Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Australia's Response to the Indochina Crisis of 1954 Amidst the Anglo-American Confrontation

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Australia's Response to the Indochina Crisis of 1954 Amidst the Anglo-American Confrontation

Article excerpt

Introduction

The Indochina war between the French and Viet Minh forces led by the Communist Ho Chi Minh began in late 1946. By early 1954 it had become deeply incorporated into the Cold War, with the USA underwriting about 80 per cent of the cost of the war to the French, and Communist China supplying the Viet Minh with substantial material and technical aid. Meeting in Berlin in mid-February 1954, the Big Four--the USSR, USA, UK and France--decided to convene an international conference at Geneva in late April to discuss the restoration of peace in Indochina. Their decision prompted the Viet Minh to launch a major assault against the French-held fortress of Dien Bien Phu in the far northwest of Vietnam in an attempt to strengthen their bargaining position at Geneva. The calling of the Geneva Conference and the subsequent battle for Dien Bien Phu led the USA to propose direct military intervention in Indochina. This precipitated one of the gravest international crises since the end of the Second World War and opened a deep rift in the Anglo-American alliance.

The Indochina crisis came to a head as Australia faced a House of Representatives election set for 29 May 1954. In these circumstances the government of Prime Minister Robert Menzies indicated that it could not commit a future government to a long-term policy for Indochina. However the Menzies Government was not indifferent to circumstances in Asia that would greatly influence Australia's security environment. Australia was not a party to the Berlin Conference, nor to the Geneva Conference on Indochina, and therefore not directly involved in determining the Indochina settlement. However, taking full advantage of the opportunities provided by its position as a member of the British Commonwealth and as an alliance partner in the ANZUS treaty, Australia sought to influence the Great Powers, especially the UK and the US, in order to create a Southeast Asian security environment conducive to its own national interests.

My purpose here is to examine Australia's response to the Indochina crisis of 1954 amidst the Anglo-American confrontation, and to consider three specific questions. The first concerns what caused--and what was involved in--the American-British disagreement over Indochina. It has been suggested that it revolved around a US proposal for allied military intervention. (1) In fact it arose from very different US and British views about the capacity of the French and Vietnamese to continue fighting. It revolved around their different approaches to resolving the Indochina war and can be traced to their divergent positions on the Geneva Conference. A second question asks how Australia's objectives and policies were influenced by the individual incidents involved in the Indochina crisis. The outcome of the Berlin Conference, namely, the decision to call the Geneva Conference marked a watershed in the response of the major allied powers, including Australia, to the fighting in Indochina. This prompted not only the USA, Britain and France, but also Australia to reformulate its approach to the Indochina conflict. The Viet Minh's attack on French union forces at Dien Bien Phu raised the prospect of a French defeat and affected Canberra's policy response. It encouraged Australia to reassess the French and Vietnamese fighting capabilities, and eventually to realise the folly of America's Indochina policy of prolonging the conflict. No existing study provides an account of Australia's assessment of the likely impact of the fall of Dien Bien Phu upon the French and Vietnamese capacity to fight, and on the effect of this assessment upon Canberra's approach to resolving the Indochina war. (2)

Canberra's response to the Indochina conflict was also influenced by America's proposal for joint military intervention. This encouraged Australia to set another policy goal: to make certain that the USA would, in the future, be formally and permanently involved in the preservation of the balance of power in Southeast Asia. …

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