Australia and the Vietnam War

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Local villagers surround Lieutenant John Lucaci, 1st Australian Reinforcement Unit and a Vietnamese monk. 1968. [AWM P00602.011]

Local villagers surround Lieutenant John Lucaci, 1st Australian Reinforcement Unit and a Vietnamese monk. 1968. [AWM P00602.011]

The conflict in Vietnam ended up engulfing neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. United States and South Vietnamese forces sought to block the flow of soldiers and equipment through these countries into South Vietnam, invading Cambodia and Laos in 1970. In 1975 communist forces prevailed in all three countries causing millions to try and flee the new regimes.

Cambodia sunk into the nightmare of Khmer Rouge rule. Declaring ‘Year Zero’ and proclaiming an austere agrarian socialist revolution, the Khmer Rouge drove the population into the countryside, murdering anyone considered an intellectual, wiping out most of the Buddhist priesthood and ultimately provoking Vietnam into invading in 1979. Enormous refugee camps were set up along the Thai border as hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled the country with tales of brutality and horror. The camps were overcrowded and sometimes violent and people lived in them for years waiting for resettlement.

  • Major General M F Brogan, General Officer Commanding Eastern Command, talks with Lance Corporal Noel Godbold (left) who served for 11 months in 7RAR and Private Ian Crisp of NSW who was wounded in a mine explosion after serving for 9 months with 2RAR. Both men, patients at the 2nd Military Hospital, Ingleburn are watching the 7RAR march past in Sydney on 10 March 1971. [AWM PEA/71/0093/EC]
  • South Vietnamese refugees fleeing from the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) being evacuated in a RAAF 36 Squadron C-130A Hercules transport aircraft in April 1975. At the end of March 1975, the Australian government provided two RAAF transport aircraft to evacuate some of the South Vietnamese civilians trapped in cities in the path of the NVA advance. In all, seven C-130s (five from the South Vietnamese Air Force) evacuated refugees from Phan Rang airport south of the city of Nha Trang, to the safer town of Can Tho, approximately 150 kilometres southwest of Saigon. This aircraft was piloted and captained by Flt Lt Brian Geoffrey Young, 36 Sqn. During the next few days, Flt Lt Young and his crew made humanitarian flights to a refugee camp at An Thoi, bringing in food, blankets, tents and other items from Saigon. [AWM P05608.005]
  • Phnom Penh, Cambodia 1992. Corporal Francine Rigby of Heidelberg, Vic, Military Police, and Warrant Officer 2 Barry James of Ipswich, Qld, MP, both with Australian Signals Corps, United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), look for stolen equipment in local shops and markets. They were participating in a peacekeeping operation aimed at facilitating democratic elections in Cambodia after the catastrophic period of Khmer Rouge rule; a direct result of the war in Vietnam.  [AWM CAMUN/92/038/03]
  • Australians serving with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) erecting razor wire around the perimeter of their base camp, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 1993. [P01744.009]
  • A Vietnamese fishing boat which arrived in Darwin in June 1978 with nine people on board. Tinh Vuong was the 44th refugee boat to arrive in Australia after the fall of Saigon in April 1975. [Image courtesy of Darwin museum]

Two million people sought to escape South Vietnam after the communist victory. Often taking to small, overcrowded boats they sailed into the South China Sea. Some made it as far as northern Australia, others spent years in refugee camps before finally being admitted to third countries. Many never made it that far, in unseaworthy vessels they succumbed to storms or drowned in calm seas when leaky boats sank beneath them. Pirates regularly attacked the slow, defenceless ships, raping the women, taking whatever valuables were on board and often murdering the refugees.

The exodus from Indochina had an impact on the countries in which the refugees eventually settled. Over ten years from 1976, 94,000 refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam settled in Australia. About 2,000 arrived by boat. Accepting tens of thousands of Asian refugees was a large leap for a country that not long before had upheld the White Australia Policy. Not since the migration of large numbers of Chinese during the nineteenth century goldrushes had there been a large influx of Asians into Australia. As a percentage of the population, Indochinese refugees were not a large group, but they were new and they were visible. Small areas of the country, such as Sydney’s Cabramatta, were dramatically changed by their presence. About 155,000 Vietnamese-born Australians live in Australia today.

After the war Vietnam was a country in ruins; physical infrastructure on both sides of the North/South divide had been destroyed. From 1957, the year after elections meant to unify the country failed to take place, until 1972, when the South was left to continue the war without the support of foreign ground troops, some 3.5 million people died in Vietnam, 60,000 were American, 521 were Australian.

Melbourne Protests

  • Most who protested against the Vietnam War were simply against Australia’s involvement in a conflict increasingly seen as immoral and unwinnable, others opposed the use of national servicemen in the war, and some were active supporters of communism and hoped that its North Vietnamese adherents would prevail. Just a few days after South Vietnam’s fall John Ellis, himself a strong supporter of anti-war causes, photographed this banner in Melbourne’s City Square celebrating the communist victories in Indo-China. 
[Melbourne University Archives UMA/I/124]
  • At the end of the Vietnam War former members of the South Vietnamese regime, long seen as corrupt, self-serving and ultimately ineffectual, fled the country en masse and sought residence in the west. Shortly afterwards, these protesters in Melbourne’s City Square made plain their feelings about those who had served the South Vietnamese Government seeking asylum in Australia. 
[Melbourne University Archives UMA/I/122]
  • Just as former soldiers hold reunions to reminisce about their wartime service and enjoy the company of old comrades, those who were against the war have also come together to recall what, for many, was an exciting time in their lives. Here men who once resisted the draft stand together at the anti-Vietnam War Moratorium 20th Anniversary on 11 May 1990 at the Melbourne Town Hall. 
[Melbourne University Archives UMA/I/722]

In Australia support for the war waned as it went on. Many of those who opposed involvement in Vietnam joined the political left, contributing to the election of a Labor Government in 1972. The Vietnam era was a time of social upheaval in Australia, but other western countries, such as France, that had no involvement in this war in Vietnam also experienced rebellion and internal conflict. In Australia’s case, the war galvanised the protest movement, giving disparate groups an organising principle. Those who sought social change across a range of issues unrelated to the war found common cause in opposing Vietnam and national service.

In the United States failure in Vietnam led to isolationism and a reluctance to become involved in overseas disputes. This was to some degree echoed in Australia. Even contributions to distant peacekeeping operations, in the Sinai for example, led to suggestions that Australia was becoming involved in another Vietnam. Vietnam has become a byword for military quagmire, used in regard to Iraq today, it is a shadow that hangs over military endeavour overseas. No one wants another Vietnam.



Veterans who had lost friends in combat, who had seen death and who had killed, as is the lot of soldiers in war, were appalled at the way in which their having done the job asked of them by their government was, in some cases, used against them. more…

Vietnam Reconstruction Group


The projects of the Australian Vietnam Veterans Reconstruction Group have included medical, dental and sanitary facilities, schools and orphanages, agricultural and aquacultural projects, health care teams and sponsoring Vietnamese children. more…

Agent Orange


To deny the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese food and cover, the United States defoliated large areas of jungle with a herbicide known as Agent Orange. Some Australian troops were exposed to chemical defoliants, with short-term and long-term consequences. more…

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View video of Interview 3 of Lieutenant Barry Smith, 1st Australian Civil Affairs Unit, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.2144

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View video of Interview 2 David Williams Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.2362

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View video of Interview Trooper Michael Malone, SAS, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.2087