This is the text of my story Prelude to War, that I will read next Monday 8 November.
A Prelude to War
Thang sent a link via Messenger to a YouTube video along with a message.
“Somewhere on this Danish refugee boat which saved us from the damaged Truong Xuan is my family,” he explained. “We entered Hong Kong from Saigon right at the end of the Vietnam War.”
He had not mentioned the escape in as much detail as the video revealed, but then in April 1975, he was only four. Thang and his family were in the first phase of a mass migration as North Vietnamese tanks entered the Presidential Palace, bringing the protracted war to an end.
Thang’s late father was a journalist and a political prisoner during the Vietnam War.
Truong Xuan sailed from Saigon with a skeleton crew and 3,628 refugees. Somewhere in the South China Sea, its engines stopped, its pumps failed, and Captain Pham Ngoc Luy realised his vessel was in danger of capsizing. He sent out a distress signal.
A Danish container ship, M.S. Clara Maersk, responded. Later, Captain Anton Olsen, in what is now captured as part of a YouTube video, explained, “We get an SOS early in the morning, and then we turn around right away to the given position. Of course, the given position was not right in the beginning, but after around three hours, we found the ship.”
On Truong Xuan, the engine room crew had managed to start the engines again, the pumps began operating, but the ship was leaking too fast for the pumps to cope.
“So, finally we got alongside,” Captain Olsen continued. “We put everything down, nets, gangway, they came up all over. It took us six hours to get everybody on board.”
Three babies were born on board the Danish vessel. The first to arrive was named Clara, after the ship.
Thang wrote to me: “My dad made a poster of media coverage. The picture is of my sis and I at the Hong Kong refugee camp early May 1974.” He added, “Then we flew from Hong Kong to Sydney with Qantas in June, the first few hundred to come after war finished. It was like winning first prize in the lottery.”
Meeting Thang caused me to re-evaluate my earlier understanding of the Vietnam War. Travelling through Vietnam with him in 2014 deepened my sense of the conflict, though my most unexpected perception was the people’s resilience in surviving the massive United States bombing campaign that spilled out into Laos and Cambodia.
Coming from a strong Labor family and my great grandfather a founding member of the Australian Labor Party, I was introduced to politics over the dinner table. Countless party functions from annual picnics, and sports days, to fundraising nights, when the living room was transformed into a mini casino, were part of life. My political reality was grounded in neighbourhood networks and a strong commitment to democracy. Politics was a natural part of conversation, so it came as a surprise to me when I discovered others who considered my preoccupations either eccentric or incorrect.
“It suits Menzies to portray Labor as a party allied with the Communists,” said Dad in one discussion. “He sees votes in making things very simple—goodies versus baddies—and he’s trying to associate Labor with the Communists.”
As a merchant seaman and marine engineer, Dad learned his politics at Cockatoo Island and at sea. Although on the right of the Labor Party, he had a solid industrial understanding. We regularly received copies of the journal, Socialist and Industrial Labor, published by Jack Heffernan from the Sheet Metal Workers Union, a prominent member of the Labor’s Left Steering Committee. I studied its pages impressed by the journal’s banner tagline, He who drifts with the tide often ends on the rocks. This appealed to my emerging sense that we must assess social and political trends and not swept along with the fashion of the moment.
Under Prime Minister R. G. Menzies, Australia’s immediate post war support for the decolonisation process was steadily eroded. Independence movements were refracted through a new prism of paranoia, xenophobia and fear of communism. Clarity and precision in international matters was distorted. Even the non-aligned movement of countries was seen as aligned with the baddies because they weren’t explicitly aligned with the goodies.
Entering high school in 1960 brought contact with a diverse but predominantly European mix of fellow students. Post war Australia drew refugees and migrants from the breadth of the European continent. Amongst them were families with direct experience of Nazism and Soviet oppression. Another refugee influx occurred after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Against this backdrop, the Cold War politics of fear practised by the Menzies resonated sympathetically.
I remained an unselfconscious Labor supporter, and by my last year of high school my political orientation was widely known.
“Russell, you must admit that the Labor Party is closer to communism than the Liberal Party,” said Edward, a school friend since primary school.
“Edward, I don’t see it that way. The Australian Labor Party supports democracy and freedom, it doesn’t support banning other parties.”
“Yeah, but it’s closer to communism, Russell,” Edward insisted.
“It was formed by Australians defending their rights as workers and has nothing to do with communism.”
“It’s closer. That’s all I’m saying.”
I couldn’t blame Edward for having these views. His family was from Czechoslovakia and being Jewish ensured they had suffered under Nazism. Then they suffered again under Stalinism. I didn’t understand the term Stalinism then, it was all just communism. Whatever it was, it all went on behind the ‘Iron Curtain’.
Amongst Anglo Australians, there was a mounting concern with the looming possibility of British withdrawal east of Suez. As Britannia, our once powerful ‘mother country’, settled into a post imperial senescence there was a mild feeling of geopolitical angst. Some insisted our future security lay in a strong bond with the United States of America.
“If it hadn’t been for the Yanks,” some would say, “we’d have been overrun by the Japs.”
A traditionalist Prime Minister, Menzies appealed to the ancient bond between monarch, church and people. During Queen Elizabeth’s visit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Canberra in 1963, he insisted the British monarchy was the most democratic in the world.
To a mildly embarrassed Elizabeth, Menzies fawned, “I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her ‘til I die.”
Later the same year on a visit to Charlottesville, Virginia, he affirmed the US alliance, observing, “Australia has a deep feeling for your country, not just because your friendship contributes so greatly to our national security, but basically because, great or small, we work for the same kind of free world.”
By 1965, Britain had shed almost half of its former colonial empire. Save for a Commonwealth presence in Singapore and Malaysia bolstered by Australian and New Zealand forces, there was no guarantee of a British presence to help us in an emergency. We were an isolated European outpost on the margin of the great enigma, Asia. The one consolation was our rich and powerful friend across the Pacific.
Asia was a focus of curiosity for me. It held no fear, and it was a place I’d rather know. Perhaps Dad’s frequent journeys to the north, the artefacts he brought back, his stories from the Ramayana, and visits to Chinatown all helped feed the desire to embrace Asian cultures; yet xenophobic, anti-Asian narratives were common.
In 1964, a small country called Laos suddenly featured in the monochromatic Cold War drama. There was a conflict between the Pathet Lao—the baddies, led by Prince Souphanouvong and the Royal Lao—the goodies, led by his half-brother Prince Souvanna Phouma. There was also a neutralist force connected with Prince Boun Oum of Champasak, another half-brother.
Uneducated in the dynastic politics of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, the notion of there being something culturally important in political divisions between three half-brothers didn’t register. Ethnic and religious differences and underlying dynastic rivalries, compounded by the irrationality of colonial borders, were ignored.
Reading into the history of Laos conveys the sense of a landlocked country frequently subject to the incursions of neighbours and ultimately, Western colonial powers. Autonomy for the Laotians had long been a challenge. In the early 1700s, competing heirs to the throne fell into conflict and it was split into three separate states—the Kingdoms of Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak. Dynastic rivalries continued into the 20th century, the Cold War filtering out historical realities.
Several weeks after my conversation with Edward, in that last year of high school, a neighbour asked me if I’d help her two boarders with their English studies. Aelan and Kawena were young women from Vientiane, the capital city of the Royal Lao. Prior to entering the University of New South Wales, they were enrolled in an English bridging course.
We set to work on basic comprehension exercises. I covered syntax, simple grammar and synonyms. Conscious of my own path to greater competence in English, I highlighted the differences between transitive and intransitive verbs, stressing the need for sentences to have subjects and objects, where appropriate.
One day, we came to an exercise that used the term Parliament.
“What is Parliament?” Kawena asked.
“It is where the people’s representatives meet and make our laws.”
Puzzled, Aelan pressed me. “Make laws? Don’t you already have laws in Australia?’
“Yes, we elect people. We choose them. They go to Parliament and make decisions about new laws.”
“Where is this Parliament?”
“Is that in Sydney?” Kawena inquired.
“No, Canberra, our capital city.”
It was clear, any attempt at explaining the idea of representative democracy, political discourse, policy making, and development of law required too much basic understanding of Western history.
Turning to the Laotian context, I said, “I’m not sure whether you have parliament. Your country has three parts, the non-Communist, the neutral part and the Communists.”
Both looked at me blankly. I had no real idea of what was going on in Laos.
At the end of 1964, secondary schooling complete, I waited to learn whether my results would earn me a scholarship to university. In the interim, I took on a job as a batman with the Sydney University Regiment (SUR), a branch of the Citizen Military Forces. Although a pacifist, my exposure to our recent past, particularly the heroic efforts of our militia and regular army on the Kokoda Track, as well as a background in the scouting movement, left me with a liking for bivouacs, trekking, climbing, foraging, in short, roughing it a little. Working in a bivouac exercise on a hill outside Cessnock appealed to me.
Operating on the edge was an eye opener. As a civilian employee, I was accommodated separately, eating separately, working only with the officers, catching snippets of conversation between the CO and his second in charge, laying out kits, cleaning the semi-automatic Belgian FN rifles, meeting the malingerers, and listening to the students sing songs alarmingly similar to those sung by Third Reich soldiers. In the end, it was the songs and the sounds of bayonet practice, notwithstanding a conversation with a regular army lieutenant who explained that every soldier was a true pacifist, that convinced me military life wasn’t for me.
One day, I lingered on the margins of a briefing on military threats in Southeast Asia.
“You are all aware how quickly the Japanese swept down through Southeast Asia during World War II,” an officer began.
He elaborated with his pointer on the map of Southeast Asia, outlining the Japanese advance through Vietnam, the Philippines, West Malaysia, Singapore, then branching out to encompass Indonesia, Portuguese Timor, New Guinea, New Britain, and so forth.
Circling Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, he added, “This area was French Indo China. After the war, the French attempted to re-establish their administration and were eventually defeated at Dien Bien Phu by a Communist force.”
Yes, Communist, I thought, but wasn’t that just decolonisation? Whatever the politics of the successor force, they were all Vietnamese.
He expanded on his thesis explaining, “US President Dwight Eisenhower, the distinguished American General, described Vietnam as a ‘falling domino’. He reminds us that its loss will lead to rapid Communist advances in Laos, Burma, Thailand, and the neighbouring countries. When the first domino falls into the next, it sets up a chain reaction. The only way to stop the chain reaction of dominos falling is through forward defence. Unless we stop it over there, even Australia and New Zealand will be in danger.”
Simplistic yet persuasive oratory.
“Communism is expanding, moving south,” he emphasised. “Indonesia has the largest Communist party outside the USSR and Communist China. Chin Peng’s guerrillas have been active on the Malaya peninsula creating the Malayan Emergency. They still resist making peace with the Malaysian Government. Then of course there is Laos and Vietnam. Behind all of this is Red China.”
Later, one of my fellow batman said quietly, “That was all bloody propaganda.”
A little surprised, I queried, “What do you mean?”
“It has a sort of compelling gravitational logic to it. Vietnam, and its ally Communist China are up, and all the other places are down. It takes no account of the historical and cultural differences between the countries of Southeast Asia, or the peaceful means, such as trade and diplomacy, that we might use to engage with them.”
“I guess it is a bit blinkered. “
“Blinkered! That’s far too polite!” he snapped. “It’s typical narrow military thinking. For starters, Vietnam and China aren’t traditional allies. The Vietnamese Communists are influenced more by European ideas. Then there’s the USSR. Relations between China and the Soviet Union have been deteriorating.”
Hearing this and the political discourse in Australia, I wondered what the future held. There was an uncertainty bordering on fear, assiduously nurtured by the ruling Liberal Country Party coalition. Plainly, once the fear was propagated, it was easier to control society. By associating the threats to Australia’s security with the north, with uncertainties about Asia, it followed that we needed rich and powerful friends to protect us.
Our new friend, the USA, was both a source of fascination and a cause for concern. It was hard to marry Disneyesque projections of a perfect world, or idyllic family life as portrayed in Leave it to Beaver, with the knowledge of Hiroshima.
Throughout childhood, fascinated by US media I had watched a constant stream of westerns, Warner Brothers cartoons, and the Mickey Mouse Club. Then each Saturday morning, episode after episode of Victory at Sea, the post war US propaganda series that all but omitted Australia’s role in the Pacific War, left me deeply suspicious.
Questioning the USA’s role in our region was privately tolerated yet publicly it often drew the retort, “If they hadn’t defeated the Japanese in the Battle of the Coral Sea, we’d have been invaded.””