Déjà Vu All Over Again, Again


Since the debacle of Vietnam, Australia has faithfully followed the USA into the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, Australia is gearing up to following the USA into another inevitable debacle – a war with China.

By Chris Johansen, Co-editor Green Issue

The original article by this author entitled "Déjà Vu All Over Again" written two years ago essentially highlighted the mistakes of the Vietnam War being repeated in the recently ended Afghanistan War. With the subsequent advent of AUKUS it appears that we are entering into another round of the same mistakes so it seems warranted to update that original title with another "Again".

An ABC TV series on Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War carried me back to the heady days of the 1960s. I was fully immersed in that involvement back then, as part of the “hell no, we won’t go” mob. While watching that program it occurred to me that nothing much has changed between the 1960s and now with regards to Asia-USA-Australia military posturing, apart from some of the actors.

Humans, and indeed many other life forms, have the ability to learn from past mistakes so as to avoid them in future. This clearly has not happened in the case of the Asia-USA-Australia military circumstance. Indeed, since the debacle of Vietnam, Australia has faithfully followed the USA into the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, Australia is gearing up to following the USA into another inevitable debacle – a war with China.

The similarities between now and 60 years ago are staggering, enough to make me feel like a young fellow again (indeed, I am back on the streets with banners and slogans).

Global strategies

The underlying US justification for involvement in the Vietnam War was to maintain and enhance its military and economic dominance achieved as prime victors of World War 2. It considered its main threat to this ambition to be the Soviet Union, and China to a lesser extent, as representing global communism, a political philosophy which has always been an anathema to the US. Further, during and after World War 2 US economic prosperity was largely founded on the military-industrial complex. This being so, wars were considered as not such a bad thing as they created a demand for ever more weapons manufacture.

For Asia in the 1950s and 60s, the US promulgated the “domino theory”, that if the spread of communism in Asia was not stopped in its tracks then all of south-east Asia, including Australia, would be overrun. Most Australians subscribed to this theory then, convinced by the media and the Government, and thus the Government pledged its support to any US efforts to fight communism in Asia, which lead to its willing involvement in the Vietnam War.

Fast forward to now, the US is still trying to protect its global military and economic dominance but this time casting China as both an economic and military threat. Australia has been seduced into believing this threat by politicians claiming to protect Australia, vigorously egged on by the conservative, and even not so conservative, media. This propaganda has worked as polls indicate that five years ago only 45% of Australians considered China as a military threat whereas now it is 75%. This is despite China being Australia’s largest trading partner, and wealth generator, and no evidence produced that China has any military ambitions threatening Australia.

In other words, “all the way with LBJ” all over again. Although in the 60s some of us had an alternative slogan – “hey, hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today”.

Propaganda and paranoia

But the conflict in Vietnam in the 1950s and early 60s was firstly about evicting the French colonialists and then a civil war between communist North Vietnam and the South Vietnam Government run by those who had financially and socially benefitted under the French. And in the South itself there was an insurgent movement, the Viet Cong, fighting the privileged South Vietnamese rulers on behalf of the rural poor. US direct involvement in the war was justified by the concocted Gulf of Tonking incident in 1964, falsely claiming that a US warship was attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats. Australia quickly followed their perceived US protectors into the war.

Now, the propaganda is focussed on China being a threat to the “global rules-based order” – i.e. rules established by the US – in other words the maintenance of US global hegemony. Threats of possible war are being used to contain China. Excuses for military action are being concocted on several fronts, creating plenty of opportunities for another “Gulf of Tonking incident”.

Firstly, the perception is trying to be created that China is about to invade the independent nation of Taiwan, and that the “west” needs to militarily back Taiwan. The reality is that the standoff between mainland China and Taiwan is the aftermath of a suspended civil war between the Chiang Kai Shek nationalist army and the communist army. The nationalist army fled to Taiwan in 1949. Most countries in the world, including US and Australia, recognize Taiwan as an integral part of China. The US is trying to turn this internal Chinese civil war into a global conflict, with Australia paying lip service to this – i.e. Vietnam all over again. A bit ironic, with the current deepening political divide in the US and that country reverting to its own civil war status of the 1860s.

Secondly, it is argued that the ongoing build-up of Chinese military capability is evidence of the country’s aggressive intent, beyond its own borders. With the expansion of US military bases surrounding China, and the escalation of military exercises off the coast of China, it can be more logically argued that the Chinese military build-up is for defensive, rather than offensive, purposes. No convincing evidence has yet been provided of Chinese aggressive intent beyond its borders. In the same manner as the Great Wall of China was built to defend against invading Mongols.

Thirdly, the dispute over sovereignty of some islands in the South China Sea. Rival claims are being made by nations bordering that sea - the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and China – and are best settled by Law of the Sea negotiations, rather than military threats and involvement by outside nations. 

Fourthly, China is regularly accused of human rights violations, especially with regard to Uyghurs. The following saying springs to mind – “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”. Impossible to even summarize the plethora of human rights violations committed by the US all across the planet since World War 2. And Australia – First Nations people, refugees, support for Israel and other countries with appalling human rights records.


Apart from the “domino theory” an underlying reason for Australia’s enthusiasm to get involved in the Vietnam War was its historical racism. Right through the 1800s the “yellow peril” was invoked, mainly focussing on the relatively industrious Chinese gold miners (dug more vigorously, got more gold). With Federation, the White Australia Policy was written into the constitution, and it was alive and well in the 1950s and 60s. Japanese imperialism and advances into various parts of Asia during World War 2 reinforced the fear of Asian invasion. Thus it was not difficult for politicians to re-stoke those fears and convince the public that pre-emptive strikes in Asia were necessary to thwart the “yellow peril”.

Nowadays, despite Australia officially dumping the White Australia policy some 50 years ago, the spectre of the “yellow peril” is again being raised, to portray China as a threatening enemy. Albeit a bit more difficult this time around as trade with China is Australia’s main source of wealth!


At the time of Australia’s first involvement in the Vietnam War (1962-4), there were only a handful of protestors, almost universally labelled as commie fellow travellers, traitors, and assorted racially-tinged insults. A few, like Jim Cairns, were in the Labor party, and through the 60’s their numbers grew, mainly as a result of increasing public protests against the war and conscription.

The Australian Government of the time tried to quash dissent to the war by trying to intimidate protestors and conscientious objectors to conscription. The media stepped up its rhetoric about communist traitors, cowards, white feather boys (based on World War 1 protestors being handed white feathers), etc. Conscientious objectors on other than religious grounds were threatened with renewable two-year jail terms and if and when freed life-long ineligibility for government jobs. Citing my own experience, they had regular visits from ASIO officers interrogating them over their assumed links to the Communist Party, wanting to see what literature they read and generally threatening them with extended prison terms (they didn’t confiscate laptops and iphones as they weren’t invented then!).

We now seem to have returned to the mode of federal and state governments trying to quash dissent through recently enhanced laws and penalties for political protesters across Australia. Primarily aimed at climate activists but equally applicable to peace activists. Nowadays police have no qualms about entering homes of persons suspected of contemplating an action, rummaging through their closets and confiscating their laptops and iphones.

But during the late 60s and early 70s harsh treatment of protestors served to awaken the public as to what they were on about, to the point where a majority ultimately favoured getting out of Vietnam. It may take a repetition of such persecution to alert the public to the path to war that their government has committed them to.


Of course, during the 70s the US and their allies left Vietnam with their tails between their legs, Vietnam united under a communist government, the domino theory never played out, and the stated justification for involvement in Vietnam totally discredited. As an aside, a major assertion by the US and allies during the war was that China was fully supporting North Vietnam. Er, in 1979 there was a border war between China and Vietnam!

Then US and allies launched wars in Iraq. The main outcome of that, inspired by the US atrocities committed, was the creation of Islamic State, a jihadist organization which made Al Qaeda look like a Sunday school picnic. And the war in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, only to be ousted by the Taliban 20 years later.

This kaleidoscope of calamities reminds me of something Albert Einstein once said: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Déjà vu, or not?

Insanity is treatable. We don’t necessarily have to keep walking down the path that the AUKUS agreement has laid out for us. Further down that path would have particularly disastrous consequences for those who live in Perth South Metro. The base for US/UK/Australian nuclear powered, and inevitably nuclear armed, submarines on Garden Island would be a prime target for any Chinese counter attack, along with Pine Gap and B-52 bomber facilities in the Northern Territory.

The anti-AUKUS protest movement is currently in its nascent stages, somewhat similar to the level of anti-Vietnam War protest in 1966-7. But it is encouraging that anti-AUKUS qualms are being felt within the Labor Party. Some 50 Labor branches have passed resolutions against AUKUS, there is a vocal Labor against War faction and many former Labor luminaries have eloquently denounced AUKUS (e.g. Paul Keating, Bob Carr, Gareth Evans). And, unlike the Vietnam War, any fireworks haven’t started yet. Thus anti-AUKUS folk are still in with a chance of closing off this pathway, but it will require a huge public education effort in the face of a largely pro-AUKUS media and increasing protester repression by authorities. So, sixty years on I’m now with the “hell yes, we’ll do our best” mob.

Header photo: Vietnam War 1966. Credit: James K. F. Dung, Public Domain

[Opinions expressed are those of the author and not official policy of Greens WA]