Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on the Vietnam vets apology

May 29th, 2008

On compassionate grounds, the apology extended to the troops who fought in Vietnam was justified – so long as it was not extended or regarded as a re-appraisal of the morality of the conflict, which the Government has been careful not to do. For the Government to have been crystal clear about what was, and wasn’t, being apologized for would have run the risk of re- opening old wounds and would have undermined the point of the apology. There may be another occasion when the other shoe – an apology to the people of Vietnam – can be allowed to fall.

There is no doubt that the decades-long shameful treatment of the Vietnam vets over their exposure to Agent Orange merits an apology. Successive governments bear that shame. There is no conflict on that point In fact, some of the anti-war protestors were partly responsible for bringing the Vietnam war role of the IWD plant in New Plymouth – and the terrible impacts of Agent Orange – out into the open daylight.

The trickier part of the apology hinges on the reception given to the troops on their return home. By the mid 1970s, troops who had volunteered – these were not conscripts – to serve in a war whose morality and strategic worth had been widely challenged for the best part of a decade, could hardly have expected to be greeted with open arms by an entire, grateful nation.

On the other hand, New Zealand had agreed, however grudgingly during Sir Keith Holyoake’s term as Prime Minister, to send troops to Vietnam. Those troops were, in that sense, carrying out this country’s foreign policy. The abuse directed at the individual troops on their return home can with hindsight, be regretted. It would be helpful if the veterans themselves now saw fit, by using the same degree of hindsight, to apologise to the Vietnam people. Many Vietnamese share the same legacy from an Agent Orange that we brought to their country.

The apology, while merited on some grounds, does not rewrite history, though. Certainly, those who protested in New Zealand against the war – and against the domino theory of Communist advance, which was widely seen as a fantasy even at the time – have nothing to apologise about concerning their opposition to the war. The unification of Vietnam and its subsequent positive role as a trade and tourism partner within South East Asia were just what the protestors had envisaged would happen, post war. They have been entirely vindicated.

There is also evidence that during the war, the protests in New Zealand played a useful and highly effective role in helping to end the war. In 1967, US Defense Secretary Clark Clifford and General Maxwell Taylor made a tour of the Pacific allies to gauge the level of support for continuing the war.

Here is what Clifford wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine, July 1969 :

“In New Zealand, we spent the better part of a day conferring with the Prime Minister and his cabinet, while hundreds of students picketed the Parliament Building carrying signs bearing peace slogans. These officials were courteous and sympathetic, as all the others had been, but they made it clear that any appreciable increase was out of the question. New Zealand at one time had 70,000 troops overseas in the various theaters of World War II. They had 500 men in Viet Nam. I naturally wondered if this was their evaluation of the respective dangers of the two conflicts.
I returned home puzzled, troubled, concerned. Was it possible that our assessment of the danger to the stability of Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific was exaggerated? Was it possible that those nations which were neighbors of Viet Nam had a clearer perception of the tides of world events in 1967 than we? Was it possible that we were continuing to be guided by judgments that might once have had validity but were now obsolete? In short, although I still counted myself a staunch supporter of our policies, there were nagging, not-to-be-suppressed doubts in my mind…”

So, domestically, the New Zealand anti-Vietnam protests helped create a climate where large numbers of our troops could not be committed – which means that without their efforts, even more New Zealand soldiers and their families would be suffering from the effects of Agent Orange today. Internationally, it imposed its presence on the perceptions of the US Defense Secretary, and caused him to re-think the wisdom of the war. Not a bad effort.


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    1. 5 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on the Vietnam vets apology”

    2. By David Lackey on May 30, 2008 | Reply

      Quote: “…….By the mid 1970s, troops who had volunteered – these were not conscripts – to serve in a war whose morality and strategic worth had been widely challenged for the best part of a decade, could hardly have expected to be greeted with open arms by an entire, grateful nation.”:End quote.

      You are wrong to repeat Keith Holyoake’s canard that “they are all volunteers”.

      We were almost entirely regular soldiers who had chosen the Army for our career and to accept whatever the bidding of the country may be. Once that commitment was made, there was nothing volunteer about it.

      The sergeant didn’t walk into the barracks and say “Ï want volunteers to go to Vietnam” he said, “ÿou, you, and you – you are going to Vietnam”.

      There was no way a soldier, after years of training, and with a wife and kids to feed, was going to say “I don’t want to go”. And don’t forget that the training included a certain amount of political conditioning. What you might call “brain washing”.

      The “volunteer” argument is as disingenuous today as it was on the lips of Kiwi Keith.

      724557 Lt(Retd) D.W.Lackey RNZA

    3. By Dave McArthur on May 30, 2008 | Reply

      There was one statement that had a profound impact on me as a young man in the 1060s. I shall never forget the disgust I experienced when I heard Prime Minister Keith Holyoake on National radio pompously admonishing those who protested against New Zealand’s involved in the war on our South East Asian neighbours. He said that we should understand that if we wished to keep our beef markets in America then we have to have our troops in Vietnam.

      I had read about the US military-industrial complex. However this statement caused me to actually experience the Administration of the USA as the personification of evil, as a bunch of nasty, cowardly, bullying murdering thugs. If this was what war was really about I wanted nothing of it and I registered as a conscientious objector. (From memory we had to register for the army ballot and each year thousands of young men of my age were conscripted for military training with the real risk of being conscripted into slaughtering our Asian neighbours.)

      I knew Keith Holyoake as a consummate manipulator and for some reason gave him the benefit of the doubt. Years later I heard a comment (by Tom Newnham?) that supported my gut feel about Kiwi Keith. He described how a top White House official (The Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara?) was visiting Auckland to pressure the Government to increase its contributions of troops. As they mounted the steps to enter the building for negotiations, Keith stopped, turned to the assembled protestors and gave them such a supercilious and smirking wave that it drove them to rage. He then went inside where he apparently explained to the Americans that the Government of New Zealand was not really in a position to provide more troops – they only have to listen to the state of the protestors outside the building…

      True or not, NZ did play a pivotal role in the war on our SE Asian neighbours and I know some of our troops paid a heavy price. Recently as I read suggestions that one third of the homeless in the US are war veterans I am reminded of some of the NZ Vietnam/Cambodia veterans I encountered in the 1970s and 80s in their boarding houses, bedsits and flats. I recall their blotched scaling skins, their bottles of spirits on their kitchen tables and above all the desperate horror that haunted their eyes and conversation. Whatever their motivation for going to Vietnam some of these folk came back destroyed.

    4. By robin on May 30, 2008 | Reply

      As a registered CO and active demonstrator against the war in the late sixties and early seventies, I am still angry that our country – our troops – were complicit in the illegal invasion of Vietnam, and the subsequent slaughter of four million Vietnamese. Where is the apology to the Vietnamese people?

    5. By Peter Haynes on May 30, 2008 | Reply


      You make some excellent points that others miss. Liked the conclusion especially.

      However, can you say “…Agent Orange that we brought to their country”? Was NZ consulted about the use of Agent Orange? Certainly, we materially supported the US efforts, including the mega-scale bombing campaign, but how culpable were we in the manufacture and use of Agent Orange. How much did we know?

      And, on that point, has the suppression of the file by Defence Force staff ever been investigated?

    6. By Jeremy Eade on Jun 3, 2008 | Reply

      Excellent writing.

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