differed significantly from those of its American and Australian allies.”
There is less of a paper trail to follow with the second of the book’s themes, the emergence and influence of the anti-war movement. These chapters ably trace the growth of the Committees on Vietnam (COV), the “teach-ins” and the growing popular anger about the war. Well-known figures (Helen Clark, Richard Northey, Keith Locke, Joris de Bres and Tim Shadbolt) make cameo appearances among the assortment of beardies and weirdies who opposed the war. But few interviews are cited, and one gets the feeling that Rabel is more comfortable dealing with the diplomatic and political side of the story. His second major argument, however, is a bold one; the anti-war movement had “virtually no impact on policy-making in Vietnam”. He notes that Holyoake’s most cautious period on Vietnam came in the early 1960s before the war had any kind of public profile. Conversely, “the bitterest moments … would occur between 1969 and 1972 …when withdrawal was proceeding apace.”
In a thoughtful closing chapter, the book reflects on the war’s legacy for New Zealand’s foreign policy. Rabel discusses the fracturing of the bipartisan consensus and growing demands to open up foreign policy-making to outside voices. This leads to what he calls the injection of “expressions of national identity” that culminated in the Lange government’s nuclear ship dispute with the United States. “As a result of the Vietnam experience,” he says, “a significant sector of New Zealand society came to view with instinctive suspicion the way in which the United States wields its power around the world.” Perhaps the anti-war movement got the last laugh.
But if Rabel hears the echo of Vietnam in the ANZUS dispute, the reader in 2006 can’t help but be struck by the parallels with Iraq. In the 1960s, New Zealand officials tried to reconcile their traditional preference for multilateralism with a perceived need to stay onside with their powerful protector. They worried that Washington seemed “to exploit” the United Nations, “largely for propaganda purposes” (an especially worrying concern as New Zealand was a member of the Security Council at the time). Officials fretted about how they would be seen compared to Australia – a more enthusiastic supporter of American aims. They concluded that it was better to fight commmunism in Asia “rather than around our own shores” and – recognising that any war would be of necessity a “dirty war” – argued against giving public opinion too much weight.
Forty years later, of course, the troops did not go to Iraq. That policy notwithstanding, the country’s foreign minister has been welcomed in Washington, and we are told the US appreciates our contribution in fighting the war on terror. The decision was very different, but arguably it is another case of a government that has perhaps “pursued an effective and coherent diplomatic strategy”, which both met its objectives and differed significantly from those of the US and Australia.
New Zealand and the Vietnam War is an important and valuable contribution to the historiography of the Vietnam War. It fills a significant void in the study of New Zealand’s foreign relations and deserves to be read widely, debated and critiqued.
David Capie teaches New Zealand foreign policy and international relations at Victoria University of Wellington.