Top secret Australia–USA talks about Vietnam and nuclear weapons

This is a five-page record of high-level talks held in Canberra on 9 May 1962 between Australia and the United States about three subjects: Australia's proposed involvement in the war in Vietnam; guidelines for the possible use of nuclear weapons in Asia; and a proposed communications facility in Western Australia. The six Australian participants in the talks were led by the ministers for External Affairs and Defence, and the four US participants by the Secretary of State. The record is marked 'Top secret' and is the first of only five numbered copies produced.

Educational value

  • This document signifies the beginning of Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. It reveals that a plan for Australia to send military trainers to South Vietnam had been opposed by the US Military Assistance Advisory Group in Vietnam but they had been over-ruled by a 'higher American authority'. This opened the way for Australia to become involved. Over 1962–73, more than 60,000 Australians served in the war; 520 died and almost 2400 were wounded.
  • The record makes clear that the reason for Australia's involvement was political, not military. According to Secretary of State Dean Rusk (1909–94), the US Government in 1962 believed it would be 'most valuable to have Australians in Vietnam flying the Australian flag' in the struggle against the Vietcong, a communist-led insurgent force that was supported by the North Vietnamese Army.
  • The day of the talks with Rusk, Australia's External Affairs Minister, Sir Garfield Barwick (1903–97), stated publicly that Australia was willing to send 'something of the order of three or four men' to South Vietnam. This offer was made in advance of a formal request from the South Vietnamese Government. The initial group of 30 Australian military advisers arrived in South Vietnam in July 1962 and the first Australian ground forces were deployed in May 1965.
  • The document reveals an implicit expectation held by both the United States and Australia that they would some day have to take a stand against a conventional communist army in Asia and that such a stand might involve the use of nuclear weapons. In the talks Australia sought some definition about the circumstances under which the United States would use nuclear weapons in Asia, especially in relation to counter-insurgency military action against communist Vietnamese.
  • Australia's concern was that future political relations with its Asian neighbours could be 'profoundly' affected by the use of nuclear weapons against communist targets in the region. While the document records that the United States wanted to avoid 'a frivolous and deeply damaging nuclear war', it also makes clear the US view that communist forces must be left in no doubt of the willingness of the United States to over-ride Asian opinion and use nuclear weapons.
  • The document also records discussions between Australia and the United States about the establishment of a very low frequency communications facility in Western Australia, with an agreement being reached to set up the facility under the ANZUS Treaty. Construction of the Harold E Holt Naval Communication Station began at Exmouth in 1963. It was an important part of a worldwide system used by US submarines armed with nuclear missiles.