Gordon Campbell on the Vietnam vets apology

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.