Vietnam War, 1955-1975
The country now known as Vietnam was subject to French colonial governance from 1887 after the Sino-French war, until its overthrow in 1954 by Vietnamese Communist party leader Ho Chi Minh’s forces in the first Indo-China War.
This defeat led to the formal partitioning of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, into a communist-ruled north, backed by the USSR and China and the non-communist south, supported by the USA. History records this as the official start of the Vietnam War. However, Australia’s involvement did not commence until 1962.
The global backdrop to this conflict was post World War II geo-political tension between the Soviet Union and its satellite states and the USA and its allies, known as the “Cold War”. During this period these major rivals did not embark upon large-scale fighting directly against each other, but instead supported major regional wars known as “proxy wars”. Indochina (S.E. Asia) was one strategic flash-point for such supported conflict and from a USA perspective, of major importance in halting the southward spread of communism. This perspective gave rise to the “domino theory”, which contemplated states falling to communism like dominos.
“Forward defence” was the cornerstone of Australian military planning in the early 1960s; a concept which complemented this US policy of ‘containment’ of communism and which responded to Australia’s obligations under the 1954 South-East Asia Treaty Organisation’s (SEATO) Manila Pact.
Australians in Vietnam
A small team of Australian advisors were present in Vietnam alongside US counterparts from August 1962. However, Prime Minister Menzies did not announce the commitment of an Australian battalion until 29 April 1965, following the arrival of the first American combat troops in in March 1965. Troop commitment progressively escalated from that point.
Who could possibly have foreseen that the Vietnam War would come to represent ( as of 2018) Australia’s longest military involvement of any war in the country’s history, with almost 60,000 Australians serving?
Our troops comprised a mix of regular enlisted personnel and conscripts, after the Government re-introduced National Service in November 1964. In March 1966 Australian troops in Vietnam numbered 4500, including the first intake of conscripted “Nasho’s”. From the beginning of 1969 to mid-1970 a peak force of more than 8500 Australian service personnel were deployed in Vietnam.
The escalation of Western military commitment to Vietnam was accompanied by a gradual rise in popular opposition to involvement in the war, both in Australia and abroad.
In June 1969, President Nixon announced that the US would begin to withdraw its forces. Prime Minister Gorton announced the first reduction of Australian forces in April 1970. This reduction continued under successive Australian governments and the last elements of the Australian Army left Vietnam in June 1973.
After the withdrawal of Australian and US troops the war escalated, with the Soviet-equipped North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong increasingly winning the upper hand. In April 1975, the North Vietnamese Army entered Saigon and the President of the Republic of Vietnam surrendered unconditionally. The formal announcement of the reunification of the two Vietnams was made in 1976 with the declaration of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Saigon is now known as Ho Chi Minh City.
The scale of Vietnamese losses on both sides of the conflict was enormous. About 224,000 South Vietnamese military personnel and over 1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were killed. Some 4 million Vietnamese civilians were killed or wounded. US losses totalled 58 220. Amongst those countries that fought in alliance with the US, the casualty list includes 521 Australians, 5099 South Koreans, 351 Thai and 37 New Zealanders.
Australian War Memorial
The Vietnam War was the first major conflict involving the United Sates and its allies since the advent of television in 1956. Unlike every previous war where news was much delayed and static, television delivered images and sounds into the lounge-rooms of American families and those of their international allies.
The popular view is that in delivering powerful imagery direct to households, television became a major influencer of the mood of the nations of the western alliance. Many credit TV as being a significant vehicle for the change in public support as the war dragged on into the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
The truth is that media coverage of this war and others attracts heavy censorship, in what is believed to be the national interest. Most of the television footage that Australians saw was of American troops. Australia did not have the full-time reporters and cameramen in the field to provide a view of the Australians at war. Similarly, photographic images of the war came through official Defence channels and they were designed for the ‘home town’ audience and not for gritty realism.
Many of the photographs were taken on the bases used by Australians, and these were imbued with a typically Australian ethos of mateship and camaraderie. Whilst mateship developed within the ranks of the military undoubtedly has a depth that is rarely experienced in civilian life, the selective use of such imagery helped create a relatively benign image of the war, despite the un-thinkable loss of life being incurred on both sides of the conflict.
Did TV change public sentiment or merely reflect it, as the scale of troop losses became known and the probable futility of the war from an allied perspective became apparent? “The unwinnable war” became a term that resonated within America and beyond. In America, the doyen of CBS news-casting at the time was Walter Cronkite said of the Vietnam War after the 1968 Tet Offensive :“the conflict is mired in stalemate”. US President Lyndon John remarked shortly thereafter: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America”.
As Australian opinion on the merits of our involvement in Vietnam became increasingly divided, media emphasis on the home front emerged. This meant a focus on protests and the protesters had come to realise that to be filmed they needed to be provocative. While violent protest alienated many people, it made sure that the war, or rather issues about the war, were constantly in the newspapers and on television news. Within Australia and the other countries within the alliance, it is improbable to think that that this coverage did not influence both public sentiment and political will and was a factor in the timing of the troop withdrawal from Vietnam.
“Australian War Memorial. “Impressions:Australians in Vietnam”
Museum of Broadcast Communication: “Vietnam on television”
Encyclopaedia Brittanica: “The Vietnam War and the media”
Ironically, whilst the Australian National Service Act 1964 conscripted 20 year-old’s to potentially die for their country, the law of the land did not allow them to legally drink nor vote!
Conscription – compulsory military service for young men – has been a contentious issue throughout Australia’s history.
Its Australian origins reside in the The Defence Act 1903, which gave the government the power to conscript for the purposes of home defence. Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, subsequently introduced legislation for compulsory military training which passed into law in 1911. The legislation did not allow soldiers to be conscripted for overseas service, despite the Government of the day unsuccessfully putting this question twice to the Australian people via Referendum at the height of World War 1, in both 1916 and 1917. This scheme was abolished in October 1929 but revived in 1939,shortly after the outbreak of World War 2. There was to be no conscription for service overseas, but instead, in a bill passed in February 1943, “Australia” was defined in such a way as to include New Guinea and the adjacent islands. This obliged soldiers in the Citizen Military Force (CMF) to serve in this region, known as the South-West Pacific Area.
After lapsing at the war’s end, compulsory military training was re-introduced in 1951 as the National Service Scheme, was abolished again in 1959 and then re-instated in 1964. Moreover, at this time the Menzies Government introduced new powers that enabled it to send national servicemen to serve overseas. In March 1966, the new Prime Minister Harold Holt announced that National Servicemen would be sent to Vietnam to fight in units of the Australian Regular Army.This gave rise to Australian “Nasho’s” in the Vietnam War.
The National Service Act 1964 required 20 year old males, if selected, to serve in the Army for a period of twenty four months of continuous service (reduced to eighteen months in 1971), followed by three years in the Reserve.
All 20-year-old males had to register with the Department of Labour and National Service, and their names were randomly selected from a lottery barrel by their date of birth, with marbles representing birthdays. Exemptions were given to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the medically unfit, and theology students. Young men were otherwise only granted exemption on the grounds of conscientious objection if they could prove their objection to war was based on religious beliefs. A temporary deferment of national service was granted to university students, apprentices, married men, and those who could prove that national service would cause them financial hardship. Evasion of National Service attracted harsh prosecution including prison sentences
From 1965 to 1972, approximately 63 000 men were conscripted and 15,381 national servicemen served in Vietnam alongside regular military personnel. 202 conscripts were killed and 1,279 wounded.
In December 1972 – just prior to the withdrawal of the last Australian troops from Vietnam, the National Service Scheme was abolished by the newly elected Labor government.
Australian War Memorial: National Service Scheme
National Archives of Australia. National Service, 1951–59 – Fact sheet 163
After World War 1, commemorative projects were undertaken and monuments constructed nationwide to recognise military sacrifice and service. After both World Wars, legislation such as the Soldier Settlement scheme was enacted to give returning veterans a leg-up to a new life.
Despite the havoc wreaked upon local communities through Australia’s participation in those wars, those conflicts ended conclusively and with Australia on the winning side. Strong public support for our role with the “motherland” and pride in battlefield accomplishments somehow validated the military contribution.
In the wake of World War 2, military engagement changed. Public perceptions of military righteousness became blurred and slavish Australian commitment to rush to the assistance of old allies diminished.
A reduced public appetite in the 1950’s/1960’s to again risk the heartache derived of two major wars, was unsurprising. As enemy composition became more complex, conflicts fought in places beyond our Europe-centric consciousness were slipping off the public radar. Australian military commitments in Malaya and Borneo were belatedly undertaken and our major commitment to the Korean War in support of the USA failed to enthuse our nation, particularly when it became mired in stalemate. Australian troops returning from Korea in 1953 were afforded a lack lustre-reception.
The re-instatement of conscription coinciding with the early days of the Vietnam war became a bone of contention within Australia. Arguably, this sowed a seed of public discontent that grew, as our commitment to support the USA in Vietnam deepened. As our eight-year active involvement in this war drew to an end with the inevitability of military defeat – an unprecedented position for Australians – the sad probability of an indifferent response to those returning took hold.
For those who arrived back on Australian soil via HMAS Sydney, their return was commemorated formally. For most others, their return was on various flights and without fanfare. Within a nation divided, the collective appetite for a large-scale formal homecoming was low and did not occur. Only upon reflection do we recognise that our expectation for a prompt re-integration of service personnel back into mainstream society without formal acknowledgement and support, was misguided.
Some Vietnam veterans recall incidents of public verbal abuse and hostility born in part of public reaction to stark TV news depictions, that ironically often did not actually reflect the Australian combat style nor circumstance. Veterans who had lost friends in combat, or who had seen violent death first-hand, were appalled at the way in which some were using the the job asked of them by their government against them. Remarks by some returned soldiers from earlier conflicts that Vietnam was not a “real war” deeply hurt men seeking the understanding of fellow veterans.
In the 1980’s a new maturity started to take hold in relation to the Vietnam War and the service and sacrifice of veterans and their families. Australian ears tuned into what was to become one of this country’s highest selling songs – Redgum’s “I was only nineteen” – contributing to a well-overdue national conversation about the post-war struggles of many Vietnam veterans.
By 1987 attitudes to the war had changed. Vietnam veterans were given a Welcome Home parade in Sydney and some 25,000 veterans marched to the cheers of several hundred thousand onlookers. A National Memorial for the Vietnam War was unveiled on Canberra’s Anzac Parade in 1992. The subsequent development of the Vietnam Veterans Commemorative Walk at Seymour represents a tribute to every serviceman and woman who enlisted in the conflict. Closer to home, the Vietnam War memorial erected at Sunshine honours Vietnam War veterans for their sacrifice, reflecting the enormous gratitude of the Vietnamese Community Association.
Vietnam Veterans Day is commemorated on 18 August every year. Originally known as Long Tan Day to commemorate that famous battle, following the Welcome Home parade in 1987 the name change was decreed. 18/8 is now the day on which all those men and women who served in Vietnam are remembered.
In 2018, fifty years after the equally significant battles at Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral where 26 Australians lost their lives, citations for gallantry were finally awarded. The honour list includes local RSL members, of whom our community should be very proud.
Australian War Memorial
Dept Veterans Affairs Anzac portal
Music has the power to transport us to a happier place. Close your eyes, let the sound wash over you and life’s hurdles are briefly pushed aside. Stand and shake to a familiar rhythm and momentarily your spirit is liberated. The entertainers who present shows for military personnel bring welcome moments of normality to men and women whose lives are consumed by the daily challenges and fears that active service brings.
Whether via the WWII Concert Party in Changi prison Singapore, Vera Lynne singing “We’ll Meet Again” to the British troops in Burma in 1944 or “gags” from Bob Hope over 50 years, the light relief brought by such contributions throughout history have boosted troop morale enormously.
Our involvement in the Vietnam War included a de-facto musical reference for the Australian public in 1968, with the conscription of reigning “King of Pop” Normie Rowe. Before he was conscripted, Rowe was the biggest thing in Australian music and ready to take on the world. But within months, Rowe was just another member of the Australian Armed Forces, A Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment.
Many famous and less-well known Australian entertainers volunteered to perform for our troops in South Vietnam. Whether motivated by patriotism or adventure, and willing to brave the obvious dangers one could face in Vietnam, hundreds of Australian performers made the trip. Between 1967 and 1971 some 50 troupes left Australia for Vietnam. Entertainers were sometimes contracted by commercial agencies but many volunteered through the government sponsored Forces Advisory Committee on Entertainment (FACE) or the Australian Forces Overseas Fund.
As one would expect, stages were rudimentary and most endured a gruelling performance schedule in uncomfortable, humid conditions. Little Pattie and Col Joye, performed at Nui Dat on the day of the Long Tan battle in 1966. Other notable Australian performers included “The Wild One” Johnny O’Keefe, The Delltones, Patti McGrath (Newton) and Lorrae Desmond, who travelled to Vietnam five times. A famous photograph of Normie Rowe casually strumming a guitar, suggests that his mates may have been privy to a close-up and personal rendition of one of his hits!
In the American compounds, the talent list of entertainers that visited reads like a “who’s-who” of the time, including: Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Marilyn Monroe, Nancy Sinatra, John Wayne and Raquel Welch. Sadly, it was on stage at the US Marine Corps base at Da Nang that Australian entertainer Cathy Wayne was killed whilst performing, when shot in the chest by a sergeant in the Marine Corps. His motive and identity remains a mystery.
Beyond the Vietnam war, Australian entertainers have continued the tradition of performing for our troops. In 1999 the Tour of Duty concert in East Timor included Kylie Minogue, Doc Neeson from the Angels (himself a National Service conscript) and John Farnham. Neeson again performed for our troops in Iraq in 2007.
In a deeply moving 2011 performance in Tarin Kowt Afghanistan, John Schumann, the writer and singer of the Redgum song that became an anthem for the cause of returned Vietnam veterans, performed “I was only nineteen” for the Australian troops. The symbolism was not lost on the audience
Dept of Veterans Affairs Anzac portal
Australian War Memorial
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