Australia and the Vietnam War

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The Vietnam War

Background

Vietnamese prisoners, held in bamboo restraints stand before their French guard and other Vietnamese onlookers in 1902. [Getty images 55753534]

Vietnamese prisoners, held in bamboo restraints stand before their French guard and other Vietnamese onlookers in 1902. [Getty images 55753534]

The distant origins of the Vietnam War lie in the nineteenth-century colonisation of Indochina (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) by France. French rule lasted until 1940 when the Japanese, embarking on a series of conquests in Southeast Asia and eventually war against Western powers, occupied Vietnam. Japan’s defeat in 1945 saw France seeking to regain control of her erstwhile colonies. Establishing the state of Vietnam, France installed the former emperor, Bao Dai, as head of state. For many Vietnamese, however, the end of the Japanese occupation meant the chance for independence, duly proclaimed by Ho Chi Minh, leader of Vietnam’s Communist Party, in September 1945.

France refused to accept the declaration, and eight years of war followed, ending with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The peace settlement, known as the Geneva Accords, divided the country; the North under the communist Ho Chi Minh, and the South under President Ngo Dinh Diem who had deposed Bao Dai and proclaimed the Republic of Vietnam in October 1955.

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The Geneva Accords mandated that a Vietnam-wide election, aimed at reunifying the divided country, be held in 1956. Diem claimed that the people of the North could not vote freely, and with the backing of the United States, he refused to participate. Relations between the two Vietnams grew increasingly tense and in 1960 the North, aiming to overthrow Diem and reunite the country under communist rule, proclaimed the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam.

In 1956 four officers from the South Vietnamese army toured military establishments in Australia. Within six years Australians were training, and later fighting, alongside men such as these in Vietnam. In a more peaceful time these officers were photographed at the Australian War Memorial beside a statue depicting a moment from the birthplace of so many of Australia's military legends, Gallipoli. From left to right: Captain Nguyen Dinh Kinh, Captain Pham Huu Nhon, two unidentified Australians, Colonel Linh Quang Vien and Lieutenant Colonel Bui Huu Nhon. [NLA 8887621 Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia]

In 1956 four officers from the South Vietnamese army toured military establishments in Australia. Within six years Australians were training, and later fighting, alongside men such as these in Vietnam. In a more peaceful time these officers were photographed at the Australian War Memorial beside a statue depicting a moment from the birthplace of so many of Australia's military legends, Gallipoli. [NLA 8887621 Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia]

Known as the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists) and hoping to foment a general uprising, the Front embarked on a guerilla campaign throughout the South. The South Vietnamese Army proved unable to counter the insurgents’ tactics and the United States, alarmed at the prospect of communism spreading throughout South-East Asia, began to significantly increase what had been a limited amount of assistance to the South. By 1962 more than 11,000 United States military advisers had arrived in the country. They represented the beginning of a build-up in United States troop numbers that would peak at more than 500,000.


This series of maps (links below) illustrate the extent to which external powers influenced the course of Vietnam’s history between the late nineteenth century and the 1970s. Long a contested land, in the modern era Vietnam experienced uprisings and rebellions against the French, a period of Japanese occupation and the long and bloody wars against France and then the United States and its allies. Only in 1975 did Vietnam emerge as a single, independent country. Even then, however, further conflict followed, against Cambodia beginning in late 1978 and, briefly, against China in 1979.

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View map of Southeast Asia and northern Australia showing districts in Annam and Tonkin that France proposed to annex (1883).

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Japanese map of the southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia (1944).

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French Indo-China map printed on rayon for escape and evasion purposes (c. 1944).

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Map of Vietnam showing US military bases, offensives and operational zones during the Vietnam War (1980s).