One effect of the Truman Doctrine, although implemented during the Eisenhower Administration, was the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty (also the Manila Pact), signed on 8 September 1954. The treaty sought to create bilateral and collective mutual defense treaties with member states in Southeast Asia. The treaty not only formalized alliances but also sent an important message to Communist China that member states would not tolerate an expansion of communism through nefarious means. SEATO was the brainchild of Soviet expert and historian George F. Kennan, who served in the Truman State Department but was implemented by Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. The model for SEATO was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
SEATO’s headquarters was located in Bangkok, Thailand. Like NATO, SEATO was headed by a Secretary General, an office created in 1957 at a meeting held in Canberra. An international professional staff supported the council of representatives (from member states) and various committees to consider and advise on such matters as international economics, security, and information/public affairs. SEAT’s first Secretary General was a Thai diplomat named Pote Sarasin, formerly Thailand’s ambassador to the United States and his country’s prime minister from September 1957 to 1 January 1958.
Unlike the NATO alliance, SEATO had no joint military or naval command; no forces were standing by as a preventative measure; it was one of the organization’s significant fallacies. As bad, SEATO’s response protocol in the event of communism presenting a common danger to member states was vague and ineffective — although the SEATO alliance did provide a rationale for large-scale U.S. military intervention between 1955-1975.
Despite its name, most of SEATO’s member states were located outside the region, interested in the area or the organization itself. These were Australia (administering Papua New Guinea), France (recently having relinquished French Indochina), New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom (administrator of Hong Kong, North Borneo, and Sarawak), and the United States.
The Philippines and Thailand were the only Southeast Asian countries participating in the organization — primarily because they were the only two member countries threatened by communist insurgencies. Thailand was motivated to join SEATO by its fear of Maoist subversion in the Thai Autonomous Region. Burma and Indonesia were more concerned about internal political instability than any threat of communist insurgency and rejected joining SEATO. Malaya and Singapore also decided not to participate officially but maintained a close relationship with the United Kingdom.
Geneva Agreements prevented the newly created states formed from French Indochina (North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) from joining the SEATO alliance. However, North Vietnam provided an ongoing domino threat, turning Indochina into a communist frontier — prompting SEATO to take South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos under its protection. This argument, offered as early as 1956, prompted the United States to take a greater interest in involvement in South Vietnam. In 1956, however, Cambodia had no interest in joining SEATO.
The majority of SEATO members were located outside Southeast Asia. To the Australians and New Zealanders, SEATO was more satisfying than ANZUS. The U.K. and France joined because of their colonies in the region. The United States viewed SEATO as an instrument of containment.
The Vietnam War
Australia became involved in the Vietnam War because of concerns about the rise of communism in Southeast Asia following World War II and the fear of it spreading into Australia in the 1950s and early 1960s.
After World War II, France tried to reassert its control over its former colony, then named French Indochina. During the war, French Indochina was controlled by the Vichy French government (an ally of the Axis Powers) and occupied by Japan throughout the war. After the war, Vietnamese nationalists under Ho Chi Minh objected to the French reoccupation of its former colony — initiating the First Indochina War. After France’s defeat in 1954, Geneva Accords led to the splitting of the country at the 17th Parallel North. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was almost immediately recognized by the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the State of Vietnam.
The Geneva Accord of 1954 imposed a deadline of 31 July 1956 for the governments of the two Vietnams to hold elections with a view toward re-uniting the country under one government. In 1955, State of Vietnam Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem deposed Bao Dai and declared himself President of the Republic of Vietnam (also South Vietnam). He then refused to participate in the national referendum, but in fairness, Diem and Minh had always had the same goal: to become the leader of one Vietnam. Later, American politicians sold the idea of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam as necessary to “defend” South Vietnam from communist absorption. It was a blatant lie — or, as John Paul Vann argued, “A Bright Shining Lie.”
Once the election deadline passed, North Vietnamese military commanders began preparing a plan for the invasion of South Vietnam. Over the next several years, the northern attack took the form of an insurgency campaign, subversion, sabotage, assassination, and terror. In 1957, President Diem visited Australia and received the strong support of Prime Minister Robert Menzies, the Liberal Party of Australia, and the Australian Labor Party. Diem was notable among Australian Catholics for pursuing policies that discriminated in favor of Vietnamese Catholics against traditional Buddhists.
By 1962, the situation in South Vietnam had become so unstable that Diem submitted a request for assistance to the United States (and its allies) to counter the growing communist (DRV) insurgency and the threat it posed to South Vietnam’s security. Following Diem’s petition, the U.S. began to send military advisors to provide tactical and logistical advice to the South Vietnamese military establishment. At the same time, the U.S. sought to increase the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government and discredit North Vietnamese propaganda. Australia, as an American ally, joined the pro-Vietnamese Republic coalition. In the ten years between 1962 and 1972, Australia committed 60,000 military personnel to the Vietnam War, including ground troops, naval assets, and air forces.
Australian Military Advisors
While assisting the British during the Malayan Emergency, Australia and New Zealand military forces gained considerable experience in jungle warfare and counter-insurgency operations. This was particularly important to U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who in 1962 admitted to Australians and New Zealanders that the U.S. military knew very little about jungle warfare. On this note, Australia and New Zealand believed they could contribute most to the Vietnamese emergency by providing military advisors with expertise in jungle warfare.
The Australian government’s initial response was to send thirty military advisors to Vietnam as the Australian Army Training Team, Vietnam (AATTV) — colloquially referred to as The Team. These troops, both officers and NCOs, were experts in jungle warfare. Led by Colonel Ted Serong, the advisors arrived in Vietnam in July and August 1962 — marking the beginning of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Generally, the relationship between AATTV and U.S. advisors was professional and cordial, with occasional differences of opinion about training and tactics. Colonel Serong expressed doubt about the value of the U.S. Strategic Hamlet Program at a meeting in Washington, D.C., in 1963, drawing a “violent challenge” from U.S. Marine Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak. As it turned out, Serong was correct in his assessments, and Krulak was wrong. The Strategic Hamlet Program was a complete failure — as attested by both John Paul Vann and journalist David Halberstam.
Captain Barry Petersen was another interesting side note about the Australian military advisory period. The 84-year-old Petersen (who died in 2019 while living in Thailand) was a former Australian Army officer who led top secret CIA operations in South Vietnam’s central highlands. His work involved raising an anti-communist Montagnard force between 1963 and 1965. Petersen, operating alone in the mountains, was so successful in organizing native Montagnard forces that within a year, he had more than a thousand militia fighters using the same guerrilla tactics as the Viet Cong: ambush the enemy and disappear into the jungle. But, as with the fictional character “Colonel Kurtz” in the film Apocalypse Now, Captain Peterson “went native” and was so “out of control” that his CIA handlers eventually insisted that Petersen be tracked down and removed, dead or alive.
Australian Warrant Officer Class Two Kevin Conway and Master Sergeant Gabriel Alamo, U.S. Army, were killed on 6 July 1964 during an attack on the Nam Dong Special Forces Camp. Conway was Australia’s first Vietnam War battle casualty.
Australia’s Increased Commitment: 1965-1970
During mid-summer 1964, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) dispatched a flight of Caribou transport aircraft to the coastal town of Vũng Tau. By the end of the year, nearly 200 Australian military personnel served in South Vietnam — including combat engineers, a surgical team, and a large AATTV team. In November 1964, Australia imposed military conscription to provide an increased pool of foot soldiers. It was not a popular move within the Army or in civilian society, but after that, all Australian units serving in Vietnam contained “national servicemen.” By December 1964, the AATTV increased to 100 men — reflecting that the war was escalating.
In late April 1965, Prime Minister Menzies announced that his government would send an Australian Army battalion to Vietnam. He sold this idea to the Australian people by saying that a communist victory in Vietnam would threaten Australia’s security. Which, of course, was pure poppycock. In any case, Menzies decided against the advice of the Australian defense establishment.
Menzies’ decision resulted in the deployment of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (also, 1 RAR). Advance elements of the battalion arrived in South Vietnam in late May 1965, accompanied by a troop of armored personnel carriers from the 4th Battalion, 19th Prince of Wales Light Horse, and several logisticians. In Vietnam, the Australians were attached to the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade (along with a Royal New Zealand Artillery battery) in Bien Hoa Province. Throughout the year, Australians participated in combat operations in Gang Toi and Suoi Bong Trang.
1 RTR’s attachment to the U.S. Army revealed important differences between American and Australian military operations — without any detail of what these differences might have been, we only know that military leaders decided to employ Australian combat forces in a discrete province, and this would allow the Australian Army to “fight their own tactical war” independent from the American Armed Forces.
In the spring of 1966, the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF) was established in Phước Tuy Province, at Nui Dat. Ultimately, 1 ATF consisted of three rifle battalions, a squadron of armored personnel carriers, a detachment of the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), and logistical support units of the 1st Australian Logistics Support Group headquartered at Vũng Tau. By 1967, a squadron of tanks joined 1 ATF, and a battery of New Zealand artillery joined and integrated with a firing battery of the U.S. 35th Field Artillery Regiment. These combined forces were later designated “ANZAC Battalions.” Collectively, these units assumed responsibility for the security of the Phước Tuy Province.
At the same time, the Australian air contingent was expanded to three squadrons (No. 35, No. 9, and No. 2), including Caribou, Iroquois, and Canberra Bombers. At its peak, the RAAF included more than750 aviation personnel. No. 79 Squadron (Sabre fighters) served at Ubon Air Base in Thailand as part of Australia’s SEATO commitment, withdrawn in 1968.
Australia converted the aged aircraft carrier, HMAS Sydney, to a troop carrier. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) contributed a destroyer, helicopter flight, and a diving team. Australian Army and RAAF nurses supported their ground and aviation forces from the outset of their country’s decision to join the war effort, including the 1st Australian Field Hospital (1 AFH) at Vũng Tau.
After thirty years of frustration dealing with Vietnamese politicians and military leaders and a decade of lying to the American people and SEATO allies about the purpose behind the Vietnam War, the American President decided it was time to turn the war over to the Vietnamese. If the Vietnamese wanted their freedom, they would have to win it. Of course, that, too, was part of the lie. President Nixon called this new policy Vietnamization. It began in the latter days of the failed presidency of Lyndon Johnson, but even then, it followed an earlier French program called jaunissement (yellowing the war). Lyndon Johnson’s departure did nothing to end the war; it only caused the war to spread into other areas.
Newly elected Nixon needed policy options, so through Henry Kissinger, he turned to the Rand Corporation (a think tank) for assistance. The primary advisor from Rand was Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, who told Nixon and Kissinger that winning in Vietnam wasn’t one of the options. In Ellsberg’s opinion, under two Democratic presidents, South Vietnam had become America’s tar-baby. Accordingly, Nixon directed the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare a six-step withdrawal plan. Marine Commandant General Leonard F. Chapman remembered, “… the time had come to get out of Vietnam.”
Vietnamization was a process of turning the war over to the Vietnamese. They would have to fight the land, air, river, and sea battles. American and allied unit commanders began organizing procedures to turn over all equipment and regional combat authority to the Vietnamese counterparts.
Australia, keen to reduce its footprint in the failed war effort, began its withdrawal in November 1970. Australia did not replace 8 RTR once it had completed its tour of duty and decided to reduce 1 ATF to two infantry battalions (although retaining significant armor, artillery, and air support). The TAOR remained unchanged, which added to the burden of control with fewer troops, but in any case, the bulk of VC/NVA activities had ceased in the Bien Tuy area by 1971.
One of the last fights involving Australian forces occurred on 6 – 7 June 1971 at Long Khanh. In August, Australia and New Zealand correctly decided that if the U.S. was no longer serious about winning the war, there was no justification for keeping their forces involved in a lost cause. Australian Prime Minister William McMahon announced that 1 ATF would cease operations in October 1971. 1 ATF handed over responsibility for Nui Dat to Vietnamese commanders on 16 October. 4 RTR remained in Vietnam until 9 December 1971.
Australian participation in the military advisory effort continued until the end of 1972. On 11 January 1973, Australian Governor-General Paul Hasluck formally announced the cessation of combat operations, and the Australian Labor government under Gough Whitlam officially recognized the government of North Vietnam as the sole legitimate authority in Vietnam. Australian troops remained in Vietnam at the Australian Embassy until 1 July 1973 — marking the first time since World War II (1939) that Australian troops were not involved in a conflict somewhere in the world.
In total, some 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam between 1962 – 1972. More than five hundred died in combat, 3,000 received combat wounds, and of the conscripts, 202 perished. The remains of six missing in action Australians were returned home in 2009. The war’s cost to the Australian taxpayer was around $300 million.
In 1975, Australia dispatched RAAF transport aircraft to South Vietnam to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees fleeing North Vietnam’s armed invasion. The first aircraft landed at Tan Son Nhut Airbase on 30 March, but in mid-April, 8 Australian C-130s evacuated Vietnamese to Malaysia and continued supporting the effort by transporting supplies into refugee camps. These mercy flights terminated when Australia withdrew its embassy from South Vietnam.
Australia’s withdrawal from South Vietnam became a contentious political issue during the elections of 1975. Noting that 130 Vietnamese employees of the Australian Embassy in Saigon had been left behind during its evacuation, Liberal Malcolm Fraser viciously condemned Whitlam. Ultimately, Fraser opened Australian borders to refugee settlement in 1975. In June 2020, 270,000 Vietnamese-born ethnic Vietnamese people were living in Australia.
 Primarily relinquished after the French Foreign Legion was overwhelmingly defeated by Vietnamese communists in 1954.
 Including East Pakistan through 1971 (now, Bangladesh).
 The State of Vietnam existed from 1949 to late October 1955, created by France as part of the French Union (colonial period). Vietnam’s head of state was the wealthy playboy Emperor Bao Dai. The state claimed authority over all of Vietnam during the First Indochina War, although in reality, most of the area was controlled by the DRV.
 Source: The Sydney Morning Harald, 6 March 2019.
 Initially, the 1 ATF commander was Brigadier Oliver D. Jackson. Below him, Lieutenant Colonel John Warr and Lieutenant Colonel Colin Townsend commanded 5 RAR and 6 RAR, respectively. Jackson’s command also included the 1 APC Squadron, 1st Field Regiment (RAA) (including the New Zealand 161st Battery) (105mm and 155mm howitzers), 3 SAS, 1st Field Squadron, 21st Engineers, 103rd Signals Squadron, 161st Reconnaissance Squadron, and an intelligence detachment.
 By 1971, the Viet Cong had been all but destroyed by American and allied forces. All VC units became heavily reliant on re-staffing or reorganization by NVA units.
6 thoughts on “Australia and the Vietnam War”
Reblogged this on Calculus of Decay and commented:
Damn who knew!
Thank you, Eric.
Thank you for the re-blog.
Thank you. That made a nice Sunday morning read. I don’t know how it worked out in Australia, but the Vietnamese refugees ended up being a great boon to our nation.
Going back to Gen Krulak and the Hamlet program, it seems our government has never been good at the “hearts and minds” thing.
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Thank you for stopping by. I agree with you about the “hearts and minds thing,” and none of this has changed over the past 47 years. What unfolds in Eastern Europe today portends a disaster for people living in the U.S. and E.U. What would we give for competent national leadership?
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