The Guardian • Issue #2061

50th anniversary of the last Australian troops in Vietnam

President Lyndon Johnson driven through the streets of Melbourne after his car was splattered with paint.

President Lyndon Johnson driven through the streets of Melbourne after his car was splattered with paint. Photo: Ken Wheeler.

The 50th anniversary of the withdrawal of the last Australian troops, on 1st July 1973, marks the end of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. In commemoration, the Australian government has released special coins and postage stamps. In May, Vietnam’s government issued a complaint about the commemorative coin issued by the Royal Australian Mint that shows the flag of the defeated South Vietnamese government. The “diplomatic” incident illustrates the ongoing contempt the Australian defence forces have for the Communist Party of Vietnam, never having forgiven them for Australia’s defeat.

Vietnam was part of a much bigger theatre of operations in Asia. From the late 1940s, Australian military forces operated in Malaya, Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and South East Asia, having naval and air force bases in the region. In the late 1960s, Australian submarines were in the South China Sea as part of Australia’s policy of containing China.

After the defeat of the Japanese Imperial forces, Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of Vietnam on 2nd September 1945. In 1950 the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was recognised by the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong pledged to support the Viet Minh guerrilla forces in the First Indochina War against France, which was attempting to re-establish its colonial rule.

Between 1950 and 1954, the United States spent US$3 billion supporting the South Vietnam government, supplying more than 80 per cent of its material costs. At the same time the forces of the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand fought the Korean War (1950 to 1953) in support of the right-wing government of South Korea, under the dictatorship of President Rhee, who was responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people.

Australia supported the French-backed State of Vietnam ruled by Emperor Bảo Đại. Australian troops had already been fighting in the Malayan Emergency, the Anti-British National Liberation War (1948 to 1960). The guerrilla war was fought by the communist pro-independence fighters of the Malayan National Liberation Army against the military forces of the Federation of Malaya and British Empire and Commonwealth.

The Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party called for the use of armed force to overthrow the Ngo Dinh Diem government. At the end of 1960 Communists in the South formed the National Liberation Front, as the political arm of the Viet Cong. In 1963 Diem was assassinated in a CIA-backed coup, shortly before the assassination of President John F Kennedy.

The Domino Theory of geopolitics argued that if South Vietnam fell to Communism, South East Asia and Australia would also fall, for which there was no proof. As part of the US’s anti-Communist purges, between October 1965 and March 1966, the CIA supported the butchering of 800,000 members and supporters of Indonesia’s Communist Party (PKI), then the third largest Communist Party in the world.

Obsessively anti-Communist, Prime Minister Bob Menzies in 1962 sent thirty military advisors, the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, to provide jungle warfare training to US, and South Vietnamese forces.

The USA had entered the war in August 1964, when the USS Maddox was allegedly attacked by North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. President Johnson immediately called for air strikes on North Vietnamese bases. The allegation was later shown to have been fabricated to give the US a reason to enter the conflict.

On 8th March 1965, the first US ground troops, 3500 US Marines of the 3rd Marine Division, arrived in Da Nang. In April the Menzies government increased Australia’s military commitment to 7672 personnel. On 28th July President Lyndon B Johnson announced that he would send a further 50,000 American troops to South Vietnam.

The Communist Party of Australia and the unions stood up against Australia’s involvement in South Vietnam. The Sydney branch of the Waterside Workers’ Federation held up thirty-seven ships in Sydney Harbour with a 24-hour strike against US involvement. On 11th May 1966, the Australian National Line (ANL), the Department of Shipping and Transport, and the Federal Secretary of the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA), met in Sydney to discuss whether SUA members would crew the ANL merchant ship, the Boonaroo, on its way to South Vietnam. The SUA, led by communist trade union stalwart Eliot V Elliott refused to crew the ship.

At Melbourne University the CPA enjoyed strong support amongst student activists, who had links with CPA-affiliated union officials. When President Lyndon B Johnson visited Melbourne in October 1966, my brother-in-law, John Langley, and his brother David pelted the president with green paint bombs. They were arrested and beaten by ASIO agents.

In 1969 US troops reached a peak of over 540,000. Demonstrations against the US presence in South East Asia continued into the 1970s. Moratorium marches were held across Australia to coincide with the major marches in the US. On 18th May 1970 the demonstration in Melbourne, led by the future Labor deputy prime minister, Jim Cairns, was supported by 100,000 people, the largest demonstration in Australian history. An estimated 200,000 people marched in cities across Australia that day.

The Whitlam Labor government was elected on 2nd December 1972. Prime minister Whitlam soon released all political prisoners who had resisted the conscription draft. Whitlam then finalised the troop withdrawal from Vietnam. By the fall of Saigon in 1975, 60,000 Australians had served in the war, with 521 killed and more than 3,000 wounded. In modern Vietnam it is called the “War Against the Americans to Save the Nation.” On 29th March 1973, the last US combat troops withdrew from Vietnam, by which time 58,279 US military personnel had died. The US Imperialist war in Vietnam lasted from 1954 to 1975.

Australia’s alliance with the USA continues to be a fundamental aspect of Australian foreign policy. The “imperative to deploy forces overseas” to support US or UK troops has remained a major feature of Australian strategic behaviour in sending troops to East Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. The CPA continues to stand up against US and British Imperialism and their wars around the world.

Moratorium march, Brisbane, 1970.

Moratorium march, Brisbane, 1970. Photo: University of Queensland eSpace.

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