Vietnam War - Overview

The Vietnam War arose out of more than a century of foreigners’ occupation of Vietnam. It was a war for Vietnamese independence, but also a civil war between two competing philosophies.

Vietnam has always been subject to threats and invasion from its large neighbours - particularly China. In the eighteenth century a new threat emerged - the French invaded the area, called Annam then, and established control. They used the land as their colony, and created a strong French influence, though one which did not suppress Vietnamese desires for independence.

In the Second World War the Japanese invaded, and Vietnamese nationalists fought beside French troops to defeat the Japanese. After the victory over the Japanese, the Vietnamese expected to gain their independence - but the French remained as colonial masters. Many Vietnamese troops now turned to fighting the French.

In 1954 the French were defeated in the north at Dien Bien Phu, but in the south, Vietnamese leaders did not want to be part of the pro-Communist system being set up by the north. The country was divided along the 17th parallel of latitude, with the south being supported by the United States, and the north by Russia and China. The north began to send troops into to the south, supported by southerners sympathetic to their cause.

The main reason for the United States’ involvement was a fear that communism would spread throughout Asia. China had become communist in 1949, and the Korean War of the 1950s had seemed to show the spreading power and influence and threat of communism. The Australian government shared this view, and was ready to support the United States in South Vietnam.

The United States began sending larger and larger numbers of troops to South Vietnam. Australian soldiers were in South Vietnam as advisers from 1962. In 1965 Prime Minister Menzies, in an attempt to tie the United States to defence of Australia against any threat from Indonesia, announced that Australia would send combat troops. This included conscripted soldiers, National Servicemen, after 1966. These were chosen by a ballot of all 20 year old males, though only a small proportion of all eligible men were called up.

Most Australian Army operational units served in South Vietnam during the war. They served mainly in the Phuoc Tuy province of Vietnam - at the Nui Dat base and at the logistics base at Vung Tau. Many officers and warrant officers served with distinction in South Vietnamese Army units as part of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV). The normal tour of duty was one year with complete unit replacement where appropriate, otherwise the unit remained in situ and only the personnel changed.

The Royal Australian Navy commitment included: destroyers providing Naval Gunfire Support attached to the US Seventh Fleet; a Clearance Diving Team assisting in harbour defence; aircrew and support staff serving with the US Army's 135th Assault Helicopter Company; helicopter pilots serving with 9 Squadron RAAF; logistic support being provided by HMAS Sydney (known colloquially as the "Vung Tau Ferry") and MVs Jeparit and Boonaroo.

Among the Royal Australian Air Force commitments were: 2 Squadron (flying Canberra bombers) based at Phan Rang; 9 Squadron, providing transport and fire support to the 1st Australian Task Force from its base at Vung Tau; 35 Squadron, providing transport support with its Caribou aircraft; aircrew and various specialists serving with US Air Force units.

From mid 1966 the main task of the Australians was to secure Phuoc Tuy province in which they were based. This involved fighting the North Vietnam Regular Army soldiers based there, as well as the local Viet Cong guerrillas, and denying them food, supplies and safe places. There was also a significant commitment to improving infrastructure in the province, with many Australian soldiers being employed on road and bridge construction, among other projects.

In 1967 the Australian commitment reached its peak at about 8,300 personnel in Vietnam at the one time. In 1970 withdrawals began, and by the end of 1972, the troops had virtually all been withdrawn, with security of the Province being handed over to the South Vietnamese Army. In 1975, after the withdrawal of United States’ support, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong guerrillas took Saigon, and ended the war with the reunification of Vietnam under Communist rule. About 57,000 Australians served at some time in Vietnam, with about 520 (different numbers are given by different authorities, depending on the criteria applied) dying as a result of the war.