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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 2435


Photo of McMahon, William

McMahon, William

Period of Service: 10/03/1971 to 05/12/1972

More information about McMahon, William on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 22/06/1971

Release Type: Media Release

Transcript ID: 2435

FOR PRESS: PM NO. 64/ 1971
Statement by III _ Prime Minister, Mr. William McMahon
Following a series of disclosures in the New York Times of confidential
documents belonging to the American Government relating to Vietnam, statements have
been made concerning the commitment in 1965 of Australian troops to fight in Vietnam.
Many of these have been irresponsible and4 obviously politically motivated.
Much controversy has centred on the question of whether or not the Australian
Government had been requested by the South Vietnamese Government to supply military
assistance. It will be clear from what follows that t~ l-e appropriate request was in fact
made and that we did not intend to act unless such a request was made.
Statements to the contrary are demonstrably false.
The matter was referred to the Defence Committee which asked the Secretaries
of the Departments of Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Defence to
study the relevant documents and report to me.
They have been assisted by the officer who was Australian Ambassador to South
Vietnam at the time the commitment was made and who handled personally, in Saigon,
the exchange of letters following which the combat forces were sent.
It is clear from this study that the Government of t he day acted with complete
propriety throughout the events leading to the commitment of a battalion to Vietnam and
that it faithfully and honestly informed the public of the decisions it had made and the
basis on which they were made.
The Prime Minister of the day, Sir Robert Menzies, has already made a public
statement which, in th e clearest terms, rejects the charges made against his Government
and himself. I confirm the accuracy of his statement.
Australia's actions at that time must be seen in perspective and in the context
of the worsening situation in South-East Asia.
As I said in a television interview on 18 June, we were in South Vietnam because
we felt there was a real danger at that time of the whole of South-East Asia falling to
communism. We joined with our friends and allies, the United States, to resist the
threat. We wanted the smaller countries of Asia to be able to determine their own future.
It will be remembered too, that this was the period of " confrontation" between
Sukarno's Indonesia and Malaysia, and that Australian forces were already involved in
Malaysia. In South Vietnam the military and political situation was close to collapse. North
Vietnamese infiltration had increased substantially and there was clear evidence of the
presence in~ the South of formed units of the North Vietnamese regular forces. 9 0 0 0 / 2

The question of sending a battalion to South Vietnam was under discussion by
the Government from December 1964 until the commitment was announced on 29 April 1965.
During this period, the Government was in close and continuing communication
with the United States.
Whilst there was a broad identity of view on the gravity of the situation, the
decisions taken by the Government during this period were firmly based on its own
independent assessments of our national interests.
The Government was considering a significant enlargement of our assistance
to South Vietnam which at that stage consisted of a team of military adviser" and a
flight of RAAF transport aircraft. Our own interests were deeply involved. We had a
direct interest in the security of . South Vietnam and we had then, as now, obligations
under the South-East Asia Treaty.
The Defence Committee and the Chiefs of Staff Committee had each made a
close study of what further action Australia could take.
At all stages in the Government's consideration it was known and accepted that
if combat troops were offered and were to be sent they would go only " at the invitation
or with the consent of" South Vietnam. This was required under article IV of the
South-East Asia Treaty to which we were a party.
This was not, as some want to present it, a matter being considered for the
first time on the eve of our announcement of a commitment. It was basic throughout.
It should be remembered that in July 1964 the Prime Minister of South Vietnam,
then Major-General Nguyen Khanh, in a published letter addressed to the Heads of State
of 34 countries, including Australia, had appealed for " all the support you deem possible
arid opportune in order to help us successfully fight the communist aggression".
And as I have pointed out on another occasion, the Prime Minister of South
Vietnam, Mr. Tran Van Huong, in December 1964 in discussion with the Australian
Minister for Air, then visiting Vietnam, and the Australian Ambassador, asked for an
increased Australian military contribution.
Mr. Huong said the situation was now such that large scale assistance was
urgently needed from all free nations " in every form but particularly military".
On 29 April there was an exchange of letters between the Australian Ambassador
and the Prime Minister of South Vietnam.
In these letters, the Australian Government offered to send a battalion if one
were requested, and the South Vietnamese Government accepted this offer and made its
request in terms conforming with the requirements of the South-East Asia Treaty.
Sir Robert Menzies, then Prime Minister, made a statement in the House
of Representatives on the same day.
He said we had received this request and that a battalion would be provided
for service in Soitth Vietnam.

He said the deeision thint we wnuld be willing to send troops if we received
the ucg regpim-tfrom the Oovern-Iment ( 4 South Vietnam was made in pwinciple
Henv1dedtht thfere had~ been dose-consultation with the Governmea -of -the
Onttdft The-SwjttilietramfeeGovernrment also -publicly isso. 6ommunique fm
ftrwdaybichraid, -~ upon, thec request-of the Grovernment 6f the Re~ public df
Vietnam, . tfriCermnm fif L tralia-today -approved-despamh to Vietnamn ofan
iiifartryhbatnaizn . ttg ber-vitlhJAt1CaI suppcrtpersernnel. to -assist -the. Republic
ft: VIerm armedA 6veinim -sruggle-. against aggreasion...~ 2
ftaurning to the-substance, of the matter, there hae-stneebeenr a-dramatic
IffVemenm -it the jsecurity-a3 the--stability off the generaL region of SoutbhEost * Asi&
Webavesowtibuted to-this fIprov~ erneft.
" m South Vietnam, communist aggression has. been checked and the pacification
p~ a~~ mm ~ dvel~ e& and -extended.
The Government took the--responsible course a course based on-tts-owr
4899sment of enlarging. the contribution it was already making in South Vlemnm on
the -basis . that. the military situation required it and the ceountry under. agpsa& nak~ d
ier it,

Transcript 2435