Peter Edwards has reviewed Fighting Australia’s Cold War: The Nexus of Strategy and Operations in a Multipolar Asia, 1945-1965, edited by Peter Dean and Tristan Moss (ANU Press, 2021).
The Korean War (1950-53) has often been called the forgotten war, but the term applies at least equally to the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) and the Indonesian Confrontation (1963-66). Australian political and military institutions do much to commemorate costly conflicts while neglecting two that brought good strategic results at a low cost. Confrontation should be seen as an outstanding example of Australian statecraft, in which politicians, officials, diplomats and military combined to achieve an excellent result with minimal long-term damage to crucial relationships.
Fighting Australia’s Cold War, which portrays the conflicts in Korea, Malaya and Borneo as a distinct phase in Australia’s strategic and military history, has the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of a book by several authors. The first three chapters are by acknowledged experts on their respective topics: Stephan Frühling on strategic policy; John Blaxland on the post-1945 downsizing and restructuring of forces; and David Horner on the early history of ASIO. The next five cover not only Australian operations in each of the three conflicts but also the Far East Strategic Reserve as an exercise in defence planning, and Australia’s defence of its land border in Papua New Guinea. The authors – Thomas Richardson, Tristan Moss, Lachlan Grant, and Michael Kelly – are well-credentialled members of the next generation of military historians.
The book’s introduction notes that Australian military and strategic history has long been dominated by white, male historians associated with one of three Canberra institutions – the Australian National University, the Australian War Memorial and the University of NSW Canberra. That description would be true of all contributors here, except that Peter Dean, a co-editor and author of the concluding chapter, has recently become the inaugural director of the Defence and Security Institute at the University of Western Australia. As we now define our region as ‘the Indo-Pacific’, it is entirely appropriate that UWA, which already hosts the Perth USAsia Centre, should develop a major hub of military and strategic studies. The other co-editor, Tristan Moss, has now joined the Griffith Asia Institute.
Fighting Australia’s Cold War has no bibliography, but the footnotes indicate that the chapters are based, not on original research for this volume, but on published works including those of the contributors as well as the official Australian war histories, which addressed the Korean War and the Emergency, Confrontation and Vietnam conflicts in separate series. The introduction notes that the Southeast Asian series, for which I was responsible as the official historian, only covered the Malayan Emergency and Confrontation in one of the nine volumes (not 10 as stated here). This underplays two elements. First, I devoted the first volume of the series, Crises and Commitments, to Australian strategy, politics and diplomacy from 1948 to 1965, to demonstrate the importance of the domestic, regional and global events of the time.[i] More importantly, I had to fight long and hard even to have Confrontation included in what was originally designated as the official history of the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War.[ii]
Many of the themes of this book are to be welcomed. The two decades from 1945 to 1965 deserve to be treated as much more than just a gap between World War II and the Vietnam War, in which a few minor and forgettable conflicts took place. The oft-derided concept of ‘forward defence’ was a well-considered strategy, one fundamental element of which was a carefully argued decision to focus exclusively on Southeast Asia, rejecting involvement in the Middle East. (It is salutary to read Robert Bowker’s analysis of Menzies’ role in the 1956 Suez crisis alongside Frühling’s strategic chapter.[iii])
The book gives less attention to another basic principle of strategic policy in the period: Australia only intervened in another country by the invitation of what it considered to be the legitimate authority, not by invasion. To put it crudely, Australia did regime defence, not regime change. Even the subsequent Vietnam commitment was an attempt to save the Saigon regime, not to overturn the Hanoi government. Policy-makers and historians today might reflect on those two principles as they assess Australia’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021.
The contributors are right to point out that, long after Curtin’s ‘turn to America’ and the signing of the ANZUS treaty, Britain and the Commonwealth figured at least as prominently as the United States in Australian strategic, operational and tactical thinking. Major challenges were posed by tensions between London and Washington, especially by their different approaches to Southeast Asian strategy. The chapter on the Far East Strategic Reserve, a Commonwealth arrangement, indicates that Australia was involved in serious, albeit at times unrealistic, military planning. The Australian policy-makers seeking to put flesh on the bones of the recent AUKUS agreement will not be the first to appreciate the difficulties of keeping close to both our ‘great and powerful friends’.
The chapter on Confrontation brings out the importance of the work of Australia’s diplomats and Sir Garfield Barwick as foreign minister. After decades in which Australia’s diplomatic resources have been diminished and degraded, today’s leaders would do well to remember that devoting a trivial amount, by Defence standards, towards the construction of a capable and experienced foreign office and diplomatic service can return enormous dividends by, for example, finding non-military solutions to contentious issues or preventing a small conflict from escalating.
Moss distils his recent book[iv] into a valuable chapter on military planning for the potential war that never happened but was constantly on Australian minds – a conflict on the land border between the Indonesian-controlled western half of New Guinea and the Australian-administered eastern half. It might have been useful to remind readers that the ‘birthday ballot’ national service scheme introduced in 1964, forever remembered as the system that sent conscripts to Vietnam, was initially based on the forecast need for additional troops in, firstly, an expanded Malaysian-Indonesian conflict; secondly, an expansion of Confrontation across the border in New Guinea; and only thirdly ‘the SEATO area’, meaning either Thailand or South Vietnam.[v]
Dean’s final chapter discusses what this period tells us about an Australian ‘way of war’, in the context of what he regards as a false dichotomy, the contest between the expeditionary force (or globalist) and the ‘Defence of Australia’ (or regionalist) approaches to Australian strategy. This is a valuable essay on a topic on which Dean’s views carry weight but belongs in a different book, devoted to a broader discussion of Australian strategy. Here Dean might well have confined himself to a more focused discussion of how Australian political, diplomatic, official and military leaders aligned their doctrines and resources at the strategic, operational and tactical levels between 1945 and 1965. In a paper in 2015 I attempted a brief survey of some strategic lessons from the three Southeast Asian conflicts.[vi] An essay by Dean along similar lines, but including Korea and excluding Vietnam, would have made an admirable conclusion to this book.
The editing of this book was probably rushed, as several errors have slipped through. The most striking are on pages 155-56, where Sukarno’s and Suharto’s names are exchanged, so that we read of President Suharto being ousted in 1965-66 and succeeded by General Sukarno. Two of the four maps are incorrectly captioned. One of them has too little detail to be useful, and the other too much. There is some confusion on the appropriate use of ‘Malay’, ‘Malayan’ and ‘Malaysian’; and also on the dates of the first Indonesian cross-border raids in 1963 and those on the Malayan peninsula in 1964. One hopes a revised edition, correcting these and other errors, might be prepared.
These flaws notwithstanding, the book will introduce a new generation of students, both military and civilian, to a distinct phase of Australian defence strategy and military operations, usefully condensing a great deal of detailed research by the contributors, the teams of official historians, and other authors. The challenges facing Australia’s strategic planners today may seem vastly different, but there are valuable and relevant lessons, both positive and negative, to be learnt from a study of this period.
[i] Peter Edwards with Gregory Pemberton, Crises and Commitments: The Politics and Diplomacy of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948-1965, Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, Sydney, 1992.
[ii] See Peter Edwards, ‘Conflicts and controversies over Southeast Asia’, in Peter Stanley ed., Charles Bean: Man, Myth, Legacy, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2017, 145-58. See also Peter Dennis, ‘The Malayan Emergency’, in Stanley ed., Charles Bean, 159-69.
[iii] Robert Bowker, Australia, Menzies and Suez: Australian Policymaking on the Middle East Before, During and After the Suez Crisis, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Canberra, 2019. This is based on the research for Robert Bowker and Matthew Jordan eds, Australia and the Suez Crisis 1950-1957, DFAT and UNSW Press, 2021.
[iv] Tristan Moss, Guarding the Periphery: The Australian Army in Papua New Guinea 1951-75, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2017.
[v] See Edwards with Pemberton, Crisis and Commitments, 327-31.
[vi] Peter Edwards, Learning from history: Some strategic lessons from the ‘forward defence’ era, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Canberra, 2015.