The introduction of outside forces prevented the fall of South Vietnam in 1965, but did not ensure its long-term future. US General William Westmoreland pursued an attrition strategy, aiming to kill Viet Cong faster than they could be replaced. By the end of 1967 he was proclaiming the light at the end of the tunnel. In reality the enemy held the initiative throughout, and in January 1968 they launched a full-scale onslaught – the Tet Offensive. Although this was defeated, and the Viet Cong suffered devastating losses, the offensive fundamentally changed the picture. A shocked American public lost the will to continue the struggle. From 1968 the emphasis would be on ‘Vietnamisation’ – the withdrawal of foreign troops and their replacement by local forces – a process that would take five years.
Further humanitarian aid
The New Zealand emphasis on humanitarian assistance continued. The government balanced the infantry deployment in 1967 with the provision of a services medical team to treat civilian casualties. Like the civilian surgical team, it served in Binh Dinh province, and was based in Bong Son, 100 kilometres north of Qui Nhon, until the end of 1971. The Red Cross also deployed personnel to assist refugees, initially in Binh Dinh and later in Pleiku.
‘Ten guitars’ and haka
Singing was a favourite way to while away down time in Vietnam, particularly among the Māori troops. Party songs such as ‘The last waltz’ and ‘Ten guitars’ were hugely popular; the latter came to be regarded as a sort of Māori national anthem. A formal haka party was also set up, performing popular concerts for New Zealand, Australian and US troops.
In direct contrast to Korea, Vietnam had little economic but major political impact on New Zealand. For the first time New Zealand forces were deployed overseas with a sizeable element of the population opposing their commitment to the conflict. A Committee on Vietnam co-ordinated protests, which became steadily larger as the war continued.
Despite the opposition, a majority of the population accepted the government’s approach rather than the Labour Party’s calls for withdrawal. The National Party won both the 1966 and 1969 general elections on a platform of providing support for South Vietnam.
New Zealand’s participation was always closely aligned to that of its allies. When the US began withdrawing its forces in 1969, New Zealand looked to do so as well. One infantry company was pulled out in 1970, and all combat units had left Vietnam by the end of the following year. Thereafter New Zealand’s military commitment was confined to two small training teams, one of which prepared Cambodians for service in their country’s civil war. Both were withdrawn following the advent of the Norman Kirk-led Labour government in December 1972.
North Vietnam’s victory
Following the conclusion of a peace agreement in January 1973, all US troops were withdrawn from South Vietnam. But the peace was illusory. In 1975 North Vietnam launched a conventional invasion of the south, precipitating a collapse. The US stood aside as North Vietnamese forces drove south towards Saigon.
As North Vietnamese columns approached Qui Nhon, New Zealand’s civilian surgical team was withdrawn to Saigon. The RNZAF evacuated them and other New Zealanders, including embassy staff, shortly before the capital’s fall on 30 April 1975.
Fall of the Indochina dominoes
Communist insurgents had already triumphed in Cambodia, and a communist regime soon took control in Laos. Although all the Indochina dominoes fell, South Vietnam’s demise did not have the dire consequences earlier predicted – though some attributed the growing stability of South-East Asia to the 10-year delay arising from US intervention. Vietnam, effectively reunified in 1975, soon found itself fighting the Chinese, and in 1979 it intervened in Cambodia to halt the murderous rampage mounted by the Khmer Rouge regime against its own people.
New Zealand’s effort in Vietnam had cost the lives of 37 servicemen, a nurse serving with the civilian surgical team, and a Red Cross team member. But veterans became convinced later that they were still being killed decades after their service, victims of Agent Orange, a defoliant used to remove jungle cover. They fought a long campaign to secure acceptance of their claims by the government. This, coupled with anger at a perceived lack of recognition or gratitude for their efforts in Vietnam, left many veterans with a deep sense of grievance. In 2008 Prime Minister Helen Clark made an official apology to New Zealand’s Vietnam veterans on behalf of the nation.