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A blog on terrorism, democracy and international politics

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Through the Lens of History 

In the past couple of weeks there have been a number of big news stories that have ostensibly focussed on history. China has criticised Japan for failing to apologise for war crimes that took place during World War II. Many in the West have joined the Vietnamese Communist Party in commemorating (and in some cases celebrating) the 30 year anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. This year is also the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

However, history is not simply about reciting events and the dates they occurred - it is about understanding and learning from their meaning in context. These events have by and large been viewed without a sense of historical context or moral clarity. Recalling World War II should be a sobering reminder for us of the threat of totalitarianism to human values. Australia and other members of the British-led Commonwealth stood almost alone against the unmitigated evil that Nazi Germany represented, until 1941, when the USA and USSR entered the war.

America had followed an isolationist policy, attempting to stay out of the "European" war while providing resources to Britain and her allies, until the attack on Pearl Harbour brought the consequences of isolation home. America learnt then that failing to confront tyranny simply delayed and worsened the predicament. (A similar lesson for Britain has often been drawn from Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement).

The Soviet Union, which under Stalin's dictatorial rule was closely aligned with Hitler's Germany, was brought into the war only after Operation Barbarossa, in which the Nazis betrayed and invaded their fellow dictatorship. There is no honour among either thieves or tyrants.

China and Japan

China's criticisms of Japan, and its orchestration of attacks on the Japanese Embassy, are grotesquely cynical when viewed through the lens of history.

Although Japan's current leadership should be more honest and objective in its treatment of its history, the Japan and China of 1945 were completely different countries to those that exist today. Japan was an expansionist, imperial power organised on fascist principles. It was preoccupied with wars of conquest and systematically violated human rights. Since 1945, Japan has become a deeply pacifist, vigorously democratic state. Its tyrannical tendencies were overturned by an American-led military campaign and a free society was built behind the shield of American military power.

A man stops a column of tanks during the Tiananmen Square crisis

During World War II, China was also an imperial state, though without a systematic, ideological basis. The China of today is a totalitarian dictatorship, unlike the China of the war years. While today's Japan is democratic and therefore pluralistic, China systematically represses any voices that deviate from the party line. Thus the murder of hundreds of democracy campaigners at Tiananmen Square in 1989. China's claim that the protesters who attacked the Japanese Embassy were independent of the State are simply not credible given China's systematic destruction of independent voices. It has been reported that the Chinese government bussed in the protesters, who promptly dissipated at the instruction of the security forces. Internally, then, China is behaving in a way that would not be unfamiliar to the Japanese before 1945.

If we compare the external policy of Japan and China, we again find that Japan has repudiated wars of conquest, but that military threats to neighbours now form a central part of China's foreign policy. China was able to point the finger at Japan's invasion of Manchuria while passing the "Anti-secession law" which perpetuates the fiction that Taiwan is an integral part of China. China reinforces this claim through threats of military take-over and by pointing 600 missiles at its tiny neighbour. Taiwan is another country that, over the past 60 years, has followed a trajectory from totalitarian dictatorship to free democracy under the protection of US military guarantees.

China's recent behaviour over Taiwan was a mistake because it showed Europe the folly of its proposal of lifting the arms embargo against the People's Republic. In my opinion, Australia should have conditioned its free trade negotiations on the repeal of the anti-secession law, and should have considered reinstating the arms embargo which was lifted in 1983. As Pearl Harbour demonstrated, we ignore the belligerence of totalitarian states at our peril.


The media's treatment of the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War were inadequate because many journalists came of age during the Vietnam era and retain a distorted understanding of that event. As Vietnamese human rights campaigner Quynh Dao, who delivered a PWHCE talk in 2004, wrote in a recent article in The Australian:

One enduring myth is that the West became involved in the Vietnam War to prevent communism spreading, but that it turned out to be a civil war involving nationalists who wanted unification. In fact, the Vietnam War was fomented by the communist North. The communist North was instructed and abetted by communist China and supported by the rest of the communist bloc

Evacuation of Saigon

This distorted historical 'lens' allowed some in the media to claim that the Vietnamese people today are indifferent or satisfied with communist rule and are simply happy for an end to the war. On America's National Public Radio, Loren Jenkins reported from the site of the US Embassy building, where on 29 April 1975, Vietnamese people had desperately tried to board helicopters that were evacuating American personnel from South Vietnam. The building has since been razed by the Communists. Jenkins drew an equation between the lack of political freedom in the north and the south, and spoke with an optimism that could have been taken from a Vietnamese government press release:

Detractors are quick to point out that there's no political freedom in Vietnam under its one party communist rule. But as I remember it, there wasn't any political freedom either, under the old South Vietnamese government that Washington supported. The country is at last at peace. It isn't crippled by its past, but looking solidly into the future to more progress unimpeded by war.
Viewed through the lens of history however, this equivalence is nonsensical. The purpose of the American and Australian support of the South was not to first set up a perfect, stable functioning democracy in the face of relentless, heavily armed insurgency. The purpose was to first secure the south against the north, so that an independent, stable and free democracy could then grow over time, as occurred in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. The action also served to buy time for other countries in the region that China and the Soviet Union were attempting to subvert.

Conversely, the Viet Cong and its backers sought to expand and consolidate a military dictatorship that would systematically persecute its own population. This is, in fact what happened.

Jenkins failed to see the symbolism of Vietnam's razing of the building from which Vietnamese attempted to escape the approaching communist troops. The failure of democratic forces in Vietnam resulted in a flood of refugees during the 1970s, and indeed there is still a serious refugee problem associated with Vietnam's campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Hmong people.

Learning from History

It is increasingly important today that we understand that world events are dynamic. It is up to us whether the future will be free and peaceful, like Japan and Taiwan, or unfree, repressive and belligerent, like China and Vietnam. In 1945, few had the foresight to believe that Germany might one day be a free, independent and democratic state. The idea of promoting democracy in Asia was derided in the 1970s (and sometimes still today), on the basis that Asian culture supposedly prevents the development of democracy.

Syria out of Lebanon

The Middle East can change. China can change. Vietnam can change. Let's learn from our past and make sure these changes are for the better.
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