The announcement of President Barack Obama’s visit to these shores has caused me to indulge in a wave of rosy nostalgia. Mainly concerning such things as Australia’s relationship with America, and long hot summers spent frolicking aimlessly on the beach. These two pre-occupations may not have much in common but they are connected forever in my memory of growing up during the conflagration of the Vietnam war.
Looking back, it seems a time when Australia was tied to the coat-tails of America through a combination of realpolitik and what today we may think of as some kind of bizarre racial necessity. But am I falsifying my own memories? News of what was going on in Vietnam at the height of the conflict, acted as a sober backdrop to my innocent summer holiday breaks whilst growing up and enjoying my very conventional childhood summer holidays in Sydney.
Everyone listened to the radio in those days. I spent a lot of time with relatives in a southern beachside suburb, every summer holiday for three years running, where the Vietnam conflict could not have been further away. But the radio was always on, and in between the ad breaks and the Top 40 countdown of hits, the Vietnam war was the unofficial narrative of almost every Sydney radio station. In turn, the radio was something like the communal fire of olden times that members of the tribe crowded around, for comfort and a sense of belonging. I also can remember a few of my favourite songs that were playing on the radio. Among them was ‘In the Year 2525’ by Zager and Evans; ‘Classical Gas’ by Mason Williams; ‘The Real Thing’ by Russell Morris; ‘Arkansas Grass’ and “A Little Ray of Sunshine’ by Axiom, and the double A sided single of ‘Something’ and ‘Come Together’ by The Beatles which got played to death on all the major AM radio stations. For better or worse, these songs made me what I am today. By the end of this post, I will probably reach by circularity, the conclusion that it’s pointless to indulge in nostalgia in the first place, but since I’ve barely started, this is a pointless observation to make. Then again, I am the master of pointless observation.
Yet also, if I allow myself, I recall a brief, shining moment when many Australians found it necessary to speak out against what they considered to be an unjust and unnecessary war. See here. It was as if we were acknowledging something wrong with the relationship we had with America. It was somehow…one-sided. Dare I say…perhaps a little dysfunctional? (Not that we knew what that word meant in those days.) I feel sorry for the young people who will grow up having no recollection of any opposition movement to injustice, and I am reluctant to point out the lack of such a thing to the war against terror, but there it is, and I would prefer not to dwell on it.
Sojourning with my mother into the central business district by bus, we would pass the University of Sydney campus, and usually, during the Vietnam war, there were quite a few students sitting out in the local park either on strike, or protesting against the war. My older brother grew his hair long and was listening to a lot of loud music, a little scared that he may be drafted and picked out of a death lottery, after the Australian (Liberal Party) government opted to send more troops as reinforcement against a possible North Vietnamese victory. With the fateful transformation of Australian society there also came disappointment and disillusion, as the Liberal Party was swept from power in 1972 after 23 years to be replaced by a relatively young and forward looking government that within its first weeks recognised the People’s Republic of China. Symbolic perhaps, but unthinkable just a few years before. Unfortunately the Whitlam Labor government was felled by many mistakes of its own making, (as well as appointing a man as Governor General who had his own agenda,) but its achievements remained as an example to younger Australians like myself of the possibility of reform and change, and how it may not be such a dangerous thing after all.
At the risk of showing my age and lecturing people younger than myself, I think now, looking back on it, that the late sixties and early seventies was our own Australian spring, or ‘renaissance’, as many of us like to refer to those heady years. Maybe these days, outsiders can consider Australia as less of a partner in America’s wars, and more as an independent nation with its own interests and a desire to be thought of as more than just a junior partner to the world’s major power.