“Ultimately it was Australia’s dependence on the United States that led it into Vietnam” (Gregory Pemberton). Is this a correct analysis of Australian military involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s?
The Vietnam War or the Second Indochina War—a conflict between the North and South Vietnam to gain the ruling power over Vietnam—took place from 1962 to 1975 (The Cold Warrior). While the United States and other democratic countries supported South Vietnam, communist nations, People’s Republic of China and Soviet Union supported North Vietnam (The Cold Warrior). Several international events were responsible for the revolution that resulted in the Vietnam War. In the pre-colonization era, Vietnam was under French colonization (Battlefield Vietnam: A Brief History). After the World War II, France and Vietnam signed the Geneva Peace Accord in 1954 that kept Vietnam divided until the elections in 1956, which would have unified the country (Battlefield Vietnam: A Brief History). However, this plan did not satisfy most of the interested parties. The communist-phobic United States was dissatisfied because it believed that the Communist Party of Vietnam had become excessively powerful (Battlefield Vietnam: A Brief History). Moreover, in the beginning of the 1950s, the indications of a third world war were being widely discussed as the United States lost the monopoly it had over atomic power (Deery 2003). The Soviet Union was now promoting itself as a keeper of world peace and attempting to show that the United States was a war-mongering, jingoistic nation (Deery 2003). The situation between the western civilization and Korea had already instigated the latent hostilities of Cold War to become worse (Deery 2003). The communist countries were simply going with the demands of the moment because they did not want a war after the recent Korean War (Battlefield Vietnam: A Brief History). In the meantime, in Australia, the government was under Prime Minister Menzies, who was organizing the nation for participation in combat activities, and it was long before the weak peace movement in the country roared and instigated the Australian public opinion’s against war involvement (Deery 2003). The Australian government was trying its best to support South Vietnam at the beginning of the 1960s in order to adhere with the policies the United States’ had come up with to eradicate the spread of communism post World War II in Europe and Asia (Vietnam War 1962–75). In the years 1961 and 1962, the South Vietnamese leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, had been continually requesting assistance of the western civilizations for the rising level of insurgency of the communists in Vietnam (Vietnam War 1962–75). Australia responded to this appeal by sending 30 military advisers (Vietnam War 1962–75). The advisors entrance into South Vietnam in July and August 1962 initiated Australia’s association with the Vietnam War (Vietnam War 1962–75). Ultimately, Australia’s dependence on the United States led it into the Vietnam War. Both the United States and the United Kingdom joined hands to support the growth of South Vietnam and selected an anti-communist leader, Diem in 1955 (Battlefield Vietnam: A Brief History). With this support, South Vietnam won the elections, but the insurgency and revolution from the Vietnamese communists continued, and the United States and United Kingdom remained supportive of South Vietnam’s anti-communist stand and thus, their interference in Vietnamese politics (Battlefield Vietnam: A Brief History). The Communist Party of Vietnam continued to fight for a unified Vietnam; however, by 1959, a full-fledged war had been declared (Battlefield Vietnam: A Brief History). The war ended on 30 April 30, 1975 with the capture of Saigon by the communist forces (The Cold Warrior).
While the involvement of western combat troops during President Kennedy’s government was limited, President Johnson increased the number of troops significantly (Battlefield Vietnam: A Brief History). A watershed event during the United States participation in the Vietnam War occurred when the United States Defence Secretary, McNamara advised President Johnson that to sway the political balance towards the United States efforts, a thousand Australian troops should be despatched to Vietnam (Edwards 1997). At this moment, in 1962, Johnson had been elected into the office by a majority unprecedented in favour of any president in the history of United States (Edwards 1997). By 1966, Australia’s government was under Prime Minister Holt, and Holt too had won the elections in his country in a majority unprecedented in the history of Australia (Edwards 1997). This was, however, not a coincidence, as the United States power balance in the world at time was a influential fact that significantly affected the political situation in Australia (Edwards and Pemberton 1992). Immediately after Holt gained control over his office, he began working towards increasing the number of troops in Vietnam in accordance with the conditions of his mandate (Bell 1998). It should also be mentioned here that Holt’s rise in popularity before the elections in Australia had ricocheted skywards from a visit to the country by President Johnson (Bell 1998). In those times of political transition in Australia, Australian political leaders held high hopes of establishing Australia as a part of the new democratic world (Edwards and Pemberton 1992). They saw the Vietnam War as an ideal opportunity to sustain their hopes (Edwards and Pemberton 1992). Thus, the Australian politics was showing a conformist attitude. Edwards and Pemberton (1992) voice their opinion that it is likely that by joining the war, both President Johnson and Prime Minister Holt’s advisers derided the notion of not taking the right path of war as commanded by the rules of international politics. President Johnson was under pressure, as he had to impress the congress for a large increase in his budget soon (Bell 1998). He was torn apart by the pressures from the left—to speedily reach negotiations and conclude the war, which could mean making dangerous compromises—and from the right—to push the war to a higher intensity with a view of reaching the end soon (Bell 1998).
At the beginning of the Vietnam War, Australia’s significance was hardly considered by the United States, who viewed the latter as a small, but independent entity that was once a part of the United Kingdom (Pemberton 1987). However, by the mid-1960s, this picture has changed in a big way as the United States and Australia seemed to have become the best of friends (Pemberton 1987). The relationships between the countries led to economic boosts that delighted Australia, and Australia’s economic policies were in great accordance with the global economic initiatives proposed by the United States (Pemberton 1987). The increase in imports from the United States increased from about five percent in the late 1940s to one quarter of Australia’s total imports in the 1960s (Pemberton 1987). The exports to the United States had taken over the exports to the United Kingdom: from less than ten percent to the United Kingdom towards the end of 1960s to an increase from six percent to thirteen percent to the United States (Pemberton 1987). Such economic conditions naturally warranted an increase in defence relationships between the countries. Australia was ever aware of the fact that in spite of the development of its relationship with the United States, it was a very small entity in terms of global power to inveigle the United States into the range of its own economic power (Pemberton 1987). Moreover, the ongoing war naturally made its presence in the relationships between the countries. By 1964, the United States power display was in full show as its naval ships docked by Australia’s ports, and the natives thronged the shores, awed by the display was military power (Pemberton 1987). In 1965, Australia committed to providing 30 military advisers to the Vietnam War (Australia and Vietnam War 2011). However, the country’s involvement in this war was soon to become one of the longest and foremost conflicts that it would ever be involved in (Australia and Vietnam War). For a period of ten years, that is, from 1962 to 1972, approximately 60,000 Australian personnel were to fight the Vietnam War for the United States (Australia and Vietnam War) (Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia). What had began as minimal show of obligation and friendliness of only 30 Australians expanded to contain a battalion in 1965 and later, in 1966, a full-fledged task force (Australia and Vietnam War). As mentioned before, all of the three defence services were involved, but the most prominent part was that played by the Australian army (Australia and Vietnam War). By the beginning of 1965, it had become apparent that South Vietnam could not be able to handle the insurgents by the communist North Vietnamese for more than a couple of months, and the United States decided to take control of the matter (Vietnam War 1962–75). They had sent approximately 200,000 troops to participate and fight for the anti-communist cause in the conflict by the end of 1965 (Vietnam War 1962–75). In order to boost their cause, the United States requested the participation of countries supportive of this cause, and Australia responded by dispatching its first Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) on June 1965 (Vietnam War 1962–75). In the Bien Hoa province of Vietnam, the battalion was to be in action along with the United States’ 173d Airborne Brigade (Vietnam War 1962–75). In the next yea, the Australian government decides that it should invigorate its efforts in the conflict to make its prominence felt (Vietnam War 1962–75). Therefore, on March 1966 the Australians stated that they would send a taskforce to replace 1RAR (Vietnam War 1962–75). This taskforce comprised two battalions and support services (including a RAAF squadron of Iroquois helicopters) (Vietnam War 1962–75). They were to be located at the Nui Dat, Phuoc Tuy province of Vietnam. However, the IRAR was never assigned a specific operational area along with conscripts under the 1964 National Service Scheme, and the taskforce was (Vietnam War 1962–75). Nine RAR battalions had acted under this taskforce until it was called back in 1971 (Vietnam War 1962–75). It has been found that in the stage of maximal involvement with the Vietnam War, Australian had almost 8,500 troops fighting the war. Next, a third RAAF squadron was also assigned to duty in Vietnam in 1967, and destroyers of the United States patrols around the North Vietnamese coast were joined by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) (Vietnam War 1962–75). In 1966, Australian troops saw the worst under the heaviest warfare in near Long Tan (Vietnam War 1962–75). When finally the Viet Cong departed at nighttime 245 dead, and many more were grievously wounded or captured (Vietnam War 1962–75). Of these,17 of the dead and 25 of the wounded were Australians, and one of the wounded succumbed to his wounds in sometime (Vietnam War 1962–75). The reason for the victory of the North Vietnamese communist was the “Tet Offensive” that was initiated during the Vietnamese lunar year period (called Tet) (Vietnam War 1962–75). The timing and the scale of their attack overcame the South Vietnamese supports and later became one of the major reasons for the South Vietnamese defeat (Vietnam War 1962–75). The Australian troops were affected the worst at their base in Nui Dat (Vietnam War 1962–75).
Of the 60,000 Australian troops that were sent to Vietnam, 521 casualties were reported due to the conditions and after effects of the war, and over 3,000 people were injured (Vietnam War 1962–75). The war did cause immense social and political opposition in Australia, especially after the country had lost several of its youth in the previous World War II (Vietnam War 1962–75). It was said that the upheaval the country went through as a result of the war was worse than what it had undergone when the conscription referendums were made in the World War I (Vietnam War 1962–75). This was because several of those who resisted to being drafted and those who conscientiously objected on the grounds of pacifism were treated harshly (Vietnam War 1962–75). Moreover, the soldiers who returned after the hardships of war were often subjected to an unwelcome reception (Vietnam War 1962–75).
While in the initial years, Australia’s contribution to the Vietnam War was not generally opposed by the populace, the increased commitment drew people’s attention force (Australia and Vietnam War). However, as the large number of conscripts began to constitute a large percentage of Australian people being deployed and sacrificed to the war, popular opinion against the Vietnam War began to emerge force (Australia and Vietnam War). The Australian public became increasingly aware of the fact that war was actually being lost, and this enraged them even more (Australia and Vietnam War). The Australian public view and their voice against the war increased, and by the beginning of the 1970s, there was an open opposition against the Australian involvement in the Vietnam War. More than 200,000 Australians walked Australia’s streets in some of the major cities in the country to mark their force (Australia and Vietnam War). Meanwhile, the United States had begun allocating the responsibility of the war to the other involved countries by withdrawing itself from the scenario and replacing its presence by other countries’ personnel force (Australia and Vietnam War). By 1972, Australia has realized the folly of its commitment and recalled its troops back home (Australia and Vietnam War). Thus, overall, by the end of 1970, Australia gradually began to draw back and form its military endeavours in Vietnam (Vietnam War 1962–75). The Australian eighth Battalion left Vietnam in November 1970 and there were no replacements made for them (Vietnam War 1962–75). However, in order to make amends for the less number of troops, the strength of those on the field was augmented, and most of Australia’s efforts became focused on the Phuoc Tuy province (Vietnam War 1962–75). In 1971, the removal of the troops on the ground as well as all the units in the air were initiated, and the very last battalion abandoned Nui Dat on November 1971 (Vietnam War 1962–75). A few advisers were left behind in Vietnam until the following year (Vietnam War 1962–75). By December 1972, these advisors became the last of the Australian war personnel to reach back to their country; for ten and a half years, their unit had been constantly in action in South Vietnam (Vietnam War 1962–75). Finally, Australia’s contribution to the Vietnam War was officially acknowledged to have reached a culmination, and the Governor-General read out a public statement in effect on 11 of January 1973 (Vietnam War 1962–75). Thereafter, the final fighting troops that were yet in Vietnam were a legion that was guarding the Australian embassy in Saigon, which was finally withdrawn in 1973 (Vietnam War 1962–75).
Edwards and Pemberton (1992) show that the government focused on the resistance to the National Service Act, which was developed using a detailed focus to ensure that as citizens of a highly civilized society, the Australians should show deference for a list of service and enlistment conditions for the Vietnam War. They question the morality aspect of being involved in the Vietnam War, and contemplate if international and domestic politics can actually draw a positive moral angle to the War. According to them, the prime ministers of the era are to blame for being foolishly enthusiastic of supporting the United States’ cause of anti-communism. Moreover, the fact that even when the world support to United States anti-communism cause began ebbing, Australia missed the opportunity of withdrawing from the Vietnam War (Edwards and Pemberton 1992). This was irrespective of the fact that Australia had some pressing domestic problems to attend to at that time (Edwards and Pemberton 1992). This conformist attitude of the Australian politics held it from the Australian conscripts and troops at Vietnam. Thus, (1992) The irony in the arrival of the Clifford-Taylor mission that was sent to Australia in 1967 for garnering support for the Vietnam War and Australia’s reaction to their mission is highlighted in the following sentence that reflects Clifford’s thoughts. “If the Australians had sent 300,000 troops overseas in the Second World War but were now so reluctant to send more than 7,000 to Vietnam, then perhaps the Americans had exaggerated the danger of a Communist victory in Vietnam” (Edwards and Pemberton 1992, p. 156). It can thus be concluded from the above-mentioned facts that Australia’s desire for gaining the support of the United States and its allies, which led it to become a part of the Vietnam War, was based on internal and political deliberations, rather than military necessity (Bell 1998). It would seem then that the basic insecurities of Australia of being left behind in the economic developments that occurring around the western world was the main cause of its participation in the war. Thus, Gregory Pemberton’s analysis that “ultimately, it was Australia’s dependence on the United States that led it into Vietnam” is indeed correct.
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