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The relationship between Australian troops and the British commanders was strained at times during the 1914-18 War.

The relationship between Australian troops and the British commanders was strained at times during the 1914-18 War.

During the 1914-18 War there were an increasing number of times in which Australia’s views diverged from Britain. As the events of the Great War lay the foundations for a new Australian sense of identity, they also encouraged an increasing number of Australians to challenge the wisdom in following “unquestioningly” the decisions made by British military leaders.

At a time when Australian troops began to recognise that they were distinct from their British counterparts, there also grew a confidence in, and a respect for, those Australian leaders who were prepared to question British strategy and tactics.  While under British command, the Australian Imperial Force was a distinct and separate military entity. The AIF’s actions at Gallipoli as part of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps had created an embryonic sense of national identity and pride which had been absent prior to the war. After the withdrawal from Gallipoli and during the bitter years which followed on the Western Front, strong lobbying from the Australian military led to the AIF’s release from British command. In 1918, an Australian corps was to fight under an Australian commander, Sir John Monash.

By 1916, the Australian public was also beginning to question the wisdom of unquestioning following the British lead in what was increasingly becoming a war of attrition. In the early months of the war, Australia’s whole hearted support for the British war effort had been encapsulated in Andrew Fisher’s promise to support Britain to “the last man and the last shilling”. By 1916, this willingness to give all for Britain had significantly waned. Moves by Prime Minister William Morris Hughes to emulate the British government’s conscription policy in Australia became extremely divisive. While a pro-conscription lobby argued that compulsory military service would demonstrate loyalty to the Empire, the anti-conscription forces evoked a higher ideal – a desire to ensure the democratic and free choice of Australians! In two conscription referenda (1916 and 1917), moves to emulate the British model were rejected by the Australian public. The right of Australians to make up their own mind when asked to fight for Britain (and Australia) was preferred to automatic imperial loyalties to Britain.

Despite these significant moves towards an independent Australian attitude to foreign policy, Australia remained supportive of the British war effort. Australian troops continued to fight in Europe as part of a combined imperial army and Australia’s pro-conscription Prime Minister, Hughes, was returned as PM after the 1917 federal election. The door had been inched open however towards a new and independent voice in Australia’s foreign policy in time of war. It appeared that Australians were expressing a willingness to put the interests of Australia above those Britain in some situations. Britain’s interests and Australia’s interests were never to be considered synonymous again. Australia had begun to insist that its interests were considered by Britain during the war. It would not be the last time that such a voice would be heard.

At war’s end in 1918, Australia would once again act to defend what its government considered it foreign policy interests. At the negotiation of the Versailles Peace Conference, Hughes would repeatedly clash with other nations as he sought to ensure Australia’s security interests in the Pacific. As the conference progressed, an increasingly “game” Australian government repeatedly advocated its interests – even if these interests clashed with the objectives of those of Britain.

In two decades which followed, however, this independent Australian foreign policy voice would fade. Australia would once again fall into step with British foreign policy until a clear divergence took place during the darkest days of World War 2. In 1921-22, for example, Australia was only represented at the important Washington Naval Conference as part of the British delegation. For its part, Australia seemed to show little interest in developing or articulating a distinctively Australian foreign policy during this era despite the clear opportunities given to it. Perhaps the most important example of this took place when the Balfour Declaration of

1926 was legislated in Britain in the Statute of Westminster (1931). As a means realigning relationships with the “dominions” at this time, British law cemented legally the principle that dominions such as Australia were both autonomous and equal in status to the mother country Britain. The Statute would become law in each dominion when each dominion passed complementary legislation through its own parliament. It wasn’t until 1942 that Australia would choose to pass such legislation.

Despite some isolated divergences, Australia’s foreign policy remained “in tune with Britain” until 1941. Australia supported Britain’s policy of appeasement of the Nazis and its actions in the League of Nations without question until her interests were directed challenged by the threat of Japanese invasion in World War 2.



Poster celebrating the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

Poster celebrating the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

According to Australian historian K.J. Mason, the major question involving Prime Minister William Morris Hughes at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 was the issue of Germany’s colony in New Guinea and other nearby possessions in the Pacific. Supporting his assertions with reference to primary source documents of the time, he emphasises the importance of Hughes’ belief that Australia should “annex” northern and eastern New Guinea to “ensure the future security of Australia. It was a belief shared by many” (Mason, 1985, p. 174). On this issue, the Australian government, led by “The Little Digger”, was to get its way. After the war, New Guinea became an Australian mandated C-class territory. At the conference, Australia, under Billy Hughes, had vigorously pushed for what it considered to be its own vital national security interests. Mason notes the way in which Hughes clashed repeatedly with those nations who challenged this expression of Australian “self-interest” in Foreign Policy. When the White Australia Policy was challenged by the USA and Japan at the conference as a treaty was drafted Australia was steadfast. No treaty would be signed by Australia which included a “racial equality clause”. As Britain remained silent on this issue, Hughes felt confident in pursuing and safeguarding those objectives which he believed to be in the best interests of Australia. Such a view reflects, and is representative of, many historians who have studied this period of Australian foreign policy.

This embryonic Australian independence of Foreign Policy would fade into the background of politics in the inter-war period. When Stanley Bruce replaced Hughes as Prime Minister in 1923, Australia’s international outlook would be shaped, once again, by a man who had “a deep respect for and confidence in the British system” of foreign policy. “Australia was once again prepared to allow Great Britain to direct the pattern of her international policy” (Mason, 1985, p.177). At a time where other Dominions (notably Canada and South Africa) were developing a more confident independent view of the world, Australia continued to follow a British lead. Throughout the 1920s, at a series of Imperial Conferences, a new relationship between Britain and her Dominions was forged. At one such conference in 1926, the Balfour Declaration, emphasised equality in legal standing between the “mother country” and her Dominions. It was agreed by all the Dominions that the all nations represented (including Australia) were “independent communities equal in status and united by a common allegiance to the Crown”. This was the birth of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Five years later, in 1931, the Statute of Westminster legislated this understanding. The British Parliament, through this act, “gave up all powers over the Dominions”. Mason highlights the dependency of Australian foreign policy at this time by making comparisons to Canadian, South African and Irish policy at the time. As these nations eagerly embraced the newfound independence, mason points out that “it was not until 1942 that the Australian parliament finally ratified (formally accepted) the Statute of Westminster” (Mason, 1985, p.177).

Mason sees the 1920s as a period bereft of “independent or effective foreign policy” in Australia (1985, p.181). He clearly points out that Australia at that time was “content to follow the British lead” and to reflect British international priorities and objectives. He argues that not until 1937 was any sense of Australian foreign policy divergence identifiable. Australians, he believed, “adopted an almost negative attitude to world affairs” (1985, p.181). When Japan invaded the provinces of northern China in 1931, Mason points out that Australia was unable and unwilling to follow anything other than the British view expressed in the League of Nations. “Australia’s voice was inexperienced and ineffective. Australia condemned the Japanese invasion and then, like the rest of the world, did nothing” (Mason, 1985, pp.177-178). When Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935, Australia did little more. Supporting a British lead, however, on this occasion, Australia imposed some punitive sanctions on Italy. Following a British lead, these sanctions were lifted in 1936.

1937, according to Mason, became a significant year in Australian foreign policy as the government “took a rare initiative in foreign policy” (1985, p.178). Such a view is representative of the position taken by other historians such as MacIntyre (1995), Hoepper (1991) and Cowie (1989). Acknowledging the danger Japan posed to Australian security when its army pushed south into China, Mason points out that Australia (under Prime Minister Joseph Lyons) proposed a non-aggression pact for the nations of the Pacific. Lyons, with the support of the British government, began a series of meetings in London with representatives from Japan, Russia, the USA and China. Despite his efforts, the pact was never concluded. Mason surmises:

For the Far East, and for China and Japan in particular, the idea of non-aggression had come too late. But the proposal for such an alliance was the first real expression of an independent Australian foreign policy. (1985, p.178)

From 1937, the Australian government supported the now discredited British policy of appeasement towards Hitler. In 1938, both the conservative United Australia Party (UAP) government and the Australian Labour Party opposition supported the British government’s settlement with Hitler over Czechoslovakia. In 1939, the Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies (who succeeded the leadership after the death of Lyons), in step with the British government, would finally accept the failure of appeasement and declare war on Germany in full accordance with Britain’s views. “There was never any doubt as to where Great Britain stood, and neither is there any doubt where Great Britain stands there stands the people of the entire British world” (Menzies in Mason, 1985, p.179). Clearly in the eyes of Menzies (and Mason), Australia was, in 1939, still very much a part of the British world.


Mason, K.J. (1985) Experience of Nationhood: Australia and the World Since 1900, McGraw Hill: Sydney.

AUSTRALIA AND THE COLD WAR: Some Possible Reasons for Entering the Vietnam Conflict

Next Course, Please!” cartoon relating to Australia’s fears of Asian communist expansion as it appeared in Catholic News Weekly (21 July 1954) in Anderson, M. (2009). Chapter 6: Politics, Power and Protest in the Vietnam War Era. Retrieved July 20, 2012, from Scribd.com: http://www.scribd.com/doc/36889002/2977874-Retro-Active-2, p.162

Next Course, Please!” cartoon relating to Australia’s fears of Asian communist expansion as it appeared in Catholic News Weekly (21 July 1954) in Anderson, M. (2009). Chapter 6: Politics, Power and Protest in the Vietnam War Era. Retrieved July 20, 2012, from Scribd.com: http://www.scribd.com/doc/36889002/2977874-Retro-Active-2, p.162

One of the significant historical debates in Australia concerns the reasons why Australia entered into a conflict in Vietnam. This debate has links to the historiography of the Cold War itself. When considering Australia’s reasons for entering a war in Vietnam alongside the USA during the 1960s, it’s necessary to consider a variety of perspectives.

Broadly speaking, when considering reasons for Australia’s entry into the Vietnam War, historians have pointed to a number of inter-related factors. These factors include:

 A historical undercurrent of fear within Australia of Asia

  • Deep roots to Australian fears of Asia and Asians are found in Australian history. Fears of China / Chinese were common throughout the 19th century while these were (to some extent) replaced by fears of Japan during the early decades of the 20th century. It is easy to draw links between these fears and an Australian xenophobia and racism.
  • The Japanese threat to Australia during World War 2 and later the rise of Chinese Communism in 1949 would seem to give substance to these fears in the minds of many Australians.
  • This fear during the 1950s and 1960s was coupled with a fear of Communist expansion as expressed by Orthodox historians of the Cold War (who pointed to the Korean War as an example of the threat of Asian communism).
  • A fear of Asian Communism proved a particular concern to some in Australia during the 1950s and 1960s. This concern was often exploited for political purposes in the 1950s and 1960s in Australia.

A desire within Australia to demonstrate Australia’s support for a nation that had the ability  act as a “great and powerful friend” should Australia’s security be threatened.

  • Traditionally, Australia had looked with confidence to the protection offered by our relationship with Britain. Until 1941-2, Australians had felt secure in the belief that, should Australia ever face the threat of attack or invasion by a nation in Asia, the power of the British Empire (in particular, its navy) would be there to defend and protect Australia.
  • Some historians suggest that during the period prior to 1941-2, successive Australian governments had sent Australian troops into overseas conflicts as a way of demonstrating Australia’s continuing loyalty to Britain in the hope that this loyalty would be reciprocated by Britain should Australian security ever be under threat. In a sense Australia’s commitment of forces in the cause of Britain was seen as “paying dues” for an Australian national “insurance policy”.
  • In World War 2, Australian belief in Britain’s ability/desire to protect Australia was shaken as the Japanese swept aside British military power in the region to Australia’s near north.
  • In 1941-2, Australia’s relationship with the USA grew much closer and the US replaced Britain as a “great and powerful” protector and military ally against the Japanese. Some historians suggest that to Australian governments, the USA had simply replaced Britain as a “protector” and that the “insurance policy” had been transferred to a new protector to whom new dues would need to be paid.
  • This relationship continued into the post-war period and was formalised with the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951 (during the Korean War and within the context of the Cold War.
  • The “insurance policy” perspective on Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War is used by many historians and revisionists use it as a way of criticising governments for their perceived lack of independence in Australian foreign policy. It is sometimes suggested that Australia was led “blindly” into the Vietnam War by those who emphasised closeness to the USA with little consideration of the possible costs involved.

 Australia’s involvement in Cold War alliances with the USA.

  • Growing out of the above points, Australia had entered into two significant alliances with the USA during the Cold War era.
  • Both alliances, to a greater or lesser extent, were linked to America’s policy of containing communist expansion as expressed in the Truman and Kennedy Doctrines.Many Australians were also gravely concerned by the Domino Theory (first expressed by US President Eisenhower in 1954) which suggested that a chain reaction of communist expansion may take place in South East Asia unless communist nations were “contained”.
  • The two alliances effecting Australia often linked to US containment policies are: (1)  The ANZUS Pact/Treaty (between Australia, New Zealand and the United States) signed in 1951. (2)  SEATO. (The South East Asian Treaty Organisation, created as an instrument of containment, and signed in 1954. The organisation listed both Australia and the USA as members – alongside other nations – and, significantly, granted protection to the Republic of South Vietnam.)


1966 Liberal Party Election Poster in Nichols, T. (Ed.). (2010, November 4). North Vietnam: As bad as we thought, and worse. Retrieved July 22, 2012, from The War Room: http://tomnichols.net/blog/2011/11/04/north-vietnam-as-bad-as-we-thought-and-worse/

1966 Liberal Party Election Poster in Nichols, T. (Ed.). (2010, November 4). North Vietnam: As bad as we thought, and worse. Retrieved July 22, 2012, from The War Room: http://tomnichols.net/blog/2011/11/04/north-vietnam-as-bad-as-we-thought-and-worse/

Regardless of the underlying causes of the Cold War and the differing perspectives offered by orthodox, revisionist and post-revisionist historians, it is important to develop an understanding of the stated foreign policy and stated motivations of the USA

Because so many modern historians argue that Australia “followed” the USA into the Vietnam conflict during the 1960s as a result of fears of Asian communism and out of a desire to prove loyalty to the alliances formed with America, it is important to consider the US policies towards the communist bloc which influenced its decision-making during the Vietnam era (the 1950s – 1970s).


Throughout the Cold War, American foreign policy towards the USSR (and other communist nations such as China) was characterised by a perceived need to defend itself and its allies against the threat of communist expansion (as envisaged by Marx and Trotsky – notably not by Stalin). The leaders of the USA repeatedly articulated a commitment to assisting and supporting like-minded and supposedly “liberal-democratic” states against any perceived left-wing threats. Some critics have gone so far as to argue that US foreign policy during the Cold War period until 1991 can, at its worst, be interpreted as an American willingness to support any regime as long as it was anti-communist – even if it were clearly authoritarian and undemocratic!


What is clear, however, is that US foreign policy during the Vietnam era can be explored by examining a series of phases in which a variety of approaches are taken in dealing with the perceived communist threat posed by the USSR and the People’s Republic of China. Underlying each of these phases is a clear desire to CONTAIN communism within its present boundaries. Each phase seems to have developed its own nuances that have been captured in the speeches and “doctrines” of policy leaders – especially those of three key Presidents.


PHASE 1: 1947 – 1961


TRUMAN DOCTRINE (named after President Harry S. Truman)


Sub-theme: The Domino Theory (President Eisenhower, 1954)

The creation of Containment as a principle in US Foreign Policy during the early years of the Cold War largely prior to Australian and American involvement in Vietnam..


“I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting the attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures… If we falter… we may endanger the peace of the world – and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation.” (Truman, 1947)


Associated with a growing American commitment to containing communism in a variety of locations including Vietnam after 1954. According to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, containment was of particular importance in Asia where the threat of communist expansion was expressed in the Domino Theory.





1961 – 1970


KENNEDY DOCTRINE (named after President John F. Kennedy)



A continuation of the objective of Containment but couched in far more “robust” and “assertive” terms than the Truman Doctrine.


“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill… that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” (Kennedy, 1961)


Initially associated with the events of the Cuban revolution (1959) and subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), the doctrine represented an escalation of America’s commitment to containing communism in a variety of locations including Vietnam after 1961.


After Kennedy’s assassination in 1962, his doctrine remained central to the policies of his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ is remembered for his escalation of the Vietnam conflict.







1970/3 – 1977


NIXON DOCTRINE (named after President Richard M. Nixon)

Containment is placed “in context”. America states a willingness to support others rather than become directly involved in warfare.


“Abroad and at home the key… lies in the placing and the division of responsibilities. The time has passed when America will make every other nation’s conflict our own, or make every other nation’s future our responsibility, or presume to tell the people of other nations how to manage their affairs. Just as we respect the right of each nation to determine its own future, we also recognise the responsibility of each nation to secure its own future.” (Nixon, 1969)


Associated with the end of the Vietnam War (early 1970s) and the concept of Vietnamisation (1969), the doctrine was announced in a context of American desires to withdraw from the Vietnam War.






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