Robert Menzies achieved many things in his long political career. To remain prime minister as long as he did, Menzies kicked the communist can for as much as it was worth.
He also benefited from a split in the Australian Labor Party and the ALP’s remarkable talent for shooting itself in the foot. By choosing ineffectual leaders — Doc Evatt was brilliant but erratic, while Arthur Calwell was dour, dull and unelectable — the ALP was putty in Menzies’ clever political hands.
Good economic times also helped keep Menzies in power. Under Menzies, Australia seemed safe, secure and prosperous. But, as Prime Minister, Menzies did two terrible things. First, without serious thought for the consequences, he allowed the British to test nuclear weapons on Australian soil and second, he committed Australian combat troops to fight in Vietnam when he did not have to.
Nuclear weapons’ testing
By the early 1950s, Britain was desperate to gain nuclear power status. However, the US was reluctant to help them or even allow them to use testing sites in the US. The breakdown in friendship had been sparked by the fact that several British scientists had been double agents working for the Soviet Union. In 1946, the US passed the McMahon Act which barred non-Americans from working on the US atomic program.
Distrust further escalated when, in early 1950, British scientist Klaus Fuchs, who had worked on the Manhattan Project that had created the first atomic bomb, confessed to being a Soviet spy. What had not been detected was that Fuchs, who was born in Germany, had been, and still was, a member of the German Communist Party. Fuchs, via a series of contacts, had passed on secrets of the workings of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. This helped the Soviet Union to detonate an atom bomb in August 1949 in what is now Kazakhstan, four years ahead of CIA projections.
The British, having been spurned by these developments, were determined to test a bomb of their own. But where? Canada was considered, as were remote islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. But then British eyes turned to Australia and their old pal Menzies.
In September 1950 Menzies agreed, without any serious scientific or political consultation, to allow the British to test a nuclear weapon on Australian soil. On October 3, 1952 the British detonated a nuclear bomb on a ship — HMS Plym — off the coast of the Montebello Islands in Western Australia. This was a site they had chosen themselves with no Australian consultation.
The bomb was as big as the Hiroshima bomb. British and Australian servicemen, watching from ships, viewed the emerging mushroom cloud dressed in clothing fit for a day on the golf course.
In 1956 the British detonated a second bomb on Trimouille Island and a third on Alpha Island, both part of the Montebello group. The bomb on Alpha was five times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. The detonations were seen as a huge success.
Britain, with Australian help, had joined the exclusive nuclear club. Meanwhile, the radioactive fallout from the tests, thanks to the prevailing westerly winds, moved eastwards across Western Australia and towards the eastern states, the Pacific and beyond.
With Menzies’ blessing, further British atmospheric nuclear tests were carried out at Emu Field and Maralinga in western South Australia. From 1953 to 1957, there were nine tests in all. But some say more tests were carried out, right up to 1963. Once again, the radioactive clouds travelled across eastern Australia, poisoning land, crops, waterways, animals and people.
In South Australia, Aboriginal people told of dark clouds enveloping the landscape. Servicemen, in light clothing, cleaned equipment used in the tests. Some aircrew were ordered to fly through the radioactive clouds to gather debris. Others were ordered to drive tanks through the blast site after the explosions. None wore protective clothing.
One radioactive cloud from an explosion at Emu Field drifted over a small Queensland town and stayed there as it rained. The town later developed a cancer cluster.
On May 7, 2003, the Adelaide Advertiser ran a front page story on the mysterious deaths of 68 new-born and still-born babies that, over time, had been born to women who had been living with their husbands at Woomera, the secret weapons testing base in South Australia, north-west of Adelaide. The babies all died during the years that atmospheric nuclear testing was taking place at Maralinga.
Unsurprisingly, former Prime Minister John Howard, in his recently published biography called The Menzies' Era, devotes a single paragraph to the nuclear tests in Australia.
After poisoning the country Menzies had another surprise in store. On April 29, 1965, PM Menzies rose to speak in a half-empty House of Representatives. He stunned those assembled by telling them that Australia had received a request from the South Vietnamese Prime Minister, Phan Huy Quat, to send combat troops to assist in the enlarging conflict in Vietnam.
“The Australian government is now in receipt of a request from the government of South Vietnam for further military assistance,” said Menzies.
But was there ever a request from the South Vietnamese? Controversy still rages over this issue. Did Menzies really have a request from the South Vietnamese? And if there was a request, was one “extracted” from the South Vietnamese with American help?
The South Vietnamese always claimed that they did not require any further outside help. American aide was enough. Further foreign help made the South Vietnamese seem incapable and reliant on outside “mercenaries”. Without any solid evidence of a South Vietnamese request for help, it seems Menzies committed Australian combat troops purely to appease the US, just as he had appeased Britain by allowing it to conduct nuclear tests on Australian soil.
Moreover, all the assumptions of the Vietnam War turned out to be wrong. The North Vietnamese were not puppets of the Chinese. The two fought a robust border war five years after the Vietnam War ended. The so-called “domino theory” that claimed once South Vietnam went communist, so would Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, was just that, a theory. It never happened. The massive fire power unleashed by the US on the North Vietnamese failed miserably.
The Vietnam War cost Australia more than 500 lives, including about 200 conscripts. More than 2000 were wounded. Thousands of brave ex-servicemen were traumatised by the conflict. Many committed suicide. Others became seriously ill, blaming the combination of toxic chemicals dumped on Vietnam by the Americans as the underlying cause of their illness.
The decision to allow atmospheric nuclear tests on Australian soil and the decision to send combat troops to Vietnam was all the work of Menzies. He poisoned his own country and countrymen with radioactive fallout, and sent hundreds of young Australians to their deaths in a conflict they need not have been involved in.