The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
VIETNAM – SPECIAL ISSUE
On this page:
- The Vietnam War
- Australians in the Vietnam War
The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the Western Bloc led by the United States and the Eastern Bloc headed by the Soviet Union, set in motion after their alliance during World War II broke down. The name refers to the fact there was no large-scale fighting directly between the two superpowers, but they supported major regional conflicts to expand their spheres of power. The conflict was based around the ideological and geopolitical struggle for global influence. Aside from the race to build a nuclear arsenal and conventional military deployment, the struggle for dominance was expressed via indirect means. This ranged from propaganda campaigns, espionage, psychological warfare, as well as rivalry at sports events and technological competitions such as the Space Race. For more information on the Cold War watch the following video.
By the 1950s, Cold War anxieties and demands for Vietnamese independence entwined on the Indochina Peninsula. The outbreak of civil war in June 1950 convinced Washington the Domino Theory was unfolding in South-East Asia as Moscow directed communist expansion. To see similarities on the Korean Peninsula, see The Cove’s special issue on the Korean War. The conflict emerged from the First Indochina War, fought between France and the communist-led Viet Minh, the French officially ceased recolonisation efforts in 1954 but the US assumed financial and military support for the South Vietnamese state. A coalition of forces under the direction of North Vietnam initiated a guerrilla war in the south, the key military actor being the Việt Cộng. By 1963, the North Vietnamese had sent 40,000 soldiers to fight in South Vietnam and there were 16,000 US military personnel and of foreign forces deployed on the peninsula. To introduce the Cold War in Asia and contextualise the Vietnam War, watch the following video.
The Vietnam War
The war engulfed Vietnam, spread into neighbouring Laos and Cambodia, and went from 01 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. In Vietnamese, the war is generally known as Kháng chiến chống Mỹ meaning Resistance War Against America or the American War. It was officially fought between North Vietnam and South Vietnam but served as a proxy war during the Cold War. The Soviet Union, China, and other communist allies supported the Viet Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam, based in Hanoi, as the legitimate government of Vietnam. While the United States, Great Britain, and other allies recognised the French-backed Republic of Vietnam in Saigon as the legitimate government. For an in-depth explanation on each chapter of the Vietnam War, watch the following documentary.
In the Gulf of Tonkin incident of early August 1964, a US destroyer was alleged to have clashed with North Vietnamese fast attack craft. In response, the US Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and gave former President Lyndon B. Johnson broad authority to increase American military presence in Vietnam. Johnson ordered the deployment of combat troops for the first time and increased troop levels to 184,000.
The People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) engaged in conventional warfare with US and South Vietnamese forces. Despite little progress, the United States continued a significant build-up of power. The US and South Vietnam relied on air superiority and overwhelming firepower to conduct search and destroy operations, involving ground forces, artillery, and airstrikes. The US also conducted a large-scale strategic bombing campaign across North Vietnam, Laos, and later Cambodia. China and the Soviet Union backed North Vietnam, supplies and reinforcements travelled southwards on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The following video traces this strategic, economic, and political linchpin to the PAVN's success.
With the Viet Cong and PAVN mounting large-scale offensives in the Tet Offensive throughout 1968, US domestic support for the war began fading. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) expanded following a period of neglect after Tet and was modelled after US doctrine. The Viet Cong sustained heavy losses during the Tet Offensive and subsequent US-ARVN operations in the rest of 1968, losing over 50,000 men. By the end of the year the Viet Cong insurgents held almost no territory in South Vietnam – signifying a drastic reduction in guerrilla operations – necessitating increased use of PAVN soldiers from the north.
In 1969, following the election of US President Richard Nixon, a policy of 'Vietnamisation' began where the United States ground forces were withdrawn and replaced by an expanded ARVN. They were tested during the PAVN's largest mechanised Easter Offensive of 1972. The attack resulted in heavy casualties on both sides but the ARVN, buttressed by US air and artillery support, were not subdued. The Paris Peace Accords of January 1973 are explored in the video below and saw all US forces withdrawn leaving a small number of diplomats accompanied by the air force.
The Peace Accords were broken almost immediately and fighting continued for two more years, culminating in the Spring Offensive which saw the capture of Saigon by the PAVN on 30 April 1975. This marked the end of the war, and North and South Vietnam were reunified the following year. Watch this original report by CBC News on the fall of Saigon below.
To learn more about the Vietnam War, access the following resources. Of note is the first video by The Life Guide which covers each chapter of the Second Indochina War.
- The Life Guide | The Vietnam War Explained In 25 Minutes - Vietnam War Documentary
- HISTORY | The My Lai Massacre [Warning: graphic content]
- Simple History | Air Mobility (Vietnam War)
- Dark5 | 5 Scariest Booby Traps of the Vietnam War
- Al Jazeera | Vietnam war journalists' hub: Caravelle Saigon - War Hotels [Warning: graphic images]
Australians in the Vietnam War
Australian support for South Vietnam in the early 1960s was in keeping with the policies of other nations, particularly the United States, to stem the spread of communism in Europe and Asia. The arrival of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) in South Vietnam during July and August 1962 was the beginning of Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War.
As part of the build-up in 1965, the US government requested further support from friendly countries in the region, including Australia. The Australian government dispatched the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), in June 1965 to serve alongside the US 173rd Airborne Brigade in Bien Hoa province. The following year the Menzies Government felt Australia's involvement in the conflict should be both strong and identifiable. The number of Australian forces dispatched to Vietnam increased. The Australian commitment consisted predominantly of army personnel, but significant numbers of air force and navy personnel and some civilians also took part.
In August 1966 a company of 6RAR was engaged in one of Australia’s heaviest actions of the war in a rubber plantation near Long Tan. The 108 soldiers of D Coy held off an enemy force, estimated at over 2,000 for four hours in the middle of a tropical downpour and close fire support from artillery. Seventeen Australians were killed and 25 wounded, with one dying of wounds several days later. The Cove have published some great resources including an interview with one of the platoon commanders, LT David Sabben in this Cove Thoughts podcast, and this interview with Harry Smith, Officer Commanding D Coy, 6RAR. For more information on the Battle of Long Tan, watch the following interview by 9 News Perth.
By late 1970 Australia had also begun to wind down its military effort in Vietnam. In December 1972, the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, became the last Australian troops to come home, with their unit having seen continuous service in South Vietnam for ten and a half years. Australia's participation in the war was formally declared at an end when the Governor-General issued a proclamation on 11 January 1973. The only combat troops remaining in Vietnam were a platoon guarding the Australian embassy in Saigon, which was withdrawn in June 1973.
The Vietnam War lasted almost 20 years and at the time it was Australia's longest war. Almost 60,000 Australians served including ground troops, air force, and navy personnel. Over 3,000 were wounded and 521 died. The war was the cause of the greatest social and political dissent in Australia since the conscription referendums of the First World War. Many draft resisters, conscientious objectors, and protesters were fined or jailed, while soldiers met a hostile reception on their return home. Australian Vietnam veterans were later honoured at a 'Welcome Home' parade in Sydney on 03 October 1987 and later the Vietnam Forces National Memorial was dedicated on the same day in 1992. To learn more about Australians in the Vietnam War, access the following resources.
- Timeline - World History Documentaries | Australia & The Vietnam War: Untold Stories From Nurses Who Served [Warning: graphic content of injuries]
- Martin Walsh Red Dune Films | Battle of Long Tan Documentary - Vietnam War - Narrated by Sam Worthington [Warning: graphic content]
- ABC Australia | War vehicle collection brings Vietnam Vets back together - Anzac Day 2021
- 1News | Three Kiwi soldiers recognised for outstanding bravery in Vietnam War
- ANC News | Vietnam War gave Wiradjuri man Victor Bartley his first experience of life without racism
The scale of fighting was enormous. By 1970, the ARVN was the world's fourth largest army and the PAVN was not far behind with approximately one million regular soldiers. The war exacted an enormous human cost: estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed range from 966,000 to three million. Alongside some 275,000 to 310,000 Cambodians, 20,000 to 62,000 Laotians, and 58,220 US service members also died in the conflict and a further 1,626 remain missing in action. The consequences of the Vietnam War would continue to impact the country for generations to come. More bombs were dropped on North and South Vietnam than both the Axis and Allied powers used in all of World War II. The US dropped chemical defoliants, such as Agent Orange, indiscriminately over Vietnamese jungles. The initial impact of chemical warfare is visualised by the notable 'Napalm Girl' photo, the following video contains Kim Phuc's story. The legacy of Agent Orange has consequences for multiple generations. Vietnam claims half a million children have been born with serious birth defects, while as many as two million people are suffering from cancer or other illness.
[Warning: graphic content]
There are 800,000 tonnes of landmines and unexploded ordnance buried in the land and mountains. From 1975 to 2015, up to 100,000 people have been injured or killed by bombs left over from the Vietnam War. They have rendered much land hazardous and impossible to cultivate. The following video looks into a program to find and clear old bombs.
Over three million people left Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the Indochina refugee crisis after 1975, around half were Vietnamese refugees. Between 1975 and 1997, programs such as the Orderly Departure Program and the Comprehensive Plan of Action resettled hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees abroad, including the United States (880,000), China (260,000, mainly ethnic Chinese Hoa), Canada (160,000), Australia (155,000), and European countries (150,000).
On 02 July 1976, North and South Vietnam were merged to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Although two out of three Vietnamese were born after the war, many are still impacted by the physical, emotional, and economic effects of the conflict. The war should continue to be acknowledged as it continues to pay a key role in many Vietnamese people's identity. For more information on the legacy of the Vietnam War, explore the resources below.
- Milwaukee PBS | 10thirtysix - Exclusive: The Secret War: Hmong Soldiers Who Served Alongside Americans in Vietnam
- BBC News: Crossing Divides | Ghosts of the Vietnam War [Warning: graphic content]
- Tedx Talks | What I learned photographing the Vietnam War | Dick Durrance - TEDxMileHigh
- The New York Times | The Dark Shadow of Agent Orange - Retro Report [Warning: graphic content]
- ABC News In-depth | RetroFocus - Should refugees come to Australia? (1979)
- With Vietnam having strong allegiances to the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War, there are still many leaders in Vietnam who have strong affections to Russia, despite that nation shifting political structures over the past 30 years. Does this present an opportunity for Russia to undermine Western influence in the Indo-Pacific by leveraging its historical ties with Vietnam? How does this influence our security cooperation activities with Vietnam?
- The aftermath of the war left Vietnamese relations with the US and Australia shattered, even though hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to these two nations. With China becoming a significant player in the region, should Australia and the US expect the Vietnamese diaspora to assist with improving relationships with Vietnam with a view to countering Chinese actions in the region that are contrary to international obligations?
- ASEAN remains a close-knit alliance in the region. Should Australia look to do more to engage the nations of this alliance? Has the concept of the Quad reduced a need to work with smaller regional nations on diplomatic and military matters?