of a shameful abandonment
by Hal G. P. Colebatch
On ANZAC Day, 1975, the Australian Government was running out on the Vietnamese who had helped us.
While ANZAC Day is universally recognised as Australia’s proudest military anniversary, it also coincides with a much less proud Australian anniversary, although Australian servicemen cannot be blamed for this latter—the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the abandonment of South Vietnamese who had worked for the Australians in various capacities.
It was what the Communist North Vietnamese called “The Great Spring Victory”: beginning with a major push at the beginning of April and ending with a North Vietnamese tank smashing into the Saigon presidential palace a few hours after ANZAC Day, 1975.
Absurd, inhumane and totally impractical bureaucratic requirements from the Australian Government (under Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam) for visas to enable South Vietnamese to escape added up to a result that hardly any were actually issued.
Very nearly the whole body of the Vietnamese (and their families) whose lives were at risk because of their association with Australians—a total of several hundred people—were left to the mercies of the Communists.
In Cambodia, also, the Communist Khmer Rouge embarked on a campaign of genocide with at least 1.7 million—about a quarter of the population—dead, and which dwarfed even the Vietnamese reprisals—and those do not seem to have erred on the side of excessive mercy.
The shameful fact that the Vietnamese had been deliberately and cold-bloodedly abandoned, though there was the capacity to airlift many people out, was confirmed by a bi-partisan Australian Senate report the following year. About 165,000 were to die in jungle re-education camps in the first few years, and some who refused to bow to communist indoctrination are there to this day.
Despite the fraudulent 1973 settlement of the Paris Peace talks, the North Vietnamese, come the northern spring of 1975, and once they were sure America with its B52s had washed its hands of South Vietnam, launched a massive assault, estimated as being the equivalent of about 19 divisions, with Soviet-supplied tanks and artillery (no more romantic, black pyjama-clad guerrillas coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail on bicycles!).
With American aid to the South—even small-arms ammunition—largely cut off, the South’s position was hopeless, though the 18thDivision of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam put up an heroic defence outside Saigon for several days.
The shattering of the Indo-Chinese Peace-treaty was greeted by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Australian Labor Government and in Parliament by everything from complacency to mirth, preserved uncompromisingly in Hansard.
Australian Labor references often gave the impression that the South was regarded by them as the defeated enemy which deserved to perish, rather than the ally on whose behalf Australian forces had been fighting for years, with a total of about 50,000 serving and 500 dying.
Eminent war correspondent Denis Warner had reported the North’s build-up in 1973. Alan Renouf, appointed Whitlam’s Ambassador to Hanoi, also said before the attack that the North’s victory was only a matter of time. Despite these and other warnings and the obviously dire military situation, no real plans were put in hand to evacuate Vietnamese nationals who had worked with Australians and whose lives might well be forfeited in a Communist take-over.
Australian Deputy Prime Minister Dr Jim Cairns simply stated: “The Saigon [South Vietnamese] and Phnom Penh [Cambodian] Governments should fall, that is the best solution …” Prime Minister Whitlam claimed: “These strongmen, these realists, the men on horse-back, insisted on a military solution. So a military solution it is now to be.” Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser accused the Government of “contemptible silence” in not protesting the North’s attack. Opposition front-benchers Andrew Pea-cock and Ian Sinclair, made similar charges, saying the Australia Embassy in Phnom Penh should not have been closed when it was most needed to get people out of the Communist Khmer Rouge’s hands. Mr Peacock also claimed the Australian Government was refusing to issue visas to South Vietnamese seeking to escape, and that this would be a scar on Australian history.
In an interview on 2 May, 1975, Dr Cairns (Deputy Leader of the ALP and Deputy Prime Minister) said South Vietnamese who had worked with Australians would be dealt with by the North Vietnamese as “collaborators”.
When Liberal Senator Sir Magnus Cormick stated in Parliament “There is a vast body of terrified people moving to the south,” Labor Senator Keefe joked “a bit like the Liberal Party.”
The general feeling expressed by the Whitlam Labor Government, both in the Ministry and from the back-benches, was that the South Vietnamese were worthless. The Government’s Mr Morrison said, typically, that the Saigon forces were no more than “hard-faced plunderers and looters.” The personalised hatred of and contempt for the South Vietnamese was obvious.
The report of the Senate Standing Committee On Foreign Affairs and Defence, Australia and the Refugee Problem, published the following year, concluded unanimously that during the final invasion of South Vietnam, the Whitlam Government had consciously and knowingly abandoned South Vietnamese whose lives were in danger because of their association with Australian forces. Further, the committee found that during the final Communist offensive, the Whitlam Government had instructed the Australian Embassy in Saigon to help only a token number of South Vietnamese “or had put such obstacles in the way of the Australian Embassy that such evacuation was in any event impossible.” Giant Hercules aircraft were made to take off with no passengers aboard, though refugees had been struggling to get on. According to News Weekly, Whitlam had issued instructions that the Hercules were not to carry unauthorised people. Whitlam boasted of his humanity by pointing out that he had been photographed with an evacuated South Vietnamese orphan. While orphans would doubtless face a hard life in Liberated Vietnam, they were probably one of the categories whose lives would actually be least at risk. There were no evacuated Saigon Police, Army officers, businessmen or civil servants for Whitlam to pose with: their communist liberators were taking care of them, and were busy imposing a rule so pleasant that a couple of years later hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese, including not a few ex-Viet Cong, would choose the risk of death at sea in leaking fishing boats rather than continue to endure it.
Would it be worth anyone’s while today to find out what actually happened to Australia’s abandoned Vietnamese and Cambodians?