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Indochina 1954 - 1979

Australian Involvment


Additional Material

As a committed student of history, you may be interested to read some material additional to your course; about Australia's involvement in the Indochina War.

As in the US, a major influence on Austalia's involvement was anti-communist attitudes post WWII. 'Cold War fever' ran through the Australian community as it did in the US and later, just as it did in the US; opposition to the 'Vietnam War' grew in Australia with the anti-war 'Moratorium Movement' founded in the US - reaching a peak in Australia in 1970.

Australia's involvement in the Indochina War

The commitment of Australian forces to Vietnam, like all historical events, occurs within a context. During the Second World War Australia became closely tied to the United States in the war against Japan.

In 1949 the Menzies Coalition came to power and was to govern Australia for the next twenty-seven years. This government was conservative in its philosophy and policies. One of the main planks of the Coalition platform was its strong opposition to communism. The Menzies Government tried to ban the Communist Party through referendum but failed. The government made much of events such as the defection of alleged Russian agent Vladimir Petrov. It willingly sent troops to fight the communists in Korea and helped to put down communist insurgency in Malaya. All this was within the rhetoric of the Cold War. Australia became a staunch ally of the United States, especially under Prime Ministers Harold Holt and John Gorton in the 1960s.

Australia's foreign policy rested on the prevention of the spread of communism and the seeking of allies to achieve this. As Foreign Minister Percy Spender said in 1949: "Every effort must be made to encourage US participation in attempts to develop Southeast Asia." Gradually Australia began to move away from traditional economic links with Britain and Europe and to find markets in Asia. This paralleled a decline in Britain as a world power.

In 1951 the Colombo Plan was signed between Australia and various South-East Asian nations to provide aid. Later in the year the ANZUS Treaty was signed by Australia, New Zealand and the United States. This most significant formal alliance was seen in Australia as a guarantee against future Japanese expansion. On the other hand, the Americans saw it as a bulwark against the spread of communism.

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At the Geneva Conference on Indochina, Australia appeared to be reluctant to become involved in Vietnam or its neighbours Laos and Cambodia. Most Australians had probably never heard of any of these countries.

The South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) was signed in February 1954 with the specific aim of "the containment of communism" in the region. Its signatories, the US, France, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines, specifically guaranteed to "protect" Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia against communism. This was coincidental with President Eisenhower proposing the "Domino Theory".

In Australia Cold War fever reached its peak with the Petrov Affair. Further, the Democratic Labor Party was to split from the Labor Party in the following year on the fear of the spread of communism in unions and in the region.

Exactly how Prime Minister Menzies committed Australian troops to Vietnam was, until recently, clouded in mystery. At the time Menzies stated that the commitment was made on the basis of a request from President Diem in 1962. It appears that the US was feeling out Australia to support Vietnam through ANZUS and SEATO. Minister for Defence Athol Townley announced on 24 May 1962 that:

at the invitation of the Republic of Vietnam Australia was sending a group [of up to 30] of military instructors to that country... to assist in the training of the people of Vietnam and so help defeat the Vietcong [sic] communists, whose aim was to take over the country by organised terrorism.

Townley asserted that Australia was acting under its SEATO obligations; and that it had been asked to send combat troops, but declined to do so.

In 1995, following the opening of Cabinet papers covered by the "Thirty Year Rule", much of what Menzies and Townley said was found to be untrue. Diem had not asked Australia for help and had in fact tried to dissuade Australia from becoming involved. Further, the commitment of advisers was at Menzies' strong insistence.

So the thirty advisers were sent to the republic in 1963; late in the year the first Australian was killed, Sgt William Hacking. From this time Australia's military involvement increased. In June 1964 thirty more advisers and supply planes and crews were sent to the RVN. Australia and the US were the only countries providing assistance to the RVN. Under the US "More Flags" policy, other nations, especially members of SEATO, were encouraged to support RVN. Consequently 200 Australians, 200 South Koreans, 30 New Zealanders and 17 Philippinos arrived in Saigon. None of the European powers were involved.

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August 1964 saw the first protests against Australian involvement occur. These were small-scale, as polls revealed that the vast majority of Australians supported the involvement, even though the defence budget rose from 2.9 to 4.2 per cent of GDP and the army was organised, expanded and equipped on American models of organisation and weapons.

In November 1964 National Service conscription was introduced for 21-year-old men, and the first call-up occurred in July 1965, with annual intakes of 8000 men. Conscripts were selected in a "lottery" based on their birthdays. They were conscripted for two years. During the period of National Service, until the Whitlam Government stopped it in November 1972, there were 15,000 conscripts in the army (37 per cent). It was up to individual conscripts to decide if they wanted to go to Vietnam, thereby overcoming traditional and constitutional opposition to conscription in Australia. This was to prove one of the most divisive decisions ever made by an Australian government.

Note that the initial opposition in Australia was against conscription rather than Australia's participation in the Indochina War. At first the majority of Australians supported their nation's involvement in Vietnam. The government's propaganda had worked. Menzies quoted "forward defence", "the domino effect" and "the downward thrust of Red China" to justify the need to participate in defence alliances and send troops to Vietnam.

In April 1965 the first contingent of 1500 Army regulars was sent to RVN. These men joined men from New Zealand, the USA, South Korea and the Philippines (medical units). The four SEATO members claimed that it was because of their "obligations" to SEATO that troops were sent.

Harold Holt before becoming Prime Minister in 1966
Harold Holt before
becoming Prime
Minister in 1966.

Despite the deaths of 496 men, Australia's role was, in the totality of conflict in Indochina, relatively insignificant. The Australians did an outstanding job and did more to "win hearts and minds" in Phuoc Tuy Province than the Americans did in the rest of Vietnam. Even the Vietcong acknowledged that the Australians should be treated with respect as efficient and effective soldiers.

 In 1966 Menzies retired and was replaced as prime minister by Harold Holt, who immediately trebled Australia's commitment. Significantly Holt announced that conscripts could be sent to the conflict. The battalion group had been expanded to a Task Force. By 20 October, following a successful election, the Coalition Government sent 6000 troops. There was increasing pressure from the US, and Holt responded: "All the way with LBJ!"

Opposition continued to increase. Opposition Leader Arthur Caldwell spoke in Parliament that Australia's involvement could "prolong and deepen the suffering of that unhappy people [Vietnamese]... and we could be humiliated if the US failed in Vietnam."

The majority of the Labor Party still supported the policy of involvement. Opposition came mainly from university students, Youth Campaign Against Conscription, trade unionists and SOS, a mothers' movement "Save Our Sons" opposed mainly to conscription. Their opposition took many forms: draft card burning, demonstrations and all-night vigils.

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1966 was to be an eventful year in Australia. The Vietnamese Premier Marshall Ky visited Australia, facing protests wherever he went. Later in the year President Johnson became the first US President to visit Australia. He too faced demonstrations. In Sydney the New South Wales Premier Askin told his driver to "Run over the bastards!" when protesters lay in front of his and Johnson's car. Bill White, a primary school teacher, refused to register for National Service and was imprisoned. He was later to prove that he was a conscientious objector. In May the first Australian conscript was killed, Errol Noak.

The Battle of Xa Long, the first major battle in which Australians fought, occurred in August. At the same time newspapers alleged that Australian troops had been involved in the torture of VC suspects. A federal election was held in November, which saw a stunning defeat of the ALP, with opposition to conscription and the war as two of their planks. During the election newspaper polls showed 64 per cent in support of the war. As a result of the election defeat Caldwell was replaced by E.G. Whitlam as Leader of the Labor Opposition.

Australian seemed to move more and more into the US orbit. So-called "communications stations" were opened at Northwest Cape, Pine Gap and Nurrungar. Their precise role has never been revealed to the public.

ALP policy under Whitlam was to change towards:

Gradually opposition to the war spread to include many individuals and groups. In 1967 two members of the RSL were expelled because of their opposition to the war. Many were opposed to conscription, but others opposed it for other reasons:

More and more young men refused to register as the Draft Resisters' Movement was formed, sowing the seeds of militancy in the protest movement. Support came from academics, artists, writers and clergy. In August 1969 polls showed that for the first time a majority of Australians were opposed to the war in Vietnam.

The following year, 1970, saw the protest movement reach its peak. In the previous year the first "Moratorium Movement" had been founded in the US. The movement in Australia, led by ALP luminaries such as Dr Jim Cairns and former POW Tom Uren, had two aims:

  1. immediate and total withdrawal of Australian, American and other US allied troops from Indochina; and the immediate, total and unconditional withdrawal of all support for the present Saigon government
  2. the immediate abolition of conscription in any form.

The first Moratorium demonstration was held on 8 May 1970 and was a massive success, with over 200,000 people across Australia demonstrating.

Two weeks earlier Prime Minister John Gorton had announced that one of the Task Force's three battalions would not be replaced once its tour of duty was finished. This was probably a response to the beginnings of the US withdrawal rather than to opposition to the war at home. Nonetheless, those opposing the war claimed this as their first victory.

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In March 1971 William McMahon replaced Gorton as prime minister in a power struggle. He was a supporter of involvement in Vietnam, but practical politics dictated that the rate of Australia's withdrawal should increase. By the end of the year all troops except 150 military advisers were withdrawn. This gesture was too late to save the McMahon Government.

In December 1972 the ALP, after twenty-three years in opposition, swept to power under Whitlam. Almost immediately he announced the total withdrawal of Australians from Vietnam; the cessation of conscription; the freeing of draft resisters still in gaol; the ending of all defence aid to RVN; and an end to the training of Cambodian officers in Australia. He declared that SEATO was "moribund", while officially recognising China.

It took a couple of months for the last of a total of 41,000 troops and 6000 naval and RAAF personnel to return home. 496 were killed; 3000 wounded (40 per cent of these casualties were conscripts).

It was ALP policy to retain diplomatic links with Saigon, but in 1973 Whitlam established an Australian Embassy in Hanoi one of the first Western nations to recognise North Vietnam. In addition an aid program to Vietnam was established.

It should be noted, in contrast, that the US deliberately isolated unified Vietnam diplomatically and economically after 1975. Nixon had promised the Socialist Republic $3.5 billion in reconstruction aid. It was never delivered.

Although the war had ended, there were still repercussions for Australia. Once Vietnam was unified under a communist government, many Vietnamese felt that they could not live under such an administration. Many feared that there would be a bloodbath of retribution against former RVN officials and supporters. Some higher officials and army officers were "re-educated", but there was no widespread "settling of scores". It is the nature of the Vietnamese to get on with life.

Those who fled Vietnam probably did so for economic reasons. As the war wound up, aid from China stopped and aid from the USSR gradually declined. Vietnam became a poor nation. Most of those who left did so as "boat people". They left with a few belongings in leaking boats and travelled across the dangerous waters of the South China Sea to other parts of Asia and Australia. Refugees from Cambodia and Laos joined them. The first of the boat people arrived in Darwin in the middle of 1976. A total of 94,000 such refugees arrived between 1975 and 1985. The peak year for such arrivals was 1979.

Their arrival has caused some racial tensions among certain sections of Australian society, and this has recently resurfaced in national politics. The vast majority have become valuable and law-abiding citizens of Australia.

In 1979 the Vietnam Veterans' Association was formed by Phil Thompson. Its aim was to achieve more popular recognition for the men who had served in the Second Indochina War, and to lobby for recompense for their special problems, such as the effects of Agent Orange and the high suicide rate among Vietnam Vets. A significant positive step was taken in 1987 when Sydney staged a "Welcome Home" parade for the Vets. Tragically Phil Thompson committed suicide a little after.

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