Since the end of the Second World War, New Zealand has been involved in a series of Asian conflicts, in Korea, Malaya (and later Malaysia), Vietnam, East Timor, Kuwait and Afghanistan. In contrast to the world wars, these conflicts have not led to many deaths – less than 100 in total. Nor have they demanded a large effort from those at home. The Vietnam War did, however, lead to division and controversy within the community on an unprecedented scale.
Except for Kuwait and Afghanistan, these wars were produced by Cold War antagonism or decolonisation – or a lethal combination of both. These primary influences had roots in the Second World War.
The dominating feature of the world political system in the 50 years after 1945 was the Cold War. This was the confrontation that developed in the late 1940s between the Soviet Union, led by dictator Joseph Stalin, and its former Western allies. Long-standing animosity fuelled suspicions of motives on both sides. Many in the West viewed the Soviet Union as a threat similar to that posed by Nazi Germany, a perception seemingly confirmed by events, especially in Greece (where the US shored up the Greek government against a communist insurgency) and Czechoslovakia (where the Soviets replaced the elected government with a communist regime). Stalin seemed to be embarked on an aggressive crusade, backed by the vast Red Army in Europe and by communist parties throughout the world which owed allegiance to Moscow.
By 1948 the Cold War lines had firmed. Two blocs, led by the United States and the Soviet Union, confronted each other across a divided Europe, and increasingly elsewhere. The division confirmed New Zealand’s fears that the United Nations, formed in 1945, could not be relied upon for security. In particular the veto enjoyed by the great powers – Britain, the US, France, the USSR and China – in the Security Council seemed to render it impotent in a series of crises.
New Zealand fully supported the Western response to the perceived Soviet threat, pledging to send forces to defend the Suez Canal if war broke out. In order to have enough troops ready, New Zealand needed a trained territorial force of citizen soldiers. Prime Minister Peter Fraser believed this could only be achieved through compulsory military training (CMT). In 1949 he called a referendum on the issue and the public voted strongly in favour of CMT. Fraser’s own Labour Party, however, was bitterly divided over the issue, which may have contributed to its defeat in the 1949 general election.
Following the Chinese communist victory in 1949, the remnants of the nationalist government, the anti-communist Kuomintang (KMT), fled to Taiwan. Generalissimo Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek), the KMT leader, declared that the KMT remained the legitimate Chinese government. Taiwan held China’s seats at the United Nations and on the UN Security Council until 1971, when they were transferred to the Beijing regime. From 1949 New Zealand followed Australia and the US in recognising the Taiwan regime as the government of all China. In 1972 the newly elected Labour government broke with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic.
Fears that the Soviets were gaining ground in the Cold War mounted in 1949. A Soviet atom-bomb test in August ended the West’s short-lived nuclear monopoly. On 1 October Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) proclaimed the People’s Republic of China following the communists’ triumph in the Chinese civil war. The eruption of a series of communist insurgencies in South-East Asia, seemingly directed by Moscow, further heightened tension in Western capitals.
Decolonisation transformed the international system in the four decades after 1945. The vast empires of the western European powers disappeared, replaced by a myriad of new states. The defeat of the ‘white’ imperial powers by the ‘coloured’ nation of Japan in 1942 had been a major blow to the prestige of the empires, encouraging anti-colonial activism.
The British recognised the writing on the wall almost immediately after the Second World War, freeing India and Pakistan in 1947 along with Burma (later Myanmar) and Ceylon (later Sri Lanka). Malaya (later Malaysia) followed in the 1950s and most British possessions in Africa in the 1960s. The Dutch and French resisted the tide, attempting to regain their pre-war possessions by force. Although the Dutch soon gave up, the French persisted in Indochina, fighting a bitter war with nationalist Vietnamese between 1946 and 1954. Since these nationalists were also communists, the US (and New Zealand) supported the French, mainly because of Cold War influences.
A decolonisation problem existed in Korea, which had been a Japanese colony since 1910. When Japan suddenly surrendered in August 1945, Soviet and American forces entered the Korean peninsula to take the surrender of Japanese forces. By agreement, the demarcation line between the zones of Soviet occupation (in the north) and US occupation (in the south) was the 38th parallel (line of latitude).
Subsequent attempts to form a unified Korean state were stymied by the developing Cold War. Both the US and USSR promoted regimes in their occupation zones that would ensure their continued influence in the peninsula. In the north, Kim Il Sung emerged as leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He was widely regarded in the West as a Soviet puppet. In the south, the Republic of Korea was formed under UN auspices, though in the face of Soviet opposition. Syngman Rhee became President following an election endorsed by the UN.
Neither Korean state was reconciled to the division of the country. Both were determined on reunification – but outright war did not appear likely because their respective great-power mentors kept a tight rein on them. Early in 1950, however, Kim secured the support of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Chinese leader Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) for an invasion of the south. This onslaught began on 25 June 1950 and initially appeared likely to succeed. Seoul fell immediately, and North Korean forces pushed south towards the port of Pusan (now Busan).
The communist leaders had assumed that the US would not have time to intervene or perhaps any interest in doing so. They were wrong. The US reacted with surprising speed, sending in troops from Japan within days. These helped halt the North Koreans at Taegu, 80 kilometres from Pusan.
Meanwhile the US achieved a diplomatic coup in the United Nations, persuading the Security Council to demand North Korea’s withdrawal and, when this was ignored, to call on members to help preserve South Korea. The absence of the Soviet Union, which had boycotted the council over the question of who should represent China (the communist regime or the Taiwan-based nationalist Kuomintang), made this action possible. It was the first time the Security Council was able to act in a peace enforcement role.
Early in July the council invited the US to create a UN Command (unified command structure for multinational troops). US General Douglas MacArthur, the Allied supreme commander in Japan, assumed command of the UN forces.
In the early stages of Korean service, New Zealand’s navy frigates had to deal with few attacks from the enemy. However, they had to deal with rough weather, heavy seas and extremes of temperature. Stifling heat on their arrival in August was followed by a bitterly cold winter. Fortunately for the crews the Pukaki and Tutira were Loch-class frigates, with steam pipes carrying heat from the engine room to all parts of the ship.
When the UN called for armed support, New Zealand was one of 16 members which responded immediately. It had long been a supporter of the UN – but the government also hoped that such action might assist New Zealand in obtaining a security commitment from the US. The traditional desire to stand alongside the UK, which had pledged support, was also influential.
Two Royal New Zealand Navy frigates, Pukaki and Tutira, left New Zealand on 3 July 1950. After reaching Japan a month later and being attached to a British squadron, they carried out escort operations. On 15 September they took part in MacArthur’s dramatic amphibious landing at In’chon, which quickly liberated Seoul and led to the collapse of the North Korean army. The New Zealand navy would station two frigates with the UN Command until 1954.
In response to a further call from the United Nations, New Zealand agreed in July 1950 to provide a ground force in Korea. This force was similar to the New Zealand expeditionary forces of the world wars in being based on citizen-soldier volunteers, though it was much smaller. Kayforce, as it was called, the last such expeditionary force, was initially 1,100-strong and eventually rose to 1,500 men. Its main components were a field artillery regiment and a transport squadron.
By the time the troops left New Zealand in December 1950, the war had been transformed. Following the In’chon success, the UN sought to unify Korea by force, ignoring Chinese threats of intervention if it attempted to do so. When UN forces pushed north, thousands of Chinese troops, designated Chinese people’s volunteers but in reality regular troops, entered Korea. In November they inflicted a major defeat on the UN forces, forcing them to retreat rapidly to the south. After this the conflict, which had begun as a civil war, became essentially a contest between two great powers – China and the United States.
Like New Zealand’s frigates, Kayforce served in a Commonwealth context within the UN Command, initially as part of a British Commonwealth infantry brigade. The New Zealanders helped to halt successive communist offensives designed to drive the UN Command out of Korea, performing well at Kap’yong in April 1951. Later, now in a Commonwealth division, they took part in a limited UN advance that carried the line to roughly the 38th parallel, where a stalemate developed.
There was a special connection between Australian and New Zealand units in Korea, although this was not always obvious to the outsider. One soldier commented that at meetings of the two contingents, ‘there are volleys of hard words, mud, water, old eggs or anything throwable. The other U.N. forces think we are crazy, but actually we are the only troops who have such a strong bond of comrade-ship and that’s our way of showing it.’1
During the last two years of the war, the UN forces manned the line – similar to a hilly Western Front – while negotiators, first at Kaesong then at Panmunjom, tried to thrash out an armistice. The negotiations deadlocked frequently, especially over the issue of the return of prisoners of war. Not until 27 July 1953 was the fighting brought to an end, though a peace settlement was not achieved – and has still not been. A decreasing number of New Zealand troops remained in Korea until 1957.
The Korean War was uncontroversial in New Zealand. Partly because it took place under UN auspices, partly because it imposed no serious demands on the population, and partly because of general acceptance of communist responsibility for the conflict, no significant opposition to New Zealand’s involvement developed. Indeed, once the war reached a stalemate, there was little interest in it – it is now often termed the ‘forgotten war’.
Even so, the Korean War had an enormous economic impact on New Zealand. It precipitated a boom in wool prices that led to a stupendous influx of money into the country, leaving farmers more prosperous but unsettling the rest of society as inflation affected the cost of living. When an industrial dispute on the waterfront threatened this bonanza in 1951, the government declared a state of emergency and used the armed services to load cargo. A snap election followed, consolidating the position of the National government led by Sidney Holland.
The conflict had a profound impact on international politics. It heightened the Cold War division, induced a huge increase in US defence spending, and impelled the US to hasten a peace settlement with Japan. These developments allowed New Zealand and Australia to achieve their objective of securing a US commitment to their security. The three countries became allies when they signed the ANZUS treaty on 1 September 1951, one week before the conclusion of the Japanese Peace Treaty.
The Korean commitment from 1950 to 1957 cost the lives of 45 New Zealanders, 33 during the war itself.
The perceived threat to South-East Asia from China dominated Western defence planning in the early 1950s. The initial concern was to bolster the French in Indochina, then to take account of their withdrawal following defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in May 1954. To strengthen the regional front New Zealand signed the Manila Pact in September 1954, along with Australia, France, the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand, the UK and the US. This created the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), based in Bangkok, to plan the defence of South-East Asia.
The British meanwhile had formed the Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve, initially to defend Malaya. In 1955 New Zealand agreed to send its forces to South-East Asia rather than the Middle East in the event of war, and to contribute forces to the reserve in peacetime. The Royal New Zealand Air Force’s 14th Squadron, which had been based in Cyprus, was moved to Singapore, along with the 41st Squadron RNZAF and a naval frigate. A 130-man Special Air Service (SAS) squadron (replaced by a 750-man regular infantry battalion in 1957) was sent to Malaya.
These deployments marked a shift of focus in New Zealand from citizen-soldier forces enlisted and trained at the time of an emergency to regular, trained and ready-to-go forces. Forward defence in Asia became the basis of New Zealand’s defence strategy.
The Commonwealth reserve forces became the foundation for initial British, New Zealand and Australian contributions to planned SEATO operations. Although none of these plans would ever be implemented, New Zealand’s SAS and part of the 41st Squadron were deployed to Thailand for several months in 1962 in a SEATO response to a communist insurgency in Laos.
In Malaya, New Zealand’s forces in the Commonwealth reserve were stationed in an area subject to communist insurgency. Following the Second World War, communist guerrillas, mainly ethnic Chinese, had challenged British rule. In 1948 the British responded by declaring a state of emergency, and began a 12-year military campaign to eliminate the ‘communist terrorists’.
New Zealand first assisted in this campaign in 1949. From 1949 to 1951, transport aircraft of a 41st Squadron flight deployed in Singapore (in response to the threat posed to Hong Kong by the Chinese communist victory) dropped supplies to troops hunting the guerrillas in the jungle. About 40 New Zealanders served in the Fijian infantry battalion that operated in Malaya between 1951 and 1956.
New Zealand units of all three armed services forming part of the strategic reserve from 1955 were allowed to take part in Malayan Emergency operations. These included ground patrolling, supply dropping and shore bombardment. By the time the emergency was declared over in 1960, 15 New Zealanders had lost their lives in combat or accidents.
Stan McKeon, commander of the 12th Platoon Delta Company, remembered, ‘On Peter Sullivan’s first patrol, one of his men caught his foot in a vine across a track. This jerked a grenade out of a hole and there was a dive for cover but no explosion. A very game soldier investigated and found the striker mechanism had jammed. He also found another grenade in a lethal state in a hole on the other side of the track. Thereafter there was a grave suspicion of vines on tracks.’1
New Zealand forces in South-East Asia became involved in another decolonisation-related conflict in the 1960s. This stemmed from Indonesian President Sukarno’s declaration of a policy of confrontation (in Indonesian, Konfrontasi) against the Federation of Malaysia, formed in 1963.
New Zealand’s battalion in Malaya fought Indonesian incursions on the Malay peninsula in 1964. It was later deployed to Borneo, along with the SAS squadron. The 41st Squadron supported the troops from Singapore. These forces engaged in limited operations, including some into Indonesian territory, in 1965–66. There were no New Zealand fatalities in this conflict, which ended in 1966 following a military coup in Indonesia.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The end of the Vietnam War coincided with fundamental changes in the international order. China–Soviet conflict in the late 1960s destroyed the myth of the communist monolith. This was reinforced by the re-establishment of relations between the US and China in the early 1970s, leading to the demise of SEATO in 1975.
New Zealand forces remained in Singapore until 1989. Initially they belonged to a tri-nation force with Britain and Australia, as part of an agreement with Singapore and Malaysia – the Five Power Defence Arrangements. When the British and Australians left in 1974, New Zealand’s force stayed on. Its presence was diplomatic rather than strategic, forward defence in Asia having been abandoned.
New Zealand forces returned to South-East Asia in 1999, serving in East Timor during the civil unrest surrounding the nation’s independence. East Timor, formerly a Portugese colony, had been taken over by Indonesia in 1976 and was now finally freed. The New Zealanders served alongside the Australians as part of a peacekeeping, nation-building exercise. Four New Zealanders were killed, including one in a firefight with militias.
Following the end of the Cold War New Zealand’s attention shifted to west Asia. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 led New Zealand to provide non-combatant forces for the US-led coalition that drove the Iraqis out early the following year. But when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 New Zealand declined to join the effort, though it later supplied non-combat reconstruction assistance for a time.
Afghanistan first caused New Zealand concern in 1885. The UK was in dispute with the Russians over influence in Afghanistan. New Zealand considered offering to send 1,000 troops to help Britain should war break out, but the crisis was defused before any offer was made.
New Zealand’s most recent Asian war was in Afghanistan. The attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on 11 September 2001 focused US attention on Afghanistan. The group responsible, the Muslim fundamentalist Al-Qaeda, had used the country – dominated by the militant Islamist Taliban – as a refuge and training area. When the US intervened to help an indigenous resistance movement drive out the Taliban, New Zealand agreed to send a small combat element from the Special Air Service (SAS) to join the effort. This decision stemmed from similar influences to those that had induced New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War – a desire to promote New Zealand’s relations with the United States. Withdrawn in 2005, the SAS was recommitted in 2009. A provincial reconstruction team served in Bamyan province from 2003 until 2013. New Zealand forces suffered 10 fatal casualties, eight of them in combat.
McGibbon, Ian. New Zealand and the Korean war. 2 vols. Auckland; Wellington: Oxford University Press in association with the Historical Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs, 1992–96.
McGibbon, Ian. New Zealand’s Vietnam War: a history of combat, commitment and controversy. Auckland: Exisle, 2010.
McGibbon, Ian, ed. The Oxford companion to New Zealand military history. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Pugsley, Christopher. From emergency to confrontation: the New Zealand armed forces in Malaya and Borneo, 1949–1966. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Rabel, Roberto. New Zealand and the Vietnam war: politics and diplomacy. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2005.