Australia and the Vietnam War

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The other side

Viet Cong soldiers from D 445 Battalion.  The Americans and their allies generally identified those wearing black as “Main Force” Viet Cong.  This image nevertheless shows that the Viet Cong wore many different “uniforms,” and used a variety of weapons and equipment.  [AWM P01934.033]

Viet Cong soldiers from D 445 Battalion. The Americans and their allies generally identified those wearing black as “Main Force” Viet Cong. This image nevertheless shows that the Viet Cong wore many different “uniforms,” and used a variety of weapons and equipment. [AWM P01934.033]

The Vietnamese communists and ‘the American War’

The Americans and their allies saw the Vietnam War as part of a struggle against international communism. Those on the other side, however, thought of themselves more as nationalists fighting against foreign invaders and colonialists. The war against the United States was, therefore, seen by many Vietnamese as another in series of conflicts for independence dating back almost a thousand years.

Vietnam was ruled by China for almost a millennia before gaining independence in the tenth century. During the centuries that followed the Vietnamese repelled three invasions by the fearsome Mongols and resisted further Chinese attempts to regain control, finally defeating a vast invasion force sent by the Chinese Ming Dynasty in the fifteenth century. Following this victory, Vietnam itself began to expand southwards at the expense of Champa, a kingdom whose remnants were ultimately incorporated into Vietnam by the early nineteenth century.

  • Three suspected Viet Cong sit inside a barbed wire enclosure while members of 1RAR stand guard. They were captured during a search and destroy operation in Xo Vu village. More than 400 suspects were detained of whom 160 proved to be Viet Cong, December 1965. [AWM SHA/65/0290/VN]
  • Lance Corporal Barry O’Brien drying captured Viet Cong documents discovered by 7RAR in an earthenware jar in a Viet Cong training and supply village during Operation Santa Fe.  Operation Santa Fe, in October–November 1967 was the first major operation in which the newly arrived Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV) took part. The joint ‘search and destroy’ mission in the north-east of Phuoc Tuy Province involved US, Australian and South Vietnamese troops and lasted for three weeks. [AWM THU/67/1075/VN]
  • To Thi Nau, (aka Minh Hoang), a 23-year-old Viet Cong woman captured with a radio in the Nui Dinh Hills west of Nui Dat on 24 October 1966. [AWM P01404.011] To was subsequently proven to be a National Liberation Front cadre active in propaganda, indoctrination and intelligence gathering. She was interrogated in a tent at the 1st Australian Task Force Base (1ATF) for approximately 30 minutes on 27 October 1966 before being handed over to Republic of Vietnam (RVN) authorities. There was much controversy over an alleged 'water torture' incident during her interrogation by a warrant officer from Detachment 1 Division Intelligence Unit who threatened to give her the 'water treatment’, poured water into her mouth and forced her to swallow about a cup-full before other officers intervened. The interrogation report of her interview can be found in AWM 98 670/1/7.
  • Two members of Viet Cong D 445 Battalion, which operated in Phuoc Tuy Province where the Australians were stationed.  This image comes from a book of photographs captured by members of the 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment [7 RAR], on an operation in 1967.  [AWM P01934.041]
  • A painting entitled “Charlie [Viet Cong]” by Ken McFayden, Australia’s official war artist for the Vietnam War.  McFayden was in Vietnam for seven months, part of which he spent with the Australian Task Force at Nui Dat.  McFayden has depicted this “typical” Viet Cong soldier as bearing a Russian-designed AK 47 assault rifle.  [Ken McFadyen, Charlie [Viet Cong], 1967, oil on canvas on hardboard, 48.3 x 30.4cm, AWM ART40744]
  • Beneath a propaganda image of himself, Ho Chi Minh addresses members of the Viet Minh in 1953.  Although Ho Chi Minh was President of North Vietnam at the time, he was still involved in a struggle against the French, who attempted to re-establish colonial rule after the Second World War.  [Getty Images 51397913]
  • General Vo Nguyen Giap in 1968.  Giap was the senior general of the Vietnam People’s Army from 1946 to 1972.   He is probably best known for his role in the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  [Getty Images 3260101]
  • General Vo Nguyen Giap [smiling, above left] and President Ho Chi Minh [second from right] confer with Vietnam People’s Army officers while on campaign against the French in 1950.  [Getty Images 51426347]
  • Victorious Vietnam People’s Army soldiers outside the Independence Palace in Saigon in 1975.  The Independence Palace had been the official residence of the President of South Vietnam.  After the war the Independence Palace was called the Reunification Palace, and Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City.  [Getty Images 51973261]

Further Vietnamese expansion was halted only by the French, who forcibly established themselves as colonial masters at the end of the nineteenth century. French colonial rule was in turn interrupted in 1940 when the Japanese invaded Vietnam. The Vietnamese endured terrible hardships during the Japanese occupation, which lasted until the end of the Second World War in 1945.

After the war the French tried to regain control of Vietnam despite local and world-wide anti-colonial sentiment. Eight years of war followed before the French were defeated by the Viet Minh, or the League for the Independence of Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh who became president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). The Vietnam People’s Army existed within the Viet Minh movement and lasted until the Vietnam War and beyond. Between 1946 and 1972 the Vietnam People’s Army was commanded by General Vo Nguyen Giap, Ho Chi Minh’s military strategist since the early 1940s and a veteran of the struggle against the Japanese. Much of the credit for the defeat of the United States and before them the French has been given to Giap, a brilliant but ruthless commander who was prepared to expend as many lives as were necessary to achieve victory.

Ho Chi Minh, was a communist. But in the early stages of the Vietnam War he instructed his lieutenants to make sure the Vietnamese people understood that they were fighting for Vietnam, not for communism itself. In a critique of continuing United States aid to the South during the final period of the war, General Giap commented that ‘even when they withdrew their troops they would still continue to transform Vietnam into a new colony of theirs.’ And when Saigon fell to the Vietnam People’s Army in 1975, Giap spoke publically of Vietnam’s ‘tradition of fighting against foreign invasion.’

The Vietnamese thus thought of the Americans as they had of the French, the Japanese, and the Chinese, as colonialists who sought to occupy their country. They called their struggle against the most recent invaders ‘the American War’.

The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army

The word “Viet Cong” was first used in the late 1950s. It appeared in South Vietnamese newspapers as an abbreviation of cong san Viet Nam, which simply meant “Vietnamese communist.” Many of the original Viet Cong were from the south of the country, they had gone north after 1954 when Vietnam was divided. There they received political and military training before being sent back to the south.

In the 1960s American soldiers began referring to the Viet Cong as the VC and, more colloquially, as ‘Charlie’, which derived from the phonetic alphabet’s rendering of the letter C in VC. The slang term ‘Charlie’ quickly came to include all communist forces. According to the Vietnamese themselves, however, the Viet Cong were part of the North Vietnamese Army or Vietnam People’s Army, commanded by General Vo Nguyen Giap. The Viet Cong based in South Vietnam included both guerrilla and regular formations, with even the guerrillas possessing a regular-army structure. In addition, the Viet Cong consisted of a ‘main force’ of permanent troops, as well as cadres for recruiting and ‘organising’ South Vietnamese peasants.

Rather confusingly, the Viet Cong often called themselves the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam in order to maintain the appearance of being a nationalist, southern-based movement, rather than a communist and North Vietnam-controlled organisation. Communist propaganda therefore played a part in creating the impression that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army were separate entities.

The Americans in turn usually thought of their Vietnamese foes as being either Viet Cong guerrillas or North Vietnamese regular troops. Although this distinction between guerrillas and conventional soldiers does not entirely reflect how the Vietnamese either thought of themselves or operated, it became widespread. This perception also determined how most westerners understood – and continue to think about – the communist forces in the Vietnam War.

'Communist commemoration'

  • A commemorative site in the Minh Dam (Long Hai hills), 2008. [Image courtesy of John Newman]
  • The commemorative plaque outside the Minh Dam temple. [Image courtesy of John Newman]
  • Incense sticks indicate the sites where unidentified Viet Cong bodies have been found. [Image courtesy of John Newman]
  • The temple at Minh Dam contains a roll of honour for Vietnamese communist veterans who died during their struggle for independence. [Image courtesy of John Newman]
  • Vietnamese communist graves in the Baria cemetery. There is no commemoration for Vietnamese who died fighting for America and her allies. [Image courtesy of John Newman]

The Viet Cong fought as guerrillas or regular soldiers according to the circumstances. In 1963 they won a notable victory at Ap Bac in a set-piece battle with South Vietnamese forces. But, perhaps inevitably, the Viet Cong are better remembered for guerrilla-style operations such as ambushes, sabotage, and assassinations conducted against the Americans and their allies. At times the Viet Cong also engaged in extortion and inflicted terror on South Vietnamese peasants, and there is evidence of Viet Cong massacres of local Catholic and Montagnard communities.

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View video of Viet Cong Camp discovered DPR/TV/983. Troops of C Company, 4RAR, find a recently occupied Viet Cong base camp in the forest about 30 Kilometres from Nui Dat.

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View video of The destruction of enemy camps in Phuoc Tuy Province.

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The disposal of Viet Cong rice supplies; a paper detailing the problems encountered by Bravo Company, 1RAR, and suggestions for a more efficient method of disposal, 10 April 1966. [AWM273/25]