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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 3841

SPEECH BY THE PRIME MINISTER, THE HON EG WHITLAM QC MP, TO THE WORLD ASSEMBLY OF WAR VETERANS IN AUSTRALIA, SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE, 11 AUGUST 1975

Photo of Whitlam, Gough

Whitlam, Gough

Period of Service: 05/12/1972 to 11/11/1975

More information about Whitlam, Gough on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 11/08/1975

Release Type: Speech

Transcript ID: 3841

SPEECH BY THE PRIME MINISTER,
THE HON.. E. G. WHITLAM, M. P.,
TO THE WORLD ASSEMBLY OF WAR VETERANS IN AUSTRALIA,
SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE, 11 AUGUST 1975
I welcome on behalf of the Australian Government
the overseas delegates to this important assembly. Among
you are distinguished war veterans; many of you are renowned
for acts of conspicuous valour in the field or as prisoners of
war. It is an honour to have you among us. Your presence
is a reminder of the great world-wide fraternity of
ex-servicemen the universal kinship between men and women
who have fought for their country in war. Every nation recognises
an obligation to its war veterans. Australia accepts and
honours that obligation.
This is an appropriate moment and an appropriate
gathering at which to reflect on some of the great contemporary
issues of peace and war issues that concern you as former
servicemen and as responsible citizens of your countries.
Last week saw the thirtieth anniversary of the end of World
War 11. In the same week the heads of the European and North
American powers met in Helsinki to acknowledge formally the
realities of power in Europe and consolidate the basis of a
lasting peace. That meeting was part of the great international
movement of detente a movement that remains the supreme
challenge to modern statesmanship. Australia must lend her
voice to this movement. Australia must be part of this
worldwide quest for peace and international understanding.
. It has not always been easy for ex-servicemen' s
organisations to support these causes wholeheartedly. As an
ex-servicemen, as a member of the R. S. L. for the past 30 years,
I admire the efforts of the league to improve the welfare
of ex-servicemen and encourage the spirit of comradeship between
men and women who have served their country. Yet all too rarely
the sentiments and options of the R. S. L. strike a chord with
contemporary generations. Too often the R. S. L. seems out of
step; too often its public statements strike a note of
intolerance, of fanaticism. While Brezhnev and Ford were
meeting in Helsinki, what did we hear and read last week
in Sydney? the slogans of the fifties, the catchcries of
cold war ideology. The week before in another capital a
State Premier was advocating the acquisition of nuclear
weapons and guided missiles. It takes a brave man to query
fading slogans. But there have been brave men. Three years
ago at the New South Wales R. S. L. Congress the Governor,
Sir Roden Cutler, challenged the approach to Vietnam
and a decade before the Governor-General, Viscount De L'Isle, V. C.,
warned the National Congress on Cold War attitudes. The R. S. L.
must bring its influence and prestige to bear in a relevant and
constructive examination of the problems of peace and security.
Too often the younger generation likens the R. S. L. smoko, which
all of our generation enjoy, to Alexander's Feast, at which the
King in his cups Grew vain,
Fought all his battles o'er again,
And thrice he routed all his foes
And thrice he slew the slain.

This year has seen the end of a long and terrible
war in Asia, a war that devastated a large part of our region
and baffled and demoralised the greatest democracy on earth.
The full consequences of the war its full cost in terms
of human life, material destruction, world inflation, shattered
morale, lost faith and broken ideals will perhaps never
be known. Perhaps the most evil consequence of Vietnam has
been a general disillusionment with democratic governments.
People are no longer disposed to believe what their governments
tell them. They are quite ready to believe that Governments
will lie and deceive their people when it suits them. The
necessary trust between governments and governed has been
undermined. The most urgent task for democracy is to rebuild
that trust in a geniune search for peace and human betterment.
And what R. S. L. leader was right on Vietnam?
Above all, we must not waste the opportunity
for peaceful reconstruction and international cooperation
which is now presented to the nations of South-East Asia,
including Australia. Opportunities for peace in the region
have been tragically wasted before; they must not be wasted
again. To say this is not to belittle the sacrifice and
courage of those who fought in Vietnam. To honour our war
dead, it is not necessary to approve of the conflicts in which
they took part. The frank acknowledgement of our past mistakes
and the greater those mistakes the franker and fuller that
acknowledgement must be is the first step to greater wisdom
and security. At the root of the whole ghastly malaise in
Vietnam, the whole tragic and futile struggle, was the
absence of any basic popular conviction that war was just.
The people did not believe in the war. The people of the
United States did not support it. The people of Australia
did not support it. And the people were right.
I believe the chief lesson of Vietnam has been
that no longer will it be possible for governments to fight a
war successfully without the broad support of their people.
There is no longer any automatic or slavish patriotism among
our people. Some may find this unpalatable or shocking;
others may see it as a mark of enlightienment. The fact remains
that the days have passed when any war could be relied upon
to bring an instantaneous surge of national fervour. It was
possible once to depend on such feelings in Australia. When
Australia was founded half the population was in uniform.
We were settled by the Royal Navy and a contingent of troops.
Australians fought in every war in which Britain was engaged,
up to and including the Malaysian campaign. Their first
expedition was to the Sudan 90 years ago; it embarked a few
hundred metres from where we are meeting. It was only in the
last decade that Australians fought overseas without British
troops beside them. The imperial connection which was the root
of our former patriotism is no longer sufficient to stir us.
The sending of a few battalions to Vietnam can no longer provoke
the automatic popular response, the unquestioning commitment,
that prevailed during the Boer War, for example, or during
World War 1 or 11. No one doubts that we were right to fight
Hitler and Tojo, but can the same be said of the earlier wars
in which Australia took part? From our present vantage point
the horrors of World War 1 are difficult to explain and
impossible to justify. I shall have the same difficulty in

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justifying it to my grandson as Kaspar had in justifying
Blenheim: " And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win."
" But what good came of it at last?"
Quoth little Peterkin.
" Why that I cannot tell," said he,
" But -' twas a famous victory."
Apart from a few isolated incidents, the Australian
population has never experienced the horrors of war as the
civilian populations of Britain, Japan and the European
countries have done. The rigours of war have fallen on our
warriors alone. It is only recently through television
that we have seen in Vietnam what war means to a whole
population. It is perhaps for this reason that the anti-war
movement, the general revulsion against war as an instrument
of policy, has been-slower to take root in this country
than it has abroad. It is perhaps for this reason that
bellicose sentiments and cold war thinking have survived longer
in Australia, as they have in the United States, whose
civilian population has also been spared the devastation of modern
warfare. Our isolation has compounded these effects in
another way. As a result of the last war we embarked on a
vast program of immigration. In the first years of that
program many new citizens came here as refugees from Europe.
Many of those who came from the countries of eastern Europe
are inclined to think that those countries are the same as
they were before the war. They are reluctant to accept
the realities of the post-war world; they go on believing
that the old regimes will somehow be restored. In the case
of Yugoslavia, for example, this obsession has persuaded a
sizable minority of new Australians to get together and
venerate our enemies in the last war. By extolling the
Ustasha and the quisling Pavelic they advocate the
dismemberment today as they did in 1941 of the only nation
on the continent of Europe which had declared itself our
ally. It is an utter disgrace that a regime accepted
internationally a nation visited by President Ford and
the Queen should be vilified by a minority of agitators
in Australia. After Helsinki, does anyone really believe
that the situation in Europe will be changed by military
means or that the old regimes in Europe can be restored?
Our true interests lie in putting an end to
these obsessions with the past, in recognising the new
realities in our region and in the world at large, and in
developing humane and rational policies for peace and
international cooperation. These should be the concerns of
all progressive and contemporary ex-servicemen's organisations.
I pay tribute to the R. S. L. in promoting the welfare of
ex-servicemen and serving members of the forces. My own
Government has done a great deal in this field. Indeed
there is some irony in the fact that Australians with active
overseas service have been treated somewhat differently from 4

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other Australians in the provision of government services.
Under our Federal system, the national Government has been
able to provide for servicemen and ex-servicemen such things
as health services, housing and adult training services
-that governments have failed or refused to provide for the
rest of the population. There is certainly a role for ex-servicemen's
organisations in looking after their members' interests.
There is a role for ex-servicemen's organisations as
concerned observers of the nation's defences. But let
this role be discharged in honest and constructive terms.
Let it take account of the realities of the world and the
aspirations of people everywhere for true peace and progress.
For who can doubt -that the world has changed
permanently in the last quarter of a century? For all
our present anxieties. and immense problems, who can doubt that
the world is a safer place than it was at the time of
Berlin, of Korea, of Cuba? For the first time in nearly
years no member of the Australian armed forces is fighting
in an overseas war. No Australian is on active service. The
gates of the temple of Janus are closed. The comparative
peace we now enjoy in our region and the comparative peace
we enjoy in the wider world should renew our determination to
preserve and strengthen peace everywhere. Ex-servicemen's
organisations must lend their support to this process.
In the presence and as the host of the most distinguished
and representative gathering of ex-servicemen in this
country the R. S. L. can make its contribution and bring
inspiration to this noble endeavour.

Transcript 3841