For decades Australians were gung ho about going to war – almost any war. Today – despite the best efforts of the Nine Media (Peter Hartcher in particular) and other media – they are now far more apprehensive.
Indeed, an analysis of community opinion from the start of the Vietnam war to the likelihood of war over Taiwan, shows apprehension translates into opposition the longer the war lasts.
In the early 1960s there was no overwhelming support for southeast Asian wars. The Gallup Poll asked a sample of Australians in April 1962, before Australia had deployed any forces to Vietnam, “if America goes to war against the Communists in South-East Asia, to defend Thailand, do you think Australia should also fight there, or keep out of it?” – 35% said ‘fight there’, 50% said ‘keep out’ and 15% were undecided.
When the first Australian Army Training Team (AATV) troops were committed Gallup asked do you approve, or disapprove, sending those token (sic) forces to Thailand and Vietnam? Of the sample, 61% approved, 27% disapproved and 12% were undecided. The ‘approve’ vote came from 65% of men and 57% of women. It also came from 70% of Liberal – Country Party voters and 56% of Labor Party voters.
After the war got properly underway Australians were initially supportive and according to Roy Morgan Research records: “In 1965, 56% of people wanted Australia’s involvement in Vietnam to continue, that increased to 61% in 1966 and to the highest amount of support in 1967 at 62%.”
By 1968 support for Australia’s involvement in the war dropped to 54% in October and dropped even further to 49% in December. By April 1969, support for Australia’s involvement in Vietnam was at 48%, this dropped to 40% in August with an all-time low amount of support in October at 39%. A Roy Morgan Research table provides a comprehensive survey of how Australian opinion developed over the years.
Murray Goot in the Australian Humanities Review (May 2003) analysed various surveys before and after the American invasion of on Iraq. He said: “At first, opinion was divided. In September, a Morgan sample split 45: 47 against ‘the use of an American force against Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein’; over ‘the United States military launching an attack on Iraq’, Newspoll reported a 33: 47 split.” As the war started and progressed support grew but by 2004 a Roy Morgan poll revealed a decline in support for Australia’s military involvement in Iraq with 50 per cent of respondents believing Australia should not have a military presence in Iraq.
Massive demonstrations on the scale of those during the Vietnam War occurred throughout Australia and Mark Latham had his finest (only?) hour when he called out George Bush on the invasion.
Now we face another possible war – this time with China – and it is worth examining what both Australians and Taiwanese think of that prospect.
In June 2021 the Lowy Institute’s annual poll showed that, for the first time, more Australians view China as a security threat than an economic partner, despite the country remaining Australia’s biggest trading partner.
In June 2022 the Lowy Institute found that the majority of Australians (56%) said China was ‘more to blame’ for the tensions than Australia while 38% said Australia and China were equally to blame. Just 4% said Australia was more to blame.
A slim majority of the 2022 respondents (52%) viewed a potential military conflict between the US and China as a critical threat to Australia’s interests over the coming decade. But the poll also showed the public wants to avoid being dragged into war. More than half those polled (57%) said that in such a conflict “Australia should remain neutral”. Some 41% said Canberra should support the US and 1% said it should support China.
The Lowy study showed the public also had strong views on our relations with the US and China policy with 77% agreeing with the statement: “Australia’s alliance with the United States makes it more likely Australia will be drawn into a war in Asia that would not be in Australia’s interests” – up eight points since 2019.
As for the US-Australian motivation for the next war, Taiwan, opinion there has been developing in strange ways. According to an Economist special report on Taiwan (11 March 2023) in 1992 only 17.3% the Taiwan population identified as Taiwanese compared with 25.5% as Chinese and 4.4% as both. By 2022 a National Chengchi University study found 61% of respondents identifying as Taiwanese, 2.7% as Chinese and 46.4% as both.
Polls indicate that more than half of Taiwanese support the status quo of de facto independence and don’t have a lot of faith in whether the US would support them against a Chinese invasion with the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation finding that between 2021 and 2022 confidence in whether America would send troops to defend Taiwan against an invasion fell from 65% to 34.4%. They were actually more confident of Japanese support than American.
Meanwhile we wait to see what the next substantial polls say about the Albanese Government and Taiwan. We know from Vietnam to Iraq Australians start off by opposing the proposed wars; support them when troops are actually fighting; and, then begin to oppose them as the promised victory doesn’t eventuate.
This new potential war is on a scale, though, which makes Vietnam and Iraq seem insignificant.
The cacophony of media, think tank, and political voices cabal haven’t yet convinced the Australian public of the need to rush into war alongside the US. But if the trend in opinion on our previous disastrous policy of following the Americans is any guide it is very likely that a majority of Australians will rate a war over Taiwan as a big mistake.
It may also be an indicator of how attitudes to the Aukus deal might evolve. A Guardian Essential poll in 2021 disclosed Australians’ worries that the project would strain relations with China and Europe.
But the survey also showed that 62% believed Australia was correct to pursue the nuclear submarine deal with the US and the UK, while 54% agreed with the statement: “The Aukus partnership is in Australia’s best security and economic interests.”
The latest Nine Newspapers Resolve survey (18 March 2023) suggested a more complex reaction. The survey was based on a longer question than researchers generally use with a long preamble throwing together the number of submarines; the cost and the size of the order. Then it asked Do you support or oppose the purchase of these submarines?
33% of the sample supported Aukus and 17% strongly supported it giving a 50% result, Liberal voters had slightly higher support but 34% of the total sample were undecided or neutral as were 31% of Labor voters, 32% of Coalition voters and 37% of other voters.
Oppose or strongly oppose was 16% of the total sample, 14% of Labor voters, 11% of Coalition voters and 25% of other voters.
A Guardian Essential Poll (21/03/23) poll of 1,124 voters suggests Australians are at odds with the Aukus deal, with just one in five voters labelling China a ‘threat to be confronted’ and only one quarter happy to pay the price tag of up to $368bn to acquire nuclear submarines.
These results provide a strong base for an even greater shift in attitudes when things start to go wrong.
With war with China and Aukus Australians will have plenty of opportunities to go through the three stages – apprehension, enthusiasm and then remorse – which has characterised the unfolding of Australian opinion on all our wars since Vietnam.