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New Zealand and the Vietnam War

by Roberto Rabel

Paperback, 456 pages, b/w illustrations
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 1-86940-340-1
RRP $49.99
Reviewed by Air Vice-Marshal Robin Klitscher RNZAF (Rtd)

This book is an important work. It is also a very useful and timely one, for the first time drawing together the disparate threads of politics, diplomacy and protest in New Zealand during the Vietnam War. Dr Rabel does this with admirable scholarship and balance, the authority of which is emphasised by meticulously fine-grained detail in research and presentation. This is no dry-as-dust academic volume of limited appeal, but is a very readable account of a formative period in our history.

The book makes no attempt to cover the operational experience of those who served in Vietnam – there will be “a separate volume by another historian”. Even so, it does touch lightly on operational matters. What it contains will have some surprises for Vietnam veterans. But this will also be true for those who opposed their involvement.

The book shows, for example, that despite its fury the protest movement in New Zealand achieved very little, if anything, in commanding changes to policies. Even Norman Kirk, when he declined Labour Party support to the largest-ever “protest mobilisation” planned for 30 July 1971, told students “If you can convince me that all the protests in New Zealand have made any difference to policy I'd be interested to hear.” 
There are other reminders that the passage of time can blur our recollections. Some casual chatter today would have it that in late 1972 the incoming Kirk government accelerated the withdrawal of our combat contributions. But those withdrawals had begun two years earlier; and for reasons other than local protest. The last of our combat troops were brought home a full year before the change of government.

f more direct interest to veterans may be much testimony that “political considerations invariably outweighed operational considerations”; and that the politics were gauged more strictly in domestic terms than as grand external strategy. There will be no surprise, of course, that parsimony was strongly in play throughout this longest-running military engagement in our history. These and other tensions are plain to see in the irresolute manner of the first deployment of combat troops in 1965, 161 Battery. And helicopter pilots seconded to the Australians in Vietnam may be surprised to learn of officials' advice to Holyoake that they were not “a part of New Zealand's military contribution” but were “essentially an arrangement between the New Zealand and Australian Air Forces which helped meet an Australian need”. A curious variation on the national sport of blaming the Aussies? Perhaps; but the ambivalence revealed by these and other disclosures may help explain something of the genesis of the shabby treatment since accorded those citizens who answered the country's bidding on operations.

The major findings of the book are far-reaching. There is little to support the idea that decisions taken by New Zealand came of servile responses to bullying by larger allies. On the contrary, there is good evidence of extreme caution; of careful deliberation in weighing the implications; of determination to express a national view despite appeals to conform; and even, occasionally, of an ability to sway others to our sovereign point of view – and indeed, of recognition that without sound alliance connections we were unlikely to be heard at all. This seems to bring into question the conventional wisdom that alliance with larger nations necessarily involves unacceptable abridgements of sovereignty.

Perhaps the main conclusion in the book is that although the protests might have had little effect on our engagement in Vietnam at the time, they did leave an enduring legacy. They had polarised opinions on foreign policy; on where the nation should stand in relation to others more powerful. In the end, all the political and diplomatic anguish to find a least risky course, no less the rising voice of protest over the results, turned out to have less to do with making a difference on the ground in Vietnam than with what David Thomson called, aptly, “the nerve-ends of nationalism”. The real issues became the nature of alliance, the wisdom or otherwise of following an allied strategy, and groping for a workable alternative to it. Sadly, thirty-five years on, we still appear to be groping.

Indeed, the RNZRSA is grateful to Dr Rabel for bringing our attention to a mis-attribution in our recent statement on defence policy, “Defending New Zealand”. We suggested that the undoing of the non-partisan approach to defence policy dated from the ANZUS row in 1985. We erred. As set out so clearly by Dr Rabel, what happened in 1985 was not so much a cause of the undoing as a development of something begun more than a decade previously.

The question of strategy still awaits a satisfactory answer. The book places disagreement on an allied approach squarely in the context of the Cold War, which, in chronological terms, is where it belongs. Accordingly, proponents today of an alliance-based strategy risk accusations of being locked into Cold War thinking. But, surely, the countervailing arguments at the time must equally be placed, and be judged, in the context of the same Cold War in which they were first raised? Otherwise, when we are told that belief in an allied strategy is outdated because the world has moved on, but that other beliefs learned on the same facts and in the same period are not outdated, we have an unresolved inconsistency.

Nonetheless, consistency of a kind does span the years since the Vietnam War. Dr Rabel records that those who dissented from the government's behaviour complained among other things that there had been insufficient public consultation. The government's response was to lecture them sternly. As it was then, so it is now. Contemporary foreign and defence policies are said to be more “moral” and “independent”. But what these terms mean has not been explained, nor has there been any public consultation upon them. Yet we are lectured vaguely about their merits.

Surely the time has come for more convincing public dialogue than that, starting with a clean sheet of paper, keyed to modern conditions and an outlook unencumbered by the deadweight of divisive Cold War charge and counter-charge; tired relics from nearly four decades ago.



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