Cabinet decision to withdraw Australian forces from Vietnam, 1971

About this record

This is the record of a top-secret federal Cabinet decision on 26 July 1971 to withdraw Australian forces from Vietnam. It noted a proposed visit by President Richard Nixon to Peking (Beijing). This signalled a development in US policy—because at that time, neither the United States nor Australia had officially recognised communist China, an ally of North Vietnam.

Cabinet considered that the United States might now speed up its own troop-withdrawal program. Cabinet accordingly decided to withdraw Australian troops on an accelerated timetable. It authorised Prime Minister William ‘Billy’ McMahon to make an early announcement that ‘looked towards’ withdrawal, but not to disclose the Cabinet decision.

This document marks a major change—from participation to disengagement—in Australian Government policy about the Vietnam War. From 1962 to 1975, more than 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam as part of a US-led allied force. Australia’s involvement supported South Vietnamese government forces against the Vietcong, a communist-led insurgent force supported by the North Vietnamese Army. Almost 2400 Australians were wounded and 520 Australians died.

This record provides evidence of how Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War was closely linked to the policies of the United States and broadly followed changes in those policies. When the United States committed combat troops in March 1965, Australia followed, and when the United States boosted troop numbers in 1966, so did Australia. Similarly, after the United States began to withdraw troops in 1969, Australia began pulling out in 1970.

Nixon’s decision to visit Beijing was an embarrassment for Prime Minister McMahon. McMahon had only that month denounced opposition leader Gough Whitlam for making such a visit, calling him a spokesman for the enemy in Vietnam.

The immediate effect in Australia of Nixon’s proposed visit was the realisation that changes in US policy towards South Vietnam would undoubtedly occur. The record reveals that Cabinet made a direct link between the visit and the possibility of a further US troop withdrawal from Vietnam. It was important not to be too far ahead or behind US policy announcements, so the Prime Minister was given discretion as to the timing of Australia’s own announcement.

Cabinet took particular note of reports on the capacity of South Vietnamese regular forces to maintain security in Phuoc Tuy Province. Since May 1966, most Australian military personnel in South Vietnam had been based in this province as part of 1 Australian Task Force (1ATF). By July 1971, 1ATF was largely involved in ‘pacification’ operations in Phuoc Tuy, as South Vietnamese forces took more security responsibility.

The decision to withdraw Australian troops was made in July 1971 and a withdrawal timetable of October and December 1971 was established. However, Australian hostilities in Vietnam did not formally cease until January 1973 when the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the Vietcong signed a peace agreement in Paris. The Australian Embassy Guard Platoon Saigon remained in Vietnam until July 1973.

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