Australia and the Vietnam War

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All the way with LBJ

Overview

Troops of 1 RAR landed in South Vietnam in June 1965, with military police from the American 173rd Airborne Brigade keeping watch. The battalion was comprised entirely of regular troops during its first deployment and was maintained and supplied by the Americans. The battalion saw some hard fighting and lost 23 men killed before returning to Australia in June 1966. [AWM DNE/65/0002/VN]

Troops of 1 RAR landed in South Vietnam in June 1965, with military police from the American 173rd Airborne Brigade keeping watch. The battalion was comprised entirely of regular troops during its first deployment and was maintained and supplied by the Americans. The battalion saw some hard fighting and lost 23 men killed before returning to Australia in June 1966. [AWM DNE/65/0002/VN]

The Vietnam War, in essence a conflict between North Vietnam and South Vietnam, had wider implications because of North Vietnam’s communist associations. In the wake of the Second World War, with Russia ascendant in Eastern Europe and China dominant in north Asia, western fears of a communist expansion throughout Asia were running high. The United States was concerned that, should North Vietnam prevail and turn Vietnam into a communist state, neighbouring countries such as Laos, Cambodia and Thailand were also likely to succumb in what was called the ‘domino effect’. As an ally of the United States and with its own interest in seeing the South-East Asian region free of communism, Australia was an enthusiastic supporter of American policy in Vietnam.

'All the way'

  • Mr Harold Holt with President Lyndon Baines Johnson during the latter’s visit to Canberra on 21 October 1966. ‘All the way with LBJ’ had been President Johnson’s election slogan and Harold Holt’s use of the phrase during his visit to Washington in June 1966 created controversy in Australia. [NAA: A1200, L56294]
  • General William Westmoreland, Commander, US Military Assistance Command Vietnam (left) and Lieutenant Colonel Ivan ‘Lou’ Brumfield, Commanding Officer of 1RAR, leave a US army helicopter before inspecting IRAR’s defences at Bien Hoa airbase, June 1965. [AWM DNE/65/0039/VN]
  • Corporal Jeff Taylor, 1st Australian Logistic Support Company, from WA, listens to Private First Class Tom Hughes, 173rd US Airborne Brigade, from Michigan, USA, explaining the operation of the US Armalite rifle, 1965. [AWM DNE/65/0072/VN]
  • Australian cavalry support for an American road-building project in Bien Hoa province. This eight-kilometre stretch of road replaced a 30-kilometre trip for allied forces, 1966. [Image courtesy of Rex Warren]
  • A US Army 9th Division convoy passes Private Ian Male, B Company, 6RAR, on South Vietnam’s Route 15 in January 1967. The highway, linking Saigon to Vung Tau, was a vital transport link for US forces.  Members of 6RAR and the 1st Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron, Royal Australian Armoured Corps, provided protection from Viet Cong attack for the 9th Division convoys. [AWM CUN/67/0053/VN]

America’s fear of a North Vietnamese victory and its implications for regional politics led to its involvement in the war in Vietnam as an ally and supporter of the anti-communist South Vietnamese regime. Australia quickly followed suit, offering military trainers to assist South Vietnamese forces in a move aimed at supporting United States policy and addressing Australia’s own regional concerns.

Over the following years both the United States and Australia increased their commitment to South Vietnam, including the use of conscripts in combat. Military might was not, however, sufficient to prevail over either southern communist insurgents nor the North Vietnamese Army. Even when United States and South Vietnamese forces did inflict a major battlefield defeat on their enemies during the 1968 Tet offensive, popular opinion in the United States and Australia turned against the war. The propaganda victory won by the communist forces ultimately proved to be of greater moment than their military defeat. After 1968 the United States began withdrawing its forces from Vietnam until, by late 1972, carriage of the war had been placed in the hands of South Vietnam which, in 1975, was defeated by the North.

The Americans’ war

The Americans’ war icon

Some three million United States personnel served in Vietnam over the ten years of American involvement … 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. more…

Rest and Recreation in Sydney

rest and rec icon

United States servicemen on a twelve-month tour of duty were given seven days R & R [rest and recreation] outside Vietnam … Many Australians regarded American servicemen on R & R with sympathy. They were young, a long way from home and engaged in a war in which many were reluctant participants. more…


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Headlines: ‘This is a grim week-end for every Australian. We are now at war… Australia is to fight on the Asian mainland to aid the United States in stopping the advance of Communism…’ [Editorial in The Courier Mail, 1 May 1965]

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Headlines: ‘However much Australians might abhor the prospect of becoming physically embroiled in the conflict in Vietnam, the government could not shirk its responsibilities there …’ [Editorial in the West Australian, 1 May 1965]

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Cablegram: In his cable of 5 December 1967, Prime Minister Holt thanks President Johnson for his interest in Australia and his ‘warm comradely comments … following my Government’s decision to add to its force strength in Vietnam.’ [NAA: A7854 Item 1]

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US Headlines: Prime Minister Harold Holt’s death and its impact on Australia’s involvement in Vietnam generated significant interest in the United States. President Johnson travelled to Australia to attend Mr Holt’s memorial service in Melbourne which was also broadcast on some networks in the United States. The new Australian Prime Minister, John McEwen assured President Johnson that Australia would continue to fight alongside the United States and its allies in Vietnam. [NAA: M4300 Item 11]