The operations in Malaya/Malaysia soon paled into insignificance compared to those undertaken in nearby Vietnam. The French withdrawal in 1954 had left two regimes in Vietnam – the Viet Minh-dominated Democratic Republic of Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh in the north, and the US-supported Republic of Vietnam led by Ngo Dinh Diem in the south. Despite doubts, New Zealand recognised the southern regime. The southern state was soon challenged by indigenous communists, who were later supported by North Vietnam. The southern communists, the Viet Cong, benefited from Ho Chi Minh’s enormous prestige and, once the United States intervened openly in 1965, from Vietnamese antagonism to foreign domination.
Cold War influences dominated the US’s approach to the situation in Vietnam. The Americans feared that the fall of South Vietnam would set in motion a process that would lead to all of South-East Asia becoming communist, the so-called domino theory. The US viewed North Vietnam as part of a worldwide communist challenge directed from Moscow.
Humanitarian and development assistance
The Americans provided advisers and financial support to the southern state, and pressed its allies to help. The New Zealand government, led by the National Party’s Keith Holyoake, hesitated to be involved. It preferred to send humanitarian aid or development assistance. A civilian surgical team operated in Qui Nhon for 12 years from 1963, treating civilian casualties of the fighting. In 1964 a 25-man non-combatant engineer unit was deployed. It spent a year building bridges and other facilities at Thu Dau Mot, just north of Saigon.
By 1965 South Vietnam was on the verge of succumbing to the Viet Cong. In Washington it seemed that only direct combat assistance could prevent this. US marines landed in March 1965, the vanguard of a rapid buildup that reached 184,000 by the end of the year and exceeded half a million in 1968.
A combat contribution
Under renewed pressure to show the flag in Vietnam, New Zealand reluctantly agreed to send a small combat force. The government wanted to keep on side with the Americans for the sake of the ANZUS alliance and to stay in step with Australia, which had agreed to send an infantry battalion. New Zealand’s V-Force, little more than a token, comprised a four-gun artillery battery, 121 men in all. New Zealand was one of only five countries – the ANZUS partners plus Thailand and South Korea – willing to provide combat forces in support of the southern regime.
Vietnam was the first war in which New Zealand did not fight alongside the British, but there was a reassuring Commonwealth presence in the form of Australia. New Zealand’s effort was closely aligned with that of its trans-Tasman neighbour, especially after 1966, when V-Force formed part of an Australian task force. Vietnam was the first major war in which New Zealand’s regular army was involved (as opposed to the former citizen-soldier expeditionary forces).
New Zealand’s artillery battery was initially deployed at Bien Hoa, near Saigon. Attached to the US 173rd Airborne Division, it operated north of the capital, mainly providing support for the Australian infantry battalion. In 1966 the gunners moved south to join the 1st Australian Task Force based at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy province, south-east of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).
Māori in V-Force
New Zealand’s effort in Vietnam reflected the increased involvement of Māori in the regular forces. No separate Māori unit had been created during the Korean War, and by the end of that conflict about one in four of those serving in Kayforce were Māori. The New Zealand battalion in Malaya from 1957 had a similar proportion of Māori. Some estimates of the Māori presence in Vietnam have been as high as 60%. In reality, Māori formed 35% of V-Force, but with many more officers and non-commissioned officers than previously. At the time, Māori were about 10% of New Zealand’s total population.
Following the end of the Indonesian–Malaysian Confrontation, New Zealand provided two infantry companies from its battalion in Malaysia, and later a Special Air Service (SAS) troop. The infantry companies served with Australians in an Anzac battalion and the troop with an Australian SAS squadron. They were mainly involved in patrolling and ambushing. The air force also sent a few helicopter pilots and forward air controllers to serve with Australian and US units.
These additions raised the size of New Zealand’s commitment to 548, just 0.1% of the peak American strength in Vietnam. In all, just over 3,000 New Zealand men and women served in Vietnam.