Australia and the Vietnam War

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All the way with LBJ

The Americans' war - At home and overseas

The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, Washington, DC. [Image Courtesy of Arlington Economic Development]

In his January 1961 inauguration speech, President John F. Kennedy affirmed the US position vowing to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty. 

The Washington memorial lists 58,256 names, including 8 women. Among them are some 1,200 missing.

The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, Washington, DC. [Image Courtesy of Arlington Economic Development]

The war that is known around the world as the ‘Vietnam War’ is referred to in Vietnam as the ‘American War’. In this way the conflict between communist forces in South Vietnam and the North Vietnamese Army on one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other, is distinguished from the eight-year-long war against France that ended in 1954 and the five-year-long Japanese occupation during the Second World War. United States military intervention in Vietnam began in 1961, when advisers were sent to South Vietnam to bolster that country’s defences against a communist-backed insurgency sponsored by North Vietnam.

Some three million United States personnel served in Vietnam over the ten years of American involvement. American military planners and political leaders – from the wealthiest, most technologically and militarily advanced nation on earth – expected to defeat the communists in Vietnam – a land peopled mainly by rural peasants – with relative ease. But as the war dragged on, and as ever increasing numbers of American soldiers were deployed to Vietnam, it became apparent that the Vietnamese communists were a tougher, more resourceful enemy than had been imagined. Using equipment supplied by the Soviet Union and China, the North Vietnamese Army and the South Vietnamese communists, known as the Viet Cong, were able to frustrate the Americans who were rarely able to draw their opponents into open battle.

Mounting losses and a growing sense that the war was not being won, despite assertions to the contrary by leading political and military figures in the United States, gave strength to anti-war activists in America. When communist forces launched the Tet offensive in February 1968, attacking major centres and infiltrating the American embassy in Saigon, American public opinion turned decisively against the war. The Tet offensive was a military defeat for the Viet Cong, who never recovered from the losses they suffered. However, it was also a propaganda victory from which the United States was unable to recover.

'The Americans' war'

  • The US Army Air Force Iroquois ‘Huey’ fleet at Bien Hoa base, 1965. [Image courtesy of Neil Grant]

One particular operation we went on, and this was a very big operation, we had 132 helicopters in the air at once. It was called Eagle Strike. We were picked up from Da Nang, chopper after chopper… Everywhere I looked from my chopper I see choppers up to the left, down to the left, in front, behind; it was just a magnificent sight… That was the first time I’d seen napalm used and fighter aircraft in close support… Oh it was very spectacular. I mean it was as if you were at the movies when you see across the front the napalm being dropped and then the founds from the aircraft falling on your head, spent cartridges. They get hot. They land on top of you… Ball of fire. Balls of fire. [WO2 Anthony Thorp, AATTV, quoted in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007, p 89 (drawing on interview no 2209 in the Australians at War Film Archive)
  • United States and South Vietnamese naval personnel worked together in a variety of situations both on the South China Sea and on South Vietnam’s numerous rivers. [Image courtesy of Tony Ey]
  • US Military Payment Certificates (MPC) were created and issued in US-occupied areas to insulate the US dollar and to prevent black market activities. Although they were intended for use only by US service personnel they soon filtered through into the local Vietnamese economy. Once they were found on the open market, a new issue would be released and the old issue notes would be exchanged for the new series. [AWM RELC02750]
  • Captain Gerry Cudmore, a Roman Catholic Chaplain with 1RAR, gives communion to Australian gunners and American troops, Bien Hoa, 1965. [AWM SHA/65/0017/VN]
  • The aftermath of the first battle of Saigon, known as the ‘Tet Offensive’, in January 1968. The Cholon area of Saigon was badly damaged during the fighting. [AWM P04900.012] CBS News commentator Walter Cronkite summed up the US situation after the Tet Offensive on the evening news, 27 February 1968: To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest that we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic if unsatisfactory conclusion.
  • If I promise not to breathe a word, will you give me a hint on what’s going on in Indo China? President Nixon’s administration attempted to impose censorship on media reportage critical of the US military intervention during the Vietnam War. [
  • A US Army officer about to leave the the ‘Doom Club’, the Danang Officers’ Open Mess, at the Danang airfield on his Harley Davidson motor cycle, c.1965. [AWM P05583.028]
  • Gunner (Gnr) Mervyn Bignall 107th Field battery of NSW (in the foreground) during a visit to C Battery, 5th/42nd US Artillery which was temporarily based at Nui Dat in support of the Australian Task Force, January 1971. [AWM CUN/71/0001/VN]
  • The special explosive ordnance disposal unit formed from US Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Royal Australian Navy personnel celebrate with a few beers after clearing damaged ammunition and ordnance from the Dong Ha Logistic Base located in 1 Corps about 10 kilometres south of the demilitarised Zone in Quang Tri Province. [AWM P01620.007]
  • Gunner Fred Bowden, Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery, 12th Field Regiment, astride a US 155mm self-propelled howitzer at Fire Support Base Coral, 1968. Some US artillery was seconded to the Australians at Coral. [Image courtesy of Fred Bowden]
We were all overwhelmed by the sheer size of the American effort. We had an army of 35,000, we had no idea that that’s the size of just one of their manoeuvre units! They would do tremendous feats of logistics, like they actually made the highway from Vung Tau to the main road of Saigon. They had flotillas of machine that just laid down asphalt on basically sand, you know, and did it well. They had squadrons of boats coming over with goods. They had whole supermarkets dotted around the country that held stationery items and hygiene equipment and stuff that units need to operate, and you wouldn’t need to sign for anything. You’d just walk through with a shopping trolley and take what you needed. Of course most Australians would sign ‘E. Kelly’ and the bills never, ever got back to Canberra… The effort and the logistics were just incredible and a day didn’t go by that we weren’t gobsmacked by yet another American excess. [Captain Alan Cunningham, HQ Australian Logistic Support Group, quoted in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007, pp 145–156 (drawing on interview no 1599 in the Australians at War Film Archive).
  • ‘You may have a boring but vital job – helping the safe withdrawal of US troops!’ The last US and Australian troops withdrew from South Vietnam early in 1973. Stewart McCrae, c. 1960–1980.[
  • American Iroquois helicopters fly over Australian soldiers in February 1967.  The extensive and innovative tactical use of helicopters was an important part of the American war effort.  So widespread was their use that, for many, these aircraft came to symbolise the war in Vietnam  To the present day helicopters, particularly the Iroquois, figure prominently in popular perceptions of the Vietnam War. [AWM P05904.001]
  • An American crewman in the back of a helicopter during a medical evacuation flight to Long Binh.  Long Binh, outside Saigon, was the largest US Army base in South Vietnam and the point of both entry and departure for many Americans during the war.  It included a stockade which was known as the ‘Long Binh Jail’ or ‘LBJ’, after the American president.  [AWM P05104.035]
  • A United States Navy vessel with American, South Vietnamese and Australian personnel are on board in the Mekhong Delta in 1970.  The Americans tried hard to gain control of this part of South Vietnam which, although close to Saigon, remained a centre of Viet Cong activity.  Patrolling the delta was a significant aspect of the American experience in Vietnam.  [AWM P03654.091]
  • American soldiers on patrol in dense bush.  Australians were often surprised at the careless way in which many American units patrolled believing them to be overly noisy and generally lacking in caution.  [AWM P05545.006]

After 1968 the number of Americans in Vietnam decreased year-by-year. Fighting continued; mostly, by now, it was against the North Vietnamese Army. United States aircraft and naval vessels continued to operate against targets in North and South Vietnam, but American ground forces became fewer and fewer, replaced by a growing, but relatively ineffective, South Vietnamese Army.

Communist forces continued to reach South Vietnam from the North despite United States and South Vietnamese attempts to cut off supply routes. In 1970, the American president, Richard Nixon, expanded military operations into neighbouring Laos and Cambodia. Both countries were used as transit routes for North Vietnamese troops and supplies but for their civilian populations the widening conflict brought disaster. Ultimately this attempt to disrupt North Vietnam’s efforts in the South failed. Laos fell to communist forces in 1975 as did Cambodia whose population, already torn apart by the war, went on to experience suffering on a scale that horrified the world.

An American anti-Vietnam War poster produced in 1971 by artist Edward Sorel. President Nixon is depicted as a Napoleon-like figure. He is flanked by former Vice President and presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, and United States National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. The maniacal Napoleon-Nixon is placing symbols of bombs on the map. Image reproduced with permission of Edward Sorel. [AWM ARTV03007]

An American anti-Vietnam War poster produced in 1971 by artist Edward Sorel. President Nixon is depicted as a Napoleon-like figure. He is flanked by former Vice President and presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, and United States National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. The maniacal Napoleon-Nixon is placing symbols of bombs on the map. Image reproduced with permission of Edward Sorel. [AWM ARTV03007]

The conflict in Vietnam divided American society and the military alike. In the final period of the war, during the early 1970s, insubordination and drug use were increasingly common among American soldiers in Vietnam. Troops were reportedly refusing to go on patrol or place themselves in dangerous situations. Many were conscripts and none wished to die in a war that, to many, seemed pointless and which was clearly coming to an end.

By the end of 1972, few United States ground troops remained in Vietnam. In January 1973 peace talks that had been taking place in Paris resulted in a ceasefire being agreed to by the United States, North Vietnam and, reluctantly, by South Vietnam. For the Americans this meant ‘peace with honour’, for the North and South Vietnamese it meant less. The war continued until April 1975 when Saigon fell to a North Vietnamese offensive. Over ten years of United States involvement in the war some 60,000 Americans were killed but the heaviest combat losses were borne by the people of Vietnam, North and South. North Vietnamese estimates put the Vietnamese civilian death toll at 4 million.

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A Viet Cong/North Vietnamese National Radio and Press Propaganda Analysis for 24 March – 6 April 1970 produced by the Strategic Research & Analysis Division, Directorate of Intelligence Production, Headquarters US Military Assistance Command. [AWM 98/259]

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Department of Defense Intelligence Information reports on the US Army interrogations of two Viet Cong prisoners dated 18 July and 20 September 1969. [AWM 98-222]