The role that Australian forces played in the Vietnam War and discuss the impact and change it had on Australia

The key role of the Australian forces in the Vietnam War was to act upon its ‘four core beliefs’ in Australia’s foreign policy[1]. These policies were implemented in 1949 to achieve and insure the necessary protection of Australian shores in the near and distant future. Jose Narosky once rightly said ‘…in war, there are no unwounded soldiers. ’ In conjunction with this quote, war is not entered into lightly and should be treated purely as a last resort.

In saying this, Australia definitely had pressing reasons for becoming involved in the Vietnam War and in doing so, playing a crucial role along the way. However, acting upon these four core beliefs had a substantial impact on Australia, in the subsequent years that followed the war. In particular, our Vietnam veterans and their families, our attitudes towards Asian migrants and political refugees and the way in which Australia deals with Asia economically.

In accordance with the textbook Experience of Nationhood written by K. J. Mason, the first belief was ‘that communism, particularly in Asia, was a threat to Australia. ’[2] The ever expanding ‘reds’[3] were becoming very powerful which intensified rivalry and tension. Lyndon B. Johnson appropriately explained why his country’s going to war in these words, ‘We did not choose to be the guardians of the gate, but there is no one else. ’ The only country that could rise up and stop the rapid spread of communism was in fact the United States.

With reference to the Australian government website Vietnam War Commemoration, it suggests that one role the Australian forces played in the war was that the ‘United States was keen to avoid the appearance of replacing French colonialism with American imperialism…’ The contribution of other countries such as Australia helped to avoid this perception by suggesting a more international approach. [4] It was made apparent post World War II that Australia could not sufficiently protect itself.

Therefore, the second belief was to seek support from who were often referred to as ‘our great and powerful friends’[5] by the Australian Prime Minister at the time, Robert Menzies. The above mentioned ‘friends’ were Britain and more importantly, the United States. These countries in many respects were the ‘powerhouses’[6] of the time and had overwhelming military and financial dominance. Menzies desperately sought their friendship in order to achieve some facet of protection and power from the ‘commies’[7] as countless veterans would describe them. The third belief comes hand in hand with the latter.

It was to show loyalty and sacrifice to the United States through support in the war effort in Vietnam. One would say that the documents later released after the war, suggests that Menzies pushed the South Vietnamese government to ‘request’ for Australian military assistance because initially they were hesitant to approve. [8] This highlights the desperation in getting rid of communism in Asia and the very realistic threat of spreading to Australia. Furthermore, identifies the Australian forces role which was to support the Americans and maintain a healthy bond between the two nations.

According to the Australian government website Australian War Memorial a total of 500 deaths of Australian troops were counted in the Vietnam War. This shows the devastating sacrifice Australia had to endure to achieve the latter. [9] A further role the Australian forces encompassed throughout the war was a policy known as ‘forward defence’. This policy was followed closely by the Menzies government in this time of great apprehension. It simply means to encounter any potential threats to Australia as far away from mainland as possible.

This was one of the reasons why the Australian forces were in Vietnam in the first place. They played a decisive role in mitigating and ultimately eliminating the possibility of invasion. It is interesting to note that, The Vietnam War was the longest war Australia has ever been associated with. Thus, this prolonged war had a dramatic impact on Australian life and sparked change in numerous aspects of it. Firstly, the conflict had a devastating impact on the Australian soldiers who fought in the unfathomable conditions of Vietnam.

After the war had ended, countless Vietnam veterans continued fighting but not in the jungles of Vietnam but rather with the very people they were trying to protect in the first place. The impact that the war had upon the Vietnam veterans was detrimental to both their physical and psychological health. The Vietnam War was very topical and controversial at the time and was the catalyst of extreme ridicule and harassment towards Vietnam veterans in the earlier years of their ‘welcome home’[10].

Vietnam veteran Gary McMahon describes his experience on how they were treated on their arrival. “Returning veterans were ignored. Some of us were spat at, called murderer or baby killer…” The widespread disapproval in Australian society to the war and to conscription in particular meant that the returned soldiers were not treated with the dignity and appreciation that they deserved on returning home. Many had seen and experienced the most terrible sights in combat, and needed all the support and thanks that they could to overcome the negative effects.

It is, however, too late for many of the veterans who have been plagued by physical and mental problems, resulting in family and friends to be put under excruciating pressure. Paul Ham’s book Vietnam – the Australian War states ‘the collision of war and peace had a terrible social cost’, often marriages broke down, ‘families and friends torn apart’ and often feeling like they are ‘strangers in their own home’[11]. It’s worth mentioning that Mason’s interpretation thoroughly supports this concept.

Being shunned from society only exacerbated the traumas already experienced and it is only in recent years that attempts have been made to correct this. In 1987, a belated ‘homecoming’ was taken place merely 15 years after their arrival. Thousands of veterans and their extended families inundated Australia’s largest prevailing city, Sydney. The march was a success and they were finally acknowledged and recognised for their efforts and one would suggest, deservingly so. It became clear that there was a distinct relation between defoliants such as ‘Agent Orange’[12] used by the troops and the exponential deterioration of their health.

There were a number of reported cases including head and neck cancers, sickness and birth abnormalities. Referencing Scott Brodie’s Tilting at Dominoes: Australia and the Vietnam War these reports ‘fueled an intense’ and ‘long-lasting debate’ to the extent that in 1980, the Fraser government commissioned the University of Sydney to establish the ‘Australian Veterans Herbicide Studies unit’ and eventually The Vietnam Veterans’ Association of Australia (VVAA) relentlessly upheld their beliefs and succeeded in aving a ‘Royal Commission’ to further delve into the claim’s authenticity. [13] The enormous influx of Vietnamese refugees coming migrating to Australia was yet another impact to Australian life. After the communists were victorious and Fall of Saigon in 1975, approximately two million Indochinese people became refugees, fleeing from all parts of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia for an array of reasons. Those who had supported and worked with the Australians and other allies in Vietnam were now in trouble.

Many were forced into ‘re-education’ camps which were used for social control and punishment. Countless were ‘killed, discriminated against and others were exiled’ in the process. [14] Many tried to flee by sea or plane. If they were not lucky enough to fly, they boarded old-rickety boats with essentially nothing apart from hope. As a direct consequence of the above mentioned, more than 150 000 Vietnamese refugees were resettled in Australia. Today the Vietnamese-speaking community is one of the largest groups of non-English speaking people in Australia. 15]. Many went to Sydney and settled in Sydney’s western suburbs, chiefly Cabramatta, a suburb close to the migrant relocation centre and better known in the 1990’s for drugs and crime. [16]

This has significantly impacted on Australian life with overwhelmingly positive benefits as they provided Australians with there beautiful food, religion and culture. Paul Ham’s book describes Cabramatta as both ‘a symbol and a place’, as it marked the end of the White Australia Policy and welcomed Asian people as Australia citizens. 17] Eventually the ‘Domino Theory’[18] was proven wrong and the gradually the tension died down. In recent years, Australia has been growing strong interlinking economic relationships with Asia as a whole; the majority is negotiated through such organizations as ‘APEC’[19] . Australia has ever expanding economic links with Asian countries, as almost ’60 per cent of Australia’s exports go to Asia. ’ [20] This explicitly shows the colossal change, given that initially Britain was Australia’s overriding trading partner. This is yet another indirect positive outcome of the war itself.

To conclude, the Australian forces played a variety of roles within the Vietnam War that ensured our protection from foreign threats. However, carrying out these roles had a certain impact on Australian life, both positively and negatively. One would strongly suggest that the Vietnam War prompted a multitude of change within Australia and can be used as a lesson to future generations. Yet, history shows that war will undoubtedly repeat itself as American philosopher George Santayana would say ‘only the dead have seen the end of the war. ’