Bruce Davies August 09, 2012
Fifty years ago this month, Australian forces landed in Vietnam to fight in a controversial war that divided Australia and changed both countries forever.
THE Australian experience in South Vietnam divided the nation more than any other conflict. What some considered in 1962 to be an expedition to support democracy against communism became a drawn-out war that seemed to have no end. Was it really, as the dissidents were saying, a civil war and one in which Australia should not be involved?
The war arguments percolated throughout the country and they generally centred on conscription, Australian casualties and Vietnamese nationalism. Nevertheless, the leaders of Western democracies during the 1950s held a sincere belief that because of Vietnam’s geographic location its loss to a communist-inspired expansion would damage the stability of south-east Asia. That instability would then have a detrimental influence over economic development and the recovery of other nations after World War II.
In strategic terms, Australia would suffer through its isolation. The recommendations arising from these strategic analyses continued into the 1960s.
The conclusion that the falling domino theory – a euphemism for the subjugation of south-east Asia by a communist bloc – was false appears to be explained by a judgment that it didn’t happen, therefore it was never feasible.
This conclusion assumed a military confrontation only and not coercion through military posturing combined with an ideological invasion. There were always two strands to the strategic planning issues that affected Vietnam.
The strand that grabbed the headlines and created fear was the threat of a war in which the communist bloc – later fractured – smashed its way south. Another strand, less overt and possibly more disturbing for Western leaders, was the threat posed by any socialist-communist hindrance to post-World War II rebuilding.
Restrictions on economic development, access to raw materials and emerging markets had worldwide implications.
That perceived threat underpinned the philosophy of engagement and protection, which carried a strong influence among the democratic-capitalist decision-makers.
US president Harry Truman drew the first communist containment line during the Greek Civil War (1946-49), a theme reiterated in later years by presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
We know that China, which held sway over Vietnam during the mid-1950s, did have a falling domino plan. [As revealed in Zhou Enlai zhuan, Dick Wilson’s biography of Zhou Enlai] that is evident in the exchange of telegrams between [Communist Party chairman] Mao Zedong and [premier] Zhou Enlai at Liuzhou, southern China, on July 7, 1954:
The Indochina issue was different from the Korean issue in that Indochina could affect all south-east Asia (including Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Indonesia, the Philippines), Pakistan, India, Australia, New Zealand and Ceylon. ‘If we are not careful, we will affect 600 million people in 10 countries. We should make necessary concessions. In this way, we can isolate the minority (the United States), win over the majority and reach a final agreement.’
Another conversation that also involved Zhou Enlai took place much later, in March 1971. Le Duan, the North Vietnamese leader, told the Chinese foreign minister that weapons being provided to the Thai Communist Party were shipped through Vietnam and Laos. ”It [Thailand] also knows that China has a road that runs to the Sino-Lao border. Therefore, it faces the threat of the war expanding all over south-east Asia.”
Le Duan added: ”We want to smash the US-Japan alliance as well as the alliance between the US, Japan, and the regional bourgeois class.”
The Soviet Union also expressed a broader strategy to follow a victory in Vietnam. Soviet diplomats at Hanoi believed in 1971, ”when the DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam] has become the leading force in the struggle of the peoples of Indochina, we will possess comparatively more possibilities for establishing our policy in this region. It is not excluded that Indochina may become for us a key to all south-east Asia”.
Furthermore, in 1979, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Socialist Republic of Vietnam, released this statement about a Chinese Communist Central Committee meeting in August 1965:
We must by all means seize South-East Asia including South Viet Nam, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore . . . This region is rich in raw materials it is worth the costs involved. After seizing South-East Asia, we can increase our strength in this region. And we shall be strong enough to confront the Soviet-East European bloc; the East wind will prevail over the West wind.
A more subtle result was that under the darkness of defeat, America’s global credibility was damaged and the country also lost its political will to challenge Soviet revolutionary missions into the Third World: in a broad sense, falling dominoes on a different board. The previously strategically important South Vietnam was now a discarded Cold War battleground, and Australia could do no more than slink away in the shadows.
REGARDLESS of the international strategic climate, when the men who had served their tour of duty returned home it was often into an atmosphere of either apathy or disdain.
Some veterans deliberately avoided mentioning that they had been in South Vietnam on return to Australia. Even the military hierarchy sensed the public mood, and service personnel working in the national capital were told to avoid wearing uniform on public transport. It was no wonder the veterans felt as if their blood, sweat and tears had been in vain.
The nation’s political division – with the Australian Labor Party vehemently opposed to Australian involvement in the war – led to feelings of betrayal and suspicion of politicians, especially those to the left of the political spectrum.
Even the bastion of returned soldiers, the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL), let down the veterans through the attitude of some clubs that spurned the returned veterans.
Thankfully, such cases were isolated but they should never have arisen at all.
Some Vietnam veterans found that it was better to keep quiet about their recent war service to avoid possible verbal and physical confrontation with opponents of the war.
Following a battle against perceived indifference by the government to health problems and disagreements with the RSL that the league was not proactive in its aid to Vietnam veterans, the veterans turned to each other and formed organisations like the Vietnam Veterans’ Association in 1979, and the Vietnam Veterans’ Federation in 1981.
These bodies carried the fight to government departments such as the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding the special circumstances under which Australia’s soldiers, sailors and airmen had fought.
Years later, further concerns on the RSL’s attitude towards Vietnamese matters were raised in October 2011, when the national president of the RSL attempted to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with his counterpart in Hanoi.
He did this without proper consultation with the membership of the RSL. The reaction was intense and the issue was cancelled.
THERE was no postwar counselling in the late 1960s and early 1970s. National servicemen were discharged within weeks of returning to Australia and sent back home into a climate that was far from conducive to resettlement and repatriation.
In Australia, unlike America, the rate of suicide among Vietnam veterans was found not to be greater than for the civilian population, but this was from a study of national servicemen and did not include regular soldiers.
If any good could be said to have come out of the poor postwar treatment of Vietnam veterans, it is that there is now a better understanding of the hidden impacts of combat. Today’s warriors in Iraq and Afghanistan have a better chance of recovering from the stressors of conflict.
Nevertheless, the rate of suicide among the children of Australian veterans is worthy of mention. In a media release on August 7, 2000, Bruce Scott, the minister for veterans’ affairs, confirmed the children of Vietnam veterans had three times the suicide rate of the general community.
The reasons for this remain unsolved; however, the suicides are part of a detailed and long-running analysis by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Family Study Program that is yet to report.
ONE of the more contentious issues of the Vietnam War was the use of herbicides and pesticides. Defoliants were used for killing off jungle foliage that might provide cover for an enemy camp, and around allied camp perimeters to open up defensive fields of view. Enemy crops or crops in remote areas were also sprayed.
It is estimated that the US military sprayed more than 76 million litres of herbicides over Vietnam in the air force operations known as Ranch Hand and Trail Dust.
Australian troops were also involved in the use of herbicides and insecticides, the latter being widely sprayed in Phuoc Tuy Province, particularly around Nui Dat. Spraying programs tended to concentrate on areas where it was considered likely that enemy troops might congregate or move through the thick vegetation while attempting to avoid aerial reconnaissance.
The most heavily used of these herbicides was Agent Orange, contaminated with 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, a known toxic agent. Other chemicals used widely in Vietnam included herbicides (paraquat and dimethyl-arsenic acid), pesticides (picloram and DDT), antimalarial drugs (dapsone) and solvents (toluene).
The debate over the use of chemicals and their effect on servicemen in South Vietnam has been longstanding and acrimonious. Comprehensive studies have been completed in the US and by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in Australia.
It is a complex subject and one that goes beyond exposure to chemicals, as the conclusions to an Australian study [by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs ] completed in 2005 explained: This study provides good evidence that Australian male veterans of the Vietnam War have an increased rate of cancer overall. There was an excess of 613 cancers; 88 per cent of this excess consisted of lung cancers, oral cavity, pharynx and larynx cancers, prostate cancers and melanomas.
Rates of melanoma, and to a lesser degree prostate cancer, were consistently elevated across Navy, Army and Air Force veterans, although patterns of other cancers were not consistent across the three groups.
The reasons for these increases are unclear. In addition to exposure to known carcinogens, lifestyle changes, including alcohol and tobacco consumption may play a role. For several other malignancies, this study provides evidence suggesting that Australian Vietnam veterans may have rates lower than the rate in the Australian population.
Another difficulty was identified by a House Oversight Committee in the US Congress, which noted: ”It is impossible to determine from records which Vietnam veterans were exposed to the toxic chemical [Agent Orange].”
A further expression of the ”horrors endured by soldiers in the Vietnam War” is found in Eric Dean’s analysis, Shook Over Hell. One of his central premises is that for the past 30 years Vietnam veterans have been portrayed by the media, politicians, and a cottage industry of mental health professionals as tragic actors in a flawed opera who have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, unlike those of veterans of other American wars.
Dean asserts that PTSD among Vietnam veterans was low (12 per 1000) when compared against Korea (37 per 1000) with the World War II figures being higher again. Although PTSD was a new name, ”neuropsychiatric impairment”, previously known as ”shell shock”, could be traced back to the American Civil War.
Vietnam veterans have not cornered the market on battlefield-related PTSD. To the contrary, Dean provides irrefutable evidence that the Vietnam veteran has been perhaps the most adaptive of all veterans and has fared better in all respects than veterans of other wars.
IN 1987 a ”Welcome Home Parade” was held in Sydney to recognise the service in Vietnam of those men and women who never had a homecoming parade. It was almost as if the nation sensed the guilt of the treatment of its Vietnam veterans.
Many veterans who had not attended Anzac Day services or unit reunions found their long-lost mates and began the slow process of rehabilitation. However, it is a common misperception that soldiers returning from the war were not welcomed home. In fact, there were 15 battalion-contingent parades through Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane and Townsville between June 1966 and December 1972.
Nevertheless, there were many who missed out. In 1970, HMAS Sydney was in dry dock and 6RAR came home in piecemeal contingents by air. Those soldiers who served in smaller units and ”trickled” across to South Vietnam did not receive a welcome home. For those who came home by air, it was deplane, and then demob or dismiss.
The parade in Sydney on October 3, 1987, was the precursor to another Welcome Home Parade and unveiling of the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial in Canberra on October 3, 1992.
The Long Tan battle that was commemorated by some veterans on August 18, became a politically anointed national Vietnam Veterans Day to record the nation’s apology and to acknowledge that the veterans deserved greater recognition.
This is an edited extract from Vietnam: The complete story of the Australian war by Bruce Davies with Gary McKay published this month by Allen and Unwin to mark the 50th anniversary of Australia’s first involvement in the war.