In recent years as a journalist I’ve attended all of the annual military commemorations in the towns I’ve worked in, Anzac Day, Remembrance Day and Long Tan Day. The format of the commemoration is almost identical for all three: the ode, the anthem, the minute’s silence, the last post, reveille, the lone bugler or piper. But each day has its own peculiarities. With all the Australian First World War veterans dead and not many left alive from the Second World War or the Korean War, the Vietnam Vets are taken their place as our most senior veterans from overseas conflicts.
Unlike in previous wars, their placement in Vietnam was controversial as there was considerable opposition to Australian involvement in that war in the 1960s. Normally Australia took its lead from the United Kingdom but under then prime minister Harold Wilson Britain refused to commit troops to the conflict, leading to the famous Wilson quote to his cabinet that “Lyndon Johnson is begging me even to send a bagpipe band to Vietnam”.
Of course Australia sent far more than just a bagpipe band. Prime Minister Holt would later go “all the way with LBJ” but Australian involvement began much earlier in the Menzies era.
The Australian Army Training Team Vietnam was sent there in 1962 at the beginning of the conflict and Australia was involved right through to last days of the war 1974. Almost 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam. Of those, 521 died as a result of the war and over 3000 were wounded.
The decision to send those soldiers to 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, most of them draftees met a hostile reception on their return home. Many of those soldiers suffered post traumatic stress disorder, a condition that mostly went unrecognised at the time.
While the reputation of those brave soldiers has rightly been rehabilitated over the years, many were never able to fully readjust to civilian life. I can understand their anger that Vietnam did not allow Australians attend the battle site at Long Tan (where 18 Australians died 50 years ago) but I also understand Vietnam’s reluctance in the matter.
The country lost upwards of three million people in the war and the wounds are taking a long time to heal. In time it will become like Gallipoli, a place of shared sacrifice, but Australians must be patient.
Though still ruled by the same Communist Party that took over the south in 1974, Vietnam is slowly becoming a wealthier country. Its 90 million people constitute the world’s 13th largest population and it is the world’s 37th largest economy in transition from centrally planned to market-based and from agrarian to industrialised.
The transition is reflected in its foreign policy. Resolution No.13 by the Politburo issued in 1988 aimed to have ‘more friends and fewer enemies’ and Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995. It is a claimant in the South China Sea territorial dispute, but wants it settled through negotiation and peaceful means, in accordance with international law.
In 2015 Australia and Vietnam signed the Declaration on Enhancing the Australia-Viet Nam Comprehensive Partnership. The Declaration sets out an agenda to guide the strategic relationship and covers regional and international cooperation, trade and investment, industrial, development, development assistance defence, law enforcement and security. The Declaration builds upon the 2009 Australia – Viet Nam Comprehensive Partnership and the bilateral Plan of Action (2010-13). A new Plan of Action is due to be signed this year.
The links between the country will only grow. In the 2011 Australian Census, 221,114 people in Australia claimed Vietnamese ancestry. Vietnamese represent the fifth largest migrant community in Australia and Australia is the second most common destination for Vietnamese migrants, after the US. Vietnam was Australia’s fastest growing export market in ASEAN during the 10-year period 2003-2013 (average annual growth of 16.3 per cent) and this trend continues. A minor spat over a minor battle (in Vietnamese terms) is not going to change that. What’s needed is a prime ministerial visit. No Australian PM has been in Vietnam since Julia Gillard in 2010. This is a relationship too important to let a dispute over access to a battle field derail it.