|Australia and the Vietnam War History News Network
History Series (2006) - DVD Doco.
Malcom Fraser (former Liberal Prime Minister)
Dr Corrine Manning (historian)
Humphrey McQueen (historian)
Dr Val Noone and Joan Coxsedge (Former peace activist)
Why Did AUST. become involved?
The 1960s saw the wide-spread fear of Australia becoming taken over by communism based on The Domino Theory. That is once one country is taken over by communism, others will fall. Australiabeing close to Asia it will also ‘fall’ under communist rule.
AUST sent its troops to Vietnam to fight in 1965, with USA who backed the South Vietnamese government.
Malcom Fraser (former Liberal Prime Minister): At the time Communism was seen as a force; most Asian countries supported it and a stand had to be made. Also Europe was being taken over by USSR.
Dr Corrine Manning (historian): The second reason was that – they wanted to back the USA because USA had become important to AUST during WWII; the 1951, ANZUS Treaty signed was an agreement for the countries to stand in alliance;
The SEATO (South East AsianTreaty Organisation) alliance signed in 1954 including AUST to contain communism in south-east asia and protect countries such as Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia from communism. Hence AUST became committed to helping protect Vietnam.
Humphrey McQueen (historian): AUST’s PM pretended he had a letter ‘inviting’ AUST to fight in Vietnam when he addressed the HReps, but the reality was the letter did not arrive until 1 hour later saying “thank you for offer…”
29 April 1965 PM Robert Menzies announced that AUST troops would fight along-side USA in Vietnam
History of the move to war
Between 1880 and the start of WWII France had taken over Vietnam and it was once called Indo-China. Also France had places such as Laos and Cambodia. By 1941 with the rise of the Viet Nihm there was a rise for independence and nationalism in Asia- Vietnam in particular. It was led by Ho Chi Min. By the end of WWII in 1945 , Ho Chi Min declared Vietnam independent and France refused to recognise this and the 8 year French-Vietnam war began and ended in 1954 with France being defeated.
That year the Geneva Conference decided Vietnam’s future and divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel until national elections could be held. This divided Vietnam into North & South Vietnam.
The USA feared that the 1956 elections would result in a unified Vietnam under communist rule. Sobacked by the USA, Diem (South Vietnam) refused to hold elections. With opposition to Diem’s rule- he was assassinated in 1963 and fearing that the South would be over taken by communist rule, President Lydon Johnson (USA) sent troops to the south in 1965.
Public’s Initial Reaction?
Originally when the announcement was made AUST was generally supportive because they feared invasion of communism; they thought that all Asians were the same and communist and would land on our door-step - The ‘Asian Invasion’
The conscription law was reintroduced in 1964 but in 1965 new conscription law allowed men to be sent overseas and not just stay in AUST to defend AUST- in Australia demanded that ALL 20 year old men enrol for 2 years of compulsory military service
They had the ‘lottery’ system of conscription – based on birthday (DAY & MONTH) related form of selection
This was called by some as the “Lottery of Death” by anti-conscription groups; before the 2 years’ Service could be done in AUST but now they had to go overseas and ‘fight another mans’ war’
Many were in favour of in AUST conscription- not overseas; they also rejected the ‘lottery’ system
(Note: Some volunteered to join/ enlist as career soldiers though, over 30 000 enlisted to defend their country)
More than 50 000 troops served in Vietnam – was the largest Aust involvement since WWII
Most of the AUST troops served in the south of Vietnam- especially in the FukTree Province; most of this was to help villagers and was often more peaceful
Anti-war demonstrators flooded the streets in protest
The bloody conflict
The Vietnam war was a long and bloody conflict against the enemy- North Vietnam and the guerrilla army the Viet Cong (guerrilla army- meaning they were not at that stage a formal army and they did not use normal or known military warfare/attacks)
The terrain was harsh and dense jungle; the North Korean army was different and had been fighting for years e.g. against the French, the Chinese and the Japanese; they were using Chinese backed & Chinese weapons (China was a communist country); well-disciplined and competent fighting force;
Rebel South Vietnamese citizens – called The Viet Cong -were a huge insurgent (rebel) group of highly skilled guerrilla troops from South Vietnam. They were non-uniform soldiers or citizens of men, women and children who mounted war against the USA, South Vietnamese and its allies e.g. AUST.
The Viet Cong were tough, courageous and used hit and run missions, booby-trap explosives, they had underground tunnels which they used to attack and then disappear from the enemy
USA decided to get rid of the jungle foliage by bombing it with Napalm and Agent Orange – both now known to cause cancer, deformities in babies and Napalm when hitting the skin feels as though the person is burning internally before suffering horrendous burns to the skin externally
100s of thousands of citizens died with the Napalm bombing and the Agent Orange affected the Vietnamese and allied soldiers for years to come
Dr Val Noone : For every soldier who was killed on the AUST side you can multiply it by 100s or 1000s on the Vietnamese side.
Approx. 50 000 AUST soldiers were part of the War which AUST was involved with for 10 years
Over 5000 did not return alive
Many of the people who returned were scarred for life
Changing Public Mood
By the late 1960s the public mood was beginning to turn against AUST involvement in Vietnam
AUST watched in horror for the first time on the TV – seeing for the first time the bloody conflict almost “first hand” caused AUST to question its involvement; it was seeing the war in their own livingroom
People who protested against war and men who would not go to war were arrested, trailed and sent to jail for not following conscription laws
Joan Coxsedge (Former peace activist): was one who was jailed for protesting; she speaks of the child running naked covered in Napalm; she was one of the 5 women sent to jail for 14 days; she was arrested for trespassing on Commonwealth land- she and the other women were telling the young draftees (men) what their rights were and distributing anti-conscription pamphlets.
The AUST public did not like the concept of women with young children were being put in jail for telling men what their rights were when they were conscripted; there were huge non-violent demonstrations outside the jail
On 8 May 1970 the first of the 3 Vietnam Moratorium Marches – meaning Stop AUSTralian involvement in Vietnam War marches) took place telling the government that AUST was not happy with Vietnam War Involvement ; more than 200 000 took to the streets for this- it was a cross section of the AUST society
Aftermath & legacies of the most controversial conflict Iin which Australia has ever participated
By the end of 1971 – PM William MacMahon had withdrawn most AUST troops
The last USA combat troops left Vietnam in 1973
The final recall of troops was done by Gough Whitlam in 1973 who also scrapped National Service this was 11 years after AUST first entered the war. It was the longest AUST involvement in any war at that time.
520 Australian casualties
No hero’s welcome home for soldiers for the return soldiers
Basically it was an individual thing – quiet drinks with friends
The returned veterans were often targets for people who were against the war and were given a ‘hard time’
More veterans were ignored or failed to be recognised by the public; Vietnam was not something to be celebrated or commemorated- they wanted to forget it
After the withdrawal of the foreign troops the South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese continued to fight; In April 1975 the South surrendered to the North and Vietnam became a unified country
Veterans like Rob Edgell ,often still suffer from psychological illnesses; nightmares and post-traumatic stress
Our involvement in Vietnam gave AUST a greater independence and understood that AUST needed to be a major part of Asia and have policies for Asian involvement and China
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