Australia and the Vietnam War

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Public Opinion

Overview

An anti-war vigil outside Parliament House in Canberra, May 1968. [NAA:A1200, L71054]

An anti-war vigil outside Parliament House in Canberra, May 1968. [NAA:A1200, L71054]

Australian public opinion about the war in Vietnam moved through several stages over the decade-long involvement. In the beginning a largely disinterested public paid little attention to a war that involved very few Australian soldiers, especially as they were members of the regular Army engaged in a training role. At the same time, most Australians were wary of communism’s spread through Asia and when Australia’s commitment to Vietnam increased to a regular Army battalion in 1965 there was little negative reaction.

  • Oz magazine, May 1965. Edited by Richard Neville and Richard Walsh.

The cover of the magazine shows a caricature of the American President Lyndon Johnson as a large eagle dropping bombs. Behind him is a smaller representation of Sir Robert Menzies as a bird. The art direction and original artwork was done by Martin Sharp. [94/185/14 Courtesy of Powerhouse Museum]
  • Accompanying the troops on HMAS Sydney in May 1965 was a small group of television and radio journalists and cameramen. Mayo Hunter, from ATN7 in Sydney, was with the group. [AWM DNE/65/0316/VN]. 

Television brought the Vietnam War into Australian living rooms and many families ate their evening meal watching news footage of the war. 

The Australian media as a group had really no influence on the war at all.  The media as a whole, of course, but the American media, television; television dominated. Our first war on television in our living rooms every night, but American television. Not Australian television. The role of the Australian media was zilch, absolutely. Nobody gave a bugger about it. [Alan Ramsey, journalist, quoted in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007, p 371. (Drawing on interview no 2568 in the Australians at War Film Archive)]
  • ‘And causing litter in the street.’ George Molnar, 1966. [nla.pic-an24898954]

Cartoonists began to satirise conscription and the Vietnam War during the early days of Australia’s commitment.
  • The cover features a bright orange border surrounding a black and white cartoon of a protest march, led by an elderly demonstrator carrying a placard reading:
  • ‘Let's take a risk for peace! Ring the President for a definite date for our withdrawal!’ [picture] / McCrae., 1963-1980. [http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3105472]

The Australian Government had already decided to begin withdrawing troops from Vietnam before the protest movement gained mass support, although Gallop polls had indicated a large percentage of people opposed the war by the late 1960s.  As opposition increased John Gorton became Liberal leader and Prime Minister, taking over from caretaker Prime Minister John McEwen.
  • A protest outside the former Parliament House in Canberra, 1970 [NAA A1200, L85635]
  • ‘I was just thinking – why can’t we replace them?’ Viet Cong soldiers discuss replacing 8RAR with a Viet Cong unit when its South Vietnam tour of duty ends, Stewart McCrae Cartoon Collection,1970. [http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3106415]. 

The Australian government had announced that 8RAR would not be replaced when it returned home from Vietnam in November 1970 and by Christmas that year the Australian Task Force was reduced to two battalions.
  • ‘Apart from Nixon’s announcement, we have our own strategic reasons for an early troop withdrawal – the Senate elections!’ Stewart McCrae Cartoon Collection,1970 .[http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3106639]
  • ‘Moratorium News’ June 1971.  The last two battalions to go into service in Vietnam arrived and departed in 1971. 3RAR arrived in February and were not replaced when they returned to Australia in October. The last battalion to leave Nui Dat, 4RAR, arrived in May 1971 and lowered the Australian and New Zealand flags for the last time when they left the Australian base that November.
  • ‘with honour’, 25.5.73. George Molnar, 1973. [nla.pic-vn3048347-v]

News that Australia would contribute a task force to the war in 1966, and that this expansion would mean front line service for national servicemen, sparked a rise in the number of anti-war groups. Some were opposed more to conscription than to the war itself. In 1967, when the deployment of an extra battalion to Vietnam was announced, public opposition to the war increased. An opinion poll revealed that 46% of the electorate disapproved of the decision, 17% were undecided. Only 37% were in favour, marking the first time that opponents of the commitment outnumbered supporters. In the period before this, opposition to the war, as the ALP had learnt to its cost in 1966, was not a vote winner. Despite the 1967 opinion poll results, it took until 1969 before it was electorally popular to oppose the war. In August that year an opinion poll found, for the first time, that a majority of Australians favoured a withdrawal from Vietnam.

‘STOP WORK TO STOP WORLD WAR GAMBLE’ [From the Riley and Ephemera Collection Vietnam War. 1970-1975’, poster collection] By May 1972, the withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam was complete. Just a few troops remained in the Australian Embassy guard. This poster advertising a demonstration in the Melbourne Treasury Gardens on Friday 19 May 1972 targets President Nixon and the US Government and their continuing role in the war.

‘STOP WORK TO STOP WORLD WAR GAMBLE’ [From the Riley and Ephemera Collection Vietnam War. 1970-1975’, poster collection] By May 1972, the withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam was complete. Just a few troops remained in the Australian Embassy guard. This poster advertising a demonstration in the Melbourne Treasury Gardens on Friday 19 May 1972 targets President Nixon and the US Government and their continuing role in the war.

But public opinion and public protest played a relatively small role in policy decisions about Vietnam. Australia’s withdrawal from the war was already underway in the early 1970s when widespread protests, known as moratorium marches, took place in the country’s major cities. All through the war Australia followed America’s lead (often with regional concerns at the forefront of government thinking) and once the United States decided to leave Vietnam, Australia was left with no choice but to follow suit.

Twenty years after the North Vietnamese victory, in April 1995, an opinion poll marking the thirtieth anniversary of Prime Minister Menzies’ commitment of a battalion to Vietnam and the twentieth anniversary of Saigon’s fall found that 55% of Australians thought that it was wrong to have sent troops to Vietnam and 30% considered it the right thing to have done.